Bardolatry William Shakespeare’s reputation through the ages
Shakespeare’s reputation through the ages
“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