(Ajay Kamalakaran’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 9/18.)
Ever since Alexander Sumarokov translated Hamlet into Russian in 1748, Russian intelligentsia has been passionate about the works of William Shakespeare.
The great English bard’s plays and sonnets have been Russianised to such an extent that they have left an indelible mark on the country’s cultural landscape. Shakespeare even inspired Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov and Boris Pasternak.
Vladimir Vysotsky as Hamlet (Moscow, Taganka Theater, 1971)
In the 1970s, it was incredibly difficult for a Muscovite to get a ticket to watch poet, singer and actor Vladimir Vysotsky play the role of Hamlet. More recently, in 2016, a Moscow Metro train was decorated with quotes and images of characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Despite this love for the bard’s works, few in Russia are aware of the bard’s mentions of Russia in his plays.
Ian McKellen rides Shakespeare train in Moscow metro.
In The Winter’s Tale, Hermione, the virtuous and beautiful Queen of Sicilia, who is falsely accused of infidelity by her husband Leontes, made these remarks when charged with adultery and treason:
“The Emperor of Russia was my father:
O that he were alive, and here beholding
His daughter’s trial! that he did but see
The flatness of my misery, yet with eyes
Of pity, not revenge.”
The Winter´s Tale. Act V. Scene III
This reference to the Emperor of Russia in a play that was written in 1610 has puzzled scholars studying the works of Shakespeare.
“Hermione seems to be the only Russian character in Shakespeare, and perhaps on this account, she is made of sterner stuff than many of his other heroines,” J. M. Draper wrote in an article for The Slavonic and East European Review in December 1954. “She threatens, albeit in jest, to keep her guest Polixenes a prisoner; she will not weep or let her ladies weep when she is sent to prison, and she pleads her cause as a ‘great king’s daughter’ preferring death to dishonour.” Draper added, however, that there was no characteristic “unmistakably Muscovite” about her.
In the 1995 autumn issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly, Daryl Palmer wrote that by evoking a Russian ruler, Shakespeare “encourages his audience to undertake a fleeting albeit bracing ‘passage from one sign system to another’, from English questions on kingship to Russian queries on the same theme.”
Bears and sables
Shakespeare’s Russian references go beyond people and extend to two animals that are symbols of Russia – bears and sables. In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark tells Ophelia:
“Nay, then, let the devil wear black, for I’ll have a suit of sables.”
The play was set in Denmark, but it was through the country’s waters that sable furs reached Britain from Russia.
There are references to the Russian bear in Macbeth and Henry V. The Duke of Orleans mentions the bear in the third act of Henry V, when he tells Rambures:
“Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a
Russian bear and have their heads crushed like
rotten apples! You may as well say, that’s a
valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.”