Shakespeare Ancient and Modern: the 1750s Reception

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Eighteenth-century writers on Shakespeare were very attached to the view, originating among Shakespeare’s own contemporaries, that his work had a kind of universality, communicating “for all time”. Yet they were also often preoccupied with how difficult many readers found it to even understand him. This essay examines statements of both kinds from the early and mid-century, to argue that in the 1750s, distinctively, commentators concluded both that Shakespeare was “modern” – in the sense that he wrote in an everyday idiom, unbound by classical conventions – and that he was “ancient”, in the sense that Elizabethan culture and its language itself had become historically alien and obscure. Comparing representations of Shakespeare by Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, Edward Young, Charlotte Lennox, David Hume, and other writers of the 1750s, with their forebears in the earlier parts of the century, this essay makes the case for the originality of this position, and considers the implications of the paradoxical fact that Shakespeare seemed to become “ancient” and “modern” simultaneously at this time.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)566-582
Number of pages17
JournalReview of English Studies
Issue number285
Early online date20 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017

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