On the threshold of the 20th century Anton Chekhov recounted to Pyotr Gnedich his conversation with Lev Tolstoy: «Once he told me, “You know, I can not stand Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse. Shakespeare, at least, grabs the reader for the collar and leads him to a certain destination without letting him turn aside. But where do your heroes leads to? From the couch, where they lie, to the cellar and back?”». Having put aside for a while discussion about the motives for such Tolstoy’s estimations, let us note that in this judgement the name of Chekhov was placed beside the name of Shakespeare, perhaps, for the first time. Later, these two names were mentioned, one next to another, many times, and such vicinity cannot surprise specialists.
Anton Chekhov was living and working in the time of fin de siècle, when the deep interest in Shakespeare had already more than century-long history in Russia1. To a certain extent, he inherited this interest from his predecessors in Russian literature, whose critical judgements on Shakespeare – as, for instance, Ivan Turgenev’s essay “Hamlet and Don Quixote”, – impressed him very much at the dawn of his literary career. Chekhov was reading Shakespeare closely. In the memorial fund of Chekhov’s museum in Yalta an interesting book from the writer’s personal library has been kept: that is “Hamlet. Prince of Denmark, translated into Russian by Nikolaj Polevoy”, with Chekhov’s marks made by many-coloured pencils (sic!)2. He also bought and subscribed several other editions of Shakespeare in Russian, and some Russian books on Shakespeare. However, his reading is not the most important point. Even against the common background of the 19th-century Russian literature with its heightened interest in Shakespeare, Chekhov stands out by his use of Shakespearean motifs and themes in numerous works, since the earlier feuilletons till the last play.
The tradition of reception of Shakespeare in the 19th-century literature, since Pushkin and Belinsky till Turgenev and Dostoevsky, was not a single factor of the British dramatist’s impact on Chekhov’s fiction and drama. There were also two others. One of them was linked with the art of theatre and Chekhov’s deep interest in theatre. Another one was determined by some peculiarities of Russian reality in the middle and the 2d half of the 19th century, with such its phenomenon as the so-called Russian hamletism.
As is generally known, the concept of hamletism took its shape in German romantic literature. Ludwig Börne even called Hamletian situation “a typically German one”, and Ferdinand Freiligrath exclaimed, “Germany is Hamlet!”3. Hamlet’s hesitations, his certain indecision in deeds, his inclination to reflexion were meant here first of all. Not without German influence in the middle of the 19th century the Russian author exposed the type of Russian hamlet (lower case letter) – a “small man”, who was living vainly and pointlessly, suffering from his nonentity but being incapable to change his life essentially. Ivan Turgenev’s short story “Hamlet of Schigrovsky District” is a very typical but not a single example of an artistic work on Russian hamletism, which was also explored by Russian historical and philosophical thought.
In the early fiction of Chekhov, beginning with his humoristic feuilletons published under the pen-name “Antosha Chekhonté”, the name of Shakespeare appears mainly as a ground for joke and irony. One of the well-known ironic phrases of young Chekhov was later included by him in the “Note-books and Diaries”: “Professor’s opinion: of most importance is not Shakespeare but comments to Shakespeare”. An early short story “About Drama” is subtitled as sketch, since it is mostly a dialogue between two characters, the judge of peace and the colonel, who are drinking, eating, and discussing the humane role of art. Their dialogue is interrupted only once, when the judge straps severely his negligent nephew, and the short story ends with the pointed remark: “The friends had a drink and began to talk on Shakespeare”.
In another early short story “Baron” the provincial performance of “Hamlet” is described through the eyes of the old prompter, who adores theatre and is irritated by the starring ungifted red-haired actor. “If Hamlet had such a stupid face, Shakespeare would hardly have written his tragedy”, thinks the outraged prompter, expressing his indignation sometimes in iambic pentameter:
“Let Hamlet be though bald, but never red…”4
After all, the prompter cannot bear bad acting and begins to recite the text from the prompt box loudly, breaking up the performance. We can find many examples of similar use of Shakespearean name or texts in Chekhov’s fiction. In these cases the most significant is not Shakespeare, but understanding and interpretation of Shakespeare by those characters, which are of special interest to the humorist.
In the course of the writer’s evolution, the functions of Shakespearean reminiscences and allusions were becoming in his fiction more diverse. In his mature problem tales and short stories quotations from Shakespeare or paraphrases of his lines could be a means of explication of Chekhov’s ironic view, but could also be quite serious ones. For instance, the tale “My Life” (1896) contains an interesting affinity with the dialogue of Hamlet and Polonius about shapes of the cloud from the 2d scene of the 3d act. In the tale “The Sad Story” there are reminiscences from “Hamlet” and “Othello” and besides them, the name of Shakespeare is mentioned; all these phrases are absolutely earnest and do not pretend to provoke laughter.
The problem of hamletism in its Russian variant, as a modification of the problem of superfluous man, is touched by Chekhov in a number of his mature works, for instance, in the tale “The Duel” (1892). One of its heroes, a half-educated person Laevsky declares, “I am hesitant like Hamlet… How exactly Shakespeare observed! Oh, how exactly!..”5. The ironic mode of representing the character’s rhetoric is underlined by the similar remarks about other writers (e.g., “…Oh, how right was Tolstoy! How mercilessly right!”6), or by his odd discourses about the love of Romeo and Juliet. The figure of Laevsky illustrates, to great extent, Russian philosopher Lev Shestov’s judgement: “The only real hero of Chekhov is a hopeless person…”7. A “hopeless person” is a peculiar modification of Russian hamlet.
Those evidences of Shakespeare’s impact on Chekhov, which were linked with the art of drama and theatre, are the most significant, of course. Among the strongest theatrical impressions of Chekhov, who was quite a fastidious spectator and critic, there were two Shakespearean productions – “Othello” at Moscow Maly Theatre starring Alexander Lensky, and Eleanora Duse as Cleopatra during her guest performances in Sankt-Petersburg. The strictness of Chekhov as a theatrical critic was already evident in his review of the Moscow Pushkin Theatre’s production of “Hamlet”. The review, written by the 22-year medical student was called “Hamlet on Pushkin’s Stage” and published in the magazine “Moskva” under the pen-name “Man without a Spleen”. Having criticised the production quite severely, Chekhov ended his sarcastic review with the important deduction: “Badly played Shakespeare is better than a dull nothing…”8. The reviewer wrote also that the Russian scene of his time “had to be cured by Shakespeare”. Not by good dramaturgy at all, but by Shakespeare proper! Why so? Because “such a giant’s breath could blow all the mould out of theatrical wings”9.
Ten years later Chekhov together with A.Lazarev-Gruzinsky began to write vaudeville “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, describing the life of Russian provincial actors performing the great tragedy. Like in Chekhov’s early fiction, here Shakespeare had to serve as a ground for irony and material for comical paraphrases. Several expressions of the kind remained in the manuscript for instance: “drunk as forty thousand brothers”, “stupid as forty thousand brothers”, and so on. However, the collaboration of Chekhov and Lazarev-Gruzinsky broke up and the vaudeville was not completed.
Chekhov put many Shakespearean words, phrases and images in his early dramatic sketches; it was more often done for the sake of comical effect. In the sketch “The Endless Story” the old landlady and her tenant quote irrelevantly Hamlet’s words:
“…Confound the ignorant, and amaze, indeed,
The very faculties of eyes and ears…“10
In 1887 the writer remade his earlier short story “Calchas” into the sketch “The Swan Song”, which is full of Shakespearean quotations and allusions. They were in the story, too, but the dramatic form catalysed and intensified the author’s inclination to Shakespeare. The sketch represents the old comedian Svetlovidov with the old prompter Nikita, and their dialogue takes place on the stage of the theatre at night. The prompter appears in a white dressing gown, resembling the Ghost in their theatre’s production of “Hamlet”. The comedian’s speech is overfilled with quotations, including Shakespearean lines. For example, he recites King Lear’s monologue “Blow, winds…” and makes the prompter give the Fool’s remarks. Later he tries to recite Hamlet’s tirade about recorders, Othello’s monologue, and so on. In Chekhov’s dramaturgy, as well as in his fiction, the function of Shakespearean quotations and motifs was evolving from pure humouristic to the more serious and significant one.
In his early full-length play “The Wood-Goblin”(“Leshij”) there is only one phrase from Shakespeare. One of the personages, Dyadin quotes Hamlet’s words: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”11. In the play “Platonov (Without a Title)”, the themes of the Danish tragedy occupy more place. The motif of Russian hamletism is embodied in the main character, who is characterized by one of the personages, Grekova: “It seems to all of you, that he is alike Hamlet… So admire him!”12 “Platonov” was an approach to the more mature play “Ivanov”, where the same theme was being developed. As Zinovij Paperny observes, “in “Ivanov” use of Shakespearean theme is more serious and distinctive. The hero, like Hamlet, is higher than his environment and as though falls out of it…”13.
It may be said that the purposefulness of using Shakespearean themes is reflected in their quantity in “Ivanov”. So count Shabel’sky just irrelevantly recollects Ophelia. Ivanov himself in a moment of reflexion says, “I die from the shame, thinking that a healthy, strong man as I am, has turned either into Hamlet, or into Manfred, or into a superfluous man…”14. Such a list of literary comparisons needs a short comment. Here Manfred is not only a hero of Byron, a poet, who was maybe more popular and respected in Russia than in his fatherland, but Manfred through Russian eyes, a tragic figure of a demonic lone person. Superfluous man is a category, introduced by Russian literature and explained by Russian critics, who described so a number of heroes, beginning with Pushkin’s Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin and later legalized by Turgenev in his “The Diary of a Superfluous Man”. In this list Hamlet is also received not only as a Shakespearean character, but as a Russian hamlet – an educated and fine person, who is incapable to overcome his hesitations and pass from words to deeds.
Ivanov’s conversation with doctor L’vov in the third act has something in common with the dialogue of Hamlet with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz about recorders: the protagonist explains to the rigorous doctor that he does not understand the complexity of human nature. As a supposed subject, the motif of madness appears in several scenes. “No, I am not a madman”, made such an accent Ivanov. “I was representing Hamlet”, declares he shortly in other moment, just before the tragic denouement. As Naum Berkovsky observed, Ivanov “does not pose, in his speech it sounds like an epigram on himself”15. Russian hamlet’s drama includes self-irony, self-criticism, self-exposure, and quite naturally ends with the hero’s suicide. “Ivanov” is the first of Chekhov’s works where Hamletian theme receives more or less complete interpretation. Hence started a way to “The Seagull”.
“The Seagull” is the most Shakespearean play by Chekhov. The names of three writers are mentioned in this drama – of Shakespeare, Turgenev and Maupassant; Shakespeare’s name and lines are most frequently recalled and Shakespearean quotations in “The Seagull” are quite significant. In the second act Treplev, pointing Trigorin out to Nina, says ironically, “There comes the real genius; he is striding like Hamlet, and with a book, too. (Mockingly) Words, words, words…”16. More accentuated are the quotations from “Hamlet” in the first act, during the performance of Konstantin Treplev’s play. At first, Arkadina addresses Treplev in Gertrude’s manner: “My sweet son…”, and later she quotes the Queen’s speech from the 4th scene of the 3d act:
“O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turns’t mine eyes into the very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct…”
There Treplev replies with Hamlet’s words:
“Stew’d in corruption honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty,..”17
One of Chekhovian scholars wrote that this Shakespearean dialogue sounds as an “overture” before Treplev’s performance18, which is inserted into the first act of the play as a play-within-a-play19. Like the scene of mousetrap in “Hamlet” interrupted by the crowned persons’ leaving, Treplev’s performance is stopped by the author-director, who is irritated and offended by Arkadina-Gertrude’s loud remarks. Some contemporary critic even noticed a parallel between two lines: Arkadina – Trigorin – Treplev – Nina Zarechnaya and Gertrude – Claudius – Hamlet – Ophelia20.
True, the role of a plot and plot’s development in Chekhov’s plays is not so important in comparison with Shakespeare’s dramas. The core of “The Seagull” is rather difficult to catch; the action develops just “from nothing”, as Lev Shestov wrote21. But that does not mean, that the play lacks action; here dynamics is being reached in other way: the characters clash and express themselves in dialogues, often rather independently from the plot’s events in the traditional sense of this notion. In this connection, of great importance is a figure of Treplev, the most Shakespearean personage of Chekhov’s “comedy” (so the author himself defined genre of his sad play). Treplev bears in himself the main theme of Shakespearean prince, the theme of discrepancy between ideals and reality, which is emphasized with Shakespearean quotations and reminiscences.
There was a period in the history of the interpretation of “The Seagull” by Russian theatre, when the “realist” Trigorin was being presented as a bearer of the author’s positive credo but the “modernist” Treplev looked like a wretched and ridiculous person. However, this “ridiculous” hero ends tragically, and his suicide is placed into a very significant place – the final point of the play. That is a peculiar pointe which converts the genre definition “comedy” into the irrevocably ironical one and makes us to look at Treplev’s literary activity not through the eyes of Arkadina and Trigorin, but at least through the eyes of wise and kind doctor Dorn.
“Certainly, Treplev is a Russian Hamlet of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries…”22. He belongs in the best way possible to the above-mentioned category, which was formulated by Lev Shestov: “the only real hero of Chekhov is a hopeless man”23. Later Viktor Shklovsky wrote, “…And the man of future, the hero of “The Seagull” perishes…”24. So, who is Treplev anyway – the “hopeless man”, or “the man of the future”? (This question can be related to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well). Who was right – Shestov or Shklovsky? Methinks, both were.
In “The Seagull” the connection with the only one Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Hamlet”, is obvious. It is more difficult to notice Shakespearean tradition in the following three famous plays by Chekhov: sometimes it exists latently, sometimes appears mosaically, but it has undoubtedly played its part. In those cases we can speak of not exclusively Hamletian, but wider – of Shakespearean motifs. In each of the plays it is not a leitmotif, but one of the several ones.
Hamletian theme sounds indistinctly in “Uncle Vanya”, too. The title hero, Vojnitsky, also embodies some features of Russian hamletism but not in such concentration as Treplev. That is not a superfluous man and sponger like Ivanov, but his life is painted tragic colour as well. Being a gifted person, he works hard for his ungrateful relative and what is of the most importance – he realizes the tragedy of his situation. Sometimes his speech becomes sarcastic in Hamletian manner: e.g., “This is a fine weather to hang oneself…”25. In other episode he characterizes his own situation as Hamletian one: “So they consider that I am a madman… It is I who is mad, but not those who hide their lack of talent under the mask of a professor, a scholarly magician…”26. At last in the hardest minute he comprehends the sizes of his personal tragedy: “My life has been a failure. I am talented, clever and brave… If I had lived a normal life, I might have become another Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky…”27.
It is rather interesting that the well-known scholar, professor Nikolaj Il’ich Storozhenko, a founder of Russian academic Shakespeare scholarship and vice-president of London New Shakespeare Society, is considered to be the most probable prototype of a character of Vojnitsky’s antipode, professor Serebryakov. This fact makes us recollect the above-quoted Chekhov’s joke: “Professor’s opinion: of most importance is not Shakespeare, but comments to Shakespeare” – which was put down in the “Note-books” at the same time when “Uncle Vanya” was completed. Besides, that prototype was chosen evidently for psychological or biographical reasons, but not because of Chekhov’s neglect of Storozhenko as a Shakespeare scholar. Just the opposite, the author of “Uncle Vanya” knew some works of the well-known professor, read them even in the journals and subscribed a lithographic edition of Storozhenko’s lectures on “Macbeth”28, which has been reserved in the funds of the writer’s personal library.
Among Chekhov’s best plays “Three Sisters” is the only one, whose genre is defined by the common term “drama”; neither “comedy”, nor “scenes”, but “drama”. It is noteworthy that one of the reviewers of the first production of the play called it “a drama of a railway ticket”29. This definition can be easily interpreted: the sisters are crazy about Moscow; they long for Moscow and want to go “to Moscow! To Moscow!”, while the whole problem, to the critic’s view, could be solved by buying of train tickets to Moscow. This judgement has an association with the famous denunciation of “Othello” by Thomas Rymer in his “Short View of Tragedy” as “a tragedy of a handkerchief”. These two definitions have something in common, and that common is the critics’ misunderstanding of the tragic conflicts in the plays. The sisters’ dream about Moscow is nothing more than their illusion and this circumstance only strengthens the tragic sounding of the finale.
It seems that there is no Shakespearean motifs and reminiscences in this play, and the single remark, which can be traced back to Shakespeare is an exclamation of colonel Vershinin: “Half my life for a glass of tea!”. In the original, this phrase (“Polzhizni za stakan chaju!”) is an ironic paraphrase of Russian translation of Richard III’s well-known exclamation “Poltsarstva za konya!” (“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”). One can also mention the old medical officer Chebutykin’s bitter confession: «…Two days ago there was a conversation in the club. They said, “Shakespeare, Voltaire…” I’d never read, never read at all, but I put on expression as if I had read…»30.
The theme of hamletism seems to escape from the play. Yes, it is not present in the plot, but its echo can be heard, for instance, in the fate of Andrej Prozorov, a capable but degrading man. Vershinin says once that such a fate is rather typical for Russian intelligentsia. “…If you listen to any member of the local intelligentsia, whether to civilian or military, he will tell you that he’s sick of his wife, sick of his house… The high way of thinking is peculiar to a Russian man, but tell me, why in his everyday life he flies so low?”31 This is not a mockery or malevolence, but the ascertaining of the great national tragedy.
One can decide that Chekhov’s last play “The Cherry Orchard” has no more in common with Shakespearean tradition than “Three Sisters”. Nevertheless, several penetrating critics and readers noticed this tradition there. For instance, Lion Feuchtwanger wrote in his essay on this play: «The German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath thought once that Germany is Hamlet and created a poem about it. The Russian poet (sic – M.S.) Anton Chekhov felt that Russia was, is and will be Hamlet, and embodied his idea into a sweet, deep, melancholic dramatic poem which is entitled “The Cherry Orchard”…»32. As far as the direct links are concerned, this drama contains only two slightly changed Shakespearean quotations. Lopakhin addresses Varya and quotes “Hamlet” perverting the name of Shakespearean personage:
“Ohmelia, get thee to a nunnery…”
(my italics – M.S.; “hmel” is a Russian equivalent of “a state of drunkenness”),
and once more:
“The fair Ohmelia. – Nymph, in thy orizons
Be all my sins remember’d…”33
There is no other direct association with Shakespeare in the play, but the mediated relationship with “Hamlet” can be noticed. For example, clerk Epikhodov, nicknamed “twenty two misfortunes”, is perceived as a travesty of a Russian hamlet. The famous Hamlet’s dilemma “To be, or not to be…” – is transformed into a comic, even pitiful remark: “…I can not understand the direction I myself want to go – properly speaking, do I want to live, or to shoot myself…”34. One of the critics found an “anti-hamletian” motif in the character of Petya Trofimov: «…As though Petya revolts against the hamletism, “We only philosophize…”»35. I’d add that if Petya revolts indeed, he opposes not the Hamletism at all, but its Russian variant. It is not less important that he does not revolt, but as though revolts: Petya declares the necessity to work, but he is uncapable of acting being a reasoner, an eternal student, who cannot even graduate from the university.
One of Chekhov’s contemporaries even found in “The Cherry Orchard” the “extra-scenic characters”, which, like the old Hamlet, are important for the action; those are Lopakhin’s father, Ranevskaya’s lover, her drowned son Grisha…36. All of them do not appear on the stage but several times are mentioned by the characters of the play and thus help to create the pre-history of the fabula. Continuing this list we can also recollect the old servant Firs, who divides all his long life into two parts: before the “misfortune” and after it (by “misfortune” he means the abolition of serfdom in Russian empire in 1861); this subdivision may be compared with the juxtaposition of the epoch of old Hamlet and the time of Claudius. Can theatrical directors use and emphasize these accents? “It is possible, but it is not necessary”, as Chekhov himself replied once to the director of Moscow Art Theatre (MHT) Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Shakespearean impact appeared in the play more subtly and needs the adequate analysis.
There is no Russian hamlet in the play, but there sounds the theme, which was producing associations with the Danish tragedy of Shakespeare during the whole century. Discussing “The Cherry Orchard”, a French stage director Jean-Louis Barrault called Chekhov “an exemplary artist”, because “all his characters, like Shakespearean ones, are in the state of conflict with themselves…”37. Obviously Chekhov’s artistic precision in describing of this interior conflicts leads many authors to comparison between Russian playwright and Shakespeare; it allows to see in the author of “The Cherry Orchard” a successor of some Shakespearean traditions. “…In our era, we have Shakespeare in modes Chekhovian, Pirandellian, Shavian, Odetsian, Brechtian, Becketian and so forth”, writes Harry Keyshian38. I am not sure that all the names in this list are equally appropriate, but probably, the name of Chekhov occupies here the first position not accidentally.
The judgements, made by men of theatre, are especially valuable, and J.-L. Barrault’s observation is not the single example. Many years before him Konstantin Stanislavsky, who created the first successful productions of Chekhov’s plays, noted, that the playwright had carried on the Shakespearean tradition39. Half of century later an American playwright Arthur Miller said that Chekhov is closer to Shakespeare, than any other dramatist else40.
Certainly, the Russian writer was a man of his time and as an artist, he reflected some trends of his epoch. His interest in Shakespeare was not an ordinary one and became apparent in his works, in fiction as well as in dramaturgy. But it is quite possible to find not less subtle connoisseurs of Shakespeare among Chekhov’s predecessors and contemporaries in Russian literature. Even in the works of such Shakespeare lovers as Turgenev or Leskov, the British dramatist’s influence is apparent in using the names of the well-known characters (Hamlet, Lady Macbeth) and finding their “projections” in the contemporary Russian life. Such the influence touched Chekhov, too, but in his works there are evidences of another, deeper penetration into the Shakespearean universe. This new quality can be read in Chekhov’s understanding of an inwardly conflicting human nature, which made the Russian author appeal to Shakespearean themes and motifs, and first of all allows to associate his works with Shakespeare’s ones. The rightfulness of such associations were exactly expressed by the young Vsevolod Meyerhold, who expounded his director’s credo in the letter to Chekhov:
“To play Chekhov’s characters is just so important and interesting as to play Shakespearean Hamlet…”41