‘Bardolatry’: meaning and origin

The noun Bardolatry, also bardolatry, denotes excessive admiration for the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

This noun occurs, for example, in the account by Nigel Tisdall of a tour of Beatles landmarks in Liverpool, Merseyside, England, published in The Daily Telegraph (London, England) of Saturday 2nd October 2004:

To my surprise, the Beatles industry is quite restrained compared to, say, the Bardolatry that goes on in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The noun Bardolatry is from:
the Bard (of Avon), an epithet of William Shakespeare;
– the combining form -olatry, forming nouns with the sense worship of —, excessive reverence for —, as in idolatry, literally denoting the worship of idols.

The noun Bardolatry was apparently coined by the Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in the Preface to Three Plays for Puritans: The Devil’s Disciple, Cæsar and Cleopatra, & Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (London: Grant Richards, 1901):

It is a significant fact that the mutilators of Shakespear *, who never could be persuaded that Shakespear knew his business better than they, have ever been the most fanatical of his worshippers. […] It was the age of gross ignorance of Shakespear and incapacity for his works that produced the indiscriminate eulogies with which we are familiar. It was the revival of genuine criticism of those works that coincided with the movement for giving genuine instead of spurious and silly representations of his plays. So much for Bardolatry!

[* Shakespear is one of the spellings of the Swan of Avon’s surname that have existed in the course of time.]

The texts containing the second- and third-earliest occurrences of Bardolatry that I have found seem to confirm that this noun was coined by George Bernard Shaw—these texts are:

1-: George Bernard Shaw, by William Bagshaw, published in The Manchester Quarterly: An Illustrated Journal of Literature and Art (Manchester (Lancashire): Published by Sherratt & Hughes for the Manchester Literary Club) of April 1903:

The idea has been spread that Mr. Shaw considers himself better than Shakespeare. Now the first thing to be noticed is that he approaches Shakespeare as a critic and not as a worshipper. […]
In fact his writings on the subject show him to be a discriminating admirer of Shakespeare, and when the practisers of what he calls Bardolatry take the trouble to read him, they will find he gives more praise than blame to their idol.

2-: From A word on the Dramatic opinions and essays of G. Bernard Shaw, by the U.S. literary critic James Huneker (1857-1921), the introduction to Dramatic opinions and essays of G. Bernard Shaw (New York: Brentano’s, 1906), by George Bernard Shaw—confusingly, the formulation seems to indicate that Bardolatry is George Bernard Shaw’s term for “those attacks upon Shakespeare”:

Brave are his very Tolstoian words. Nor does he claim priority in those attacks upon Shakespeare which he so happily terms, Bardolatry. You may notice after reading his critical animadversions upon this sacred topic that he is not so often attacking Shakespeare as the ultra-Shakespeareans; that he is by no means so sharp in his criticisms of the bard as were Ben Jonson, Dr. Johnson, Voltaire, and Taine,—(did not Mr. George Moore invoke destruction when he dared to harness the names of Balzac and Shakespeare?)—that his assaults are really a plea for a more sane critical attitude toward Shakespeare.

The earliest occurrence that I have found of bardolatry used without reference to George Bernard Shaw is from the account of a conference titled Re-trial of the “Merchant of Venice”, given at the Jewish Working Men’s Club by Mr. F. J. Adkins, the English master of the Central School, and “Sheffield’s boldest Shakespearian”—account published in the Sheffield Daily Independent (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Monday 18th May 1908:

“It seems to me,” Mr. Adkins said, “that the intoxication of Shakespeare’s verses numbs the critical faculty. But there is no reason against adding to the sensuous pleasure of rhythm and gorgeous word-pictures the keener, more conscious pleasure of intelligent appreciation. We want to recognise Shakespeare’s greatness, and I suggest that Shakespeare’s greatness is best seen when it is most closely scrutinised. Comparison with other dramas gives us a standard to measure him by.
“It is a timid reverence which fears to look the hero in the face and question him as to his works. Shakespeare had a contempt for ‘Sir Oracle,’ and would, I believe be the last to approve of bardolatry. To such a man it must be extremely embarrassing to find himself perpetually on a pedestal. I believe he would much prefer to come down and discuss with us his plays as human documents; he would not wish them to become ‘sacred books’—mystic.”

The noun bardolatry was borrowed into French as bardolâtrie. The earliest occurrence of this French noun that I have found is from Bernard Shaw, by Régis Michaud, published in La Revue de Paris (Paris, France) of Sunday 1st September 1907.

Incidentally, and amusingly, there is in French a homonym, bardotlâtrie, also bardolâtrie, which denotes adulation for the French film-actress Brigitte Bardot (born 1934), who rose to fame in the late 1950s. The noun bardotlâtrie occurred, for example, in Brigitte (Paris: Pierre Horay, 1959), a book about the forename Brigitte, by Jean Cognet:

Jamais étoile de l’écran ne fit l’objet d’un tel culte, à propos duquel il n’est pas excessif de parler de « bardotlâtrie ».
Never was a screen-star the object of such a cult, about which it is not excessive to speak of “bardotlâtrie”.

In the sense of adulation for Brigitte Bardot, the English noun Bardolatry occurred, for example, in the following from A Lot More Than Meets the Eye, by Paul O’Neill, published in Life (New York City, New York, USA) of Monday 30th June 1958:

[Brigitte Bardot] is inevitably dismissed as a curvy cutie, although here the critics make it plain that, as men-about-town, they find her a pretty superior example who should certainly be seen for laughs. Female viewers tend to write her off as just another naked girl. Hardly anyone, either male or female, exclaims about her—and exclaiming about Bardot is part of what is now known as Bardolatry—without adding that she is, of course, stupid and cannot, of course, act.

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