In late November 2014, a First Folio was discovered in the Bibliothèque d’Agglomeration Saint-Omer. I realise I’m a bit late to the party with a blog post on this extremely rare qnd exciting event, but, still,I hope what I have to say here about another of Saint-Omer’s Shakespearean connections remains of interest.
The municipal library at Saint-Omer’s First Folio is believed to have come from the town’s English Jesuit college. That college, founded in 1593, welcomed many prominent English Catholic figures throughout its existence, including – around 1650 – one Edward Scarisbrick, the probable owner of this first edition of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. When the college closed its doors at the height of the French Revolution in 1793, its library was merged into other local holdings, and any record of this book’s existence lost.
Reports indicate that this First Folio was heavily used during the time it was available, and I would like to think I know at least one person who was thumbing its pages at some point between 1650 and 1790. This was the Frenchman Pierre-Antoine de la Place, who was born in Calais in 1707 and educated so intensively at the English, anglophone, Jesuit college that he apparently forgot his native tongue. Having relearnt it, he is also known for his subsequent hare-brained attempt at rebooting a lacklustre literary career with the false announcement of his death in a Parisian journal.
De la Place, however, is most often remembered today as the first person to translate Shakespeare’s writing into French at length. Specific speeches had been done before, and a few distant adaptations composed, but it was in this writer’s Théâtre Anglois of 1745 that France’s intellectuals got to know the English dramatist for the first time. In volume one of his work, de la Place offers a long preface on Shakespeare’s beauties, faults and Englishness, followed by a short biography, and then translations of Othello and, of all things, Henry VI part 3. Volume two contains Richard III, Hamlet and Macbeth. Volume three is for Cymbeline, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, as well as very short prose summaries of Shakespeare’s other works.
To call de la Place’s work a translation is a bit misleading. Painfully aware of what his readers, long-accustomed to the dramas of Racine and Corneille, would think of Shakespeare’s excesses, he alternates between three different ways of presenting a play. Some of what de la Place believed to be the most beautiful passages (like the Ghost’s revelations in Hamlet) are given in rhymed alexandrine couplets, the form of French classical tragedy; meanwhile, less excellent moments are rendered in fairly faithful prose, and anything that de la Place judges dangerously inappropriate (like Iago’s machinations) or useless (like the Porter in Macbeth) skimmed over in a summary.
In spite of these precautions, de la Place’s translation met with considerable hostility. An anonymous reviewer in the 1745 edition of Jugemens sur quelques ouvrages nouveaux called the poor man a “Proteus, sometimes English, sometimes French” and reminded him that, despite his efforts to hide it, Shakespeare still clearly broke with the fundamental rules of drama to produce nothing better than “monstrous tragedy”. Other readers, like the Marquis d’Argenson, resisted commenting on the translation to record instead their distaste for Shakespeare’s style in general. The Marquis noted, for instance, the following reflection on his reading of Hamlet: “we are told that, being present at these actions, we are stirred more deeply, but, to stir our sense sense of smell, do we need the odour of manure or that of rose and jasmines, as we find in our plays?”
Despite his work being compared to cowshit and his person to a deceptive sea-god, de la Place still has the last laugh. His translations were not only an important and widely-read contact between French and English culture (for good or ill), but inspired his friend, the dramatist Jean-François Ducis, to write the first adaptations of Shakespeare to be staged in the legitimate French theatre.
And to think that it might have all begun with de la Place reading through that First Folio, and slowly forgetting how to speak French, in the library of his school at Saint Omer…
Être ou n’être plus? Arrête, il faut choisir!…est-il plus digne ‘une grande âme, de supporter l’inconstance & les outrages de la fortune, que de se révolter contre ses coups?… Mourir….Dormir….Voilà tout. Et si ce sommeil met fin aux misères de l’humanité, ne peut-on pas du moins le désirer sans crime?…Mourir…Dormir…Rêver peut-être! … Fatale incertitude! … Qu’espère-t’on gagner, en se délivrant des maux de ce monde, si l’on ignore quel sera son sort dans l’autre? Cette réflexion seule ne mérite-elle pas toute notre attention?…Oui, sans doute, puisque c’est elle qui soumet l’âme la plus altière aux longues calamités de la vie… Eh, qui pourrait souffrir la perversité du siècle, l’injustice des hommes, l’arrogance des ambitieux, les tourments de l’amour dédaigné, les lenteurs de la Justice, l’insolence des Grands, & les indignes préférences que la faveur obtient sur le mérite? Ne ferait-il pas plus court de se procurer tout d’un coup le repos? Ne vaudrait-il pas mieux s’affranchir d’un fardeau dont le poids nous accable? … Mais la terreur qu’inspire l’idée d’un autre monde, d’un monde inconnu, dont nul mortel n’est jamais retourné, ralentit ce désir, & glace nos pensées. Nous connaissons mieux nos maux & nous les supportons, dans la crainte d’en affronter d’autres que nous ne connaissons pas. La conscience nous parle, nous l’écoutons, elle nous arrête; elle calme l’impétuosité de nos transports, & la réflexion détruit par degrés les projets enfantés par le désespoir…Mais j’aperçois Ophelia…