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The History of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft

Ruth Freifrau von Ledebur

On 23 April 1864, the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft was founded in Weimar on the occasion of the tricentenary Shakespeare celebrations. It is the oldest of all German literary societies, about 20 years older even than the Goethe Gesellschaft, which is also located in Weimar. The industrialist Wilhelm Oechelhäuser is regarded as one of the major promoters of this project. Oechelhäuser’s initial plan was to install the head-office of the new association in one of the capitals of the German states, preferably in Berlin, and then establish a network of branch-offices all over the country. This ambitious project did not materialize; however, Weimar, with the Ducal House of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach, showed the strongest interest in Oechelhäuser’s initiative. The Grand Duchess Sophie, who was later to become the first patroness of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, succeeded in winning Franz Dingelstedt, the director of the Court Theatre, over to her plans. Dingelstedt produced the English Histories for the Weimar jubilee, and this rare occasion of seeing the cycle on stage became the main reason for theatre directors, dramatists, literary critics and scholars as well as industrialists like Oechelhäuser to attend the inaugural meeting of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft in Weimar.

The primary objective of the newly-founded society is laid down in the Statutes of 1864: to foster the knowledge of Shakespeare’s works in Germany by every artistic and academic means.  Basically, this aim has remained unchanged throughout the varied history of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft. It is carried out by the three main institutions of the society: the annual meetings in April, the so-called Shakespeare Tage, the Shakespeare Jahrbuch and the Shakespeare Library. These have survived even though changing historical contexts have left their marks on them.

One of the main activities of the society’s board during the first decades was to promote an authoritative critical edition of the Collected Works in German, on the basis of the romantic “Schlegel-Tieck” translations, to be published under the patronage of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft and to be binding on the stage as well as in schools. This prestigious project failed because of fundamental disagreements between translators, writers, scholars and editors involved in it. A less ambitious plan for a popular edition of the Collected Works in German, in one volume, was finally realized in 1891. From the discussions about these issues stemmed the claim of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft to act as an arbiter of all matters related to the Bard, in particular to the quality of translations of the Works. This claim was upheld well into the 20th century, when, after some unfortunate public polemics, the board of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft ceased to voice an “official” judgment on any new translation.

With new professorships of English and the growing importance of English as a school subject towards the close of the 19th century, the number of academics among the membership increased, while the number of theatre directors and actors decreased at the same time. In 1869, the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft had 190 members, by 1913, the number had risen to 626. During the Shakespeare Tage, usually held at Weimar, at least one play was performed by the local theatre, and the key-note lecture became a hallmark of German Shakespeare criticism. The Shakespeare Jahrbuch gradually gained international regard.  In addition to scholarly papers and literary criticism, the Jahrbuch published annual theatre reviews with statistics of Shakespeare’s plays on the German stage and reviews of prominent performances, nowadays a mine of source material for research in that field. The Shakespeare Library in Weimar, owned by the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, also rose in prominence. By 1964, it contained more thane 1500 volumes.

While, on various occasions, the board almost habitually claimed to abstain from politics, the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft did become involved in the political and socio-cultural history of Germany. In the spirit of Shakespeare, friendly relationships with Britain were proclaimed and duly celebrated; as shortly before the outbreak of World War I at the jubilee in April 1914, which also marked the 50th anniversary of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft. Like most of the educated classes, the members of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft held conservative, national, and royalist convictions, which blended easily with the ideals of German classicism, embodied in the “Spirit of Weimar”. Apart from the general German Shakespeare cult, the genius loci deeply affected the activities of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, which helped to establish Shakespeare’s fame as the “third German classical poet”, next to Schiller and Goethe.  The conservative aspirations of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft also account for its scepticism, even horror, of liberal and republican convictions during the Weimar Republic. Contacts with English scholars suffered badly during World War I and it took years to normalize these connections.

During the Third Reich, the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, like all other academic and cultural institutions, fell under the influence of the Nazi Regime. Despite the opposition of some board members, Jewish members of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft were forced to give up their membership; party officials infiltrated the board and the executive committee. The topics of both the annual lectures and the list of the speakers tell a telling tale of the precarious balance between academic independence and adjustment to the Nazi ideology. With the outbreak of World War II the activities of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft declined and came to a complete standstill with the end of the war.

With the division of Germany, Weimar, the home of the Shakespeare-, the Goethe- and the Dante-Gesellschaft, became part of the “Russian Zone”. In 1946, the Soviet Military Government licensed these three literary societies to resume their activities. As normal contacts across the borders became increasingly difficult, a branch office of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft was opened in Bochum in the British Zone to cater for members living in the West. Despite increasing political pressures during the Cold War, the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft tried hard to maintain its unity. However, with the preparations for the quatercentenary celebrations of 1964, it came to a split in 1963: A Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West was founded, with its headquarters in Bochum, while Weimar remained the seat of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft in East Germany. For about 30 years, two German Shakespeare Societies existed, each with its own board and executive committee, its own annual conference, and its own Shakespeare Jahrbuch. Each society was firmly rooted in its respective political and socio-cultural system.

With German Re-unification the partition came to an end. At the Shakespeare-Tage in Weimar in 1993 a new board and executive committee were elected, the two year-books were fused, and Weimar became once again the seat of the (united) Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft. The annual meetings in April are usually held alternatively at Bochum and at Weimar, while a second conference in the autumn now tends to be organized in other cities in co-operation with the local universities and theatres. Increasingly, the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft also accepts invitations from abroad, as happened with the successful conference in Vienna in 2008. The scholarly and social activities of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft are flourishing; by 2008, membership numbers have risen to over 1700.