Shakespeare’s plays resonated in the generations after his death in гбгб and the demise of the King’s Men in Г642 and came to define how theatre has been made in English-speaking countries and much of the West since that time. In Г642, after several decades of a highly productive English theatre in which Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and others were able to thrive, the English Parliament voted to close all theatres in England, believing them to perpetuate lies and attract sinful behavior. This move was part of a major religious upheaval between a religiously conservative parliament and King Charles I, which resulted in a bloody civil war and, ultimately, Parliament’s victory and long period of rule in England. After eighteen years and the restoration of Charles’s son, Charles II, as king, new theatres and theatre companies opened to a society hungry, once again, for “English” theatre. The work of Shakespeare was performed and adapted by dramatists like William Davenant and Nahum Tate who, along with their audiences, saw Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights like Beaumont and Fletcher as cultural touchstones harking back to the prewar days. Davenant, who had been a playwright for the Kings Men prior to Г642, and his rival playwright and company manager, Thomas Killigrew, each received patents, or licenses, to form new theatre companies after Charles IFs restoration to the throne. Killigrew’s company even reconstituted the title of the King’s Men for his new company. Davenant, Killigrew, and Tate performed Shakespeare but usually only after major adaptation. The postwar, post- Puritan London audiences did not, for understandable reasons, have quite the same taste for violence and tragedy as their prewar predecessors, so even Shakespeare’s starkest tragedies were reimagined for the Restoration audience. Whereas Shakespeare’s King Lear is unrelenting in its tragic conclusion —Lear and his beloved daughter, Cordelia, both die in the play’s final moments —Nahum Tate’s King Lear reads as much more of a dramatic comedy. In Tate’s version, Cordelia and Lear both live, Cordelia marries, and Lear contemplates a quiet retirement. These two starkly different versions of Lear signal us how early practitioners and audiences regarded both Shakespeare and his plays as something to be preserved and a canvas onto which more contemporary values, tastes, and styles could be painted.
In some respects, this early reaction to and use of Shakespeare’s plays has continued to characterize how we have approached Shakespeare since. The initial impulse to see the plays as something of value —deeply resonant poetic dramas, reflections of England’s polities and culture, current events, frontiers of a freshly emerging language, pieces of art or literature —continued. Shakespeare was at the heart of theatre in England throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century, championed from the London stage by actor-managers like David Garrick and in writing by diarists and critics like Samuel Johnson, each of whom held special positions as cultural tastemakers in Britain. Shakespeare was also exported to Europe, with plays like Hamlet being adapted and performed in France and Germany, and even as puppet shows in Italy and America, where his plays were among the first performed in English.
In this period, responses to Shakespeare’s work developed into new traditions of academic study, theatrical performance, and cultural expression. Each of these traditions had its roots in his plays and stagecraft, but also adapted to the new conditions and needs of practitioners, audiences, and cultures.
Three characters from Hamlet. These antique marionettes were found in the attic of a church in what used to be a predominately Czech neighborhood in New York City. Today, they are used by the Czeehoslovak-Ameriean Marionette Theatre.
Each of these traditions had its roots in his plays and stagecraft, but also adapted to the new conditions and needs of practitioners, audiences, and cultures. Some practitioners and audiences continued to see the plays in much the same vein as their predecessors: Shakespeare was about being English and celebrating Englishness. By performing Shakespeare, an actor or company was performing the work of the great master of the English language in a way that bought it some legitimacy with its audience. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as a unified Britain was emerging as a major world power, building its empire, and colonizing America, Australia, Africa, and parts of Asia, the assertion of this Englishness became even more important. At home, Shakespeare’s plays and language allowed audiences to celebrate themselves and their great cultural heritage with Shakespeare right at the center of this expression, the literary persona responsible for the culture’s crowning achievements. Abroad, in colonies like those that would become the United States, Canada, and India, Shakespeare was simply part of a way to connect to and assert what it meant to be English, to be civilized, and to be Western; volumes of Shakespeare’s plays became what English speakers placed on their shelves right next to their Bibles.
In all, Shakespeare’s poetic drama had become the predominant theatrical form of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and this preoccupation with him extended beyond the stage into societies that were increasingly literate and increasingly literary. In some respects, Shakespeare had become both a dramatic and a literary ideal, representing the highest, most essential mode of theatrical performance on stages throughout the West and serving as the singular literary and artistic figure in the culture. At its most benign, thinking about Shakespeare as a genius meant that Britain could assert its position at the apex of Western civilization; as the producer of the world’s greatest poet and greatest artistic mind, Great Britain could be articulated as more refined, smarter, or having achieved more than others. As Britain’s influence expanded in North America, southern Asia, Australia, and Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Shakespeare’s role at the forefront of cultural expression meant that both he and his work were valued not only on their own merits, but as representations of the nation, of cultural superiority, and of genius itself.
This new position meant that Shakespeare’s plays were no longer being encountered as the fresh, relevant reflections of England and its language, but as the basic material used for making the best theatre and defining a cultural ideal. Shakespeare’s plays were, for actors, audiences, readers, and scholars, part of a canon —must-read, must-wateh material that defined what it meant to see theatre and be English. This idea of “canon,” a notion that the greatest artistic and cultural works of Europe could be thought of as a collective achievement of a civilization, put Shakespeare’s plays into a more integrated role in society. In the sehoolhouse, the plays became part of organized curricula. At universities and among the scholarly community, the plays became the subject of scholarly study and writing. Scholars like Edmund Malone began to dig into Shakespeare, both in essays and in newly edited versions of the plays, meaning that Shakespeare was taking his place alongside the great classical and Renaissance writers worthy of serious study. On the stage, stars were made based, in large part, on their achievements in the great Shakespearean roles like Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III. Many actors became “great” only after performing Shakespeare well. For actors such as David Garrick, Sarah Siddons and the Kemble and Booth families, Shakespeare was a staple of performance. Stars also helped to generate new excitement around Shakespeare’s plays. With great actors in Shakespeare’s leading roles, theatre in England and the emerging United States reached its heyday —Shakespeare was being reinvented and made relevant again in the performances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This newness was expressed not only in the performances of the stars, each with their own “brand” of doing Shakespeare, but also in how audiences identified with the Shakespeare they saw.
In Europe, Shakespeare’s plays were translated into German, French, and Italian as Romanticism emerged —a movement that, for the first time, put Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers and artists at or above the level of classical authors like Euripedes, Seneca, and Virgil—and composers like Giuseppe Verdi, Hector Berlioz, and Richard Wagner adapted Shakespeare for the opera. In the United States, Shakespeare’s plays were becoming part of the cultural landscape for African Americans, with popular black actor Ira Aldridge playing roles like Hamlet and Othello. More broadly, Shakespeare’s work represented an ideal mode of performance and of literature; to perform Shakespeare, see it performed, or read or study it was to play a part in the mainstream of cultural life. For Aldridge and others who existed, at least in part, outside the cultural mainstream, Shakespeare may have been seen as a catalyst or gateway for blacks, Jews, immigrants, women, colonized populations, and other cultural minorities to converse with and contribute to the otherwise English-speaking, white, male cultural norm.
At the same time, Shakespeare’s plays could become the mechanism for distinguishing oneself or one’s group from that norm. One such example of this was in the Г849 Astor Place Opera House Riot in New York City. Here, rival actors Edwin Forrest, an American, and William Charles Maeready, an Englishman, had presented competing interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The rivalry between the two men was primarily a stylistic one, with each representing a different way of acting the title role in the play. Audiences, however, saw in the two interpretations a break along other, more deeply seeded, lines of social class and status. Many in the American audience, primed with anti-English sentiment that saw Maeready and other English as socially elite, turned on Maeready and his supporters, and violence erupted, leaving several dead and scores wounded.
Though this example is by far the most extreme, it demonstrates what Shakespeare’s plays were becoming by the dawn of the twentieth century, both in the theatre and in society: material that, on one hand, represented a kind of cultural continuity—touchstones that signified eonneetedness and commonality and, on the other hand, could reflect the endless values and conditions with which they came into contact. In this way, Shakespeare’s plays were paradoxically both a connection to the larger English-speaking world, a nod to a particular country’s —or culture’s —English heritage, and a means of asserting a separation or adaptation of that heritage.
Engraving of the Astor Place Opera House Riot In New York, 1849. Library of Congress.