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Hamlet In A French Dress by L. H. H.


If any one, on a rainy day or a lonely evening, wishes to drive away the blue devils by the perusal of some laughter-compelling volume, we can recommend for the purpose no better reading than the tragedy of Hamlet done into French verse by the Chevalier de Chatelain, a gentleman well known as a very successful translator of English poetry. With singular good sense and feeling he has selected, not the play as Shakespeare wrote it, but the stage-version thereof, as the foundation of his work. For which Heaven be praised! for what he has done is sufficient, in all conscience. Not that his translation is totally devoid of merit. On the contrary, some passages are admirably rendered, and give the sense and sound of the original in a manner really remarkable when the difference between the two languages is considered. But there is such a calm conviction on M. de Chatelain's part that he is doing his work faultlessly, that, in view of the ludicrous errors, additions and variations with which his text abounds, the effect is irresistible.

For instance, to begin at the beginning, the phrase

Looks it not like the king?

is translated

C'est le roi tout craché.

And in the same scene—

Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,

is rendered—

Si, prévaricateur, tu volas des trésors
Par ton ordre enfouis dans le sein de la terre,
De tels fails vous font faire école buissonière
À vous autres esprits.

In the next scene we are treated to a small specimen of M. de Chatelain's genius as an emendator of Shakespeare. For no one can consider this passage a translation of the text:

Venez, Dame, venez. Ce J'y consens si doux,
Si spontané de Hamlet m'enchante et m'enivre.
C'est pour moi le charmant feuillet d'un charmant livre.

That charming page of a delightful book will, we think, be sought for in the original in vain. Still more delicious is the interpellation into Hamlet's first soliloquy of the following lines, referring to the "unweeded garden":

Ces jours qu'on nous montre superbes
Sont un vilain jardin, rempli de folles herbes,
Qui donnent de l'ivraie et certes rien de plus,
Si ce n'est les engins du choléra morbus.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us! When did Hamlet talk about the cholera morbus?

Passing over some minor variations, we come to the brief closing soliloquy of the scene:

My father's spirit in arms! all is not well;
I doubt some foul play: would the night were come!

Thus Shakespeare, and thus M. de Chatelain:

Le spectre de mon père—armé! Vraiment ça cloche!
Je flaire, je le crains, quelqu' anguille sous roche!

Doubtless Hamlet did "smell a rat," but this is the first intimation we have had of his scenting an eel.

Thus Hamlet addresses the ghost:

Mais oh dis moi, pourquoi tes ossemens par chance
Déposés dans la tombe, out brisé leurs liens,
Pour te jeter ici comme une langue aux chiens.

Probably the "ponderous and marble jaws" suggested this extraordinary comparison.

In the next, act, evidently thinking that poor Ophelia has been neglected by her creator, M. de Chatelain makes Polonius speak of her to the king and queen as "un vrai morceau de roi"—a gentle method of suggesting that she is worthy of the distinguished honor of a royal alliance. But the fair Ophelia is destined to suffer nearly as unkind treatment from the hands of her French usher as she endures from her princely lover. We give entire the translation of her beautiful lament, which begins—

O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!

and which M. de Chatelain thus renders:

Oh! quelle triste fin pour si grande épopée
Le soldat, l'érudit, l'[oe]il, la langue et l'épée,
Tout cela culbuté—perdu. Le noble espoir,
La fleur de ce pays—le plus riant miroir
De la mode toujours;—le plus parfait modèle
De gout;—des observes la plus fine dentelle
Entièrement à bas! oui, sans ressource à bas!
Et moi qui dans ses v[oe]ux trouvais tant de soulas,
Qui du miel de ses vers ai sucé la musique,
De sa raison je vois descendre la tunique
Sur moi, malheur!... C'est comme au lointain le tin-tin
De la cloche ... de près qui se change en tocsin.
De tout ce que j'ai vu conserver souvenance
Et voir ce que je vois! Quelle désespérance!

We are at a loss which to admire most—Ophelia sucking the music from Hamlet's honeyed verses, or the "sweet bells" whose tin-tin changes to a tocsin, or the comparison of Hamlet to fine lace, or the "melancholy ending to a grand epic."

The passage—

We shall obey, were she ten times our mother,

is thus translated:

Nous obeirons, plutôt dix fois qu'une. N'est elle pas notre mere?

M. de Chatelain confesses in a note that his translation is not in accordance with the text, but he adds: "Nous ne concevons pas la penée ainsi exprimée." It is a good thing for Shakespeare that he has found a French commentator who understands what he meant to say better than he did himself.

Ophelia's first exclamation in the mad scene, "Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?" is translated,

De Danemarck où donc est la reine jolie?

Such an epithet applied to the middle-aged and matronly Gertrude, the mother of the thirty-years'-old Hamlet, is pretty—very pretty, indeed. A few pages farther on the "bonny-sweet Robin" of Ophelia's song is supposed by the translator to be a bird, as he thus renders the passage:

Car le gentil Robin n'est un oiseau de proie,
Il fait tout ma joie!

It is also exceedingly amusing to note how the old adjective "whoreson" bothers M. de Chatelain, who seems to consider it a word of weight and meaning. The "whoreson dead body" of the gravediggers' scene is turned into "le cadavre des enfants de nos mères;" and in like manner that "whoreson mad fellow Yorick" is presented to us as "un fou né d'une fille à la morale elastique."

The tragedy of Hamlet by Ducis does no wrong to the manes of Shakespeare, for though the title-page declares that it is "imitated from the English," nothing is left of Shakespeare's play save the names and the fact that Hamlet's father had been murdered before the action of the drama begins. Hamlet is the reigning king of Denmark, Claudius is first prince of the blood and father of Ophelia, and Polonius is an ordinary conspirator. There is no ghost and no gravedigger. Ophelia does not go mad, there is no fencing-scene, and Hamlet, after declaiming through innumerable pages in the set style of French classic tragedy, solemnly stabs Claudius, and then declares that as he is a king he must consent to live for the good of his people.

L. H. H.