Bardolatry is a term that refers to the excessive adulation of William Shakespeare, combining the words "bard" and "idolatry". Shakespeare has been known as "the Bard" since the nineteenth century. The term derives from George Bernard Shaw's coinage "Bardolator", in the preface to his play The Devil's Disciple, published in 1901. Shaw professed to dislike Shakespeare's work because it did not engage with social problems, as his own did. Shaw also compared Shakespeare unfavourably to himself in his late puppet play Shakes Versus Shav.

The stance of Bardolatry has its origins in the mid-18th century, when Samuel Johnson referred to Shakespeare's work as "a map of life". It became important in the Victorian era when many writers treated Shakespeare's works as a secular equivalent or replacement to the Bible. "That King Shakespeare," the essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1840, "does not he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying signs; indestructible".

The essential characteristic of bardolatry is that Shakespeare is presented as not only the greatest writer who ever lived, but also as the supreme intellect, the greatest psychologist, and the most faithful portrayer of the human condition and experience. In other words, bardolatry defines Shakespeare as the master of all human experience and of its intellectual analysis. As Carlyle stated,

Of this Shakspeare of ours, perhaps the opinion one sometimes hears a little idolatrously expressed is, in fact, the right one; I think the best judgment not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is slowly pointing to the conclusion, that Shakspeare is the chief of all Poets hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has left record of himself in the way of Literature. On the whole, I know not such a power of vision, such a faculty of thought, if we take all the characters of it, in any other man. Such a calmness of depth; placid joyous strength; all things imaged in that great soul of his so true and clear, as in a tranquil unfathomable sea!

In addition, Bardolatry often embraces the notion of the true reality of the characters of Shakespeare, regarding them as "real people" in the sense that they have altered the consciousness and modes of perception of not only readers, but most people in any western literate culture. This position was most fully expressed by Harold Bloom in his 1998 book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which Bloom provides an analysis of each of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, "twenty-four of which are masterpieces." Written as a companion to the general reader and theatergoer, Bloom declares that bardolatry "ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is." He even contends in the work, in a deliberately provocative overstatement, that Shakespeare "invented" humanity, in that he prescribed the now-common practice "overhearing" ourselves, which drives our own internal psychological development. Some view Bloom's analysis as ahistorical or merely evaluatory, and as with much of his work, his readings have proven controversial in an era of historically and theoretically grounded literary criticism that hesitates to unequivocally ascribe "greatness" or "genius" to any given author or work. Nonetheless Bloom remains one of the most commonly cited modern commentators on Shakespeare's work.

Notable Bardolators include Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, William Hazlitt, and Harold Bloom.


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