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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

§ 5. Voltaire’s attitude towards Shakespeare

Voltaire’s attitude to Shakespeare is one of the most difficult problems calling for notice in the present chapter. On the one hand, there is no doubt that Voltaire did more than any other writer of the eighteenth century to familiarise the continent with Shakespeare; on the other, it is exceedingly difficult to do justice to his pioneer work, by reason of the foolish, and often flippant, antagonism to the English poet which he developed in later years. The tendency of recent writers on the subject has been to ascribe too much in that antagonism to purely personal motives and injured vanity, and to overlook the forces that lay behind Voltaire. For, after all it was hardly a personal matter at all; it was the last determined struggle of the classicism of the seventeenth century, with its Cartesian lucidity and regularity, to assert itself against new and insidious forces which were making themselves felt in literature and criticism. It was Voltaire’s lot to fight in this losing battle to the bitter end; he was himself too much immersed in the spirit of the seventeenth century to discover, like his contemporaryLessing, a way of reconciling new ideas with the old classic faith.