Shaking Up Shakespeare

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Copyright 1985-2007 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Many of Shakespeare's plays were only preserved for posterity through the efforts of his theatrical colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell, who in 1623 published the famous "First Folio" of the Bard's dramatic works. Unfortunately, printing in the early seventeenth century was still done very inaccurately, with no great pains devoted to proofreading pages as they came off the press. Our sole source for many of the plays is marred by errors, not all of them easy to fix or even to detect.[1]

In other plays, quartos of individual dramas of Shakespeare published during his lifetime are invaluable, but often the texts they exhibit are not easily rectified, or reconciled with that of the Folio. The task of correcting the errors in the old texts first fell into the hands of five men who, for the first half of the eighteenth century, truly succeeded in "shaking up Shakespeare."

For nearly after Shakespeare's death the botched texts of the quartos and folio and their reprints were the only Shakespeare in print. However, with the advent of higher standards for printing of texts, these were seen to be sadly inadequate. Nicholas Rowe, a poet and author of popular sentimental dramas, first approached the duty of editing the Bard. His edition of the plays appeared in 1709.[2]

It is easy to charge Rowe with negligence in his duty. Although he attended to many necessities (such as compiling dramatis personae lists, demarcating acts and scenes, correcting obvious misprints, making speech prefixes consistent), he worked almost totally from the Fourth Folio of 1685, the third reprinting of the 1623 volume.[3] Since the Fourth Folio was printed from the Third Folio (1664), and the Third from the Second (1632),[4] Rowe's source contained sixty years of accumulated error. But in his defense, it must be said that he seems to have had no conception of the extent of corruption in the received text, or of the magnitude of his task.

The first editor to understand the gravity of the situation, and to attempt to rectify it, was the great poet Alexander Pope.[5] He was the first to truly collate the original quarto printings of the plays with the First Folio, setting a good example for those who followed.[6] He also threw out of the Shakespearean canon six spurious plays which had been inserted into the Third Folio by unscrupulous publishers.[7]

But the 1725 edition he produced of the playwright was, as Dr. Samuel Johnson said, "a work which Pope seems to have thought unworthy of his abilities."[8] He was not diligent in consulting the old texts, basing much of his edition on Rowe's. He emended arbitrarily, and much of his critical method was purely subjective; one of his more tasteless innovations was to remove passages he considered spurious from the main text of his edition.[9] As Pope put it:

. . . The Alterations or Additions which Shakespear himself made, are taken notice of as they occur. Some suspected passages which are excessively bad, (and which seem Interpolations by being so inserted that one can intirely omit them without any chasm, or deficience in the context) are degraded to the bottom of the page; with an Asterisk referring to the places of their insertion. . . . [10]

One authority has counted some 1,560 lines of Shakespeare that Pope downgraded to footnote status, not counting those lines that he simply omitted without mention.[11] Pope's "juggling" the words of Shakespeare's verse has been much condemned by later editors. Although some of the adjustments he made remain with us today, and are obviously necessary due to the carelessness of the printing of the early folios and quartos, Pope had a tendency to take things too far--to make sure that every line of Shakespeare's verse was in as flawless and smooth an iambic pentameter as his own.[12]

Even when he had something constructive to offer, Pope's handling of it sometimes diminished its value. One notable example is his discovery that the name of Censorinus had been left out of a speech in Coriolanus (II.iii.238).[13] Pope found the name by referring to Shakespeare's source for the play, Plutarch's Lives, but the interpolated line he supplied to provide this name in his text of Shakespeare was awkward and stylistically jarring:

And Censorinus, darling of the people . . . . [14]

The third of Shakespeare's editors, Lewis Theobald, was a pedant and minor dramatist who made a splash in the literary world with his book Shakespeare Restored (1728), an expose of the faults Theobald saw in Pope's edition. This book has been called Theobald’s “successful bid to nominate himself as the man best equipped to replace Pope’s edition”[15]—done with such rank insincerity in its praise of Pope’s merits that the poet’s anger at its argument is understandable.[16] For example, in his “Introduction,” Theobald professes:

I HAVE so great an Esteem for Mr. Pope, and so high an Opinion of his Genius and Excellencies, that I beg to be excused from the least Intention of derogating from his Merits, in this attempt to restore the true Reading of SHAKESPEARE. Tho’ I confess a Veneration, almost rising to Idolatry, for the Writings of this inimitable Poet, I would be very loth even to do him Justice at the Expence of that other Gentleman’s Character. But, I am persuaded, I shall stand as free from such a Charge in the Execution of this Design, as, I am sure, I am in the Intention of it; for I am assuming a Task here, which this learned Editor seems purposely (I was going to say, with too nice a Scruple) to have declined.[17]

One of Pope’s biographers has noted that Theobald’s book “is the first genuinely critical treatment of the text [of Shakespeare] and it contains some brilliant particulars; but as a whole it makes tedious reading.”[18] After Pope, in his usual slashing manner, counterattacked by making his assailant the hero of his new poem The Dunciad (a work that is anything but "tedious reading"), Theobald came out with his own edition of Shakespeare, published in 1733.[19]

Although his collation of the old texts was more thorough than Pope's, and his editing has received some distinguished praise in our own day,[20] it was not so much better than Pope’s that Dr. Johnson could refrain from commenting, "A man so anxiously scrupulous might have been expected to do more, but what little he did was commonly right."[21] Much space in his edition was wasted in criticism of Pope; Theobald could not help remarking, for example, that, although Pope's correction in Coriolanus was needed, neither Pope nor Shakespeare evidently knew that there were no censors in Rome at the time in which the play is supposedly set.[22] Theobald's Elizabethan studies, although Pope blasted them as "all such reading as was never read,"[23] allowed this editor to make many needed corrections, but he often went astray as well, especially by leaving uncorrected errors that found their way into his text from the later folios, Rowe, and Pope.

One notorious example of such errors occurs in King Lear, where in the final scene Kent tells Albany,“I have a journey, sir, shortly to go./My master calls me; I must not say no” (V.iii.322-3). Here Kent is indicating his desire soon to follow his master Lear in death, but the Second Folio of 1632 actually inserted the ridiculous stage direction “Dyes” after these lines, through a misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s intention. And Kent continued to expire at the end of Lear in the Third and Fourth Folios, and in the editions of Rowe, Pope, and Theobald (as well as in some later texts). So prevalent was the misunderstanding here that Charles Jennens (better known as the librettist who compiled the text for Handel’s Messiah), in the notes to his own edition of Lear published in 1770, still felt obliged to defend the omission of the spurious stage direction![24]

Theobald was followed by Sir Thomas Hanmer, a baronet who spent his retirement enjoying his hobby of "improving" Shakespeare.[25] His 1744 edition employed what he considered the best of the editorial work done by Pope and Theobald, mixed with his own ridiculous innovations, no indication being given as to what belonged to each editor and what to Shakespeare.[26] Also, he followed Pope's dangerous precedent of pruning out of the text portions he considered unworthy.[27] This was Hanmer's idea of "a true and correct edition of Shakespeare's works"![28]

William Warburton's version of the playwright followed in 1747. The fatal flaw of his work was Warburton's positive madness for emendations of the most tasteless kind. The phrase "'tis present death" in 1 Henry VI (III.iv.39) becomes in Warburton the impossible "i' th' presence 't's death," while in the Moor's great "pomp and circumstance" speech in Othello, the "ear-piercing fife" (III.iii.352) is transformed into "the fear-spersing fife."[29] F.E. Halliday writes of Warburton that there was "scarcely a line that failed to inspire his brain with some fanciful improvement."[30] Even Dr. Johnson, who had been befriended as a young man by Warburton and was beholden to him,[31] had to allow that this editor had too much of a rage for change.[32] As a matter of fact, Warburton had contributed several of his better conjectures to Theobald’s edition, while his own edition published the remainder, so that it has been stated that “Warburton’s reputation as an editor would be greater if he had never published a text of his own.”[33]

Shakespeare had been truly "shaken up" by 1750. The early printers of his texts had botched them through ignorance, but this generation of editors marred the texts through knowledge. It took the labors of Samuel Johnson, and especially of Edmund Capell and Edmund Malone later in the century,[34] to rebuild the shambles in which their predecessors had left many portions of the plays.

(Written Spring 1985 with additions in 1996 and 2005)


[1] "Preface" in Howard Staunton, ed., The Complete Illustrated Shakespeare, (NY: Park Lane, 1979 [rpt. of 1860 ed.]), pp. xvii-xviii.

[2] F.E. Halliday, The Cult of Shakespeare, (NY: Thomas Yoseloff, 1957), p. 44.

[3] Halliday, p. 45.

[4] Staunton, p. xix. See also “General Introduction” in Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor, et al., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (NY: Norton, 1997 [reprint of Oxford University Press ed., 1987]), p. 53 (which summarizes that “The later folios occasionally, by guesswork, correct the text, but more often they corrupt it, and these corruptions often survived unnoticed well into the eighteenth century”).

[5] For which he is given credit by Dr. Samuel Johnson; see his preface to his edition of Shakespeare in Arthur Sherbo, ed., Johnson on Shakespeare, Vol. 7 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale UP, 1968), p. 94. This preface is also reprinted in Donald Greene, ed., Samuel Johnson: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), where the passage on Pope begins on p. 443. (Subsequent references to Sherbo will be followed in parentheses by the page number of the equivalent passage in Greene.)  For another favorable-on-the-whole view of Pope, see “General Introduction” in Wells & Taylor, p. 54.

[6] Halliday, p. 45. It is true, however, that Rowe did retrieve about half of the quarto passages from Hamlet that did not appear in the folios; see Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (NY: Norton, 1985), p. 424.

[7] Sherbo, p. 94 (Greene, p. 443); Mack, p. 425. He also, however, discarded Pericles, which Malone later readmitted to the canon.

[8] Sherbo, p. 94 (Greene, p. 443).

[9] Halliday, p. 45.

[10] Alexander Pope, "Preface to the Works of Shakespear," in Aubrey Williams, ed., Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), p. 471.

[11] Mack, p. 420.

[12] Halliday, pp. 45-6.

[13] Line numberings of Shakespeare in this paper follow the Pelican Shakespeare (Alfred Harbage, gen. ed.; 1 vol. ed., Baltimore, Penguin, 1969).

[14] Emphasis added. Pope's emendation appears in most pre-20th-century editions of Shakespeare, such as Staunton's (op. cit.), from which it is here quoted. Also see Horace Howard Furness, ed., The Tragedie of Coriolanus, in theNew Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1928), p. 275.

[15] “General Introduction” in Wells & Taylor, p. 54.

[16] Pope’s biographer Maynard Mack goes so far as to call it “a book designed to gall, embarrass, and humiliate [Pope] by every stratagem [Theobald] can devise” (Mack, p. 431).

[17] Lewis Theobald, Shakespeare Restored, published in 1728, p. iii of the Introduction. As found on the website of the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, University of Pennsylvania Library. Emphasis as in original.

[18] Mack, p. 428.

[19] Halliday, p. 46-7.

[20] For example, by the editors of the recent Complete Oxford Shakespeare: “Nevertheless, though Pope wrote the more permanent and memorable polemic, he lost the argument: Theobald was the better scholar, and indeed remains one of the finest editors of the last three centuries” (--“General Introduction” in Wells & Taylor, p. 54). Indeed, G. Blakemore Evans asserts that “Theobald may fairly be considered the first of Shakespeare’s major editors,” with a broad acquaintance with Elizabethan literature “and a scholarly perspective foreign to Rowe and Pope” (“Shakespeare’s Text,” in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997], p. 61).

[21] Sherbo, p. 96 (Greene, p. 444).

[22] Furness, p. 276n.

[23] Herbert Davis, ed., Pope: Poetical Works, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966), p. 729 (in Appendix C, "The Dunciad, Text of First Edition, 1728," book 1, line 156); also in John Butt, ed., The Poems of Alexander Pope, A One-Volume Edition of the Twickenham Text with Selected Annotations (New Haven: Yale UP, 1963), p. 363 ("The Dunciad Variorum," book 1, line 166).

[24] The information in this paragraph comes from Horace Howard Furness,  King Lear: The New Variorum Edition (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000 [rpt. of 1908 ed.]), p. 349n. (“How unexpectedly and awkwardly would he die,” says Jennens of Kent, “after saying only, he had a journey shortly to go, and without bidding farewell, or discovering any symptoms of death” [emphasis as in Furness].)

[25] Halliday, p. 55.

[26] Sherbo, pp. 97-8 (Greene, p. 445): “But,” writes Johnson, “by inserting his emendations, whether invented or borrowed, into the page, without any notice of varying copies, he has appropriated the labour of his predecessors, and made his own edition of little authority.”

[27] Halliday, p. 56.

[28] Halliday, p. 55.

[29] Halliday, pp. 57-8.

[30] Halliday, p. 56.

[31] Halliday, p. 54.

[32] Sherbo, p. 98 (Greene, pp. 445-6): “His notes,” Johnson admits, “exhibit sometimes perverse interpretations, and sometimes improbable conjectures; he at one time gives the author more profundity of meaning than the sentence admits, and at another discovers absurdities where the sense is plain to every other reader.”

[33] “General Introduction” in Wells & Taylor, p. 54. (It seems to me that Wells and Taylor must have meant to refer to his “reputation as a Shakespeare scholar” rather than as “an editor,” since if Warburton had not produced his own Shakespeare, it is hard to see how he could have been classified in the latter category!)

[34] Staunton, p. xx.









Nicholas Rowe
Alexander Pope
Lewis Theobald
Sir Thomas Hamner
William Warburton

These five 18th century editors started the process of making the text of Shakespeare presentable to a wider audience...and, in doing so, often rewrote him according to their own whims or mistaken notions of "correcting" his text.