Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 12. His controversy with Theobald, and its effects on Theobald’s edition

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

§ 12. His controversy with Theobald, and its effects on Theobald’s edition

Yet it might still have brought him some fame, had it not been doomed to pass through the ordeal of criticism at the hands of one who has few rivals as a textual critic. All its defects were laid bare by Lewis Theobald in his Shakespeare Restored (1726). No one could read this work—monumental in the history of Shakespeare’s text—without acknowledging that here, at any rate, Pope had met more than his match. Pope was too wise to attempt to defend himself against criticism, which he, better than anyone else, knew to be unanswerable. In his second edition, he calmly adopted many of Theobald’s corrections; and, then, he began a campaign of misrepresentation and abuse which culminated in his making Theobald the hero of The Dunciad. The power of satire, wielded by genius, has never been more strikingly displayed. Pope’s caricature of the foremost of all textual critics of Shakespeare as a dull, meddling pedant without salt or savour not only led astray the judgment of the sanest critics of the eighteenth century, but infected the clear reason of Coleridge, and has remained the current estimate to this day. Theobald’s method of retaliation was unfortunate. He remained silent while Pope was exhausting every mean device to ruin his projected edition. But, when that edition (1733) became a triumphant fact, he emptied the vials of his wrath into his notes. Those who are aware of the unprecedented provocation which he received and of the superiority of which he must have been conscious find no difficulty in acquitting him; but the majority who read only Theobald’s notes must perforce join with Johnson in condemning his “contemptible ostentation.” Every correction adopted by Pope from Shakespeare Restored in his second edition is carefully noted, although Theobald himself appropriated many of Pope’s conjectures without acknowledgment. Every correction of Theobald’s own, if but a comma, is accompanied by shouts of exultation and volleys of impotent sarcasm. But he overreached himself. Though smarting under the “flagrant civilities” which he received from Pope, he paid him the unintentional compliment of taking his text as the basis of his own. Had he been as anxious to adhere faithfully to his authorities as he was eager to dilate on the faithlessness of Pope, he would hardly have fallen into the error of following the edition which he himself classed as “of no authority.” It has sometimes been stated that Theobald based his text on the first folio. But the very numerous instances in which he has perpetuated Pope’s arbitrary alterations in his own text show that this was not the case. Yet the multitude of readings which he restored both from the quartos and from the first folio largely neutralised the effect of this error. It is in dealing with real corruption that Theobald is seen at his best, and remains without a rival. His acuteness in the detection of errors is no less admirable than is the ingenuity shown in their correction. His thorough knowledge of Shakespearean phraseology, his sound training in “corrupt classics,” and also his fine poetic taste, were qualifications which contributed to his success. The importance of Theobald’s conjectures may be gathered from the words of the editors of The Cambridge Shakespeare: “Where the folios are all obviously wrong, and the quartos also fail us, we have introduced into the text several conjectural emendations; especially we have often had recourse to Theobald’s ingenuity.” It is not surprising that the gift of conjecture revealed in these brilliant restorations led Theobald to make many unnecessary changes in the text.