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‘More a Russian than a Dane’: the Usefulness of Hamlet in Russia

Peter Holland
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
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Summary

In April 1879, Anton Chekhov, then aged 19, wrote to his youngest brother, Mikhail Pavlovich Chekhov, recommending some reading:

Take a look at the following books: Don Quixote (complete, in all seven or eight parts). It's a fine work by Cervantes, who is placed on just about the level of Shakespeare. I recommend Turgenev's ‘Hamlet and Don Quixote’ to our brothers if they haven't read it already. As for you, you wouldn't understand it.

Turgenev's essay had originally been given as a lecture in 1860, the year of Chekhov's birth. My own essay is designed to be an extended gloss on Chekhov's letter. But it is also intended as a gloss on Oswald LeWinter's comment at the end of his introduction to the most conveniently available translation of Turgenev's piece into English (in his fine collection of essays called Shakespeare in Europe): ‘Turgenev's essay is concerned less with Shakespeare and Cervantes than with the implications for society of their characters.’ The ‘less … than’ form of the sentence is provocative: less with the texts, play and novel, as literary constructs, than with the social implications abstracted or derived from them by Turgenev.

I shall be substantially concerned with charting the history of those social implications, of the implication and embedding of Hamlet into Russian social and political history, the embedding of the text into a social meaning. I shall be outlining the history of Russian Hamlet translations and the social contexts for Turgenev which gave Hamlet a specific cultural meaning, and then with the ways in which Chekhov's negotiations with Hamlet, the shadowing of some of his work by Hamlet, are themselves the outcome of that specific interconnection, a series of links defined and limited by Turgenev's perception of the play and circumscription of the play's field of meaning into an argument for social change. It will lead, finally, to a further stage of seeing how the play has functioned recently in productions in Eastern Europe, in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, the Warsaw Pact, in the last few years.

My concern throughout will be with the particular ways in which Hamlet penetrates Russian culture. While the history of texts is necessarily historically and geographically defined, there is a performative history to a text's function in a culture.

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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 315 - 338
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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