It all started with Voltaire. For correctness’s sake, it is necessary to point out that it would be wrong to claim that before this French intervention Shakespeare was unknown to his fellow countrymen. In the century which separates the Bard’s death from the commentaries made on his regard by Voltaire, Shakespeare had not been forgotten. Yet, his persona was still far from being associated with the fame which we ascribe to him nowadays, and his name did not stir in the minds of eighteenth-century Britons patriotic feelings. Shakespeare was simply one of those Elizabethan playwrights whose plays were still put on stage. He was certainly not the playwright and his plays were not the plays. Quite the opposite, during the seventeenth century, “Shakespeare’s works … occupied fourth place in frequency of recorded stagings” (Ritchie 4), preceded by Fletcher, Beaumont and Jonson. It is only with the beginning of the subsequent century that a new importance starts to be attributed to the Bard of Avon.
How did Shakespeare become the Shakespeare we know today and associate with England? How did his name spread all over Europe and make him the only example European writers decided it was worth to emulate? In order to find an answer to these questions, this paper’s main aim is to track Shakespeare’s reception and reinvention in eighteenth-century Great Britain and Germany. In the pages which follow, the focus will be set on three main authors who contributed to this process: namely, Samuel Johnson, Wolfgang Johann Goethe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As we will shortly see, their different critical approaches (often dictated by the political and cultural context they found themselves in) resulted in unique shapings of a figure to which such importance had never before being ascribed. Yet, as I have already said, it all started with Voltaire, and from there we must begin.
Monsieur Voltaire’s relationship with Shakespeare was fluctuating. As stated by Williams, “when it comes to the reception of Shakespeare, Voltaire is mostly remembered as leading the army of French anti-Shakespeareans” (5); nonetheless, the critic himself recognises this assumption to be only partly true, as Voltaire’s stances on the Bard varied over the course of the years. The French philosopher was an initial admirer of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and to him we owe their importation in late seventeenth-century Europe. His acquaintance with the Bard shows through the essays Letters on the English (1733), where he confidently draws a commentary on Shakespeare’s aesthetic merits and faults. According to Voltaire, “Shakespear boasted a strong, fruitful Genius; he was natural and sublime, but had not so much as a single Spark of good Taste, or knew one rule of the Drama” (Voltaire 44 qtd. 9). This was the spark which started a cultural fight between France and England, the latter being later supported by Germany.
On the Anglo-German side, literary critics and editors attacked harshly Voltaire and what he stood for, i.e., French cultural tyranny. Simultaneously, the Bard was gaining more and more success among French critics, who started to rate him superior to dramatists such as Corneille and Racine. “Voltaire saw no inconsistency in an admiration of Shakespeare … but those who wished to equate him with French achievement were simply being unpatriotic” (Paulin 2). Seeing the French classical theatre thus threatened, Voltaire did not spare Shakespeare nor England of hard attacks. Notwithstanding this, the cultural model he had so far promoted was going to lose this battle: Shakespeare would have gone on to influence the European theatre for the centuries to come.