William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 6

By Brian Vickers | Go to book overview

Introduction

I

The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw an enormous consolidation of almost all the aspects of Shakespeare’s reception presented in this series. His position as ‘a Classic, and contemporary with all ages’ (Mrs Griffith, No. 249) is firmly established; new editions and commentaries appear in 1778, 1780, 1783, 1785, 1790, and 1793; dozens of books of criticism or literary history have substantial discussions of his work, and incidental references abound in books, magazines, newspapers, lectures, novels, letters, theatre reviews, and poetry. His prestige is now so great that he is seen not only as England’s greatest writer but as the world’s greatest, an altogether exceptional human being. To Horace Walpole, writing in 1778, he is ‘superior to all mankind’; in 1786 he finds him ‘a predominant genius’, compared with whom other writers may be held ‘cheap enough’, while ‘to excel him—Oh! I have not words adequate to my contempt for those who can suppose such a possibility!’ 1 The Critical Review began one of its many Shakespeare articles with a panegyric which typifies the general tone of admiration:

Every new enquiry into the dramatic works of Shakespeare renders the transcendency of his talents more conspicuous. While he possessed such an astonishing power of imagination in conceiving and describing characters as no other poet, either in ancient or modern times, ever displayed, he abounded also in sentiments and precepts of the greatest utility in the conduct of human life. With equal ease his unlimited genius pervaded philosophy and nature; and he informs the head, at the same time that he agitates the heart with irresistible emotions. 2

The Monthly Review, the rival journal, did not fall behind in praise. Samuel Badcock, reviewing the 1778 edition of the Johnson-Steevens Shakespeare, welcomed it as a ‘truly valuable edition of the Works of a poet who hath long been classed among the most astonishing phaenomena of human genius. Panegyric hath been exhausted in his praise; and the invention of a

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