(This was a paper written for my 18th Century Shakespeare class. It was then nominated for University of Connecticut’s Aetna Writing in the Disciplines Awards under the Humanities category. For more information on the award, click here.)
The Cultural Architect: David Garrick and his Influence on Shakespeare’s Legacy
Literary canonization can be a difficult thing to quantify. When does a story transcend the label of contemporary fiction and enter the eternity of the canon of great literature? Is it a time-based acceptance? Or is it merely based upon the acclaim which individuals choose to give the piece? Shakespeare scholars might be inclined to say that Shakespeare’s legacy and literary canonization did not start with Shakespeare himself, but truly started almost 150 years after his death, with David Garrick. One hundred years before Garrick, dramas such as those written by Shakespeare were only just returning to the stage after the Puritan Revolution closed the theaters. At this time, Shakespeare’s plays were not quite regarded as highly as they are today. They were respected, but not quite as hallowed. Overall, most theatergoers and theatre managers had a great respect for Shakespeare, with plays like Hamlet or Macbeth being staged frequently. In 1769, Garrick, who frequently acted as some of Shakespeare’s most prominent characters organized an event called the Stratford Jubilee, which served to honor the life and works of Shakespeare, and helped to elevate him to an extreme piety and almost excessive level of acclaim. The Jubilee turned a well-respected playwright into a national hero and an almost god-like figure.
In order to understand how Shakespeare might have been perceived in the time period before the Jubilee and his canonization, one might take a look at contemporary critics. In 1768, just one year before the Jubilee, critic William Duff wrote An Essay on Original Genius, in which he deemed that the three signs of genius were “imagination, judgment and taste,” (Duff, 20). The English audiences would have found Shakespeare’s imagination in being able to present the stories of English monarchs in the form of an entertaining drama, in such a way that he breathes life into their history. Despite being one of Shakespeare’s more aggressive critics, Alexander Pope cited Shakespeare’s characters as clear signs of his creativity, noting that “every character in Shakespeare is as much an individual, as those in life itself” (Pope 4). Judgment is certainly pervasive in Shakespeare’s work. His tragic characters are judged relative to their flaws or their misdoings. Shakespeare shows the audience evils or wrongdoings of characters such as Macbeth or Richard III, so that the viewers understand that the play’s tragic end is the bringing of a form of judgment and justice. While the audience might sympathize with other tragic characters such as King Lear or Othello, there is an understanding that these characters are brought to justice for some wrongdoing during the play. In the cases of Hamlet, Romeo, or Juliet, even if the character has a tragic flaw which does not necessarily lead to what an audience might consider evil, they are still judged for their flaw. The third and final aspect is taste, for which Duff quotes Cicero: “we may define taste as the internal sense, which by its exquisitely nice sensibility, without the assistance of the reasoning faculty” (Duff, 11). What Duff suggests by quoting Cicero is that taste is not something inherent in the work, but instead is something that the audience gives to the genius by admiring the imagination and judgment of his or her work. In short, no genius exists unless an audience recognizes it. At the time of writing his Essay, Duff would almost certainly agree that Shakespeare used imagination and judgment, but might not necessarily consider his plays to be works of taste. That would be the case until Garrick’s Jubilee.
In the early 18th century, Shakespeare had his fair share of critics. Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson both offered critical commentaries on Shakespeare’s work. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is offered under the suggestion that antiquity does not automatically indicate greatness. Johnson writes a veiled but scathing criticism: “The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages … but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and … is best understood” (Johnson 61). Likewise, Pope suggested that for “all [Shakespeare’s] great excellencies, he has almost as many defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so perhaps has he written worse, than any other” (Pope 5). Though he accepted Shakespeare as a proficient playwright who created wonderful and vibrant characters, Pope detested Shakespeare’s dialogue so much, to the point that he went through Shakespeare’s Folio and “refined” the writing. These and other criticisms of Shakespeare usually followed the same format of respecting the Bard as a playwright, but usually with the objection that his dialogue did not reflect the way people sounded when making conversation with one another.
However, actors and theater managers seemed to admire Shakespeare deeply. David Garrick was best-known for his performances as Richard III, Hamlet, and King Lear. As a playwright, Garrick adapted King Lear for one of the productions he would star in. Regarded as one of the best actors of his generation, he would frequently commission portraits of himself in these roles. These portraits have gone on to become emblematic of the characters they depict. After the era of Thomas Betterton, Garrick took a similar place in the hierarchy of English Theatre by becoming one of its foremost actors. When writing his memoirs, biographer Thomas Davies referred to Garrick as “a man universally acknowledged to have been superior to all competition in his profession as an actor, and justly esteemed in his private life a shining ornament of society” (Memoirs, A2). Garrick owed much of his success to the roles he played in Shakespeare’s works. Garrick’s performance of Henry IV also garnered acclaim, despite not having the right “figure” for the role. It was said that “to describe the anguish, mixed with terror, which he seemed to feel, when he cast his eyes up to heaven and pronounced these words: ‘How I came by this crown, O God forgive me!’ would call for the pencil of a Raphael,” (Dramatic Miscellanies 320). It was also noted that Garrick also played the title role of King John in a similar manner: “The agonies of a man expiring in delirium were delineated with such wonderful expression on his countenance, that he impressed uncommon sensations … on the admiring spectators, who could not refuse the loudest tribute of applause” (Dramatic Miscellanies 113). Again, similar things were said about his role as Hamlet: “When Mr. Garrick first saw the ghost, the terror he seemed to be impressed with was instantaneously communicated to the audience,” (Memoirs 62). Across all three of these roles, and his many others, it becomes apparent that Garrick’s foremost talent came in conveying the fear and anguish in Shakespeare’s tragic characters.
Garrick received frequent acclaim for these and other Shakespeare roles. It seemed that he felt more at home in the Bard’s work than he would in the work of any other. One might guess that Garrick felt a certain obligation to pay homage to Shakespeare. For these reasons, in the late 1760’s, Garrick began planning a three-day celebration of Shakespeare in the Bard’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The Jubilee is certainly an interesting thing to consider. Teeming masses came to the small town of Stratford for the event. The event lasted for three days, through torrential downpours. In a bit of an ironic twist, although Shakespeare is primarily remembered as a dramatist, not a single one of his plays were performed at the Jubilee. Instead, it was considered to be more of “a tribute to the memory of the man rather than the writings and performance.” The Jubilee more consisted of poetry readings and dedications to Shakespeare. A procession of costumed characters from Shakespeare’s plays, originally depicted in advertisements for the event, was planned, but was cancelled due to the rain (Folgerpedia).
The most acclaimed attraction at the Jubilee, however, was Garrick’s dedication of a statue of Shakespeare in the town center. Before a small audience, Garrick recited an ode for Shakespeare. Accounts of the Jubilee often select this moment as the high point of the affair. One account from diarist James Boswell even refers to Garrick’s reading as similar to “an exhibition from Athens or Rome,” and that if anyone were to speak during the recitation or if in any way tried to “disrupt the performance, he would have been in danger of his life” (452).
Garrick and various others wrote poetry for the Jubilee. Garrick’s (fittingly-titled) “Jubilee Ode,” depicted Shakespeare’s hometown as an otherworldly paradise which produced the greatest poet ever to tread the Earth. “Jubilee Ode” returns several times to the phrase of “For hallow’d the turf is which pillow’d his head,” (Garrick, 352) and reaching for such divine comparisons as to say that “Fame expanding all her wings / With all her trumpet-tounges proclaim / The lov’d, rever’d, immortal name! / Shakespeare! Shakespeare! Shakespeare!” (Garrick, 346). The poem which Garrick read aloud, however, was J.R.’s “Ode to Shakespeare,” which elevated Shakespeare to the level of a God-like hero: “Let Britons, enraptur’d, their thanks swell on high / One Shakespeare on Earth, one Jove in the sky” (J.R. 423). The most frequently recurring theme through all the Jubilee poetry was the comparing of Shakespeare to some kind of divine figure. Critic Michael Dobson points out that “Shakespeare had often been recognized as occupying a position in British life directly analogous to that of God the Father” (7). Boswell’s account even noted “I could have wished that prayers had been read, and a short sermon preached. It would have consecrated our Jubilee” (452).
The Jubilee caused a distinct shift in the way Shakespeare was regarded. Shakespeare was quickly ushered from being admired and frequently performed to being considered kingly or divine. The event caused the playwright to transcend his plays and to become a figure forever mythologized in English culture.
Though the Jubilee had some critics, Boswell had nothing but good things to say about it. For him, it was “not a piece of farce … but an elegant and truly classical celebration of the memory of Shakespeare, that illustrious poet, whom all ages will admire as the world has hitherto done” (454). And for many others, it seemed to be a transformative event which brought Shakespeare into the front and center of England’s cultural consciousness. This set a precedent in literary criticism of Shakespeare.
It becomes abundantly apparent from Boswell’s account that the Jubilee was a transformative event for the taste of English critics and theatregoers. The event was well-publicized, with many advertisements being published prior to the event, and Boswell’s account being circulated in The London Magazine. In his writing, Boswell notes that his account was not the only one being circulated; people were eager to hear about the Jubilee. After the event, “the talk in London was nothing after the Jubilee” (Folgerpedia). This event increased the prominence of Shakespeare in England’s national mythology, and cemented Shakespeare’s legacy as one of the greatest poets and playwrights in English history.
Dobson calls the event “utterly national” and justifies the absence of plays by explaining that “Shakespeare was utterly irrelevant to the entire proceedings, a mere pretext for a far more useful patriotic exercise” which was said to assert “Shakespeare’s native superiority to all foreign competitors” (218). Kings would come and go with every age, but generations of English men and women to come would always have Shakespeare to rally behind as the great national hero. Whereas a king would likely live and die with his reign, Shakespeare would be immortal in poetry and drama. Just as saints are canonized by a church, Shakespeare was canonized and became immortal with the Jubilee.
With that in mind, it is valuable to return to Dobson’s claim that Shakespeare occupies a similar space to God the Father in English culture. Shakespeare’s texts are treated as a cohesive volume which provides unique insight to the human condition, that people might have difficulty understanding otherwise. Today, Shakespeare is treated as though he had a greater insight into human nature and a more powerful grasp on the English language than anyone to ever walk the earth. It can certainly be argued that if not for the Jubilee, we would not read Shakespeare’s work in the same capacity that we do today.
Garrick made certain that his reputation would be linked to Shakespeare. By organizing the event that made Shakespeare an immortal part of the literary canon, Garrick, by proxy, made himself a part of the literary canon. Before the Jubilee, Shakespeare was a fondly-remembered playwright, one of the best in then-recent history. After the Jubilee, Shakespeare was the greatest playwright of all time, and Garrick was the one responsible for his admiration. This raises a question: did Garrick do this as an homage to the man who helped build his career? Or was it a way of trying to make his mark on history by piggy-backing on the talent which came before him?
Respected 20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw looked down upon the over-admiration of Shakespeare, even going so far as to coin the term “Bardolatry” as a means of mocking people like Garrick, who believed Shakespeare was the greatest playwright of all time. Bernard Shaw, though he respected Shakespeare, thought that his own contemporary, Henrik Ibsen, was superior to Shakespeare. Bernard Shaw went as far as to say that Ibsen made Shakespeare “obsolete” (Bernard Shaw). Although Ibsen is nowhere near as popular today as Shakespeare is, Bernard Shaw’s stance provides an interesting counter-example; there is not a perfect consensus that Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist of all time. If, in the mid-20th century or some time later, an actor hosted an event honoring the life and works of Ibsen, perhaps he would be just as loved today.
To my knowledge, no academic institution would have students devote an entire semester-long class to the plays of Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson. In certain classes, students might read Doctor Faustus or Jonson’s poetry, but no single writer seems to occupy the same space as Shakespeare, and certainly not any of his contemporaries. Shakespeare’s legacy did not just hinge on one event, but on a single person. Since David Garrick and his Jubilee began to recognize Shakespeare as a genius, audiences, readers, and critics began to recognize it as well. If Garrick had hosted a Marlowe Jubilee, the history of English literature and literary criticism might have been vastly different. By coordinating the Jubilee to admire Shakespeare, Garrick created today’s literary culture, in which he is adored and celebrated. What this goes to show is that literature, even that which we consider the greatest, only has the value which we, as critical readers, give to it.
Bernard Shaw, George. Shaw on Shakespeare; an Anthology of Bernard Shaw’s Writings on the
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Duff, William. An Essay on Original Genius, and Its Various Modes of Exertien in Philosophy and the Fine Arts, Particularly in Poetry. Edward & Charles Dilly, 1767.
Folgerpedia. “David Garrick, 1717–1779: A Theatrical Life Exhibition Material.” Folger Shakespeare Library, 9 July 2015. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.
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Johnson, Samuel. “Dr. Johnson’s Preface.” The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare. London: Rivington and Partners, 1821. 60-108. Print.
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