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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

§ 11. Conjectures and restorations of Pope

To Pope belongs the unenviable distinction of having introduced into the study of Shakespeare’s text that controversial acrimony of which echoes were heard far on into the nineteenth century. But his edition (1723–5) is quite free from this blemish. Instead of expanding his notes, which are models of brevity, he curtailed the text to suit his “private sense,” and filled his margin with rejected passages. Some of these, it is true, were no great loss, though Pope was hardly qualified for expurgating Shakespeare. Others, however, seriously interfere not only with the sense, but with the conceptions of the dramatist. Mercutio is robbed wholesale of his jests. Much of Caesar’s distinctive braggadocio is struck out. Again, the porter’s soliloquy in Macbeth is dispensed with, and so are several lines of Richard’s soliloquy before the battle. Romeo and Juliet fares worst of all; many passages being omitted on the pretext that they do not occur in the defective first quarto, while others are inserted because they appear in the second, and others, again, are struck out simply because they are “nonsense” or “trash” or “ridiculous.” It is difficult to understand how a poet could deliberately reject such a line as “Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care.” Occasionally, a line is dropped out altogether, without warning or comment. Pope’s text is further marred by hundreds of verbal alterations for which no justification is even attempted. A small proportion of these may be regarded as legitimate conjectures; but the great majority are arbitrary corrections, not of copyists’ errors, but of Shakespeare’s own composition. We are left to guess the reasons for his changes. In many instances, they are obviously made to harmonise the metre with the ideal of rigid uniformity which dominated the Augustan age (“brest” for “bosom,” “lady” for “gentlewoman,” “foes” for “enemies”). Monosyllables are omitted or inserted with the utmost licence to produce a regular line. Uncommon forms of expression, or words employed in an unusual sense, are rarely allowed to stand. (The “untented woundings of a father’s curse” become “untender”; “I owe you no subscription” is altered to “submission”; “to keep at utterance,” that is, to the last extremity, has to make way for “to keep at variance.”) Such reckless alterations have obscured Pope’s real contribution to the study of Shakespeare’s text. Compared with the work of Rowe, his services may justly be called great. That he thoroughly understood the nature of his task is abundantly clear. His preface—the only part of his work which he brought to perfection—contains a careful and accurate characterisation of the quarto and folio texts. The theory that “the original copies,” referred to by the editors of the first folio, were “those which had lain ever since the author’s day in the play-house, and had from time to time been cut or added to arbitrarily,” is there found for the first time. Pope evinces an acquaintance with all the most important quarto texts. If he was too ready to suspect interpolations, nevertheless he was responsible for the insertion of most of the passages in the variant quarto plays, which were omitted in the first folio. Although he made havoc of the text of Romeo and Juliet by his excisions, he instinctively introduced a number of undoubtedly genuine readings from the first quarto. He has often unravelled Shakespeare’s verse from the prose of the old copies, and in almost every play the metrical arrangement of the lines owes something to him. Many of his conjectures have been generally accepted. He restored a realistic touch in “Tarquin’s ravishing strides” where the first folio has “sides,” and he recovered Falstaff’s “oeillades” from the “illiads” of all the folios. On the other hand, the cause of Pope’s failure is revealed in his own phrase: “the dull duty of an editor.” He had been invited to undertake the work as the first man of letters of his day; and he deals with the text in the spirit of a dictator. But the laborious task of collating texts could not be accomplished by the sheer force of poetic genius. Had he possessed an army of collaborators for doing the drudgery, Pope’s edition of Shakespeare might have achieved as great a success as his translation of Homer. As it was, the work was only half done.