User:Bishonen/WIP Shakespeare

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In Shakespeare's own time, playwrights were not commonly held in great esteem; indeed, in the early days of the Elizabethan theatre, it was normal for plays to be published anonymously. As the English Renaissance theatre developed over the decades, the concept of the playwright became better known. Is it difficult to gauge the reputations of playwrights in this period, as theatre reviews are non-existent and the only evidence is in the few surviving writings of literate playgoers.

Restoration and 18th century

At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after the Interregnum stage ban 16421660, two newly licensed London theatre companies started business with a fight over performance rights to old plays (see Restoration comedy). Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Beaumont and Fletcher team were among the most valuable properties, and their plays stayed popular after the fledgeling production of Restoration drama had gained momentum. The incomplete Restoration stage records suggest that Shakespeare, although always a major repertory author, was temporarily bested by the phenomenal popularity of Beaumont and Fletcher. "Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage", wrote John Dryden in 1668, "two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's". But in the early 18th century, Shakespeare took back the lead, never to relinquish it again.

Old plays were frequently adapted for the Restoration stage, and where Shakespeare is concerned, this undertaking has seemed shockingly respectless to posterity. A notorious example is Nahum Tate's happy-ending King Lear (1681), which held the stage until 1838.

In literary criticism, by contrast, Shakespeare had a unique position from the first. The unbending French neo-classical "rules" and the three unities of time, place, and action of Corneille never really caught on in England, and their sole zealous proponent Thomas Rhymer is hardly ever mentioned by more influential writers except as an example of narrow dogmatism ("these are the petty cavils of petty minds", wrote Johnson). It is true, argue critics like John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson, that Shakespeare does not follow the rules and does not know or care about the unities, but so what? Ben Jonson does, and look where it gets him: a distant second place after "the incomparable Shakespeare", the follower of nature, the untaught genius, the great realist of human character. The long-lived myth that the Romantics were the first generation to truly appreciate Shakespeare and to prefer him to Ben Jonson is contradicted by accolades from writers throughout this period.

Only one aspect of Shakespeare was consistently disliked and singled out for criticism in this period: his puns ("clenches").

As quoted passages below suggest, ideas about Shakespeare that many people think of as typically post-Romantic are actually frequently expressed in the 17th and 18th centuries: he is described as an untaught natural genius, as deeply original, and as creating uniquely "real" and individual characters. To compare and contrast Shakespeare and his well-educated contemporary Ben Jonson was a popular exercise at this time. 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). The comparison with Jonson was invariably complimentary to Shakespeare, and it was thought important to make it, since, as Samuel Johnson put it, "it will not easily be imagined how much Shakespeare excels in accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authors".

On the stage, Shakespeare dominated performances in the 18th century. After the Licensing Act of 1737, the number of performances of Shakespeare quadrupled in England. The origins of "Bardology" may be in this era when Shakespeare, increasingly unaltered, was the most performed dramatist in the language. Indeed, in some years, rival theater houses in London ran identical Shakespeare plays at the same time.

Further, the 18th century is largely responsible for setting the text of Shakespeare's plays. Nahum Tate and Nathaniel Lee both prepared editions and performed scene divisions. Lewis Theobald created the first truly standard text for the plays in 1734, and Edmund Malone's 1790 is still the backbone of contemporary editions of the plays.

19th century

The myth of 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. Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge raised admiration for Shakespeare to adulation or bardolatry. To compare him to his contemporaries at all began to seem irreverent. As the concept of literary originality grew in importance, critics were horrified at the idea of adapting his 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 considered Shakespeare altogether more suitable for reading than staging. This view was a natural consequence of the degenerate condition of the early 19th-century stage, which was ruled by melodrama and spectacle and despised by intellectuals.

Critical quotations

Joseph Addison, 1712: "Among the English, Shakespeare has incomparably excelled all others."

John Dryden, 1668: "To begin then with Shakespeare; he was the man who of all Modern, and perhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the Images of Nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily: when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learn'd; he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he look'd inwards, and found her there." Essay of Dramatic Poesy

Thomas Rhymer, 1692: "What ever rubs or difficulty may stick on the Bark, the Moral, sure, of this Fable is very instructive. First, This may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality how, without their Parents consent, they run away with Blackamoors. Secondly, This may be a warning to all good Wives, that they look well to their Linnen. Thirdly, This may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proofs may be Mathematical". The "rules" and "unities" extremist Rhymer's notorious attack on Othello is a curiosity of literary history, which ultimately 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, 1712: "Among the English, Shakespeare has incomparably excelled all others. That noble extravagance of fancy, which he had in so great perfection, thoroughly qualified him to touch ... his reader's imagination, and made him capable of succeeding, where he had nothing to support him besides the strength of his own genius." Spectator no. 419

Alexander Pope, 1725: "His Characters are so much Nature her self that 'tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as Copies of her. Those of other Poets have a constant resemblance, which shews that they receiv'd them from one another and were but multiplyers of the same image: each picture like a mock-rainbow is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every single character in Shakespeare is as much an Individual as those in Life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be Twins will upon comparison be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of Character we must add the wonderful Preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays that had all the Speeches been printed without the very names of the persons I believe one might have apply'd them with certainty to every speaker." Preface to Pope's edition of Shakespeare's works

Samuel Johnson, 1765: "Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world ; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species."

"His adherence to general nature has exposed him to the censure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rhymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire censures his kings as not completely royal. ... These are the petty cavils of petty minds."

"That this [mixing tragedy and comedy] is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be readily allowed ; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature."

"To the unities of time and place he has shewn no regard, and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they stand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of Corneille, they have very generally received by discovering that they have given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the auditor."

"Perhaps it would not be easy to find any author, except Homer, who invented so much as Shakespeare, who so much advanced the studies which he cultivated, or effused so much novelty upon his age or country. The form, the characters, the language, and the shows of the English drama are his." Life of Shakespeare


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.