Why, Let the Stricken Deer Go Weep
By Elena Shvarts
Translated by Sasha Dugdale
Queen: If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?
Hamlet: Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not seems.
Hamlet, Act One, Scene Two
In February 1942 the Leningrad Theatre Institute, or at least, what was left of it, was evacuated from besieged Leningrad to Pyatigorsk, together with the Philharmonic and Radlov’s Theatre Company. They had barely settled or begun recovering a little from their starvation, when the Germans began a sudden and unexpected offensive in the Caucasus and reached Pyatigorsk with unimaginable speed. The soldiers and the town’s administration all fled south to Tbilisi. Almost everyone in the Theatre Institute set off in their wake, the students walking, some hitching lifts on the last military lorries going in that direction. Initially my Mother and her friend had the luck to be offered a ride, but then the soldiers began harassing them, and finally, angered by their aloofness, they threw them back out onto the road.[hidepost]
Not everyone left. One Jewish girl wouldn’t believe that the Germans were annihilating the Jews. ‘They are a cultured nation,’ she insisted. Another girl, a friend of the first, said nothing, and stayed on too. When the Germans arrived, a Russian family looked after the Jewish girl. One day she went to the market and met her old friend there. The friend was keen to find out where she was living, and when she returned home, a German firing squad was waiting for her. The family who had sheltered her had already been shot.
In the few hours between the arrival of the Germans and the departure of the town’s administration, Radlov and his theatre company had a meeting to decide whether to stay or to leave. Many of them decided to remain in the town, however Boris Smirnov, the handsome young lead, refused to stay and together with his wife, who was still breastfeeding their child, fled by foot on the road through the Caucasus.
Radlov’s Theatre subsequently toured its production of Hamlet all around Germany, with Nikolai Kriukov in the role of Prince Hamlet. There were rumours that Hitler had seen the production. It seems likely that for Radlov the hidden meaning of the performance was that it was about ‘life in thrall to a villain’. But was it worth exchanging one villain for another?
In the end Radlov’s theatre met a tragic fate. The French handed them over to the Soviet Union and the Radlovs themselves were arrested in the airport upon arrival, although the actors were spared for some unknown reason. But that is another story altogether. I am writing here about Hamlet, which was performed in a translation by Anna Radlova, the wife of Sergei Radlov and a famous poet in her own right who later died in a camp. Kriukov was also imprisoned, and after his release became a film actor — I remember him in the film The Last Inch. You could just about work out what sort of Hamlet he might have made: a rather cold, rational Hamlet. (How many faces Hamlet has — is there no end to the different ways of being Hamlet? Every generation sees him anew, every generation sees in him the true man of the age. He’s sometimes played as an old man, or a freak, or then again ‘one of the boys’ — and he’s been played by women, and six people all at once, just like the many-headed Hydra…)
My Mother, Dina Shvarts, saw Radlov’s Hamlet 25 times whilst she was still at school. She always said that Radlova’s translation was the best of all of them, at least in theatrical terms. But what would you expect — after all, Radlova was translating it for her own theatre, her own director. Everything in it is easy to say, workable, theatrical, even if Pasternak’s translation is more profound and poetically brilliant.
After my Mother died I began reading Hamlet feverishly, in all its different translations, picking it up in various different places — end, beginning, middle. I was drawn to it, as a sick animal is drawn to the herb that will cure it. For a long time I couldn’t work out where this obsession came from, I merely drank it down, like the dark bitter drug it was. Then I realised something apparently quite obvious about the tragedy, something which has until now gone unnoticed, and it is this: Hamlet is about being orphaned, about being completely orphaned. At the very beginning we learn about the murder of two fathers. Most of the characters (all of the main characters!) are the children of murdered parents: Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes and Fortinbras. Hamlet Senior kills Fortinbras Junior, and Hamlet Junior kills his potential father-in-law. Shakespeare circles around the slaying of fathers with extraordinary relentlessness, as if compelled to do so. Perhaps the Shakespeare authorship problem might be solved by addressing this compulsion. The author of Hamlet was not of course Shakespeare, the son of a butcher, who came to theatre accidentally, watching over the horses left in the theatre courtyard, and not, of course a group of aristocrats, as Yury Liubimov recently proclaimed. Marlowe? Rutland? The feelings associated with the death of a parent are so strong in this play I think the author is someone who lost a father in about 1600…
And for all of them, apart from Fortinbras, the death of a parent leads to their own death. If the play is all about coming to terms with the death of a loved one, then no one manages it — Ophelia goes mad (and certainly not out of love for Hamlet), Laertes lets himself be killed, and Hamlet too, both apparently moved by the idea of revenge. But is it really revenge that guides them?
‘The time is out of joint’ (translated beautifully but approximately by Pasternak as ‘the thread that strings the days is torn’, Radlova’s version cleaves much closer to the text — ‘the age is dislocated’[…]). This is exactly the feeling you have when you lose a much-loved parent, the one who carried in themselves the conceiving of your own time. Since my Mother died the days have dragged like years, or flown past like moments, and what happened yesterday is buried in the memory, in the sands and lost corners of shadowy death. This loss is inevitable for almost all of us, and this orphan of a play is about all of us.
The meaning of this rather lightly worn piece of prose is that Hamlet is a play about orphans, a play about the orphans lost in the world, who have nothing to revenge themselves upon, except perhaps death itself. In no other play by Shakespeare is there such a circling of thought around a single axis — death: the mysteries of death, its meaning and meaninglessness, Yorick, poor Yorick and the gravediggers, and the leaping into the grave. And it moves all the characters like a puppeteer — there it is, not love, nor ambition, but pitiless, incomprehensible death.[/hidepost]
Sasha Dugdale is a poet and translator. Her translation of Elena Shvarts’ Birdsong on the Seabed was published by Bloodaxe in 2008. Her third collection of poetry will be published this autumn by Carcanet/OxfordPoets.