Shakespeare in the 18th Century

Shakespeare in the 18th century was not only widely performed and read, but also considered and celebrated as a genius and literary hero. His works shaped opinions and influenced many science and medicinal theories, visual arts, music, and national identity, as well as theatre and literature practices. In addition, he influenced many writers and the acting style that developed in the 18th century.

He dominated the London stages while these productions became the stepping stones for creating star actors. Because of the Licensing Act of 1737, twenty five percent of plays performed in the London area were by Shakespeare and there would be other playhouses performing the same Shakespeare play on the same night also drawing a decent crowd. (3) One of the largest actor rivalries at the time was between the male leads at Covent Garden, Spranger Barry, and Drury Lane, David Garrick. The performance play scripts differed increasingly from their originals, leading the publication of the texts intended for reading developing rapidly in the opposite direction with an emphasis on rewording the plays to be as close to the original as possible. For example, Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespearean texts, written in 1709, is considered the first true scholarly texts for the plays, which lead to a lot of good 18th century editions, such as Edmund Malone’s Variorum Edition. (3)

His plays became very popular in the 18th century, but became reworked to the tastes of the people. Many people did not like the puns and sexual allusions in his work, so many were removed and then re added by the mid century. He was still thought to have written erratic and too distressing works, so poets had to clean them up to make it more acceptable. For example, David Garrick, one of Britain’s greatest actors of the century, rewrote the ending of Romeo and Juliet to be more romantic by having the lovers turn to each other before they die. He is also recognized for rewriting most of Shakespeare’s original text to the plays we know today. (2) The Shakespeare that was read in the 18th century is not the Shakespeare that we know today though. There were many different translations, readings, and performances in the 1800s of his plays and only a few have made it to modern day. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the later 19th and early 20th century that there was a serious movement and need to perform his plays and attempt to perform them as they might have looked in Shakespeare’s time. (1)

It is a long-lived belief that the Romantics were the first generation to truly appreciate Shakespeare. Although, many ideas about his work people think to be post-romanticism were actually expressed quite frequently in the 18th, sometimes even the 17th, century. Opinions of Shakespeare will also differ, but Shakespeare’s influence on the 18th century will always stay true that he had a huge influence on many different centuries, especially the 18th. He not only influenced developments on many levels, but also was edited and translated to many different levels of factuality; now resting on the stories and plays we read and perform today.


1. “18th-Century Theatre.” Victoria and Albert Museum, Digital Media Webmaster@vam.ac.uk. Web. 16 July 2014.

2. “Research and Innovation.” Research and Innovation Why Is Shakespeare Still so Popular Comments. 10 June 2009. Web. 18 July 2014.

3. “Shakespeare.” Web. 18 July 2014. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare%27s_reputation

4. “Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century.” Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century by Peter Sabor and Paul Yachnin. Web. 18 July 2014.

5. “Shakespeare Eighteenth Century | English Literature 1700-1830 | Cambridge University Press.” Shakespeare Eighteenth Century | English Literature 1700-1830 | Cambridge University Press. Web. 18 July 2014.


4 thoughts on “Shakespeare in the 18th Century

  1. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that you wrote your entry on one of the most influential writers of the time. Shakespeare not only pushed the limits of entertainment then but he continues to today. We see many movies, books and plays based on the ideas seen in many of his plays. It’s interesting to see how written works can transgress time and stay relevant hundreds of years in the future. The fact that they have been rewritten and tweaked doesn’t surprise me, it’s as if they have been tweaked to meet the standards of the social norms during that time. For example, The Twelfth Night written during this time has been rewritten into a movie, She’s the Man. It’s far from the way Shakespeare wrote it but it fits the entertainment needs of today’s youth. There are many other’s that have been reworked into movies but the one’s I have seen all kept the original language, which is interesting to say the least. Watching Sir Ian McKellan play Richard III takes some getting used to.

    • Thanks! I had a blast writing about him since I have been a fan of his works since I took a class on them in high school. It was really interesting learning about how many different translations and edits had been made to his original works because of what people thought were “inappropriate”. I personally find it hilarious that sexual innuendoes, crude humour, and foul language were removed and then put back in towards the end of the 18th century and that those are the stories we read today!

  2. One of my favorite ideas in media is the concept of the “original story”. Yes, Avatar was a great movie, but it was really just a rehash of Pocahontas. (see this http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/04/avatar-pocahontas-in-spac_n_410538.html). In a similar fashion, Shakespeare is the basis for many modern books and movies. She’s the Man is a rehash of Twelfth Night. 10 Things I Hate About You is a remake of The Taming of the Shrew. The Lion King loosely follows the same plot as Hamlet. The Dead Poets Society is A Midsummer Nights Dream. There are many other examples of movies whose stories originate from Shakespeare. The fact that his stories are still being made real three hundred years later is a testament to his brilliance.

  3. I was really excited to see that somebody wrote about Shakespeare in the eighteenth century for this week’s assignment. For the first several weeks of this course, I was also taking a class on Shakespeare in performance, and we spent a great deal of time discussing the many ways in which people today spend their time and efforts trying to recreate his original texts–at least in written form– so it was especially interesting to read about all of the various changes that people intentionally made to his texts during the eighteenth century. It is interesting to think of how a comparison of those edited and redacted texts to their originals might serve as a comparison of the cultural and societal norms between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and perhaps even the twenty-first. Just as we see Shakespeare’s influence in literature and on various screens today, I have seen several instances in our readings that seemingly point back to his plays, and maybe I am hoping I can examine some of those in a later post.

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