A towering monument of Shakespeare appears before a befuddled group of Oxford students who have magically conjured the stony Bard and his marble sidekick, the late 17th-century poet and playwright John Dryden, from the dead. Shakespeare chastises the cowering students for resorting to magic spells learned from an Oxford don and introduces a “Grand Masque of Minerva’s Triumph,” celebrating feminine wisdom and accomplishment. Where did this idea of Shakespeare’s monument come from and what does women’s wisdom have to do with it?
Women played an under-recognized part in Shakespeare’s ascension to the exalted position of English Bard in the late 18th century, as Fiona Ritchie has already demonstrated in her Strange Shakespeare blog post on the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries. Elizabeth Boyd (fl. 1727-1745) provides yet another example. A novelist, poet, and playwright who barely surfaces in literary history, Boyd probably played an important role in rendering Shakespeare forever visible in marble form, even as she sank into invisibility. Her unperformed play, Don Sancho: Or, the Students Whim, a Ballad Opera of Two Acts, with Minerva’s Triumph, a Masque, published in 1739, put into the 18th-century hive mind the striking image of a grand monument to Shakespeare seen above.
Boyd’s participation in efforts that helped put Shakespeare’s plays back into theatrical circulation is one of the many women’s contributions to Bardolatry that Ritchie chronicles in her book Women and Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century. Furthermore, the Shakespeare’s Ladies Club to which Boyd had connections seems to have contributed to efforts that resulted in the monument of Shakespeare erected in Westminster Abbey in 1741.
So, why did Boyd stage the monumentalizing of Shakespeare at Oxford as the doings of a group of slightly comical, utterly clueless students? Women, of course, were excluded from the all-male enclave of university learning. At the same time, they were participating in growing numbers in the commercial print and performance market catering to an increasingly literate public. Her play literally replaces the highly questionable knowledge forms represented by the university scholars onstage (magic spells? really?) with monuments of dead English poets—Shakespeare and Dryden—as symbols of vernacular literary knowledge and taste.
The Oxford scholars conjure these monuments with incomprehensible spells, but the monument of Shakespeare rebukes their unnatural and outdated “science,” and the following masque that celebrates Shakespeare’s and Dryden’s legacy is, significantly, stage-managed by the goddess Minerva. In a sly epilogue, Boyd inserts herself as an authoritative figure in control of the whole “show.” The poetic legacy of vernacular, accessible literature supplants the obscure and questionable erudition of the university, a shift that is orchestrated by a female goddess and a woman literary entrepreneur. If Shakespeare is to symbolize literature for everyone, women are going to be a part of that movement, at least in Boyd’s vision.
Don Sancho was never performed, for uncertain reasons; Boyd clearly intended it to be, and, according to her preface, it had theater manager John Rich’s serious consideration. But Boyd’s play did have an afterlife in plagiarized versions by the theater managers and playwrights Henry Giffard and David Garrick. Rich, Giffard, and Garrick ran the London theater scene, competing for audiences and revenue. Giffard’s Harlequin Student, first performed in 1741, repeats the action of Boyd’s play by having Shakespeare’s monument rise from the stage to banish the classic comedic character Harlequin, dressed as a student, from the British stage. Garrick’s Harlequin’s Invasion (1759) restores the monument of Shakespeare, who sweeps the stage of everything not British, including a “blackamoor” Harlequin. A literal figure of difference, the banished Harlequin also speaks in garbled French and English, tapping into the British Francophobia so rampant during this period of the Seven Years’ War. The resurrection of Boyd’s monumental Shakespeare in Garrick’s play asserts a literary legacy that is, in his vision, distinctly British, xenophobic—and masculine.
It is not surprising that these two plagiarists did not give Boyd, or any other woman, credit for Shakespeare’s triumphant return from obscurity. Minerva, who orchestrates the masque in Boyd’s play, disappears in both Giffard’s and Garrick’s, replaced by Mercury. Female wisdom and creativity are rendered invisible on the stage, just as Boyd has been in theater and literary history.
Boyd is literally invisible on the British stage even as her play provided the raw material of Shakespeare’s legacy, the epitome of British, masculine literary excellence, at least in the hands of Giffard and Garrick. I am not suggesting a conspiracy theory. Rather, I hope to suggest that the workings of the commercial entertainment market as it played out in the hands of an exclusively male theater management in the 18th century shoved female creativity into the historical closet. While the commercial market for literary knowledge presented opportunities for women writers and performers, it also followed the rules of a kind of cultural primogeniture that privileges masculine literary legacy.