Workshop 2: “So Rare a Wonder’d Father”: the Cult of Shakespeare and the Father Figure

Is Bardolatry unconsciously constructed on the father figure? A large bulk of criticism has helpfully chalked up the rise of Bardolatry to the attendant shifts in literary taste as well as the concomitant social and historical frameworks. In fact, a novel emphasis ought to be put on the shifting symbolic connotations of the gradual idealization of Shakespeare as the father first of the English-speaking world and then of the Western civilization. Since the dawn of Bardolatry in the 1730s-1740s, the discourse on Shakespeare has often trodden on the latent ground of fatherhood, sublimated as a model of literary authority. It is our contention that fatherhood in its subsequent modern embodiments informs the historically and ideologically varied models of literary authority underlying the different stages of Bardolatry.

The cult of Shakespeare’s literary fatherhood seems to have progressed through four stages: the Literary Father, the Divine Father, the English Father, the Oedipal Father. The Literary Father was the first and most natural embodiment of the idea. Arguably, the first emergence of Shakespeare’s fatherhood was aptly donned in the Hamletic garb of the fatherly revenant, as in Charles Gildon’s 1699 Beauty the Best Advocate, whose epilogue has Shakespeare’s ghost berate the constant revisions of his work. In a process running under trace from the Restoration to mid-eighteenth century, Shakespeare as the Literary Father is gradually assimilated to the figure of the Divine Father. Dryden claims that Shakespeare “created the stage among us”; Philippe Le Tourneur, the author of the 1776 French translation, explicitly calls him “le dieu créateur de l’art sublime du théâtre”. The Romantic emphasis on the Shakespearean sublime, the peak pictured by Lessing as der Gipfel, also works along the lines of the recognition of a superhuman father figure to be placed on the highest pedestal, “the greatest man that ever put on and put off mortality” (Coleridge). This process gains further momentum in the 19th century: Alexandre Dumas simply grants Shakespeare the status of a second God, and Ralph Waldo Emerson hails him as an unrecognised god. Shakespeare has virtually become the celestial father, “making the heaven of heavens thy dwelling place” (Matthew Arnold). And a very English Father as well, thanks to the sublimation that accompanies the Victorian rise of nationalism and presents Shakespeare as the ultimate father who imparts his benign blessing on the colonial, “civilising” enterprise. Shakespeare looms large as a sort of idealized father of the English-speaking world, in a process ranging from academia to child literature. The next and last step sees Shakespeare’s English fatherhood trascend into universal paternity as the ultimate source of influence and authority for the (Western) world: the Oedipal Father, whose paradoxical triumph in the face of the evaporation of the father figure is still palpable today in the so-called Shakespeare industry, has settled in. It is not only Freud that presents Shakespeare as the father who also explores the unconscious relationships with (and revolt against) one’s own father: more generally, “papà Shakespeare” (Verdi) gradually becomes the template for the sublime fatherhood of the creator of the human mind. Unser Shakespeare‘s fatherly figure still prospers on, undaunted if not actually enriched by the post-war demise of the English colonies and the 1968-fuelled, Lacan-tinged rebellion against the paternalist father, a revolt that is often tellingly polarized in fiction around Shakespearean fathers such as Shylock or Prospero.

This issue addresses several theoretical questions that deserve a closer scrutiny: for instance, is the notion of Shakespeare’s sublimated fatherhood related to the different conceptions of the earthly and the celestial father? Does Bardolatry merely adapt the coeval notions of earthly/celestial fatherhood, or does it powerfully open up new versions of those very social and cultural models? Is Bardolatry more poignantly expressed when the patriarchal figure (or religious faith) is at its weakest or its strongest? Can we detect any significant differences in the sublimation of Shakespeare’s authority when either a Queen or a King is sitting on the English throne? And is Shakespeare’s literary fatherhood sublimated as a male figure, an authority figure or a mixture of both?

We propose to work on this issue by setting up a workshop open to all avenues of critical theory, from traditional philology to psychoanalysis, from new historicism and gender to cultural and post-colonial studies. Our intended format includes a set of position papers followed by a roundtable discussion.

Please send a 250-word abstract of your proposed paper by 30 September 2013 to [->] stating your name, email address and affiliation.