Bar­dola­try Wil­liam Shake­speare’s rep­u­ta­tion through the ages

Shake­speare’s rep­u­ta­tion through the ages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Jonathan Richards

“With the sin­gle ex­cep­tion of Homer, there is no em­i­nent writer, not even Sir Wal­ter Scott, whom I can de­spise so en­tirely as I de­spise Shake­speare when I mea­sure my mind against his. The in­ten­sity of my im­pa­tience with him oc­ca­sion­ally reaches such a pitch, that it would pos­i­tively be a re­lief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.”

— Ge­orge Bernard Shaw

Wil­liam Shake­speare has had his ups and downs. He’s been praised, damned, adapted, rewrit­ten, filmed, trans­posed, set to mu­sic, set to dance, mod­ern­ized, tweeted, rapped, dis­missed, de­nied, de­nounced, and de­i­fied. By the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury, he had been el­e­vated to al­most divine stature, and in­deed on the Amer­i­can fron­tier he of­ten shared pre­cious shelf space with the Almighty: The two books most of­ten to be found in log cab­ins were said by no less an author­ity than Alexis de Toc­queville to be the Bible and the works of Shake­speare.

Poor Will has even, de­spite the warn­ing on his grave­stone (“Curst be he that moves my bones”) been dug up and pil­fered. His skull had long been ru­mored to be miss­ing from his tomb, and a re­cent ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion has con­firmed the truth of that claim. There’s no ev­i­dence, apart from the quote above, that Ge­orge Bernard Shaw might have had any­thing to do with that busi­ness. But cer­tainly Shaw, along with Tol­stoy and oth­ers, had had his fill of the un­crit­i­cal wor­ship of the Bard of Avon — what Shaw sneer­ingly dubbed “Bar­dola­try.” And the carp­ing against Shake­speare didn’t start with him. Some two and a half cen­turies ear­lier, the di­arist Sa­muel Pepys noted after see­ing a Lon­don pro­duc­tion of Romeo and Juliet that “it is a play of it­self the worst I’ve ever heard in my life.”

De­spite the push­back, the pop­u­lar­ity of Shake­speare’s plays con­tin­ued to grow as the 19th cen­tury wore on, and lead­ing the pack of fa­vorites were Ham­let and that time­less tale of star-cross’d lovers, Romeo and

Juliet. Those lovers have been more star-cross’d than you might think. For years, from the Restora­tion through the 18th cen­tury, heavy lib­er­ties were taken with Shake­speare’s telling of the tale (which was it­self bor­rowed and sub­stan­tially changed from ear­lier sources, notably poet Arthur Brooke’s 1562 nar­ra­tive poem The Trag­i­call His­to­rye of Romeus and Juliet). Thomas Ot­way’s 1679 re­fash­ion­ing of the play, which re­mained pop­u­lar for the bet­ter part of a cen­tury, trans­posed the ac­tion to an­cient Rome as The His­tory and Fall of Caius Mar­ius, which in­cluded a bal­cony scene and death­less lines like: “O Mar­ius, Mar­ius! where­fore art thou Mar­ius?”

Some ver­sions of the play got rid of Romeo’s first love Ros­aline al­to­gether, to make Romeo seem less flighty and fickle, in much the same way Pat Boone’s cover of Lit­tle Richard’s Tutti Frutti (1955) re­vised the li­bidi­nous lyrics to make it clear that Pat would only court one girl at a time. Other pur­vey­ors of Romeo and

Juliet, dis­mayed at the lovers’ tragic dou­ble sui­cide, tacked on a happy end­ing.

These bowd­ler­ized ver­sions en­joyed a long run, with Romeo and Juliet liv­ing hap­pily ever after un­til 1845, when a re­mark­able Amer­i­can ac­tress named Charlotte Cush­man brought Shake­speare’s tragic ro­mance to the U.S. stage, re­stored to a form Shake­speare would have rec­og­nized. The only thing that might have given him pause was this: Rather than hav­ing boys play­ing girls, as was the cus­tom in Shake­speare’s time, Charlotte her­self took on the role of Romeo in drag, with her younger sis­ter Su­san cast as her Juliet. It was a smash.

The histri­onic act­ing and lav­ish pro­duc­tion styles of the 19th cen­tury may have in­flu­enced the crit­ics who found Shake­speare’s rep­u­ta­tion un­bear­ably in­flated. As Bar­dola­try was heat­ing up around the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury, there arose a move­ment to sep­a­rate the au­thor­ship of the plays of Wil­liam Shake­speare from the man of that name. The guy was a glover’s son from the back­wa­ter of Strat­ford-upon-Avon, the think­ing went, a hick ac­tor with a fourth-grade ed­u­ca­tion. The range of styles, and the breadth of knowl­edge of his­tory, court af­fairs, for­eign lan­guages, and far­away places at­test to the hand of some­one else, al­most any­one else from the El­iz­a­bethan era, as the real ge­nius be­hind the canon.

Shaw does not seem to have sub­scribed to this apos­tasy. His beef was with Shake­speare him­self, whom he con­sid­ered a not-in­con­se­quen­tial tal­ent, but one who came up short when mea­sured against Shaw. The last com­pleted dra­matic piece Shaw wrote, shortly be­fore his death, was a 10-minute Punch-and-Judy style pup­pet show called Shakes Ver­sus Shav, in which the two writ­ers bicker and slap each other around over who is top lit­er­ary dog.

It ends with Shaw say­ing:

“Peace, jeal­ous Bard: We both are mor­tal. For a mo­ment suf­fer My glim­mer­ing light to shine.”

A light ap­pears. Shake­speare blows it out. Call it a draw.

Ge­orge Bernard Shaw

Wil­liam Shake­speare

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