Feuding pedants and Bardic stars

Scholars and Gentlemen

October 25, 1996

Samuel Johnson wrote in Rambler no. 43 that there are two distinct avenues of literary criticism: "There seem to be some souls suited to great, and others to little employments; some formed to ... take in wide views, and others to grovel on the ground". In other words, there are expansive cultural commentators and pedantic textual scholars: "The one is always in danger of becoming useless by a daring negligence, the other by a scrupulous solicitude". Simon Jarvis notes in response to this remark that these two opposites seem irreconcilable, and his monograph examines this intellectual instability in Shakespearean editors of the 18th century. In doing so, Jarvis manages to combine minute textual detail with broad argument: he has written an excellent book for literary historians, bibliographers, and Shakes-peareans.

Jarvis's contention is that the editors of Shakespeare's plays, from Nicholas Rowe (1709) to Alexander Pope (1725) through to Samuel Johnson (1765), fluctuated between textual scholarship and gentlemanly elegance.

Pope and William Warburton (1747), for example, took generous critical overviews of their material, while Lewis Theobald (1734) performed beetling textual microscopy. Jarvis rejects therefore the "Whig" theory of textual criticism - that editions evolve and improve - and focuses on historical change and editorial protocol.

This is clear in Jarvis's analysis of annotation and punctuation. The implication in Theobald's edition is that these signs function as evidence and legitimation of profound editorial labour. For Pope, such a display was not merely intrusive; it was ungentlemanly and inelegant, and such textual critics were simply "Haberdashers of Points and Particles".

Pope ticked Shakespeare's better passages with marginal commas, awarded the best scenes a star, and relegated the worst bits to the bottom of the page. Of course, Theobald's own grinding criticisms of Pope provoked in turn the scathing satire of The Dunciad, which pilloried "Tibbald" and launched a protracted attack on false learning and scholarly pedantry. And although it is Theobald's edition that has generally been praised (and which had gone into eight editions by 1773), ironically it was Pope's own 1728 edition that provided the copy text for Theobald.

Such revelations on the eclectic behaviour of the Shakespearean editors complicate the assumption that each successive edition simply competed with the last. Warburton, although generally considered to be a terribly bad editor, receives sympathetic coverage here, and Jarvis suggests an intriguing basis to the man's obscene editorial arrogance and fantastic flights of conjectural emendation.

Warburton bent his sarcastic wit to Theobald's pedantry - "A comma here set exactly right, by Mr. Theobald" - and also mocked Thomas Hanmer's Clarendon edition (1744) for its ineptitude and ignorance. Warburton was attempting a bold compromise: combining inspired poetic revision with the capacity of the general critic. This method was, Jarvis suggests, the prototype for the Johnson variora.

Jarvis has made a significant and timely contribution to 18th-century Shakespearean studies. What Scholars and Gentlemen omits in explaining the book trade and the virtual monopoly of the House of Tonson in publishing Shakespeare - the productions on the contemporary stage, and the vagaries of public cultural opinion - does not detract from its powerful and convincingly argued case.

Nick Groom is lecturer in English and American Studies, University of Exeter.

Scholars and Gentlemen: Shakespearean Textual Criticism and Representations of Scholarly Labour 1725-1765

Author - Simon Jarvis
ISBN - 0 19 818295 3
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £30.00
Pages - 234

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