Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Modern Shakespeare

From Michael Dobson, The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660-1769 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), on "how Shakespeare came to occupy the centre of English literary culture between the restoration of the monarchy and the Stratford Jubilee":

This process deserves close scrutiny, not least because so many of the conceptions of Shakespeare we inherit date not from the Renaissance but from the Enlightenment. It was this period, after all, which initiated many of the practices which modern spectators and readers of Shakespeare would generally regard as normal or even natural: the performance of his female roles by women instead of men (instigated at a revival of Othello in 1660); the reproduction of his works in scholarly editions, with critical apparatus (pioneered by Rowe's edition of 1709 and the volume of commentary appended to it by Charles Gildon the following year); the publication of critical monographs devoted entirely to the analysis of his texts (an industry founded by John Dennis's An Essay upon the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare, 1712); the promulgation of the plays in secondary education (the earliest known instance of which is the production of Julius Caesar mounted in 1728 'by the young Noblemen of the Westminster School'), and in higher education (first carried out in the lectures on Shakespeare given by William Hawkins at Oxford in the early 1750s); the erection of monuments to Shakespeare in nationally symbolic public places (initiated by Peter Scheemakers' statue in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, unveiled in 1741); and the promotion of Stratford-upon-Avon as a site of secular pilgrimage (ratified at Garrick's Jubilee in 1769). The fact that these ways of presenting and representing Shakespeare have endured for so long has tended to make their specifically Enlightenment origins and interests virtually invisible--to the extent that until comparatively recently, histories of Shakespeare's reception, espeically his critical reception, have characteristically identified the eighteenth century as the period which simply 'rediscovered' Shakespeare and restored him to his natural pre-eminence in English culture.

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