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Shakespeare & Beyond

What turns a good writer into a superstar? 200 years and plenty of spectacle

In commemoration of the approximate 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the London actor and theatrical entrepreneur David Garrick launched the first celebration of Shakespeare as “the god of our idolatry” in 1769, helping to fashion the Bard as the larger-than-life, iconic representation of English literary achievement.

The events that Garrick planned on the sacred site of Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, included everything from a concert of music to fireworks and a horse race, although not, significantly, a Shakespeare play. Garrick’s emphasis was on Shakespeare the man, the “Warwickshire lad” who put a human face on literary greatness even in his debut moment as public spectacle and national icon.

Shakespeare Jubilee Medallions

Signed “F. Westwood”. Medallions commemorating the Jubilee, 1769. Recto: “We shall not look upon his like again.” Verso: “Jubilee at Stratford in honour and to the memory of Shakespeare, Sept. 1769, D.G., Steward”. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Despite the torrential rains that dampened Garrick’s festivities, his Shakespeare Jubilee began a trend.  Shakespeare soon grew steadily in the public eye from good writer to literary super-star, becoming the celebrity whom the public both worships and desires to know as “Will.”

Paradoxically, making Shakespeare larger than life had the effect of bringing him up close and personal to his fans: Shakespeare is arguably one of two British authors whom we call by their first names today. The other one, of course, is Jane Austen, and these two literary super-stars are the subjects of Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity, on exhibit at the Folger through Nov. 6.