From Avon to Ararat

Shakespeare—the influence of the English Bard on Armenian thought and culture


William Shakespeare is an undying name that has occupied the minds and hearts of scholars, writers, and artists for over four and a half centuries. The English literary genius is one of the most studied and celebrated figures to whom researchers have devoted an extensive body of work exploring various aspects of his life, plays, sonnets, and influence. He created 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two lengthy narrative poems, and a handful of other verses, most of which have been translated into over 100 languages, including Armenian.

The geography of Shakespeare’s translations into Armenian reaches as far as Calcutta, Beirut, Moscow, and Tbilisi to Constantinople, Cairo, Smyrna, Paris, and Venice. Remarkably, to many critics, Armenian has become one of the few languages that perfectly showcase the enchanting charms of Shakespearean lines. His works are also being re-translated and edited repeatedly. For example, Romeo and Juliet has been translated at least 15 times into Western and Eastern Armenian.

Perhaps Hovhannes Toumanian explained the reason behind this literary fervor best: “Shakespeare has become a criterion to determine a nation’s cultural standards. A people who do not translate Shakespeare are illiterate; those who are unable to understand him are intellectually immature, and the language into which Shakespeare cannot be translated is, indeed, poor.”

The national poet of Armenia had justification for expressing sentiments in this manner. The late 19th and 20th centuries, in which he lived, witnessed a significant resurgence of interest in Shakespeare in academia and popular culture. Various facts of Armenian life were influenced by Shakespeare during this era, encompassing Armenian language, literature, music, and art.

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Shakespeare by Giotto (Gevorg Grigoryan), 1933, National Gallery of Armenia.

Shakespeare by Giotto (Gevorg Grigoryan), 1933, National Gallery of Armenia.
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Shakespeare by Giotto (Gevorg Grigoryan), 1933, National Gallery of Armenia.

Earliest Traces

During the commemoration of Shake-speare’s 300th anniversary in London in 1916, Aram Raffi, the son of Armenian writer Raffi, asserted in his address that references to Shakespeare in Armenian literature could be traced back to the 17th century, specifically in the book titled Dzaghig Kidoutiants (The Flower of Knowledge). However, this information still needs to be verified, and Armenian scholars generally recognize the introduction of Shakespeare into Armenian circles in the late 18th century.

During this era, Armenian enlightenment ideologies were evolving in the Indian-Armenian community, beyond the constraints of the Ottoman-Persian subjugation of Armenians. Joseph Emin (1726-1809), an advocate of national liberation ideologies, published his work titled “The Life and Adventures of Joseph Émïn, an Armenian, written in English by himself” in London in 1792. In this publication, Emin drew analogies and explained intricate socio-political situations by referencing Shakespearean characters like Shylock, Othello, and Hamlet. Subsequently, the initial Armenian translations of Shakespeare emerged in the Armenian periodical Shtemaran in Calcutta in 1821-1823, with extracts of Hamlet translated into classical Armenian, Grabar.

Several decades later, the Mkhitarists of Venice organized the very first Armenian performance of a Shakespearean play, showcasing Macbeth in 1864. Twenty-two years later, a complete Armenian rendition of The Merchant of Venice debuted in Tbilisi, expanding the geographic reach of Armenian productions of Shakespeare’s works. Othello was first presented the following year.

In the Ottoman Empire, Shakespeare appeared in the 1840s, with the first performances directed by Güllü Agop, an Ottoman-Armenian director. The 19th-century Armenian theater underwent a profound cultural revival, mirroring broader socio-political shifts. It served as a potent platform to articulate the aspirations and challenges of Armenians amidst geopolitical changes and the pursuit of national identity.

Expectedly, a few decades later, Abdul Hamid labeled Armenian performances as nationalistic, subsequently banning them. Interestingly, he perceived a threat not only in Armenian themes but also when Armenians performed foreign plays, including those of Shakespeare.

In his book The Horrors of Adana, Bedross Der Matossian recounts missionary Helen Davenport Gibbon’s letter to her mother. She writes that when the plot took a downturn for Hamlet’s stepfather, it made attending dignitaries uncomfortable, causing them to hunch their shoulders. Due to the ban on such performances, numerous talented Armenian artists left Constan-tinople in search of a more favorable environment for their theatrical careers.

The heyday of Armenian scholarly attention to Shakespeare came during the Soviet era. Particularly, Ruben Zaryan, a theater specialist and Doctor of Art History, dedicated a significant part of his career to studying Shakespeare and editing volumes devoted to Shakespearean studies. Zaryan founded the Shakespearean Library in Armenia and the Armenian Shakespearean Center of Yerevan. His legacy provides a window to the Shakespearean Armenian world of this period.

 

Shakespearean Translations

Translating Shakespeare into Armenian is a challenging task, and many Armenian translators, including renowned ones, found it difficult to convey the complete essence of Shakespeare’s works through the Armenian language. Due to their complexity, Shakespeare’s works were initially rendered in narrative form rather than as verses.

It was Persian Armenian translator, publicist, editor, and diplomat Hovhannes Massehian who revolutionized the approach to translating Shakespeare. He introduced a new meter to the Armenian poetic tradition that allowed translating Shakespeare close to the original rhythm.

Massehian served as Persian ambassador to Germany, Great Britain, and Japan. His diplomatic roles greatly enhanced his proficiency in foreign languages, including English, French, and German, which was crucial for his successful translations.

Massehian’s first master translation was Hamlet, which appeared in the press in 1896. On this occasion, Toumanian wrote, “…we are in a position to say that we have made great progress, in that Shakespeare has spoken in Armenian. This is a big leap, a sudden big leap.”

In the realm of philology, Massehian’s enduring legacy is equally immeasurable. It is common knowledge that Shakespeare used the most English words, totaling over 20,000, in his literary corpus. This extensive lexical richness significantly contributed to the evolution of contemporary English. Undoubtedly, the languages that have embraced translations of Shakespeare have also reaped the benefits of this linguistic enrichment.

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Armenian translations from the 1890s of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet.

Armenian translations from the 1890s of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet.
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Armenian translations from the 1890s of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. Photo Credit / shakespeare.org

Soviet-Armenian linguist and Armen-ologist Varag Arakelian meticulously crafted an Armenian dictionary based on Massehian’s translation of Hamlet. Within its pages, Arakelian delves into the novel idioms and phrases introduced by Massehian, illustrating how many were integrated into everyday Armenian speech.

Furthermore, the translations of Shake-speare have contributed to integrating new names into Armenian daily life. Even today, names like Hamlet, Ophelia, and Julia/Julietta are widely used in Armenia, their prevalence dating back to the 19th century when they were first introduced to the wider public from European literature.

Shakespeare has become a criterion to determine a nation’s cultural standards. A people who do not translate Shakespeare are illiterate; those who are unable to understand him are intellectually immature, and the language into which Shakespeare cannot be translated is, indeed, poor.

Translating Shakespearean sonnets is another formidable challenge, yet Vahan Tekeyan, a contemporary of Massehian, overcame it with his unique literary style. He himself wrote Armenian sonnets, which he called hncheak. Tekeyan’s notebook, preserved at Armenia’s Museum of Literature and Art after Yeghishe Charents, encompasses translations of 22 sonnets alongside his own works. Interestingly, Tekeyan initiated these translations in 1943 in Cairo during his final years, focusing on sonnets with sad themes. His dedication endured until his passing in 1945.

Massehian and Tekeyan passed the torch to a new generation, including notable Armenian writers like Khachik Dashtents, Stepan Alajajyan, and Henrik Sevan. These successors upheld and expanded upon the legacy, making valuable contributions to the quality translation and editing of Shakespearean works. Yet, it was Massehian who skillfully constructed the most direct link between the original Shakespearean text and the Armenian language.

 

Shakespeare in Armenian Literature

Shakespeare’s ideas also profoundly influenced prominent Armenian writers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Specifically, the freedom-loving spirit of Shakespeare served as a significant inspiration for Mikayel Nalbandyan. Often regarded as the father of Armenian literary enlightenment, Nalbandyan played a crucial role in establishing the groundwork for the study of Shakespeare in Armenia.

Nalbandyan was probably first introduced to the works of Shakespeare between 1848 and 1853 when he served as a scribe to the Diocese of Bessarabia. Periodically receiving publications from Armenian communities abroad, notably Bazmavep from Venice, Europa from Vienna, and Azgaser from Calcutta, he often came across discussions on Shakespeare. Yet, he usually disagreed  with their perspective, as they were infused with European classicism, criticizing Shakespeare’s style and language use.

His first mention of Shakespeare is documented in his travel notes. “Shakespeare, the pride of the English theater and the great poetic wizard, had long ago instilled in me a desire to see Tor and Windsor,” he wrote. This desire materialized during his time in London when he visited Windsor to witness one of the greatest scenes from a Shakespearean play.

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Petros Adamian in the role of Othello.

Petros Adamian in the role of Othello.
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Petros Adamian in the role of Othello. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

If Nalbandyan is remembered for his free spirit in connection with Shakespeare, Armenian writer Paruyr Sevak draws a parallel between Sayat-Nova and Shakespeare regarding the theme of enduring love. Sevak suggests that both cherished their objects of affection similarly. According to him, “If we translated Shakespeare into the Tbilisi Armenian dialect and applied one of Sayat Nova’s meters, readers might mistake it for the work of Sayat-Nova rather than Shakespeare. It reflects the same acceptance of fate and the same unattainability of the object of love, transforming it into an object of worship.”

Sevak further emphasizes the connection between the two poets through another shared theme—the profound yearning to beget an heir before departing from life. Delving into symbolism he writes that Sayat-Nova commonly alludes to the Nunufar flower, equivalent to the lotus in Shakespeare’s plays. Sevak believed that both flowers hold parallel significance, symbolizing purity and rebirth in their respective cultural contexts.

On a different note, Hovhannes Toumanian was captivated by the theme of humanism, a recurring motif in much of his literary works. Renowned for his mastery of the Armenian language, he not only edited but also provided insightful commentary on numerous translations of Shakespeare, including the works of Hovhannes Massehian.

As a skilled translator in his own right, Toumanian energetically translated the works of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. However, his admiration for Shakespeare led him into a “written debate” with Tolstoy. Unimpressed by Shakespeare’s talent and writings, the latter criticized him in several articles. Toumanian’s bookshelf encompasses one of Tolstoy’s articles, where Toumanian meticulously read the critique, adding commentary and question marks next to expressions that clearly signaled his disagreement and disappointment with such analysis.

Zabelle Boyajyan, a survivor of the Hamidian massacres and an influential Armenian female writer, penned a poem titled Armenia’s Love to Shakespeare. Boyajian, a dedicated advocate for the Armenian cause, consistently used her art and writings to raise awareness in Britain. She took immense pride in her poem and considered it an honor to represent Armenia in a book commemorating Shakespeare. In one of her letters, she shared, “I was asked to write for the big Book of Homage to Shakespeare to which a great many of the best writers in England had contributed. And also writers from almost every country. At the national celebration, with all the fForeign Ambassadors, and members of the Government on the platform in the Hall, two poems were read out of the Book—one by Thomas Hardy, then the Poet Laureate, and the other mine.”

 

Armenian Shakespearan Actors

Two names stand out on the global theatrical scene as unparalleled Armenian actors of Shakespeare, employing their unique acting styles to convey the poet’s ideologies rather than just narrate a plot. These distinguished figures are Petros Adamian (1849-1891, Constantinople) and Vahram Papazian (1888-1969, Constantinople, Yerevan).

Adamian, celebrated for his excellent performances as Hamlet and Othello, became one of the world’s top tragedians. His Hamlet in 1880 won the audience’s respect, making him a leading actor in Armenian Shakespeare. This period also linked Shakespeare with the national awakening of Armenians.

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Vahram Papazian in the role of Hamlet. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

Vahram Papazian in the role of Hamlet. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents
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Vahram Papazian in the role of Hamlet. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

Zaryan stated that his Armenian identity enabled him to understand and interpret Shakespeare authentically. “On the stage, in the guise of a Shakespearean character, Adamian spoke of the sufferings and aims of his own people, their love of life and fellow men.”

According to Zaryan, Adamian could have chosen to perform Shakespeare in French to attract a larger audience, but he preferred Armenian, aiming to showcase the miracles his native language could achieve. “In these crucial years of our past, there appeared a man in the person of Adamian to prove to the world how a small nation, tucked up high in the Caucasian mountains, could understand and interpret Shakespeare,” he concluded.

Armenia also gave a female Hamlet to the world. After Adamian’s passing in 1891, Siranuysh (Merope Kantarjian, 1857-1932) rekindled the Armenian audience’s passion for theater. This exceptionally talented actress played a pivotal role in gaining global recognition for Armenian arts, taking on nearly 300 roles.

Siranuysh was socially active and couldn’t accept the prevailing impossible conditions. Her portrayal of Hamlet served as a mediator and rebel, aiming “to change the false and hypocritical world in which she lived into a new and better life,” noted Zaryan. Eventually, when the Ottoman Empire prohibited Armenian theater performances, Siranuysh relocated to Cairo to continue her theatrical career.

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Siranuysh in the role of Hamlet, undated; Guzh Manukyan in the role of Buckingham, Richard III, undated. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

Siranuysh in the role of Hamlet, undated; Guzh Manukyan in the role of Buckingham, Richard III, undated. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents
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Siranuysh in the role of Hamlet, undated; Guzh Manukyan in the role of Buckingham, Richard III, undated. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

Born in Constantinople, Vahram Papazian studied in Venice and Milan, where he met and performed in the theatrical groups of widely-known Italian actors Tsakoni and Novelli. Papazian returned to Constantinople when the ban on Armenian theatrical performances was diminished, and his first Shakespearean role there was Othello. Yet, in 1913, Papazian eventually moved to Tbilisi, as the theatrical life in Constantinople was not that promising.

In the early 1920s, the Moscow Press acclaimed Papazian as “one of the best modern tragedians,” noting that his portrayal of Othello was innovative and aligned with contemporary needs. A few years later, the Parisian press asserted that Papazian was born for the role of Othello.

In addition to his talent and expertise, Papazian excelled in mimicry. When applying his own makeup, he deliberately avoided using substances that might obscure the nuances of his facial expressions, ensuring that they were an integral part of his successful play.

During the mid- to late-Soviet period, Shakespeare’s concepts of humanism found widespread acceptance within the Union. It is believed that his advocacy for humanism appeared more pertinent than ever and served as a direct counterargument to fascism.

Renowned artists of this era, Gurgen Janibekyan and Hrachya Nersisyan, carried on portraying Shakespearean characters with a focus on humanistic philosophy. Zaryan noted that they stood on equal footing, with the nuances lying more in their individual talents than variations in how they interpreted their roles.

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Hrachya Nersisyan in the role of Macbeth, Sundukyan State Academic Theatre, 1933. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

Hrachya Nersisyan in the role of Macbeth, Sundukyan State Academic Theatre, 1933. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents
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Hrachya Nersisyan in the role of Macbeth, Sundukyan State Academic Theatre, 1933. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

The late Soviet era was also famous for its Shakespearean festivals, introducing many of these performances to then-Soviet states. Armenians earned respect not only for their talent but also for the beauty of the Armenian language showcased in these events.

According to famous contemporary actor, director, and producer Gerald Papasian, Shakespeare became so popular in the Soviet era because, despite the ban on most European literature and ideologies, Shakespeare seemed politically correct and safe for Soviets. Therefore, most directors would turn to Shakespeare whenever they wanted to do something European. “And yet sometimes they would put subtexts in Shakespeare productions so that the public would know basically they were talking about the state, like in Yerevan’s Dramatic Theater during the performance of Richard III in the 1970s. You could almost feel that they were talking about the Kremlin but if somebody said anything, the answer would be ‘It’s Shakespeare, it’s classics. We didn’t mean anything wrong.’”

In the post-Genocide period, Armenians produced Shakespeare in the United States, France, and Lebanon, to name a few. Papasian recalls: “One of the prominent directors in Beirut was Berj Fazlian who produced Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1960s. Additionally, in 1968, Much Ado About Nothing was produced by Krikor Satamian in Beirut.”

 

Shakespeare Inspired Armenian Art

The Bard of Avon’s influence extended beyond the literary realm, penetrating various cultural facets of the Armenian nation, including music and art.

While there is limited information on how Komitas engaged with Shakespeare during his era or whether he attended Adamian’s performances in Constantinople, it is confirmed that he was familiar with Massehian’s translations. In his documents, a musical notation was discovered featuring Massehian’s translation of the third act of The Merchant of Venice as lyrics for the music he composed for this act. Amidst the loss of a significant portion of Komitas’s work and papers during the Armenian Genocide, it remains uncertain whether he composed an entire piece for the play or focused on specific acts.

Armenian musicologist and composer Robert Atayan speculated that Komitas likely had created the composition in Etchmiadzin, not Constantinople, between 1901 and 1908 while studying at the Gevorgian Seminary, where the students were periodically organizing performances. He believed that this song-monologue is a significant example, confirming Komitas’s diverse aesthetic preferences and interest in Shakespeare within the Armenian musical scene of that time.

Throughout his life, the renowned Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian composed 25 film scores, including music for Shakespearean plays, such as Othello. Scholars emphasize that his theme for Othello reflects the objectivity of a national artist, interpreting the character with qualities and depths aligned with the rich national artistic heritage. Musicologist Georg Predota believes that “...this music unveils the full spectrum of Khachaturian’s cinematic imagination.”

Renowned Armenian artists have also produced works inspired by Shakespeare, including the painter Vardges Surenyants. His profound fascination with Shakespeare is evident through various aspects and events in his life. Surenyants even dedicated himself to translating several of Shakespeare’s plays, although most of them remain unpublished.

Petros Adamian shared a close friendship with the Surenyants family, likely forming their bond during his trips to Moscow in the 1880s. In one of his letters, Adamian revealed that Yekaterina Surenyants, Vardges Surenyants’s sister, performed alongside him in various Shakespearean roles, including Ophelia and Desdemona.

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Petros Adamian was a painter in his own right, who created Imaginary Ophelia and his self-portrait in the role of Hamlet, among other masterpieces. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

Petros Adamian was a painter in his own right, who created Imaginary Ophelia and his self-portrait in the role of Hamlet, among other masterpieces. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents
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Petros Adamian was a painter in his own right, who created Imaginary Ophelia and his self-portrait in the role of Hamlet, among other masterpieces. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

This strong connection resulted in six sketches and one painting by Surenyants, all portraying Adamian in Shakespearean roles. These artworks are believed to hold significant artistic value within Surenyants’s collection, given the rarity of sketches in his overall body of work.

Inspired by Massehian’s translations, artist Harutyun Minasyan depicted powerful dramatic conflicts and humanistic figures from Shakespeare’s plays. The characters include Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Shylock, Coriolanus, and Cleopatra.

Martiros Saryan, a contemporary of Vahram Papazian, included Papazian in his series of sketches featuring actors of the Yerevan Dramatic Theater. Saryan wrote, “Papazian emerged as a remarkable figure in our community, succeeding Adamian and taking Armenian Shakespeare to a global stage. He presented Shakespeare as a reflection of his people’s history and soul, offering a distinctive interpretation to the English and all civilized nations. In the portrait I created in 1924, I believe I captured both the external and internal virtues of this individual.”

Shakespeare became so popular in the Soviet era because, despite the ban on most European literature and ideologies, Shakespeare seemed politically correct and safe for Soviets. Therefore, most directors would turn to Shakespeare whenever they wanted to do something European.

In the realm of film, renowned artist and cinematographer Rouben Mamoulian showcased his admiration for Shakespeare uniquely by transforming the intricate language of Hamlet into simplified standard English. Mamoulian, recognizing the challenge of reading Shakespeare in its original language, aimed to make it accessible to English-speaking audiences. Despite being staged only once in a university setting, scholars of Shakespearean studies highly praised his effort. In 2019, Mamoulian’s adaptation of Hamlet was presented to contemporary directors at the Berlin Film Academy’s annual festival.

Shakespeare continues to captivate Armenian hearts with ongoing translations, performances, and tributes across the globe. Since 2005, Armenia has rekindled the Shakespearean festival tradition, introducing new interpretations and showcasing the finest plays in Yerevan. Notably, in 2012, Armenia became part of the exclusive list of 37 countries permitted to perform Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre.

Yet, in scholarly circles, Hasmik Seymour, the founder of The Armenian Shakespeare Association, notes a need for a new generation of Shakespeare scholars in Armenia. Established in 2016, the association, composed of dedicated researchers and academics from Armenia and Great Britain, strives to enhance cultural exchange and advance education in Shakespearean research and performance. 

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Othello stage sketch, Sundukyan State Academic Theatre, 1926. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

Othello stage sketch, Sundukyan State Academic Theatre, 1926. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents
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Othello stage sketch, Sundukyan State Academic Theatre, 1926. Photo Credit / Literature and Art Museum after Yeghishe Charents

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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