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J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Book V

Chapter V

WILHELM had already been for some time busied with translating Hamlet; making use, as he laboured, of Wieland’s spirited performance, by means of which he had first become acquainted with Shakspeare. What in Wieland’s work had been omitted he replaced; and he had at length procured himself a complete version, at the very time when Serlo and he finally agreed about the way of treating it. He now began, according to his plan, to cut out and insert, to separate and unite, to alter and often to restore; for, satisfied as he was with his own conception, it still appeared to him as if in executing it he were but spoiling the original.

So soon as all was finished, he read his work to Serlo and the rest. They declared themselves exceedingly contented with it; Serlo, in particular, made many flattering observations.

“You have felt very justly,” said he, among other things, “that some external circumstances must accompany this piece; but that they must be simpler than those which the great poet has employed. What takes place without the theatre, what the spectator does not see, but must imagine for himself, is like a background, in front of which the acting figures move. Your large and simple prospect of the fleet and Norway will very much improve the piece; if this were altogether taken from it, we should have but a family-scene remaining; and the great idea, that here a kingly house by internal crimes and incongruities goes down to ruin, would not be presented with its proper dignity. But if the former background were left standing, so manifold, so fluctuating and confused, it would hurt the impression of the figures.”

Wilhelm again took Shakspeare’s part; alleging that he wrote for islanders, for Englishmen, who generally in the distance were accustomed to see little else than ships and voyages, the coasts of France and privateers; and thus what perplexed and distracted others, was to them quite natural.

Serlo assented; and both of them were of opinion, that as the piece was now to be produced upon the German stage, this more serious and simple background was the best adapted for the German mind.

The parts had been distributed before: Serlo undertook Polonius; Aurelia undertook Ophelia; Laertes was already designated by his name; a young, thickest, jolly new-comer was to be Horatio; the King and the Ghost alone occasioned some perplexity. For both of these there was no one but Old Boisterous remaining. Serlo proposed to make the Pedant King; but against this our friend protested in the strongest terms. They could resolve on nothing.

Wilhelm also had allowed both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to continue in his piece. “Why not compress them into one?” said Serlo. “This abbreviation will not cost you much.”

“Heaven keep me from all such curtailments!” answered Wilhelm, “they destroy at once the sense and the effect. What these two persons are and do, it is impossible to represent by one. In such small matters we discover Shakspeare’s greatness. These soft approaches, this smirking and bowing, this assenting, wheedling, flattering, this whisking agility, this wagging of the tail, this allness and emptiness, this legal knavery, this ineptitude and insipidity,—how can they be expressed by a single man? There ought to be at least a dozen of these people, if they could be had: for it is only in society that they are anything; they are society itself; and Shakspeare showed no little wisdom and discernment in bringing in a pair of them. Besides, I need them as a couple that may be contrasted with the single, noble, excellent Horatio.”

“I understand you,” answered Serlo, “and we can arrange it. One of them we shall hand over to Elmira, Old Boisterous’s eldest daughter: it will all be right, if they look well enough, and I will deck and trim the puppets so that it shall be a pleasure to behold them.”

Philina was rejoicing not a little that she had to act the Duchess in the small subordinate play. “I will show it so natural,” cried she, “how you wed a second without loss of time, when you have loved the first immensely. I hope to gain the loudest plaudits, and every man shall wish he were the third.”

Aurelia gave a frown; her spleen against Philina was increasing every day.

“’Tis a pity, I declare,” said Serlo, “that we have no ballet; else you should dance me a pas de deux with your first, and then another with your second husband,—and the first might dance himself to sleep by the measure; and your bits of feet and ankles would look so pretty, tripping to and fro upon the side stage.”

“Of my ankles you do not know much,” replied she snappishly; “and as to my bits of feet,” cried she, hastily reaching below the table, pulling off her slippers, and holding them together out to Serlo; “here are the cases of them, and I give you leave to find me nicer ones.”

“It were a serious task,” said he, looking at the elegant half-shoe. “In truth, one does not often meet with anything so dainty.”

They were of Parisian workmanship: Philina had obtained them as a present from the Countess, a lady whose foot was celebrated for its beauty.

“A charming thing !” cried Serlo; “my heart leaps at the sight of them.”

“What gallant throbs !” replied Philina.

“There is nothing in the world beyond a pair of slippers,” said he; “of such pretty manufacture, in their proper time and place, when——”

Philina took her slippers from his hands, crying, “You have squeezed them all ! They are far too wide for me !” She played with them, and rubbed the soles of them together. “How hot it is !” cried she, clapping the sole upon her cheek, then again rubbing, and holding it to Serlo. he was innocent enough to stretch out his hand to feel the warmth. “Clip ! clap the heel, so that he screamed and drew back his hand; “I will teach you to use my slippers better.”

“And I will teach you to use old folk like children,” cried the other; then sprang up, seized her, and plundered many a kiss, everyone of which she artfully contested with a show of serious reluctance. In this romping, her long hair got loose, and floated round the group; the chair overset; and Aurelia, inwardly indignant at such rioting, arose in great vexation.