The Shakespeareans

Brooke Allen in The Hudson Review:

The Club: no literary club has ever equaled the one founded in London in 1764 by Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and a handful of others, and which came to include the very brightest intellectual, artistic and political stars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Leo Damrosch provided a close study of the Club, its members, and its doings during the first couple of decades of its long life (it still exists today), in a book I reviewed in The Hudson Review’s Spring 2019 issue: The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age.

But considerations of length (for the material he grappled with is voluminous, to say the least) confined Damrosch, mostly, to the biographical. There is another way to look at this group of remarkable friends, and perhaps a more fruitful one, and that is to focus on the contributions they made, as a group, to a number of fields of endeavor during this period: aesthetics, the theater, literary studies, biography, science, archaeology, political and moral philosophy. They never formed a school; each thinker in the Club was individual and occasionally antipathetic to its other members; but their joint endeavors pushed each of these fields forward toward modernity, sometimes to a remarkable degree. This was particularly true in the field of Shakespearean studies and performance.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Shakespeare had become the iconic English genius—Britain’s answer to Homer, Dante, Cervantes. But this had not always been the general opinion and was not so at the outset of the eighteenth century. There had been a gradual elevation of Shakespeare from just one among several popular Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights to the one and only national treasure: “a kind of established religion in poetry,” as the playwright Arthur Murphy was already describing him in 1753, as well as a focus for a new, patriotic British nationalism that had begun to coalesce at that time. It was a process in which several members of the Club were intimately involved, both individually and as a team. Shakespeare might well have achieved his cultural apotheosis without these men, but the process would have been slower and less certain. Scholarship, criticism, performance, interpretation: the Club members had a profound effect on each of these aspects of Shakespeareanism.

The modern idea of “Shakespeare,” both as artist and ideal genius, was essentially an eighteenth-century creation, though it is often credited to the Romantics.

More here.