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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

§ 19. Garrick and Shakespeare

The record of David Garrick belongs, primarily, to theatrical annals. Yet his own dramatic work, his Shakespearean revivals and the influence of his natural method of acting, which indirectly affected the artificiality of the drama itself, while directly opposing the old school of acting, entitle him to a place in English dramatic history. His mythological skit Lethe (1740) gained a place on the boards in the year before its author’s histrionic triumph as Richard III. Reynold’s picture showing Garrick torn between the rival muses of tragedy and comedy suggests his range and versatility both as actor and as manager. He produced on the stage more than a score of Shakespeare’s dramas, and himself appeared in the great majority of them. He was the dominant factor in confirming Shakespeare’s popularity with audiences in the middle of the eighteenth century. Yet his service consisted rather in accelerating the popular current than in setting it in motion. Rich’s noteworthy Shakespearean revivals, in 1738, which included many long unacted plays, Macklin’s famous triumph as Shylock and the Drury lane productions of Shakespearean comedies, in 1740–1, are but instances of increasing interest in Shakespearean performances before Garrick’s advent. Furthermore, though Garrick’s influence, in the main, was salutary, his versions of Shakespeare were, at times, unfaithful both to the original text and to its spirit. Early in 1756, he produced, within a month, alterations of three Shakespearean dramas, excising most of the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale, despite the protestation of the prologue,

  • ’T is my chief Wish, my Joy, my only Plan,
  • To lose no Drop of that immortal Man!
  • Theophilus Cibber indignantly demanded, “Were Shakespeare’s ghost to rise, would he not frown indignation on this pilfering pedlar in poetry—who thus shamefully mangles, mutilates, and emasculates his plays?” Though sweeping generalisations as to Garrick’s fidelity to his original are thus disproved by actual facts, his services to Shakespearean drama must not be rated beneath their real value. It was in his hand to set the fashion, and he set it beyond dispute. His own masterly acting of Shakespearean characters far outweighs the infelicities, and occasional outrages, of his acting texts.