The word ‘bardolatry’ is formed from the word ‘bard’ – an historic concept referring to a poet who wrote about great national events like war, rebellion, environmental catastrophe – and the Greek word for worship, ‘latria’.
If one were to mention the word to Scots, their minds might go to the poet most of them consider to be their national poet Robert Burns, but generally, around the world now, most people would associate the word with the English national poet, William Shakespeare. And ‘The Bard of Avon’ is a term applied exclusively to Shakespeare.
The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, not a great fan of Shakespeare, coined the term ‘bardolatry’ as a negative term in contempt of those who idolised or worshiped Shakespeare – a cult composed of those who would make no criticism of him but recite excuses and give explanations for what Shaw and other Shakespeare detractors considered to be weaknesses and faults in Shakespeare’s works. For example, detractors might have said that Shakespeare displays his anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice but Shakespeare’s defenders would argue that Shakespeare was exposing the anti-Semitism of the Christian community in which Shylock lives. Shaw maintained that Shakespeare was in a hurry when he wrote Othello and didn’t bother giving Iago a consistent motive for his destructive actions so we don’t know why he behaved the way he did, which Shaw considers a weakness. Shakespeare’s defenders would say, no, there are no imperfections in the play: that Iago has no motive, that he is a psychopath who treats human beings as objects and has no conscience about the damage he does to them, and that his only motive is the pleasure he has in doing that and that’s the reason he has no recognisable, rational motive that would make sense to normal people. Whatever those who claim to find weaknesses in Shakespeare’s plays say, the bardolaters will counter.
The point is that Shakespeare can do no wrong in the eyes of those who worship him and they will argue all criticisms away. That is part of bardolatry.
Bardolatry is usually defined as an ‘excessive’ devotion to Shakespeare and his works. It is possible to be a Shakespeare enthusiast without being a bardolater, however, and many Shakespeare enthusiasts attend as many productions of Shakespeare’s plays as they can. That is understandable as those who love Shakespeare know that his genius is such that play directors and actors can bring out all sorts of new meanings from a Shakespeare text by means of creative settings, placing the action in different time periods, using costume creatively, etc. Also, there are many people who just like to be edified by the poetry, the characters, the action of a Shakespeare play. And sometimes they like to see how an actor will present one of their favourite characters, like Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and so on. A famous actor can still get front page headlines with the announcement that he/she is opening in a production as King Lear. Or Hamlet. Or Macbeth.
What may be called a Shakespeare fan is not necessarily a bardolater. The word implies the member of a cult. There is no organised group of Shakespeare cult members, although there are many Shakespeare clubs and societies around the world, and websites dedicated to Shakespeare and his works. There are theatre companies and stage directors who do nothing but Shakespeare’s plays. Until recently, when great Shakespearean actors began to receive offers of film work in Hollywood, with its substantial fees, there were actors who did nothing but Shakespeare.
The bardolatry idea developed when the leading actor-manager of the 18th century, David Garrick, popularised Shakespeare in the Drury Lane theatre in London. He introduced a new style of naturalistic acting, which departed from the stilted, stock acting of the time. He restored much of Shakespeare’s text and his performances were sold out during the three decades of his tenure. He wrote poems about Shakespeare and played every major male role. He was utterly devoted to Shakespeare and inspired London audiences with his untiring work and enthusiasm. That is probably what a bardolater is.