Early Modern German Shakespeare in Action: Creation Theatre’s Romio und Julieta

November 20, 2021
By Maria Shmygol

An online roundtable hosted by the Society for Renaissance Studies on 4th May 2021


Participants: Maria Shmygol (University of Leeds), Harry McCarthy (University of Cambridge), Kareen Seidler (ex. Université de Genève), Lucy Askew (Creation Theatre), and Ryan Duncan (Creation Theatre)


This event brought together scholars, translators, and theatre practitioners for a discussion of a seventeenth-century German adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This German version of the play is available in a new edition and translation prepared by Kareen Seidler and Lukas Erne for Arden Shakespeare (2020), and it was this translation that was brought to life by Creation Theatre in a rehearsed online reading that took place on 6th May 2021. The participants had the opportunity of sitting in on Zoom rehearsals for the reading prior to the roundtable, which facilitated reflection on this fascinating play in text and in performance. The roundtable attended to issues of translation, adaptation, the value of practise-based research, and how the German version makes us consider Shakespeare’s original in new and exciting ways.


Romeo and Juliet, but not as we know it…

From the 1590s onwards travelling players took various plays from the London stage with them to Northern Europe, where they initially performed them in English for European audiences. In order to aid comprehension, the players transformed their material to make it more comprehensible to local audiences, who did not understand English. Among these plays was Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was ultimately adapted into German and which comes down to us in a late seventeenth-century manuscript copy under the title of Romio und Julieta. Seidler and Erne’s new edition of this play is the first of two Arden volumes arising from the Early Modern German Shakespeare project, led by Lukas Erne and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The aim of this project was to produce reliable scholarly English editions of four early German-language adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Erne and Seidler’s translations of Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Hamlet) and Romio und Julieta are in volume one, while open-access editions of the German texts of these plays are available here. Tito Andronico and Kunst über alle Künste, ein Bös Weib Gut zu machen (Taming of the Shrew), edited by Lukas Erne, Florence Hazrat, and Maria Shmygol are forthcoming in volume two.


Tragedy, Comedy, and ‘Pickelherring’

In their discussion of Romio und Julieta, the roundtable participants reflected on the forceful presence and intriguing function of a character called ‘Pickelherring’, who is present in the German play but not the English. Pickelherring was a stock clown figure that appeared in numerous ‘English’ plays and entertainments in Northern Europe. As well as providing additional moments of comedy in both comic and tragic plays, the figure would also often prove important for the plot and for the characterization of the other characters in a given play, as the speakers found in relation to Creation Theatre’s work on the play. During rehearsals for the online play reading it was fascinating to see how the actors and director navigated Pickelherring’s bombastic and often incongruous dialogue at moments where it seemed to sit in opposition to the tragic tone of certain scenes. The masterful acting and direction, however, brought Pickelherring to life in a way that persuasively and powerfully bridged the comic and the tragic elements of the play. While the roundtable participants will continue to think collaboratively about these early modern German adaptations of Shakespeare, the discussion on 4th May certainly brought into focus how these plays—which are rarely written about in English scholarship let alone performed—invite reconsiderations of their sources, both on the page and in action.


This roundtable is part of an ongoing collaboration between researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Geneva under the ‘Geneva Exeter Research Exchange’, which was initially made possible by funding from the Universities of Geneva and Exeter in 2018-2019.

Useful links:

Creation Theatre
Early Modern German Shakespeare Project
Early Modern German Shakespeare Volume I: Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (Arden, 2020)
Conservative German editions of Romio und Julieta and Der Bestrafte Brudermord
Kareen Seidler translation services

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