The publication of Elizabeth Montagu’s Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear in 1769 coincided with the zenith of eighteenth-century bardolatry. It is generally acknowledged that this was the era in which Shakespeare’s central place in British literary culture was established. The eighteenth century saw a huge expansion of scholarly interest in the dramatist, opening up a significant new site for literary debate. In addition to the various critical editions of Shakespeare’s works by men of letters such as Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Hanmer and Warburton, numerous essays, commentaries and critical monographs sought to explain and elucidate Shakespeare for the current age. Even works on wider subjects such as poetic theory (Charles Gildon’s 1718 The Complete Art of Poetry) or theories of genius (William Duff’s 1767 An Essay on Original Genius) increasingly turned to Shakespeare to illustrate their precepts. This new scholarship had the effect of establishing Shakespeare’s literary value as on a par with that of the classical authors; indeed, he became known as the English Homer. Shakespeare’s position as Britain’s national poet and cultural hero was also confirmed in other ways, such as by the erection of a statue in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey in 1741. The culmination of this cultural canonisation came, as Michael Dobson has convincingly argued, with David Garrick’s Stratford Jubilee of 1769.
The establishment of Shakespeare’s place in the literary canon offered an important opening to women. By the eighteenth century, women were increasingly involved and acknowledged in literature but they were still mainly confined to acceptable feminine genres and to imaginative rather than critical writing. Women had previously been excluded from criticism and scholarship, largely because until this time works in the ancient languages had received the greatest degree of critical attention and women for the most part lacked a classical education.
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