- Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century
The goal of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century, edited by Peter Sabor and Paul Yachnin, is to show the myriad ways that Enlightenment thinkers interacted with Shakespeare’s plays through criticism, adaptation, and performance. The essays in this collection detail how Enlightenment editors, actors, managers, and even politicians were not simply revising or appropriating Shakespeare’s works, but also engaging them in dialogue, thus revealing potentialities previously dormant or undiscovered in the plays, while reciprocally allowing the plays to shape England during the eighteenth century.
Coming from presentations at a 2006 symposium in Montreal titled “Enlightenment Exchanges,” Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century contains only a few essays that discuss performance in even a limited way. Most of the chapters also eschew critical theory, although Nicholas Hudson discusses Jauss and reception theory, Frans De Bruyn incorporates “cultural capital” (85) and “cultural fields” (87)—without citing Bourdieu—and Marcie Frank engages Bakhtin. The contributions are primarily works of straightforward literary and historical criticism—often extremely well executed—but therefore of less interest to scholars of performance or critical theory. In addition to primary sources, many of the contributors rely upon Brian Vickers’s Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 1623–1800 and The London Stage, and several respond to Michael Dobson’s 1992 book, The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Authorship, 1660–1768. The subjects discussed most often are Samuel Johnson, Lewis Theobald, Nahum Tate, and David Garrick, although Garrick is treated as an adapter of Shakespeare more than as a performer or theatre manager.
The first section, “Theorizing Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century and Beyond,” begins with Michael Bristol’s examination of how eighteenth-century critics such as Theobald used character in Shakespeare to explore moral philosophy in a way that is still prevalent today. Jean Marsden’s excellent chapter, “Shakespeare and Sympathy,” using Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Garrick’s adaptation of King Lear, shows how eighteenth-century plays were viewed through the lens of sympathy, which became particularly important to the reception of plays in performance. Nicholas Hudson’s chapter on “Shakespeare and the Nature of Middle-Class Appropriation” argues that at the center of the concept of the middle class was the idea of universal subjectivity, which was consistent with characterization in Shakespeare’s plays and influenced how the Bard would be read in future centuries by men like Coleridge, Arnold, and Shaw.
The second part, “Eighteenth-Century Editors and Interpreters,” deals with the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays were employed during the eighteenth century. Fiona Ritchie, relying upon a plethora of documents, argues that the Shakespeare Ladies Club was instrumental in helping to preserve, canonize, and revive Shakespeare’s plays from 1736 to 1738, thereby establishing Shakespeare as a national icon and paving the way for Garrick, who would get much of the credit for this work three decades later during his Stratford Jubilee of 1769. Marcus Walsh provides a literary history and an aesthetics of editing, examining the Johnson-Steevens Variorum of 1778 in which Steevens demonstrated his erudition at great length. Walsh uses Steevens to argue that editing is an “act of poesis” (82), judgment, discernment, and wit, even in the case of Steevens’s unpruned, excessively annotated fifteen-volume edition. At the center of the collection is Frans De Bruyn’s superb essay on Edmund Burke’s allusions to Shakespeare; the longest contribution to the book, with a comprehensive bibliography, this chapter argues that “Burke’s practice of allusion . . . is no longer . . . embellishment of the text but a structural manifestation of his central political theme” (92). De Bruyn shows how Burke uses Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, to advance his own status as a “political actor” (86) performing on the English national stage and invoking ideas of “common culture, history, language, nationhood, and tradition” (100). To conclude this section, Marcie Frank reads two Gothic novels by Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho, in order to suggest how they rely upon the language, imagery, and...