Why is Shakespeare famous ?

William Shakespeare was one of a group of successful and popular playwrights working around 1600.  Contemporaries included Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlow, Frances Beaumont and John Webster. Beaumont has a tomb in Westminster Abbey and Johnson had his collected works published in his own lifetime. By contrast Shakespeare’s plays were not printed until 7 years after his death and he was buried, in relative provincial obscurity, in Stratford upon Avon.  Whether The Bard really is the greatest ever playwright is up for debate but he is certainly the most famous because it suited people to make him so.

Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Hemings and Henry Condell collected his works in the now famous First Folio in 1623. Whether their motives were to create a memorial or something more commercial (1000 folios were sold at £1 a time) we do not know for sure.  But the act of publication created the Shakespeare “brand” and laid the cornerstone for what has become the global Shakespeare industry.

With the Restoration in 1660 people wanted entertainment in the newly re-opened theatres and Shakespeare fitted the bill as an authentic British voice.  In particular his plays had great parts and thus actors liked to be in them.  Thomas Betterton, for example, enjoyed huge success in the late 1600s as Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Falstaff. He idolised the author and made a pilgrimage to Stratford to learn more.  He passed on his findings to one Nicholas Rowe who in 1709 wrote a major biography of Shakespeare.

The leading player in making Shakespeare what he is today was another great actor David Garrick.   The Shakespeare scholar Professor Jonathan Bate has characterised the 1730s as the decade as when “the cult of Shakespeare took root”, pointing out that about a quarter of all the plays performed in London were by him.[i]  Garrick arrived in London just after this and started making his name as a Shakespeare star. A genius at public relations he had himself painted by one of the great portrait artists, William Hogarth, playing the role of Richard III.  This painting was the first of many showing scenes from the Bard which contributed to Garrick’s fame and the iconic Shakespearean image. He also invented the idea of an annual Shakespeare Jubilee to be held in Stratford which greatly helped Garrick’s own image and created the Stratford-based Shakespeare trade which thrives to this day.

[i]: Jonathan Bate The Mirror of Life. Harpers Magazine  pp 37 to 46 April 2007