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Why Shakespeare?

I spent Saturday afternoon in the park with a picnic, a play, a smidgin of rain, and approixmately eighteen people, almost all of whom were previously strangers to me. We read A Midsummer Night's Dream, with parts of costumes and props and improvised acting, music, and dancing. It was a rather impressive production under the circumstances, organized by mirrorshard, with some might fine actors participating. I have no idea when I last was involved in any way other than audience in theater; possibly my brief stint as dramaturge when an undergraduate? In this, I played a minor fairy, which gave me more time to watch the rest of it, a cohort to loiter with, and also the fun of having a role in the dance.

Which is how C. came to ask me about Shakespeare, and I come to give you the question on his behalf: Why Shakespeare? "Genius" alone never explains much of anything; PR makes all the difference. What are the major historiographic developments which made his work, in particular, the subject of such modern renown?

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
gillo
Jul. 13th, 2009 03:31 pm (UTC)
It's a fascinating topic - in the later years of his career he was respected as a good, but not-quite top-notch playwright - almost, but not quite, as good as Beaumont and Fletcher.

The metamorphosis seems to have happened gradually - the publication of the First Folio, seven years after his death added to his intellectual respectability. He was very much regarded as a "natural" poet, without much technical skill
(
Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child
Warbling his native woodnotes wild

as Milton said in Lycidas.)

After the Restoration his plays were mined for usable bits, rejigged to suit modern tastes. Possibly the most important steps were the work of early editors like Rowe, Theobald and Pope, who had varying degrees of reverence for the text, but talked up its importance like nobody's business! Certainly by about 130 years after Shakespeare's death he was firmly at the heart of the canon, though often in forms we would shudder at now, like Nahum Tate's
King Lear
with a happy ending!

Dr Johnson wrote about Shakespeare at length and his friend Garrick put on a bicentenary bash in Stratford (only five years late!) which established a tourist trade and a hagiographical approach. He proved useful source material to the Sturm und Drang movement, and was remade by the Romantics in their own image. And so on...

There are several good books on the subject - I much enjoyed Jack Lynch's
Becoming Shakespeare
, which I wrote about here.

Bardolatry is a weird phenomenon, and his very chameleon nature is at the core of it, I think - look how
Coriolanus
can be used to present a Fascist world-view or (by Brecht, no less) to support the common folk against tyranny. Shakespeare himself is never in the plays, just a myriad of characters, most with their own distinctive voices. If you compare the then more highly-rated Jonson you see that his characters all serve the satirical purpose first and have personalities, if at all, second.

Your playreading sounds lovely. I adore that play, almost know it by heart, so many times have I taught it.

Edited at 2009-07-13 05:00 pm (UTC)
owlfish
Jul. 13th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That's a useful outline, passel of names, and bibliography.
(Deleted comment)
owlfish
Jul. 13th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
See, while all that's true, it's a little too close to saying their quality/his genius explains everything.
easterbunny
Jul. 13th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
What a fun outing! My former local library (which is now only 8 or 9 miles away) hosts Shakespeare reading circles every 2 or 3 months. I've never been tempted to participate since I assumed that they would take place in beige meeting rooms in which people in sensible business casual attire would dryly churn through Henry XIV after work.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's Morris dancing and they treat Hamlet like a kissing book. The Nashville Shakespeare scene is pretty good, although I hear there is scandal afoot since the woman who has spearheaded Shakespeare in the park and on local stages is sick of doing Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummernight's Dream and instead wants to work through the back catalogue of the plays for which no one raises their hands when the Reduced Shakespeare Company asks the audience which ones they've seen.
owlfish
Jul. 13th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
I hope you are wrong, because it was a great deal of fun! You might be out of luck on costumes, but if you *are* in luck, there should at least be a great deal of humor to it.
steepholm
Jul. 13th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
As others have said it's a complex subject, but after Heminge and Condell you've got to look at the Restoration, which is where he gets the much-needed boost that carries him all the way to Garrick and the Bardolotary of the bicenenary, after which it's self-sustaining.

I think it may be partly a patriotic thing. Shakespeare is frequently held up on the 17th century for his natural, native, innate wit, the English man o' war matched against the cumbrous Spanish gallion of Jonson's classical learning. Milton, Dryden and Aubrey all talk of him in that way, more or less. And then there was the patronage of William Davenant, head of the Duke's company (one of two licenced at the Restoration), and godson of the bard himself. Davenant's mother kept an Oxford inn where Shakespeare stopped off on his trips between London and Oxford, and there were even rumours that Davenant was WS's natural son. I think he may have had a hand in keeping Shakespeare's works on the stage.

Added to which WS did produce a decent number of plays in all genres, which made him a good all-round bet.
steepholm
Jul. 13th, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)
Er, I mean between London and Stratford, of course...
owlfish
Jul. 13th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you for helping to fill in the narrative gaps! I appreciate it.
moon_custafer
Jul. 14th, 2009 12:26 am (UTC)
Well, I was in a production of Volpone once, and I'd say Shakespeare is way more actable than Johnson. It just flows better.
of_remedye
Jul. 15th, 2009 03:17 am (UTC)
Ahhhh--I'm teaching MSND this week; therefore, I love you for asking this question.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )