David Garrick is an inviting subject for a biographer. His lifespan (1717–79) demarcates the core of the eighteenth century, and however you define the heart of the period, he was at it. Diminutive in stature, he bestrode the stage as no one has quite done since. An actor-manager who preceded Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier, he operated as his own director before the term was invented. Impresario, playwright, play-doctor, publicist, festival promoter, critic, lyric writer, dramatic coach—he could do it all. He makes Orson Welles look like a one-trick pony.

If the cult of the Bard has a single originating sponsor, it must be Garrick. He had a fine collection of early editions of Shakespeare before you needed a large foundation grant to afford a copy. He built a private shrine to the dramatist at his Thames-side home. More than anyone else, he gave a boost to Stratford as the...

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