The first Shakespearian plays to be successfully presented in France offer one of the most odd and yet most successful cultural adaptations in the history of the theatre. These works, by Jean-François Ducis, were not exactly translations, and indeed could hardly even be called adaptations. They were complete reworkings of the dramas as if they had been conceived by a disciple of Racine, to make them compatible with contemporary French practice. This process affected every element in them, language, metaphor, and verse form, characters and character relationships, themes and action. Nothing perhaps could more illustrate the vast gulf that existed in pre-romantic dramatic practice in France and England than comparing the Ducis Shakespeares with their originals and seeing what was altered and why in this enormously successful if apparently somewhat perverse project of making a major English dramatist into a French one.
Without attempting to see Ducis as a major dramatic poet, we can today, I think, view his work as a particularly interesting and on the whole successful example of the sort of intercultural mixing that today, as our consciousness becomes more global, is an increasingly important part of our study of how theatre changes in moving among cultures. Within the European tradition in the late eighteenth century, it would have been difficult to find dramatic approaches more antithetical than the English, primarily represented by Shakespeare, and the French, primarily represented by Racine. The project of attempting to reconceive one in the style of the other seems almost unimaginable, and yet Ducis managed to accomplish this, with considerable success. His works are unlikely to re-establish themselves on the stage, but they endure as fascinating studies of the dynamics of intercultural theatre.
Translated by Marvin Carlson