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The First Critical Editions of Shakespeare's Works

From An Introduction to Shakespeare. Edward Dowden. New York: C. Scribner.

The critical editions began with that of Nicholas Rowe, 1709. The demands of the seventeenth century had been satisfied by four editions in folio, published respectively in 1623, 1632, 1663-64, and 1685; if tried by the same test the popularity of Jonson or Beaumont and Fletcher appears to have been less considerable. Rowe did something to purge the text of Shakespeare from its grosser errors; he was himself a dramatic poet, and moreover, he was a man of good sense. His corrections are not those of a collater of early editions or a student of our elder literature, but such as would occur to any cultivated and judicious reader. He was the first to attempt to write a life of Shakespeare; it is a slender production, but has a value as containing some traditions not elsewhere to be found.

Pope followed Rowe in 1725 with his edition in six quarto volumes. "The minute mechanical examination which the enterprise required", writes Pope's latest biographer, Mr. Courthope, "was little suited to the broad and generalizing genius of Pope's criticism, nor did he approach his task in that spirit of sympathy with his author which just editing requires. He altered some expressions in the text because they seemed to him vulgar, and others because the versification did not conform to his ideas of harmony. Comparatively little of his labour was spent in research, but some of the conjectural emendations were happy, and the Preface to the edition, written in his best style - and his critical prose is always excellent - deserves the high commendation that Johnson bestows upon it."

In this Preface indeed some admirable thoughts are admirably expressed. "Shakespeare is not so much an imitator, as an instrument of nature." Can more be said in fewer words? And on one of the controversies of his own day he thus pronounces his opinion: "To judge of Shakespeare by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one country who acted under those of another". That Shakespeare was a careless writer who never blotted a line is denied by Pope, on the evidence of the varying text of the quartos; nor was he an unlearned man, unless "learning" means no more than "languages". The Shakespearian drama in comparison with the more finished and regular drama is like "an ancient majestick piece of Gothick architecture compared with a neat modern building. ...

It has much the greater variety, and much the nobler apartments; though we are often conducted to them by dark, odd, and uncouth passages. Nor does the whole fail to strike us with greater reverence, though many of the parts are childish, ill-placed, and unequal to its grandeur." Finer praise than this we could not expect from the Augustan age which delighted in Cato and the translation of Homer.

Pope's rival as an editor of Shakespeare, Louis Theobald, indebted to Pope, as he says, for some "flagrant civilities", if he was a duller man than his satirist of the Dunciad, was a far better Shakespearian scholar. His method of dealing with Shakespeare was to treat his text as that of a corrupt classic; and he claims to be the first to approach any modern author in this manner. He did some scholarly collation, and was often happy in his conjectural emendations. To him we owe "'a babbled o' green fields" in the account of Falstaff's death, and the reading, whether right or wrong, is one which alone might make an editor's reputation. His Shakespeare Restored, in which he exposes the errors of Pope, appeared in 1726; his edition of Shakespeare in 1733.

§50. The "Oxford Edition," in six quarto volumes, was published in 1744. The editor's name did not appear, but he was soon known to be Sir Thomas Hanmer. Collins celebrated the editor and his author in a poetical epistle, and the edition was generally received with favour. A country gentleman of literary tastes, Hanmer had amused his leisure hours, he tells us, with noting the obscurities and absurdities introduced into the text, and according to the best of his judgment restoring the genuine sense and purity of it.

The emendations multiplied, and " too partial friends " persuaded him to make them public. Unfortunately he was not equipped with the scholarship essential to editorial work. "He did something to better", as Mr. Grant White has justly said, "and somewhat more to injure the text as Theobald left it." Three years later, in 1747, Warburton's edition, based on that of Pope, appeared. In his preface he extravagantly overrates the value of Pope's work as an editor, and attacks Theobald and Hanmer as having pirated his own manuscript notes. The persuasions of "dear Mr. Pope" induced Warburton to condescend to a task so much beneath his high powers as that of defending the true text of Shakespeare from the wrongs done to it by dulness of apprehension and extravagance of conjecture. "Mr. Pope was willing that his edition should be melted down into mine, as it would, he said, afford him (so great is the modesty of an ingenuous temper) a fit opportunity of confessing his mistakes. In memory of our friendship I have, therefore, made it our joint edition."

The modesty of an ingenuous temper certainly was not a characteristic of Warburton. His arrogance repels the reader, and when he goes wrong, which happens very often, he does so with a confidence amounting to effrontery. "Among the commentators on Shakespeare", writes Hallam, with no unjust severity, "Warburton, always striving to display his own acuteness and scorn of others, deviates more than anyone else from the meaning." Yet, having before him the work of Theobald and Hanmer, whom he denounces, his text is in some respects an improvement on that of Pope.

The edition drew forth severe criticism from contemporary scholars - Zachary Grey, Heath, Upton, and especially from Thomas Edwards in his satirical Canons of Criticism. Dr. Johnson, who honoured Warburton above his deserts, describes Edwards as ridiculing the editor's errors with " airy petulance suitable enough to the levity of the controversy"; while Grey attacks them "with gloomy malignity, as if he were dragging to justice an assassin or an incendiary".

§51. In the same year in which Warburton published his edition, 1747, David Garrick pronounced at the opening of Drury Lane Theatre the lines in which Johnson, with a fine extravagance, sounded the praises of Shakespeare: -

Each change of many-colour'd life he drew,
Exhausted worlds, and then imagin'd new :
Existence saw him spurn her bounded reign,
And panting Time toil'd after him in vain.

Johnson's long-promised edition of Shakespeare was completed in 1765. He consulted the earlier texts to some extent, but was disqualified for the task of minute collation by his defective eyesight. As a conjectural emender he was not happy; he tells us that as he practised conjecture more he learned to trust it less, and after he had printed a few plays resolved to insert none of his own readings in the text His Preface is an admirable piece of criticism, robust and common-sense, though not illuminated by imagination, or very profound in its philosophical views.

"This", he writes, "is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions." He defends Shakespeare from the censure incurred by his mingling comic with tragic scenes - here too the poet did no more than hold the mirror up to nature.

Particularly noteworthy is Johnson's discussion of the doctrine of the unities of time and place; the spectators "are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage;" knowing which they can make time and place, as well as any other mode of being, obsequious to the imagination.

After his manner as a critic Johnson sets his items of condemnation over against his items of praise; as a moralist he is offended by Shakespeare's sacrifice of virtue to convenience, his frequent violation of poetical justice; the plots are often loosely formed; the latter part of his plays especially is often neglected; the poet has little regard to historical accuracy or local colour; his contests of wit are often marred by grossness; in tragedy he is sometimes tumid and sometimes obscure; in narrative he is often pompous and tedious; his set speeches are commonly cold and weak; a quibble has a malignant power over his mind, it is "the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation".

Some of Johnson's censures are just, but it is evident that from his eighteenth century standpoint he never quite comprehended the spirit of Elizabethan poetry. His knowledge of human nature renders some of his analyses of Shakespeare's characters of peculiar value; his comment on the character of Polonius is an example of passages which at once elucidate the meaning of Shakespeare and exhibit the mind of his critic.

In the late editions of Johnson (1773 onwards) his work is connected with that of George Steevens. Steevens had previously (1766) reprinted twenty of Shakespeare's plays from the early quarto editions. He was a man of industry, learning, and acute intellect; somewhat wanting in reverence, somewhat wanting in modesty, and perhaps in that literary honesty which goes with freedom from vanity.

His influence was a quickening one where dulness and stagnation are dangers; but his animation was not of the best or purest kind. The edition of Johnson and Steevens in fifteen volumes, 1793, often called "Steevens' own", is that which shows his work at its best. In his editorial work he remembered the earlier but not the closing words of the motto found in Spenser: "Be bold, be bold, be not too bold".

§ 52. The most laborious Shakespearian scholars of the second half of the eighteenth century were unquestionably Capell and Malone. " If the man would have come to me," said Dr. Johnson of Capell's Preface, " I would have endeavoured to endow his purposes with words; for as it is, he doth gabble monstrously." It is true that he expressed himself with awkwardness; but he had a true conception of the scholar's duty, and the preface of which Johnson speaks in this disparaging way has been justly described by competent authorities as the most valuable contribution to Shakespearian criticism that had yet appeared.

All the quartos then accessible, and with them the folios, were collated by Capell. His text consequently is one of exceeding value, but unfortunately he did not assign the emendations which he adopted from other editors and critics to their individual authors. His edition is likely to disappoint a reader who comes to it for the first time, because it was issued without the valuable annotations and illustrations subsequently published in part in the year 1774, and after Capell's death in their entirety in three quarto volumes (1783) entitled Notes, Various Readings, and the School of Shakespeare. Valuable service was rendered by Capell in investigating the sources of Shakespeare's plots.

The work of Edmond Malone began with an Attempt to ascertain the Order in which the Plays attributed to Shakespeare were Written, which he handed over as a contribution to Steevens. This was followed in 1780 by a Supplement to the edition of 1778, containing the Poems, the doubtful plays of the Folio of 1664, and among his Prolegomena a study of the early history of the Enghsh theatre.

In 1790 he published his edition of the Plays and Poems in ten volumes. His industry was amazing; he was as honest as he was industrious; and if he was not brilliant, like his rival Steevens, he was free from the defects which sometimes accompany brilliancy in a critic. The debt of all later Shakespeare students to Malone is incalculable. His studies and annotations are perhaps best seen in the third "Variorum" edition of Shakespeare, 1821, edited by James Boswell from a copy corrected by Malone. The earlier Variorum editions, called also the fifth and sixth editions of Johnson and Steevens, appeared respectively in 1803 and 1813 under the editorship of Isaac Reed.

§ 53. Malone's erudition was well employed in the exposure of the celebrated Ireland forgeries. The father, Samuel Ireland, has suffered for the misdeeds of his son, Samuel William Henry Ireland, who began his discreditable career by producing for his father's delectation a forged document bear Shakespeare's signature. With the success of his fraud the ambition of the young conveyancer's apprentice took a higher flight. A large collection of papers and relics obtained from an invisible old gentleman came into the hands of the fortunate youth.

These included a love-letter to Anne Hathaway, a lock of Shakespeare's hair, his profession of faith, and many other treasures. Those who desired to believe in the authenticity of the papers looked hard and saw what they wished to see. An ancestor, with superfluous letters in his name, William Henrye Irelaunde, had saved Shakespeare from drowning in the Thames, and what less could the grateful poet do than bequeath many papers and books to his preserver for the delight of future generations? In due time a play of the great dramatist came to light. Vortigern was actually presented at Drury Lane Theatre to a full house, but no second night was possible. Finally the impostor came forward in 1796 with a confession; he was still under the age of twenty. His father suffered deeply from the disgrace, and died in 1800. William Henry Ireland survived until 1835.

§ 54. The critics of the eighteenth century - Grey, Upton, Heath, Ritson, Monck Mason, and others, were in the main textual critics of greater or less ability. Farmer's Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare (1767) deserves special mention; in this he aims at proving that Shakespeare's knowledge of the classics was derived from translations: "He remembered", says Farmer, "perhaps enough of his school-boy learning to put the Hig, hag, hog, into the mouth of Sir Hugh Evans; and might pick up in the writers of the time, or the course of his conversation, a familiar phrase or two of French or Italian: but his studies were most demonstratively confined to nature and his own language." Another essay of a different kind, Maurice Morgann's Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), is a genial piece of criticism, maintaining the thesis that Falstaff was no coward. Charlotte Lennox, the friend of Dr. Johnson, did something by her Shakespeare Illustrated (1753-54) to render the materials from which the dramatist formed his plots better known. Another lady, Mrs. Montagu, ventured to come forward with a defence of Shakespeare against the criticism of Voltaire. "When Shakespeare has got Mrs. Montagu for his defender", said Johnson, "he is in a poor state indeed." But Reynolds and Garrick were of a different opinion.

Please see Shakespearean Scholars for more information.

How to cite this article:
Dowden, Edward. An Introduction to Shakespeare. New York: C. Scribner, 1895. Shakespeare Online. 18 Dec. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718)