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This volume of memoirs has a double character–historical and intimate. The life of a period, the XIX Century, is bound up in the life of a man, VICTOR HUGO. This is not a diary of events arranged in chronological order, nor is it a continuous autobiography. It is less and it is more, or rather, it is better than these. It is a sort of haphazard chronique in which only striking incidents and occurrences are brought out, and lengthy and wearisome details are avoided.
It was at Rheims that I heard the name of Shakespeare for the first time. It was pronounced by Charles Nodier. That was in 1825, during the coronation of Charles X.
No one at that time spoke of Shakespeare quite seriously. Voltaire’s ridicule of him was law. Mme. de StaÃ«l had adopted Germany, the great land of Kant, of Schiller, and of Beethoven. Ducis was at the height of his triumph; he and Delille were seated side by side in academic glory, which is not unlike theatrical glory. Ducis had succeeded in doing something with Shakespeare; he had made him possible; he had extracted some “tragedies” from him; Ducis impressed one as being a man who could chisel an Apollo out of Moloch. It was the time when Iago was called Pezare; Horatio, Norceste; and Desdemona, Hedelmone. A charming and very witty woman, the Duchess de Duras, used to say: “Desdemona, what an ugly name! Fie!” Talma, Prince of Denmark, in a tunic of lilac satin trimmed with fur, used to exclaim: “Avaunt! Dread spectre!” The poor spectre, in fact, was only tolerated behind the scenes. If it had ventured to put in the slightest appearance M. Evariste Dumoulin would have given it a severe talking to. Some GÃ©nin or other would have hurled at it the first cobble–stone he could lay his hand on—a line from Boileau: L’esprit n’est point Ã©mu de ce qu’il ne croit pas. It was replaced on the stage by an “urn” that Talma carried under his arm. A spectre is ridiculous; “ashes,” that’s the style! Are not the “ashes” of Napoleon still spoken of? Is not the translation of the coffin from St. Helena to the Invalides alluded to as “the return of the ashes”? As to the witches of Macbeth, they were rigorously barred. The hall–porter of the ThÃ©Ã¢tre–FranÃ§ais had his orders. They would have been received with their own brooms.
I am mistaken, however, in saying that I did not know Shakespeare. I knew him as everybody else did, not having read him, and having treated him with ridicule. My childhood began, as everybody’s childhood begins, with prejudices. Man finds prejudices beside his cradle, puts them from him a little in the course of his career, and often, alas! takes to them again in his old age.