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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

§ 14. Warburton’s ignorance of the old Text and of Shakespeare’s language

William Warburton had corresponded with both Theobald and Hanmer on the text of Shakespeare. He had sympathised with the former in his controversy with Pope, whom in some of his letters he attacked with such vigour that, had Pope been acquainted with them, the subsequent friendship between them would have been impossible. Theobald inserted some of Warburton’s conjectures in his text and printed his notes with his name. After the appearance of Theobald’s edition, Warburton thought it well to quarrel with him; he also quarrelled with Hanmer, when he discovered that he was contemplating an edition of Shakespeare. In the preface to his own edition (1747), he accused both of plagiarism, a charge which might have been made with more justice against his own edition. He eulogised Pope, whose name he placed by the side of his own on the title-page, only, however, to depart from his text; while he denounced Theobald, only to adopt his edition as a basis. The title-page blatantly boasts that “the Genuine Text (collated with all the former editions, and then corrected and emended) is here settled.” If we naturally wonder how “the genuine text” can require correction, all wonder ceases when we have become acquainted with Warburton’s methods. His knowledge of the old copies was mostly gained from Pope and Theobald. In the opening scene of King Lear, he comments on Theobald’s reading “’t is our fast intent”—“this is an interpolation of Mr. Lewis Theobald, for want of knowing the meaning of the old reading in the quarto of 1608, and first folio of 1623; where we find it ‘’t is our first intent.’” Unfortunately for Warburton’s reputation, Theobald’s “interpolation” is simply the reading of the first folio. His ignorance of the old texts is only exceeded by his ignorance of Shakespeare’s language. His conjectures would furnish a curiosity shop of unused and unheard of words. He strains at a gnat, it may be, and then swallows his own camel. “Following” is changed to “follying,” which we are told means “wantoning”; “jewel” becomes “gemell,” from the Latin gemellus “a twin”; “Venus’ pigeons” ought to be called “Venus’ widgeons”; for “beauty’s crest,” Shakespeare, without question, wrote “beauty’s crete” i.e. beauty’s white, from creta; “shall damp her lips” is nonsense which should read “shall trempe” i.e. moisten, from French tremper; Lear’s “cadent tears” should be “candent” i.e. hot. For “black-corner’d night,” we must read “black-cornette” night, cornette being a woman’s headdress for the night. “My life itself and the best heart of it” is denounced as a “monstrous” expression. “The heart is supposed the seat of life; but as if he had many lives and to each of them a heart, he says his ‘best heart.’ A way of speaking that would become a cat rather than a king.”

Bentley is reported to have said that Warburton was a man of “monstrous appetite but very bad digestion.” At any rate, this description is true of his work as an editor. There is, however, a halfpennyworth of bread with this intolerable deal of sack. “Like a God, kissing carrion” of the sun, in Hamlet, Johnson called a “noble” emendation for the “good kissing carrion” of the quartos and folios. “The wolf behowls the moon,” for “beholds”; “eyeless night” for “endless night,” and “gentle fine” for “gentle sin,” are other favourable specimens. But, in spite of these, Warburton’s false criticism of Theobald, that “he left his author in a ten times worse condition than he found him,” is not far from the mark, when applied to his own performance. Warburton’s edition was very effectively criticised by “Another gentleman of Lincoln’s Inn”—Thomas Edwards—who made “tragical mirth” out of his “genuine text.” John Upton, Zachary Grey and Benjamin Heath also joined in the onslaught.