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One particular English author has functioned in the culture of Poland with such a great impact that he has become its integral part -- that, in a way, he has become a Polish author.

Of course, I do not pretend that Szekspir has ceased to be an English author; let him be. And I have nothing against letting other nations appropriate themselves of the man in the same manner. Nevertheless, something in the Polish character and, especially, in Poland's turbulent history, must have made the Polish soil particularly fertile for the Shakespearean seed.

As in many other national literatures, the history of their reception of Shakespeare is more or less equivalent with the history of their reception of Hamlet (in 19th c. Germany, for instance, Germany, too, was perceived as Hamlet)[1]. In Poland, Hamlet was perhaps even more important as it is Shakespeare's only play in which Poland is consistently mentioned within the text. In fact, the way in which Poland is mentioned there has always been quite mortifying to Polish critics. Hamlet's father's valor is remembered as how "he smote the sledded Polacks on the ice" (Act I scene 1); in Act II, scene 2, Voltimand reports how Fortinbras used Poland as a pretext to gather an army against Denmark and was then -- luckily -- prevented from attacking Claudius by "old Norway"; the army Fortinbras gathered ends up fighting against Poland (Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet the troops in Act IV, scene 4); and, finally, in Act V, scene 2, Fortinbras returns "with conquest from Poland". Many Polish critics felt uneasy about such a role played by their country in Hamlet and were always ready to explain that, historically, Poland never fought against Denmark, let alone Norway, that the only instance of military contact between the two countries occurred in the 17th century, when the gallant Polish cavalry helped the Danes against the Swedes; that a Polish regiment actually defended Norway in the battle of Narvik in 1940, etc. etc. A critic[2] maintained that Hamlet's remarks to the Captain of the Norwegian task force (Act IV scene 4) are "a condemnation of the senseless war of aggression against Poland".

But there is more than that. There is the obtuse, garrulous, old bore of a courtier -- Polonius. Why Polonius? So dangerously close to Polonus -- the Latin for 'a Pole"? This is a long story, but an interesting one.

First of all, the name Polonius does not appear in the pirate edition of Hamlet of 1603; there, that character's name is Corambis. Polonius appears only in the "good" Quarto of 1604. The so called "bad" first Quarto is usually thought to be compiled from the actors' parts; it is much shorter than the authorized "good" Quarto. Of course, the change of name is much more than a simple omission, so there must be another reason for this. 

Already in the 19th century, British critics have noticed that Polonius resembles William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's minister, who was, mainly because of his old age, a favorite target for attacks by the writers of that time (including Spenser). It is now proven that Corambis was, at least initially, a satire on the old politician, who died in 1598 when Shakespeare was still transforming the original play. Why, however, the change of name?

Sir Israel Gollancz, a Shakespeare among Shakespearean scholars, found the first "Polish connection" in 1916. It is again almost a certainty that Shakespeare must have been familiar with a book by Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius De Optimo Senatore, published in Latin in 1568 and widely read throughout Europe. The work describes the perfect senator (politician, counselor) and belongs to the "speculum" genre of didactic writings so popular at that time. Now: Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius is none else than Wawrzyniec Grzymala Goslicki, a Polish Renaissance writer. But that is not all.


In her brilliant essay on Goslicki as a source for Hamlet[3], Dr. Bałuk-Ulewicz of the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, writes of a "diplomatic incident at Queen Elizabeth's court involving a Polish Ambassador, Pawel Dzialynski", which took place in July 1597. (Burghley is still alive at the time and more or less kicking). The Ambassador (and, in fact, the  personal secretary) of the King of Poland, Sigismund the 3rd, was sent to England to protest the seizure of ships attempting to trade with Gdansk, the Polish/Hanseatic port on the Baltic sea. As the ships mainly came from Spain, at that time at war with England, the reception of Dzialynski at Elizabeth's court was far from cordial. In response to Dzialynski's threatening speech, Elizabeth exploded: according to a contemporary English report, "lion-like rising, she daunted the malapert orator... with the tartness of her princely cheeks"[4] -- worse: she did that in her horribly accented Latin. And her retort included an allusion to a book by the Ambassador's countryman, a book the Ambassador should have read before attempting to speak to a monarch. This book could only have been Goslicki's De Optimo Senatore. The whole incident became famous and was widely commented on throughout Europe. In fact, a year later the court most probably sponsored the English translation of Goslicius's text, which -- as has been proven elsewhere -- "has served Shakespeare as a repository of political ideas" for the Corambis/Polonius character; in fact, the famous Precepts given by Polonius in the Second Quarto have been printed in quotation marks -- and they sound very much like a bad English translation of the Latin text of De Optimo Senatore. And again, that is not all.


For we cannot treat Polonius as a satire on the Polish Ambassador -- or, at least, there is more than that. After all, Polonius is not much different from his predecessor Corambis -- a clear allusion to Lord Burghley. The idea that Shakespeare felt it not right to make fun of the deceased statesman would be somewhat naive; it is more probable that Shakespeare was afraid of Burghley's son and successor, Robert Cecil, and hid his satire on the Burghley faction (himself being in the rival political camp of Essex and Southampton) behind the Polish smoke screen; that Shakespeare actually wanted his character to be recognized by his audience as Burghley, and, at the same time, avoid unpleasant encounters with Cecil's henchmen in the dark streets of London.


Despite the Dzialynski incident, Shakespeare certainly was not boycotted in Poland when, in 1616 or 1628, a touring troupe of English actors (much like the one appearing in Hamlet) performed at least one play, The Taming of the Shrew, and most probably Hamlet, at least in Gdansk, and possibly in a number of aristocratic residences further south -- and this is the earliest report of Shakespeare being performed on Polish soil. An even earlier report mentions another English troupe performing in Warsaw, but there is no certainty whether they performed anything by Shakespeare. We can speak of Shakespeare's advent into the Polish theater only in the mid 18th century, when the first all-season Polish theater opened in Warsaw under Wojciech Boguslawski. It is Boguslawski, too, who staged the first Polish performance of Hamlet in Lwow in 1797. Polish Classicists (of whom Boguslawski certainly was one) shared the Enlightenment's distrust of Szekspir, who was thought to be wild and uncouth, and worse. Boguslawski himself apologized for his adaptees' faults in the preface to his version of Hamlet -- heavily based on the German adaptation by Shroeder -- in which Hamlet and Laertes shake hands over the dead body of Claudius -- a much nicer and more optimistic version of the sordid drama. According to Boguslawski, Hamlet is

...a lengthy play that requires at least five hours for its performance, a play that, disobeying all rules of the dramatic art... tortures the minds of the audience... Through the presence on-stage of coarse characters and abominable scenes debases the dignity of Tragedy and, finally, fails to convey a moral message, punishing with death the guilty and the innocent alike.
Even the first critical Polish work on Szekspir was limited to only grudging praise. No wonder: the Enlightenment was deeply suspicious of the English playwright; some of the later battles between the old Classicists and the young Romantics were fought over Szekspir. The Monitor, a Polish journal of the time modeled on the English Spectator, wrote in 1765:

It is Shakespeare and Addison who have earned an immortal fame with their theatrical compositions... Great souls are not bound by ordinary rules, they can transcend those rules... The English preserve on their stage a sternness and hardness which makes them different from the other nations. Their vices and virtues are more consistent - and so are their actions. As a result, they usually make their stage bloody. And they never abide by any rules... Szekspir was their most famous dramatist; he was born in Stratffort and died in 1556. He lived during the reign of Elizabeth and James I [as you see, the author got it all wrong]. Nature has provided him generously with the finest talents. Never did he call science to assist him. That is why his works lack a regularity and order that stems from knowledge and a reasonable application of rules; and yet the flow of his thought is wondrously original; strange is Szekspir...
Yet even then Shakespeare had his Polish admirers, and in very high places too. On of them was Poland's last king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, a successful intellectual, hence an unsuccessful politician. As a young man, the future monarch spent in England two months of 1754, and most of that time at the theaters of Covent Garden and Drury Lane. An analysis of those two scenes' repertoire of the time makes it quite possible that Poniatowski saw as many as 17 plays by Szekspir. He then bought the Pope/Warburton eight volume edition of Szekspir's complete works and proudly reported in a letter to his friend: "je comprends deja a moitie mon Shakespeare en lisant" -- and went as far in his admiration for the writer as to attempt a prose translation of Julius Caesar into... French! This admiration lasted far into his life. In a letter written more than ten years after his English trip, when Poniatowski was romancing with the future Russian empress Catherine the Great, he still proclaimed; "J'adore Shakespeare".


A very romantic statement indeed. The Romantics generally could agree with Poniatowski; and, possibly, the best thing Romanticism has done for the Polish culture was this adoption of Szekspir. Of the three Polish bards of the era, Mickiewicz and Slowacki were sworn Shakespeareans; the third one, and the most aristocratic of the three, Zygmunt Krasinski, had his reservations:


There is in old Szekspir both a good, lofty, titanic spirit, and an evil one, too. And this evil one -- or a lack of the good, of the great, of knowledge -- brands Szekspir's forehead with the stamp of English materialism, a stamp specifically national, characteristic, yet not a stamp of beauty.


Yet generally, of course, the Romantics worshipped "old Szekspir" and were anxious to defend him from the Classicists. One of the first Polish representatives of the New, Maurycy Mochnacki, happily reported in 1830:

The French now try, as they can, to cleanse the reputation of this writer from old prejudice. It was tarnished in the previous century by the critics' madness, which led them to abandon the aesthetic truth. Perhaps the example of the Parisians will be an incentive for us for a better "polonization" of Szekspir on our national scene.


And it happened, even if the German and French often served as intermediaries between the English and the Polish. The older "polonizations" of Bohomolec were  superseded with those by -- to name the more significant ones -- Kefalinski, Kozmian, and, especially, Paszkowski. Suffice to say that, in the 19th century alone, more than 10 translators published their Szekspirs - many of them more or less complete editions. Mickiewicz even preceded his Romantic manifesto, Romantycznosc, with a motto from Hamlet (Methinks I see/Where? In my mind's eyes); yet it is Slowacki who was really well read in Szekspir -- and knew how to use him.


When you read -- or watch a performance of -- Slowacki's major dramatic work, Balladyna, you get, to use the language of TV commercials, 3 (or more) in one. The tragedy tells the story of a woman's ruthless struggle for power; she eliminates most of the play's characters in the process (as a malicious critic once wrote). She is part Macbeth himself, part Lady Macbeth (especially when she tries in vain to get rid of the stamp of her crimes from her forehead), part King Lear's daughter, Regan (as she turns her old mother out from her palace into the Polish winter). If Slowacki stopped at that, we would be dealing with an imitation of Szekspir and nothing more; but Slowacki goes further than that and supplements the bloody and truly Szekspirian tragedy with equally Szekspirian comedy: the world of fairies -- and coarse characters -- straight from the Midsummer Night's Dream's Titania/Bottom story. Thus Balladyna becomes a veritable Szekspirian cocktail and, at the same time, a successful play in its own right. For Slowacki has written a "romantically ironic drama on Shakespeare" himself, a very modern, no, post-modern variation on Szekspirian themes. And I think it is at this moment that Szekspir has, almost, become a Pole.


This was a natural thing to happen. At that time the Polish experience -- that of a nation without a state -- was brutally close to the world of Szekspir's tragedies. And little in Poland's later history seemed to have changed Szekspir's particular Polish "contemporariness". No wonder, then, that the 19th century saw a host of translations of Szekspir; no wonder, too, that Hamlet -- a drama about a man in an impossible situation -- was seen as a brilliant image of the Polish reality. The occupying powers seemed to share this opinion: Hamlet was banned from Warsaw theaters by Russian authorities for most of the century.


Just as the century -- but not the occupation of Poland -- ended, an amazing book appeared in Krakow under the longish title of The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare, according to the Polish text by Jozef Paszkowski, newly read and considered by Stanislaw Wyspianski. It is here that the title ends -- and the book is exactly that: a new reading of the Polish translation of the play by Poland's leading modernist post-Romantic symbolist, painter, poet, playwright, visionary.

It is an amazingly modern interpretation (again) of Szekspir's play; Wyspianski decides to start with the pre-Shakespearean versions of the story (as he writes, "mediocre plays") and to observe how Szekspir, a reformer of the theater, made masterpieces out of them; to observe in detail the process of creating a masterpiece; how new scenes were added (or deleted), monologues introduced and expanded.. "In this way", writes Jan Kott in his influential Shakespeare our Contemporary, "Hamlet is no longer a finished masterpiece, closed and unique, no longer literature and philosophy, it is theater itself or, more precisely, part of theater's history".

For Wyspianski, a play must have a definite setting. He asks his reader:


If you were to find a castle for the play, a castle where a king's ghost hovers above the walls, where `yond same star that's westward from its pole had made his course', where the clock strikes one - well, what do you see? In which gallery the prince `sometimes ... walks four hours together', `the poor wretch ... reading'.

Can't you see him? With a book in his hand, he walks the upper gallery of the royal castle of Krakow.

Can't you see him? around midnight, as he comes to the guards in the old, Gothic part of the castle, where his friend Horatio awaits him and... enter the Ghost!...

Wyspianski concentrates on Hamlet as a wretched young man, an avid reader:

What is the book in his hand? It is Montaigne.

Hamlet reads Montaigne.

For Shakespeare at that time (1603) reads Montaigne and annotates his copy.

Hamlet carries the same book around and also scribbles notes on the margins.
Wyspianski's Hamlet lives; he is a Pole, torn between his personal intellectualism and his country's fate, just like so many protagonists of Polish literature. In fact, this approach anticipates Kott's concept of the "contemporariness" of Szekspir. When Wyspianski's theatrical vision -- to place Szekspir in the Renaissance galleries of the royal Wawel castle in Krakow - was finally realized by Andrzej Wajda and the Stary Theater group on June 8th, 1981, this was a Hamlet miraculously returned into his (its?) historical setting: the 16th century.


This Hamletic-Polish situation has been particularly acute during the years of Poland's most recent period of "dependence" -- that of the Communist rule. Most Polish Hamlet productions of that time (just like those of other plays by Szekspir) are a record of the flows and ebbs of the conflicting forces of freedom and oppression. The first post-war Hamlet, the Teatr Polski production of 1947, staged by Szyfman, a major director of the inter-war period, was a story of a man who takes revenge into his own hands and gets through with it -- widely recognized by the public as their own experience of the times of war[5]. Hamlet managed to weather the harsh "Poland winter" of realist socialism and triumphantly re-emerged as the spokesman for the Polish state (of mind) during the first of many "thaws" of Polish life under Communism, in 1956, with the Krakow production at the Stary Theater. This Hamlet wore jeans, read the Existentialists instead of Montaigne, and returned from the Western, Existentialist Wittemberg to the Communist Elsinore. No wonder his statement "Denmark's a prison" were greeted with a standing ovation by the very politically-minded audience -- a direct consequence of the lack of political freedom. Censorship always and everywhere pushes literature into the allusive and the "relevant" -- this is exactly what happened to Polish Szekspir (and the much of Polish theater) between 1945 and 1988. Day-to-day politics entered literature -- and vice versa, as Communist Party leaders thought it important to comment officially on theatrical productions. Actors became politicians! Politicians became literary critics! No wonder this system was doomed.


All during that time, new Szekspir "polonizations" appeared, and, with them, interesting discussions on which of these is good, better, or the best. Among those generally included among the latter are those by Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski of the early 1950s. Galczynski, who was already a known if still aspiring poet before the war, became one of the  most popular poets of the post-war period with his lyrical poetry "of everyday life", as it was called, and with an additional talent for short, absurdist theater forms. These were published in a highly popular weekly Przekroj, and included parodies? variations? on Szekspir. Here is a sample:

Teatrzyk Zielona Gęś
ma zaszczyt przedstawić
z oburzeniem


Spektakl, niestety, nie dopuszczony do konkursu szekspirowskiego, a to dzięki ponurym machinacjom intrygantów, karierowiczów oraz kombinatorów.

Prof. Bączyński:
Narodzie polski, oto jakie wiekopomne wysiłki teatrologiczne idą na mamę z powodów jak wyżej! (rozdziera szaty, ale ceruje je natychmiast)

Być albo nie być - oto jest pytanie,
Które powtarzam od lat trzystu w kółko.
Lecz, cyt! Poloniusz schodzi na śniadanie,
Nie, to Gżegżółka. Jak się masz, Gżegżółko?

Niedobrze mam się, bo w życiu trza przebyć
Przez las problemów, a któż je rozwiąże?
Więc gdy dylemat stoi: być czy nie być,
Może spróbujmy nie być, mości książę!

Obaj, tj. Gżegżółka i Hamlet:
(na próbę przestają być)
sprytnie wykorzystuje sytuację
i skwapliwie zapada.
Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński

Later, of course, such things could not appear in a politically correct Stalinist paper; Galczynski started cracking down under pressure; if we are to believe Milosz and his Captive Mind, it was the Communist authorities' original idea to keep Galczynski off the bottle by making him translate the complete Szekspir. Galczynski produced a brilliant Midsummer Night's Dream (indeed the best rendering of that play in Polish language), a King Hal play and the first scenes of the Tempest -- and died prematurely in 1953.

Nowadays it seems that all the best Polish translators sooner or later undertake their own work on the Swan -- or should I say the Eagle -- of Avon. Perhaps one day... This is, all in all, a very beneficial phenomenon: it is as if Szekspir had never died and continued to write on and on and on -- a constant source of NEW texts and NEW interpretations. If the series by Slomczynski, the much acclaimed translator of Ulysses, was something of an anticlimax, the most recent Shakespearean project, that by Baranczak, is certainly a significant cultural phenomenon.


Baranczak started, of course, with Hamlet (1988), and did all the right things to make his translations a success. A series of lectures explaining why his polonizations are better than anybody else's was part of the scheme; first of all, however, Baranczak gave his Hamlet to Andrzej Wajda and the Stary Theater of Krakow. And Wajda managed to restore to the play its whole universality with a brilliant production. Baranczak's language was a contemporary, idiomatic, even slangy Polish; Wajda brought the audience behind the scenes so that -- Wyspianski and Kott strike again -- it can observe the process of the director's and the actors' work. The public are seated in front of the main actor's dressing room and see only a part of the stage. Hamlet stays there for almost the whole play. The scenes in which he is absent take place on the "real" stage -- backstage and are reduced to a minimum. The spectators then see the theater "from the inside", as it were; they observe the process of staging the play, any play.


To further dissociate his Hamlet from any topicality, the part is played by one of Poland's best-known actresses. She is not Hamlet; she PLAYS Hamlet; there is no illusion of reality; there is only the reality of staging the play. And yet, when her Hamlet dies, the role for the next performance is taken over by the actor who played Fortinbras -- the "strong-arm man", the ruler with no moral or ontological problems. Hamlet dies, and only his myth remains.


This very brief presentation of Szekspir's various Polish faces, or facets, is an example of what translation can do: it can import an author, a cultural phenomenon, from one linguistic sphere to another and make it function there as part of that target sphere. And it is quite safe to say now that Szekspir is Polish -- not was Polish, IS Polish -- because... well, because, first of all, his works have been translated, are being translated, into Polish. And he has been as successful as many Polish writers in DESCRIBING the Polish experience, the Polish dilemmas, the Polish soul. Being myself one of the gang who steal the various mature writers for the Polish culture, I cannot but wonder at how easily this unique culture of Poland assimilates foreign works, foreign authors -- without loosing anything of its own identity; how all those English, American, French, German - and Russian - authors become, sooner or later -- Polish.

[1] Robert Bledsoe, pers. comm.

[2] Chwalewik, ed., trans., Hamlet, Warszawa, 1963

[3]Teresa Baluk-Ulewiczowa, Slanders by the Satirical Knave Holding the Mirror up to Nature: The Background for Wawrzyniec Goslicki as One of Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet, in: Literature and Language in the Intertextual and Cultural Context, Krakow, 1994.

[4]Norman Davies, God's Playground, New York, 1982

[5]Marta Gibinska, Polish Hamlets, in: Shakespeare in the New Europe, Sheffield, 1994.

© Jan Rybicki 2005