Exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House in London celebrates Shakespeare and charts the 18th-century origins of Shakespearean ‘Bardolatry’

A new exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House in London will showcase a range of prints, portraits, books and ephemera. Never before displayed together, they chart the relationship between William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), two of the most quoted Englishmen in the language.

The exterior of Dr Johnson’s House

The exterior of Dr Johnson’s House

 

Shakespeare in the 18th century: Johnson, Garrick and friends celebrates the 250th anniversary of Johnson’s critical edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

Johnson’s The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765) has been credited with firmly establishing a scholarly interest in Shakespeare, after almost a century during which works by the playwright had been radically amended and adapted.

Four years after its publication, enthusiasm for Shakespeare reached its apogee in the world’s first Shakespeare festival, the 1769 ‘Shakespeare Jubilee’ masterminded by Johnson’s great friend and former pupil, the actor David Garrick (1717-1779).

Over the succeeding centuries, national celebration of Shakespeare reached such a pitch it was popularly dubbed ‘Bardolatry’ – a trend that continues to this day.

Garrick as Shakespeare's Richard III

Garrick as Shakespeare’s Richard III

 

Johnson’s Shakespeare combined a survey of Shakespeare’s plays with analysis of critical editions to date, and its accompanying ‘Preface’ remains the cornerstone of Shakespeare criticism.

This exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House – the home in Gough Square where Johnson began this work, and also finished his great Dictionary (1755) – explores Johnson’s contributions, and those of members of his circle, to contemporary understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare.

Their work built on earlier 18th-century critical editions of Shakespeare by scholars such as Nicholas Rowe (1709), Alexander Pope (1725), Lewis Theobold (1726), Thomas Hammer (1743-44) and WilliamWarburton (1747).

Samuel Johnson’s The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765

Samuel Johnson’s The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765

 

The 18th century saw efforts by numerous editors to establish the authenticity of Shakespeare’s texts whilst, at the same time, theatre-goers enjoyed 18th-century adaptations with new scenes and endings devised by actors and theatre managers.

Garrick may have serenaded Shakespeare’s birthplace at the 1769 Jubilee, yet his own production of Romeo and Juliet freely adapted and ‘improved’ the bard’s original ending, allowing the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ one final farewell.

This was an established tradition extending back to dramatist Nahum Tate’s 1681 adaptation of King Lear, where Lear lives and Cordelia ascends to the throne, having married Edgar.

This happy ending was preferred to Shakespeare’s original tragic ending, which was not seen on stage again until the 1830s.

Dr Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare’s King Lear

Dr Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare’s King Lear

 

Clearly, Shakespeare appreciation was at times scholarly and sincere, but could also be irreverent and freely adapted to the tastes of the popular market.

Along with Johnson and Garrick, the exhibition also explores the often underestimated contribution of women to Shakespeare studies.

Items of note include Elizabeth Montagu’s seminal An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear, Compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets (1769), and Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespear Illustrated (1753), a comprehensive survey of the dramatist’s sources (both on loan from private collections).

These are exhibited alongside an oak chest (date unknown) which once belonged to David Garrick, and was used to store his stage costumes, and a creamware pottery jug (c.1770—80) decorated with an image of Garrick and one of Shakespeare (on loan from a private collection).

A selection of 18th-century prints represent many of the editors, writers and actors who contributed to Shakespeare scholarship in this period, in addition to an original Victorian oil painting by William Powell Frith (1887) which depicts a meeting between Dr Johnson and the celebrated actress Sarah Siddons.

The garret at Dr Johnson's House

The garret at Dr Johnson’s House

 

A complete first edition of Johnson’s The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765) will also be on display, complemented by volumes from the elaborately illustrated second edition (1770).

“The 18th century saw great change in the treatment of Shakespeare,” says Celine Luppo McDaid, Curator at Dr Johnson’s House.

“While theatre managers were catering to the tastes of their audience, who believed Shakespeare’s works often lacked any sense of poetic justice, scholarly editors like Johnson were returning the works of the Bard to what we recognise today.

“Johnson did a great deal to remove the ‘errours and corruptions’ that time and adaptation had allowed to creep in, and established a mode for modern literary criticism.”

Portrait of Shakespeare in Johnson’s 1765 edition

Portrait of Shakespeare in Johnson’s 1765 edition

 

The exhibition is accompanied by a lively events programme of tours, talks and performances.

Highlights include ‘Playing to the Crowd’, a new dramatic piece by multimedia theatre company Palimpsest, commissioned by the House especially for this exhibition. (Sundays 15 & 22 November, 3pm & 6pm)

Shakespeare in the 18th century: Johnson, Garrick and friends runs until Saturday 28 November 2015.

Entrance to the exhibition is FREE after usual admission to the House.

Go here for further details about the House, the exhibition and the events programme.