Article Title

From Fat Falstaff to Francophile Fop: Russian Nationalism in Catherine the Great's Merry Wives


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In his anonymously published General Observations Regarding the Present State of the Russian Empire (1787), Sir John Sinclair, English visitor to St. Petersburg, calls Catherine the Great "a hero in petticoats," who

knows the French Belles Lettres perfectly, and, anno 1786, was reading Shakespeare in the German translation. She also writes comedies herself; and in any part of the world would be accounted, in private life, a most accomplished woman.1

Over the course of her reign (1762-1796) Catherine wrote over two dozen comedies, historical dramas, and operas, the majority of which, like most Russian drama of the period, was modeled on French neoclassicism. French dramaturgy, however, was not the sole influence on Catherine's writing style. Not only was she reading Shakespeare in 1786 as Sinclair notes, but she also wrote four plays influenced by a Shakespearean aesthetic that same year. Catherine humbly subtitled This 'tis to Have Linen and Buck-Baskets, her version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, as "a free but feeble adaptation." With this comedy, the first Russian play to credit Shakespeare's influence, Catherine contributed to a growing Russian trend of the 1780s: a lively interest in English fashion, language, and literature to replace the former domination of French culture.2 As literary historian Marcus Levitt has noted, "The question to consider is not how eighteenth-century writers misunderstood or corrupted Shakespeare but how they adapted him to meet specific needs of their own."3 By imitating Shakespeare rather than Moliere or Racine, Catherine probably rejected the French model, an act with both cultural and political connotations. The approbation of Shakespeare had the potential to express simultaneously pro-English and anti-French sentiments, all in the name of Russian nationalism. This article will examine how, despite her conscious attempt to follow a Shakespearean model while satirizing Francophilia, Catherine instead ultimately crafted a neoclassical comedy still strongly influenced by the French mode.

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