Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Is it time to ditch 'the Bard'?

David Garrick leaning on a Bust of Shakespeare.
A copy of portrait by Thomas Gainsborough
destroyed by fire.
In September 1769, actor-manager David Garrick organised a Jubilee event in Stratford-upon-Avon to mark the bicentenary of the birth of William Shakespeare. (Shakespeare, in fact, was born in 1564, but Garrick's event was delayed for five years to coincide with the opening of the new town hall). It lasted three days and included a Grand Parade of Shakespeare's Characters, a masquerade ball, as well as horse racing and fireworks displays. Despite being dogged by torrential rain from start to finish, it attracted enormous attention throughout Europe, and established Shakespeare's birthplace as a destination of secular pilgrimage. As one of the songs for the Jubilee proudly proclaimed: 'The bard of all bards, was a Warwickshire bard'.

Since then the word 'Bard' has become the established nickname for Shakespeare, and has given rise to 'bardolatry', first coined by George Bernard Shaw as a term to describe the uncritical worship of Shakespeare as a being almost part divine. But has the term lost its air of reverence, and become facetious, patronising and crude? Should we unreservedly embrace Garrick's Jubilee ode "'Tis he, 'tis he, / The god of our idolatry!"? Or is it not time to do as Ben Jonson did,  honour the man's memory "on this side idolatry", and ditch the terms 'Bard' and 'Bard of Avon' for ever?

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