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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. The Text of Shakespeare

§ 10. Rowe’s edition

It was fitting that a poet laureate should be the first to give to the world an edition of Shakespeare—whether or not poetic gifts are an advantage to an editor. At all events, Nicholas Rowe (1709) was engaged on a more profitable task when he attempted to edit the works, than when he endeavoured to emulate the style, of Shakespeare. Rowe’s main object, as Johnson says, was to publish an edition of Shakespeare, “like those of his fraternity, with the appendages of a life and a recommendatory preface.” Therefore, it is not surprising that his work shows little critical method. He based his text on the latest and worst copy—the fourth folio. This error affected all editions before Capell, for each of the succeeding editors was as uncritical as Rowe in basing his text on the edition immediately preceding his own. Although Rowe says, “I have taken some care to redeem him from the injuries of former impressions,” and speaks of comparing “the several editions,” he can hardly have possessed any acquaintance with old copies. His corrections of the fourth folio, sometimes, coincide with the readings of the first, as where he reads “dread trident” for “dead trident” of the later folios. In general, however, he follows the fourth, even where the first obviously contains the genuine reading. He occasionally consulted a late quarto: textual evidence shows that he used the quarto of 1676 for the additions in Hamlet. His alterations were made simply with a view to rendering the plays more intelligible, and he did much useful pioneer work to this end. His knowledge of the stage enabled him to add lists of dramatis personae to each play, to supply stage directions and to make divisions into acts and scenes, which, to a large extent, have been followed by modern editors. Many proper names were restored by him (as “Plutus” for “Platus”). Others, which had been manufactured by his predecessors, were unmasked (thus “Cyprus” grove becomes “cypress”). Thanks to his linguistic attainments, he was able to make sense of a good deal of nonsense, which did duty in the folios for French or Italian. Dr. Caius’s “green-a-box” of ointment appears in the folios as “unboyteene” instead of “un boitier,” as in Rowe. But his work for the text rises above that of a proof corrector. Some of his conjectures deserve a place beside those of his more eminent successors. Few quotations are more firmly established than “Some are born great.” (The folios have “are become.”) And “the temple-haunting martlet” in Macbeth is not likely to be ousted from the place occupied in the folios by “Barlet.”

No one will dispute Rowe’s modest claim that he has “rendered many places intelligible that were not so before.” It is his unique distinction that he did not stir up any controversy. His emendations were silently introduced into his text, and as silently appropriated by his successors.