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Shakespeare, Byron and the rise of the literary superstar


If people know anything about George Gordon, Lord Byron, it is likely to be that he had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, had sex with the majority of women and most of the men of his acquaintance, drank wine from a cup made from a skull, kept a tame bear while at university, suffered a club foot, sired a daughter, Ada Lovelace, who became the world’s first computer programmer, swam the Hellespont, was a friend of Shelley and died of fever whilst fighting for Greek independence from the Turks. After which John Murray destroyed his memoirs as too scandalous for publication, thus ensuring his reputation for degeneracy. They may also know he wrote a few poems and a pile of letters, though I doubt many these days would have read all, or even extensive parts, of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage or Don Juan.

In other words, much is known about Byron, if his work is unfamiliar. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since he was, in effect, one of the first modern celebrities. Famously, he awoke and found himself famous after publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold and he has remained famous ever since, though mostly for his sexual adventuring, political radicalism and mountainous debts.

Byron wasn’t the first aristocratic poet to live fast and die young. In the 1670s John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, had fornicated himself through Restoration London in a drunken haze, one contemporary writing of him that ‘for five years together he was continually Drunk… [and] not… perfectly Master of himself… [which] led to him to… do many wild and unaccountable things.’

Wilmot died of venereal disease aged thirty three, having had a multitude of affairs, including one with actress Nell Gwyn, later mistress to Charles II. He also found time to pen some of the rudest poems in the English canon as well as a play, Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, though its authorship is uncertain. On top of everything else, he was also a war hero, having shown conspicuous bravery in two sea battles.

So why didn’t John Wilmot become the first literary superstar, rather than Byron? More importantly, what about Shakespeare? As far as Rochester is concerned, a big problem was simply his work was so bawdy it was never going to find its way into polite society; after his death, Sodom was prosecuted for obscenity and almost all copies destroyed.

Another crucial factor was timing. Rochester’s world was still semi-feudal with a restricted press and widespread illiteracy. By the early nineteenth century, the industrial revolution was well underway. Rising prosperity had created a leisured class with time to read, increased literacy meant an appetite for literature of all kinds while mechanization provided the means to produce and distribute vast numbers of books, papers and journals.

All that was needed was a superstar. Enter George Gordon, Lord Byron, Stage Right. In the same way that post-war affluence and technological innovation created conditions first for Elvis and then the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Byron was ideally placed to exploit a vast new market.  Notoriety fed sales and booming sales increased scope for extreme behaviour which in turn stoked his notoriety. The pattern has become familiar, including, often, exile, early death and enduring fame.

In his way, Shakespeare as much became a beneficiary of the same commercial and social forces that helped propel Byron. For he hadn’t always enjoyed superstar status; in his lifetime he had been relatively uncelebrated. And within thirty years of his death, the Puritans had closed the theatres as ungodly.

By the 1650s the prohibition was slightly relaxed and William Davenant, thought by some to be the playwright’s illegitimate child, was licenced to produce adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays in musical adaptation. It was after the monarchy’s Restoration in 1660 and Charles II’s passion for theatre as well as actresses, that plays were once again produced, with Hamlet performed in 1661. Productions became lavish, but often bore little relation to Shakespeare’s original stagings.

Outside London, relatively few people other than the wealthy would have been familiar with his work since books were expensive commodities. This began to change in the 1730s when single editions of his plays became available and thus more affordable. Around the same time, the Licencing Act of 1737 indirectly created a larger audience for Shakespeare’s work.

The Act was effectively a form of government censorship and required all new plays to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain and remained in force until the 1960s. It was introduced because playwrights such as John Gay and Henry Carey (who wrote Chronohotonthologos in 1734) used their productions to attack Robert Walpole’s administration.

It closed some theatres altogether and made many companies wary of producing new work, inclining them instead to stage approved or non-controversial pieces – by the 1740s Shakespeare’s plays represented a quarter of all performed in the decade. Perhaps coincidentally, it was in 1740 that he was finally accorded a statue in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Although Shakespeare’s popularity grew throughout the eighteenth century, neither he nor modern audiences would have recognized much about the productions. They were loose interpretations at best as theatre companies weren’t too bothered about the text. Amongst other things, the plays were re-shaped so they conformed to Aristotle’s classical precepts, vulgarities were excluded, the puns were dropped (they got something right, at least) and were made more didactic and morally improving – while at the same time extra parts were added for women. This wasn’t an attempt to enhance female equality but an opportunity for them to appear on stage in breeches and show off their legs.

Bizarrely, a production of Macbeth in 1726 included interludes after each act, and featured a wooden shoe dance after the third, a ‘Dutch Skipper’ after the fourth and Pierrot dance after the fifth. Similarly in 1774, King Lear was livened up by fireworks during the storm scene.

The actor David Garrick did much to promote Shakespeare and he instituted the first Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford in 1769. Designed to celebrate the bi-centenary of the playwright’s birth, if five years’ late, it opened with the firing of thirty cannons and ringing of church bells. Curiously, the Jubilee didn’t offer a production of any of the plays, but this didn’t matter very much as most of it was washed out after heavy rain caused the Avon to burst its banks. Even so, bardolatry was now well under way.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson had done as much to promote the bard in the national consciousness, since his use of quotations from the plays and poems in his Dictionary referenced Shakespeare 17,500 times. Perhaps as influentially, Johnson later published Prefaces to Shakespeare. He was intimately acquainted with the works, and though he deplored the propensity to wordplay and lack of moral justice, valued them for their understanding of character and insight into human nature. Johnson’s approach to Shakespeare was developed further by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, famed for his opium use, Ancient Mariner and the Man from Porlock.

A contemporary of Byron’s, with whom he is generally lumped as a Romantic, Coleridge’s criticism of Shakespeare was defined by close analysis of the text, study of its imagery and interest in psychology. His perceptions helped mature our understanding of Shakespeare and defined study of his work for more than a century, even if it didn’t stop the Victorians putting on garishly spectacular and extravagant productions and changing the endings when it suited them.

By the nineteenth century, Shakespeare had become an unchallengeable part of our culture, part of our national myth, an expression of our collective Genius, and a self-sustaining industry. The same engines of literacy, prosperity and technical innovation that helped Byron become a superstar pushed Shakespeare even higher while the Empire carried him around the world.

Now a global brand, it’s hard to imagine his work was almost lost to us.  Had Condell and Hemminge not bothered to compile the First Folio, The Licensing Act of 1737 not favoured production of his work or Garrick produced the Shakespeare Jubilee a few years later he might have remained in the shadows.

He might, but then he is Shakespeare. If he overtops even his great contemporaries such as Marlowe or Jonson, it’s because his greatness trumps theirs. Such dominance inevitably has a downside, since while provincial theatres may offer the occasional Shakespeare, few would risk staging The Knight of the Burning Pestle, The Changeling – or Chronohotonthologos for that matter. Cash flow wins. Diversity is lost.

On the other hand, faced with the choice between a rare revival of Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess or a new production of The Winter’s Tale, I guess I’d go Shakespeare almost every time.


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