Shakespeare and Translation

Maria João da Rocha Afonso
Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas
Universidade Nova de Lisboa

Jealousy in Venice - The First Printed Version of a Shakespeare Text in Portuguese


Portugal was slow to get to know Shakespeare. When he died we were a part of Spain, and besides being an enemy, England was not a cultural influence to Portugal. Spain was. During the 17th century we got our independence back. But then again, the English culture was not appealing to the Portuguese despite the Windsor treaty of the 14th century (1386). So, it came as no surprise that, when we got to hear from Shakespeare, he came from France
(*1) . The first Portuguese Shakespeare's play was a translation from Laplace's Othello, not Shakespeare's (*2) , and when we got both Hamlet and Othello on stage, they were Ducis' texts once again (*3). Portugal had to wait for the best part of the 19th century before we could hear any of Shakespeare's characters talking in Portuguese.

Even then, when they did, the source text was not the original one. Perhaps Portuguese playwrights and translators knew no other but, until the 1870's, it didn't cross anybody's mind to look for the English text as a sole source and so they translated or adapted from Ducis'. In European terms, it is no wonder that it happened so, but it becomes quite odd when you come to think of the circumstances in Portugal. We did have a powerful treaty with England since 1386 but our main cultural influence was definitely France. Portugal and France both have Romance languages and Latin characters: that puts them close together. Nevertheless, although our most important cultural influence was France, the initial stage of Portuguese Romanticism was defined by a strong English accent. The man who wrote the poems that set the date for the new artistic movement in Portugal - Almeida Garrett - had lived in England where he "discovered" the poets of the Lyrical Ballads, Walter Scott and, more important than these, Shakespeare. Yet, when he came back from his exile in England and started to translate Othello, it was Ducis' text that he used as source, not Shakespeare's.

Having been quite a popular character in Portuguese theatre between the 15th and the end on the 18th centuries, the Blackman almost disappeared from the stage when the political strife of the 1820's took place. The new discovered ideas of the liberal change generated in the wake of the French Revolution made it quite unsuitable to despise someone that was "different". I'm not talking about what we now call "politically correct" but about a new awareness of all men being "equal" derived from the political ideas of the French Revolution. That doesn't mean that the prejudice - constantly tendered for four centuries - had vanished. On the contrary the scornful tone turned from the satirical to a kind of slapstick comedy tone: from the bitterness and sarcasm, the prejudice took to anecdotal laughter. The audiences reacted positively to the exotic - amusing character of the Blackman. Nevertheless, and despite former practice, this kind of character became quite rare on Portuguese stages for the first part of the 19th century. Black men were incorporated in the general characters that represented the poor people

There was one exception, and this was Othello. For four hundred years, Portuguese playwrights had created characters of black people that were defined by various aspects of prejudice, stereotype and reality. Black people were associated with lust, savagery, history, music and low status. In their uniformity, they were somewhat different but they all shared a common characteristic: although the sad, unhappy objects of humiliation from a white society, they were never subjects of tragedy. Their unhappiness was laughable for the white and bearable for themselves. Life did go on despite their misery. I must point out, though and before proceeding any further, that O Intrigante de Veneza is not a tragedy, although at the beginning it seems to be one: both Cassio and Emilia are able to tell the whole story of Jacome's intriguing and mischief before Othello even tries to kill his wife, thus preventing him from committing a crime.

And this is one of the reasons that make the one exception to this, such an interesting study object. Shakespeare's Othello was not in the least the same type of character that was so popular in Portuguese poetry and theatre
(5). By being a general and later the governor of Cyprus, he was miles away in the social pyramid from the entertainers in touradas (bullfights), servants and poor workmen of the Portuguese stage. Othello is presented as a "nobleman" (if only in character, not in birth) and the love Desdemona feels for him is the absolute opposite from the traditional situation of the black woman who loves a white man and is punished for it that Portuguese theatre goers knew so well. Nevertheless, prejudice pervades the whole play. But we will come to that later…
So, how come Othello grew so popular in Portugal? First of all, we have to consider the word "popular". During the last quarter of the 18th century and first of the 19th, it means "theatre goer" which is NOT "everybody", or even "anybody". It means the noble and bourgeois families that would attend a theatre or opera performance. At the same time, we must bear in mind that, to that kind of audience, Othello was, in fact, the most popular Shakespeare play. It was the first to be translated into Portuguese, during the 18th century - although not published! --, and the first to be staged in a Portuguese version, albeit deriving from the Ducis' text. Rossini's opera was equally famous in our country, together with Zingarelli's I Capuletti e I Montecchi. So, it comes as no surprise that the first printed version would be the Moor's tragedy.

In 1839, Portugal witnessed the publication of a play allegedly by Shakespeare. And I say "allegedly" because, and we'll see it later, we cannot duly ascribe the Portuguese text O Intrigante de Veneza, to the British Elizabethan poet. It's author, José Maria Silva Leal (1812-1883), was a man of some substance in Portuguese letters. He was a journalist and a liberal and eventually became the director of one of the most influential Romantic Portuguese periodicals, the Revista Universal Lisbonense (1841-57). His connection with the theatre was a strong one: in 1846 he became the Secretary of the Conservatório (Lisbon High School for Drama) and the President of the Jury for the annual drama competition, in 1879. These jobs came to him as a result of his interest in playwriting. Starting in 1839 with O Intrigante de Veneza, Silva Leal wrote quite a considerable number of plays from various genres: historical drama, farces, opera buffa, comedies and "mágicas" (fantasies). Having stated that the publishing panorama was hard for the playwrights, he launched a collection: O Dramaturgo Português ou Collecção de Dramas Originais Portugueses (Portuguese Playwright, or Collection of Original Portuguese Dramas) in order to develop playwriting in Portugal. This series was started in 1841 and the third play to be published was O Intrigante de Veneza, which had been written two years before.

The first thing that catches our attention is the "conflict" between the title of the collection (original dramas) and the immediate recognition of the name of one of the characters: Othello. How did Silva Leal manage to solve this contradiction? In his opening words he states: "nowadays, the idea of originality is a vain concept". So let us try and find out what kind of concept lies behind the text we are dealing with. In a very different attitude from Simão de Melo Brandão, the 18th century translator of Othello, Silva Leal does not claim to have based his efforts on Shakespeare's text. In the Foreword, Silva Leal claims that his original text was not meant to be a translation or imitation from any other play, but "having drawn its outline in my mind, I found out that it looked so similar to that tragedy [Othello], that I would be forced to get in touch with it at several moments of the writing process. On the other hand […] I decided to make use of its theme and even of some of the thoughts of Shakespeare and Ducis, fitting those into the scheme I had devised." (My translation). In fact, Silva Leal made some significant changes, the least not being the shift of the main character: the title refers to Jácome (Jago) and not to Othello, as do Shakespeare's and Ducis'. Although some of the scenes are straight translations both from Shakespeare and Ducis, Silva Leal rearranges them in quite a different way. In short: can we talk about a translation even if from a conflated text? Definitely not. Silva Leal's text, although based on the two previous playwrights, is a new, personal text. He recognized them as a hypotext but O Intrigante… is a rewriting of those two, resulting in a middle class, bourgeois drama: it is a very clear case of what has become known as "domesticated text"
(*6). The final product is a Portuguese play, dealing with characters drawn from national traditions, debating themes widely recognisable in our literary production.

The first major original difference of the Portuguese play lies on the relationships between the various characters: like the Ducis' Lorédan, Cassio is the son of the Doge (who bears no name), but Jácome is Emilia's brother and is in love with Sismonda [Desdemona]. Emilia is in love with Cassio - who loves her -- and Rodrigo loves Emilia. In Silva Leal's play Branca plays the part of Emilia as a friend of Desdemona's in Shakespeare's. Ducis cuts this character.

Silva Leal divides his text into five acts, assigning each one to a different character: Othello (1), Jácome, (2) Cassio (3), Brabancio (4), and Sismonda (5). The emphasis in each act is given to the characterization of the title character, and the action is centred on an event that helps to it. In the first act we find Othello facing the Council of the Ten to justify his marriage to Sismonda. But there are three important additions to it: Jácome reveals to us that he was the instigator of the marriage and kidnapping of Sismonda from Brabancio's house, he states himself as an important citizen of Venice and a mischievous, treacherous character, and justifies his hatred for Othello by the love he bears to Sismonda. It is Jácome's jealousy, not Othello's that drives the whole action. Jácome's feeds Othello's jealousy to serve his own. Shakespeare makes Jago hate Othello because he wants his place as a general and a governor, Ducis' Pézare does not offer any explanation, he just plots to destroy Othello, and we do not know why. Ducis relies on the audience's previous knowledge of the play, which Silva Leal does not.

On the second act, Silva Leal creates one of the most horrifying scenes of the whole play: Jácome meets Sismonda, declares his love for her and threatens her with the death of Othello and the imprisonment of Brabancio if she does not yield to his desire. This confrontation does not exist in any of the previous plays and here it assumes a very violent character. Sismonda reaches the extreme of picking up a dagger and threaten to kill herself to force Jácome to abandon his pledge for the time being. But he leaves the room claiming for revenge: "That's enough, Sismonda, no more words! In my house, I rule as a lord. Do pay attention: if anyone gets to know the slightest bit of what happened between us, if the smallest rumour runs that you are here by force, you will loose both your father and the Blackman at that very same moment." (My translation)

There is a point that deserves some attention, although it rests on a peculiarity of the Portuguese language. Jácome addresses Sismonda as "tu" - second person, singular -, which is a very familiar way of addressing anyone and is in complete contrast with the "vous" Ducis employs. Of course, in English, we do not have such a distinction, but in Portuguese, it makes all the difference. That meant that Jácome's arrogance is so great that he does not even show that minimum of politeness that would be expected in a relationship of that sort.

This act presents two more innovations. Emilia's role is very different from Shakespeare's Emilia and Ducis' Hermance. Under threat of blckmail from her brother, she tries to destroy Sismonda's marriage to Othello. She is not very eager in doing it but, nevertheless, she tries to. The second one is Sismonda's attitude towards the assumption of her marriage to Othello. Like a dutiful Portuguese catholic daughter, she wants her father's blessing and, when Othello expresses the wish to consummate their marriage, she asks him to wait for one day so that "my heart may regain the peace he has lost" by trying once again to get her father's forgiveness. That obedience to her father's will was a very important aspect of 19th century Portuguese society: girls would be sent into convents for this kind of disobedience.

In the third act, Jácome manages to destroy Cassio's love for Emilia, convinces him that Sismonda is in love with him, and makes Cassio declare his love for Sismonda, in a scene that echoes Ducis'. Like in Ducis' Sismonda freely offers Cassio a token for his help in freeing Brabancio from the accusations the senate bears against him. And, like in the previous text, she chooses a gift Othello had given her. But Silva Leal's choice was a much stronger one: Sismonda gives Cassio her wedding ring. A possible explanation may lie upon the very strong case for Sismonda's virtue Silva Leal makes repeatedly all along the play. Nowhere in the text there is the slightest hypothesis of anyone not trusting it. And that includes Othello. So, what object could have a stronger significance than the wedding ring?

The language of Silva Leal's play does not bear in the least, the sexual innuendo that Shakespeare's does. Nor looks for grandiose words or speeches like Ducis'. But it is much stronger, in what concerns race. Othello is always referred to as "the Blackman" or "the African". He himself utters those words. Emilia says to Sismonda, "You're devoting yourself to a Blackman!", but it is in the fourth act that the language and the racist comments reach their utmost. Once again, Jácome is the author of the violence: he calls Othello "the vagabond African" and talks about prospective grandchildren of Brabâncio's as "little African monsters, and extravagant grandchildren". He feels himself to be superior to Othello because he is white and he considers Othello's love for Sismonda to be an aberration which he wants to destroy out of a combination of jealousy and racism. Brabancio follows him and calls Othello "monster". And they repeatedly use the word "Blackman". Nowhere in the play is he referred as "the Moor", like in Shakespeare.

Having travelled all over the world, the Portuguese were quite familiar with black people and, as I said before, they were a quite common character in Portuguese literature. And the word "Blackman" was the usual one. The distinction between "preto" and "negro" (the politically correct word today) did not exist at the time. But in this text, and because of the context provided by Jácome's hatred towards Othello, it becomes a very violent word.

Silva Leal does include another original scene in this act: Emilia and Cassio talk to each other and expose Jácome's wickedness. As a result, they reconcile themselves and Cassio gives her the ring so that she can return it to Sismonda. Once again using violence, Jácome threatens his sister with a dagger and manages to take the ring away from her. He plans to use it later. And the fourth act ends with Sismonda pledging her love to Othello and her husband asking for her forgiveness.

And, finally, we do have the fifth act, the one which is entitled "Sismonda". Deeply convinced of Sismonda's virtue, Othello threatens Jácome. As a result of the villain's insistence, Othello asks for proof of her adultery and that is when Jácome produces the ring and a note Sismonda had signed without reading, and which states her intention of divorcing Othello and marrying Cassio in obedience to Brabâncio wishes. And, Jácome adds, he has already killed Cassio. This is the point where Silva Leal turns away from his sources and writes something absolutely new, according to the aesthetics of the bourgeois drama he followed: everything is pointing towards the traditional tragic dénouement but, with a sudden twist, just before the final blow, the author creates the opportunity for the characters to explain everything to each other thus exposing the criminal and allowing for general happiness according to the rules of society. In a rage, after having, once more, listened to Jácomes intrigues, Othello holds a sword, a much more visually effective weapon than a pillow, or a dagger, and runs into Sismonda bedroom, where she has just sung Ducis' version of the "Willow Ballad", to kill her. Confronted with the ring and the note, Sismonda tries to explain but she only manages to fall down on her knees and put her arms against Othello's (a gesture created in Ducis play, where Hedelmone helds her father's knees, while asking for his forgiveness).

The entrance of the Doge, Brabâncio, Cassio, Emilia, Branca and servants to the amazement of Othello who thought Cassio dead, prevents the slaughter of Sismonda. Like in Ducis text, Brabâncio comes in to bring forgiveness to his daughter. But, this time, he does not arrive too late and they all get reconciled. Cassio exposes Jácome's evil and the play ends, according to the conventions of the "drame bourgeois" with a moral lesson and the punishment of the guilty: Jácome poisons himself and dies avowing full conscience of his deeds: "Sismonda!… I die!… My crimes exceeded the limits of depravity!… Egotism, wickedness and hypocrisy have always led my actions!… And I would crown my career in evil with a new crime… which would make you all eternally execrate my odious life!… I poisoned myself… (Falls down, dying) (My translation). The reaction of the characters on stage echoes the readers' "Oh, horror!"

O Intrigante de Veneza cannot be taken out of its context. There were reasons for the particular place Othello held in Portuguese preferences. Ducis wrote his play in the obvious influence of the French Revolution ideals: he talks about "citoyens" and makes some considerations about the power of the nobility. I do not think Silva Leal was a republican but he certainly was a liberal. In 1839, when he wrote this play, Portugal had lived through a period of political strife having witnessed the internal fights between absolutists and liberals. The queen, D. Maria II, had come to the throne in 1835, when she was just 15 and the country was slowly recovering its peace. In art and literature, the Romantic ideas were creeping and all this was well in tune with a play depicting a virtuous woman claiming that "when there are virtues we can do without ancestors" bringing the nobility of character as a means of social elevation into the limelight.

At the same time, jealousy, fear of cuckoldry and intense love had made regular appearances in Portuguese theatre since Gil Vicente, considered to be the father of Portuguese theatre, who lived in the 16th cent.. Shakespeare was a name of authority in Portugal. So, what Silva Leal did was to apply what Sebastião José Guedes e Albuquerque, in 1818, defined as "imitation", which was "to say things that bring to mind some excerpt we recognize due to their similitude to it or making one's own the thought of an author by the new shape we give it either by enlarging or restraining it and by depicting the same objects using different images." (My translation)

Although Silva Leal does recognize his debt towards the two previous playwrights, he manages to create a play with a Portuguese flavour: the characters would be familiar to a Portuguese audience, as would the jealousy theme, the insistence upon Sismonda's virtue, the relationship father/daughter defined by parental absolute authority as in the one between Sismonda and Brabancio, the amorous harassment from Jacome, the idea of a tragedy/sin that goes from parent to child (Sismonda and her mother) and that comes from the past to haunt the present and all the references to "fate", "destiny", "death by love" and "presentiments". All these would ring very strong bells. But, despite all this, as far as we know, the play was not performed. At least, not in Lisbon and not until 1856 and it is quite unlikely that it was performed afterwards
(*8). Portugal would have to keep on waiting for a Portuguese-speaking Shakespeare character to jump from page to stage…


1) The reception of Shakespeare in Portugal is not yet fully studied although we can count on some texts such as Estorninho, Carlos, "Shakespeare na Literatura Portuguesa", in Ocidente, Vol. LXVII, Lisboa, 1964. Pp. 113 -124; Jorge, Maria do Céu Saraiva, Shakespeare e Portugal (Tese de Licenciatura apresentada à Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa), Lisboa, 1941 (dact.). back to text

2) Afonso, Maria João da Rocha, "Simão de Melo Brandão and the First Portuguese Version of Othello" in European Shakespeares. Translating Shakespeare in the Romantic Age, 1993, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company. Pp. 129-146.
back to text

3) Afonso, Maria João da Rocha, "Othello estreia-se nos palcos portugueses", in Revista de Estudos Anglo-Portugueses, Lisboa, CEAP, 1996. Pp. 121-36.
back to text

4) Tinhorão, José Ramos, Os Negros em Portugal. Uma presença silenciosa. Lisboa, Editorial Caminho, 1997, 2ªed. (1988, 1ªed.) back to text

5) Idem, ibidem.
back to text

6) Franklin, Colin, Shakespeare Domesticated. The eighteenth-century editions, Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1991.
back to text

7) Albuquerque, Sebastião José Guedes e Albuquerque, "Prefácio", Arte de Traduzir do Latim para Portuguez, reduzida a principios. In Pinilla, José Antonio Sabio e Sánchez, María Manuela Fernández, O Discurso Sobre a tradução em Portugal, Lisboa, Edições Colibri, 1998
. back to text

8) Vasconcelos, Ana Isabel Pereira Teixeira de, O Drama Histórico Português do Século XIX ou Ficções da Representação Histórica no Tempo de Almeida Garrett (1836-56), Lisboa, Tese de Doutoramento Apresentada à Universidade Aberta, 1999. In this essay, the author makes a complete list of all the plays that were performed both in professional and amateur theatres in Lisbon, during this period. From what we know about the theatrical panorama of the time, we can quite safely assume that O Intrigante de Veneza was not performed. back to text


SHAKESPEARE, William, Othello, Ed. By Norman Sanders, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997 (1984).

DUCIS, Jean François, Othello ou Le More de Venise. Représentée pour la première fois, a Paris, sur le Théâtre-français, le 26 Novembre 1792. Paris, Michel Lévy Fréres, Éditeurs.

LEAL, José Maria Silva, O Intrigante de Veneza. Drama em 5 Actos e 8 Quadros., Lisboa, Typographia de Antonio Sebastião Coelho, 1842.


FLOR, João de Almeida, "'Beyond a Common Joy': Evocacções Shakespeareanas em Fernando de Mello Moser" in Cunha, Gualter (coord.), Estudos Ingleses. Ensaios sobre Língua, Literatura e Cultura, Coimbra, Minerva, 1998.

HOMEM, Rui Carvalho, "Of Negroes, Jews and Kings: On a Nineteenth-Century Royal translator", in The Translator, Volume 7, Number 1, April 2001. Pp. 19-42. Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing.

--- "Of Power and Race and Sex - With Due Respect: on Some Portuguese translations of Othello" in SEDERI, 10, 1999. Pp. 193-204.

LANSON, G., Histoire de la Littérature Française, Paris, Hachette, 1951.

LISBOA, Eugénio (coord.), Dicionário Cronológico de Autores Portugueses, 1990. Vol. 2.

MATTOSO, José (dir.), História de Portugal, Lisboa, Círculo de Leitores, 1993. 5º Volume, "O Liberalismo. 1807-1890".

SILVA Jorge Miguel Bastos da, "Um Contexto para a recepção deShakespeare no Romantismo Português: os Dados dos Periódicos", in Revista de Estudos Anglo-Portugueses, Lisboa, Centro de Estudos Comparados, 2000. Número 9, pp. 43-86.


Dec. 2001

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