Reading Shakespeare in German

»Der Schwan vom Avon« auf Deutsch

Shakespeare memorial, Ilmpark, Weimar, Thuringia, Germany, Europe. Getty Images / Credit: H. & D. Zielske / LOOK-foto

Strange as it may seem, the German Shakespeare Society (die Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, DSG) is the world's oldest! Founded in 1864, on the occasion of the Bard's 300th birthday (zum 300. Geburtstag vom Barden), the Society's headquarters are in Weimar, a city also closely associated with the real "German Shakespeares," Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Divided by the Cold War and the Berlin Wall for three decades, Germany's oldest literary society successfully managed its own reunification in 1993. Each year in April (the month of Shakespeare's birth and death) the DSG sponsors its "Shakespeare-Tage" (Shakespeare Days), an international event held in either Weimar or Bochum, the former western headquarters, in alternate years. The Society also promotes other meetings, seminars and research, and publishes a book-like annual journal, Das Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, in English and German. 

»Sein oder Nichtsein—das ist die Frage!«
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

The German fascination with Shakespeare began in the early 1700s when English repertoire companies crossed the Ärmelkanal (English Channel) to perform the Bard's plays all across Germany and Europe. Translations of Shakespeare's words have become so much a part of the German language, that Germans can be forgiven if they sometimes seem to forget that William Shakespeare was not Wilhelm Shakespeare! In fact, the Germans take a back seat to no one when it comes to honoring the greatest English poet of all time. They do so by performing and attending his plays (more performances each year than in Britain!), using his words and phrases, and by joining Shakespeare clubs and associations. There's even a replica of the Globe Theatre in Neuss, Germany, not far from Düsseldorf. Each season in Neuss the German Globe offers a program of Shakespeare productions—in both German and English. 

As in the English-speaking world, Germans often fail to realize just how much of their vocabulary comes from Shakespeare. But was ist ein Name? (what's in a name?) They would no doubt consider such concerns viel Lärm um nichts (much ado about nothing). However, worrying about such things could be der Anfang vom Ende (the beginning of the end). Okay, I'll stop. Der Rest ist Schweigen (the rest is silence).

A Brief Shakespeare (English-German) Glossary

the Bard der Barde
play das Schauspiel
poet der Dichter / die Dichterin
the Swan of Avon der Schwan vom Avon
sonnet(s) das Sonett (-e)
The Taming of the Shrew »Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung«
for all the world's a stage die ganze Welt ist eine Bühne"

Over the years, many German literary figures have translated Shakespeare into the language of Goethe and Schiller. (Among other works, Goethe's "Götz von Berlichingen" shows Shakespeare's influence.) For many of the Bard's plays and sonnets it is possible to find several German versions, translated at different times by different poets. Ironically, this means that it is usually easier to read Shakespeare in German (if you're German) than in English! The English of Shakespeare's time is often foreign to modern ears, but the German translations tend to be in more modern German than the Elizabethan English of the originals.

Übersetzungen / Translations

Over the years, various German writers - from close to Shakespeare's time until modern times - have translated his works into German. As a result, unlike the situation in English, there are different versions of Shakespeare in German. Below you can compare several Shakespeare works that have been translated into German by more than one German poet.

Two German Versions of Shakespeare's Sonnet 60 (First verse)

Translated by Max Josef Wolff and Stefan George

Original Shakespeare Version

Like as the waves make towards the pibled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toile all forwards do contend.

Max Josef Wolff (1868-1941)

Wie Well' auf Welle zu dem Felsenstrand,
So eilen die Minuten nach dem Ziel;
Bald schwillt die eine, wo die andre schwand,
Und weiter rauscht's im ewig regen Spiel.

Stefan George (1868-1933)

Wie Wogen drängen nach dem steinigen Strand,
ziehn unsre Stunden eilig an ihr End',
und jede tauscht mit der, die vorher stand,
mühsamen Zugs nach vorwärts nötigend.

Three German Versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet (First 5 lines)

Translated by Wieland, Schlegel, and Flatter

Original Shakespeare Version

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them...

Christoph Martin Wieland (1765)

Seyn oder nicht seyn — Das ist die Frage.
Ob es einem edeln Geist anständiger ist, sich
den Beleidigungen des Glüks geduldig zu unterwerfen,
Oder seinen Anfallen entgegen zu stehen,
und durch einen herzhaften Streich sie auf einmal zu endigen?

August Wilhelm Schlegel (1809)

Sein oder Nichtsein, das ist hier die Frage:
ob's edler im Gemüt, die Pfeil' und Schleudern
des wütenden Geschicks erdulden, oder,
sich waffnend gegen eine See von Plagen,
durch Widerstand sie enden...

Richard Flatter (1954)

Sein oder Nichtsein —: das ist die Frage!
Ist es nun edler, im Gemüt zu dulden
die Pfeil' und Schleudern des fühllosen Schicksals
oder dem Heer von Plagen sich zu stellen
und kämfend Schluß zu machen?

German Version of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 (First verse)

Translated by Stefan George

Original Shakespeare Version

Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough windes do shake the darling buds of Maie,
And Summers lease hath all too short a date:

Stefan George

Soll ich vergleichen einem Sommertage
dich, der du lieblicher und milder bist?
Des Maien teure Knospen drehn im Schlage
des Sturms, und allzukurz ist Sommers Frist.


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Your Citation
Flippo, Hyde. "Reading Shakespeare in German." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Flippo, Hyde. (2023, April 5). Reading Shakespeare in German. Retrieved from Flippo, Hyde. "Reading Shakespeare in German." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).