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Shakespeare as Literary Muse

Over the decades and centuries after Shakespeare’s death, many other authors attempted to create works that would be “after the style of” or “as a sequel to” his most famous creations. Each of these works, though, holds important information about the history of its own time period, not just the time period of Shakespeare.

This work, a revision of Julius Caesar, is by a noted English politician of the 17th and 18th centuries, John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby. The play covers the dramatic 44 BCE murder of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar and the later defeat in battle of the conspirators in his assassination. In the revisions, Buckingham broke the work into two plays, Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus, and added a Greek-style chorus between the acts. He also included a love scene between Brutus, one of the conspirators who assassinated Caesar, and his wife Portia. Some of the chorus act transitions were written by Alexander Pope, who was supported by the Duke.

In the prologue to the play, the Duke acknowledges that to attempt to match Shakespeare is “presumptuous,” but does it anyway. We know little of his intentions or motivations, but he was a Jacobite--a supporter of the James II of England, who was removed from office and exiled--and the description of “mighty Julius” as a “wond’rous Man” who “governed with so mild a Sway” does seem to be useful as a propaganda tool to support, by analogy, the deposed James II: both Caesar and James were deposed for tyranny, after all, and it seems unlikely that either governed with a sway at all mild.

This play, printed in 1737, was written by William Havard, an actor and playwright. Considered the best of his plays, it covered the relatively recent events leading up to the execution of King Charles I in 1649. It was very popular, although very sad: it was said to have brought about the death of a female audience member from pathos at one of its performances, and a member of the House of Lords was apparently referring to this play when he mentioned that he had recently seen a play which was “a most tragical story ... a catastrophe too recent, too melancholy, and of too solemn a nature to be heard of anywhere but from the pulpit.”

This and similar works probably brought the nation together after the tumultuous 17th century, allowing people of all political stripes to reject Oliver Cromwell and the 11-year English Republic that followed the execution of Charles I. Instead, this play, which the author in an epilogue says was written  “he thinks--without offense to Whig or Tory,” creates an uncontroversial, Monarchist story of the 17th century which allowed the nation to move beyond chaos and reunite. Like Shakespeare’s history plays, it had an unsubtle political message beyond its drama.

This publication consists of a poem, read at a ‘Jubilee’ celebration of Shakespeare by the noted 18th-century Shakespearean actor David Garrick. Garrick performed in an updated style that made the plays more popular and accessible, and became wealthy off of his performances. The jubilee marked the beginning of ‘bardolatry’: obsession with and worship of Shakespeare not only as a great writer but as the greatest intellect and most faithful portrayer of the human condition to ever live.

Garrick was a prime example of a Shakespeare-worshipper: he constructed a neoclassical Temple to Shakespeare in which he learned his lines and exhibited his collection of relics related to Shakespeare’s life--a collection so large that it took ten days to be auctioned off after his death.

During the Jubilee organized by Garrett, 30 cannons were fired in Shakespeare’s honor, and a statue was erected in the Stratford town square. The planned culmination of the three-day event, a Shakespeare Pageant, was cancelled when the town of Stratford flooded, but later ran for 90 performances in London.

John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, is now known as one of the greatest poets in English, but in 1632, he was a relative unknown, and his writing had never appeared in print. His first appearance on the printed page was this anonymous elegy of Shakespeare, in the Second Folio--the second edition of the complete works of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare as Literary Muse