Will the Modernist

Shakespeare and the European Historical Avant-Gardes

by Giovanni Cianci (Volume editor) Caroline M. Patey (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection X, 302 Pages


Why was the Bard of Avon so frequently on the agenda of avant-garde writers in Britain, France, Italy, Portugal, Germany and Ireland? This volume explores the rich and diverse landscape of Shakespearean encounters in the tormented aesthetics of pre- and post-World War I Europe. However manipulated, deformed or transfigured, the Renaissance dramatist was revived in infinite guises: verbal, philosophical, visual and linguistic. Was he an icon to be demolished ruthlessly as the expression of a stale past or, on the contrary, did his works offer the foundation for new and provocative artistic explorations? Was he an enemy, a foil, a mirror? As they cross the borders of European countries and languages, the essays of this book interrogate Shakespeare’s living presence and chart the multiple facets of his vibrant and chameleonic afterlives as no single volume has done before. The exploration of territories situated beyond Anglophone boundaries partly displaces the Bard from his given niche in English culture and retrieves lost or marginalized Shakespearean voices. The annotated bibliographies which complete the volume greatly extend the territory of scholarship and offer a precious map of orientation in the maze of critical works.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Giovanni Cianci – Introduction: The Agon with the Bard
  • On the scant research on the subject
  • Back to Nietzsche, the father of the avant-gardes
  • Shakespeare and tradition
  • Down with Shakespeare? or up with the Bard as ‘a classic of motion’?
  • Missing the heroic High Modernism of 1913–14, downplaying the radical innovations of the arts
  • Tug-of-War, Tug of Love
  • References
  • Part I The Shakespeherian Rags of High Modernism
  • Massimo Bacigalupo – Yeats and Pound: A Poetics of Excess and Pastiche
  • Yeats-speare: Embracing Failure
  • Ezra Pound’s Jacques Père: Subversion through translation
  • References
  • Jason Harding – Changing our Way of Being Wrong: T. S. Eliot’s Shakespeare
  • An iconoclastic entry into Shakespearean criticism
  • ‘We ought still to find Othello or Lear frightful’
  • Eliot and G. Wilson Knight’s approach to mystic Shakespeare
  • ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them’
  • The development of Shakespeare’s verse
  • References
  • Carlo Pagetti – ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a Way’: The Dialogue between Virginia Woolf and Master William
  • Looking for Master William
  • ‘Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare’
  • London Bridge is falling down
  • At the heart of the Woolfian novel
  • References
  • Giovanni Cianci – Modernist Interpreters of Shakespeare: Wyndham Lewis and G. Wilson Knight
  • Early Wyndham Lewis: ‘Turning Timon into a ululating machine’
  • G. Wilson Knight in the Thirties: ‘To unlock the visual power in Shakespeare – to let the pictures out’
  • On the primacy of the image: ‘Living in a visualising age’
  • Knight’s ‘spatial’ hermeneutics
  • Why Timon of Athens appealed to the modernists
  • References
  • Part II European Encounters
  • Marjorie Perloff – Wittgenstein’s Shakespeare
  • Teaching the ‘differences’
  • References
  • Claudia Corti – ‘As You Disguise Me’: Shakespeare and/in Pirandello
  • Pirandello in search of Shakespeare
  • ‘Ridere del proprio pensiero’: A Nietzschean perspective on Hamlet
  • Other humours, different laughters
  • Hamlet in the modernist years
  • Humour and tragedy: Pirandello’s Enrico IV and Shakespeare’s Hamlet
  • A creative madness
  • Enrico’s Hamletian metatheatre
  • All the world’s a stage
  • References
  • Silvia Riva – In Hamlet’s Path: Shakespearean Etchings in Laforgue and Tzara
  • Interpreting activity and myth in the crisis era
  • Laforgue’s Hamlet, or the inability to be a poet
  • Tzara’s Hamlet, or the rêve of ‘pure’ poetry
  • Looking for a new path in reality
  • References
  • George Oppitz-Trotman – Shakespeare’s Abandoned Cave: Bertolt Brecht and the Dialectic of ‘Greatness’
  • The cold hand of bourgeois tradition: ‘Greatness’ and ‘the classics’
  • Epic theatre and theatre of the world
  • Coriolan
  • References
  • Vincenzo Russo – Fernando Pessoa: A Peripheral Shakespearean Out of his Time
  • Traces of Portuguese Modernism
  • The Shakespeare problem
  • Pessoa’s criticism and aesthetics: Glosses on Shakespeare
  • Pessoa’s poetry in English: A Shakespearean out of his time
  • References
  • Part III Shakespeare’s Irish Voice
  • Laura Pelaschiar – Joyce’s Shakespeare
  • Beginnings: Shakespeare/Ibsen
  • 1912: Hamlet in Trieste
  • ‘Scylla and Charybdis’
  • Ulysses and Finnegans Wake: ‘Shakespeare-soaked epics’
  • References
  • Caroline Patey – Beckett’s Shakespeare, or, Silencing the Bard
  • Discarded Shakespeares
  • Rooted in Racine?
  • On the Liffey
  • References
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Introduction: The Agon with the Bard
  • The Shakespeherian Rags of High Modernism
  • European Encounters
  • Shakespeare’s Irish Voice
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

| vii →

List of Illustrations

Figure 1 Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1–2 as revised by Basil Bunting, 1926. Private collection, Rapallo, Italy.

Figure 2 Wyndham Lewis, The Creditors, c. 1912. Pen, brown ink, and gouache on paper, 16–5/8 × 10–3/4 in. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1949.455. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.

Figure 3a Wyndham Lewis, Timon of Athens a, from a Set of Nine Pen and Ink Drawings for Max Goschen’s Edition of Timon of Athens, c. 1912, The Folger Library, Washington, DC.

Figure 3b Wyndham Lewis, Timon of Athens b, from a Set of Nine Pen and Ink Drawings for Max Goschen’s Edition of Timon of Athens, c. 1912, The Folger Library, Washington, DC.

Figure 4 Juan Gris, Mouchoir de nuages, 1925, Eau-forte pour la tragédie homonyme de Tristan Tzara, Éditions de la Galerie Simon, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Figure 5 Edward G. Craig, Design for the Stage Setting of the Ghost Scene in Hamlet, 1912, Pen and Wash Drawing, The Edward Gordon Craig Estate and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

| ix →


This volume could not have been completed without the collaboration of colleagues and friends in the Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature Straniere at the Università degli Studi, Milano. The editors gratefully acknowledge the help and encouragement given by Emilia Perassi, Head of the Dipartimento at the time of the conference which gave birth to the book, and by her successor Marco Modenesi. When we were lost in translation, John Young saved us, once more, with his usual skill and generosity. It is a pleasure to extend our warmest thanks to our younger staff: Chiara Biscella, who subtracted some time from her PhD dissertation to compile the index, and Sara Sullam, an invaluable presence all along. We are thankfully indebted to Julia Nelsen who helped us, from Berkeley, with translations.

| 1 →


Introduction: The Agon with the Bard

If modernism set the terms for our century’s reading of Shakespeare, it did so partly by displacing him from his given niche in English culture.

— RICHARD HALPERN, Shakespeare Among the Moderns (1997)

On the scant research on the subject

Shakespeare’s bibliography has grown to include a formidable bulk of critical and scholarly material, as every one knows. I am certainly not going to deprecate the flourishing ‘Shakespeare industry’, since there are still remarkable areas which are surprisingly neglected or under-explored. One of these areas concerns the reception of Shakespeare among the European historical avant-gardes. There are only a few contributions in this field, mainly articles scattered in reviews, or collected in conference proceedings, but, as far as I know, there is still no single book entirely dedicated to the subject. Until thirty or forty years ago, when research started to cover this area, studies were mainly directed towards the investigation of the British or Anglo-American avant-garde. And this limitation still applies. As was aptly said, ‘the Anglo-centered approach has been assumed to be the common heritage of Shakespeare’s art’ (Kennedy: 1993, p. 2).

You will not find the subject treated in the pages of the most influential studies of Modernism. Take for instance the doyen of these studies, the late Canadian scholar Hugh Kenner, the author, among many other insightful works, of an invaluable, highly perceptive, though idiosyncratic volume, The Pound Era (1972). Kenner, who did so much to capture the exhilarating atmosphere and explore the greatness of the modernist achievements, ← 1 | 2 → devotes only a few lines to how leading modernist authors related to the Bard, confining himself to the cases of Wyndham Lewis and T. S. Eliot. The other extensive survey of the avant-gardes, edited by Bradbury and McFarlane in the well-known Penguin volume of 1976 entitled Modernism, simply ignores the phenomenon, although it has the merit of including the extra-European avant-gardes.

If for a moment we set Modernism’s literary historians aside, and take into consideration Shakespeare scholars and commentators, we realize that in this branch of studies, too, investigation into the Shakespeare of the modernists, at least until the 1970s and 1980s, is rather scant and, when carried out at all, rarely goes beyond anglophone boundaries. Again, no single volume by Shakespeare scholars has been devoted to the vicissitudes of Shakespeare’s reception among major European modernists.

Back to Nietzsche, the father of the avant-gardes

Shakespeare’s stature as a historical monument – one of the greatest classics of the past and the backbone of traditional theatre repertory – posed a challenge to the avant-gardes who wanted to ‘Make it New!’ (as Ezra Pound would say). In Shakespeare they confronted the problem of the relationship between contemporary culture and tradition, if not with History tout court. The problem finds its most profound and influential articulation in Nietzsche’s famous Second Meditation, ‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life’, published in 1874.

Yet we find the name of Nietzsche quoted rarely, or not at all, in studies dealing with Modernism and the subject of our volume, as is the case with two otherwise remarkable books, Hugh Grady’s The Modernist Shakespeare and Richard Halpern’s Shakespeare Among the Moderns. Perhaps the ‘academicization of Nietzsche’ is responsible, as Michael Tanner has argued, for making Nietzsche into a reasonable man, even a rationalist, especially in the United States, where (for instance) Walter Kaufmann presented the author of Zarathustra as a ‘philosopher who was a much more ← 2 | 3 → traditional thinker than the one who had inspired anarchists, vegetarians, etc.’ (Tanner: 1994, p. 2).1

Yet the scholars who are aware of Nietzsche’s impact on the modernists are surely right to acknowledge the German philosopher as the father of the avant-gardes. Among the ‘masters of suspicion’ (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) it was above all Nietzsche who exerted an enormous, mesmerizing fascination on the modernists. His agonistic thought, spanning the late nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, pervaded many areas of European culture. He was indeed ubiquitous: a towering, though controversial, presence. The historical avant-gardes, thirsty for change and drastically new starts, were quick to appropriate the diagnosis of decadence (la décadence, as Nietzsche called it) and the crisis of values vehemently denounced by him. They accepted Nietzsche’s radical alternative to the pervasive feeling of an end of the world and drew strong inspiration from his thesis of the primacy of art as a redeeming practice and justification for life. They took from him ‘the culture of the tragic’ rediscovered by ‘the philosopher of the unmasking’ and, anxious for a clean break with their entire cultural inheritance, they promoted their oppositional strategies, at once aggressive and playful. It was under the aegis of Nietzsche and his Untimely Meditations (1873–6) that they devoted themselves to insubordination and to the Umwertung aller Werte [transvaluation of all values]. They took up his anti-bourgeois rebellion against the ‘philistines of culture’, his revolutionary message and his suggestions for radical transformation. Furthermore, many of the modernists also adopted his lapidary and dazzling style, rich in witty and extreme aphorisms. Nietzsche’s role as a powerful catalyst is reflected by many schools of thought, movements and isolated figures, who confessed they read him passionately. ‘I read him as flames read wood’, affirmed Alfred Döblin. Gottfried Benn, one of the foremost poets and intellectuals of Expressionism, declared on many occasions that Nietzsche was ‘the great giant of the post-Goethean era’ (Aschheim: 1994, p. 64). Henry Albert, the editor of the first complete French translations ← 3 | 4 → of Nietzsche’s works, depicted the German philosopher as an ‘intuitive visionary of the future, Nietzsche the liberator!’ (Forth: 2001, p. 43). And Guillaume Apollinaire attested that ‘the works of Nietzsche have become almost popular in France. They have a considerable influence over young writers, over painters’.2

Blast, ‘The Review of Vorticism’, advertised itself (in bold typeface) in The Egoist of 1914 with a Nietzchean rallying cry, the ‘End of the Christian Era’. Its co-founder Ezra Pound was not very keen to acknowledge a debt to the German philosopher. Nonetheless, among other themes and suggestions that remain underexplored,3 Pound took up Nietzsche’s injunction that ‘the dead should not bury the living’, repeating the polemical imperative that Apollinaire in Paris, strictly following Nietzsche, had already proclaimed in his 1913 article Les Peintres Cubistes: ‘On ne peut pas transporter partout avec soi le cadavre de son père’.

Not only in literature but across the arts, the Italian Futurist painter and writer Ardengo Soffici called Nietzsche ‘the true shaping agent of our century’:4 a claim largely validated by the high reputation he enjoyed in German culture, among Hofmannsthal, Stefan Georg, Georg Trakl, Georg Heym, Rilke, Musil, Broch, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Spengler, Bertolt Brecht and Benjamin, to cite only the outstanding names.5 It is also true that numerous and diverse modernist groups would deny that they felt any attraction to Nietzsche. Yet his decisive influence can be traced ← 4 | 5 → in almost all areas, both literary and artistic: in Futurism (F. T. Marinetti, Ardengo Soffici, Aldo Palazzeschi, to name only a few), in Russian Cubo-Futurism (Vladimir Mayakovsky proclaimed himself to be a ‘loud-mouthed Zarathustra of our day’ (Hyde: 1976, p. 259),6 and again in Dadaism, Surrealism and in most of the innovative painters, regardless of their particular styles (such as Edward Munch, De Chirico, Alberto Savinio, Picabia, Grosz and others too numerous to mention here [Cork: 1994, pp. 24–6]).

Shakespeare and tradition

It is no wonder that Nietzsche’s strong attack on the pressure of tradition should have lit a fuse among the historical avant-gardes, considering their intolerance of the contemporaneous status quo and their intense suffering from the oppressive conditions under which they felt they were living (especially among the most iconoclastic ones of the avant-guerre years). Indeed, to read passages from the Second Meditation is to be struck by the strong similarity – sometimes even to the point of identity – between Nietzsche’s expressions and the assertions and slogans which appeared in the manifestos and other texts of the avant-gardes.

‘The philosopher with the hammer’ protests against ‘an excess of history’ (Nietzsche: 1909, p. 11) in which the historical sense no longer conserves life but mummifies it. Nietzsche inveighs against ‘the great and continually increasing weight of the past’ (Nietzsche: 1909, p. 7) which, if not forgotten, threatens ‘to become the gravedigger of the present’ (Nietzsche: 1909, p. 9). He is repelled by a ‘historical culture’ which he sees ‘as a fault and a defect in our time […] believing’ – as he does – ‘that we are all suffering from a malignant historical fever and should at least recognise the fact’ (Nietzsche: 1909, p. 4). He warns, ‘We would serve ← 5 | 6 → history only so far as it serves life; but to value its study beyond a certain point mutilates and degrades life’ (Nietzsche: 1909, p. 3). The German philosopher is dismayed by the ‘horrid spectacle’ offered by:

… the mad collector raking over all the dust-heaps of the past. He breathes a mouldy air; the antiquarian habit may degrade a considerable talent, a real spiritual need in him, to a mere insatiable curiosity for everything old: he often sinks so low as to be satisfied with any food, and greedily devour all the scraps that fall from the bibliographical table […] Thus [antiquarian history] hinders the mighty impulse to a new deed and paralyses the doer. (Nietzsche: 1909, pp. 27–8)

We may conclude this short list of citations by quoting one of the telling epigrams about the upshot of a life suffering from ‘an excess of history’, one that would reverberate in many texts of the avant-garde: ‘The frightful petrifaction of the time, the restless rattle of the ghostly bones’ (Nietzsche: 1909, p. 78).

Well before the Futurists, and echoing Nietzsche’s despair over the intolerable weight of the past upon the present, James Joyce, during his stay in Rome in 1906–7, affected by ‘the obtrusive presence of the dead’ (Ellmann: 1983, p. 244), wrote various letters to his brother Stanislaus. More than a mere ‘lack of enthusiasm for the city’ (McCourt: 2000, p. 83), Joyce expressed an eloquent revulsion: ‘Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse’ (Ellmann: 1966, p. 65).

Down with Shakespeare? or up with the Bard as ‘a classic of motion’?

The omnipresence of Nietzsche among the historical avant-gardes will help us to delineate schematically and, I am afraid, with unavoidable simplification, two different positions taken up with regard to Shakespeare: the first of downright rejection, ‘in an attempt to lay to rest a Ghost that had plagued an entire generation’ (Quillian: 1983, p. 73), the other of re-vitalization, following Nietzsche’s productive notion that the Bard was ← 6 | 7 → indeed a classic, but a ‘classic of motion’, rich with a potential of dynamic and liberating effects.

Of course there were also other salient attitudes and responses to the complex balance of threat and inspiration that Shakespeare represented for the modernists. Oppressed by the anxiety of having to struggle with such a giant precursor as Shakespeare, modernists could end up by declaring that some of his tragedies were artistic failures. This was the case not only with T. S. Eliot’s notorious condemnation of Hamlet in 19197 and Stephen’s lecture in the Dublin Library in Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, but also, almost four decades before Eliot, of Nietzsche, who ‘went so far as to call Hamlet – the play that had figured so prominently and so favourably in the Birth of Tragedy – ‘a botched work’ (Large: 2000, p. 52).8 As was justly pointed out:

During the ‘heroic age of Modernism’ Hamlet was written out of the ‘Great Tradition’. […] Yeats’s declaration that ‘Odysseus and Don Quixote and Hamlet are with us always’ may have rung true in 1905, but by 1921, the Danish Prince was fading fast as an archetype of the literary imagination. (Quillian: 1983, p. 63)

It would be enough to read some of the passages from one of the most celebrated, imaginative and creative manifestos, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s The Variety Theatre, to realize that the Italian Futurists were in the forefront of the rejection camp. In the Russian Cubo-Futurist Manifesto of 1912, significantly entitled Slap in the Face of Public Taste, Burliuk and other artists ← 7 | 8 → had already thrown ‘overboard from the ship of Modernity’ a renowned classic such as Pushkin, followed by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (Caws: 2001, p. 230).9 In Paris, Apollinaire, in his Futurism-inspired Manifesto L’Antitradition Futuriste (composed in 1913, during his short, most radical phase), had symbolically thrown Merde at such supreme masters of Tradition as Dante, Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Marinetti’s openly provocative proposal consisted – rather than in a rude dismissal – in an operation of mocking subversion: that is, ‘to condense all of Shakespeare into a single act’. He suggested that, along with other authors venerated by Tradition, Shakespeare should be transgressed in that way. The programmatic ‘destruction of immortal masterpieces’ involved the Bard in the burlesque transformation of ‘The Variety Theatre into a theatre of astonishment, record setting, and body madness [the famous Fisicofollia]’ (Rainey: 2005, p. 37). The manifesto, printed separately on a leaflet, was published in September 1913, and only two months later appeared in English in the Daily Mail, ‘then the largest mass-circulation newspaper in the world’ (Rainey: 2005, p. 34). Under point 15 of The Variety Theatre we read:

The Variety Theatre is destroying the Solemn, the Sacred, the Serious, the Sublime of Art with a capital A. It is helping along the Futurist destruction of immortal masterpieces by plagiarizing and parodying them … (Rainey: 2005, p. 37)

In its shocking injunction to ‘systematically prostitute all of classical art on the stage’ the Manifesto mockingly suggested, for example:

[to] perform all Greek, French and Italian tragedies in a single evening, all highly condensed and mixed up. Put life into the works of Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, Bellini, and Chopin by inserting NEAPOLITAN songs into them […] Perform a Beethoven symphony in reverse, starting from the last note – Condense all of Shakespeare into a single act. (Rainey: 2005, pp. 37–8.; emphasis in the original)

Even in Joyce, who was very far from abolishing Tradition, we find Shakespeare ‘transgressed’ along lines which suggest a kind of futurist distortion. In ‘Circe’ the Bard is made to speak a mocking ‘dignified ventriloquy’, ← 8 | 9 → a burlesque language, as in the following passage which, apart from showing typical futurist stylistic features – lengthening of words, onomatopoeia, etc. (Lobner Del Greco: 1989, pp. 89–105) – anticipates the shocking verbal terrain of Finnegans Wake:10

SHAKESPEARE: (In dignified ventriloquy) Tis the loud laugh bespeaks the vacant mind. (To Bloom) Thou thoughtest as how thou wastest invisible. Gaze. (He crows with a black capon’s laugh) Iagogo! How my Old-fellow chokit his Thursdaymomun. Iagogogo! (Joyce: 1992, p. 671)


X, 302
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
aesthetics stale past enemy
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. X, 302 pp., 6 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Giovanni Cianci (Volume editor) Caroline M. Patey (Volume editor)

Giovanni Cianci is Professor of English Literature at the Università degli Studi in Milan. Throughout his career, he has promoted ground-breaking research on Vorticism and inter-artistic dialogues in modernist culture. He has published extensively on Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, John Ruskin, Joseph Conrad and the literary impact of Paul Cézanne in Europe. Caroline Patey is Professor of English Literature at the Università degli Studi in Milan. After focusing on Renaissance studies, she has in recent years concentrated on late Victorian and modernist subjects with a particular attention for the visual and transnational dimensions of literature.


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