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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XII. Shakespeare on the Continent

§ 14. Voltaire’s last Attacks

Voltaire was not merely indignant at the disgrace to France implied in placing Shakespeare on this pinnacle: he was incensed that his own name should not even have been mentioned on the French roll of dramatic fame. The Appeal to all the Nations of Europe had failed; he felt he must now approach the custodian of the nation’s good name, the Academy. D’Alembert, secretary of the Academy, was not unwilling to meet Voltaire’s wishes; and it was ultimately agreed that d’Alembert should read before a public meeting a letter by Voltaire on the dangers of Shakespeare to French taste. This actually took place on 25 August, 1776. The old battery was drawn up anew, and once more the untutored mountebank was successfully routed; d’Alembert’s eloquent delivery of his friend’s appeal to the good sense of France was received with acclamation (broken only by an English boy of twelve who wanted to hiss Voltaire). But to Voltaire even this protest did not seem sufficient. A second letter followed on 7 October, and was published as the preface to his last tragedy, Irène, the performance of which had been Voltaire’s final triumph in Paris. “Shakespeare is a savage with sparks of genius which shine in a horrible night.” This was Voltaire’s last word on the Shakespeare controversy. As Jusserand finely remarks, he who, all his life long, had been the champion of every kind of liberty refused it to tragedy alone.

The dust raised by Voltaire’s last skirmish was long in subsiding. From England, naturally, came several protests: Mrs. Montague, who had been present at the meeting of the Academy when Voltaire’s letter was read, had her Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear (1764) translated into French, with a reply to Voltaire; Giuseppe Baretti, an Italian residing in London, wrote his Discours sur Shakespeare et M. Voltaire (1777); Lessing’s Hamburgische Dramaturgie was translated in the interests of Voltaire’s opponents, while La Harpe, on the other side, staunchly upheld the classic faith. But nothing could now undo the effects of the new force which had made itself felt in the French theatre, and even dramatists of unimpeachable “taste,” who abhorred irregularities, introduced elements—death on the stage, infringements of the unities and the like—which pointed unmistakably to Shakespeare.