Blinded by Bardolatry?
By MICHAEL CAINES
A postscript to yesterday's post about biographical imaginings, accidental or otherwise, on a connected point: here are the opening pages from a book by an eighteenth-century actor and critic, Francis Gentleman. The editor of what was once described as "unquestionably the worst edition that ever appeared of any English author" (an edition of Shakespeare published in the 1770s), Gentleman wrote extensively about Shakespeare and the actors of his day. He lived a rather hapless life, I think.
I couldn't say, in the Fertile Fact style, what Mr Gentleman would have made of Twitter or how he would have got on with Spotify, were he alive today; but I can point to these pages as a good example of how underlying biographical assumptions can shape (or deform) critical views. Specifically: how Shakespeare was so sublime a genius that he couldn't possibly be ultimately responsible for the more disagreeable elements in his work: "he frequently trifles, is now and then obscure, and, sometimes" – brace yourself – "indelicate".
Opening this particular book again (it's my fragile copy of a not especially rare edition, that will probably become one copy rarer if I open it again), I couldn't help but find something pertinent to what I'd just been writing about, in Gentleman's confident assertion that Shakespeare could do no wrong – and that the "loose, quibbling, licentious taste of his time" was responsible for anything smutty or less than sublime in Shakespeare's plays.
This is a conventional view for the period, when notions of the eighteenth century's inherent superiority to earlier times, such as Shakespeare's, held sway. To rewrite Shakespeare was fine (for example: giving King Lear a happy ending, as a Poet Laureate, Nahum Tate, had done, in the adaptation that still dominated the stage in Gentleman's day) because this was merely to reveal the "noble monument" beneath the "cobwebs". Adulation seldom equates with clarity of vision, you might say. Worshippers at literary shrines, take heed . . . .