D. M. Lang (essay date January 1948)

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SOURCE: Lang, D. M. “Sumarokov's Hamlet: A Misjudged Russian Tragedy of the Eighteenth Century.” Modern Language Review 43, no. 1 (January 1948): 67-72.

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[In this essay, Lang argues that Sumarokov's version of Hamlet has not deserved the unfavorable criticism it has received, claiming that the drama is an important work of the early Russian stage.]

Like many prominent figures of the Russian neo-Classical school, Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov (1718-77) was for a long time unjustly neglected by succeeding generations. His eccentricities, which in the heyday of Romanticism would have been greeted as visible signs of genius, were exaggerated by his many rivals, particularly Lomonosov and Trediakovsky. Even Baron Grimm helped to make Sumarokov appear ridiculous to posterity. In the Correspondance Littéraire he described with enjoyment how the Empress Catherine, after Sumarokov had in 1770 quarrelled with the Governor of Moscow, graciously rebuked the irascible dramatist who in any other kingdom (France, for example) would no doubt have been cast into jail for his presumption.1 Pushkin called him ‘the jealous, haughty, cold Sumarokov, devoid of force and ardour, of mediocre wit’,2 and thus showed little gratitude to an author whose historical tragedy Dimitri the Usurper (1771) in some ways foreshadows Pushkin's own Boris Godunov.3

Within the last fifty years, Sumarokov has begun to receive due recognition as founder of the modern Russian stage, and as a dramatist who, while no original genius, combined an exceptional talent for versification with a considerable grasp of the practice of stagecraft. The late Jules Patouillet, in his study La Lettre de Voltaire à Soumarokov,4 gave a most judicious survey of his career. More recently, Professor G. A. Gukovsky has expressed the eminently fair opinion that ‘his long continued activity in refining and purifying the Russian tongue and bringing it to normal syntactical clarity, and also his work in creating lucid and natural spoken Russian, exercised an exceedingly beneficent influence on the entire development of the Russian literary language before Pushkin’.5

There is no play of Sumarokov's which has been more censured than Hamlet, his second tragedy, published in 1748 and first performed at the Court of St Petersburg in 1750. André Lirondelle, in his study of Shakespeare in Russia, alludes to Sumarokov's ‘clumsy imitation’ and ‘naïve fatuity’.6 E. J. Simmons is equally disparaging, and states that ‘practically all his plays are pale imitations of the French’.7 The object of this essay is to show that in spite of these unfavourable judgements, Sumarokov's Hamlet was a useful and effective contribution to the early Russian repertoire, and has been treated hitherto with excessive severity.

The first edition of 1748 is entitled simply Hamlet—A Tragedy (in Russian: Gamlet—Tragediya). It does not claim to be a translation or adaptation of Shakespeare's play, and his name is nowhere mentioned. There is no evidence that Sumarokov, who knew French extremely well, ever learnt English or read Shakespeare otherwise than in translation. It is therefore probable that the idea of writing Hamlet occurred to him when reading La Place's version in the second volume of his Théâtre Anglais which had appeared in 1746.8 But while La Place retained Shakespeare's dramatis personae, including the Ghost and the Grave-Diggers, Sumarokov changed or eliminated many of them in order to conform, as he thought, to the rules of the French classical stage. His characters are as follows: Claudius (in Russian, Klavdi), usurper of the Danish throne; Gertruda, his wife; Hamlet (Gamlet), son of Gertruda; Polonius, confidant of Claudius; Ophelia, daughter of Polonius; Armance, confidant of Hamlet; Flemina, confidante of Ophelia; Ratuda, nurse of Ophelia; Hamlet's page, and warriors.

The play is...

(The entire section contains 95478 words.)

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