David Garrick and the cult of bardolatry

David Garrick in Romeo and Juliet
David Garrick and George Anne Bellamy in Romeo and Juliet. Based on a painting by Benjamn Wilson engraved by Ravenet. Enamel, ca. 1765. Folger Shakespeare Library.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this text first appeared in Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library, edited by Esther Ferington, ©2002 Folger Shakespeare Library.]

The leading actor-manager of the 1700s, David Garrick revolutionized English theatre with a lively, naturalistic acting style that held audiences spellbound. In three decades at the Drury Lane Theatre, Garrick offered an abundance of Shakespeare’s plays, relieved of the stilted acting and wholesale reworking of the past.

While he strove for a “purer” Shakespeare, Garrick nevertheless had no qualms about reworking the plays himself—adding the death scene of Romeo and Juliet illustrated above, for example, while also restoring much of Shakespeare’s original text.

A natural self-publicist who encouraged the production of hundreds of portraits of himself, Garrick played a key part in the cult of bardolatry that continues today. Words he wrote for a 1759 pantomime are carved in the Folger’s Exhibition Hall: “Thrice happy the nation that Shakespeare has charm’d. / More happy the bosoms his genius has warm’d! / Ye children of nature, of fashion and whim, / He painted you all, all join to praise him.” In 1769, he helped organize the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford, an event that culminated in yet another Garrick poem on the Bard.

The Folger’s collection of Garrick-related materials, perhaps the largest in the world, ranges from promptbooks, playbills, and correspondence to portraits, porcelains, and even a set of Garrick’s silverware. “Of all the people associated with the magic name of Shakespeare,” the bookseller A. S. W. Rosenbach once wrote, “Mr. Folger liked David Garrick best.”

This wooden model of the Shakespeare Temple at Garrick’s Hampton estate dates from about 1830, long after Garrick’s day. It may have been a coronation gift for William IV, whose arms are stamped on the miniature Shakespeare editions stored inside (to make room, a model of the Roubiliac statue was displaced to the roof).