The Club: no literary club has ever equaled the one founded in London in 1764 by Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and a handful of others, and which came to include the very brightest intellectual, artistic and political stars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Leo Damrosch provided a close study of the Club, its members, and its doings during the first couple of decades of its long life (it still exists today), in a book I reviewed in The Hudson Review’s Spring 2019 issue: The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age.
But considerations of length (for the material he grappled with is voluminous, to say the least) confined Damrosch, mostly, to the biographical. There is another way to look at this group of remarkable friends, and perhaps a more fruitful one, and that is to focus on the contributions they made, as a group, to a number of fields of endeavor during this period: aesthetics, the theater, literary studies, biography, science, archaeology, political and moral philosophy. They never formed a school; each thinker in the Club was individual and occasionally antipathetic to its other members; but their joint endeavors pushed each of these fields forward toward modernity, sometimes to a remarkable degree. This was particularly true in the field of Shakespearean studies and performance.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Shakespeare had become the iconic English genius—Britain’s answer to Homer, Dante, Cervantes. But this had not always been the general opinion and was not so at the outset of the eighteenth century. There had been a gradual elevation of Shakespeare from just one among several popular Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights to the one and only national treasure: “a kind of established religion in poetry,” as the playwright Arthur Murphy was already describing him in 1753, as well as a focus for a new, patriotic British nationalism that had begun to coalesce at that time. It was a process in which several members of the Club were intimately involved, both individually and as a team. Shakespeare might well have achieved his cultural apotheosis without these men, but the process would have been slower and less certain. Scholarship, criticism, performance, interpretation: the Club members had a profound effect on each of these aspects of Shakespeareanism.
The modern idea of “Shakespeare,” both as artist and ideal genius, was essentially an eighteenth-century creation, though it is often credited to the Romantics. There were many reasons for the revival of Shakespeare at the outset of the eighteenth century. All the London theaters had been closed during the Puritan Interregnum (1649–60) following the English Civil War. Upon the Restoration, when the easygoing, licentious Charles II ascended the throne that had been vacant since the military defeat and subsequent execution of his father, all forms of entertainment were once again legitimized, and the Londoners, fed up with Puritan austerity and intolerance, threw themselves into the new hedonism with a vengeance. The reopening of the theaters in 1660 drew a definitive line between the repressive past and the exciting new era in which the senses—physical, aesthetic, sensual—would be celebrated rather than denied. Significantly, that same year saw the very first appearance by a professional woman performer on the English stage. Before the 1640s, female characters had been played by young men, but now there was a new focus of popular idolatry: a creature that James Boswell called “that delicious subject of gallantry, an actress.” Charles II himself led the titillating fashion in taking for a favorite mistress the charming and celebrated comedienne Nell Gwyn.
Since no plays had been written during the Interregnum, Restoration theater managers had to reach further back for properties to stage, to the early part of the seventeenth century and before. In the early 1660s Shakespeare’s plays were performed no more often than those of his contemporaries—in fact, rather less so than those of Ben Jonson and the team of Beaumont and Fletcher. But the works of Shakespeare rapidly rose to the top, taking up an ever larger part of the repertoire, for reasons that we will see.
But what exactly were these “Shakespeare plays” seen by audiences in the late 1600s and early 1700s? The original texts were uncertain: no manuscripts in Shakespeare’s own hand had survived. As Samuel Johnson had stressed, “So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little declined into the vale of years . . . he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.” It was left to two actors, former colleagues of the playwright’s, to pass on the great works to posterity: in 1623, some seven years after Shakespeare’s death, John Heminges and Henry Condell published thirty-six plays, printed in double columns and arranged by genre—the famous First Folio. Second, third and fourth editions appeared in 1632, 1663, and 1685 respectively.
The exactitude of the texts was dubious enough, but theater managers of the period were not particularly concerned with authenticity. They were far more worried about what might appeal to contemporary audiences, for whom Shakespeare’s plays, however glorious, appeared antiquated, crude, occasionally unplayable according to Restoration and early Augustan theatrical conventions and expectations. In the dedication to his 1681 adaptation of King Lear, author Nahum Tate famously described Shakespeare’s original as “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht; yet so dazling in their Disorder, that I soon perceiv’d I had seiz’d a Treasure.” Tate congratulated himself on his happy solutions to the play’s perceived grotesqueries and improbabilities: he created a love story between Edgar and Cordelia (“that never chang’d word with each other in the Original”); “This,” he went on, “renders Cordelia’s Indifference and her Father’s Passion in the first Scene probable.” The invented romance led Tate to alter the play’s conclusion so as to provide a happy ending for the beleaguered lovers—“otherwise I must have incumbred the Stage with dead Bodies, which Conduct makes many Tragedies conclude with unseasonable Jests.” Tate also made substantial cuts to the text, added some scenes, and omitted the character of the Fool. It’s easy enough to laugh at this preposterous Lear, but Tate’s version continued to be performed successfully until 1838—a remarkable 157-year run.
So the “Shakespeare plays” seen on the Restoration and, later, the Georgian stage often came in forms that would be scarcely recognizable to their author. The Tempest was a 1667 adaptation by William Davenant and John Dryden; Richard III was Colley Cibber’s 1699 version; A Midsummer’s Night Dream became an opera, with music by Henry Purcell. The public, then as now, had an insatiable appetite for music, dance, and pantomime, so such interludes became regular parts of Shakespeare’s plays. There was as yet none of the dramatic or intellectual purism that demanded Shakespeare unadulterated.
By a political coincidence, Shakespeare became even more essential to the London repertoire after 1737. In that year, Sir Robert Walpole, the leader of the Whig party and George II’s first minister, forced the Licensing Act through Parliament. The unpopular Walpole had for years been the butt of satire—John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera, a classic that is still popular in the twenty-first-century repertoire, burlesqued the corruption of Walpole’s administration, comparing the statesman himself to a highwayman—and the Licensing Act was the politician’s solution: it would require all new plays to receive the imprimatur of the Lord Chamberlain’s office before they could appear on a London stage. (Remarkably, the Act was not repealed until 1968.) With new works now having to pass through this awkward channel before approval, managers found themselves relying more on classics, including, and especially, those of Shakespeare. Their efforts were given direction by the determined efforts of the Shakespeare Ladies Club, a high-profile group of women who lobbied theater managers to produce more and more plays by Shakespeare and also succeeded in getting a monument erected to him in Westminster Abbey.
David Garrick, though he would not be admitted to the Club until 1773, was Samuel Johnson’s oldest friend in London. Johnson was the elder by eight years, but the two had grown up as neighbors in the Staffordshire town of Lichfield, where they attended the Lichfield Grammar School and where Garrick’s father, of Huguenot descent, was a minor army officer. Both boys were encouraged in their intellectual and artistic interests by Gilbert Walmsley, a rich man who lived in the beautiful bishop’s palace next to the cathedral and invited them to use his excellent library. Walmsley appears to have been a superior talent-spotter, and the cultured, intellectually stimulating atmosphere at the bishop’s palace must have done much to give both boys an idea of the possibilities beyond their provincial world.
When Johnson started his boarding school at Edial in 1736, David Garrick and his younger brother George were the first pupils. The school was a disaster and closed after a year and a half, for Johnson, despite his later importance as a mentor to younger men like James Boswell and Edmond Malone, was not a natural pedagogue. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell speculates on the man’s temperamental unfitness for the job: “a mind gloomy and impetuous like that of Johnson,” he proposed, “cannot be fixed for any length of time in minute attention, and must be so frequently irritated by unavoidable slowness and errour in the advances of scholars, as to perform the duty, with little pleasure to the teacher, and no great advantage to the pupils. Good temper is a most essential requisite in a Preceptor.” Johnson also presented an irresistibly ridiculous figure to boys only a few years younger than himself, particularly one who was as devastating a mimic as David Garrick. It is Garrick’s indiscreet tale-telling to Boswell in later years that gave posterity this priceless image of Johnson in his youth:
From Mr. Garrick’s account [Johnson] did not appear to have been profoundly reverenced by his pupils. His oddities of manner, and uncouth gesticulations, could not but be the subject of merriment to them; and, in particular, the young rogues used to listen at the door of his bed-chamber, and peep through the key-hole, that they might turn into ridicule his tumultuous and awkward fondness for Mrs. Johnson, whom he used to name by the familiar appellation of Tetty or Tetsey, which, like Betty or Betsey, is provincially used as a contraction for Elisabeth, her christian name, but which to us seems ludicrous, when applied to a woman of her age and appearance.
Nevertheless, the Johnson-Garrick alliance proved permanent, and in 1737 the two young men set out for London together to make their fortunes, temporarily leaving Tetty Johnson and George Garrick behind. As the story goes, the two young men were so short of cash that they had to adopt the “ride and tie” method: “one of them,” according to Johnson’s biographer Peter Martin, “would ride off on the horse, stopping and tethering it at some point and then walking on; when the other reached the horse he would mount it, trot past his companion, and in his turn tether it—and so on into London.”
After a brief and half-hearted attempt to join the legal profession, David made his way, perhaps inevitably, to his natural milieu—the stage. The theater, in the eighteenth century, was not the profession of a gentleman, and Garrick was, however precariously, a gentleman, unwilling to let himself sink below that all-important status. He had a hard time admitting his ambitions to his family, and in fact did not do so until the day after his extraordinary triumph in the role of Richard III at Goodman’s Fields, a sort of fringe alternative to the royal patent theaters of Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Emboldened by the audience’s rapturous reception to his debut, he wrote apologetically to his elder brother Peter that he had arrived at a fateful decision.
My mind (as you must know) has always been inclined to the stage, nay so strongly so that all my illness and lowness of spirits was owing to my want of resolution to tell you my thoughts when here. Finding at last both my inclination and interest required some new way of life, I have chose the most agreeable to myself, and though I know you will be much displeased at me, yet I hope when you shall find that I may have the genius of an actor, without the vices, you will think less severely of me, and not be ashamed to own me for a brother. . . . Last night I play’d Richard the Third to the surprise of everybody, and as I shall make very near £300 per annum by it, and as it is really what I dote upon, I am resolved to pursue it.
The encouragement Garrick received from the public was indeed remarkable; something of the excitement of the moment can still be felt through the eyewitness accounts of his debut. The critic in the London Daily Post and Advertiser raved that the unknown performer’s “reception was the most extraordinary and great that was ever known on such an occasion.”
What stunned viewers was the absolute novelty of Garrick’s style, a sort of realism that had never been attempted, indeed hardly thought of. In 1741 the formal, neoclassical style of acting still prevailed. The model was Thomas Betterton, who had died in 1710 but whose technique still reigned: a heavy, rhetorical manner complete with conventional gestures. At the time of Garrick’s first appearance the reigning tragic star was James Quin. Garrick was 5′3″, light and agile; Quin, at six feet and well over two hundred pounds, was a ponderous elephant of a man who still wore the full-bottomed wig of the Restoration period and fussily elaborate, outdated clothes. Like an overweight opera star of our own day, he stepped onto the stage, faced front, and declaimed his lines pompously, paying scant attention to the fellow-actors with whom he was supposed to be conversing. Tobias Smollett parodied Quin in his novel Peregrine Pickle as the stentorian Mr. Bellower: “His utterance is a continual sing-song, like the chanting of vespers, and his action resembles that of heaving ballast into the hold of a ship.”
Garrick was a striking contrast, something entirely new. Describing his 1741 Richard III, his friend and first biographer Thomas Davies gives a flavor of the moment:
Mr Garrick’s easy and familiar, yet forcible style in speaking and acting, at first threw the critics into some hesitation concerning the novelty as well as propriety of his manner. They had been long accustomed to an elevation of the voice, with a sudden mechanical depression of its tones, calculated to incite admiration, and to intrap applause. To the just modulation of the words, and concurring expression of the features from the genuine workings of nature, they had been strangers, at least for some time. But after he had gone through a variety of scenes, in which he gave evident proofs of consummate art, and perfect knowledge of character, their doubts were turned into surprise and astonishment, from which they relieved themselves by loud and reiterated applause . . .
Such was the universal approbation which followed our young actor, that the more established theatres of Drury-lane and Covent-garden were deserted: Mr Garrick drew after him the inhabitants of the most polite parts of the town; Goodman’s-fields was full of the splendour of St James’s and Grosvenor-square; the coaches of the nobility filled up the space from Temple-bar to Whitechapel. He had so perfectly convinced the public of his superior accomplishments in acting, that not to admire him would not only have argued an absence of taste, but the grossest stupidity.
The playwright Richard Cumberland, a schoolboy at the time, recalled seeing Quin and Garrick onstage together. Quin spoke “in a deep, full tone, accompanied by a sawing kind of action” and “rolled out his heroics with an air of dignified indifference”; his co-star Susannah Cibber was also a bit of a snooze. “But when, after long and eager expectation,” Cumberland went on, “I first beheld little Garrick, then young and light and alive in every muscle and in every feature, come bounding on the stage…it seemed as if a whole century had been stept over in the transition of a single scene.”
Garrick’s rise to the top of his profession was meteoric, his influence on the production and popularity of Shakespeare second to none. He was incomparably the greatest actor, director, and manager of his century, perhaps of all time. His management of the Drury Lane Theatre from 1747 to 1776 is legendary; those years are still known as the Age of Garrick. The great theatrical club in Covent Garden, founded in 1831 and still thriving today, is also named after him. When he took to the stage in 1741, acting was not considered a respectable career; during the course of his life, as Edmund Burke stated in Garrick’s eulogy, “He raised the character of his profession to the rank of a liberal art, not only by his talents, but by the regularity and probity of his life and the elegance of his manners.” As a conversationalist he was inferior only to the great gladiatorial talkers of the Club, Johnson and Burke. His great friend, the French ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre, wrote that Garrick “displayed a rare erudition, which was accompanied by profound reflexions”:
If the conversation then turned to stories of the moment, or the absurdities of the moment that occur each day in so rich and vast a town, it was Garrick who spoke and carried all before him. No longer serious, he became light, amusing, lively, an agreeable teller of stories, a subtle and gifted critic; when he bit, he laughed, when he scratched it was with velvet paws. . . . Almost no one spoke or told stories with so much ease and wit. He combined the art of the raconteur with the ability to paint characters and imitate them perfectly.
Such a man would surely have been an ornament to the Club, especially as he was Johnson’s oldest friend. Yet Johnson revealed a certain trepidation about admitting Garrick to the exclusive circle and occasionally wrote off his conversational gifts as mere dross. In his biography of Johnson, Sir John Hawkins related that when Garrick’s possible membership was brought up, Johnson objected that “He will disturb us by his buffoonery,” but Boswell corrects this claim in the Life of Johnson:
The truth is, that not very long after the institution of our club, Sir Joshua Reynolds was speaking of it to Garrick. “I like it much,” said he; “I think I will be of you.” When Sir Joshua mentioned this to Dr. Johnson, he was much displeased with the actor’s conceit. “He’ll be of us,” said Johnson, “how does he know we will permit him? the first duke in England has no right to hold such language.” However, when Garrick was regularly proposed some time afterwards, Johnson, though he had taken a momentary offence at his arrogance, warmly and kindly supported him, and he was accordingly elected [March, 1773], was a most agreeable member, and continued to attend our meetings to the time of his death.
A brilliant conversationalist and staunch friend Garrick may have been, but he remained first, last, and always an actor, and as such was often the butt of Johnson’s sardonic comments. Boswell noticed that “Johnson would let nobody attack Garrick but himself,” but attack he did, even when he seemed to be defending him. When a friend accused the actor of vanity, Johnson argued, “No wonder, Sir, that he is vain; a man who is perpetually flattered in every mode that can be conceived. So many bellows have blown the fire, that one wonders he is not by this time become a cinder.”
Garrick made it his personal mission to fan the flames of his century’s burgeoning obsession with Shakespeare and everything to do with him. His performances in the great leading roles made indelible impressions on his contemporaries, and he made much of his efforts to rid the plays of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accretions and restore them to their original glory. For his 1744 production of Macbeth, he announced that the play, unusually, was to be presented “as written by Shakespeare.” “Don’t I play Macbeth as Shakespeare wrote it?” Quin asked, rather piteously. The answer was no: he played the Davenant version, radically different from the original—more like an opera or a pantomime, complete with flying and dancing witches and lavish sets and costumes. New scenes had been written with impunity, and bits that did not fit current ideas of theatrical decorum—the drunken porter scene, for instance, which disconcertingly inserted low comedy into the tragic action—were omitted.
Garrick boasted about his “restoration” of the play, and in fact he did consult contemporary scholars, including Johnson: correspondences between Garrick’s acting version of the text and Johnson’s Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, which appeared a year later, indicate that the two men discussed textual problems closely. But as theater historian Kalman A. Burnim has demonstrated, “the suggestion that [Garrick] truly restored Shakespeare’s text must be accepted with some reservations.” He cut some 269 lines and added clarifying passages where he felt them necessary. “A more respectable servant was substituted for the drunken porter, most of the scene with Lady Macduff and her son, including their murders, was omitted, and eighty lines of Malcolm’s description of his own intemperance were eliminated as unsuitable for refined taste. Although there was less flying about than in Davenant’s opera . . . the witches still danced and sang several of Davenant’s songs.” Garrick, ever the eager ham, also could not forbear from writing himself a long death speech. Nevertheless, this Macbeth was the most accurate version of a Shakespeare play that had appeared on a London stage in many decades.
Garrick’s restoration of Romeo and Juliet (1748) was also a step forward. The last time the play had been seen as written by Shakespeare was early in the 1660s, when Samuel Pepys noted in his famous diary that it was “a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life.” The middlebrow Pepys, a seventeenth-century Everyman, preferred entertainments with music, dancing, and a happy ending, tastes which he shared with his contemporaries, and emenders of Shakespeare at that time responded to the popular demand: the Restoration playwright James Howard wrote a version that kept the lovers alive at the end, pleasing sentimental theatergoers. In 1680 Thomas Otway’s adaptation, The History and Fall of Caius Marius, more or less replaced Shakespeare’s play, and in 1744 Theophilus Cibber came up with an even more bastardized version that incorporated still more material. Garrick’s version represented to some extent a return to Shakespeare’s material, though he kept a few of Otway’s and Cibber’s refinements: there is no Rosaline, for instance—it would detract from the audience’s sympathy for Romeo if they felt him to be naturally inconstant—and Juliet wakes up in time to bid Romeo adieu before he expires in the final scene.
Garrick’s Lear, a role he essayed for the first time at the young age of twenty-five, was spectacular and remained his most popular part, but in early productions he played it in the 1681 Nahum Tate version described above. Garrick later restored much of Shakespeare’s original to his Lear, but the Edgar/Cordelia romance and the happy ending remained intact, and the Fool still made no appearance. This version debuted in 1756; when the youthful James Boswell, soon after his first arrival, saw Garrick’s Lear in 1763, the star was in his forties, at the apex of his brilliant career. “So very high is his reputation,” Boswell remarked, “even after playing so long, that the pit was full in ten minutes after four, although the play did not begin till half an hour after six. I kept myself at a distance from all acquaintances, and got into a proper frame. Mr. Garrick gave me the most perfect satisfaction. I was fully moved, and I shed abundance of tears.” Characteristically, Boswell managed to worm his way into the great man’s company, introduced by a mutual friend, James Love. He was invited to breakfast at Garrick’s on January 20, a privilege that quite bowled him over: “taking Mr. Garrick cordially by the hand, ‘Thou greatest of men,’ said I, ‘I cannot express how happy you make me.’ This upon my soul, was no flattery. He saw it was not. And the dear great man was truly pleased with it.” A decade later, when both men had been admitted to the Club, their friendship deepened.
The idea of a star, however brilliant, meddling with Shakespeare’s immortal works shocks modern audiences, but we must remember that Garrick was a show-business impresario, not a literary scholar. He was consummately aware of what would please the audiences of his day, and even those of the highest intellectual authority did not argue with his methods: Samuel Johnson himself stated that he found the last act of Shakespeare’s Lear so painful that he would not be able to witness it. Johnson and his fellow-scholars of the Club, George Steevens and Edmond Malone, might devote their lives to attempting to restore the texts to their original purity, but still they were creatures of their age and understood that the commercial theater—and there was no other, at that time—required its leaders to conform with popular standards.
Garrick extended the secular worship of the Bard to his domestic domain. In 1754, he and his wife had bought an old house alongside the Thames at Hampton near Richmond and set about restoring and expanding it. In this they were inspired by the great houses of the aristocrats who had become their close friends: the neo-Palladian Chiswick House, belonging to Lord Burlington, and the Duke of Devonshire’s estates, Chatsworth and Londesburgh. Two years later Garrick erected a lovely octagonal Palladian structure near the house, which he dedicated specifically to the worship of his idol. It contained, in pride of place, the statue of Shakespeare that Garrick had commissioned from the French sculptor Louis-François Roubillac. This was supposed to be based on the Chandos portrait, but some visitors discerned that the Bard’s face and physique were distinctly reminiscent of those of Garrick: indeed, it seems that he had posed for Roubillac in costume, jumping around in front of the sculptor, striking frequent poses and calling out, “Behold the Bard of Avon!” As the years went on, Garrick filled the Temple with his growing collection of Shakespeariana, including a glove, a dagger, a signet ring, and a chair made from the mulberry tree that Shakepeare himself, or so the tale goes, had planted in the garden of New Place, his house at Stratford. The actor enjoyed entertaining guests at this shrine, urging them to write verses commemorative of the great man and place them at the statue’s feet.
It is easy enough to laugh at the actor’s high enthusiasm, not to mention the self-identification with the Bard that many of his contemporaries sardonically remarked upon, but the Temple is singularly beautiful: one can see it as it looked in Garrick’s day in the exquisite painting of it that he commissioned from the German artist Johan Zoffany, and the site has been restored, complete with a copy of the Roubillac statue (the original is in the British Museum) for the benefit of modern visitors. Garrick and his wife Eva Maria, a beautiful Austrian dancer, often entertained at their riverside estate: a second Zoffany painting, depicting the couple seated at an alfresco meal with their friends, presents as idyllic a scene of civilized life as might be imagined. The novelist Fanny Burney, whose father, the musicologist Charles Burney, was a close friend and professional associate of Garrick and, eventually, a fellow Club member (elected in 1784), remembered her visits to Hampton ecstatically. “I seldom was more happy than in these visits. His wit, humour, and constant gaiety at home; and Mrs. Garrick’s good sense, good breeding, and obliging desire to please, rendered their Hampton villa, on these occasions, a terrestrial paradise.”
Garrick amassed a very serious collection of early editions of English drama, particularly Shakespeare, during this course of his life: 1,300 volumes, including a rare First Folio, all of which he readily made accessible to the myriad scholars who approached him. Garrick had purchased a number of the more important items from the collection of Robert and Edward Harley, the first and second Earls of Oxford, until Garrick’s was the only major collection of such works. It must be remembered that public “libraries” in the modern sense of the word did not yet exist. The British Museum had only recently been founded, in 1753, and scholars were just beginning to make use of its collection. They could also repair to Cambridge or to the Bodleian at Oxford, but such a trip, in those days, was far from easy. The Club’s Shakespearean scholars tended to rely on fellow-enthusiasts attached to the Universities, like Richard Farmer, the Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to go to the libraries and look up references for them; this can only have been a cumbersome method. Serious scholars with the requisite means were obliged to build their own private libraries, often at great expense. Garrick’s generosity in opening his library to any scholar who wished to consult it, then, was very meaningful. “Mr. Garrick’s zeal,” the Shakespearean George Steevens (elected to the Club in 1774) acknowledged, though acerbically, “would not permit him to withhold any thing that might ever so remotely tend to show the perfections of that author who could only have enabled him to display his own.”
The first half of the eighteenth century had seen great activity among those who sought to restore Shakespeare’s plays to their original versions. Between 1707 and 1709 the publisher Jacob Tonson had bought up the majority of rights to Shakespeare’s plays and in 1709 brought out Nicholas Rowe’s The Works of Mr William Shakespear—the first modern edition of the playwright. Printed in six octavo volumes, it contained “an account of the life and writings of the author” based on information Rowe had received from the actor-manager Thomas Betterton. Three years later appeared the first major monograph on Shakespeare, John Dennis’ An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespear. The intellectual world took notice of these events, and while audiences at Drury Lane and Covent Garden still reveled in such theatrical anachronisms as dancing witches, serious poets and scholars were beginning the long and infinitely challenging chore of restoring Shakespeare’s texts to as close an approximation of their originals as might be possible.
Alexander Pope, the greatest poet of the early Augustan Age, had been approached by the house of Tonson with the idea of bringing out an edition of Shakespeare, which he did in 1725. Pope’s edition was an important step forward and extremely popular, as well, but his standards were those of an artist and a man of taste rather than a scholar as we now understand that role: he felt perfectly justified in “improving” Shakespeare according to the poetic standards of his own day, of which he was unquestionably the supreme practitioner and arbiter. Pope would certainly have looked on himself as Shakespeare’s artistic equal and would have believed, too, that the standards of his own far more polished age were superior to the crudeness that had prevailed in the playwright’s time and the quickness and carelessness with which practicing actor-playwrights turned out their work. Johnson, in his 1765 Preface, gave Pope credit where credit was due: “The nation had been for many years content enough with Mr. Rowe’s performance, when Mr. Pope made them acquainted with the true state of Shakespeare’s text, shewed that it was extremely corrupt, and gave them reason to hope that there were means of reforming it. He collated the old copies, which none had thought to examine before, and restored many lines to their integrity; but, by a very compendious criticism, he rejected whatever he disliked, and thought more of amputation than of cure.” Johnson was withering in his assessment of Pope’s scholarship, work “which Pope seems to have thought unworthy of his abilities, being not able to suppress his contempt of ‘the dull duty of an editor.’” Johnson’s further thoughts on this subject are worth quoting in full, as they mark a turning point, perhaps the birth of modern ideals of scholarship: ideals that would only be fully realized in the groundbreaking work of Edmond Malone, a Club member a generation younger than Johnson.
Pope, Johnson claimed,
understood but half his undertaking. The duty of a collator is indeed dull, yet, like other tedious tasks, is very necessary; but an emendatory critick would ill discharge his duty, without qualities very different from dullness. In perusing a corrupted piece, he must have before him all possibilities of meaning, with all possibilities of expression. Such must be his comprehension of thought, and such his copiousness of language. Out of many readings possible, he must be able to select that which bests suits with the state, opinions, and modes of language prevailing in every age, and with his authour’s particular cast of thought, and turn of expression. Such must be his knowledge, and such his taste. Conjectural criticism demands more than humanity possesses, and he that exercises it with most praise has very frequent need of indulgence. Let us now be told no more of the dull duty of an editor.
Johnson’s measured judgment was made a full three decades after Pope’s edition appeared. A more immediate gadfly to Pope was editor and author Lewis Theobald, who went directly to work on a book-length attack on Pope’s efforts: Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many Errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr Pope in his late edition of this poet; designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published. Though the hapless Theobald is now best known as the king of dunces in Pope’s 1728 Dunciad, his criticisms were pointed and correct, and his own Shakespeare edition, published in 1733 by Tonson, was, at least in scholarly terms, a vast improvement on Pope’s—a fact Pope tacitly acknowledged when he produced his second edition, in which he incorporated many of Theobald’s proposed emendations. Johnson acknowledged the difference between Pope the artist and Theobald the scholar and weighed their respective contributions: Theobald was, he wrote, “a man of narrow comprehension and small acquisitions, with no native and intrinsick splendour of genius, with little of the artificial light of learning, but zealous for minute accuracy, and not negligent in pursuing it. He collated the ancient copies, and rectified many errors. A man so anxiously scrupulous might have been expected to do more, but what little he did was commonly right.”
Subsequent editions appeared from Sir Thomas Hanmer, Speaker of the House of Commons (six quarto volumes, 1744) and William Warburton (eight octavo volumes, 1747). All these gladiatorial displays of heroic editing were avidly followed by England’s many common readers—a situation almost inconceivable today, for how many general readers interest themselves in arcane arguments between scholars? But the national obsession with all things relating to Shakespeare was growing exponentially; as the cynical Voltaire remarked from continental Europe, “The taste [for Shakespeare in England] becomes a religion; and there are in that country many fanatics in respect of that author.” The explosion of Shakespeare stage productions after the 1737 Licensing Act only intensified Shakespearomania.
Samuel Johnson’s rise in the London cultural market had been neither as quick nor as spectacular as his younger friend Garrick’s. He had had some success with his Juvenalian poem London in 1738; his 1744 Life of Richard Savage was a groundbreaking work of biography. But like any denizen of Grub Street, he worked inordinately hard for small pickings, and by 1745 his name was still relatively unknown. Then, in April of that year there appeared—anonymously—his Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, consisting of forty-six notes on Macbeth and a spirited critique of Hanmer’s recent edition. Attached to it were “Proposals for Printing a New Edition of the Plays of William Shakespeare, with Notes Critical and Explanatory.” Johnson had come up with the idea for an edition with publisher Edward Cave, projecting ten volumes at a budget price. Hanmer, Johnson’s immediate editorial predecessor, had proved unequal to the task and it was a propitious moment for a brilliant young critic to step in.
Johnson worked on the project for several months, until it was unfortunately put on hold when Jacob Tonson claimed the Shakespeare copyright and threatened Cave with legal action if he and Johnson proceeded. The frustration must have been intense, but the time Johnson had spent taking copious notes on Shakespeare’s language had turned him into an authority on the subject and must have contributed enormously not only to the edition when it finally appeared twenty years later, but to the great Dictionary that was published in 1755.
Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare finally appeared in eight volumes in October 1765. By this time “Dictionary Johnson” was a famous man, and the edition sold well and made a great impression on England’s many Shakespeareans, both professional and amateur. Johnson’s biographer Peter Martin praises the “illuminating common sense Johnson applied to explaining passages in the plays, for which he was linguistically more qualified than any previous critic . . . He was above all an experiential critic, subjective, impatient with abstract critical principles.” As the author of the Dictionary, Johnson had spent years delving into the English language and its history, tracing the development of words and their meanings through countless literary examples. The knowledge he had gained through this extended study had made him perhaps the single most qualified commentator on Shakespeare’s language. “The business of him that publishes an ancient book is, to correct what is corrupt, and to explain what is obscure,” he had stated in his original Proposals for Printing Shakespeare’s Dramatick Works.
As he had shown in his Dictionary, and unlike most of his contemporaries, Johnson was a descriptive rather than a prescriptive scholar—an early advocate and practitioner of what would soon become (thanks largely to him and his fellow-scholars of the Club) standard scholarly methods. Johnson did not presume to “improve” upon Shakespeare, as Pope and Warburton had done, but simply essayed a restoration of each original, as close a one as might be possible. “It has been my settled principle,” he wrote, “that the reading of the ancient books is probably true, and therefore is not to be disturbed for the sake of elegance, perspicuity, or mere improvement of the text.” Another very significant departure from his predecessors was his inclusion, in the notes, of interpretations and readings that differed from his own. His intention was, as he claimed, to “exhibit all observable varieties of all the copies that can be found,” so that “if the reader is not satisfied with the editor’s determination, he may have the means of chusing better for himself.” Including the notes of previous editors like Warburton and Hanmer alongside his own, Johnson effectively created the first “variorum” edition of Shakespeare: that is, an edition including notes not only by the editor, but by his predecessors and some chosen contemporaries. The task of annotating such an author as Shakespeare, Johnson stressed, could never be completed by any one scholar, however erudite; it must inevitably be a group effort spanning decades, perhaps centuries.
The compleat explanation of an authour not systematick and consequential, but desultory and vagrant, abounding in casual allusions and light hints, is not to be expected from any single scholiast. All personal reflections, when names are suppressed, must be in a few years irrevocably obliterated; and customs, too minute to attract the notice of law, such as mode of dress, formalities of conversation, rules of visits, disposition of furniture, and practice of ceremony, which naturally find places in familiar dialogue, are so fugitive and unsubstantial that they are not easily retained or recovered. What can be known, will be collected by chance, from the recesses of obscure and obsolete papers, perused commonly with some other view. Of this knowledge every man has some, and none has much; but when an author has engaged the publick attention, those who can add any thing to his illustration, communicate their discoveries, and time produces what had eluded diligence.
The variorum would immediately become the preferred method of editing Shakespeare, beginning with the next generation of the Club’s Shakespeareans, Steevens and Malone.
Johnson himself recognized that while “[n]otes are often necessary . . . they are a necessary evil” and did not recommend their perusal to the first-time reader.
Let him that is yet unacquainted with the powers of Shakespeare, and who desires to feel the highest pleasure that the drama can give, read every play from the first scene to the last, with utter negligence of all his commentators. . . .
Particular passages are cleared by notes, but the general effect of the work is weakened. The mind is refrigerated by interruption; the thoughts are diverted from the principal subject; the reader is weary; he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book which he too diligently studied.
Despite his castigation of Pope for neglecting the duties of an “emendatory critick,” Johnson himself, possibly worn out by the herculean labors of the Dictionary, unfortunately proved impatient with the minutiae of close scholarly work. Malone, his successor in Shakespearean studies, was well aware of this fault, and while he worshipped the older man (Boswell called Malone “Johnsonianissimus”) and would never malign him in print, he shared his reservations about Johnson’s scholarship with his close associates. Some years later, after reading Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, Malone confided to the Earl of Charlemont (elected to the Club in 1773) that
[t]he critical parts of this, I think, are very amusing and instructive—but in the biographical part, he has, I think, been less amusing than he might have been, from a want of industry. He hates much trouble. A man of infinitely inferior parts (Horace Walpole, for instance) would have collected a great many anecdotes, and made a more entertaining work. Johnson complains in his preface to Shakespeare that he did not find the possessors of the old quartos very communicative of them. Yet every one knew that Garrick allowed every person that asked it to have access to his valuable collection, and nothing would have displeased Johnson so much as to have had a cart-load of them laid down in his study.
Many of Johnson’s editorial efforts were soon superseded by subsequent scholars, including George Steevens and Edmond Malone. Johnson’s edition is nowadays most famous for its Preface, one of the most intelligent and influential pieces of Shakespeare criticism ever written. Most notable, perhaps, is Johnson’s defense of the playwright against the attacks of neoclassical critics. It is true that neoclassical rules had never exercised the kind of stranglehold on the English drama that they did on the French, but since 1693, when Thomas Rymer’s A Short View of Tragedy laid down rigid rules for the drama derived from Aristotle’s Poetics, English dramatists who did not adhere to such rules were made to feel uneasy. Eighteenth-century English critics began to take seriously the artistic credo that had raised Corneille and Racine to the heights of the French dramatic firmament and to look with discomfort on the works of the greatest English classic, Shakespeare. Rymer summed up the major neoclassical objections to the Bard: Shakespeare mingled low comedy with high seriousness in a careless manner; he used blank rather than rhymed verse; his plays did not conform to the unities of time, place, and action; he delighted in puns, the lowest form of humor; and his characters often behaved grossly, out of keeping with the supposed dignity of their station in life.
Voltaire, writing in 1748, perfectly encapsulates the neoclassical discomfort with Shakespeare’s art.
Hamlet is a gross and barbarous piece, and would never be borne by the lowest rabble in France or Italy. Hamlet runs mad in the second act, and his mistress in the third; the prince kills the father of his mistress and fancies he is killing a rat; and the heroine of the play throws herself into the river. They dig her grave on the stage, and the grave-diggers, holding the dead men’s skulls in their hands, talk nonsense worthy of them. Hamlet answers their abominable stuff by some whimsies not less disgusting; during this time one of the actors makes the conquest of Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and father-in-law, drink together on the stage. They sing at table, quarrel, beat and kill one another.
This is effective polemic, undoubtedly, and must have raised a superior laugh from his French readers, but in the end Voltaire was too fine and too fair a critic not to comprehend the power of the work, however crude, and he follows his travesty with a more measured appreciation.
One would think the whole piece was the product of the imagination of a drunken savage. And yet, among all these gross irregularities, which make the English theatre even today so absurd and barbarous, we find in Hamlet, which is still more strange and unaccountable, some sublime strokes worthy of the greatest genius. It seems as if nature took pleasure to unite in the head of Shakespeare all that we can imagine great and forcible, together with all that the grossest dullness could produce of everything that is most low and detestable.
The elder members of the Club can in some ways be described as the last of the English neoclassicists. But what made them so interesting—thinkers not just for their time but for all time—was their ability to move beyond dogma; the breadth of their learning had bred intellectual tolerance and flexibility. Privately, Johnson had remarked to friends who were praising the French neoclassical playwright Corneille that “Corneille is to Shakespeare as a clipped hedge is to a forest.” Now, in his Preface to his edition of Shakespeare, Johnson brilliantly attacked the aesthetic straitjacket that neoclassical rules—indeed all rigid systems—impose on the creative artist. Johnson responded to Voltaire and the other neoclassicists in ringing tones; his essay marks the final dismissal of neoclassical standards of formula and artifice as enemies of Nature and Truth.
[Shakespeare’s] adherence to general nature has exposed him to the censure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. [John] Dennis and [Thomas] Rymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire censures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish Usurper is represented as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of all dispositions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into the senate-house for that which the senate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to shew an usurper and a murderer not only odious but despicable, he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings like wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power over kings.
Men are first and foremost men, in other words, whether kings or gravediggers. As for the unities, they are artificial to the last degree, and Johnson suggested that “perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they stand will diminish their value.” He also had the audacity to suggest that in the final analysis “they have given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the auditor.”
The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this, may imagine more. He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the spectator can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Caesar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in extasy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field.
Johnson disposed just as brutally with the necessity for the unities of time and action. All these “necessities,” he claimed, arise “from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible.” Yet who, save madmen, have ever taken the action on stage for reality?
The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players. They come to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation. . . . It will be asked, how the drama moves, if it is not credited. It is credited with all the credit due to a drama. It is credited, whenever it moves, as a just picture of a real original; as representing to the auditor what he would himself feel, if he were to do or suffer what is there feigned to be suffered or to be done.
It is a magnificent justification of English common sense over French artifice, and it is made, one might note, two generations before Hugo and Stendhal, at the height of the Romantic era, dismissed neoclassical strictures as though no one had ever questioned them before. The English were there first. Even Pope, way back in the 1720s, had said that “To judge . . . of Shakespear by Aristotle’s rule is like trying a man by the Laws of one Country, who acted under those of another.” Johnson brought the argument further, unforgettably dismissing the complaints of Voltaire and the other classicists as “the petty cavils of petty minds.” One can be sure that no one had ever referred to Voltaire, already widely considered the greatest man of letters in Europe, as having a petty mind; the accusation effectively disposed of neoclassical quibbles in mainstream British culture.
Johnson’s magisterial defense of Shakespeare was in any case part of a general British turning away from the dramatic standards of the last hundred years. New translations of Aristotle’s Poetics had revealed that Aristotle had not in fact been prescribing rules for dramatists to follow but simply describing the practices of the great playwrights of classical Greece, and that in any case Aristotle had not even mentioned unity of place. Even Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Club’s great torch-carrier of neoclassical theory, recognized its limitations, particularly when applied to Shakespeare. In truth tragedy and comedy are not separate but intertwined, and the viewer requires the same variety in art that he experiences in life. Man, as Reynolds observed, is
an inconsistent being, a professed lover of art and nature, of order, of regularity, and of variety, and who therefore cannot long continue his attention without some recreation; hence it is that the poet relieves the mind of the reader, professedly by episodes, and in a more private manner by similes and illustrations, with which he proceeds so far that it would be open to ridicule but for this reason of variety. . . . I would infer that the simplicity which is so much boasted of in the ancient drama, or in whatever works of imagination, is even not natural to the mind of man. If I was to judge from my own experience, the mind always desires to double, to entertain two objects at a time.
The importance, indeed classic stature, of Johnson’s Preface is now a given, but the work was castigated by critics of the Romantic era, particularly Hazlitt and Coleridge, and the tremendous influence and prestige of the Romantics ensured that for decades Johnson’s critical essay would be considered fuddy-duddy, a relic of the dead Augustan worldview. Particularly annoying to the Romantics was Johnson’s characterization of Shakespeare as “the poet of Nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.” “Shakespeare has no heroes,” Johnson had asserted; “his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he himself should have spoken or acted on the same occasion. Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life.” This is not naturalism, of the type Johnson wrote about in his disquisitions on the new realistic novels that were appearing during his time; Shakespeare was no naturalist. He was, instead, a psychological realist. It was a not a term that was current yet, but Johnson’s criticism demonstrates that he understood it well.
The Romantics deprecated Johnson for not sufficiently appreciating the quality of Shakespeare’s imagination. To them, Shakespeare was not a realist but an unfettered genius, a quality that Johnson was unfit to comprehend due to his own lack of imagination. But this is missing the point, or at least the historical context. Johnson, though not widely considered an Enlightenment figure, was nonetheless a man of the Enlightenment, with an understanding of human imaginative and emotional faculties that remained untouched by foggy mysticism. All ideas, John Locke had said, come from sensation or reflection. The mind, he supposed, was like white paper; it is experience, in which “all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself.” Johnson might not have liked David Hume’s religious skepticism, but he lived within the Humean climate that had swept the intellectual world, and both men were trying to formulate new principles of what we would now call psychological processes. Our imagination is free, Hume wrote, but “it cannot exceed that original stock of ideas, furnished by the internal and external senses.” It has, indeed, “unlimited power of mixing, compounding, separating, and dividing these ideas, but it cannot go beyond them.” For Johnson, God may invent with complete freedom (for Johnson, unlike Hume, was a Christian), but humanity’s powers of invention are inevitably bounded by experience. This was a view the Romantics were to challenge.
In 1769 David Garrick was approached by the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon, who wished to plan some sort of event to commemorate its new Town Hall and proposed that Garrick give them a portrait of himself, preferably in some Shakespearean role or showing some other connection with the Bard. The painting that resulted, by Gainsborough, would become one of the most famous images of the actor, showing him leaning with his arm draped informally and almost affectionately around a bust of his idol. In the meantime, Garrick had decided to take charge of the proposed celebratory event himself and set to work with his usual energy.
The result was the Great Shakespeare Jubilee, one of the key cultural events of the period. As planned by the indefatigable Garrick, it was to last for three days, put Stratford on the map (the town had not yet become a place of pilgrimage), and provide plenty of publicity both for himself and the Bard, linking the two of them together in the public imagination. The Jubilee cannot be said to have been entirely successful—Garrick received at least as much ridicule as praise for his efforts—but it effectively launched a phenomenon he could hardly have predicted at that time: cultural tourism for the masses.
The three-day extravaganza was planned for September. With his characteristic optimism, Garrick made no allowance for the fickle English weather; most of the festivities were to occur out-of-doors, without alternate plans in case of rain. He also gave scant consideration to the small size of the town and the paucity of lodgings there for strangers. Modern entrepreneurs would have built a few cheap hotels for such an event, but this sort of thinking had not yet entered the culture. There was only one inn in Stratford, and visitors to the Jubilee would end up being gouged by the locals, who charged exorbitant prices for small and uncomfortable rooms.
A master of the nascent art of PR, Garrick began building up suspense and anticipation in the spring, timing the publicity push so that it would crescendo just before the big occasion. Closing the season at Drury Lane in May, he ended the performance of The Beaux’ Stratagem with a promise to return the following season:
My eyes, till then, no sights like this will see,
Unless we meet at Shakespeare’s Jubilee!
On Avon’s Banks, where flowers eternal blow!
Like its full Stream our Gratitude shall flow!
There let us revel, show our fond regard,
On that lov’d Spot, first breath’d our matchless Bard;
To him all Honour, Gratitude is due,
To him we owe our all—to Him and You.
Garrick could turn out this kind of doggerel by the yard, and while he pretended modesty, he actually fancied himself, if not quite in Shakespeare’s league or even in Johnson’s, at least a respectable match for them. The sycophants who surrounded him saw no reason to disabuse him. The more intellectual members of the Club, however, had no inclination to massage his ego. Johnson rose above the fray and ignored the whole fuss, quietly making plans to be at Brighton with his close friends the Thrales while the celebrations were going on—a decision that indicates how very much he wanted to absent himself from the proceedings, for he normally avoided Brighton, a place he considered “so truly desolate, that one’s only comfort is to think if one had a mind to hang oneself, no tree could be found on which to tye the rope.” The Shakespearean scholar George Steevens led a pack of screeching journalists who filled the newspapers with scornful snipes, parodies, and attacks on what they assumed (correctly, as it turned out) would be a lowbrow celebration of the Bard rather than a serious, scholarly affair. Garrick was not entirely displeased at the furor. He was an early adherent of the slogan “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and some of his associates even accused him of having penned some of the offensive articles himself in an effort to keep the Jubilee in the news, whatever the cost to his own dignity.
In the meantime, he was hard at work at another poetic effort, one that he took extremely seriously. This was his Ode upon Dedicating a Building and Erecting a Statue to Shakespeare, at Stratford upon Avon. It was to be the centerpiece of the Jubilee, and Garrick was so proud of it that he sent a copy to Voltaire; he also gave a special command recitation of the masterwork, some weeks before the Jubilee, to King George III and Queen Charlotte. The royals were delighted—but then, the Hanoverians were hardly notable for their exacting artistic taste. The introduction to the Ode contains lines like the following–
Do not your sympathetic hearts accord,
To own the “bosom’s lord”?
’Tis he! ’tis he!—that demi-god!
Who Avon’s flow’ry margin trod,
While sportive Fancy round him flew,
Where Nature led him by the hand,
Instructed him in all she knew,
And gave him absolute command.
And in the course of the many pages that follow the poem does not improve, except in the places where Garrick shamelessly plagiarizes Milton.
By late summer, the Shakespeare Jubilee was the major topic of conversation in London—a fact that seems extraordinary from the point of view of the twenty-first century: ideas of high versus popular culture have changed radically in the intervening centuries, as have measures of cultural prestige. The roads to Stratford were jammed as Londoners made their way to the festivities; the town had never seen anything like it in its sleepy history. Some three thousand people showed up, including aristocrats, politicians, literary luminaries, and social trendsetters.
James Boswell attended the entire Jubilee and described it in a letter he wrote for the London Magazine. Boswell always loved being at the center of the action, and here, at the biggest cultural event to hit Britain in years, he was in his element, despite the fact that he was recovering from a painful case of the clap. Moreover, he could claim friendship with the hero of the moment, a privilege that added greatly to his complacency. “My bosom glowed with joy when I beheld a numerous and brilliant company of nobility and gentry, the rich, the brave, the witty, and the fair, assembled to pay their tribute of praise to Shakespeare; nor could I help thinking that they at the same time paid a very just compliment to Mr. Garrick, the steward of the jubilee, who has done so much to make our nation acquainted with the inestimable riches of their own stage . . . Let conceited and disappointed authors and players vent their spleen against him, he may assure himself that his fame will last forever.”
The morning of the first day began with an oratorio by Dr. Thomas Arne, the most important composer and musician in England at that time, now most famous for having written the tune to Rule, Britannia! Its subject was Judith and Holofernes: hardly, one would have thought, appropriate to such a festivity, but oratorios were all the rage at that time. Then there was a musical procession, led by Garrick, from the church, where flowers were laid on Shakespeare’s grave, to the Rotunda that had been specially constructed on the banks of the Avon. The guests dined and were entertained with songs that Garrick had written—set to music by the famous songwriter Charles Dibdin—and collected in a commemorative volume called Shakespeare’s Garland: more doggerel, but this time in the simple ballad style that had been vastly popular throughout England since the recent publication of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry by the antiquarian and folklorist Thomas Percy, a member of the Club since 1765.
So far so good—but on the second day there was a terrific downpour, flooding the town and preventing the performance of the planned pageant: 217 actors, 170 of whom were to be dressed as Shakespearean characters, the others as mythological figures. The pageant was put off until the morrow, and Garrick had to perform his Ode in the Rotunda, which was cold, wet, leaking and crowded. Boswell gave top marks to Garrick’s thespian powers, but his comments on the composition itself seem rather lukewarm, even defensive: “I know not whether it may be a compliment to Mr. Garrick, but I must say that his ode greatly exceeded my expectations. I knew his talents for little sportive sallies, but I feared that a dedication ode for Shakespeare was above his powers. What the critics may say of this performance I know not, but I shall never be induced to waver in my opinion of it. I am sensible of its defects; but, upon the whole, I think it a work of considerable merit.”
Boswell was markedly less enthused about that evening’s masquerade ball, to which he repaired in Corsican dress, eager to cash in on his fame as author of the popular Account of Corsica that had been the hit of London the previous year. He even recited his own Ode to Garrick: “From the rude banks of Golo’s rapid flood / Behold a CORSICAN!” Boswell was not enthralled by the evening’s entertainment, however: “I must observe, that a masquerade is an entertainment which does not seem much suited to the genius of the British nation. In warmer countries, where the people have a great flow of spirits, and a readiness at repartee, a masquerade is exceedingly agreeable: but the reserve and taciturnity which is observable amongst us, makes us appear aukward, and embarrassed in feigned characters. Many of our Stratford masks seemed angry when one accosted them.”
Boswell made light of the floodwaters that soon overflowed the Avon’s banks, nearly tore the Rotunda off its foundations, washed out the masquerade, and left various people, still in fancy dress, stranded in flooded meadows and ditches, in need of rescue. The difficulties continued the next day: the pageant had again to be canceled, and it was sauve qui peut as a dearth of transport made it hard for the revelers to get away from the sodden and by now highly disagreeable village. Boswell’s private journal gives an honest account of the scene: with the wet morning, after the previous night’s revelry and only three hours’ sleep, “the true nature of human life began now to appear. After the joy of the jubilee came the uneasy reflection that I was in a little village in wet weather and know not how to get away.” He eventually managed to hitch a ride with an acquaintance and returned to sum up the entire experience for the London Magazine in a tactfully balanced manner. “Taking the whole of this jubilee, said I, is like eating an artichoke entire. We have some fine mouthfuls, but also swallow the leaves and the hair which are confoundedly difficult of digestion. After all, however, I am highly satisfied with my artichoke.” But Boswell was, of course, a friend and flatterer of Garrick’s. Charles Dibdin, whom the impresario had driven into a rage during the course of the Jubilee and the months of preparations leading up to it, was positively cruel when he came to write his memoirs in later life:
The Jubilee was planned and executed upon the most artful and politic principle that the human imagination could have conceived. The ostensible motive was to pay a honorary tribute to the talents of SHAKESPEAR; and, the fact was so taken for granted, that the disinterestedness of GARRICK filled every mouth with praise, and every heart with delight. Had the public, however, known what I did; had they known that, with all his enthusiasm for SHAKESPEAR, he had the fame, the honour, the interest of no human being in view but GARRICK; had they known the various arts he put in practice to entice patronage, to raise volunteers without bounty-money; had they known in what manner he tickled the vanity of the great, his private friends, his professional connections; had they known the abuse he wrote against himself in the newspapers, that men of abler talents might take up the matter upon principle, and defend him against what evidently appeared to be a pre-judgment of his conduct; in short, had they known that the whole business was concerted to levy contributions on his friends, retainers, dependants, and the public in general, for no other motive upon earth but to fill his own pockets, it is more than probable that the Jubilee would have given a severe shock not only to his reputation but to his strong-box; a circumstance certainly more material to feelings like his. As it was, the tomb of SHAKESPEAR was stript of laurels to adorn the brow of GARRICK; and, as if fortune was determined to favour him at all points, even to the rain that fell, which served as a veil to cover what would otherwise have been his disgrace; every thing succeeded even beyond his most sanguine wishes.
How did it turn out to be so successful? At the time the Jubilee appeared to have been an embarrassment to Garrick, who also lost £2,000 in costs, a large sum for the period. The highbrow critics continued to mock, pointing out that not a single of Shakespeare’s immortal lines had been uttered during the whole course of his Jubilee, while a great many of Garrick’s feeble ones had been heard. And Garrick’s friend and colleague George Colman, manager of Drury Lane’s rival patent theater, Covent Garden, and a Club member as of 1768, decided to cash in on the fiasco by mounting his own production inspired by the Jubilee. For this purpose he resuscitated an old play and set it in Stratford during the Jubilee. Colman created his own Shakespeare pageant as part of the show; audiences enjoyed both the extravagant costumes and Colman’s gentle mockery of his friend and rival, Garrick.
Garrick retaliated by taking the costumes that had been wasted at the Jubilee and mounting the entire pageant at Drury Lane. Theater historian Christian Deelman describes the theatrical coup: “Music, colour, and mime, plus a bigger cast than had ever been seen in one show, overwhelmed the audience. All previous spectacles were completely outclassed.” The extravaganza broke all box-office records. “Garrick had achieved his revenge for the Stratford fiasco, and his financial loss was regained four times over.” For years, Garrick would revive the pageant when the Drury Lane’s finances needed a boost. His long friendship with Colman, however, had suffered a fatal blow.
Editors and academics can be viciously competitive: snarling dogs, it seems, fighting over what is all too often a remarkably lean bone. Johnson was already commenting on the phenomenon in the 1760s. “It is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed,” he remarked. “The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they involve neither property nor liberty; nor favour the interest of sect or party. . . . Perhaps the lightness of the matter may conduce to the vehemence of the agency.” He himself was notable for his ability to rise magnificently above the fray: his criticisms of his predecessors, though they can be harsh, are always judicious, difficult to argue with. George Steevens, however, was a very different matter. Indeed, Johnson’s humorous analysis of the editor’s art might have been directly modeled on his younger colleague:
[T]he art of writing notes is not of difficult attainment. The work is performed, first by railing at the stupidity, negligence, ignorance, and asinine tastelessness of the former editors, and showing, from all that goes before and all that follows, the inelegance and absurdity of the old reading; then by proposing something which to superficial readers would seem specious, but which the editor rejects with indignation; then by producing the true reading, with a long paraphrase, and concluding with loud acclamations on the discovery, and a sober wish for the advancement and prosperity of genuine criticism.
Steevens, born in 1736, was proposed for the Club by Johnson in 1774 and duly elected, in spite of Garrick’s secret dislike of the man. (Edward Gibbon, who would eventually be admitted later that year, was blackballed at the same meeting.) Johnson, whose Shakespearean labors had been enormously aided by Steevens’ tireless work, was a supporter of the sharp commentator. So was Thomas Percy, who praised Steevens as “absolutely a Prince of Antiquaries and of Scholars. Very Active and intelligent: Most communicative of what he knows and unwearied in promoting the Researches of others: with a large Fortune; and most liberal mind; and most generous Heart.” Other Club members were not quite convinced, for Steevens was notoriously prickly, a waspish, often spiteful man who was said to have only three real friends—his fellow scholars Richard Farmer, Isaac Reed, and Thomas Tyrwhitt. Sir Topham Beauclerk (a founding member of the Club) had told Johnson that he thought Steevens “deserved to be hanged; for he speaks behind their backs against those with whom he lives on the best terms, and attacks them in the news-papers.” “We all do this in some degree,” Johnson objected, but Beauclerk insisted that Steevens was “malignant.” “No, Sir, he is not malignant,” Johnson said. “He is mischievous, if you will. He would do no man an essential injury; he may, indeed, love to make sport of people by vexing their vanity.”
Steevens indulged in such sport all too frequently; as his biographer Arthur Sherbo noted, he contributed “an indeterminable number of letters to various periodicals, usually in devastatingly sarcastic vein.” He held a share in the St. James’s Chronicle and wrote for it regularly; many of his articles were vicious attacks, epigrams, and parodies of the work of acquaintances and even friends, published under a series of humorous pseudonyms. Knowing his connection with the paper and his eccentric literary style, his victims could usually detect his hand but not positively prove his authorship. Garrick deemed him “a pest to society”; the classical scholar Jacob Bryant complained of him, in verse, to Horace Walpole:
His slaver so subtle, no med’cine allays,
It kills by kind paragraphs, poisons with praise.
Thy “Chronicle,” James, but too truly can tell
How the malice of man can fetch poison from Hell.
Steevens had aided Johnson in his Shakespeare edition, contributing forty-nine notes to the Appendix. Other Club members also contributed to this: there were twenty by Hawkins (a founding member of the Club, later forced out by Johnson as being “unclubbable”); eighteen by Thomas Warton (subsequently Poet Laureate of England; elected to the Club in 1782); and five each by Percy, Reynolds, and Bennet Langton (another founding member). In 1766 Steevens came out with his own edition of Twenty of the Plays of Shakespeare, Being the Whole Number printed in Quarto During his Life-time, or before the Restoration—a project he had been at work on since 1758. That same year he proposed a variorum edition of Shakespeare based on Johnson’s. Echoing Johnson’s own assertion in the Preface, he wrote that “No edition with notes critical and explanatory, can be furnished by the application of one man.” “[A] perfect edition of the plays of Shakespeare, requires at once the assistance of the Antiquary, the Historian, the Grammarian, and the Poet.” Johnson agreed. With Johnson serving mostly in an advisory capacity, Steevens went to work on the revision and radically expanded and improved the notes according to his “diligent perusal of the comedies of contemporary authors,” which provided enlightening parallels and gave him new insight into the meaning of many of the expressions used by the playwright. The notes gave detailed explications of many of the passages and consideration of different possible readings. Steevens worked for several years on the project; published in 1773, it is now known as the first Johnson-Steevens Variorum. A revised edition of it appeared five years later. In the meantime, yet another Shakespeare edition came out in 1768, a good one: Edward Capell’s ten-volume octavo version, Mr William Shakespeare His Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies.
Steevens’ notes and comments in the Johnson-Steevens Variorum are acidulous and sometimes sharply humorous, a reflection of the man himself just as Johnson’s had been. Like Johnson—and unlike Garrick—he did not treat the Bard as an untouchable demigodS but entered frequently into spirited criticism of his works. Characteristic is his deconstruction of the character of Hamlet, which he found unattractive:
Hamlet, at the command of his father’s ghost, undertakes with seeming alacrity to revenge the murder; and declares he will banish all other thoughts from his mind. He makes, however, but one effort to keep his word, and that is, when he mistakes Polonius for the king. On another occasion, he defers his purpose till he can find an opportunity of taking his uncle when he is least prepared for death, that he may insure damnation to his soul. Though he assassinated Polonius by accident, yet he deliberately procures the execution of his school-fellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who appear not, from any circumstances in this play, to have been acquainted with the treacherous purpose of the mandate they were employed to carry. To embitter their fate, and hazard their punishment beyond the grave, he denies them even the few moments necessary for a brief confession of their sins. Their end (as he declares in a subsequent conversation with Horatio) gives him no concern. . . . From his brutal conduct toward Ophelia, he is not less accountable for her distraction and death. He interrupts the funeral designed in honour of this lady, at which both the king and queen were present; and, by such an outrage to decency, renders it still more necessary for the usurper to lay a second stratagem for his life, though the first had proved abortive. He insults the brother of the dead, and boasts of an affection for his sister, which, before, he had denied to her face; and yet at this very time must be considered as desirous of supporting the character of a madman, so that the openness of his confession is not to be imputed to him as a virtue. . . . Dr. Johnson has observed, that to bring about a reconciliation with Laertes, he has availed himself of a dishonest fallacy; and to conclude, it is obvious to the most careless spectator or reader, that he kills the king at last to revenge himself, and not his father. . . .
I have dwelt the longer on this subject, because Hamlet seems to have been hitherto regarded as a hero not undeserving the pity of the audience; and because no writer on Shakespeare has taken the pains to point out the immoral tendency of his character.
A child of his century, Steevens believed in the moral purpose of art. He also shared the growing prudery of the culture as middle-class values came to predominate over the easier manners of the Restoration and early Georgian period. Writing of Much Ado About Nothing, he complained of the “unnecessary prophaneness” of Benedick’s speeches, and complained of Sonnet 20 that “It is impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation.” Yet, puckishly, he provided suggestive and amusing commentaries on the plays’ bawdy passages—falsely attributing his comments, however, to one or other of two very respectable clergymen of his acquaintance, Richard Amner and John Collins, with both of whom he had quarreled. There is a hilarious four-page note to Troilus and Cressida, for instance, which Steevens fathered on the inoffensive Collins, in which he gives innumerable instances when Shakespeare and his near-contemporaries Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Jonson, and others referred slyly to the potato as an aphrodisiac. After this veritable fusillade of pedantry, Steevens (in the persona of Collins) concludes smugly: “The accumulation of instances in this note is to be regarded as a proof how often dark allusions might be cleared up, if commentators were diligent in their researches.”
The variorum was praised in the newspapers, but characteristically, Steevens proved grumpy even when eulogized: his critics, he complained, did not know enough about the subject for their comments to be of value. “He who recommends another effectually for any knowledge he may have shown, should make it appear to the public that he knows something of the subject on which he pretends to decide; which is not the case with my panegyrist [of the Critical Review], who has praised me very awkwardly.”
It was at this point that Edmond Malone appeared on the scene. Born in 1741 in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Malone had studied the law and had already entered the legal profession when, in 1776, an uncle died and left him a comfortable income of about £1,000 a year. He was now able to escape the law, to which he had never in any case been particularly attracted, and assume the more congenial life of a scholar. He settled at 55 Queen Anne Street (today Langham Gardens), conveniently close to the British Museum. The first great author to whom he turned his editorial attentions was the recently deceased Club member Oliver Goldsmith, a fellow Irishman, who had died in 1774 at the young age of forty-five. In 1777 Malone published his Poems and Plays by Oliver Goldsmith, including notes and an eight-page memoir of the author.
Malone had met Johnson in the 1760s, when the older man was finishing up his 1765 Shakespeare edition and the young one was only twenty-two. Malone was impressed by the respect the great man accorded him, despite his youth and inexperience. “When first introduced [to Johnson],” Malone recalled later, “I was very young; yet he was as accurate in his conversation as if he had been talking to the first scholar in England. I have always found him very communicative; ready to give his opinion on any subject that was mentioned.” The intellectually precocious Malone was quickly drawn into Johnson’s inner circle; he met Club members Steevens and Lord Charlemont, too, at that time, having been given introductions to them by friends in Ireland. He would not be elected to the Club, however, until he was a far more mature and seasoned scholar. He longed for admission throughout the late 1770s, but after the death of Garrick in 1779, the stricken members had decided to leave the great thespian’s place empty for at least a year.
In the event, he had to wait until early in 1782, when the members finally decided to let in some new blood. He was given the good news by Edward Gibbon and attended his first meeting on February 19. He proved a most fortunate addition to the group. Not that he was able to make up for the loss of Garrick’s witty banter—“Malone is respectable and gentlemanlike rather than shining,” observed Boswell—but he was eminently “clubbable” and, better yet, an excellent organization man. He was quickly appointed Treasurer (anyone who has ever served on a board or in a club will recognize how valuable a good treasurer is) and remained in the position for the rest of his life; most of his duties in that department appear to have had to do with the procurement and storage of wine. In his later years, after the deaths of the original members, he became the mainstay of the Club and almost singlehandedly kept it going, as attested in his correspondence with Thomas Percy, who had been living in Ireland as Bishop of Dromore since 1782. It appears that without Malone, the Club might well have petered out through its members’ apathy and their business elsewhere and in other clubs.
Malone’s admission to the exclusive Club is testimony to his enormous scholarly energy and industry, what his biographer Peter Martin has called his “mixture of mild-mannered sociability and professional aggressiveness.” Steevens had encouraged Malone to provide for inclusion in the 1778 variorum what would prove to be a groundbreaking work: his Attempt to Ascertain the Order in which the Plays of Shakespeare Were Written. Surprisingly, such an attempt had never yet been made. The editors of the First Folio, Malone observed, had “manifestly paid no attention to chronological arrangement,” and every eighteenth-century edition, including the 1773 Johnson-Steevens Variorum, had simply followed the arrangement of the plays as presented in the First Folio. The Attempt was a harbinger of the kind of strict methodology Malone would bring to Shakespearean studies, and to literary scholarship in general: among other novelties, Malone introduced the important concept of internal versus external evidence. With his lawyer’s training and tireless attention to detail, Malone went to work with gusto. He consulted entries in the Stationers’ Register regarding the publication dates of books that Shakespeare, from the internal evidence of his plays, might be supposed to have read or known about; he tracked down contemporary events which are alluded to in the texts; he noted references in contemporary writings, and works that might have influenced or been influenced by Shakespeare’s plays. One new method he employed was particularly successful and drew attention from his fellow-Shakespeareans: his pioneering technique of deducing chronology by observing the manner in which Shakespeare’s techniques of versification changed during the course of his career. He explained his thinking in the Attempt itself:
A mixture of rhymes with blank verse, in the same play, and sometimes in the same scene, is found in almost all his pieces, and is not peculiar to Shakspeare, being also found in the works of Jonson, and almost all our ancient dramatick writers. It is not, therefore, merely the use of rhymes, mingled with blank verse, but their frequency, that is here urged, as a circumstance which seems to characterize and distinguish our poet’s early performances. In the whole number of pieces which were written antecedent to the year 1600, and which, for the sake of perspicuity, have been called his early compositions, more rhyming couplets are found, than in all the plays composed subsequently to that year; which have been named his late productions. Whether in process of time, Shakspeare grew weary of the bondage of rhyme, or whether he became convinced of its impropriety in a dramatick dialogue, his neglect of rhyming (for he never wholly disused it) seems to have been gradual. As, therefore, most of his early productions are characterized by the multitude of similar terminations which they exhibit, whenever, of two early pieces it is doubtful which preceded the other, I am disposed to believe, (other proofs being wanting) that play in which the greater number of rhymes is found, to have been first composed.
Malone’s humility in presenting his Attempt, his easy willingness to admit that he might be mistaken, made it easy for him—as Shakespeare historian Samuel Schoenbaum has pointed out—to backtrack in light of subsequent information or insights; he revised the Attempt in 1790, with significant changes, and his final effort, published posthumously in 1821, establishes the order of the plays more or less as it is accepted today.
In 1780 Malone produced a two-volume Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare’s Plays Published in 1778 by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens. This included some new observations, an account of the Elizabethan stage that he would later expand into a full history, an edition of the Sonnets, and the so-called “apocryphal plays” of the Third Folio: Locrine, The London Prodigal, The Puritan, Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell, A Yorkshire Tragedy, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre—the only one of the seven to be attributed, at least in part, both by Malone and by modern scholars, to Shakespeare.
Malone’s inclusion of the Sonnets was an unusual step. They were not held in high esteem during the eighteenth century, and even the sonnet as a form was reviled: to call a poet a “sonneteer” was effectively to dismiss him as a lightweight. The sonnet, highbrow opinion had it, was an inconsequential form that should have stayed in Italy where it belonged; Johnson, in his Dictionary, had claimed it was “not very suitable to the English language.” (Fifty years later, Wordsworth would still feel the need to defend the form, with his wonderful poem “Scorn Not the Sonnet.”) Steevens counted himself among the anti-sonnet faction: “Perhaps, indeed, quaintness, obscurity, and tautology, are to be regarded as the constituent parts of this exotick species of composition. But, in whatever the excellence of it may consist, I profess I am one of those who should have wished it to have expired in the country where it was born.” He objected to Malone’s inclusion of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in his Supplement, a fact which became very evident to readers of its notes, which often take the form of exchanges between Malone and Steevens. Steevens was never one to suppress his bile:
A Sonnet was surely the contrivance of some literary Procrustes. The single thought of which it is to consist, however luxuriant, must be cramped within fourteen verses, or, however scanty, must be spun out into the same number. On a chain of certain links the existence of this metrical whim depends, and its reception is secure as soon as admirers of it have counted their expected and statuable proportion of rhimes. . . . That a few of these trifles deserving a better character may be found, I shall not venture to deny; for chance co-operating with art and genius will occasionally produce wonders.
In a later edition of his own, Steevens would ostentatiously omit the Sonnets, for moral reasons as well as aesthetic ones; this was largely because Malone had persuasively argued that the “I” of the Sonnets was the poet speaking in his own voice, and therefore that the dedication of the first 126 poems to a man implied the sort of sexual irregularity that most Bardolators of that time found repellant. In this work Malone, very significantly, commenced the “biographical” strain in Shakespeare criticism that still continues today; Steevens was not convinced by his efforts and reminded Malone how very little knowledge anyone had at that time.
As all that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakespeare, is—that he was born at Stratford upon Avon,—married and had children there,—went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays,—returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried,—I must confess my readiness to combat every unfounded supposition respecting the particular occurrences in his life.
The Sonnets, Steevens insisted, did not belong in a respectable Shakespeare edition.
We have not reprinted the Sonnets, &c. of Shakespeare, because the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service; notwithstanding these miscellaneous Poems have derived every possible advantage from the literature and judgment of their only intelligent editor, Mr. Malone, whose implements of criticism, like the ivory rake and gold spade in Prudentius, are on this occasion disgraced by the objects of their culture.
Steevens’ flattery of Malone here did little to conceal a fact that was becoming evident to their fellow-Shakespeareans: a rift was developing between the two friends. Steevens had been content with the younger man in his initial role of protégé and eager acolyte, but Malone had now proved more than capable of holding up his side of an argument and even showed signs of regarding himself as his mentor’s equal. Both men were perturbed by Joseph Ritson, a hotheaded antiquarian (he was to end his life in an asylum for the insane) who became a gadfly to several members of the Club. In 1782 Ritson published a vicious attack on Thomas Warton’s History of English Poetry, accusing him of ignorance and lies; a few years later Bishop Percy would receive the same treatment for his folklore scholarship. Soon after his assault on Warton, Ritson was putting it about that he was preparing an equally nasty offensive against Johnson, Steevens, and Malone, a volume that duly hit the press in 1783: Remarks, Critical and Illustrative, on the Text and Notes of the Last Edition of Shakespeare. It was as crudely antagonistic as everyone had feared. Percy, writing to Malone from Ireland, expressed his hope that “that impudent scurrilous Fellow Ritson will in every intention be superceded. I have got his Pamphlet and seen the polite candid things he says of your humble Servant. But who would not rather be the object, than the Writer of such abuse?” Malone found the book “very impudent, and very dull. His principal charge against us, is, that not a single play has ever been duly collated, and that particularly we have all neglected the Second folio.” That they had done so had been quite purposeful; Johnson had observed, and his younger colleagues agreed, that the Second Folio was the source of most of the corruptions of Shakespeare’s plays, and they relied on the First Folio as being the freest from copyists’ errors. “I had scribbled a few hasty observations in answer to this petulant critick,” Malone told Percy; “but Dr. J. and Mr. S. were of opinion that it would be much better to take no notice of him; and the event has proved that they were right, for I believe there have not been fifty copies of his book sold.”
Malone now felt emboldened to strike out alone and announced that he was planning to publish his own full edition of Shakespeare and, simultaneously, “a portable edition, in ten volumes . . . a useful family Shakespeare.” Regarding the latter, he admitted to Percy that “Mr. Ritson has in some measure been the cause of my undertaking this work,” as he had published proposals for his own edition. Malone hoped to beat Ritson to the press: “I immediately resolved that he should not deck himself in our feathers, and offered my services without fee or reward to the booksellers, who instantly accepted them.”
Steevens reacted very badly to Malone’s emergence as an important, independent Shakespearean scholar, potentially the most important of the era. He responded with asperity to the idea of Malone’s edition:
I received your favour last night, and am sincerely sorry at being inform’d that you commenced annotator for any reason less flattering than your own mere amusement. I recommended your present task to you, because you seem’d to like it, because you were well qualified to succeed in it, and because few things more essentially contribute to our happiness, than to have some one object constantly in view,—some standing dish in our larder which we may have recourse to as often as we are in want of a literary meal.
This naturally was not very flattering to Malone’s ego, which was a healthy one; he meant Shakespeare to be his life’s work, not a hobby or mere “literary meal,” and he meant to perform such work in a more methodical and scientific manner than had ever yet been attempted. He brought out appendices to the 1780 Supplement in 1783, and two years later contributed notes to Steevens’ third edition of the Johnson-Steevens Variorum that took issue with many of Steevens’ dicta. The breach was widening.
The appearance in 1790, after years of labor, of Malone’s long-awaited ten-volume edition more than fulfilled his high ambitions: it was the most significant piece of literary scholarship to have appeared in England to that date and became the basis for all the major Shakespearean scholarship of the nineteenth century. Nowadays we take modern scholarly standards for granted, but as we have seen in the editorship of Pope and even of Johnson, such standards had hardly yet been formulated, much less applied. Malone, then, was a pivotal figure in the history of scholarship. He disdained the sloppy techniques of an editor like Nicholas Rowe, who garnered his information through casual secondhand accounts, mostly recalled decades after the actual events. Malone only trusted documentary evidence. He was the first scholar methodically to consult the official records of the town of Stratford. He combed through records in London, too, for information about the plays’ productions. He delegated capable and influential friends: Club member Thomas Warton, for instance, professor of history at Oxford, consulted material for him at the Bodleian Library, as Richard Farmer did at Cambridge. Malone’s searches unearthed new troves that he was able to mine for gold: the office-book of the Master of the Revels under the early Stuarts, and an account book that had belonged to Philip Henslowe, the proprietor during Shakespeare’s day of the Rose Theatre in Southwark, which contained invaluable information about plays, props, scenery, costumes, attendance, profits. Once he got his hands on such materials, he was most unwilling to let them go again; the town fathers of Stratford waited twelve years to get back the parish registers they had lent him and eventually had to threaten legal action, while the Henslowe material did not make its way back to its rightful owner until James Boswell the Younger discovered and returned it after the scholar’s death.
The importance of Malone’s great leap forward was widely acknowledged—needless to say, to Steevens’ displeasure. In December, Boswell described Steevens’ acrimony to Malone in a letter relating a recent Club meeting: Steevens, he wrote, agreed that Malone’s Shakespearean labors “exceeded that of the whole Phalanx” of other editors but “made no secret of his intending in his next edition of Johnson and Steevens’s Shakespeare (for that title he boasts) to assume all your Prolegomena and all your notes which he likes, and that he will put yours last where others have preceded you. Also that he will . . . give due praise to Ritson.” He fulfilled that promise in the edition, which appeared in 1793, reprinting 150 of Ritson’s previously published notes as well as 300 new ones and questioning Malone’s methodology throughout the work. Malone, who had done his best to stay on civil terms with Steevens for several years—especially since they met frequently at the Club—was truly angry. “In my edition I studied as much as possible to avoid entering into any invidious competition with him,” he complained to Charlemont, “and would not even tell the world how much the laborious collection which I made had improved the text, till I was found to do so by one of his literary scavengers. . . . But, in my new edition, I mean to throw down the gauntlet, not by the hints and hesitations of oblique depreciation, as he has on all occasions served me in his late book, but by a fair and direct attack. He shall find me what he has not spirit enough to be himself, an open and, I trust, an honourable adversary.”
The scholarly standards established by Malone proved their worth spectacularly in the affair of the famous Ireland forgeries of 1795. An antiquarian and author named Samuel Ireland announced that he had miraculously discovered a significant cache of papers in the Bard’s actual hand: poems, letters, a prayer, and other compositions. (No samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting had ever until then been found, except for four signatures on legal documents.) In fact all these documents had been written by Ireland’s teenaged son William-Henry, who continued to produce more of them over the course of several months, claiming that they came from a secret source. One of the later items was a “genuine” letter from Queen Elizabeth complimenting “goode Masterre William” on his “prettye Verses”; another was a poem to Anne Hathaway whose stunning banality should have given away the game from the beginning:
Is therre inne heavenne ought more rare
Thanne thou sweet Nymphe of Avon fayre
Is there onne Earthe a Manne more trewe
Thanne Willy Shakspeare is toe you…
There even now appeared a full-length play, Vortigern, based on a story in Holinshed’s Chronicles.
It seems that William-Henry perpetrated the extended and audacious fraud in order to win approval from his difficult father, and that Samuel Ireland, amazingly, actually believed the documents to have been genuine. (A strange psychodrama might be written about this pair.) Samuel Ireland publicized the discovery with panache and displayed the items in his home in Norfolk Street; London’s great and good flocked to see them. Some experts, including the learned Joseph Warton (brother of Thomas, scholar and critic, admitted to the Club in 1777) believed they were the real thing. James Boswell, by then in the wretched last months of his life, made an especial ass of himself. As William-Henry recalled the scene later in life,
On the arrival of Mr. Boswell, the papers were as usual placed before him: when he commenced his examination of them; and being satisfied as to their antiquity, as far as the external appearance would attest, he proceeded to examine the style of the language from the fair transcripts made from this disguised hand-writing. In this research Mr. Boswell continued for a considerable length of time, constantly speaking in favour of the internal as well as external proofs of the validity of the manuscripts. At length, finding himself rather thirsty, he requested a tumbler of warm brandy and water; which having nearly finished, he then redoubled his praises of the manuscripts, and at length, arising from his chair, he made use of the following expression: “Well, I shall now die contented, since I have lived to witness the present day.” Mr. Boswell then kneeling down before the volume containing a portion of the papers, continued, “I now kiss the invaluable relics of our bard: and thanks to God that I have lived to see them!”
In his preface to the eventual published collection, Samuel Ireland claimed that “[t]hroughout this period there has not been an ingenuous character, or disinterested individual in the circle of literature, to whose critical eyes he [meaning himself] has not been earnest, that the whole should be subjected. He has courted, he has even challenged, the critical judgment of those, who are best skilled in the Poetry and Phraseology of the times in which Shakespeare lived.” But this was far from true, for Malone himself had been denied entry to Norfolk Street. Ritson, who had managed to gain entrance, had pronounced the manuscripts fake; Steevens and Farmer did not even bother to go have a look at them. Malone was unable to get access to them until Samuel Ireland published the entire “collection” in December; then, one look at the texts was enough to show Malone the awful truth. “The perusal of them,” he wrote to Charlemont, “has confirmed what I always thought, that they are direct and palpable forgeries. . . . The means of detecting this most impudent imposture are so obvious, that the very same objections must immediately strike all those who are conversant with the language and handwriting of the age of Elizabeth. . . . By-the-by, I never was more surprized than in finding your lordship’s name among the subscribers to this book.”
Malone instantly went to work on his exposure of the hoax, producing in a mere three months a tome of more than four hundred pages, entitled An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments, Published Dec. 24, MDCCXCV, and Attributed to Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, and Henry, Earl of Southampton. He based his swift judgment on a barrage of evidence, factors that included spelling, handwriting, historical facts, provenance, and phraseology. It was a full-frontal attack of such ferocity that no one could any longer credit the Irelands after reading it; some even thought that Malone’s response was out of all proportion to the relative weakness of the hoaxers. It was humiliation enough for the Irelands, but worse was to come two days later when Vortigern made its debut at the Drury Lane. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had bought the patent to the theater after Garrick’s retirement and was by then a fellow-member of the Club, had agreed to produce Vortigern more with an eye to the box office than to the play’s other qualities; personally, he took little interest in the controversy. Now, with Malone’s assault on the Irelands having appeared only two days previously, Sheridan and everyone involved with the play risked looking like idiots.
Drury Lane was jammed that night with curious playgoers, many being turned away for lack of space. The audience behaved itself reasonably well during the first act, but things quickly descended to near chaos. As the painter Joseph Farington recalled in his diary,
A strong party was evidently made to support it, which clapped without opposition frequently through near 3 acts, when some ridiculous passages caused a laugh, which infected the House during the remainder of the performance, mixed with groans—[John Philip Kemble] requested the audience to hear the play out abt. the end of the 4th act and prevailed.—The Epilogue was spoken by Mrs. Jordan who skipped over some lines which claimed the play as Shakespeares. Barrymore attempted to give the Play out for Monday next but was hooted off the stage. Kemble then came on, & after some time, was permitted to say that “School for Scandal [Sheridan’s 1777 masterpiece, a reliable hit with audiences] would be given,” which the House approved by clapping.
This memorable performance, on top of Malone’s unanswerable hatchet job, put an immediate end to one of the most notable literary hoaxes of the century.
One of those “greatest books never written” was surely Malone’s biography of Shakespeare. He had included a life of the playwright in his 1790 edition, brief but, at that time, the most comprehensive available. He continued to research the subject and collect materials throughout the 1790s and early 1800s. We can trace his progress through his correspondence with Thomas Percy. In June of 1802 he was informing Percy of his resolve “[t]his summer to sit down steadily to it, and not to make any excursion from London, but to work doggedly at it, till it is done.” It was a formidable task, he admitted, “but life is creeping away, and I am very desirous to execute this work, and will certainly execute it, if I live.” Six months later: “I have above half the Life of Shakespeare to write. I have made so many discoveries with respect to the dates of the plays, that a great part of the long Essay on that subject, must be written over again…” His health and eyesight were failing by the middle of the decade; the size of work before him was ever more daunting: a definitive edition of all Shakespeare’s works in twenty-three volumes, the first four of which would contain the biography. He was given additional impetus by the appearance of Steevens’ last, posthumous edition in 1803 (the cranky critic had died in 1800). “His malice towards me extended beyond the grave,” Malone complained to Percy; Steevens’ references to Malone were “malignant and most unfair sarcasms . . . , plentifully bestowed on me.”
Malone was still a faithful member of the Club—the most faithful at this point: Percy called him “its great Corner Stone, or connecting cement”—but the Club was proving ever less sustaining to him. The deaths of Boswell in 1795, Burke in 1797, Charlemont in 1799, Steevens and Joseph Warton in 1800, Bennet Langton in 1801, and Richard Marlay, Bishop of Waterford, in 1802, and the absence of Percy in Ireland, all left the Club sadly depleted for Malone. “Our brethren are dropping off very fast,” he told Percy.
His energies were declining, and a plethora of slightly less ambitious projects began to take precedence over his Shakespeare magnum opus. In 1797, several years after Reynolds’ death, he edited a Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, including, among Reynolds’ other literary pieces, the complete Discourses and a hundred-page life of the painter, which remained the definitive one until James Northcote’s more extensive biography appeared in 1813. In 1800 he completed a pet project, a three-volume Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works of John Dryden, which also included a biography of the poet that set new standards for thoroughness of research. And after the death of the eminent political figure William Windham—member of the Club since 1778—he wrote a Biographical Memoir of this beloved and deeply lamented friend.
One of Malone’s greatest gifts to posterity was the help he gave to Boswell in writing both Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and his monumental Life of Johnson, the latter of which would certainly never have been completed without Malone’s tireless and generous help. By the time Johnson was dead and Boswell felt free to air his personal observations on the culture hero to the public, he himself, though not yet fifty, was in very bad shape. It is not always advisable to diagnose anyone posthumously, but it seems clear that Boswell had suffered all his life from bipolar illness. Now it was in its late stages and was accompanied, as is so frequently the case, by acute alcoholism. Malone nursed Boswell, who was frequently in despair, through the monumental task, offering unstinting emotional and editorial aid. And after Boswell’s death in 1795, Malone served as editor of the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh editions of the Life, assisted by Boswell’s son, the younger James Boswell.
Jamie Boswell was fully appreciative of the immeasurable debt he and his siblings owed their father’s friend. Aside from the friendship and professional help Malone had bestowed on the elder Boswell, he had also acted as his literary executor and had assumed responsibility for Boswell’s children after his death, their mother having died of tuberculosis several years previously. He helped get the three girls (one of whom, tragically, died just a few months after her father) and the two boys settled in life, for which they were forever grateful to him. Of the five, Jamie became the closest to Malone, almost a son. He, too, was a bachelor scholar of quiet habits. The elder Boswell’s cronies at the Club agreed that the young man was of sounder intellect and steadier character than his father had been but lacked his peculiar genius.
Malone died in 1812, his great work still far from completion. In an extraordinary labor of love, Jamie Boswell spent the next nine years finishing Malone’s edition. The result, which finally appeared in 1821, weighed in at a stupendous twenty-one volumes. It is now known as the Malone-Boswell Shakespeare, or the Third Variorum. It remained of central importance to Shakespearean scholarship throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth and stands as a monument to the friendships, rivalries, professional associations, and collaborations fostered in the Club.