Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sharon Hampel: “Lear, Hegel, and History”

Sharon Hampel
Independent Scholar

Memory-Illuminating Fire: Lear, Hegel, and History

1> The Tragedy of King Lear is a puzzling play. A king undermines his own power. A loving daughter foments her own banishment. Friends and reprieves come too late to prevent annihilation. Responding to this irresolution, critics have characterized the play as Christian redemption and as nihilistic horror. Finally, Lear’s realization that humanity is “a poor, bare forked animal” (3.4.100 conflated text)
[1] is neither nihilistic nor redemptive. However, in a downward trajectory worthy of Job, the play moves from loss of kingdom and family to this presumptive final loss of self.

2> One wonders how Shakespeare came to such a stark and unremitting view of human nature and human potential. In order to answer this question, the reader must regard Shakespeare as an historical as well as an artistic personage, as Stephen Greenblatt has done in Will in the World, which presents Shakespeare’s world as one characterized by fire, plague, and religious persecution. Greenblatt envisions a Shakespeare who is both in his world and transcendently above it: “It is not necessary to choose between an account of Shakespeare as the scion of a particular culture and an account of him as a universal genius . . . .”
[2] Yet, when one imagines a Shakespeare who participated in cataclysmic times and events, one cannot really evade the primacy of the historic figure.

3> Such a perspective might validate Hegel’s connection between narrative and event while belying his ultimate undervaluing of that connection. “We must suppose historical narratives to have appeared contemporaneously with historical deeds and events,”
[3] Hegel notes. Yet, ultimately, to Hegel, it is a redemptive philosophy that transmogrifies and then ignores events, not the events themselves, history as “universal reason,” not individual experience.[4] Historical accounts, according to Hegel, can be either original (i.e. witnessing deeds first-hand), reflective (i.e. interpreting and contemplating those deeds according to general, pragmatic or critical perspectives), or philosophic (i.e. speculating on the rationale and cause of events).[5] Most importantly, according to Hegel, history itself conditions and is conditioned by philosophy. “The most general definition that can be given is that the philosophy of history means nothing but the thoughtful consideration of it. Thought is, indeed, essential to humanity” [italics mine].[6] Such thought leads, according to Hegel, to a universal perception of the rationale of a redeemed, providential history of an ideal state.

4> Hegel gleaned these ideas of history as redemption from the political philosophies of Aquinas and Aristotle. Both of those philosophies presume the rational basis of history and human action and the ability of humanity to act rationally in order to perfect the world. Aquinas’s philosophy necessitates an ideal ruler who, through “right reason,” guides the affairs of men.”
[7] Aristotle, on the other hand, asserts that laws, not rulers, guarantee a just society and a perfectible world and that the ideal republic should be a combination of “oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy,” with the best elements of each system represented.[8] Writing in the nineteenth century as a witness to the cataclysms of modernity, the “slaughter-bench” of history,[9] Hegel views both kingship and the polity somewhat cynically. Therefore, he asserts a universal, “moral reflection”[10] divorced from lived history and from the memory of that history, an incontrovertible reflection that supersedes, then erases both history and memory, thereby formulating a redeemed, universal coda to history.

5> King Lear represents an anti-Hegelian confrontation with history as deracination rather than redemption. Although based loosely on the mythic and perhaps historic King Lear and more closely (according to some critics) on a contemporary court case and also perhaps on events in Shakespeare’s own life, the play cannot be read or viewed in a detached, thoughtful manner. Lear is Job without God and, as such, he cannot thoughtfully consider anything, most certainly not the causality, the why that Hegel seeks. In fact, Lear flees from a clear consideration of any of his actions and their consequences. Confronting Cordelia and his own mistaken view of her finally kills them both, just as Gloucester’s confrontation with Edgar kills him. Yet Lear cannot turn away from the facts of his situation, cannot assume that memory is, as Hegel asserts, “a fugitive and shadowy element.”
[11] Given this denouement, one cannot imagine that Shakespeare is talking of events from a detached perspective.

6> Hegel connects perspective to history in successive stages of past or legendary history, recent or contemplated events, and a final, philosophized history. Even though the play, in successive drafts, has elements of such a chronology and teleology, the characters in the play do not become more detached in later drafts. Although Edgar advises Gloucester to “Bear free and patient thoughts,” (4.6.80 conflated text) after Gloucester’s mock suicide, no other character in the play has the leisure or perspective to adopt such a stance, and even Gloucester’s wisdom does not serve him long. Harsh events crowd the stage and the players are left gasping for air.

7> Whether the play is legendary or based on actual events, it cannot stop to philosophize and rationalize, because it moves inexorably through events and stages of actual persecution, a deracinating, non-philosophic process. In Hegel’s view, by contrast, all such deracination is a process of universalizing and spiritualizing history. Family becomes “the spirit of the people and the state,”
[12] geography, too, becomes endemic to and emblematic of a spiritualized nation/state with the land itself becoming “the true theater of history.”[13]

8> Without land or family, without, indeed, basic shelter, Lear seeks forgetfulness, but he cannot find even that comfort as his story moves, like too-familiar histories, from disenfranchisement to imprisonment to murder. His fine rage burns-out in a series of “nevers” and “nothings.” The folio text bespeaks an attempt to reflect on recent events as many of the narrative details present in the quarto are omitted. However, the storm scenes of all versions of Lear obviate such detached, thoughtful contemplation.

9> These scenes are nowhere so harshly presented as in two contemporary Yiddish translations of the play. These vital works present the brave cultivation of memory—the inability to close one’s eyes to extremity—that finally produces a fully conscious Lear. S. Halkin translated the play in Stalinist Moscow of 1937. The other translator, A. Asen, writing in 1947 at Bergen Belsen detention camp, imagines that Shakespeare also looked out on the “windowed raggedness” of the poor on a stormy night.
[14] The Yiddish plays portray a socially conscious Lear, one who cannot hide from circumstances or philosophize about them.

10> Because he discusses the impact of historical events on one’s ability to reason, Hegel is relevant to the impact of cataclysmic history on Lear’s alienation, but not to the fact—apparent both in the play and in the reality of persecution—that extreme alienation cannot produce a detached and rational mind. “Reason governs the world and, consequently, it governs history,” Hegel asserts.
[15] The publication history of Lear, in and of itself—let alone the actual history to which the play refers and upon which it reflects—would assert the opposite. As the play moved from earlier to later drafts, it moved from actual events to reflection on those events.

11> Contrary to Hegel’s assertion that distance from an event produces perspective, the 1623 folio, published seven years after Shakespeare’s death, reflects both contemporary events and ancient legends, yet it does not clearly narrate or reflect on its own sources. Stephen Greenblatt notes that “The story of King Lear and his three daughters had been often told when Shakespeare undertook to make it a subject of tragedy.”
[16] These early, legendary retellings were original histories—like so many other fairy tales, Bible stories, and legends—histories concerning the division of a kingdom and the actions of selfish and selfless siblings. Although no signed copy of the text exists, the ‘original’, 1605 version of the play, entitled The History of King Leir, probably dating from as early as 1594, is attributed to Shakespeare.[17] In this version, Lear’s love-test is staged so that Cordelia will declare that she loves her father better than two rival suitors, thus leaving it to her father to choose the best man.[18] Like original histories and tales, this 1605 version has a happy ending in which Cordelia and Lear live and are reconciled.

12> Whether the 1623 folio text of Shakespeare’s Lear represents thematic growth or not, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells, scholars who have closely studied the play in all its versions, agree that the 1623 folio post-dates the 1608 quarto and represents a redaction and modification of the earlier text. “The evidence,” Taylor notes “firmly dates” the folio to some time after the publication of the quarto, 1608.
[19] Taylor here refers to the concise nature of the folio (which is obviously a redaction of an earlier draft) and to the historical necessity for such a redaction, given the fire that burned the Globe, and, most likely, many previous versions of the play, in 1613.[20]

13> Stanley Wells, on the other hand, views the folio and the quarto as two distinct texts of the play, which must be read and discussed separately. Yet, he notes, it is “hard to deny that the second, Folio King Lear gives us Shakespeare’s later thoughts.”
[21] Further, he asks, “If the quarto text has been influenced by memories of performance, and the folio was printed from a prompt book, why are they so different?”[22] Wells assumes that the folio used many annotated sources in its composition and that, as such, it represents a completely new and independent work. Whether one subscribes to Taylor’s firm perceptions of chronology or to Wells’ assertions of separate texts, the notion that the folio postdated and reformulated the quarto is axiomatic.

14> The fact that the texts differ is also undeniable. As Anthony Dawson rightly notes, however, such differences may be somewhat irrelevant, if one is prioritizing one text over another and looking for an ‘ideal’ play. Dawson castigates Taylor and Wells for disapproving of the conflated text and suggests that “dividing a kingdom is not the most enlightened policy”, referring to the play itself.
[23] Like Dawson and unlike Taylor and Wells, I am arguing for the interplay of texts, not for the primacy of one version over another, and, in a larger sense, for the constant interplay of history and tragedy, suggested when the “History” of 1608 becomes the “Tragedy” of the later folio.

15> The 1608 quarto, which predates many of the travails of the seventeenth century, is called The History of King Lear because it can depict a still-simple history as legend or event. The later 1623 folio, The Tragedy of King Lear (which, according to many scholars, was written before 1612, only approximately four years after the quarto versions, but still during the first stirrings of the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War) cannot tell such a simple tale. “All available objective evidence for dating King Lear,” Gary Taylor notes, “identifies two distinct periods of composition, one in 1605-06 and the other 1609-1610.”

16> It is undeniable that the folio is a shorter, more carefully constructed version of the play. Wells notes that “The Folio . . . lacks close to 300 lines which are in the Quarto; several speeches are differently assigned, and there are more than 850 verbal variants, some of them obviously the correct version of manifest errors in the Quarto, others offering an alternative sense.”
[25] That “alternative sense” is often attained, Wells implies, by omission of dramatic but ultimately irrelevant passages, such as “Gloucester’s description of Cordelia’s grief at her father’s plight (her smiles and tears)…the compassion of Gloucester’s servants after his blinding…and Lear’s mock trial of Goneril and Reagan.”[26] The playgoer is thus forced to reflect upon the action and to try to make sense of it, without being lead to appropriate responses of grief, compassion, or irony. Lacunae in later, reflected narratives give the reader/auditor a chance to insert his own reflections and content. The storm scenes, also shorter in the later folio, create a riotous vacuum in which the viewer’s worst imaginings are whirled about the stage. Therefore, theater itself provides a venue for memory that is not a “fugitive and shadowy element,” but which is, rather, elemental to a real and honest reflection upon history as lived, painful events.

17> Given the history of persecution that they confront and address, the two Yiddish translations of the play, spanning a decade of vast persecution, display similarities and differences that correspond closely to those of the earlier quarto and later folio text of King Lear. A 1937 translation was completed in Moscow and staged in Berlin for the Judische Kulturbund
[27] by Samuel Halkin, a poet, and a post-Holocaust 1947 version was written in Bergen Belsen by A. Asen. In the cases of each of these pairings, the later text is the most spare and unresolved. What the later texts don’t say makes a history of no history, no name, and no country. A comparison of the folio and quarto versions highlights these omissions, while a reading of the first two acts of both Yiddish texts performs the same function. In their third-act storm scenes, however, these Yiddish texts veer into lived history and thus include every salient detail.

18> The post-Holocaust version, written by a German-Jewish dentist who was a prolific translator of literary texts into Yiddish, in the context of his immediate knowledge of Bergen Belsen
, omits the same elements in the play as does the 1623 text, an abridgement that leaves room for history itself to obviate explanation, to become philosophy rather than legend or mere reflection. Written after the inception of the territorially-motivated Thirty Years’ War, the 1623 folio omits much plot and character development. The division of the kingdom goes unexplained. Lear’s insanity is merely sketched. The absence of France and the murder of Cordelia have no narratives. The mock trial scene is omitted. Yet, passages that evaluate the meaning of this tragically inexplicable play, such as the Fool’s prophecy in Act 3, are retained.

19> However both the 1937 Halkin and the 1947 Asen translations include the lines that discuss the absence of France and the lines explaining how and why Cordelia was murdered and also every element and image of the Act 3, Scene 2 storm scene, because at the center of the storm in these Yiddish versions is not the loss of politics, power, kingdom or even life itself, but an even more horrific loss, the loss of memory. The folio omits the image of Lear tearing out his hair; the Yiddish versions do not. The truncated storm scene would not serve these translations, as they seek to recall and restate every phase and sensation associated with extreme suffering. Every element of the storm must thus be recalled and reiterated.

20> With the exception of the highly-realized storm scene, hopelessness is portrayed by omissions rather than inclusions in the folio and in the 1947 Yiddish translation. Like the 1937 Halkin translation, the 1608 version includes much more topographic and political detail to explain the division of the kingdom and the reactions to that division. That 1608 text was written five years after a widely-publicized lawsuit in which two daughters of a senile man, Sir Brian Annesly, tried to get their father declared insane so that they could gain control of his estate. A younger daughter, Cordell, defended her father and his rights.

21> The 1623 folio recounts a more general history of persecution and tyranny. Such a history consists of a stripping away of all nomenclature. First, cultural signifiers vanish. Then, moral distinctions are obviated. Finally, the self is absorbed in the lived moment and becomes a “poor, bare, forked animal.” The storm scene (Act 3, Scene 2) of the play is the culmination of all of these prescient sufferings. The texts of both quarto (1608) and folio (1623) build to this deracinating point. The only character whose part is augmented, the Fool, has lines that outline a history of persecution. In the 1623 version, the Fool does not abruptly leave the stage. Rather, his coda is “I go to bed at noon” (3.6.38). John Kerrigan finds in this augmented part (with its added, eerie prediction) “a coherent pattern of such consistent quality that [it] must surely come from the hand of a single dramatist.”
[29] In like manner, Wells finds that the Fool’s part, with its changes, looks toward the future and not the past, as do all other omissions and changes in the folio text. When the Fool foresees a time in which “No heretics [will be] burned but wenches suitors” (3.3.83), he is both foreseeing an end to the public torture of Catholics in England and Protestants in France and bemoaning contemporary slaughter, that same “slaughter-bench” of history that Hegel later foresees.

22> This sort of eerie prescience makes King Lear a natural choice for Yiddish translation.
Therefore, it is no accident that Abraham Asen, a German-Jewish dentist who was a direct witness to the plight of Bergen Belsen refugees, chose to translate Lear. Asen was confronted with every conceivable kind of human suffering. Brigadier General Glyn Hughes, a British officer, exclaimed on first entering the camp, “These are real human beings.”[30] This shocked confrontation with unavoidable fact characterizes both Asen’s translation and contemporary British accounts of the liberation of Bergen Belsen. Richard Dimbleby, a British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent and also among the first to view Bergen Belsen, filed this report:

“Every fact I’ve so far given you has been verified but there is one more awful than all the others that I’ve kept to the end. Far away in the corner of the Belsen camp there is a pit, the size of a tennis court. It’s 15 foot [sic] deep and at the end it’s piled to the very top with naked bodies that have been tumbled in one on top of the other. Like this must have been the plague pits 300 years ago, only nowadays we can help by digging them quicker with bulldozers and already there’s a bulldozer at work in Belsen.”

23> Strangely, Dimbleby mentions the plagues of seventeenth-century Europe as the only such scenes of roughly equivalent horror. Shakespeare witnessed such scenes of pandemic slaughter, along with religious persecution involving the drawing and quartering of Catholics. Stephen Greenblatt notes that “In the plague-ridden year of 1564, the year of Shakespeare’s birth, some 234 people died in Stratford-upon-Avon, out of a total population of 800. The year before, some 20,000 Londoners are thought to have died . . . almost 15,000 in 1603 . . . .”
[32] Lear itself depicts the process, history, and personalities of this horror. Historical distortion and disjunction characterize both the seventeenth-century and the twentieth-century plays.

24> In a tone that does not evoke horror but does explicate disjunction, David Hume, an eighteenth-century British historian, discusses the irresolvable conflict of Shakespeare’s time—that of kingship, and citizenship—one that Hegel attempts to obviate in his concept of a universally perfectible history. “In the great revolution of manners, which happened during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Hume writes, “the only nations who had the honorable . . . advantage of making an effort for their expiring privileges were such as . . . were animated by a zeal for religious parties and opinions.” Such zeal was insufficient, Hume notes, because it was met with “the . . . force of standing armies and . . . ancient royal families.”
[33] As in the Civil Wars that transpired thirty years after Shakespeare’s death, Republican and Royalist sides possessed equal weight in Shakespeare’s life-time. Lear, in the storm, can complain that he who was once “everything” is now “unaccommodated man.” Because he has been so suddenly dumped into this “unaccommodating” situation, Lear, like a seventeenth-century Englishman desiring both freedom and majesty, cannot resolve the conflict between “everything” and “nothing.”

25> With the contemporary Annesley case, which illustrates such a conflict, the 1608 version of Lear makes specific, topical references. In 1605, wealthy Kentish noble, Sir Brian Annesley, died and left an estate that was contested by three daughters. The youngest daughter, Cordell, finally wrested control of the estate from her older siblings. One might recognize a tantalizing reference to this case in the role of Kent, absent from the legendary version of this tale. Even a few years later, in 1615, however, when the folio was presumably written, the familial disjunction represented by the case had become more widespread. While divorce in England was still next to impossible, Scottish divorces were often the refuge of unhappy couples. “No bishop, no king!” became the cry of an incipient revolution that promised greater disruptions and schisms. Thus, in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War over the Hapsburg Empire, the subject of territorial divisions had become a universal concern. As Maynard Mack notes, despite any such similarity to the play, the Annesly case stands as a metaphoric rather than a specific gloss to the play’s meaning. “The possibility that actuality shared with fiction in the genesis of King Lear seems appealing to me—not for any influence we may safely assess that quarter, but as a symbol and prefiguration of the effect the play has produced on readers and audiences throughout the years.”
[34] That effect, one of disorientation and confusion, dominates even the opening scenes of the play, so much so that inexplicable injustice leads to wild disjunctions of identity, place, time, and purpose.

26> Therefore the quarto does not deal in historical symbols and so it, not the folio, explains the forgery of Edmund, the strange land giveaway of Lear, and, indeed, the identity of the dethroned and self-destroyed Lear. Political realities were easier to explain when the playwright himself was not experiencing their effects, whether those effects were symbolized by contemporary court cases, or by Shakespeare’s father’s own bankruptcy in 1596 and subsequent restoration to nobility when William Shakespeare purchased a coat of arms for his father, John.

27> Yet, the folio, not the quarto, humanizes Goneril and Regan by removing lines in which they curse their father and in which they are cursed by Albany (i.e. “Tigers, not daughters”). The folio can humanize its characters but cannot and will not explain their actions, and thus omits the soldier’s description of the “real horror” of the storm scene and the image of Lear tearing out his hair in that same scene. Edmund of the folio thus does not need to warn of “unnaturalness between the child and the parent, death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities, divisions in state, menaces and maledictions against king and nobles” (2.128-130). He enacts those disturbances, thus he need not speak of them.

28> In the second stage of this plot of persecution, after Lear is disenfranchised but before he is disowned, the 1608 text reflects upon the values and motivations of its characters even as it critiques and condemns these motivations. Edmund’s predictions of unnaturalness along with Gloucester’s protestation of fatherly love upon learning of Edgar’s supposed treachery—“To his father that so tenderly and entirely loves him, heaven and earth!” (2.90-1 quarto)—are omitted from the 1623 text. Again obviating all explanation, this time of a pragmatic sort, Kent in the folio version does not advise his messenger to “make speed to Dover,” nor does he guarantee the mission by virtue of his own character as a “gentleman of blood and breeding” (8.26-31 quarto). No wonder then, that Lear and Cordelia say “nothing” four additional times in the folio:

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.

Lear: Nothing?

Cordelia: Nothing

Lear: Nothing will come of nothing.” (1.1.95-8)

29> No means of reflection, be it global, pragmatic, or critical, can explain the treachery of the play. Again, the play does not depict a Hegelian culture that “immediately changes all events into historical representation” and later, universal redemption.
[35] That treachery ends with persecution’s final tragedy, a loss of self. The disoriented Lear and, by extension, the disoriented reader must let this loss stand without explanation. In the later text, Lear does not even know his shadow, let alone himself. In the 1623 folio, Lear, an empowered king, asks “Who can tell me who I am?” (1.4.195) and must wait for the Fool to answer “Lear's shadow” (1.4.196) while in the quarto he knows himself as “shadow” (1.4.210 quarto) and answers his own question. In the later text, identity is radically displaced and alienated, and all reflection upon the self and its historical context must therefore cease. One cannot reflect when one does not even know one’s own name. Alien and authority are confusing concepts here. The alien is the authority and the world is permanently alienated. Lear makes unwise divisions and displacements and moves into despairing exile and the folio, again, omits all explanatory language, whether that language explains evil or promotes good. Explicit plans and good intentions are elided.

30> Hegel explains such erasures by characterizing history as dialectic between individual intentions and plans and the ultimate, universal good toward which history must tend. However, the play as historical witness defies these dialectics. In the storm scene, Lear redefined as a witness to history will lose all idiosyncratic self-definition. In allowing himself to “feel what wretches feel” (3.4.35 conflated text) Lear perhaps regains some self-knowledge. More than the death of a “fantasy of omnipotence, or a disappointed disengagement with ‘natural religion’,”
[36] the storm scene enacts the irresolvable historical dichotomies under which the play was written.

31> The storm represents, in miniature, the process of torture seen throughout the play by physically tearing away trappings of authority, family, and personality. Lear begins the scene still insisting on his own prerogatives of place and person, crying vengefully “Crack Nature’s molds . . . / That make ungrateful man” (3.2.8-9 conflated text) and ends by considering “Poor naked wretches” (3.4.29 conflated text) before himself. The “unaccommodated” nothingness of the storm culminates the many ruptures of the play—the rifts between form and substance, words and actions, fathers and children, and finally, sanity and insanity, life and death. Natural circumstance would, by virtue of definition, hold these bonds together, so Lear begins this disjunctive journey by banishing Kent for daring “To come between our sentence and our power” (folio, 1.1.157). Subsequently, all of Lear’s sentences will be powerless. Nothingness will stand in place of connection. Thus, Cordelia appears perfectly just in saying “I love you according to my bond.” Such bonds should hold, and yet they break.

32> Confronting the fact rather than the illusion of dejection, Lear explicates the central conundrum of the play. Only harshness can educate and only harshness can destroy. The facts of personal history that sent Lear out into the elements are omitted in the folio. In the later version of the play, because it eliminates explanation, Lear’s madness is harsher, the storm more unremitting, and justice is mocking and mocked when the daughters are tried in absentia. Immediately after this charade, Edgar decides not to reveal himself to his father, presumably because such revelation would be pointless in the face of thoroughgoing injustice. Finally, the abdication of France and the subsequent death of Cordelia are explained in the History and not in the Tragedy of Lear. The earlier text includes the harsh, economic rationale of Cordelia’s murderer: “if its man’s work, I will do it” (5.3.38-39 quarto).

33> Both Yiddish translations of King Lear fully explicate this “man’s work” with a startling difference. In the English play, Lear loses his cognition, his perspective, his dignity, and, finally, his life. Although the Yiddish Lear (in the 1937 Halkin and in the 1947 Asen texts) experiences these same losses, he strives to confront and retain his memory of these events. Both the 1937 and the 1947 translations contain imagery that consistently evolves into perceptions of greater human evil and, paradoxically, a stronger and more free consciousness to confront and remember that evil. Hegel read this prioritization of memory as the central trait of Jewish culture: “We observe among this people a severe religious ceremonial, expressing a relation to pure thought.”
[37] Although Hegel wrongly concludes that Judaism lacks spirituality and a belief in the immortality of the soul, he rightly recognizes the primacy of a ritualized memory. In these Yiddish plays, memory becomes Hegel’s philosophizing agent, the agent that he himself denies to those who do not sustain the investment of Sprit in the World’s dialectical teleology.

34> Initially, the act of translating the play in the face of persecution was an act that defied memory. The 1937 Yiddish text was translated by Samuel Halkin, a Soviet Yiddish poet who was such a confirmed optimist that even after the Bolshevik and Stalinist purges of Jews he could write “Russia, if not for my deep faith in you I would argue with you differently. Now with your kisses we die.”
Abraham Asen, a German-Jewish dentist who had translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into Yiddish in 1944, wrote the post-Holocaust 1947 translation. In the storm scene, both of these versions of Lear translate the quarto rather than the folio text of the play, possibly with reference to the modern combined text. In its omissions and emendations, the 1947 version reads more like the folio text.

35> All storm scenes provide the same denouement when Lear recognizes “poor naked wretches” (3.4). Both Yiddish texts preserve the sense of the 1608 text almost exactly. Therefore, I have not provided a complete translation of this section (see Appendix). Both Yiddish translations, by the fact of their existence, bespeak a kind of compelled or forced recollection of a rather incongruous tradition. In Berlin, the Judische Kulturbund, a Nazi organization, provided funding for Yiddish translations of theatrical works. Rebecca Rovit and Alvin Goldfarb note that those translated works were presented in concentration and detention camps: “The Nazis forced them to present shows in the camp yard on Saturdays and Sundays. Reports of these productions would then appear in the . . . press to allay fears of still hidden Jews and to counter rumors of German atrocities.”
[38] In Terezenstat, imprisoned, doomed children performed “plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Molnar . . . Mozart’s Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, Tosca, Aida, Carmen, La Boehme and Die Fliedermas.”[39]

36> The setting of the 1947 version of King Lear was no less grim. Although Asen’s translation was not written under the auspices of a totalitarian regime, it was staged in another nightmare state: Soviet Russia. In the Stalinist era, Jewish actors knowingly risked their lives to participate in the Soviet production of Asen’s translation and in earlier Yiddish versions of the play, which were hypocritically funded by the Stalinist regime—just as Hitler had funded the Berlin Yiddish theater. In 1948, Samuel Micoyels, a prominent Yiddish actor who played Lear, was mysteriously killed, run down by a car on a Moscow street.
[40] In the war years, Micoyels had taken a Lear-like political stance, justifying the Stalinist regime to his fellow Jews and asking for their participation in it. In spite of such activities, Micoyels and many of the cast members of the 1948 production were killed in Stalinist purges that followed a supposed assassination plot by a Russian Jewish radical. On the night of August 12, 1952, Stalin finished the job by murdering all the remaining Yiddish writers in Soviet Russia.[41] Denouncing another Russian as a Jew was tantamount to sentencing that person to death. With this interplay of treachery, memory, and forgetfulness in mind, one views with profound irony a 1935 film of Micoyels playing Lear in an earlier Yiddish version. Never was there such heartfelt grief at the loss of Cordelia. Never were there such tears.

37> The 1947 Asen translation looks back on immediate trauma and seems to perceive further immanent horrors. Asen observed the treatment of 25,000 hopelessly ill Holocaust refugees, only 13,000 of whom survived.
[42] As he translated the play late into the night, Asen referred to an 1898 introduction to Lear written by Georg Morris Cohen Brandes (a Danish literary critic), imagining that “Shakespeare used to work in the early morning, in the dawning of the day, looking out at the unavoidable rain.”[43] Asen surmised that “Once he [Shakespeare] must have seen a night filled with storm and terror, one of many such nights.” Speculating further on the loneliness such a scene must have engendered, Asen continued,

“When a man is sitting in his home by his writing table, he thinks about the loneliness and the rootless wanderings of those in cold, drenched poverty in the darkness of the night. In the wandering winds and the drenching rain, he sees the poverty of the entire world.”

38> Bergen Belsen is exceedingly appropriate as a setting for this translation and these prefatory remarks because the camp itself was part of every hopeful and tragic event of the period, beginning as an “exchange camp” for Jews who would be spared for political purposes, degenerating into a grim work camp, and finally functioning as a displaced-persons camp after the war. As Tony Kushner notes,

“Belsen has become a multi-layered and frequently contradictory symbol representing, firstly, the universal horrors of war or man’s capacity for mass evil, secondly, the more particular atrocities carried out by the Nazis or the German people, thirdly, the damage inflicted on the Jewish people during the Holocaust and lastly, the reflected glory and decency of those who liberated its survivors in April 1945 and exposed to the outside world its undisguised and indescribable horror.”

39> In all of its versions, the play echoes this microcosmic history. Here, the theater is psychodrama and memory is an echo chamber, not, as Hegel would have it, a “fugitive, shadowy element.”
[46] Memory fully understands itself only in constant iteration, as Lear creates his own economic deprivation and seems to understand its “darker purpose” (1.1.34 conflated text). He begins the process of victimization by ostracizing Cordelia, declaring “We have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (1.1.263-65 conflated text). The play also foreshadows another process: the effect of these persecutions on perpetrators and on surviving victims. In a phenomenon known as moral drift, the perpetrators become ever more evil. Rudolph Hess, in the midst of contemplating his own atrocities in prison, found this complicity on the part of victims and perpetrators alike incomprehensible:

“They [camp inmates] were mainly persecuted by members of their own race, their foremen or room seniors . . . This block senior used every possible means, no matter how low, to terrorize the other prisoners, not only physically, but above all mentally. He kept the screws on the whole time. He would entice them into disobeying the camp regulations and then report them.”

40> Such inexplicable treachery is seen in the plot of the play as well. Before turning him out in the storm, Reagan justifies her actions to Lear: “O sir, to willful men / The injuries that they themselves procure” (2.4.296-97 conflated text). The sisters and their collaborators persecute those who stand in the way of their selfishness. “’Tis politic and safe to let him keep / At point a hundred knights?” asks Goneril (1.4.11-12 conflated text). This cruelty degenerates into seemingly random fornication, torture, and murder. In the nightmare world of persecution, perpetrators become crueler as victims become more passive. This sort of passivity is strangely echoed in Lear’s self-dooming economics and in his foolish belief in Reagan’s goodness, although the Fool rightly advises that “She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab,” which Lear answers with a self-deceiving “No” (1.5.115-17 conflated text).

41> Survivors too, inhabit dichotomous and desperate selves. The wild Edgar, taking on the guise of Tom declares, “Poor Turlygod, poor Tom / That’s something yet! Edgar I nothing am” (2.3.20-21 conflated text). Lear is reduced to bare essentials as he pleads for control of his life: “O reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous” (2.4.259-60 conflated text). In the disastrous storm, Lear will wonder whether life itself has any meaning other than that of a random collocation of matter.

42> Torture and its consequences spin out of the play with such force that the resulting impact deconstructs all means of reflection. The storm scene of the play and the Yiddish translations of that scene—especially the Asen version set against the background of Bergen Belsen—trace this double helix of persecution, torture, survival, and suffering that doubles back again and again on itself. These multiple reflections move the imagined history of Lear beyond narrative into life and memory. Perpetrators delude themselves and become ever more evil. In play and history, the delusion of control and its promise of survival are quickly dashed. Self-governing ghettos, and even the preferred, ‘Star’ camp of exchange prisoners at Bergen Belsen, only ended in promulgating empty petitions to their persecutors. Just so Lear, who thinks he can bargain with his daughters and his fate, and who ends in mockingly trying a cat. Finally and most terribly, the process of survival itself leads to torture and a death more terrible than that which occurred earlier, when there was no hope.

43> As in Lear, Belsen was first seen through the eyes of the uninvolved, the Soldier who questions Kent in the storm scene and the British soldiers who first came upon the horrific scene of walking corpses, naked women whose temporary tents had blown down and who were “standing in the rain, without shelter,” a rain like the “to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain” (3.1.11 conf1ated text) that fell on Lear.
[48] Such grim survival leaves a world without a present, or a future. Like Kent, the refugee-Knight-errant, displaced persons from Bergen Belsen regularly had diplomatic missions in post-War Europe and it was impossible to tell the diplomat from the refugee. Although Lear ends with the promise of a new government run by Edgar and his heirs, the “Never, never, Never” of Lear echoes far deeper and longer that any promise of the future. It is this dire and unresolved hopelessness that the Yiddish texts address.

44> Because they reflect these immanent horrors, the storm scenes of the Yiddish versions include all the omissions of the 1623 text. Not only do they include all quarto lines and images, each text adds its own imagery to the scene, and that imagery, in each case, turns on the crucial theme of preservation of memory, not, as the English texts would have it, memory’s erasure. The Yiddish subtexts point to the underpinnings of memory and memorializing that distinguish them. The 1937 storm explains the actions of Lear in homey metaphors: he is washing dishes and subjecting these dishes to ritual purification; he is arranging his hair. Yet it is the wilder and less-ritualized 1947 scene that fully empowers Lear and his storm-soaked fellows to recognize and remember themselves and their situations. Both translations render the unremitting storm, the human cruelty it reflects, and the final cruelty of Lear’s own insanity as well-remembered and, thus, well-integrated events.

45> The 1937 text is softer and more mundane in its depiction of Lear’s harsh reality, because family disjunction, not the dismembering of an entire world, was at its core. Halkin’s text recalls the innocent days when “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is! To have an ungrateful child” was the favorite line of every Jewish mother in the audience, and when Lear (always wildly popular with Jewish audiences) was viewed as a play about parenting. The 1947 Asen version is written, as the translator notes in his introduction, from the perspective of an author who could look from his study window into a night of terror. 1937 Berlin [and Moscow were cities] was a city on the brink of chaos and dissolution. The blood bath had not yet begun. Still, the best action in a storm was to keep close to homes that were still standing. In 1947, those homes had long since vanished. Whether the storm rages just outside the doors (1937) or far beyond any shelter (1947), both Yiddish versions confront the elements and do not wish them away, hoping that they will “change or cease” (folio 3.2.7).

46> In keeping with its domestic metaphor, this homey 1937 version translates the lines “Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea / Or swell the curled waters ‘bove the main” (3.1.4-5 quarto) as “He runs away and is carried from his bed by the winds! / He stands at the sea and looks down at the earth. / He shakes off ritual impurities [as if] he would make his last home [there]” (3.1.6-8). It thus implies that the world can be made right if the home is in good ritual order. In this version, Lear is in bed at home when the storm carries him away. Ritual purification of dishes accomplished by dunking them in a stream is a common Jewish practice. To see Lear engaged in such a mundane pursuit sharply portrays his homelessness. In the 1937 Halkin version, The Storm becomes a personal shower (“water-falling heavens” 3.1.15). In contrast to this small, homey perspective, the 1947 version renders the lines as “He calls the wind the earth and is carried from afar” (3.1.5), bespeaking the displacements of 1947. In like manner, the 1937 Lear sees a comforting “nursing bear” (3.1.17) while the 1947 King “will, in his small humanity / Habitually contend with the wind and its terrible roar” (3.1.10-11).

47> This roar can out shout cognition and memory. Both versions present a king who must confront the storm in order to preserve his sanity, but the storm of 1947 is harsher. Standing as witness to what can neither be portrayed nor forgotten, the Lear of 1947 cannot just “call out,” as does the 1937 Lear (3.1.20). Rather, he must “run around with a hollow head [and] scream like a devil” (3.1.13). The Lear of 1937 “absentmindedly sets [his bunched hair] for nought” (3.1.13) while the Lear of 1947 is left “with a hollow head” (3.1.13). The 1937 Lear makes his home in chaos by washing imaginary dishes; while the 1947 Lear can find no context, familiar or otherwise. He must, on the contrary “habitually contend” (3.1.11) with the elements.

48> Unlike the English-language versions of the second scene of Act Three, which emphasizes human cruelty, the Yiddish versions again present the death of memory and cognition as Lear’s central agony. In 1937, however, one can construct memorials and rely upon the ritual purification of dishes, whereas, in 1947, no ritual and no structure can subsume the memory of overwhelming horror. Thus, in 1937, the thunder-cleaved oak is “commemorative and strongly rooted” (3.2.5); in 1947, the casualties of thunder are Lear’s “thoughts that are agile runners” (3.2.6). In both 1937 and 1947, Lear’s head, not the oak, is split into nuclear seeds. The Halkin text mentions “quarreling seeds” that scatter from Lear’s head like dandelion puffs (3.2.13). Therefore, Lear bids nature to “Crack” its “mould” rather than to allow the generation of another “ungrateful man” (3.2. 9-10), a very bitter text made even more so by the “quarrelling seeds” and “thankless skeleton” of 1937 (3.2.13). In 1947, this process becomes nuclear. Lear calls the winds “You wild pulp and uranium that molds this character” (3.2.2.). Derived from the Yiddish, the modern Hebrew word geronim means both seeds and bombs. Generation, to this Bergen Belsen writer, was equally as explosive, leading, as it often did, directly to death. Many of the babies born in these first months after the war were born to dying mothers as shriveled corpses themselves.

49> Most importantly, in 1947, looking out on the most miserable of nights, Lear uses the thunder’s “sulphurous flashes” to aid, rather than erase, memory—to fuel his own “agile-running thoughts” (3.2.5-6). Asen, in Bergen Belsen, carries this memory down to the blood-soaked earth: “Demolish the thick cleanliness from the earth / Crush the parchment of nature, copulation / Until you, [the thunder finally, fully crush] the semen that creates a man / Who does not know thankfulness” (3.2.12-13). Asen’s Lear curses the earth itself, the corpse-filled pits, with his hands deep in the bloody ground.

50> Separated by a decade of war and slaughter, Halkin and Asen saw different kinds of wretchedness, but whatever they saw, they saw clearly. The “uncovered poor” (3.4.26) of 1937 became hungry bodies (literally hungry beasts) covered only by torn rags (shmatas) in 1947. The 1937 Lear can “take pride and dread” in witnessing wretchedness (3.4.30), while the Lear of 1947 can only “take medicine” having seen too much suffering. The Lear of 1937, poised on the brink of war, recognizes in these wretches “a life of pointless waiting” (3.4.33). No matter what sort of suffering they view, neither of these Yiddish Lears feels the need to advise self-exposure (“Expose thyself, pomp” 3.4.30 conflated text). They cannot avoid such exposure.

51> In all versions of Lear, it is “the storm still” (3.2) that is, finally, unanswerable. Both Yiddish translations retain the quarto lines about a King of France who had better things to do than to attend to his wife. Asen elaborates in 1947 that the return of France was “unfailingly required” (4.2.75). A world in which all of the Frances—meaning all of the nations of the world that would not harbor Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual, or otherwise doomed refugees of Hitler’s Germany—turned away and gave no help was the nightmare of the “unaccommodated” Lears of 1937 and 1947. Without the protection of France, Cordelia, who contributes to nothingness by not defending a love before it disappears, is murdered because, in the quarto version, the mercenary assassin rationalizes that “I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats! / If it be a man’s work, I’ll do’t” (3.438-39 quarto). Asen, having witnessed the reign of paid informants and SS assassins, adds the lines “I cannot gain my living by winding a harness around my neck and pulling like a beast” (3.4.40). Asen has witnessed men as beasts, yet he, with his imagined Shakespeare, can still look through Shakespeare’s “windowed raggedness” of the night at suffering humanity and pull the lonely in from the cold.

52> Whether that cold and loneliness exist in the external imprisonment of 1937 or the internal, hidden bondage of the Holocaust and the Stalinist gulag, they are equally real, terrifying, and unforgettable. If we, as relatively safe and secure moderns, can connect King Lear to immediately pre- and post-Holocaust portrayals that were written, performed and viewed under extreme duress—portrayals that represented a sole lifeline or a last gasp of hope—then we can also connect ourselves to the extremities of the play.

53> Actually, a close reading of King Lear with reference to the exigencies of history validates this connection to modernity, one which Maynard Mack has called “prefiguration.” In the 1623 version, the Fool chants a prophecy of messianic times: “When priests are more in word that matter / When brewers mar their malt with water” (3.3.80-2 folio). Redemption lies in disjunction and dysfunction, the Fool seems to say. The Fool’s philosophy is nothing like Hegel’s, which takes the broadest possible view of events. Here the Fool does not recognize “the true, the eternal, the absolutely powerful essence” of a redeemed history.
[49] Rather, he says that painfully compromised circumstances in and of themselves lead to a kind of redemption. Bergen Belsen combined experiences of direct and continuing persecution with scenes of hope and reunion, thereby containing in one time and at one place every historical development that Hegel could have ever imagined, and thus obviating the answer to Hegel’s question—“To what final aim have these sacrifices been offered?”[50]—because there is no aim, no purpose, no answer, other than courageous, life-affirming memory itself. What is amazing about the Yiddish Lears is that they, like the Fool, witness and recognize truth in the midst of the direst horror. The 1937 Lear calls lightning “matching and memory-illuminating fires” (3.2.3). By the light of these ghastly flames, the Yiddish Lears can always feel “what wretches feel.”




Knight: Where is the King?

First Gentleman: Contending with the fretful elements
Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea
Or sell the curled waters ‘bove the main,
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair
Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage
Catch in their fury, and make nothing of;
Strives in his little world of man to outstorm
The to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain.
This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fir dry, unbonneted he runs,
And bids what will take all.



A storm still. Lightening and Thunder. Come Kent and the King.

Kent: What is here, except the weather?

Knight: Here am I, in whose heart the storm roars.

Kent: I can recognize you. Tell me, where is the King?

Knight: In conflict with furious nature
He runs [and is] carried out by the winds from his bed.
He stands at the sea and looks [downward at] the earth.
The ritual impurities he shakes around [purifying his dishes]
[As if he] should make his last home.
When he himself could change the world, but not
If his memory remains with him [In order to erase all memory].
He sets flying his hair together with his hands
And soon absentmindedly sets it for nought.’
In silence to all humanity, he tries
To make himself scoff at the wind and the water falling heavens.
In such a night as this, there should be a bear,
Forgetting about nursing her children,
A body [that] a hungry wolf should cover entirely
[With] its pelt. And he runs about with a bare head.



1947. A waste of field-storm, thunder, lightening. Kent and the Knight come from different sides and they meet each other.

Kent: What is present except this terrible weather?

Knight: A person [who] is made very anxious by this storm.

Kent: I know you. Tell me. Where is the King?

Knight: Contending with the furious elements.
He calls the wind the earth and is carried from afar
At the water’s edge, he shakes
Always changing himself, he hops from time to time.
He makes his grey hair fly
That the blinding wrath of the wind storms against and scatters.
He will, in his small humanity
Habitually contend with the wind and its terrible roar.
And, even though every wolf wears its pelt,
He runs about with a hollow head and screams like the devil.



Storm still

Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks: Rage, Blow
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head; and thou all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world.
Crack nature’s mould, all germens spill at once
That makes ungrateful man.


A sound, the storm smacks him

Lear: Roar! Blast! Your cheeks should crack!
Your matching and memory-illuminating fires
Reaching up to the highest flag-crowned tower.
You sulfur-fires, that flash through
Where a commemorative and strongly-rooted oak is torn out by its roots.
And you may ponder to yourself and try to know that the thunder
[Strikes] neither here nor there on my grizzled head.
O killing thunder!
Make a blow-destroy the round-globular form.
It is molested, dimly-lit from nature
Scatter the quarrelling seeds
That can make a thankless skeleton.


Lear: Blast wind, Blast! And all of your cheeks crack!
Your wild pulp and uranium that molds character.
The towers, each involved,
Those weather cocks, soaked and lost
Your sulfurous flashes [speed] quickly
The thoughts that are agile runners inside [my brain]. No longer
Those oak-splitting thunder cracks
Thoroughly singe for me my old, grey head.
And you, stomach rumbling thunder you
Demolish [purge] the thick cleanliness from the earth.
Crush the parchment of nature, copulation.
Until again [you crush] the semen that creates a man
Who does not know thankfulness


QUARTO (1608)

Lear: This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things that would hurt me more, but I’ll go in
Poor naked wretches

[1937 “uncovered poor”],

wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless night,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta’en

[1947 “your hungry body-carven beest-hungry animal, covered only by a shmata],

[1947 “Will the human being be protected from the storm?”]

Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp

[1937 “Take pride and dread,”]

[1947 “Take Medicine, King!”]

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

[1939 “To feel that life of pointless waiting, that you may cure yourself.”]


[1] I refer to Stephen Greenblatt’s edition of King Lear in The Norton Shakespeare (1997) in which he presents three texts of the play: the 1608 quarto, the 1623 folio, and a modern conflated text. I will indicate which text I am citing. For ease of reference, I have converted Greenblatt’s scene numbering in the quarto edition to match the numbering of the folio and combined texts.

[2] Stephen Greenblatt, “General Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt, ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), 2.

[3] Cited by Mortimer Adler, The Great Ideas, A Synopiticon, Mortimer Adler, ed., (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1953), 711.

[4] George Wilhiem Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), 169.

[5] Hegel, 153.

[6] Hegel, 156.

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, “On Kingship to the King of Cyprus,” Readings in Medieval Philosophy, Andrew B. Schoedinger, ed., (Oxford University Press, 1996), 158.

[8] Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle, Volume II., (Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), 461.

[9] Hegel, 162.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hegel, 153.

[12] Hegel, 172.

[13] Hegel, 190.

[14] A. Asen, “Introduction,” King Lear, (New York: Grenwich Printing Corporation, 1947), 18.

[15] Hegel, 164.

[16] Stephen Greenblatt, “King Lear,” The Norton Shakespeare, New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 2308.

[17] Greenblatt, “King Lear,” 2310.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Gary Taylor, “King Lear: the Date and Authorship of the Folio Version,” in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of King Lear, Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds., (Oxford University Press, 1983), 366.

[20] Taylor, 357.

[21] Stanley Wells, “The Once and Future King Lear,” in The Division of the Kingdoms, Op. cit, 18.

[22] Wells, 10.

[23] Anthony Dawson, “The Imaginary Text, or the Curse of the Folio,” in A Companion to Shakespeare and Performance, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 143.

[24] Taylor, Op. cit., 53.

[25] Wells, 6.

[26] Wells, 18.

[27] The Judische Kulturbund was a Nazi-sponsored organization that promoted Jewish culture as it decimated and destroyed the German Jewish community. Thus, its legacy is bittersweet since the Judische Kulturbund both preserved and destroyed the culture it sought to promote.

[28] Greenblatt, “King Lear,” 2308.

[29] John Kerrigan, “Revision, Adaptation, and the Fool in King Lear,” in The Division of the Kingdom,” Op. cit., 229.

[30] Cited by Ben Flanagan and Donald Bloxham, Remembering Belsen, (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2005), 11.

[31] Flanagan and Bloxham xi.

[32] Greenblatt, “General Introduction,” 3.

[33] David Hume, The History of England, Volume 5, (New York: Liberty Classics, 1983), 80.

[34] Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time, (The University of California Press, 1963), 47.

[35] Hegel, 154.

[36] William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods, (San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1969), 177.

[37] Hegel, 246.

[38] Rebecca Rovit and Allen Goldfarb, Theatrical Performance During the Holocaust, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 118.

[39] Rebecca Rovit and Alvin Goldfarb, 188.

[40] Aaron Lansky, Outwitting History, (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2004), 244.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ben Flanagan and Donald Bloxham, Eyewitnesses Record the Liberation, (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2005), 11.

[43] A. Asen, 18.

[44] Ibid.

Georg Morris Cohen Brandes (1842-1927) was a prolific Danish social and literary critic and a founder of Danish progressive politics. He wrote a study of Shakespeare, William Shakespeare: A Critical Study, published in Danish in 1898 and, presumably, available in English in 1947. Brandes did not write in Yiddish. Asen cites his “borrowings” from Brandes and they are extensive.

Brandes imagines a Shakespeare who sees the suffering of the world and Asen imagines himself in that scene. Brandes calls Lear foolish while Asen notes that foolishness leads to “spilled blood.” Brandes notes that Lear is lost in his lost power and Asen adds that Lear feels “as Jewish mothers feel when they lose their children.” The Brandes introduction, written in the shadow of the pogroms of the nineteenth century, thus serves as a palimpsest for Asen’s depiction of Bergen Belsen. As in the Lear translation itself, Asen embeds his perceptions in the words and perceptions of others. As this translation predates any direct account of the Holocaust by a survivor, this reticence is understandable. The horrors were too immediate to be viewed or analyzed. They could only be felt.

Finally, as Catherine Madsen notes in her essay on the Asen translation, “Asen was working in a time that eroded all literary preconceptions about tragedy,” and, as a result, the reader faces an “impossibility of knowing” Asen’s exact experience of that tragedy (Pakn Trager 22 Winter 2002: 35).

Abraham Asen translated a panoply of works from English to Yiddish, including the poetry of Whitman and Tennyson, the Star Spangled Banner, and, just prior to the Lear translation, the complete sonnets of William Shakespeare (Vilyam Shakspir’s Sonaten), translated in 1944. However, although he lived until 1969, Dr. Asen did not publish another translation after Koenig Lir (1947). Perhaps the use of Yiddish to express his witness to the aftermath of the Nazi extermination camps obviated all other uses of the language for this prolific translator.

[45] Tony Kushner, “The Memory of Belsen,” in Belsen in History and Memory, Jo Reilly, David Cesarani, Tony Kushner, Colin Richmond, eds., (London: Frank Cass, 1997), 181.

[46] Hegel, 154.

[47] Cited by Joel E. Dimsdale, ed., Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators, (Washington: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1980), 301.

[48] Lattek, 62.

[49] Hegel, 157.

[50] Hegel, 162.

Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer, ed. The Great Ideas, A Synopiticon. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1952.

Aquinas, St. Thomas. “On Kingship to the King of Cyprus.” Readings in Medieval Philosophy. Ed. Andrew B. Schoedinger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Aristotle. “Politics.” The Works of Aristotle, Volume II. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952: 445-699.

Asen, A. King Lear. Berlin, 1947.

Dimsdale, Joel E., ed. Survivors, Perpetrators, and Victims. Washington: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1980.

Elton, William R. King Lear and the Gods. San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1968.

Flanagan, Ben and Donald Bloxham. Eyewitnesses Record the Liberation. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2005.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “King Lear.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997: 2307-2316.

---. Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Ha1kin, Samuel. Koenig Lear. Berlin, 1937.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Philosophy of History. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.

Hoess, Rudolf. “Autobiography.” Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators. Ed. Joel E. Dimsdale. Washington: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1980: 289-304.

Hume, David. The History of England, Volume 5, Based on the Edition of 1778. New York: Liberty Classics, 1983.

Kerrigan, John. “Revision, Adaptation, and the Fool in King Lear.” The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of King Lear. Oxford University Press, 1983: 195-247.

Kushner, Tony. “The Memory of Belsen.” Belsen in History and Memory. Ed. Jo Reilly, David Cesarini, Tony Kushner, and Colin Richmond. London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1997: 181-205.

Lansky, Aaron. Outwitting History. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004.

Lattek, Christine. “Bergen Belsen: From ‘Privileged’ to Death Camps.” Belsen in History and Memory. Portland, OR: F. Cass, 1997: 37-71.

Taylor, Gary. “King Lear: the Date and Authorship of the Folio Version.” The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of King Lear. Ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983: 352-461.

Warren, Robert. “The Folio Omission of the Mock Trial: Motives and Consequences.” The Division of the Kingdoms. Ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983: 45-57.

Wells, Stanley. “The Once and Future King Lear.” The Division of the Kingdoms. Ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983: 1-22.

Sharon Hampel has lectured widely on Hebraic sources in Milton and Shakespeare, at the University of Colorado, the University of Denver, and at conferences worldwide. She has published essays in Critical Essays on European Culture and Society and The Shakespeare Yearbook. Her dissertation, Daily Decencies: Ideas of Marriage and Divorce in Milton’s Poetry and Prose, is forthcoming from Edwin Mellen Press.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges


Joan L. Hall said...

“Memory-Illuminating Fire: Lear, Hegel, and History” offers a subtle argument, framed as a challenge to Hegel’s view of history as redemption; rather than redemption, King Lear presents unresolved suffering and displacement of identity. After covering some significant differences between the Quarto and the Folio versions of the play, Sharon Hampel turns to two Yiddish translations of Lear. Particularly illuminating is Hampel’s analysis of variations between the pre-Holocaust translation of 1937 and the 1947 version translated in the Stalinist era by a doctor from Bergen Belsen. Each one adapts Lear’s response to the storm, Act 3, scene 1 of the Quarto, by drawing on different experiences of persecution to evoke “every phase and sensation associated with extreme suffering.” The second part of this essay is especially moving. It enables the contemporary reader to connect to the “extremities” of King Lear by showing how these Yiddish translations memorialize parts of the grim “lived history” of the Jewish people.

Peter J. Fields said...

I have heard Sharon Hampel lecture on a number of occasions. As in the case of this essay, her erudition is always notable for being both comprehensive and definitive. Here she makes a fascinating point that probably illustrates where cultural studies are going. The Yiddish translations seem to bear a dynamic that repeats itself in history: a difference between a “quarto” phase of a textual artifact—which redeems tragedy by historicizing it—and the “folio” phase which speaks to a history which is unspeakable (deracinated, as she puts it). The use of Hegel here not only says something about how we universalize the meaning of a tragedy in the modern sense but also in that sense that many critics call “post-modern” (e.g., that literature which chronicles a cultural failure to recognize the “dignity of man”). I deeply appreciate the way Hampel spirals down into the domestic history of lawsuits and family disputes during the quarto and folio period of Shakespeare’s play, and then spirals out to the international scene circa the first decades of the 17th century, all the time returning again and again to the textual development of the play. I’ve learned something in particular about Shakespeare's Lear—but I’ve also learned to see history and literature from a new and useful point of view. I should mention that I greatly look forward to Hampel’s book. She is on her way to becoming one of our most notable renaissance Hebraists. At the same time, she is helping shape cultural studies and the way we approach the historical context of a primary text—and cultural artifact—like Lear.

Seth Ward said...

Dr. Sharon Hampel and I collaborated on articles on Milton’s use of Hebrew, one of which was published in 2003.She has already responded to comments I made on this article, which exceed the scope allowable here, available at I can address only the material related to two Yiddish translations which give Hampel scope to discuss central themes of memory and history.

As would be the case in discussing translations into French or German, key formulations should be reproduced in the original (in transliteration in this case) not only translated back into English. Also, while it may be of interest to note words such as shmate and gornisht, familiar to many contemporary English-speakers, but unremarkable in normative Yiddish discourse. In the Yiddish context, ger'onim is Hebraic, although non-Biblical, coming from Rabbinic Hebrew "nucleus" or "seed." Further comments on the Yiddish translations themselves deserve more space, instead I will address some background that needs further clarification in future revisions.

The earlier translation was by Shmuel Halkin (1897-1960), a key figure in the history of Soviet Jewish theater, commissioned for S. Mikhoels' stage production in 1935 and published in Moscow in 1937, not unreasonable to interpret as “an allegorical critique of Stalin’s tyranny” (J. Veidlinger). Halkin, a communist but also a Jewish nationalist and a Zionist at heart, adapted historical and legendary stories set in Palestine for the Jewish stage, although he was careful about such expressions in Stalin’s days and survived Stalin.

According to the YIVO Archives Guide, the other translator, Abraham Asen (1886-1958), came to America in 1903, and was a dentist and translator. He had already translated Byron, FitzGerald, Longfellow, Tennyson, and perhaps most importantly, Shakespeare’s sonnets (1944) before turning to Lear. In the New York 1947 imprint I examined electronically, the Introduction, entitled “King Lear: A World-Catastrophe (Yiddish: a velt-katastrofe),” is not by Asen but is explicitly ascribed to the Jewish-Danish Shakespearean scholar Georg Brandes (1842-1927), an edited translation of a similarly-entitled chapter in his 1905 Shakespeare: A Critical Study. Hampel’s observations on the Introduction may still be valuable keys to the translator's mindset in 1947.

The article situates the translations in the context of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry, referencing a Berlin edition of Halkin and reading the Introduction to Asen 1947 as specifically related to the Holocaust, and ignoring both translators' long and very active careers in theatre (Halkin) or translation (Asen). Halkin’s intent as a translator had more to do with Mikhoels and with the Stalinist political situation than with the Holocaust. Asen's career (and blurbs at the end of the translation) show pride in accurately bringing world literature into idiomatic yet highly poetic language for Jewish audiences, a major endeavor among authors creating a world-lit component in Hebrew and Yiddish in the 19th and 20th centuries. Asen's introduction was excerpted from Brandes’ “World Catastrophe” chapter, written some four decades before the Holocaust, not a fresh analysis. In some cases, giving the Yiddish original would clarify how she understood key phrases in context. Hampel is right to read the Lear translations in the framework of memory and pain, informed by the Jewish experience. However, readers also need a bit more guidance to determine just how much of this is explicit in the texts, and the context in which these translations were produced, as well as more specific details about how Hampel reached these conclusions.

This is an important article, and the Hebrew and Yiddish translations of English-language classics deserve far greater attention by Renaissance literary scholars than they have received so far.

Seth Ward

whow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
whow said...

Subject: comments
Date: Fri, 17 Jul 2009 18:37:02 -0600

I note your posted comments and blog. They go too far in these ways:

1. I fully noted both Halkin's Russian connections and his connection to Mikoyels.

2. I also noted Asen's background as a translator.

3. Asen's introduction, although attributed to Brandes (his attribution says "derived from") differs from Brandes in many respects. It is certainly shadowed by direct experience.


5. Also, I fully noted the Hebrew for "geronim."

6. This was an article on Shakespeare and the Jewish experience, not on the Yiddish language. Therefore, full transliterations would have been space consuming and utterly useless. A Yiddish speaker can read the text in the original.


whow said...

From: Sharon Hampel,

Saturday, July 18, 2009 9:38 pm

To: scott howard,

RE: point #4

Dear Scott,

If you could include the following reflections as #4 (to complete my first reply to Seth) I'd appreciate it.

• The dates of birth and death included in Seth’s analysis of Abraham Asen match those of Abraham Eisen (1883-1958) not Abraham Asen (1886-1965). It is easy to confuse these two Yiddish writers and I believe he has done so. Eisen wrote about the Vilna ghetto.

• Brandes wrote his work on Shakespeare in 1898, not 1905, so Seth refers to another edition.

• Asen cited both Brandes and Abraham Teitlebaum as sources for his introduction, so it cannot entirely be attributed to Brandes. It was, as he said, derived from both.

• Asen did tour Europe immediately post-war, as Catherine Madsen surmises.

Best Always,