‘Deutschland ist Hamlet’: Shakespeare in Germany

Every year, there are more performances of Shakespeare’s plays in Germany than there are in England. Andrew Dickson traces the long history of Germany's love for the Bard, and describes the way his work has been interpreted by Germans from Goethe and Brecht to the Nazis.

We in Britain are used to regarding William Shakespeare as our exclusive property. For centuries the playwright has been an integral part of British identity. He is genius loci of ‘Shakespeare Country’; patron saint of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe. Courtesy of the Home Office, which in November 2015 unveiled a new design for the British passport featuring watermarks of Shakespeare on each and every page, every time Britons cross a national border they will soon have to brandish an image of the poet.[1]

But a new arrival in the European Union, called upon to identify the place where Shakespeare is most celebrated globally, might look to another country altogether: Germany. There are, it is said, more performances of Shakespeare staged in Germany every year than in the UK. The world’s oldest scholarly Shakespeare society is based not in Stratford-upon-Avon nor London, but in Weimar. And that’s even before you get on to the subject of unser Shakespeare (‘our Shakespeare’), which became an article of passionate faith among 19th-century German intellectuals. If the story of how Shakespeare went global begins anywhere, surely it begins here.

Travelling players

It also begins early – even within Shakespeare’s own lifetime. We know that English actors roamed northern Europe in the late 16th century and well into the 17th; these ‘English comedians’ toured not just comedies but (in the words of one 1605 playlist) ‘tragedies and pastorals’, most likely stripped-down versions of scripts that were popular back home, some of which were almost certainly by Shakespeare. Gradually these troupes were naturalised as Wanderbühnen, ‘travelling companies’; as they became more multinational, the texts they performed began to be adapted and translated too. A play ‘about the Jew’ referred to in a letter of 1608 might be Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, another play entirely, or a (possibly unholy) combination of all three.[2] The most famous text performed in this period, the anonymous Der Bestrafte Brudermord (‘Brother-murder Punished’), appears to be a watered-down version of Hamlet: the tragedy is played mainly for laughs, and as well as being wildly funny it also features an improbable subplot about a peasant’s unpaid tax bill.[3] In Gdańsk – now in modern-day Poland, but in the 17th century a doughtily independent German-speaking port city – the town erected a playhouse apparently modelled on the London Fortune, perhaps with these visiting companies in mind.[4]

Travelling players in the friendship album of Franz Hartmann

Travelling players in the Friendship Album of Franz Hartmann

A watercolour painting (1597–1617) possibly depicting English players on their way to perform at the Frankfurt fair. The picture captures some of the excitement that also accompanies the entrance of the players in Hamlet.

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‘Like a blind man, given the gift of sight’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had little sense of this Shakespearean prehistory when he discovered the playwright’s work as a work-shy law student in 1770, and the essay he composed the following year, ‘Zum Shakespeares Tag’ (‘On Shakespeare Day’) attests to the volcanic excitement he felt. Shakespeare was ‘the greatest wanderer’, Goethe wrote, a ‘prodigy’:

The first page of his I read put me in his debt for a lifetime, and once I had read an entire play, I stood there like a blind man, given the gift of sight by some miraculous healing touch. I sensed my own existence multiplied in a prism – everything was new to me, unfamiliar, and the unwonted light hurt my eyes.[5]

This reverence would prove hugely influential, and not just on the rest of Goethe’s career. Fellow Romantic writers exalted Shakespeare (notably Goethe’s own disciple Schiller); the English poet was acclaimed as a founding figure in the rebirth of German literature and drama. By the 1860s, the period the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft (German Shakespeare-Company Society) was founded in Weimar, ‘unser Shakespeare’ had hardened into a trope. ‘Next to Goethe and Schiller there is no poet so truly loved by us, so thoroughly our own’, declaimed the renowned philologist Max Müller at a celebration of Shakespeare’s tercentenary in 1864 – in, of all places, Stratford-upon-Avon.[6]

‘The formal surrender of William Shakespeare’

Yet of course such cultural repossessions are rarely without their complications, particularly given the sometimes tortured history between Germany and England. The first skirmishes occurred during the First World War, when the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft became an unlikely haunt for strident nationalists. In April 1914, the president began the annual celebration in honour of Shakespeare’s birthday – even before war had officially broken out – by reading ‘O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts’ from Henry V. Not long afterwards, another DSG stalwart, the dramatist Ludwig Fulda, suggested that if the Kaiser’s forces won the war, he should ‘stipulat[e] the formal surrender of William Shakespeare to Germany’.[7] It is unclear if this was a joke; one suspects not.

In the next decade one would expect the Nazis, obsessed by racial purity and desperate to promote a militant, patriotic Völkisch culture, to turn their backs on England’s national poet. But not a bit of it. Along with Beethoven and Wagner, Shakespeare became – yet again – a cultural figurehead of the Thousand-Year Reich. The Hitler Youth organised ‘Shakespeare weeks’ throughout the 1930s. The DSG was brought under the control of the propaganda ministry, and senior Nazis invited to join the board. After the outbreak of war with Britain in 1939, Wille und Macht magazine ran a special number arguing that Shakespeare held his own ‘even in the face of the enemy’.[8]

Quite why all this happened is paradoxical and perplexing, even by the surreal standards of National Socialism. The process was given intellectual heft by the unser Shakespeare movement, and perhaps nourished by the vague Anglophilia common among a certain breed of senior Nazi. Grimly, eugenics also played a part: Shakespeare was seen as acceptably ‘Nordic’ and non-Jewish, and therefore unlike many other playwrights could actually be staged. When war was declared in 1939, Shakespeare was the only ‘enemy dramatist’ not to be banned, largely at the behest of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who, as well as having completed a PhD in the 19th-century German dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann, was a passionate Shakespearean (‘What a huge genius! How he towers over Schiller!’).[9]

Goebbels and his team busily promoted Shakespeare’s plays, encouraging producers to stage ‘Nordic tragedies’ such as Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth and the Roman plays (regarded as in tune with Hitler’s frequent comparisons of the Third Reich to ancient Rome). Yet The Merchant of Venice, although it was a favourite Nazi text, proved altogether more troublesome to stage. While Hitler had once described Shylock as ‘a timelessly valid characterisation of the Jew’, the subtly balanced sympathies encoded in Shakespeare’s text gave many directors pause, and there was the added complication that the marriage between the Christian Lorenzo and Shylock’s daughter Jessica was technically illegal under Nazi anti-miscegenation laws. Remarkably, Goebbels’s team agonised for years, and only a handful of versions made it into production.[10]

It wasn’t until 1943, in a notorious staging at Vienna’s Burgtheater directed by party member Lothar Muthel and starring the flagrantly racist Werner Krauss, that the Nazis finally got what they wanted: a Merchant of Venice that conformed to National Socialist ideology. In the words of one critic, Krauss offered ‘a pathological image of the East European Jewish type, expressing all its inner and outer uncleanliness’.[11] A year later, a proposal to turn the production into a movie directed by Veit Harlan, who had made Jud Süss, was one of the last propaganda projects to cross Goebbels’s desk. Perhaps fortunately, it was never made.

Photograph of the 1943 production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Lothar Müthel

Production photograph of the notorious 1943 production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Nazi Party member, Lothar Muthel

Werner Krauss’s Shylock, according to one critic, offered ‘a pathological image of the East European Jewish type, expressing all its inner and outer uncleanliness’.

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The tangled politics of Nazi cultural policy have been extensively debated in post-war Germany, and rightly so. The phrase ‘Buchenwald liegt bei Weimar’ (‘Buchenwald lies near Weimar’) has often been cited by German intellectuals keen to ensure that culture should never again be co-opted for such appalling ends. Yet it is an intriguing fact that Shakespeare not only survived the de-Nazification process, but thrived: a production of Macbeth – a ‘Nordic ballad of fate’ heavily promoted by the Nazis – was one of the first theatre productions to be staged in the shattered Munich of 1945. A director’s note, published in tiny print because of the paper shortage, suggested that the play reflected ‘the essence of that inferno through which we have gone in the last 12 years’.[12] In the years following the war, with British and American encouragement, Shakespeare was again taught in schools and frequently revived on Germany’s stages.

Coriolan and Coriolanus

And while German thinkers have fought shy of connecting Shakespeare too overtly with political ideology, German playwrights have not been nearly so restrained – as is perhaps inevitable, given the long history of Shakespeare in their homeland. One of the most significant is Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), whose ‘epic’ theatre of the 1930s, with its emphasis on alienation and non-naturalistic drama, drew heavily on earlier experiments into Elizabethan staging, and whose work shows the repeated imprint of Shakespeare. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, completed in 1941 in Danish exile, is a wickedly satirical fable of a Chicago mobster modelled closely on Hitler. But it also works as a companion piece to the history plays Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s, notably Richard III, whose snarling, cackling antihero bears more than a passing resemblance to Brecht’s own.[13]

Yet perhaps the most important Shakespearean text for Brecht was Coriolanus, which he read as early as 1917, but first worked on in collaboration with the director Erich Engels in 1925. The unsparing realpolitik depicted in Shakespeare’s play appealed to Brecht’s Marxist sensibilities, as did its depiction of a fascist demagogue brought low. Around 1952, Brecht began work on an adaptation, attempting to rework the text for a socialist society. He refocussed it as a tragedy of the masses, bulking up crowd scenes and ending the action with a debate in the Senate rather than Coriolanus’s murder, and a year or two later wrote an ancillary playlet, ‘Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus’, which plays out a conversation between actors on how to interpret the text by socialist lights.[14] Already he may have been thinking of leaving Shakespeare’s play behind and producing a response to it rather than a conventional adaptation.

Photographs of Berliner Ensemble's Coriolanus

Photographs of Berliner Ensemble's Coriolanus

Brecht’s adaptation of Coriolanus refocused the play as a tragedy of the masses, bulking up crowd scenes and ending the action with a debate in the senate rather than Coriolanus’s murder.

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Photographs of Berliner Ensemble's Coriolanus

Photographs of Berliner Ensemble's Coriolanus

The Berliner Ensemble production of 1964, based on elements of Brecht’s unfinished socialist adaptation.

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The question is difficult to resolve because Brecht left Coriolan incomplete, and it was not in the end staged until 1964, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in a version by the Berliner Ensemble team of Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert.[15] And by then the story turns in yet another unexpected direction. In autumn 1956, a few months after Brecht’s death, his Berliner Ensemble visited the UK for the first time, playing Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and an adaptation of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer to spellbound London audiences. One of the people who saw these productions was the young director Peter Hall; deeply impressed by the experience, Hall began manoeuvring to set up a tight-knit British company devoted to the performance of Shakespeare and contemporary dramatists. In 1961, the Royal Shakespeare Company finally came into being. It is one of the ironies of history that, without that visit to the UK by a German company, our leading Shakespearean ensemble would almost certainly not exist.

From Hamlet to Hamletmachine

But if one were attempting to pinpoint the defining German adaptation of the 20th century, one would have to return to a play that has resonated loudly in German history for at least 300 years: Hamlet. One of the earliest dramas to be toured by the English comedians, it was also the favourite text of Goethe and Schiller and other Romantic writers, and became a symbol for what many 19th-century commentators regarded as Germany’s unique malady, its inability to become a decisive force in European politics. In 1844 the writer Ferdinand Freiligrath declared in the famous first lines of a poem, ‘Deutschland ist Hamlet!’ – like Shakespeare’s dithering prince, Germany, still a loose confederation of princely states, simply couldn’t make its mind up.[16]

Photograph of the postmodern German adaptation of Hamlet, 1992

Production photograph of the postmodern German adaptation of Hamlet,  Die Hamletmaschine (‘Hamletmachine’) 1992

Heiner Müller’s postmodern adaptation of Hamlet draws parallels between Shakespeare’s play and an autocratic surveillance state.

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The curious relationship between an English play set in Denmark and a particularly German set of anxieties returned over a century later, courtesy of the playwright Heiner Müller, heavily influenced by Brecht and perhaps the most powerfully original voice in late 20th-century German drama. A lifelong socialist and supporter of the GDR (though not an uncritical one), Müller translated and adapted several texts to reflect his political concerns, notably the 1971 Macbeth After Shakespeare, which emphasises the suffering of Scotland’s peasants.[17]

But in every way Müller’s most thoughtful response to Shakespeare – and the paradoxes of his own position – came in Die Hamletmaschine (‘Hamletmachine’), completed in 1977. Just nine pages long, the script is enigmatic and allusive, suffused with Marxist philosophy and postmodern theory. Despite the phantasmagoric difficulties of the text, the parallels Müller draws between Shakespeare’s play and an autocratic surveillance state are clear enough:

THE ACTOR PLAYING HAMLET I’m not Hamlet. I don’t take part any more. My words have nothing to tell me any more. My thoughts suck the blood out of the images. My drama doesn’t happen any more. Behind me the set is put up. By people who aren’t interested in my drama, for people to whom it means nothing. I’m not interested in it any more either. I won’t play along any more.[18]

After GDR censors refused a licence for Die Hamletmaschine to be performed in East Germany itself, it was eventually premiered in Brussels in 1978.
Yet this was not quite the end of the story. A decade later, invited to direct at the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin, Müller decided to stage an epic version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with his own Hamletmaschine spliced into the text. When the production went into rehearsal in August 1989, the GDR was already beginning to topple; by the time it went on stage the following March, the Berlin Wall was down and it had utterly ceased to exist.[19] As so often in German Shakespeare, history was waiting in the wings.


[1] Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith, ‘New UK Passport Design: Shakespeare and the London Underground to Feature’, The Independent, 3 November 2015 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/new-uk-passport-design-shakespeare-and-the-london-underground-to-feature-alongside-updated-security-a6718906.html>.

[2] See the translation in Irene Morris, ‘A Hapsburg Letter’, Modern Language Review 69 (1974), 12–22. For an account of early German performances, see especially Simon Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage: 1586–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[3] The text is translated in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957–75), vol. 7, along with an account of its provenance.

[4] See Jerzy Limon, Gentlemen of a Company: English Players in Central and Eastern Europe, 1590–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 37–62.

[5] The essay is reprinted in full in Goethe on Shakespeare, trans. by Michael Hofmann and David Constantine (London: Shakespeare’s Globe, 2010).

[6] See the account in my own Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (London: Bodley Head, 2015), and Werner Habicht, ‘Topoi of the Shakespeare Cult in Germany’, in Literature and its Cults: An Anthropological Approach, ed. by Péter Dávidházi and Judit Karafíath (Budapest, 1994), pp. 47–65.

[7] Quoted in Wilhelm Hortmann, Shakespeare on the German Stage: The Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 4, which also contains useful context for Fulda’s statement.

[8] For a general account of Shakespeare under the Nazis, see Rodney Symington, The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005).

[9] For Goebbels’s creative ambitions and policy decisions, see especially Peter Longerich’s hugely detailed biography, Goebbels (London, Bodley Head: 2015).

[10] The best account is in Andrew G. Bonnell, Shylock in Germany: Antisemitism and the German Theatre from the Enlightenment to the Nazis (London and New York: Tauris, 2008), especially chapter 3, pp. 119–70.

[11] For an account of the production and excerpts from reviews see John Gross, Shylock: A Legend and its Legacy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1992), pp. 321–23.

[12] Cited in Werner Habicht, ‘German Shakespeare, the Third Reich, and the War’, in Shakespeare and the Second World War: Memory, Culture, Identity, ed. by Irena R. Makaryk and Marissa McHugh (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), pp. 22–34 (p. 31).

[13] In Collected Plays: Six, trans. by John Willett and Ralph Manheim (London: Methuen, 1994).

[14] Reprinted in Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. by John Willett (London: Methuen, 1964), pp. 252–65.

[15] The text and an account of its genesis is in Bertolt Brecht, Berliner Ensemble Adaptations, ed. by David Barnett (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[16] Ferdinand Freligrath, Werke, 6 vols, ed. by Julius Schwering (Berlin: Bong, 1909), vol. 2, pp. 71–73.

[17] In Heiner Müller After Shakespeare: Macbeth and Anatomy of Titus – Fall of Rome (New York: PAJ, 2012).

[18] The text is reprinted in Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology of Plays, ed. by Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 208–15.

[19] See David Barnett, ‘Resisting the Revolution: Heiner Müller’s Hamlet/Machine at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, March 1990’, Theatre Research International 31 (2006), 188–200.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.