Letters on the English or Lettres Philosophiques – Letter 18: On Tragedy, 1733, Voltaire

The English as well as the Spaniards were possessed of theatres at a time when the French had no more than moving, itinerant stages. Shakspeare, who was considered as the Corneille of the first-mentioned nation, was pretty nearly contemporary with Lope de Vega, and he created, as it were, the English theatre. Shakspeare boasted a strong fruitful genius. He was natural and sublime, but had not so much as a single spark of good taste, or knew one rule of the drama. I will now hazard a random, but, at the same time, true reflection, which is, that the great merit of this dramatic poet has been the ruin of the English stage. There are such beautiful, such noble, such dreadful scenes in this writer’s monstrous farces, to which the name of tragedy is given, that they have always been exhibited with great success. Time, which alone gives reputation to writers, at last makes their very faults venerable. Most of the whimsical gigantic images of this poet, have, through length of time (it being a hundred and fifty years since they were first drawn) acquired a right of passing for sublime. Most of the modern dramatic writers have copied him: but the touches and descriptions which are applauded in Shakspeare. are hissed at in these writers; and you will easily believe that the veneration in which this author is held, increases in proportion to the contempt which is shown to the moderns. Dramatic writers don’t consider that they should not imitate him; and the ill-success of Shakspeare’s imitators produces no other effect, than to make him be considered as inimitable. You remember that in the tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice, a most tender piece, a man strangles his wife on the stage; and that the poor woman, whilst she is strangling, cries aloud that she dies very unjustly. You know that in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, two grave-diggers make a grave, and are all the time drinking, singing ballads, and making humorous reflections (natural indeed enough to persons of their profession) on the several skulls they throw up with their spades; but a circumstance which will surprise you is, that this ridiculous incident has been imitated. In the reign of King Charles II., which was that of politeness, and the Golden Age of the liberal arts; Otway, in his Venice Preserved, introduces Antonio the senator, and Naki, his courtesan, in the midst of the horrors of the Marquis of Bedemar’s conspiracy. Antonio, the super-annuated senator plays, in his mistress’ presence, all the apish tricks of a lewd, impotent debauchee, who is quite frantic and out of his senses. He mimics a bull and a dog, and bites his mistress’ legs, who kicks and whips him. However, the players have struck these buffooneries (which indeed were calculated merely for the dregs of the people) out of Otway’s tragedy; but they have still left in Shakspeare’s Julius Caesar the jokes of the Roman shoemakers and cobblers, who are introduced in the same scene with Brutus and Cassius. You will undoubtedly complain, that those who have hitherto discoursed with you on the English stage, and especially on the celebrated Shakspeare, have taken notice only of his errors; and that on one has translated any of those strong, those forcible passages which atone for all his faults. But to this I will answer, that nothing is easier than to exhibit in prose all the silly impertinences which a poet may have thrown out; but that it is a very difficult task to translate his fine verses. All your junior academical sophs, who set up for censors of the eminent writers, compile whole volumes; but methinks two pages which display some of the beauties of great geniuses, are of infinitely more value than all the idle rhapsodies of those commentators; and I will join in opinion with all persons of good taste in declaring, that greater advantage may be reaped from a dozen verses of Homer or Virgil, than from all the critiques put together which have been made on those two great poets.

I have ventured to translate some passages of the most celebrated English poets, and shall now give you one from Shakspeare. Pardon the blemishes of the translation for the sake of the original; and remember always that when you see a version, you see merely a faint print of a beautiful picture. I have made choice of part of the celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, which you may remember is as follows:

“To be, or not to be? that is the question!
Whether ‘t is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die! to sleep!
No more! and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to! ‘T is a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die! to sleep!
To sleep; perchance to dream! Ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There ‘s the respect
That makes a calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the poor man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns That
patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin. Who would fardels bear
To groan and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution Is
sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought:
And enterprises of great weight and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action – ”

My version of it runs thus:

“Demeure, il faut choisir et passer à l’instant
De la vie à la mort, ou de l’être au néant.
Dieux cruels, s’il en est, éclairez mon courage.
Faut-il vieillir courbe sous la main qui m’outrage,
Supporter, ou finir mon malheur et mon sort?
Qui suis je? Qui m’arrête! et qu’est-ce que la mort?
C’est la fin de nos maux, c’est mon unique asile
Après de longs transports, c’est un sommeil tranquile.
On s’endort, et tout meurt, mais un affreux reveil
Doit succéder peut être aux douceurs du sommeil!
On nous menace, on dit que cette courte vie,
De tourmens éternels est aussi-tôt suivie.
Ô mort! moment fatal! affreuse éternité!
Tout coeur à ton seul nom se glace épouvanté.
Eh! qui pourroît sans toi supporter cette vie,
De nos prêtres menteurs benir l’hypocrisie;
D’une indigne maîtresse encenser les erreurs,
Ramper sous un ministre, adorer ses hauteurs;
Et montrer les langueurs de son âme abattue,
A des amis ingrats qui détournent la vue?
La mort seroît trop douce en ces extremitez,
Mais le scrupule parle, et nous crie, arretez;
Il défend à nos mains cet heureux homicide
Et d’un heros guerrier, fait un Chrétien timide,” &c.

Do not imagine that I have translated Shakspeare in a servile manner. Woe to the writer who gives a literal version; who by rendering every word of his original, by that very means enervates the sense, and extinguishes all the fire of it. It is on such an occasion one may justly affirm, that the letter kills, but the Spirit quickens. …

Dissertation sur la Tragédie ancienne et moderne; preface to “Sémiramis”


Je suis bien loin assurément de justifier en tout la tragédie d’Hamlet; c’est une pièce grossière et barbare, qui ne serait pas supportée par la plus vile populace de la France et de l’Italie. Hamlet y devient fou au second acte, et sa maîtresse folle au troisième; le prince tue le père de sa maîtresse, feignant de tuer un rat, et I’heroïne se jette dans la rivière. On fait sa fosse sur le théâtre; des fossoyeurs disent des quolibets dignes d’eux, en tenant dans leurs mains des têtes de morts; le prince Hamlet répond à leurs grossièretes abominables par des folies non moins dégoutantes. Pendant ce temps-là, un des acteurs fait la conquête de la Pologne. Hamlet, sa mère, et son beau-père boivent ensemble sur le théâtre; on chante à table, on s’y querelle, on se bat, on se tue: on croirait que cet ouvrage est le fruit de I’imagination d’un sauvage ivre. Mais parmi ces irrégularités grossières, qui rendent encore aujourd’hui le théâtre anglais si absurde et barbare, on trouve dans Hamlet, par une bizarrerie encore plus grande, des traites sublimes, dignes des plus grands génies. Il semble que la nature se soit plue à rassembler dans la tête de Shakespeare ce qu’on peut imaginer de plus fort et de plus grand, avec ce que la grossièreté sans esprit peut avoir de plus bas et de plus détestable.”

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(Far be it from me to justify everything in the tragedy of Hamlet; it is a vulgar and barbarous drama, which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France, or Italy. Hamlet becomes crazy in the second act, and his mistress becomes crazy in the third; the prince slays the father of his mistress under the pretence of killing a rat, and the heroine throws herself into the river, a grave is dug on the stage, and the grave-diggers talk quodlibets worthy of themselves, while holding skulls in their hands; Hamlet responds to their nasty vulgarities in silliness no less disgusting. In the meanwhile another of the actors conquers Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and his father-in-law, carouse on the stage; songs are sung at table; there is quarrelling, fighting, killing – one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken savage. But amidst all these vulgar irregularities, which to this day make the English drama so absurd and so barbarous, there are to be found in Hamlet, by a bizarrerie still greater, some sublime passages, worthy of the greatest genius. It seems as though nature had mingled in the brain of Shakespeare the greatest conceivable strength and grandeur with whatsoever witless vulgarity can devise that is lowest and most detestable.)