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Totalitarian Theatre – Shakespeare in Nazi Germany and the USSR

For over four hundred years the works of William Shakespeare have been produced, reproduced and adapted in countless forms. These have included children’s stories such as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807) to influential arthouse and major studio films in the 20th century – e.g., Akira Kurasawa’s Ran (1985), adapted from King Lear, to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Yet seldom has Bard’s work undergone such controversial and complete ideological reworkings as in the early half of the 20th century, under two opposing totalitarian states in Europe: Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. These two states deemed it necessary to make major changes to classic Shakespeare works to reconcile the literary great with their distinct visions of an ideal society. These changes are instructive of how they saw themselves and their ideals and the enduring qualities of the great playwright’s work.

The 20th century can be described as the Age of Totalitarianism. The unrest that enveloped Europe during and after the First World War (1914 – 1918) led directly to the establishment of totalitarian states in Germany and the USSR. In 1922, following a period of revolution and a closely-contested Civil War, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, implementing a Socialist regime firstly under Vladimir Lenin and then Josef Stalin. With the 1933 election of Hitler to Chancellor, Germany entered a period of Fascist control. The two societies differed immensely in their political ambitions and principles, yet can be both considered similar expressions of how order is expressed in society: totalitarian states exercised extreme governmental control and surveillance, micro-managing the affairs of individual citizens to degrees of extreme detail in order to manufacture their respective conceptions of an ideal society (Arendt, 1962).

Yet for all of the suppression and control of artistic expression in these two states, both the USSR and Nazi Germany retained certain cultural mainstays, choosing to co-opt and alter existing works to tailor them to their respective ideologies. William Shakespeare was one of the few foreign writers whose work was allowed to persist – albeit heavily edited – in Nazi Germany. The Bard also found continuing popularity in Russia following the advent of Socialism. He had always been a cultural favourite, heavily influencing some of Russia’s most acclaimed writers – e.g., Pushkin, Gorki. In Germany, Shakespeare was and is regarded with as much importance as major German writers such as Goethe (Symington, 2005). The Hitler Youth, in fact, hosted “Shakespeare Weeks“ as part of cultural education throughout the 1930s. This exalted position was maintained throughout the Nazi period: when the Second World War (1939 – 1945) broke out in September 1939, all plays by foreign dramatists were halted throughout Germany – with the exception of a Berlin production of Hamlet (Habicht, 2012, p. 22).

Portrait of playwright William Shakespeare
Figure 1: Portrait of William Shakespeare by John Taylor (c. 1610).

One of the key themes in Nazi reconfigurings of Shakespeare was of course elements of racial and ethnic divides. Several Shakespeare plays featured elements deemed unsuitable for pure German audiences. Given the racial purity so essential to Nazi ideology, it seems inevitable that The Merchant of Venice – the Shakespeare play most centrally concerning Judaism and its place in society – would be a powerful device in theatrical Nazi propaganda. The play demonstrates many opportunities to decry the Jewish character as vengeful, covetous or just generally other. Yet the story also features many aspects difficult to stage for a fascist audience. When Shylock gives an impassioned speech about his humanity and equality, it is difficult to frame the scene so as not to grant him some sympathy:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (Act 3 Scene 1).

Another key stumbling block was the romantic subplot and marriage between Lorenzo, a Christian, and Jessica, Shylock’s Jewish daughter, “an act of miscegenation illegal in the Third Reich” (Symington, 2005, p. 240). The most obvious of Shakespearean source material for Nazi co-opting becomes therefore amongst the most difficult to reinterpret – the play in fact “sank from being the third most performed play between 1929 and 1933, to the ninth position between 1933 and 1945” (Bassey, 2020, p. 52). Equally, Othello experienced issues regarding the place of a dark-skinned Moor on stage as the central character. In most instances, the Nazi cultural overseers simply dismissed this problem either through convoluted ethnography or simply ignoring the issue. One director defined the ideal depiction of Othello as “an imposing general, wearing a white uniform [...] he is not a Black negro but a light-brown cultivated Moor, a magnificent face, which one does not associate with African wildness or wilderness” (Bassey, p. 59).

Repeatedly throughout the project of reinterpreting Shakespeare, the Nazis were confounded by elements which were diametrically opposed to Fascist educational policies. Bradley Blair identifies a similar issue with Richard II:

“This play (Richard II) depicts a subject overthrowing his monarch and suffering no punishment for the act. The figure of King Richard, an indecisive and ineffective leader, falls because he lacks either the cunning or the brute force needed to suppress Henry Bolingbroke. Thus, the Third Reich’ s cultural authorities could not simply accept a play that featured both a weak leader and a rebellious subject who succeeds in toppling his king” (Blair, 2008, V).

Works which received extensive thematic reinterpretations were Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, chosen for their pre-war popularity and for their supposed Nordic connections. Hamlet in particular had a storied connection to Germany: throughout Germany’s protracted unification process in the 19th century and the post-WWI national shame, Hamlet had held a place of great symbolic importance for the national question amongst Germans (Höfele, 2015). Nazi depictions of Hamlet’s struggle seem to have entirely displaced the central theme of interiority and inaction, removing all doubt from the titular prince. The defining traits of Hamlet are instead relegated to his need to defend his country, his sense of leadership and the belief in rightful action for one’s father and fatherland (Symington, 2005). Anyone familiar with Hamlet would understand that this is essentially a negation of the story itself: the central struggle of all characters, not just Hamlet himself, is the attempt to understand the prince’s inconsistent and confounding actions. The one trait Hamlet lacks is decisiveness.

Vladymyr Vysotsky played Hamlet at the Moscow Theatre of Comedy and Drama
Figure 2: Vladimir Vysotsky as Hamlet in Moscow (TASS Photos, 1964).

In Russia, Shakespeare had an equally strong established reputation. Catherine the Great was among the early translators of Shakespeare’s work into Russian in the 18th century. Legendary Russian writers such as Alexander Pushkin cited Shakespeare as the supreme influence on their work (Ridge, 2017). By the time of the USSR, this reputation had endured and, in fact, the tradition was accelerated by Soviet theorists who claim that Shakespeare had anticipated the class struggle that they were fulfilling (Khomenko, 2021). At the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress, Shakespeare’s place in the literary canon was affirmed in opposition to capitalism and to the fascism rising in Germany:

"And if a writer possessing even such talent as Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, or Leonardo da Vinci were born today, if such a writer were confronted with the task of portraying fascist reality in a picture convincing to the masses of the people, then the picture which he produced would speak against fascism, against capitalism; he would not he able to draw one which would speak in their favour. This is the reason why fascist literature is decaying. This is the reason why fascism will never create a great literature,great convincing literature, convincing to the broad masses" (Radek, 1934).

The “correcting“ of Shakespeare’s work thus became an important ideological project also in the Soviet Union. The indecisiveness that was blindly ignored in Nazi depictions of Hamlet’s character is instead utilised in Soviet readings. Take, for example, the re-reading of Hamlet’s killing of Polonius (Act 3 Scene 4) in David Samoylov’s poem “Hamlet Exonerated“ (1963):

In Khomenko’s reading (2014), “Samoylov argues that Hamlet's acknowledged propensity for pondering eliminates (my emphasis) the possibility of error” – and thus a scene which shows the consequence of Hamlet’s paranoia resulting in accidental tragedy is instead turned into a deliberate and justified strike against a class enemy.

Russian Theatre overshadowed by Marxism-Leninism
Figure 3: A portrait of Lenin hangs over the Moscow State Theatre (Getty Images, 1989).

What becomes apparent from reading these difficulties with adapting Shakespeare for a totalitarian ideology is the depth of the playwright’s own worldview. Shakespeare was not only a magnificent wordsmith but also possessed a singular perception of character. Shakespeare’s characters occupy too many perspectives and acknowledge too many philosophical questions that Shakespeare himself cannot be said to abide by the limitations of any one political or philosophical stance. Every effort to choose a play suitably aligned with strict, top-down societal prescriptions is confounded by the play’s own depth of narrative. What makes Hamlet fascinating is his all-too-human sense of doubt in the face of his extraordinary situation. It is the humanity in characters such as Hamlet and Shylock that prevents their absorption into two-dimensional descriptions of political order, and it is the universality of Shakespeare that ultimately kept him at a distance from his would-be totalitarian inheritors.

Bibliographical Sources

Arendt, H. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (1962). Meridian Books ed.

Bassey, A. ‘Brown, Never Black: Othello on the Nazi stage’. Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation and Performance. Vol. 22 (37). (2020)

Blair, M. B. ‘A Paradox of Self-Image: William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and King Richard II in Hitler’s Germany’. (2008) Master’s Thesis presented to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Dickinson, A. ‘Deutschland Ist Hamlet’: Shakespeare in Germany’ (2016) retrieved from the British Library

Habicht, W. ‘German Shakespeare, the Third Reich, and the War’, in Shakespeare and the Second World War: Memory, Culture, Identity, ed. by Makaryk, I. and McHugh, M. (2012). University of Toronto Press. pp. 22–34 (p. 31)

Höfele, A. ‘Elsinore-Berlin: Hamlet in the Twenties’ from Actes de Congrés de la Société française Shakespeare, 33. (2015).

Khomenko, N. ‘The Cult of Shakespeare in Soviet Russia and the Vilified Ophelia’. The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation (2014)

Korte, B. and Spittel, C. ‘Shakespeare under Different Flags: The Bard in German Classrooms from Hitler to Honecker’ in Journal of Contemporary History, (Vol.44, No.2). (2009) pp. 267-286

Radek, K. ‘Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art’. (1934). Soviet Writers Congress

Symington, R. The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich.(2005). Edwin Mellen Press.

Visual Sources


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Seán Downey

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