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Shakespeare's Reputation

Shakespeare's reputation has grown exponentially since his own time, as illustrated in a timeline of Shakespeare criticism from the 17th to 20th century.

During his lifetime and shortly after his death, Shakespeare was well-regarded, but not considered the supreme poet of his age. He was included in some contemporary lists of leading poets, but he lacked the stature of Edmund Spenser or Philip Sidney. It is more difficult to assess his contemporary reputation as a playwright: Plays were considered ephemeral and somewhat disreputable entertainments rather than serious literature. The fact that his plays were collected in an expensively produced folio in 1623 (the only precedent being Ben Jonson's Works of 1616) and the fact that that folio went into another edition within nine years, indicate that he was held in unusually high regard for a playwright.

John Dryden wrote about "the incomparable Shakespeare" in 1668.After the Interregnum stage ban of 16421660, the new Restoration theatre companies had the previous generation of playwrights as the mainstay of their repertory, most of all the phenomenally popular Beaumont and Fletcher team, but also Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. Old plays were often adapted for the Restoration stage, and where Shakespeare is concerned, this undertaking has seemed shockingly respect less to posterity. A notorious example is Nahum Tate's bowdlerized happy ending of King Lear of 1681, which held the stage until 1838. From the early 18th century, Shakespeare took over the lead on the English stage from Beaumont and Fletcher, never to relinquish it again.

In literary criticism, by contrast, Shakespeare held a unique position from the start. The unbending French neo-classical "rules" and the three unities of time, place, and action were never strictly followed in England, and practically all critics gave the more "correct" Ben Jonson second place to "the incomparable Shakespeare" (John Dryden, 1668), the follower of nature, the untaught genius, the great realist of human character. The long-lived myth that the Romantics were the first generation to truly appreciate Shakespeare and to prefer him to Ben Jonson is contradicted by accolades from Restoration and 18th-century writers such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson. The 18th century is also largely responsible for setting the text of Shakespeare's plays. Nicholas Rowe created the first truly scholarly text for the plays in 1709, and Edmund Malone's Variorum Edition (published posthumously in 1821) is still the basis of modern editions of the plays.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge raised admiration for Shakespeare to adulation or bardolatry, in line with the Romantic reverence for the poet as prophet and genius.

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