Medieval & Early Modern History Research article

Ibsen and Shakespeare

  Professor Tore Rem explores the relationship, or lack of, between Ibsen and Shakespeare

6 minute read

‘The whole of your great monumental work on Shakespeare I have not only read but immersed myself in as in hardly any other book.’ Thus wrote Henrik Ibsen in a letter addressed to the leading Scandinavian intellectual of the time, the Danish-Jewish critic and author Georg Brandes. The year was 1896 and Brandes had just published William Shakespeare: A Critical Study.

In his private correspondence, Ibsen could be one for flattery, and it’s hard to know how much weight to put on such a statement. What is certain is that there are hardly any references to Shakespeare in Ibsen’s entire output, including in his, admittedly rather meagre, production of non-fiction and in his correspondence.

We do know, however, that Ibsen witnessed Shakespeare productions both at home and abroad, and it is likely that he read at least some of the plays. We also know that he reacted against uncritical adulation, particularly in relation to mediocre productions at home. The Norwegian audience knew that Shakespeare was supposed to be great, Ibsen noted in an essay in 1861, and thus did much to excuse the specific execution of his plays.

The Norwegian audience knew that Shakespeare was supposed to be great, Ibsen noted in an essay in 1861, and thus did much to excuse the specific execution of his plays.


If Shakespearean influence on Ibsen is to be considered – and, believe me, some have looked hard and long – it seems likely to be a matter of Ibsen’s early plays and the history plays from his national-romantic phase, up until Brand and Peer Gynt, although the latter is of course a sprawling, heterogeneous, in some ways unclassical and Shakespearean work. Ibsen’s debut had come with Catiline (1850), a play with its action takes from classical Rome and with more than a hint of Julius Caesar (there are no signs that Ibsen knew of Ben Jonson’s Catiline). But more productive than thinking about minute similarities and differences between these early plays and Shakespeare, I would suggest, is to home in on how Shakespeare and the Norwegian playwright were seen in relation to each other during Ibsen’s arrival and breakthrough in Britain in the late 1880s and ’90s.

The company of Ghosts (2023). Photography by Marc Brenner.

Shakespeare was made use of by those championing Ibsen, the authors, critics, translators, and theatre people who would soon be called ‘Ibsenites’, but in different ways. By Ibsen’s enemies, the ‘Ibsenophobes’, however, Shakespeare was brought up as a healthy alternative to this dangerous foreign import. The subject matter of Ghosts might have been a noble theme, Clement Scott of The Daily Telegraph typically suggested, but you wanted a ‘tragic poet’, someone like Shakespeare, to attack it. Instead, it was ‘vulgarised and debased by the suburban Ibsen’. By many, Ibsen was considered a threat to Shakespeare – and to Englishness.


Shakespeare of course enjoyed enormous cultural authority in late Victorian England and had long since been made into ‘England’s National Bard’, a process convincingly charted by Michael Dobson. ‘Bardolatry’, Dobson, notes had risen to ‘orthodoxy as a national religion’. It was therefore natural that Ibsen’s conspicuous foreignness would be compared unfavourably to Shakespeare’s supposed Englishness, but also that Shakespeare could, in more positive terms, be used to help Ibsen find his place in the English-language canon.

Sarah Slimani as Regine Engstrand in Ghosts (2023). Photography by Marc Brenner.

Edmund Gosse, Ibsen’s first English mediator, had stressed the poetic and universal qualities of the Norwegian’s works. In a clear attempt at elevating the status of this writer, Gosse wrote that ‘If anything exists outside of Aeschylus and Shakespeare more direct in its appeal to the conscience, more solemn, more poignant than the last act of Ghosts, I at least do not know where to look for it.’ But Gosse also made the reader aware of the ‘daring’ and ‘realistic’ qualities of Ibsen’s plays.


Gosse’s friend Henry James went further, preferring Ibsen to Shakespeare ‘a hundred times’. Ibsen’s superiority consisted in his far greater suitability for the modern stage, as James saw it. He would prefer to read Shakespeare and to watch Ibsen. George Bernard Shaw, the most vocal Ibsenite in London at the time, the one with the greatest gifts for hyperbole, as well as the one responsible for coining the terms ‘Bardolatry’, went much further. Comparing Hamlet to Peer Gynt was like comparing ‘the Eiffel tower to one of the peaks in an Alpine chain’, he claimed, and added that Ibsen had dwarfed Shakespeare ‘absurdly’ in terms of psychology and philosophy. But the most revealing statement regarding Shaw’s vies on Ibsen and modern literature came in ‘The Problem Play – A Symposium’ from 1895. ‘A Doll’s House will be as flat as ditch water when A Midsummer Night’s Dream will still be fresh as paint,’ Shaw argued, ‘but it will have done more work in the world.’ He was proven wrong, but his argument was that the immediate effect of art was enough for ‘the highest genius’, which was always, he insisted, ‘intensely utilitarian’.

Here it might be worth drawing attention to a later stage in Ibsen’s English censorship history. Ghosts was given a license in 1914, and this signalled a new and more liberal approach to Ibsen. In 1922, when the censor’s reader was asked to consider whether a license a new translation of Peer Gynt, he sensibly noted: ‘I would suggest treating this somewhat as one would treat Shakespeare – parts of which if written today would appear coarse, i.e. treat it as a classic.’

It’s of course impossible to uphold Shaw’s clear opposition between a non-utilitarian, poetic Shakespeare and a utilitarian or moral Ibsen. Numerous articles and books have stressed the poetic qualities of Ibsen’s realism, numerous audiences have experienced them. Ibsen has long since become an evergreen, with Shakespeare, a classic. Perhaps it’s also, in context of the production at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, worth noting that Shakespeare wasn’t only a playwright of the public amphitheatre full of groundlings. He was also, like Ibsen, one for indoor, more intimate spaces, even private clubs.

Greg Hicks as Engstrand in Ghosts (2023). Photography by Marc Brenner.

The 1922 censorship verdict on Peer Gynt documents that Ibsen soon became domesticated, even Englished. But it might be an idea to think that every new Ibsen production should aim at undomesticating him, at making him seem strange, foreign, or at the very least thought-provoking, perhaps even to let him appeal to our conscience. The past, Ghosts teaches us, can have much to do with our presents, much to say to us here, now. That can also go, I would suggest, for our classics, Shakespeare and Ibsen included. They can still do work in the world.



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