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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IV. The Drama and the Stage

§ 15. English versions of his Plays; Voltaire and Shakespeare

Voltaire’s influence upon English drama is, accordingly, not that of an uncompromising continental classicist. In the main, he supported the cause of classical drama; but it is wholly misleading to ignore the strength of the counter influences of English drama upon him. Criticism, likewise, has frequently exaggerated the influence of Voltaire’s dramas on the English stage. Of the various versions of Voltaire that appeared during the second quarter of the eighteenth century, which include, besides those already mentioned, Hill’s Alzira (1736) and Merope (1749), the most successful was the same writer’s Zara. Yet its continuous run of fourteen nights was an exceptional success. The early recognition of Voltaire’s large indebtedness to Shakespeare helps to explain why he failed to supplant the native genius from whom he borrowed. Performances of Shakespearean drama far outnumbered those of English versions of Voltaire’s plays. The succession of critical editions of Shakespeare, beginning with that of Rowe (1709), increased Shakespeare’s influence with readers. David Garrick powerfully advanced his popularity with playgoers. The tide of patriotic feeling rose in increasing resentment against Voltaire’s strictures on English drama. Even Aaron Hill, the zealous adapter of Voltaire, in the preface to Merope, asserts that

  • so much over-active sensibility to his own country’s claims, with so unfeeling a stupidity in judging the pretensions of his neighbors might absolve all indignation short of gross indecency towards one who has not scrupled … to represent the English as incapable of tragedy; nay, even of painting or of music.
  • The plain speech of Voltaire’s English sympathisers became violent invective, when Foote, in 1747, denounced him as “that insolent French panegyrist who first denies Shakespeare almost every dramatic excellence, and then, in his next play, pilfers from him almost every capital scene,” and pictured him in his dual rôle of critic and dramatist as “the carping, superficial critic and the low, paltry thief.” Such bursts represent the extreme of patriotic ire rather than the mean of ordinary criticism; yet there is abundant evidence that the mid-eighteenth century stage which acclaimed Garrick’s Shakespearean productions was in little danger of blind allegiance to a continental authority.