Shakespeare in Brazil: Introduction

November 20, 2010

Written by Liana de Camargo Leão, Universidade Federal do Paraná (UFPR)

Brazil speaks the language of Prospero, but speaks it with a difference; or rather, with many differences. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Brazilians have been able to attend performances of Shakespeare’s plays produced either by European theatrical companies visiting Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo on their way to Buenos Aires and New York, or by the founder of Brazilian theater, the great actor João Caetano (1808-1863); in both cases, however, the texts performed were melodramatic adaptations of Shakespeare by Jean-François Ducis (1733-1816), Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863) and Albois.

A hundred years later, the scene has completely changed: Shakespeare is performed throughout Brazil by Brazilian troupes; the text has been translated from the English original, without the mediation of French culture which dominated 19th C Brazilian culture.

Recent theatrical productions are unique because they are not afeard to transpose the text to their own cultural realities, appropriating Shakespeare, mixing the plays with Brazilian matter, coloring them with sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. The voices of the schools of samba, of the circus, of street theater, the harsh reality of the favelas, the twangling berimbaus and the martial dance of the capoeira from Bahia, the traditional culture of Minas Gerais, are among the many riches ready to drop new accents upon the plays. However, as Brazil is a country of continental size, Shakespeare can and is often recreated in such diverse ways that it becomes almost impossible to establish what a Brazilian Shakespeare would be.

1835, First Performances by Brazilian Troupes

As mentioned above, the history of the performance of Shakespeare’s plays in Brazil started with the mediation of French culture which dominated the culture of Portugal and Brazil during the times of the colony.

The very first Brazilian Shakespearean performances by João Caetano occurred as early as 1835 and were attempts at a Brazilian performance free from French influence: Hamlet was enacted in the cities of Niterói and Rio de Janeiro, employing a Brazilian translation by Oliveira e Silva which was done from the original English text. The play was not well received by the public; according to João Caetano, this was so because the public was not ready for Shakespeare, being used to melodramas instead.  Thus, when five years later, in 1840, João Caetano tried Hamlet one more time, he turned to the French adaptation of Jean-François Ducis which transformed the tragedy into a melodrama.

All but the very first Hamlet João Caetano performed were translations of French adaptations of Shakespeare.  In 1838, Joao Caetano mounted Shylock or the Terrible Vengeance of a Jew, based on an adaptation by Albois. In 1838, he interpreted Otelo, his greatest shakespearean role, which he would go back to 26 times between 1837 and 1860; again, Caetano’s Otelo, was a translation of Vigny’s adaptation by Gonçalves de Magalhães (1811-1882).

Important Brazilian poets, writers and intellectuals, such as Gonçalves Dias, Álvares de Azevedo, Machado de Assis and Joaquim Nabuco, greatly criticized the interference of the French adaptations of Shakespeare, daring to speak against the then most famous actor. For example, in a chronicle published in Semana Ilustrada, on 25 of June, 1871, Machado de Assis wrote, after attending a performance of Othello by Rossi: “Our João Caetano, who was a genius, performed three of these tragedies [by Shakespeare], and managed to brilliantly give them the life that  Ducis had taken away from them. “( ASSIS, Machado de. Semana Ilustrada, 25 de junho de 1871. p. 4.380). (check image of Machado de Assis)

But the complaints of the intellectuals did not affect the life of the theatre. Actors continued to perform Shakespeare adapted and sugared to suit the audience’s demands; João Caetano’s choices for his texts remained aligned with the public taste for the “French Shakespeare” they were accustomed to.  Throughout his career, Caetano continued to perform Shakespeare via Ducis  or via the versions by Alfred de Vigny.

1871 Onward, European Troupes Performing in Brazil

Apart from Caetano’s productions, no other Brazilian actor or company performed Shakespeare for almost a century. The Shakespearean scene was occupied solely by the European theatrical companies that toured Brazil. One such company was the Italian Ernesto Rossi’s (1827-1896) (image), which were at the Theatro Lyrico Fluminense in Niterói in 1871, presenting, among other tragedies, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Differently from the Shakespearean melodramatic adaptations presented by Caetano, Rossi’s plays were translated from the English original, which probably explains why the famous Rossi was coldly received by the Brazilian public.

Another famous Italian actor who visited Brazil at about the same time as Rossi was Tommaso Salvini (1829-1915) (image). Throughout the world, Salvini was very much admired as a great tragic actor; he played Othello in Italian to special audiences composed of actors, both in London and New York. The folklore holds that the performance in New York was specially successful as the actor was greatly applauded even though he played in Italian while the rest of the crew spoke in English.(check images of Rossi and Salvini)

From 1871 to the end of the century, many European, mostly Italian, but also Spanish and Portuguese companies visited Rio de Janeiro; towards the end of the century, European companies visited São Paulo and Porto Alegre as well. Among famous interpreters, it is worth mentioning the visits of the Italian Giacinta Pezanna Gualtieri, in 1882, who played Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt, in 1905, also playing Hamlet; Constant Conquelin Ainé, in 1907, playing The Taming of the Shrew; and Gabriel Trabulsi, in 1918, playing Hamlet. World War I interrupted the visits from European companies to Brazil, which accounts for the absence of Shakespeare from the Brazilian stages for almost half a century.

From the mid-twenties onwards, European companies came back, touring Brazil once more:  in 1924 and 1931, Ermete Zacconi (1857-1948) visited Brazil; in 1931, actor Alexander Moissi (1879-1935) brought his Hamlet; in 1947, Jacob Ben-Ami (1890-1977) also brought his  Hamlet; in 1950,  Madeleine Renaud (1900-1994) and Jean-Louis Barrault (1919-1994) bought their Hamlet; in 1954, Il Piccolo de Milan brought  Julius Cesaer; in 1958, the Teatro Stabile di Genoa, brought Measure for Measure. In 1964, for the centenary of Shakespeare, Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) and  Barbara Jefford (1930-) came to the Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro with Midsummer’s Night Dream and The Merchant of Venice to great acclaim.

1938 Onward, Resurgence of Shakespeare

In 1938, Shakespeare was back onstage, thanks to the efforts of the Brazilian poet and diplomat Paschoal Carlos Magno (1906-1980). With the Teatro do Estudante do Brasil (TEB), Magno produced in 1938 a very successful Romeo and Juliet; in 1942, As you like it; and in 1948, a romantic Hamlet, directed by Hoffmann Harnisch and which launched the carreers of Sérgio Cardoso (1925-1972), Maria Fernanda (1928-) and Sérgio Britto (1923-) and changed completely the face of Shakespeare on Brazilian stges. Harnisch and Cardoso’s Hamlet is defintely a landmark in Brazilian Shakespeare. Sergio Cardoso was then a law student, intending to be a diplomat; after the success of Hamlet, he dedicated himself entirely to the theatre and television.

Comments (7):

  1. Terezinha Fonseca says:

    Professora Liana,

    Aqui seguem algumas informacoes sobre Shakespeare no Brasil, que apesar de nao passarem de curiosidades, pertencem ao seu campo de estudo.

    A Faculdade de Letras da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, antiga Faculdade de Filosofia da Universidade do Brasil, iniciou seus estudos de Shakespeare com a professora inglesa, Miss Melissa Hull, que escreveu uma tese sobre o bardo. A seguir, sua sucessora, Dona Aila de Oliveira Gomes, tambem escreveu uma tese para professora catedratica, intitulada “On the Man Shakespeare.” Em 1967, como professora assistente de ingles na Faculdade de Letras da UFRJ, eu montei o Midsummer Night’s Dream (a peca completa em ingles) com meus alunos do curso de Shakespeare. Em 1970 eu entreguei a terceira tese sobre Shakespeare na UFRJ. “Shakespeare’s Songs in the Comedies” foi a primeira tese a ser entregue no recem criado curso de pos graduacao da UFRJ.

    Quanto a mim, uma professora brasileira que leciona Shakespeare nos Estados Unidos, meus estudos shakespearianos continuaram com a publicacao de Literature Across Cultures (co-autoria e quinta edicao publicada pela Longman), uma antologia para introducao a literatura onde inclui os textos de Othello e Hamlet. No momento, como professora aposentada, dou conferencias sobre Shakespeare na area de Fort Lauderdale, na Florida.

    Gostei muito de seu artigo Shakespeare no Brasil: Introduction, e eu gostaria tambem de acompanhar o progresso dos estudos de Shakespeare no Brasil. Se possivel, por favor, inclua meu nome e e-mail em algum endereco eletronico.

    Muito obrigada, e se/quando vier aos Estados Unidos, me procure.

    Terezinha Fonseca
    Professora emerita,
    Queensborough Community College
    The City University of New York

  2. Peggy Daley says:

    I am the niece of Melissa Stodart Hull and would love to know more about her life at the University of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro. Any information would be appreciated.

  3. liana leao says:

    Obrigada, Prof Terezinha, pelos seus comentários.
    Já ouvi muito comentar sobre o início da Faculdade de Letras da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, e sobre a ótima professora Miss Melissa Hull, e sua sucessora, Dona Aila de Oliveira Gomes, de quem li a tradução de Lear, bilingue, publicada recentemente. A prof Aíla teve como aluna a prof Marlene Soares dos Santos, que me contou muitas histórias. Eu gostaria muito de ler a sua tese “Shakespeare’s Songs in the Comedies” ou publicações que dela tenham advindo.É um tema muito interessante.
    Seria ótimo também conhecer todo o seu trabalho: Literature Across Cultures (co-autoria e quinta edicao publicada pela Longman). A senhora poderia conribuir com o site do MIT escrevendo para o professor Peter Donaldson. Este site é inteiramente voltado ao ensino e pesquisa, as contribuições são voluntárias, e precisamos muitíssimo de ajuda de profissionais que saibam português e inglês. Nós legendamos trechos, selecionamos trechos das montagens, escrevemos descrições das peças, somos um grupo pequeno – eu, a professora Cris Smith, que mora no Arizona, e a prof Anna Camati, que mora em Curitiba. Fazemos na mediada do possível. É muito trabalho conseguir o material, realizar entrevistas, enfim, seria ótima, se a senhora pudesse, quando tivesse um tempo, nos auxiliar com sua expertise. meu email é ou Aguardo o seu contato.

  4. Anderson Nielsen says:

    Professora Liana,
    Primeiramente parabéns pelo texto.
    Não sou um especialista em Shakespeare como vocês, mas um curioso e interessado no tema. Estava procurando sobre o tema Shakespeare in Brazil quando me deparei com seu artigo no Mit.
    Tenho reunido material ao longo do meu tempo livre, por ser um tema de meu interesse.
    Posso contribuir com a tradução inglês/português caso precisem. Me coloco a disposição.

    Apesar do post ser de 2010, acredito que ainda tenham gestão sobre ele.
    Best Regards

    Mr. Anderson

    • Liana de Camargo Leão says:

      Caro Anderson,
      Muito obrigada por sua leitura. Fico feliz que o artigo lhe tenha sido util. Passarei a sua mensagem a nossa co/worker Belinda sobre seu oferecimento em nos auxilliar.
      Gostaria que voce visse tambem o site brasileiro de Shakespeare, da UFPR, e que se chama Shakespeare Digital Brasil. Um abra;o e aguardo seus comentarios sobre o outro site.

      Liana Leao

  5. evelyn ashlin says:

    I was one of Melissa Hull’s students at the Universidade do Brasil, (Faculdade Nacional de Filosofia) in the early 1940s. I remember her well. She was a great inspiration as I went on to pursue a career in Journalism in the United States ( my pen name is Evelyn De Wolfe).I am now an author and in my 94th year.
    I would like to tell Miss Hull’s cousin , some of what I remember of my university days in my hometown of Rio de Janeiro. Do you happen to have her e-mail? My e-mail is listed above. Muito obrigada. Evelyn .

  6. Peggy Daley says:

    Dear Ms Ashlin, my email address is I would love to hear from you
    about Melissa Hull.

    Unfortunately I can’t see your email address above.


    Peggy Daley

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