Shakespeare's reputation

Shakespeare's reputation

In his own time, William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was seen as merely one among many talented playwrights and poets, but ever since the late 17th century he has been considered the supreme playwright, and to a lesser extent poet, of the English language. No other dramatist has been performed even remotely as often on the British (and later the world) stage as Shakespeare. The plays have often been drastically adapted in performance; the version of "King Lear" used in performance between 1681 and 1838, for instance, had a happy ending, provided by a rewrite by the Irish poet Nahum Tate. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the era of the great acting stars, to be a star on the British stage became synonymous with being a great Shakespearean actor. The emphasis was then on the soliloquies as declamatory turns, at the expense of pace and action, and Shakespeare's plays threatened to disappear under music, scenery, thunder, lightning and wave machines.

Editors and critics of the plays, disdaining the showiness and melodrama of Shakespearean stage representation, began early to focus on Shakespeare as dramatic poet, to be studied on the printed page rather than in the theatre. The rift between Shakespeare on the stage and Shakespeare on the page was at its widest in the early 19th century, at a time when both the Shakespeares were hitting peaks of fame and popularity: theatrical Shakespeare was successful spectacle and melodrama for the masses, while book or closet drama Shakespeare was being elevated by the reverential commentary of the Romantics into unique poetic genius, prophet, and bard. Before the Romantics, Shakespeare was simply the most admired of all dramatic poets, especially for his insight into human nature and his realism, but Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge refactored him into an object of almost religious adoration or "bardolatry" (from "bard" + "λατρεία", Greek for worship—a word coined by George Bernard Shaw), who towered above mere mortal writers, and whose plays were to be worshipped as not "merely great works of art" but as "phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers" and "with entire submission of our own faculties" (Thomas de Quincey, 1823). To the later 19th century Shakespeare became in addition an emblem of national pride, the crown jewel of English culture, and a "rallying-sign", as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1841, for the whole British empire.

Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, the historic rift between poet and playwright has begun to heal.

17th century

(essentially pamphlet) form; others, including many of his finest, took decades to reach a third edition.

After Ben Jonson pioneered the canonization of modern plays by printing his own works in folio (the luxury book format) in 1616, Shakespeare was the next playwright to be honored by a folio collection, in 1623. The fact that that folio went into another edition within nine years indicates that he was held in unusually high regard for a playwright. The dedicatory poems by Ben Jonson and John Milton in the second folio were the first to suggest that Shakespeare was the supreme poet of his age. These expensive reading editions are the first visible sign of a rift between Shakespeare on the stage and Shakespeare for readers, a rift that was to widen over the next two centuries. In his 1630 work 'Timber' or 'Discoveries', Ben Jonson praised the speed and ease with which Shakespeare wrote his plays as well as his contemporary's honesty and gentleness towards others.

During the Interregnum (1642–1660), all public stage performances were banned by the Puritan rulers. Though, while denied the use of the stage, costumes and scenery, actors still managed to ply their trade by performing "drolls" or short pieces of larger plays that usually ended with some type of jig. Shakespeare was among the many playwrights whose works were plundered for these scenes. Among the most common scenes were Bottom's scenes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the gravedigger's scene from "Hamlet". When the theatres opened again in 1660 after this uniquely long and sharp break in British theatrical history, two newly licensed London theatre companies, the Duke's and the King's Company, started business with a scramble for performance rights to old plays. Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and the Beaumont and Fletcher team were among the most valuable properties and remained popular after Restoration playwriting had gained momentum.

Restoration playhouses had elaborate scenery. They retained a shortened version of the apron stage for actor/audience contact, although it is not visible in this picture (the artist is standing on it).
In the elaborate Restoration London playhouses, designed by Christopher Wren, Shakespeare's plays were staged with music, dancing, thunder, lightning, wave machines, and fireworks. The texts were "reformed" and "improved" for the stage, an undertaking which has seemed shockingly disrespectful to posterity. A notorious example is Nahum Tate's happy-ending "King Lear" (1681) (which held the stage until 1838), while "The Tempest" was turned into an opera replete with special effects by William Davenant. In fact, as the director of the Duke's Company, Davenant was legally obliged to reform and modernize Shakespeare's plays before performing them, an ad hoc ruling by the Lord Chamberlain in the battle for performance rights which "sheds an interesting light on the many twentieth-century denunciations of Davenant for his adaptations" (Hume, p. 20). The common modern view of the Restoration stage as the epitome of Shakespeare abuse and bad taste has been shown by Hume to be exaggerated, and both scenery and adaptation became more reckless in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The incomplete Restoration stage records suggest that Shakespeare, although always a major repertory author, was bested in the 1660–1700 period by the phenomenal popularity of Beaumont and Fletcher. "Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage", reported fellow playwright John Dryden in 1668, "two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's". In the early 18th century, however, Shakespeare took over the lead on the London stage from Beaumont and Fletcher, never to relinquish it again to anybody.

By contrast to the stage history, in literary criticism there was no lag time, no temporary preference for other dramatists: Shakespeare had a unique position at least from the Restoration in 1660 and onwards. While Shakespeare did not follow the unbending French neo-classical "rules" for the drama and the three classical unities of time, place, and action, those strict rules had never caught on in England, and their sole zealous proponent Thomas Rymer was hardly ever mentioned by influential writers except as an example of narrow dogmatism. Dryden, for example, argued in his influential "Essay of Dramatick Poesie" (1668) — the same essay in which he noted that Shakespeare's plays were performed only half as often as those of Beaumont and Fletcher — for Shakespeare's artistic superiority. Though Shakespeare does not follow the dramatic conventions, Dryden wrote, Ben Jonson does, and as a result Jonson lands in a distant second place to "the incomparable Shakespeare", the follower of nature, the untaught genius, the great realist of human character.

18th century


In the 18th century, Shakespeare dominated the London stage, while Shakespeare productions turned increasingly into the creation of star turns for star actors. After the Licensing Act of 1737, one fourth of the plays performed were by Shakespeare,Fact|date=February 2008 and on at least two occasions rival London playhouses staged the very same Shakespeare play at the same time ("Romeo and Juliet" in 1755 and "King Lear" the next year) and still commanded audiences. This occasion was a striking example of the growing prominence of Shakespeare stars in the theatrical culture, the big attraction being the competition and rivalry between the male leads at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, Spranger Barry and David Garrick. Apparently no incongruity was perceived in having Barry and Garrick, in their late thirties, play adolescent Romeo one season and geriatric King Lear the next: age appropriateness was nothing, the power to command and electrify audiences was all.

landmark "Variorum Edition", which was published posthumously in 1821 and remains the basis of modern editions. These collected editions were meant for reading, not staging, and some of them were even convenient for a poetry lover to carry around; Rowe's 1709 edition was, compared to the old folios, a light pocketbook. Shakespeare criticism also increasingly spoke to readers, rather than to theatre audiences.

The only aspects of Shakespeare's plays that were consistently disliked and singled out for criticism in the 18th century were the puns ("clenches") and the "low" (sexual) allusions. While a few editors, notably Alexander Pope, attempted to gloss over or remove the puns and the double entendres, they were quickly reversed, and by mid-century the puns and sexual humor were (with only a few exceptions, "see" Thomas Bowdler) back in to stay.

Dryden's sentiments about Shakespeare's matchless imagination and capacity for painting "nature" were echoed without a break in the 18th century by, for example, Joseph Addison ("Among the English, Shakespeare has incomparably excelled all others"), Alexander Pope ("every single character in Shakespeare is as much an Individual as those in Life itself"), and Samuel Johnson (who scornfully dismissed Voltaire's and Rhymer's neoclassical Shakespeare criticism as "the petty cavils of petty minds"). The long-lived belief that the Romantics were the first generation to truly appreciate Shakespeare and to prefer him to Ben Jonson is contradicted by unstinting praise from writers throughout the 18th century. Ideas about Shakespeare that many people think of as typically post-Romantic were frequently expressed in the 18th and even in the 17th century: he was described as a genius who needed no learning, as deeply original, and as creating uniquely "real" and individual characters (see Timeline of Shakespeare criticism). To compare Shakespeare and his well-educated contemporary Ben Jonson was a popular exercise at this time, a comparison that was invariably complimentary to Shakespeare. It functioned to highlight the special qualities of both writers, and it especially powered the assertion that natural genius trumps rules, that "there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature" (Samuel Johnson).

Elsewhere in Europe

Some of Shakespeare's work was performed in continental Europe during the 17th century, but it was not until the mid 18th century that it became widely known. In Germany Lessing compared Shakespeare to German folk literature. Goethe organised a Shakespeare jubilee in Frankfurt in 1771, stating that the dramatist had shown that the Aristotelian unities were "as oppressive as a prison" and were "burdensome fetters on our imagination". Herder likewise proclaimed that reading Shakespeare's work opens "leaves from the book of events, of providence, of the world, blowing in the sands of time." This claim that Shakespeare's work breaks though all creative boundaries to reveal a chaotic, teeming, contradictory world became characteristic of Romantic criticism, later being expressed by Victor Hugo in the preface to his play "Cromwell", in which he lauded Shakespeare as an artist of the grotesque, a genre in which the tragic, absurd, trivial and serious were inseparably intertwined.

19th century

hakespeare in performance

, see image right.

Through the 19th century, a roll call of legendary actors' names all but drown out the plays in which they appear: Sarah Siddons (1755—1831), John Philip Kemble (1757—1823), Henry Irving (1838—1905), and Ellen Terry (1847—1928). To be a star of the legitimate drama came to mean being first and foremost a "great Shakespeare actor", with a famous interpretation of, for men, Hamlet, and for women, Lady Macbeth, and especially with a striking delivery of the great soliloquies. The acme of spectacle, star, and soliloquy Shakespeare performance came with the reign of actor-manager Henry Irving at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in London from 1878 to 1899. At the same time, a revolutionary return to the roots of Shakespeare's original texts, and to the platform stage, absence of scenery, and fluid scene changes of the Elizabethan theatre, was being effected by William Poel's Elizabethan Stage Society.

hakespeare in criticism

Thomas de Quincey: "O, mighty poet! Thy works are… like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers".] The belief in the unappreciated 18th-century Shakespeare was proposed at the beginning of the 19th century by the Romantics, in support of their view of 18th-century literary criticism as mean, formal, and rule-bound, which was contrasted with their own reverence for the poet as prophet and genius. Such ideas were most fully expressed by German critics such as Goethe and the Schlegel brothers. Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt raised admiration for Shakespeare to worship or even "bardolatry" (a sarcastic coinage from bard + idolatry by George Bernard Shaw in 1901, meaning excessive or religious worship of Shakespeare). To compare him to other Renaissance playwrights at all, even for the purpose of finding him superior, began to seem irreverent. Shakespeare was rather to be studied without any involvement of the critical faculty, to be addressed or apostrophized—almost prayed to—by his worshippers, as in Thomas de Quincey's classic essay "On the Knocking at the Gate in "Macbeth" (1823): "O, mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers,—like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties…".

As the concept of literary originality grew in importance, critics were horrified at the idea of adapting Shakespeare's tragedies for the stage by putting happy endings on them, or editing out the puns in "Romeo and Juliet". In another way, what happened on the stage was seen as unimportant, as the Romantics, themselves writers of closet drama, considered Shakespeare altogether more suitable for reading than staging. Charles Lamb saw any form of stage representation as distracting from the true qualities of the text. This view, argued as a timeless truth, was also a natural consequence of the dominance of melodrama and spectacle on the early 19th-century stage.

Shakespeare became an important emblem of national pride in the 19th century, which was the heyday of the British Empire and the acme of British power in the world. To Thomas Carlyle in "On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History" (1841), Shakespeare was one of the great poet-heroes of history, in the sense of being a "rallying-sign" for British cultural patriotism all over the world, including even the lost American colonies: "From Paramatta, from New York, wheresoever… English men and women are, they will say to one another, 'Yes, this Shakespeare is ours; we produced him, we speak and think by him; we are of one blood and kind with him'" ("The Poet as Hero"). As the foremost of the great canonical writers, the jewel of English culture, and as Carlyle puts it, "merely as a real, marketable, tangibly useful possession", Shakespeare became in the 19th century a means of creating a common heritage for the motherland and all her colonies. Post-colonial literary critics have had much to say of this use of Shakespeare's plays in what they regard as a move to subordinate and deracinate the cultures of the colonies themselves.

20th century

Shakespeare continued to be considered the greatest English writer of all time throughout the 20th century. Most Western educational systems required the textual study of two or more of Shakespeare's plays, and both amateur and professional stagings of Shakespeare were commonplace. It was the proliferation of high-quality, well-annotated texts and the unrivalled reputation of Shakespeare that allowed for stagings of Shakespeare's plays to remain textually faithful, but with an extraordinary variety in setting, stage direction, and costuming. Institutions such as the Folger Shakespeare Library in the United States worked to ensure constant, serious study of Shakespearean texts and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the United Kingdom worked to maintain a yearly staging of at least two plays.

Shakespeare performances reflected the tensions of the times, and early in the century, Barry Jackson of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre began the staging of modern-dress productions, thus starting a new trend in Shakesperian production. Performances of the plays could be highly interpretive. Thus, play directors would emphasize Marxist, Feminist, or, perhaps most popularly, Freudian interpretations of the plays, even as they retained letter-perfect scripts.

In the Third Reich

In 1934 the French government banned, in permanence, performances of "Coriolanus" because of its perceived unpatriotic qualities. In the international protests that followed came one from Germany, from none other than Joseph Goebbels. Although productions of Shakespeare's plays in Germany itself were subject to 'streamlining', he continued to be favoured as a great classical dramatist, especially so as almost every new German play since the late 1890s onwards was the work of left-wingers, of Jews or of 'degenerates' of one kind or another. Politically acceptable writers had simply been unable to fill the gap, or had only been able to do so with the worst kinds of agitprop. In 1935 Goebbels was to say "We can build autobahns, revive the economy, create a new army, but we... cannot manufacture new dramatists." With Schiller suspect for his radicalism, Lessing for his humanism and even the great Goethe for his lack of patriotism, the legacy of the 'Aryan' Shakespeare was reinterpreted for new purposes.

Rodney Symington, Professor of Germanic and Russian Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada, deals with this question in "The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich" (Edwin Mellen Press, 2005). The scholar reports that Hamlet, for instance, was reconceived as a proto-German warrior rather than a man with a conscience. Of this play one critic wrote: "If the courtier Laertes is drawn to Paris and the humanist Horatio seems more Roman than Danish, it is surely no accident that Hamlet's alma mater should be Wittenberg." A leading magazine declared that the crime which deprived Hamlet of his inheritance was a foreshadow of the Treaty of Versailles, and that the conduct of Gertrude was reminiscent of the spineless Weimar politicians.

Weeks after Hitler took power in 1933 an official party publication appeared entitled "Shakespeare - a Germanic Writer", a counter to those who wanted to ban all foreign influences. At the Propaganda Ministry, Rainer Schlosser, given charge of German theatre by Goebbels, mused that Shakespeare was more German than English. After the outbreak of the war the performance of Shakespeare was banned, though it was quickly lifted by Hitler in person, a favour extended to no other. Not only did the regime expropriate the Bard but it also expropriated Elizabethan England itself. To the Nazi leaders, it was a young, vigorous nation, much like the Third Reich itself, quite unlike the decadent British Empire of the present day.

Clearly there were some exceptions to the official approval of Shakespeare, and the great patriotic plays, most notably "Henry V" were shelved. But interestingly the reception of the "The Merchant of Venice" was at best lukewarm (Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta" was suggested as a possible alternative) because it was too ambiguous and not nearly anti-semitic enough for Nazi taste. So "Hamlet" was by far the most popular play, along with "Macbeth" and "Richard III".


That divergence between text and performance in Shakespeare continued into the new media of film. For instance, both "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet" have been filmed in modern settings, sometimes with contemporary "updated" dialogue. Additionally, there were efforts (notably by the BBC) to ensure that there was a filmed version of every Shakespeare play. The reasoning for this was educational, as many government educational initiatives recognized the need to get performative Shakespeare into the same classrooms as the read plays.


Many English-language Modernist poets drew on Shakespeare's works, interpreting in new ways. Ezra Pound, for instance, considered the Sonnets as a kind of apprentice work, with Shakespeare learning the art of poetry through writing them. He also declared the History plays to be the true English epic. Basil Bunting rewrote the sonnets as modernist poems by simply erasing all the words he considered unnecessary. Louis Zukofsky had read all of Shakespeare's works by the time he was eleven, and his "Bottom: On Shakespeare" (1947) is a book-length prose poem exploring the role of the eye in the plays. In its original printing, a second volume consisting of a setting of "The Tempest" by the poet's wife, Celia Zukofsky was also included.

Critical quotations

The growth of Shakespeare's reputation is illustrated by a timeline of Shakespeare criticism, from John Dryden's "when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too" (1668) to Thomas Carlyle's estimation of Shakespeare as the "strongest of rallying-signs" (1841) for an English identity.


External links

E-texts (chronological)

* [ Ben Jonson on Shakespeare (1630)]
* [ John Dryden, "Essay of Dramatic Poesy", (1668)]
* [ Thomas Rhymer's notorious attack on "Othello" (1692)] , which in the end did Shakespeare's reputation more good than harm, by firing up John Dryden, John Dennis and other influential critics into writing eloquent replies.
* [ Joseph Addison, "Spectator" no. 419 (1712)]
* [ Alexander Pope, Preface to his "Works of Shakespear" (1725)]
* [ Samuel Johnson, "Life of Shakespeare" (1765)]
* [ Thomas de Quincey, "On the Knocking at the Gate in "Macbeth" (1823)]
* [ Thomas Carlyle, "On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History" (1841)]
* [ W. S. Gilbert, "Unappreciated Shakespeare"] (1882, revised 1890 for "Foggerty's Fairy and Other Tales)"

Other resources

* [ PeoplePlay UK Shakespeare performance timeline]
* [ Shakespeare biography and online resources at NoSweatShakespeare]
* [ The Shakespeare Resource Center] A directory of Web resources for online Shakespearean study. Includes a Shakespeare biography, works timeline, play synopses, and language resources.


*Hawkes, Terence. (1992) "Meaning by Shakespeare". London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07450-9.
*Hume, Robert D. (1976). "The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century". Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-812063-X.
*Lynch, Jack (2007). "Becoming Shakespeare: The Strange Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard." New York: Walker & Co.
*Marder, Louis. (1963). "His Exits and His Entrances: The Story of Shakespeare's Reputation." Philadelphia: JB Lippincott.
*Sorelius, Gunnar. (1965). "The Giant Race Before the Flood": Pre-Restoration Drama on the Stage and in the Criticism of the Restoration." Uppsala: Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia.
*Speaight, Robert. (1954) "William Poel and the Elizabethan revival". Published for The Society for Theatre Research. London: Heinemann.

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