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William Shakespeare

Schmidt Number: S-0338

On-line since: 23rd October, 2016

William Shakespeare

Rudolf Steiner Archive Document

Lectures Section

Lecture eleven of thirty-eight lectures in the lecture series entitled, Philosophy, History, and Literature, published in German as, Ueber Philosophie, Geschichte und Literatur.

Notes of a Lecture given
by Dr. Rudolf Steiner

Original translator unknown.
Revised by Frank Thomas Smith.
Berlin, May 6, 1902
Bn 51, GA 51, CW 51

Lecture eleven of thirty-eight lectures in the lecture series entitled, Philosophy, History, and Literature, published in German as, Über Philosophie, Geschichte und Literatur. Based on an essay, Bn 29.1.28, entitled, Another Secret of Shakespeare's Works.

The original German text of this lecture can be found in the Collected Edition of Rudolf Steiner's works, No. 51 in the Bibliographical Survey, 1961.

This lecture series is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland. From Bn 51, GA 51, CW 51.

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Friends who heard that notes existed of a lecture on Shakespeare given by Dr. Steiner in 1902 at the Workmen's School in Berlin expressed the wish to read these notes. They were taken down by Johanna Mücke, who did not know shorthand, so they do not claim to be complete. The 7 pages of typescript may correspond to about 25 pages of the original text of the lecture. But important points emerge even from these incomplete notes. Marie Steiner

According to a remark by the famous writer Georg Brandes, we should include Shakespeare in the German classics. And if we consider the enormous influence Shakespeare has had on Goethe, schiller and the development of German literature in general since he was rediscovered in the middle of the eighteenth century, especially through Lessing, we must agree with that remark – especially in view of the excellent translations of his work by Schlegel and Tieck.  

A legend has arisen about Shakespeare and whole libraries have been written about each of his works. Academics have given many interpretations of his plays, and finally a number of writers have decided that an uneducated actor could not have produced all the thoughts which they discovered in Shakespeare's works, and they became addicted to the hypothesis that not William Shakespeare, the actor of the Globe Theatre, could have written the plays which bear his name, but some other highly learned man, for example  Lord Francis Bacon of Verulam, who in view of the low estimation of literary activity at that time, borrowed the actor's name. These suppositions are based on the fact that no manuscripts written by Shakespeare's hand have ever been found; they are also based upon a notebook discovered in a London library with single passages in it which are supposed to correspond with certain passages in Shakespeare's plays. But Shakespeare's own works bear witness that he is their author. His plays reveal that they were written by a man who had a thorough knowledge of the theatre and the deepest understanding for theatrical effects.

That Shakespeare himself did not publish his plays was simply in keeping with the general custom at his time. Not one of his plays was printed during his lifetime. They were carefully kept under wraps; people were to come to the theatre and see the plays there, not read them at home. Prints which appeared at that time were pirated editions, based on notes taken during the performances, so that the texts did not completely correspond to the original versions, but were full of errors and mutilations.

These partial omissions and mistakes led certain researchers to claim that Shakespeare's plays, as they were then available, were not works of art of any special value and that originally they must have existed in quite a different form. One of these researchers is Eugen Reichel, who thinks that the author of Shakespeare's plays was a man with a certain definite worldview. But such opinions are contradicted by the fact that the plays, in the form in which they now exist, exercise such an extraordinary influence. We see this great effect in plays that have undoubtedly been mutilated, for example in Macbeth. The hold of Shakespeare's plays on his audience was proved by a performance of  Henry V under the direction of Neuman-Hofer at the inauguration of the Lessing Theatre. It did not fail to produce a powerful impression in spite of an extremely bad translation and poor acting.

Shakespeare's plays are above all character dramas. The great interest which they arouse does not so much lie in the action, as in the wonderful development of the individual characters. The poet conjures up before us a human character and unfolds his thoughts and feelings in the presentation of an individual personality.

This artistic development, which culminated in Shakespeare, was made possible by the preceding phase of cultural development: the Renaissance. Shakespeare's character-dramas could only arise as a result of the higher estimation of the individual during the Renaissance. During the early middle ages we find, even in Dante and in spite of his strong personality, the basic expression of the Christian ideas of that time. The Christian type of his time, not the individual human personality, appeared in the foreground. This was the general conception. The Christian principle had no interest in the individual personality. But little by little a new worldview aroused interest in the Individual human being. Only gradually did a new interest in the individual arise by means of the different viewpoint.

The fact that Shakespeare's fame spread so quickly proves that he found an audience keenly interested in the theatre, that is to say, with a certain understanding for the representation of the personality as offered by Shakespeare. Shakespeare's chief aim was to describe individual characters,  and he was far from presenting to his audience an ethical or moral idea. For example, the idea of tragic guilt, as found in Schiller's dramas, who thought that he had to encumber his hero with it in order to justify his downfall, does not exist in Shakespeare's plays. He simply allows the events to take their course consistently, uninfluenced by the idea of guilt and atonement. It would be difficult to find a concept of guilt in this sense in any of his