The editing of Shakespeare in the 18th century is a lesson in the construction of a cultural artefact. The Tonson publishing firm enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the editing of Shakespeare. Tonson’s played off editors against each other, choosing those who already had a literary reputation, and were antagonistic to their predecessors.
IN 1709, NICHOLAS ROWE (1674-1718), “A GENTLEMAN, WHO LOV’D TO LIE BED ALL DAY FOR HIS EASE, AND TO SIT UP ALL NIGHT FOR HIS PLEASURE” FIRST EDITED SHAKESPEARE FROM THE FOURTH FOLIO. I WAS THE BEST TRAGEDIAN OF MY TIME, AND ALSO A SHAKESPEARE IMITATOR IN MY PLAY JANE SHORE (1714).
Rowe’s edition was illustrated, had lists of dramatis personae that emphasized names rather than generic titles like “King”, “Clowne” or “Bastard”, and created minor characters by attributing various speeches and roles to one identity. Rowe also wrote the first biography of the Bard.
Rowe’s success was followed in 1725 by the renowned poet Alexander Pope, whose edition laid emphasis on the best passages of Shakespeare’s poetry for a reading audience.
I ASSUMED THAT SHAKESPEARE’S ACTORS HAD MANGLED THE TEXT AND THEREFORE I REWROTE IT. POPE WAS FOLLOWED IN 1734 BY LEWIS THEOBALD, WHOSE FIRST TEXTUAL MONOGRAPH ON SHAKESPEARE HAD SAVAGED POPE’S EDITION. FOR HIS PAINS, I CROWNED HIM “KING OF THE DUNCES” IN MY SATIRICAL EPIC THE DUNCIAD (1728).