The creation of William Shakespeare: How the Bard really became a legend

Shakespeare wasn't always a literary icon — or even the most popular writer of his era. Then how did he get so big?

Published December 13, 2014 7:00PM (EST)

William Shakespeare      (Wikimedia)
William Shakespeare (Wikimedia)

Ladies and gentlemen, the Bard is back. With the recent discovery of a previously unknown First Folio in a French library, Shakespeare has once again been thrust into the limelight (as if he ever left).

Shakespeare’s current status is often described as "bardolatry," an excessive veneration of the man marked by elaborate myths about who he was and what he really accomplished. One of the more popular myths involves Shakespeare's "wildly extensive" vocabulary and ferocious knack for coining new words. (In reality, Shakespeare's vocabulary was less than half of the average person's today and he only coined 229 new words, coming in 4th among English wordsmiths.) Over the years, Shakespearean scholars have laboriously worked to debunk those myths. (For a great example of this type of work, check out Oxford scholars Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith's recent book, "30 Myths About Shakespeare.") However, despite the best efforts of experts, some misperceptions about the Bard still refuse to die.

One such myth, although it's rarely regarded as such, is that Shakespeare was the most famous playwright of his day. He wasn't. While Shakespeare did belong to popular troupes -- the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later the King’s Men -- his success was not unrivaled, nor unparalleled. During the early days of his career, for example, he trailed behind the powerhouse playwright Christopher Marlowe, and even Marlowe’s roommate Thomas Kyd. Marlowe and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564), but Marlowe rose to prominence early. (His career was ultimately cut short when he was stabbed to death at 29.) Another competitor, Ben Jonson, coined more than double the words that Shakespeare did. Shakespeare actually acted in at least one of Jonson’s plays, while Jonson famously teased the "Hamlet" scribe for his meager command of classical language — “small Latin and less Greek,” in Johnson's telling.

Other later playwrights, like Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, also rivaled Shakespeare’s popular success.

Moreover, even though Shakespeare’s reputation began to grow soon after his death, it is important to note that his reception has not always been uniformly positive. For instance, the 17th-century poet and playwright John Dryden revised some of Shakespeare’s plays, calling one a “heap of rubbish under which many excellent thoughts lay wholly buried.” The curmudgeon Thomas Rymer, a contemporary of Dryden’s and infamous for his snide Shakespearean criticism, remarked that “In the Neighing of an Horse, or in the growling of a Mastiff, there is a meaning, there is an lively expression, and, may I say, more 
humanity, than many times in the Tragical flights of Shakespear.”

So, how did William Shakespeare become the mythic, iconic Shakespeare that he is today? It is useful, in answering this question, to think of Shakespeare less as a legendary artist and more as a product: In order for a product to sell, it of course needs to meet certain demands of quality. But the ability to make the sale is also dependent on more banal considerations, such as the packaging, advertising and distribution given to it. And Shakespeare is no different. In other words, he required some help along the way. While Shakespeare’s current reputation relies on many contributing factors, three are particularly significant:

The First Folio

In 1623, only seven years after Shakespeare’s death, two of his actors and friends John Heminge and Henry Condell oversaw the publication of "Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies." The First Folio, as scholars refer to it, is essentially the first anthology of Shakespeare’s works. Heminge and Condell would have had access to the authoritative scripts of Shakespeare’s plays, unlike the pirated or less reliable scripts called quartos that were published during Shakespeare’s life. Almost half of Shakespeare’s plays hadn’t appeared previously in quartos, so without the First Folio, we would not have plays like "The Tempest," "Julius Caesar," or "Macbeth." The First Folio provided readers and playgoers with an authoritative corpus of Shakespeare’s plays very early on, making the future study and productions of Shakespeare’s works much easier in the centuries to come. Some of Shakespeare’s rivals, like Marlowe, didn’t get this luxury.

David Garrick

Thanks to the First Folio, its later editions, and other quartos, Shakespeare’s plays were performed regularly for the next 150 years (except when the theatres were closed during the English Civil War). But Shakespeare’s reputation and popularity got another boost largely due to the fame of one actor: David Garrick. Garrick was catapulted to stardom as the title role in "Richard III," and he devoted his later career to a massive cultural campaign promoting the life and works of Shakespeare. Garrick famously called Shakespeare “the god of our idolatry” and launched a frenzy of “Shakespeare worship.” In 1769, Garrick coordinated an elaborate celebration of Shakespeare’s birth called Shakespeare’s Jubilee (you can see an invitation to it here), and he even built a Temple to Shakespeare on his own estate. Thus, it wasn’t until 150 years or so after Shakespeare’s death that he really began accumulating the iconic fame he enjoys today.

The British Empire

Garrick’s promotional work shot Shakespeare into the forefront of English literary culture, but it took an empire to spread it abroad. England’s empire-building began with the founding of the East India Company in 1600, right in the middle of Shakespeare’s career. In fact, the ship log for one East India Company voyage shows that sailors performed "Hamlet" more than once during their journey. As the British Empire spread, it brought the English language with it; and one of the staples of English had become Shakespeare. In fact, in 1901, the British Empire Shakespeare Society was founded, and its goals included “to promote greater familiarity with Shakespeare’s work among all classes throughout the British Empire” and “to help the rising generation not only to study Shakespeare’s works, but to love them.” Although the sun has set on the Empire itself, Shakespeare still profits tremendously from its earlier glow.

As a Shakespearean scholar, I view Shakespeare’s works with admiration and, sometimes, awe. His works spur many on to bardology, or the study of Shakespeare. But bardolatry is another story. And it’s less tenable when you know a little more behind the myth.

By Cameron Hunt McNabb

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