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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

§ 18. Malone’s edition

A second edition of Johnson and Steevens’s text appeared in 1778, Edmond Malone contributing an Essay on the Chronology of Shakespeare’s Plays and a few notes. In 1780, he published a supplement to this edition, containing the Poems and an intimation of his intention to bring out a new edition of the whole of the poet’s works. Steevens had now retired from the field and cast his mantle on Isaac Reed, who brought out the third edition in 1785. To this, Malone contributed some notes occasionally opposing the dicta of Steevens, whereupon the latter demanded that his original notes should be printed word for word in any future edition. Malone, of course, would not listen to such a proposal, and the usual separation ensued. Malone’s edition appeared in 1790. There can be no doubt that he went back to the old copies for his text, which shows a scrupulous fidelity to the quartos and folios, and a preference for the first folio in the case of the variant quarto plays. Indeed, it may be said that “faith unfaithful kept him falsely true,” for he rejects such obviously certain conjectures as Theobald’s “dedicate its beauty to the sun.” He did not study the text of previous editors with the care which he devoted to the old copies, and, in several cases, he assigns an emendation to the wrong person. Malone made a careful investigation of the relative value of quartos and folios. He is not far wrong when he says that the editor of the second folio and Pope “were the two great corrupters of our poet’s text.” Steevens now once more comes upon the scene; but his reappearance ruined his reputation as a textual critic. He published a new edition in 1793, with the sole object of displacing that of Malone. It was obviously impossible for Steevens to surpass Malone in fidelity to the quartos and folios; hence, he declares

  • it is time instead of a servile and timid adherence to the ancient copies, when (offending against sense and metre) they furnish no real help, that a future editor, well acquainted with the phraseology of our author’s age, should be at liberty to restore some apparent meaning to his corrupted lines, and a decent flow to his obstructed versification.
  • Steevens took this liberty and emulated Pope in “indulging his private sense.” Hallam’s estimate of the two editors is just:
  • Malone and Steevens were two laborious commentators on the meaning of words and phrases; one dull, the other clever; but the dulness was accompanied by candour and a love of truth, the cleverness by a total absence of both.
  • A new edition of Malone’s text was brought out by a son of James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, in 1821. It contains an accumulated mass of information, which has been of great service to later editors. But the confused arrangement of its contents and the bulk of its notes entailed upon Malone a reputation for dulness and stupidity which approaches that of the first hero of The Dunciad. Walpole said that Malone’s notes were an “extract of all the opium that is spread through the works of all the bad playwrights of that age”; and, among later writers, G. H. Lewes has endeavoured to exaggerate this censure.

    Of detached criticism on Shakespeare’s text, the Observations and Conjectures of Thomas Tyrwhitt (1766) is worthy of mention. Joseph Ritson shows some acquaintance with the original authorities in his Remarks (1783) and in The Quip Modest (1788), in which he criticises Johnson and Steevens’s edition and Reed’s revision. Monck Mason’s Comments (1785) and further Comments (1807) contain some of the best detached criticism of the time. Malone’s text left nothing to be done which faithful adherence to the old copies could achieve. But the variant quarto plays still afforded scope for critical discrimination between the readings of quarto and folio.