William Shakespeare's reputation  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In his own time, William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was seen as merely one among many talented playwrights and poets, but ever since the late 17th century he has been considered the supreme playwright, and to a lesser extent, poet of the English language. No other dramatist has been performed even remotely as often on the British (and later the world) stage as Shakespeare. The plays have often been drastically adapted in performance; the version of King Lear used in performance between 1681 and 1838, for instance, had a happy ending, provided by a rewrite by the Irish poet Nahum Tate. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the era of the great acting stars, to be a star on the British stage became synonymous with being a great Shakespearean actor. The emphasis was then on the soliloquies as declamatory turns, at the expense of pace and action, and Shakespeare's plays threatened to disappear under music, scenery, thunder, lightning and wave machines.

Editors and critics of the plays, disdaining the showiness and melodrama of Shakespearean stage representation, soon began to focus on Shakespeare as a dramatic poet, to be studied on the printed page rather than in the theatre. The rift between Shakespeare on the stage and Shakespeare on the page was at its widest in the early 19th century, at a time when both forms of Shakespeare were hitting peaks of fame and popularity: theatrical Shakespeare was successful spectacle and melodrama for the masses, while book or closet drama Shakespeare was being elevated by the reverential commentary of the Romantics into unique poetic genius, prophet, and bard. Before the Romantics, Shakespeare was simply the most admired of all dramatic poets, especially for his insight into human nature and his realism, but Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge refactored him into an object of almost religious adoration or "bardolatry" (from bard + λατρεία, Greek for worship—a word coined by George Bernard Shaw), who towered above mere mortal writers, and whose plays were to be worshipped as not "merely great works of art" but as "phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers" and "with entire submission of our own faculties" (Thomas de Quincey, 1823). To the later 19th century Shakespeare became in addition an emblem of national pride, the crown jewel of English culture, and a "rallying-sign", as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1841, for the whole British empire.

Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, the historic rift between poet and playwright has begun to heal.




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