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How Did Shakespeare Get So Popular?

In the tenth and final episode of Let's Talk Shakespeare we ask "How did Shakespeare get so popular?"

This is a good question, and a lot of people wonder why it is Shakespeare that is so well celebrated over his fellow playwrights. In this episode we look at lots of reasons why this is the case, through key events and opportunities over the last 400 years that have led to his popularity today. This is such a big topic that this episode really acts as an introduction to further areas you might want to look up. Our experts also express beautifully how and why they enjoy seeing Shakespeare's plays over and over again.

Image: Souvenir medal and ribbon for David Garrick’s “Shakespeare Jubilee” of 1769

This week's guests are:

- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
- Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research and Knowledge at the SBT
- Ben Crystal, Actor, director and producer

Narrator: Jennifer Reid


REID: Hello, and welcome to the tenth and final episode of ‘Let’s Talk Shakespeare’, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid and today I’m asking, how did Shakespeare get so popular? Now, in previous episodes of this podcast, I’ve spoken to lots of different experts and practitioners to get to an answer. In essence, that’s what I’m doing today except that the time we have is not nearly enough to cover such a huge subject. So instead, my clips today will be touching on lots of different reasons and theories about why Shakespeare became and remains so popular today; we’ll be jumping about a bit in the timeline again. So my first clip is from Michael Dobson, who's the director of the Shakespeare Institute, and he’s going to tell us a bit about Shakespeare’s fame during his own lifetime and introduce us to some of the ideas coming up in this episode. 

DOBSON: Shakespeare got very popular in his own lifetime; and, in fact, from very early in his own career. His narrative poemVenus and Adonis, was about his most popular printed work right through his career. As early as 1593 he had an overnight sensation with this poem, which everybody finds tremendously erotic, tremendously charming and tremendously classical. There are many, many allusions to it. It’s a best-seller, there’s only one surviving copy of the first edition; it was read to death, possibly in some fairly insalubrious ways. But the copy in the Bodleian library, which is the one that survives, is at least clean. His plays, once they started getting into print, very soon start getting into print with his name on them. Henry IV, Part 1 goes through multiple editions in his lifetime and continues to stay in print as a paperback even after they all come out together after the Folio in 1623. He is sufficient celebrity to have anecdotes told about him by 1599 or so; his plays are really good and people recognise from the start that there’s something very special about his talent. The kind of pyramid marketing process that Heminges and Condell outline in the preface of the First Folio where they say if you like him tell your friends to read him - ‘make sure they buy this book and spread the word’ - has just continued to work ever since. 

There’s such a range of stuff in the plays, they always have to be cut and adapted and slightly modified for performance so that people and actors always have to contribute lots of themselves. There’s always perpetual opportunities for other people to get in on the act and do new things with them. As drama, they always happen in the present; it’s not monumental stuff that goes out of fashion. It’s perpetually asking to be regenerated, translated and spread. He’s already well known, or at least some of the plays are already well known in continental Europe, before he dies. We know that Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice are being taken on tour and adapted, and adapted into German around the Baltic states while Shakespeare is still around. Soon, anywhere the English language goes, so does Shakespeare. There’s an Italian book from the 1680s, that’s encouraging Italian people to learn English. The main reason that you would really bother to learn English is their ‘thundering tragedies’; you only bothered to learn English in the 17th century for the sake of the theatre, because the theatre was so good. 

London was famously a theatre capital while Shakespeare was working there. We’ve got Thomas Platter coming from Switzerland and commenting on seeing Julius Caesar and Arnet van Gorkul from Holland describing that they’ve still got these amazing Roman playhouses in London. So, it’s a tourist phenomenon from early. These plays really are extraordinarily good in a sort of generative way; they adapt things themselves and they ask to to be adapted themselves, into whatever medium may be lying about. They’re sort of measurably popular. It would be really interesting to do an animation of a map of the world and colour it in wherever they’ve actually seen Henry IV, Part 1 or first adapted Merchant of Venice, which is one of the most popular plays. It’s often the first play done in any given country, in any given amateur dramatic society. Shakespeare is folk art as well as high art, people do it for themselves  whether you like it or not.

REID: So, Shakespeare was popular in his own lifetime; or rather, his work was. My next clip is from Elizabeth Dollimore, who is the Learning Manager at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and she goes back to Shakespeare’s popularity just after his death and with the next generation through to the Victorians and the Romantic poets.

DOLLIMORE: A lot of it can be attributed to his popularity during the Victorian era. But let’s take a little back step and say, Shakespeare was popular amongst those who knew him and within the circle of the sort of person who would be exposed to that in his own lifetime. He wouldn’t have been a national celebrity because there wasn’t much communication between, say, London and Yorkshire. But he certainly was popular in his own lifetime for what he did and, as most popular people, there were people who liked him and people who didn’t like him. So when we think about what happened next, there was a period in history where the theatres were closed and then reopened in about 1660. At that time, Shakespeare’s plays were still being performed and were performed: although, were frequently amended by the next generation, sometimes quite hugely. There wasn’t at that time, any sense of reverence towards Shakespeare’s plays. They were nice blueprints that you could start with: if you wanted to add other characters, other scenes or alternate endings that was fine and up for grabs and you just did that. 

That tradition carried on roughly to the Victorian period where we start to see the beginning of what we might call ‘Bardolatry’, or people idolising Shakespeare. There’s a little bit of that with the Romantic poets; for instance, Keats is said to have always carried around a little portrait of Shakespeare when he went on holiday. When he went on holiday, he said he never felt at home until he’d put up his little portrait of Shakespeare. In fact, there’s a well known portrait of Keats which has the portrait of Shakespeare in the background. So that’s fairly ‘Bardolatrous’, I’m not sure many people carry with them a little portrait of Shakespeare wherever they go. So, that kind of reverence kind of began with the Romantic poets and continued on into the Victorian era. By the middle to late Victorian era, we are beginning to see that reflect itself in the idea that stage performances out to be reverent towards Shakespeare’s original text and ought not to change too much from what was felt Shakespeare wrote. Also around about that time, during the Victorian period, it became something that was taught at school and that immortalised it really because it got onto the curriculum and has stayed there ever since. Every person who goes through the education system in the UK is exposed to Shakespeare. Whether that makes him popular or the person that most people would like to smack, I’m not really sure. Of course, that’s a famous Blackadder skit where Blackadder goes back in time and gives Shakespeare a left hook and says ‘That’s for all the schoolboys!’. To a degree, we should blame the Victorians for Shakespeare’s current ‘centrality’.

REID: Let’s talk about the theatres closing in the 17th century. The mid-1600s were not a great time for theatres in England and they were closed for eighteen years following the outbreak of civil war in 1642. They were reopened following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and after this, tastes changed but Shakespeare remained popular, if a little changed. The next clip is from Paul Edmondson, who is the Head of Research and Knowledge here at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, to talk about this and to introduce us to the idea of how Shakespeare travelled around the world. 

EDMONDSON: Shakespeare was popular in his own lifetime, he’s written about by other poets and literary critics of the day, always in terms of admiration. This continues posthumously with the publication of the First Folio, which has lots of commendatory verses at the beginning of that, and with the funerary bust in Holy Trinity Church which compares him to Socrates, Virgil and Nestor. It talks about him as a writer, it invites us to see all he has written as living art. It also talks about him as a poet of nature, it says ‘With whom quick nature died’; so when Shakespeare dies, something of nature dies as well. From the earliest point, Shakespeare is famous. He continues to be famous in lots of ways through to the closing of the theatres in the mid 17th century, when Britain was momentarily a republic, because of his influence which can be discerned through other playwrights who were wanting to evoke his greatness and popularity through their own work. A major example is his collaborator John Fletcher who writes the first sequel ever to a Shakespeare play with his play The Woman’s Prize (or The Tamer Tamed), which is the continuation of The Taming of the Shrew, such was his admiration for his friend and co-author. They worked together on The Two Noble Kinsmen, Cardenio and Henry VIII: All Is True. 

Then, the theatres close and the restoration comes about with Charles II in the 1660s and the theatre starts to become popular again but the tastes have changed. We’ve moved from the outdoor spaces to massive indoor spaces and what happens then is that Shakespeare’s work undergoes a very significant renovation and adaptation for the taste of its time. For example, a very popular playwright/poet of the time, Nahum Tate rewrites the ending of King Lear and adapts it significantly to give it a happy ending. Tate’s version holds the stage for about 150 years, which is extraordinary to think about now. Shakespeare builds in popularity in the middle of the 18th century: he becomes the playwright who is exported to the growing British Empire and then, lo and behold, stays behind after a century and a half of the empire. Shakespeare remains: he becomes so embedded in the culture there and appropriated by the culture there. A very significant example of that is the United States of America: after the War of Independence, Shakespeare remains in the late 18th century and becomes part of the cosmopolitan makeup of the United States of America. We see that all over the British Empire territory; Shakespeare is exported and that Shakespeare remains, which is one of the reasons why Shakespeare is world famous. 

Because of the British Empire, he’s translated into different languages and adapted by many different cultures. Germany had a special affection for Shakespeare and has always had that, I think. Some of Shakespeare’s own actors went to perform in Germany in his lifetime and it’s Germany where the first translation of Shakespeare occurs in the middle of the 18th century. Such is the extent of Shakespeare’s popularity, he becomes an honorary German national poet. By the middle of the 19th century, he’s there with Goethe, Schiller and German Shakespeare. It was a great translation by August Wilhelm Tegel and Ludwig Tieck in the early 19th century that would turn Shakespeare into a Romantic German playwright/poet through their translation. It’s still the most famous German translation: Germany, like any country that translates Shakespeare, will often translate the play afresh each time it’s performed. A director of the play might commission a new translation, so you’re always hearing and encountering Shakespeare differently each time when you go to the theatre in another language. This helps to explain why he continues to be popular in other cultures, because he always seems like a modern playwright with new translations being lavished upon him. 

REID: One event that really put Shakespeare up on his pedestal was David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee, staged in September 1769 in Stratford-upon-Avon. It not only had an effect on ‘Bardolatry’, but also for the first time really shone the spotlight on Stratford as the birthplace of the great national poet. So, back to Paul to introduce the Garrick Jubilee for us. 

EDMONDSON: A really important moment in the 18th century for the popularity of Shakespeare came with the great actor David Garrick, who in 1769, was invited by the corporation (the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon) to hold a special celebration of Shakespeare, which he did in the form of a jubilee in that September. It was the first time really that Shakespeare broke out of the playhouses and out of the libraries, and onto the streets among the people. It was, as it were, a ‘civic Shakespeare’ and it really helped to encourage a general feeling of popularity for Shakespeare. In fact, one of the things that is notorious about the Garrick Jubilee is that not a word of Shakespeare was spoken. His fame was so kind of self-assured in the minds of those who were gathering to celebrate him that they were celebrating, as it were, the name and the reputation already, rather than the work itself. Any allusion, any moment of Shakespeare that was referred to through David Garrick’s own adaptations of his work. There was a great ode spoken in a temporary theatre pavilion that Garrick had built on the site of the current Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Garrick himself spoke the ode and was given the Freedom of the Town of Stratford and Thomas Arne, who wrote Rule Britannia, wrote the music for the ode. It was a great national moment that took place in the town and from then on, it sort of sealed Stratford’s fate to become a Shakespeare ‘destination’. People were already visiting the house on Henley Street, Shakespeare’s birthplace, prior to the jubilee but of course they did so much more afterwards. The jubilee itself transferred to the West End of London and became a show in its own right and very popular. 

REID: Now although it’s not quite true that there was no tourist industry in the town prior the jubilee, like is often said, it certainly did the town no harm. It was this increase in tourist interests that led to the eventual purchase and saving of Shakespeare’s Birthplace by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. My final clip from Paul today is about this purchase. 

EDMONDSON: Descendants of Shakespeare’s sister lived in part of the Henley Street house until the early part of the 19th century. Then, it fell into further private ownership and the whole site came up for auction in 1847. There was a public feeling that monies could be raised in order to secure the memorial for Shakespeare through the Henley Street house. Monies were collected in Stratford and London via committees: the London committee included Charles Dickens among its members and enough money was raised for it to be accepted by the auctioneers in September 1847. That meant that the house was effectively in public ownership and a trust, what became the Birthplace Trust, really started with the purchase of the house. It was a conservation purchase, it was self-consciously an effort to commemorate Shakespeare through a living memorial: a house. Charles Dickens, for example, thought that whereas he didn’t really want to see a statue of Shakespeare that he did think a house was a good way of remembering a writer. Of course, Shakespeare’s house is amongst the first of writers’ houses in Britain to commemorate the writer in this way. Then follow lots of similar examples: for example, the Brontë Parsonage in the 1890s, is in a way modelled on the example that you can visit a place and visit the house of a writer.

REID: And of course, without the Birthplace we wouldn’t have this podcast. My next clip is from Ben Crystal, who is an actor, director and producer, who has a slightly different take on this question than my previous speakers about how Shakespeare has been turned from a playwright and man of the theatre into a legend and man of the millennium.

CRYSTAL: Why are we talking about Shakespeare today rather than someone else? It starts at the time: before Shakespeare was ‘Shakespeare’, Marlowe was ‘Shakespeare’ and before Marlowe was ‘Shakespeare’, Lilley was ‘Shakespeare’. There was always someone at the top of the tree. It was Marlowe who had the notion that if I give my characters poetry to speak, as their dialogue, and a particular type of poetry with a particular type of rhythm,  that has the same rhythm as spoken English then they will sound normal and natural and at the same time at the same time heightened. Shakespeare took that idea and ran with it and realised that if he bent and broke that rhythm every now and again that it would replicate the same sort of non-fluency that we have now: the stuttering and the hesitations and the pauses and the fast-paced dialogue that the Greeks hundreds and thousands of years before had called stichomythia (rapid dialogue in poetry and plays). To sort of bridge it to now, the reason why he probably became popular then and is popular now is because he didn’t ever write what it was to be from Stratford-upon-Avon or Warwick or England, he wrote what it was to be human. Whether it’s being jealous of your best friend’s girlfriend, or loving someone so much you want to kill them, or trying to understand what it is to be a king or a soldier or a strong woman in a patriarchal society. These are all things that we can relate to around the world; love and loss, yearning and hatred, jealousy and death. It’s not like Pinter, where you have to have a bit of an understanding of what it is to rent a basement flat in Camden Town: the themes and the issues are universal. 

Shakespeare became ‘Shakespeare’ only relatively recently, 100 or so years after he died. First of all, you’ve got the Puritanical regime in the civil war, where no theatre was put on. Then in the 1660s onwards, you have Shakespeare’s plays being rewritten with happy endings. Then about 100 years later you have David Garrick, who started the Stratford Festival, and that’s only really when Shakespeare started to become ‘Shakespeare’. Then 15 years after that, such was the interest in Shakespeare, that for the very first time someone reordered the plays not by genre (as in tragedy, comedy and history) but chronologically. They didn’t really know the chronology of the plays and the order in which they were performed and written: we still don’t really know fully the exact ordering of them, but we have a pretty good guess. As soon as you start to think about the order in which the plays were written, it’s hard not to blend that into at the arc of the man’s life. As soon as you try to drill down deeper into when those plays were written and what things were happening in Elizabethan London at the time and the mirroring of, or the references to, the Irish skirmishes and Henry V and that kind of thing which places it quite firmly in 1599. Or the movement of his company, when his clown left in 1599 and the new clown arrived or the change of monarch. Then you start more and more to try to divine the man from the works and ascribe biography from the fiction, essentially. 

REID: My final clip today is from Professor Stanley Wells, and Stanley has been seeing Shakespeare’s plays for 60 years or so. He can summarise perfectly for us why we never tire of seeing the same play, over and over and over again.

WELLS: Shakespeare is more famous now than most of, but not all the other writers of his time. Some of them are highly regarded by people who take a specialised interest in literature and in drama. People like Christopher Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus or Ben Jonson, author of great comedies like War Pony and so on; their plays are valued. But Shakespeare is valued much more than any of his contemporaries, for many reasons. One is that he wrote more plays than them and another is that he most of the plays he wrote are good plays or, successful plays. Another is that they are varied plays that he writes: light comedies like Two Gentlemen of Verona; profound tragedies like King Lear; fascinating histories about politics of the past which relate to the politics of his own time, quite strongly too. These are some of the reasons why Shakespeare remains popular but fundamentally, I think Shakespeare has outstripped his contemporaries because he is such a profound writer. His plays give us the greatest sense of the value of human life; of how people live; of how people love and of the importance of human relationships than any other writers of his time or of any other time. Shakespeare’s plays are as popular as they are because he was perhaps the greatest writer who has ever lived. It’s partly because he was writing plays which go on being performed and therefore which can be brought freshly to life for each generation by actors of the present. In other words, he’s not simply a bookish writer like some other great writers of the past like John Milton or Alexander Pope who are great writers, but you’ve got to sit down with a book and read them. With Shakespeare, you can the full Shakespearean experience - you can only, indeed, get the full Shakespearean experience - seeing his plays acted. Preferably, I think, in the theatre but also in the cinema. 

Every time the plays are acted they become slightly different, of course, because each time there is a necessary interaction between the text, which is what the actors are saying, and between the personalities and the skills of actors themselves. This is one of the reasons why one can go on seeing Shakespeare’s plays with great pleasure and fascination over many decades. I’ve been seeing Shakespeare’s plays for 60 years or more, and I can still keep go and see Much Ado About Nothing or Hamlet or King Lear with expectations of not only pleasure but of having a somewhat different experience of the last time I saw that particular play because of the different styles in which it’s performed and personalities of the actors, who are performing these great roles. Each time the plays are performed, they take on new resonances with life at the time they’re being performed. They’ve been used sometimes for political purposes in Soviet Russia, for example: they became used often as an expression of dissidence from the current regime. Hamlet could be seen as a protester of the state. When Hamlet was performed in Romania during the regime of the dictator Ceauşescu, Claudius - the villain of the play - was actually played as Ceauşescu and Gertrude, his wife, as Madame Ceauşescu as a way of pointing political parallels with the time at which the play was being performed. That’s just one example of the way the plays can take on new resonances in relation to the society prevailing at the time they’re being performed.

REID: Well that’s the end of this episode and it’s the end of the series. Thank you to today’s speakers, Paul, Stanley, Ben, Michael and Liz and to everyone whose spoken to me throughout this series. Thanks to the friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as always, for making this podcast possible and thank you to you for joining me for the last ten weeks for a whistle-stop tour of some of the frequently asked questions about Shakespeare’s life.

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– Shakespeare: 450 years young
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– Here we go round the mulberry tree

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