Three Geniuses

Victor Hugo, „Shakespeare l’Ancien“, Volume IV of the series William Shakespeare.

Published by André and Pierre Gonin in Lausanne, 1977 with original etchings by Hans Erni.

To Victor Hugo, one of the great French novelists of the 19th century, we owe, among other things, a never-ending fascination with Notre Dame (you certainly remember Quasimodo and Esmeralda) and one of the greatest musicals of all time (Les Misérables). However, this essay on William Shakespeare has little in common with his greatest hits: what had been planned as a brief introduction to the plays of the English poet grew into a 300-page work in which Hugo did not say much about Shakespeare but – as malicious gossip has it – more about himself…

The etching was obviously inspired by the “Chandos portrait” (r.); in the background: the Globe Theatre in London. | “Chandos portrait”, National Portrait Gallery London.

How Romanticism Rediscovered Shakespeare

While Shakespeare had been an extremely successful playwright during his lifetime, his plays disappeared from the programmes of theatres in the late 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, people loved poetry that followed strict rules, especially in France: poetry – be it lyric or a play – was considered good if it adhered to a set of classical guidelines as strictly as possible. And, of course, these guidelines originated in antiquity. If the ancient Greeks had already figured out how to write the perfect tragedy, why would anyone question that?

However, even the enthusiasm for strict classical form did not last forever. In the 19th century, people grew tired of it and Romanticism elevated stubbornness, originality and spontaneity to the new ideal. In this context, Shakespeare, a notorious rule-breaker, became a great role model. Many of his texts were rediscovered and translated into German and French. For instance by Hugo’s son, François-Victor Hugo. While Hugo junior translated plays into French, his father started to write a short biography of the English idol for the introduction to his plays.

Albert Besnard: The premiere of Hernani, painting of 1903, Maison Victor-Hugo, Paris.

The “Battle of Hernani”

But classical drama would not give up its spotlight without a fight, certainly not! When Hugo premiered his play Hernani at the Comédie-Française, numerous supporters of both camps were in the audience – advocates of the classical form and promoters of Hugo’s “modern” style (which was only later given the name Romanticism). In fact, Hugo mobilised all his friends to get the audience into the right mood as claqueurs (people who were paid to clap in the audience). During the entire performance members from both camps launched verbal and physical attacks against their enemies, and the evening went down as a turning point in literary history.

Such fights were not uncommon in Paris’ literary scene and, of course, this was not about theatre but about politics. In the 18th century, people had fought to establish bourgeois opera alongside courtly opera, a development that reflected the egalitarian aspirations in the run-up to the Revolution. This conflict between conservative and revolutionary forces was continued in the debate between classical and Romantic drama. The classical form with its strict status clause, affinity to the aristocracy and sophisticated language was more compatible with the values of the Régime, and Romantics like Hugo wanted to break with these old political and theatrical forms.

A Book About Shakespeare Aeschylus Hugo?

But let’s get back to our book. Hugo started to write a biography of Shakespeare and realised that he had much more to say. About why Shakespeare was a genius, who else was a genius (among others: Job, Aeschylus, Dante, Cervantes), why poetic skill was more important than military skill, and what the purpose of art was in the first place. In short: This Shakespeare biography serves as a pretext to write a long-winded, rather cryptic treatise about his own aesthetic theory.

Despite the thematic detours, he still calls the work William Shakespeare; it has three parts each containing several volumes. We have the pleasure to present a special artist’s edition of one of these books entitled “Shakespeare l’Ancien”, i.e. “The Shakespeare of Antiquity”. The cover page is adorned with a large etching of a Shakespeare portrait; in the background we see the Globe Theatre in London where his plays were frequently performed during his lifetime. This illustration is quite interesting because the book’s main subject is not Shakespeare but the Greek poet Aeschylus, whom Hugo describes as Shakespeare’s ancient forebear.

What do they have in common? You have to read a bit more closely to understand what Hugo is actually getting at here. Basically, he thinks both are great revolutionaries of the theatre in their respective times. Aeschylus radically modernised Greek tragedy by putting a second actor on stage and thus making dialogues possible. Shakespeare mainly revolutionised the language of the theatre. He gave a voice to kings and court jesters, princes and prostitutes; he mixed sublime metaphors with swear words and songs from the street. And – you guessed it – Hugo lines himself up these with these geniuses, portraying himself as the next great revolutionary of theatre. Thus, although the text never really became an important part of literary criticism, it tells us a lot about what Hugo thought of himself. Hugo should have rather called the work “Hugo” or “About Me”, as particularly fierce critics put it.

Gonin/Erni – A Tried and Tested Collaboration

To be honest, I do not completely understand why a new edition of this particular text was published in Lausanne in 1977. In terms of content, only a few readers could be interested in such a book. I suppose this edition was mainly a prestige project for literary enthusiasts. After all, the work brings together three giants of literary history – Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Hugo – from three great eras (antiquity, Renaissance, modernity).

Moreover, the André and Pierre Gonin publishing house in Lausanne seems to have a thing for classical material. In collaboration with the Swiss artist Hans Erni, they also published illustrated editions of Sophocles and Virgil. Just like it is the case with our book, they always published limited editions of these works, which were printed on handmade paper, bearing the artist’s signatures. Another special feature: the sheets of papers were loose, i.e. unbound and thus resembled drawings from an artist’s studio.

Perhaps we even have to regard the text as an accessory to Erni’s expressive colour etchings. They depict various figures from ancient Greece, but there are neither captions nor clear references to the text. Is this a sphinx? Is there a sphinx in Aeschylus’ Oresteia? Is this supposed to be Socrates? A quiz for the very educated, I guess. These slightly enigmatic illustrations actually reflect the ambivalence of Hugo’s work nicely. On the one hand, it is difficult to understand and somewhat arrogant, on the other hand, it is a powerful expression of an exuberant romantic spirit. For this was also part of the Romantic mindset: the conviction that we cannot understand everything by means of reason alone. God, nature and the arts are so vast, so powerful that we cannot rationally comprehend their magnitude. Sometimes we just have to feel it.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

German Romantics admired Shakespeare too, as this edition of The Merchant of Venice shows.

One of the geniuses Hugo discusses in this work is Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote we presented in this article.

Thanks to its successful musical adaptation, Les Misérables (The Wretched) has probably become Victor Hugo’s most successful work.

Did you know that the Museum of Transport in Lucerne is the most visited museum of Switzerland? It also houses the Hans Erni Museum.