In his own time, William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was rated as merely one among many talented playwrights and poets. According to many critics of his time, Shakespeare was vulgar, provincial and overrated. The greatest of Shakespeare’s great contemporaries in the theatre, Ben Jonson, had a good deal to say about him. To William Drummond of Hawthornden in 1619 he said that Shakespeare “wanted art.” In the spring of 1616, Francis Beaumont and William Shakespeare died within a few weeks of each other. Beaumont became the first dramatist to be honoured with burial in the national shrine of Westminster Abbey, beside the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare was laid to rest in the provincial obscurity of his native Stratford-upon-Avon. These two very different burial places are a reminder that in his own time, though widely admired, he was but one of a constellation of theatrical stars.
It is difficult to assess Shakespeare's reputation in his own lifetime and shortly after. England had little modern literature before the 1570s, and detailed critical commentaries on modern authors did not begin to appear until the reign of Charles I. The facts about his reputation can be surmised from fragmentary evidence. He was included in some contemporary lists of leading poets, but he seems to have lacked the stature of the aristocratic Philip Sidney, who became a cult figure due to his death in battle at a young age, or of Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare's poems were reprinted far more frequently than his plays; but Shakespeare's plays were written for performance by his own company, and because no law prevented rival companies from using the plays, Shakespeare's troupe took steps to prevent his plays from being printed. That many of his plays were pirated suggests his popularity in the book market, and the regular patronage of his company by the court, culminating in 1603 when James I turned it into the "King's Men," suggests his popularity among higher stations of society. Modern plays (as opposed to those in Latin and Greek) were considered ephemeral and even somewhat disreputable entertainments by some contemporaries. Some of Shakespeare's plays, particularly the history plays, were reprinted frequently in cheap quarto (i.e. pamphlet) form; others took decades to reach a 3rd edition.
In the same year that Beaumont and Shakespeare died, Ben Jonson pioneered the canonisation of modern plays by printing his own works in folio (the luxury book format). Seven years later, Shakespeare was the next playwright to be honoured by a folio collection, in 1623 published by Shakespeare's fellow actors John Hemings and Henry Condell. That this folio went into another edition within 9 years indicates he was held in unusually high regard for a playwright.
When Jonson came to write his splendid poem prefixed to the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, he rose to the occasion with stirring words of praise:
Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time!
Besides almost retracting his earlier gibe about Shakespeare’s lack of art, he gives testimony that Shakespeare’s personality was to be felt, by those who knew him, in his poetry—that the style was the man. Jonson also reminded his readers of the strong impression the plays had made upon Queen Elizabeth I and King James I at court performances:
Sweet Swan of Avon, what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James!
The dedicatory poems by Ben Jonson and John Milton in the 2nd folio were the first to suggest Shakespeare was the supreme poet of his age. These expensive reading editions are the first visible sign of a rift between Shakespeare on the stage and Shakespeare for readers, a rift that was to widen over the next two centuries. In his 1630 work 'Timber' or 'Discoveries', Ben Jonson praised the speed and ease with which Shakespeare wrote his plays as well as his contemporary's honesty and gentleness towards others.
During the Interregnum (1642–1660), all public stage performances were banned by the Puritan rulers. Though denied the use of the stage, costumes and scenery, actors still managed to ply their trade by performing "drolls" or short pieces of larger plays that usually ended with some type of jig. Shakespeare was among the many playwrights whose works were plundered for these scenes. Among the most common scenes were Bottom's scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream and the gravedigger's scene from Hamlet. When the theatres opened again in 1660 after this uniquely long and sharp break in British theatrical history, two newly licensed London theatre companies, the Duke's and the King's Company, started business with a scramble for performance rights to old plays. Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and the Beaumont and Fletcher team were among the most valuable properties and remained popular after Restoration playwriting had gained momentum.
In the elaborate Restoration London playhouses, designed by Christopher Wren, Shakespeare's plays were staged with music, dancing, thunder, lightning, wave machines, and fireworks. The texts were "reformed" and "improved" for the stage. A notorious example is Irish poet Nahum Tate's happy-ending King Lear (1681) (which held the stage until 1838), while The Tempest was turned into an opera replete with special effects by William Davenant. In fact, as the director of the Duke's Company, Davenant was legally obliged to reform and modernise Shakespeare's plays before performing them. The modern view of the Restoration stage as the epitome of Shakespeare abuse and bad taste has been shown to be exaggerated, and both scenery and adaptation became more reckless in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The incomplete Restoration stage records suggest Shakespeare, although always a major repertory author, was bested in the 1660–1700 period by the phenomenal popularity of Beaumont and Fletcher. "Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage", reported fellow playwright John Dryden in 1668, "two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's". In the early 18th century, however, Shakespeare took over the lead on the London stage from Beaumont and Fletcher, never to relinquish it again.
By contrast to the stage history, in literary criticism there was no lag time, no temporary preference for other dramatists: Shakespeare had a unique position at least from the Restoration in 1660 and onwards. While Shakespeare did not follow the unbending French neo-classical "rules" for the drama and the three classical unities of time, place, and action, those strict rules had never caught on in England, and their sole zealous proponent Thomas Rymer was hardly ever mentioned by influential writers except as an example of narrow dogmatism. Dryden, for example, argued in his influential Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668) – the same essay in which he noted that Shakespeare's plays were performed only half as often as those of Beaumont and Fletcher – for Shakespeare's artistic superiority. Though Shakespeare does not follow the dramatic conventions, Dryden wrote, Ben Jonson does, and as a result Jonson lands in a distant second place to "the incomparable Shakespeare", the follower of nature, the untaught genius, the great realist of human character.
In the 18th century, Shakespeare dominated the London stage, while Shakespeare productions turned increasingly into the creation of star turns for star actors. After the Licensing Act of 1737, a quarter of plays performed were by Shakespeare and on at least two occasions rival London playhouses staged the very same Shakespeare play at the same time (Romeo and Juliet in 1755 and King Lear the next year) and still commanded audiences.
As performance playscripts diverged increasingly from their originals, the publication of texts intended for reading developed rapidly in the opposite direction, with the invention of textual criticism and an emphasis on fidelity to Shakespeare's original words. The texts that we read and perform today were largely settled in the 18th century.
Dryden's sentiments about Shakespeare's imagination and capacity for painting "nature" were echoed in the 18th century by, for example, Joseph Addison ("Among the English, Shakespeare has incomparably excelled all others"), Alexander Pope ("every single character in Shakespeare is as much an Individual as those in Life itself"), and Samuel Johnson (who scornfully dismissed Voltaire's and Rhymer's neoclassical Shakespeare criticism as "the petty cavils of petty minds"). The long-lived belief that the Romantics were the first generation to truly appreciate Shakespeare and to prefer him to Ben Jonson is contradicted by praise from writers throughout the 18th century. Ideas about Shakespeare that many people think of as typically post-Romantic were frequently expressed in the 18th and even in the 17th century: he was described as a genius who needed no learning, as deeply original, and as creating uniquely "real" and individual characters.To compare Shakespeare and his well-educated contemporary Ben Jonson was a popular exercise at this time, a comparison that was invariably complimentary to Shakespeare. It functioned to highlight the special qualities of both writers, and it especially powered the assertion that natural genius trumps rules, that "there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature" (Samuel Johnson).
The only aspects of Shakespeare's plays that were consistently disliked and singled out for criticism in the 18th century were the puns ("clenches") and the "low" (sexual) allusions. While a few editors, notably Alexander Pope, attempted to gloss over or remove the puns and the double entendres, they were quickly reversed, and by mid-century the puns and sexual humour were back in permanently.
Shakespeare in performance
Theatres and theatrical scenery became ever more elaborate in the 19th century, and the acting editions used were progressively cut and restructured to emphasise more and more the soliloquies and the stars, at the expense of pace and action. Performances were further slowed by the need for frequent pauses to change the scenery, creating a perceived need for even more cuts to keep performance length within tolerable limits; it became a generally accepted maxim that Shakespeare's plays were too long to be performed without substantial cuts. The platform, or apron, stage, on which actors of the 17th century would come forward for audience contact, was gone, and the actors stayed permanently behind the fourth wall or proscenium arch, further separated from the audience by the orchestra.
Shakespeare in criticism
The belief in the unappreciated 18th-century Shakespeare was proposed at the beginning of the 19th century by the Romantics, in support of their view of 18th-century literary criticism as mean, formal, and rule-bound, which was contrasted with their own reverence for the poet as prophet and genius. Such ideas were most fully expressed by German critics such as Goethe and the Schlegel brothers. Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt raised admiration for Shakespeare to worship or even "bardolatry" (a sarcastic coinage from bard + idolatry by George Bernard Shaw in 1901, meaning excessive or religious worship of Shakespeare). To compare him to other Renaissance playwrights at all, even for the purpose of finding him superior, began to seem irreverent. Shakespeare was rather to be studied without any involvement of the critical faculty, to be addressed or apostrophised—almost prayed to—by his worshippers, as in Thomas De Quincey's classic essay "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" (1823): "O, mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers,—like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties...".
As the concept of literary originality grew in importance, critics were horrified at the idea of adapting Shakespeare's tragedies for the stage by putting happy endings on them, or editing out the puns in Romeo and Juliet. In another way, what happened on the stage was seen as unimportant, as the Romantics, themselves writers of closet drama, considered Shakespeare altogether more suitable for reading than staging. Charles Lamb saw any form of stage representation as distracting from the true qualities of the text. This view, argued as a timeless truth, was also a natural consequence of the dominance of melodrama and spectacle on the early 19th-century stage.
Shakespeare became an important emblem of national pride in the 19th century, which was the heyday of the British Empire and the acme of British power in the world. To Thomas Carlyle in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), Shakespeare was one of the great poet-heroes of history, in the sense of being a "rallying-sign" for British cultural patriotism all over the world, including even the lost American colonies: "From Paramatta, from New York, wheresoever... English men and women are, they will say to one another, 'Yes, this Shakespeare is ours; we produced him, we speak and think by him; we are of one blood and kind with him'" ("The Poet as Hero"). As the foremost of the great canonical writers, the jewel of English culture, and as Carlyle puts it, "merely as a real, marketable, tangibly useful possession", Shakespeare became in the 19th century a means of creating a common heritage for the motherland and all her colonies. Post-colonial literary critics have had much to say of this use of Shakespeare's plays in what they regard as a move to subordinate and deracinate the cultures of the colonies themselves.
Shakespeare continued to be considered the greatest English writer of all time throughout the 20th century. Most Western educational systems required the textual study of two or more of Shakespeare's plays, and both amateur and professional stagings of Shakespeare were commonplace. It was the proliferation of high-quality, well-annotated texts and the unrivalled reputation of Shakespeare that allowed for stagings of Shakespeare's plays to remain textually faithful, but with an extraordinary variety in setting, stage direction, and costuming. Institutions such as the Folger Shakespeare Library in the United States worked to ensure constant, serious study of Shakespearean texts and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the United Kingdom worked to maintain a yearly staging of at least two plays.
Shakespeare performances reflected the tensions of the times, and early in the century, Barry Jackson of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre began the staging of modern-dress productions, thus starting a new trend in Shakesperian production. Performances of the plays could be highly interpretive. Thus, play directors would emphasise Marxist, feminist, or, perhaps most popularly, Freudian psychoanalytical interpretations of the plays, even as they retained letter-perfect scripts. The number of analytical approaches became more diverse by the latter part of the century, as critics applied theories such as structuralism, New Historicism, Cultural materialism, African American studies, queer studies, and literary semiotics to Shakespeare's works.