My very first encounter with Shakespeare did not send thrills up and down my pre-cremation spine.
This was back in Russia, where I grew up and lived until draft age, at which time I decided to emigrate to America.
My literature teacher in the village school was an old bachelor who was widely known as Verrückt Busenitz, a.k.a. Crazy Busenitz. He was a lover of Shakespeare. In fact, word had it that he had translated seven of Shakespeare’s finest plays into German.
One of those plays was Hamlet, which he taught us. His preferred way of teaching was to stand behind his lecturn and read his translation, some of which I wrote down for future use. By “future use” I mean the examination that would determine whether I would graduate and become eligible for the life of full-time farming.
The other day I discovered my notes of some of Herr Busenitz’s translations. Most of these notes were from conversations between Hamlet and his sidekick, Horatio.
Very early in this tragedy the two friends are discussing the weather. Hamlet remarks, “Die Luft beisst schrewdlich; sie is sehr kalt.” Horatio agrees: “Es ist eine klemmende und eifrige Luft.” As I wrote this exchange down I remember thinking, “And this is supposed to be great literature? Give me Anna Karenina any day.”
At that time, I must explain, I was in love with Anna Karenina. While I was milking my father’s cows I was imagining myself as her illicit lover, Count Vronsky. Vronsky was my hero. It was through his influence that I took up smoking.
But I ramble—the Verrückt influence. Later on, Hamlet and Horatio have a profound philosophical discussion. I don’t recall what it was about, but I remember that Verrückt Busenitz put great emphasis on the last word that Hamlet got in: “Es gibt mehr Sachen im Himmel und in der Masse, Horatio, als von in ihren Philosophie geträumt werden.” Herr Busenitz repeated this line many times, and I figured I’d better write it down so I wouldn’t have to take the same course the next year.
During one of Verrückt Busenitz’s long-winded discourses on the greatness of Shakespeare, I recall that he kept repeating the line, “Kurze ist die Seele des Esprits.”
Halfway through the play, Hamlet rams his sword into an eavesdropper who is hidden behind the curtain. The victim turns out to be Polonius, whose daughter Ophelia is engaged to the sword-rammer. Meister Busenitz went through this scene rather quickly, but one of the lines caught my attention. Hamlet, not at all repentant, says in a matter-of-fact tone, “Ich zerre die Eingeweide in den benachbarten Raum.”
The school I attended emphasized religion, and Herr Busenitz was no exception. He spent a lot of time on one of Hamlet’s lines: “Es gibt ein Göttlichkeit, die unsere Enden formt, schraube oben sie, wie wir werden.”
By the time we got through with Hamlet, I had come to the conclusion that the plot was above average, but that Shakespeare was overrated when it came to his choice of words.
It was only later, when I learned English, that I came to see that I’d been wrong. I bought a copy of the complete plays of Shakespeare and began to read him, starting of course with Hamlet.
Only then did I realize that Shakespeare comes across best when you read him in his own language.
When Hamlet and Horatio discuss the weather, their conversation, in English, goes like this:
Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air.
Who else would have thought to say it that way? If the Weather Channel would hire poets to explain their charts, I would become a couch potato, with an emphasis on meteorology.
After their philosophical discussion, Hamlet says: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” No wonder this line is included in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. As is “Brevity is the soul of wit,” though not Meister Busenitz’s translation, “Kurze ist die Seele des Esprits.”
And doesn’t “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room” beat “Ich zerre die Eingeweide in den benachbarten Raum”?
Finally, take the turgid “Es gibt ein Göttlichkeit, die unsere Enden formt, schraube oben sie, wie wir werden” and replace it with “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will” and see what happens to church attendance.