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What Blest Genius?: The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare

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In September 1769, three thousand people descended on Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the artistic legacy of the town’s most famous son, William Shakespeare. Attendees included the rich and powerful, the fashionable and the curious, eligible ladies and fortune hunters, and a horde of journalists and profiteers. For three days, they paraded through garlanded streets, liste In September 1769, three thousand people descended on Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the artistic legacy of the town’s most famous son, William Shakespeare. Attendees included the rich and powerful, the fashionable and the curious, eligible ladies and fortune hunters, and a horde of journalists and profiteers. For three days, they paraded through garlanded streets, listened to songs and oratorios, and enjoyed masked balls. It was a unique cultural moment—a coronation elevating Shakespeare to the throne of genius. Except it was a disaster. The poorly planned Jubilee imposed an army of Londoners on a backwater hamlet peopled by hostile and superstitious locals, unable and unwilling to meet their demands. Even nature refused to behave. Rain fell in sheets, flooding tents and dampening fireworks, and threatening to wash the whole town away. Told from the dual perspectives of David Garrick, who masterminded the Jubilee, and James Boswell, who attended it, What Blest Genius? is rich with humor, gossip, and theatrical intrigue. Recounting the absurd and chaotic glory of those three days in September, Andrew McConnell Stott illuminates the circumstances in which William Shakespeare became a transcendent global icon.


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In September 1769, three thousand people descended on Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the artistic legacy of the town’s most famous son, William Shakespeare. Attendees included the rich and powerful, the fashionable and the curious, eligible ladies and fortune hunters, and a horde of journalists and profiteers. For three days, they paraded through garlanded streets, liste In September 1769, three thousand people descended on Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the artistic legacy of the town’s most famous son, William Shakespeare. Attendees included the rich and powerful, the fashionable and the curious, eligible ladies and fortune hunters, and a horde of journalists and profiteers. For three days, they paraded through garlanded streets, listened to songs and oratorios, and enjoyed masked balls. It was a unique cultural moment—a coronation elevating Shakespeare to the throne of genius. Except it was a disaster. The poorly planned Jubilee imposed an army of Londoners on a backwater hamlet peopled by hostile and superstitious locals, unable and unwilling to meet their demands. Even nature refused to behave. Rain fell in sheets, flooding tents and dampening fireworks, and threatening to wash the whole town away. Told from the dual perspectives of David Garrick, who masterminded the Jubilee, and James Boswell, who attended it, What Blest Genius? is rich with humor, gossip, and theatrical intrigue. Recounting the absurd and chaotic glory of those three days in September, Andrew McConnell Stott illuminates the circumstances in which William Shakespeare became a transcendent global icon.

50 review for What Blest Genius?: The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ellie Stevenson

    I really enjoyed this book, which takes us back to the 18th century - to the time around David Garrick's jubilee of 1769, in Stratford-upon-Avon. Despite being a literal washout, and a financial drain for David Garrick, this event raised Shakespeare's profile and put Stratford on the map as a potential tourist attraction. The book introduces a number of characters as well as Garrick, notably James Boswell, and gives some fascinating stories about the jubilee itself, and its aftermath. Garrick's I really enjoyed this book, which takes us back to the 18th century - to the time around David Garrick's jubilee of 1769, in Stratford-upon-Avon. Despite being a literal washout, and a financial drain for David Garrick, this event raised Shakespeare's profile and put Stratford on the map as a potential tourist attraction. The book introduces a number of characters as well as Garrick, notably James Boswell, and gives some fascinating stories about the jubilee itself, and its aftermath. Garrick's brother George, for example, was left behind in Stratford afterwards, to give tours of the Rotunda built for the jubilee, at a shilling each, before auctioning it off for timber. My main reservation is that I would have liked to have read more about the people in Stratford themselves and their experiences, although this is covered to some extent.

  2. 5 out of 5

    K

    This book does a good job of bringing up a little-known historical event that was the biggest news of its day and has reverberations through to now. Also, the book does a good job of putting that event into the startling complexity of its times. But that latter effort also creates a bit of a flaw in the book because the digressions sometimes feel like padding on what's a rather slim volume. This is one of those short non-fiction books that would be just as good as a lengthy magazine a This book does a good job of bringing up a little-known historical event that was the biggest news of its day and has reverberations through to now. Also, the book does a good job of putting that event into the startling complexity of its times. But that latter effort also creates a bit of a flaw in the book because the digressions sometimes feel like padding on what's a rather slim volume. This is one of those short non-fiction books that would be just as good as a lengthy magazine article, and probably started out as just that. The gist of the story is that in 1769, the town leaders of Stratford-upon-Avon and the leading actor of his day, David Garrick, cooked up a plan to hold a 3-day jubilee to celebrate Shakespeare in his birthplace. This was the first such celebration, and it cemented the town as his home, the region as his inspiration, and his works as those of a unique English genius. The fact that the event itself was, in many ways, a debacle didn't even seem to matter. The author describes Stratford as it then existed -- an utter backwater, though only 20 miles from the surging new-age economy of Birmingham. The town had almost no commercial base, and the town fathers saw Shakespeare as their chance to put themselves on the map. Now, 250 years later, they are still being proven correct. Meanwhile, Garrick was in the twilight of his career. He had always closely allied himself with Shakespeare's works and had transformed how the plays were done. The author gives a good explanation of how bowdlerized Shakespeare had been in the centuries from his death until the 1750s, when there began to be some serious scholarship to figure out what the definitive versions of the plays should be and to stop people from rewriting them, combining them or lifting scenes into their own plays of lower merit. Garrick took this a step further by insisting on higher production values and acting than had been done before, as well as more polite audiences -- a theater with which we are familiar today. The jubilee itself was a rushed job and poorly managed by Garrick's brother George. It rained so hard during the 3-day event that a parade of characters from the plays was canceled, fireworks didn't light, and the river flooded the performance and dance pavilion, thus necessitating emergency evacuations. Visitors were gouged for lodging, food, bathrooms and more. But the novelty of the situation and Garrick's great skills as an orator and the skills of his team of tech guys at creating the pavilion and canvases that were hung outside nonetheless enthralled everyone. It was a tour de force, even as people realized it was sort of a silly and over-the-top event. The story of the jubilee is put into context mainly through the device of reference to James Boswell, who attended the event and knew Garrick. Boswell is the famous biographer of thinker and writer Samuel Johnson, who also knew (and disliked) Garrick, and who didn't think much of Shakespeare's writing. But Boswell loved Shakespeare. Boswell's part in the book is extensive, as we get his biography alongside that of Garrick. Boswell's is a little tedious to me, since it's mostly about his affairs and then his guilt over his affairs. There's a lot of sleeping around in this book, though not by Garrick, but seemingly by everyone in Boswell's circles. (Who are these women who just jump into men's arms upon first sight? I have no idea if Boswell had particular charms, or if it was the male hierarchy of his day, plus his money, as many of them were prostitutes.) There's also a long digression on the politics of the time, with George III not doing well as king and John Wilkes becoming the leader of a nationalist/populist movement. The only link to the jubilee is dubious -- an alleged fear that the jubilee would become an even for Wilkes supporters to mass and cause a problem. The first half of the book is the lead-up to the event. We learn about how Shakespeare was performed and perceived in the mid-18th century and about theater at that time. We learn about Boswell and other writers who were influential in intellectual life and were the pop stars of the day, but better at insults. And we learn about Garrick's remarkable and accidental rise to fame, and how his susceptibility to flattery led to the jubilee. Then, there's the jubilee, with its speeches, songs, dances and dinners. And then a short piece on how that catapulted a new view of Shakespeare into being. It's a good tale, and all's well that ends well.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    I was provided an Advanced Review copy of this by the publishers via Edelweiss+. I really enjoyed the book and would gladly add it to my Shakespeare shelf! This is a focused and approachable work of history. It looks at the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769, and reads like the behind the scenes story of Woodstock. The author centers the story around a few key players, giving it a strong narrative thread and human interest. The first half of the book looks at the event I was provided an Advanced Review copy of this by the publishers via Edelweiss+. I really enjoyed the book and would gladly add it to my Shakespeare shelf! This is a focused and approachable work of history. It looks at the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769, and reads like the behind the scenes story of Woodstock. The author centers the story around a few key players, giving it a strong narrative thread and human interest. The first half of the book looks at the events that lead to the jubilee, and the second half takes the reader through the event itself. There’s an absurd truth to the idea that part of being interested in Shakespeare is being interested in the other people through time who’ve been interested in Shakespeare. Beyond telling the story of the event itself, the book looks at the culture of idolization and commodification of the Bard. The fervor that the event whips people into, along with the setbacks and minor disasters of the Jubilee, is just fun to read. I’m a sucker for historical logistics, and the author’s attention to detail, from the traffic jams to the sleeping arrangements, brings the realities of the event to life without feeling sensationalized. He doesn’t just talk about the weather, but how the weather effected every aspect of the day. The level of detail is handled well, elevating the story instead of bogging it down. The narrative retains its momentum, keeping the reader interested in what next setback is around the corner. This is a great, light, Shakespeare read. It’s a unique look at Shakespeare history from a different perspective, and a good addition to any fan’s shelf.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Stan Rea

    In 1769 David Garrick, the leading British actor of his day, sponsored a festival in honor of Shakespeare to be held in Stratford upon Avon. By most accounts the event was a disaster. The big event was the delivery of a very long poem (Garrick's Ode) and the dedication of a statue of The Bard. Despite torrential rain and rising water, Garrick managed to deliver his ode, dedicate the statue and get out of town without losing his shirt. He was one of the fortunate ones. James Boswell (o In 1769 David Garrick, the leading British actor of his day, sponsored a festival in honor of Shakespeare to be held in Stratford upon Avon. By most accounts the event was a disaster. The big event was the delivery of a very long poem (Garrick's Ode) and the dedication of a statue of The Bard. Despite torrential rain and rising water, Garrick managed to deliver his ode, dedicate the statue and get out of town without losing his shirt. He was one of the fortunate ones. James Boswell (of Life of Samuel Johnson fame) was there as well. His take on the event is rather humorous. I knew little of Boswell other than his Johnson biography. Let's just say he was quite the libertine and leave it at that. Although the festival was meant to honor Shakespeare, there was little about Shakespeare in it. It wasn't a theater festival so none of his plays were actually performed. There was supposed to be a parade of persons dressed as Shakespearean characters (Hamlet holding a skull, Lady M washing her hands, etc) but it was cancelled due to the rain. It seems that the Jubilee became more famous after it was over than before it or during it. Perhaps this event convinced people that Shakespeare was marketable. Tourism to Stratford became a regular thing after the Jubilee (been there, done that).

  5. 5 out of 5

    Emg

    I read this after I finished The Club so it seemed repetitious and superficial. There really wasn't enough information to warrant a book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dave

  7. 4 out of 5

    Fahad Shah

  8. 4 out of 5

    George

  9. 5 out of 5

    Annie

  10. 5 out of 5

    Marguerite Barrett

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sailormouth Stay

  12. 5 out of 5

    Eric Grode

  13. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jackie Fletcher

  15. 4 out of 5

    Julie Daniels

  16. 4 out of 5

    Roland Scahill

  17. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

  18. 5 out of 5

    Alan Porter

  19. 5 out of 5

    Catie

  20. 4 out of 5

    Marius Emanuelsen

  21. 5 out of 5

    Emily Anderson

  22. 5 out of 5

    Rik

  23. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Hanke

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jana Stec

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

  27. 4 out of 5

    Al

  28. 4 out of 5

    Natalie

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

  30. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  31. 4 out of 5

    Terri

  32. 5 out of 5

    Penny

  33. 5 out of 5

    Clarissa

  34. 4 out of 5

    Margie

  35. 4 out of 5

    Tom

  36. 5 out of 5

    Jenn Lavigne

  37. 4 out of 5

    Sam

  38. 4 out of 5

    Park Ridge Public Library

  39. 5 out of 5

    Jess Tanner

  40. 4 out of 5

    erica

  41. 4 out of 5

    Angela Florence Bird

  42. 4 out of 5

    Stacey

  43. 5 out of 5

    Dana DesJardins

  44. 5 out of 5

    Steve Walker

  45. 4 out of 5

    Mark Abramson

  46. 5 out of 5

    Maria Castello

  47. 4 out of 5

    Jace Collins

  48. 4 out of 5

    Ada

  49. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

  50. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

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