Preface to Shakespeare, 1725, Alexander Pope

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“Players are just such judges of what is right, as Taylors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our Author’s faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a Poet, than to his right judgment as a Player.”

“I have discharg’d the dull duty of an Editor to my best judgment, with more labour than I expect thanks, with a religious abhorrence of all Innovation, and without any indulgence to my private sense or conjecture.”

 –From Popes Preface to his edition of the Works

  • Introduction
  • The Editors of Shakespeare “Alexander Pope,” J. Parker Norris, Shakespeariana
  • Pope’s Edition of Shakespeare from the Cambridge History of English and American Literature
  • On the “Conjectures and Restorations of Pope,” from the Cambridge History of English and American Literature
  • An Introduction to Pope’s Preface to the 1725 Edition by D. Nichol Smith
  • Pope’s Preface to his 1725 edition of Shakespeare
  • Links to Pope’s Edition
  • Pope’s controversy with Theobald from the Cambridge History of English and American Literature
  • General Links on Pope


Pope’s edition, like Rowe’s, was undertaken for Jacob Tonson, and printed in six quarto volumes in 1725.  It was issued a second edition in the smaller duodecimo size in 1728.  It was not a commercial success.  The solicitation for subscriptions “called out a miserably disappointing response,” (Rogers, “Pope and His Subscribers” quoted in Murphy, Shakespeare in Print).  As with Rowe, the poems were not included with the original six volumes, but a seventh, unauthorized volume printed “in the same format and style” by other publishers recycled Gildon’s assembly of the poetry, this volume “prepared by ‘the physician turned literary hack, George Sewell'” (Murphy, p. 67).

Pope regarded Shakespeare’s text as being corrupt, rife with “Additions, Expunctions, Transpositions of scenes and lines, confusion of Characters and Persons, wrong application of Speeches, corruptions of innumerable Passages by the agnorance, and wrong Correction of ’em again by the Impertinence, of his first Editors” (Pope’s Preface, section 33).  Those first editors (Heminge and Condell), and their playhouse colleagues, are much to blame, according to Pope, for their “…many blunders and illiteracies…their ignorance shines almost in every page…” (Preface, section 18).  If the text were so corrupt, and all old texts equally prone to corruption, Pope consequently thought he had license “…unsystematically to pick and choose among variant texts as some particular reading appealed to him more than others” (Murphy, p. 65).  Pope, consequently cut, “over the entire edition,” 1,560 lines.  He retained Rowe’s dramatis personae, but added even more scene divisions “following the Italian and French practice of ‘marking a new scene whenever a character of importance enters or leaves the stage'” (Murphy, p. 66).  He also smoothed what he took to be irregular versification, adding and deleting words as need to produce eighteenth century-style verse.  Apparently a great many such changes were made.

To Pope’s credit, he gives full praise to Shakespeare’s genius, though his attacks on the players and requirements of the “bad company” of the playhouse are rank prejudice.  He regarded Shakespeare’s age as an age of primitive ignorance, and thus excused Shakespeare many of his “faults.”

From: The Editors of Shakespeare “Alexander Pope,” J. Parker Norris, Shakespeariana, (vol. II, 1885, pp. 182-186.)

His edition of Shakespeare was first published in six quarto volumes. The title-page reads:

“The Works of Shakespear. In six volumes. Collated and Corrected by the former editions, By Mr. Pope.

—Laniatum corpore toto
Deiphobum vidi, &c lacerum crudelitur ora,
Ora, manusque ambas, populatque tempora raptis
Auribus, &c truncas inhonesto vulnere nares!
Quis tam crudeles optavit sumere paenas?
Cui tantum de te licuit? —VIRG.

London: Printed for Jacob Tonson in the Strand. MDCCXXV.”

This is the title-page at the beginning of the first volume, but that volume also contains another title-page (after the preface, life by Rowe, names of subscribers, etc.) which omits Pope’s name, and the quotation from Virgil, and which is dated 1723. The other five volumes have only one title-page each, and are all like the one last described, and are, further, all dated 1723. From this it would appear that the whole work was printed by 1723, and for some reason held back from publication until 1725, when another title-page was printed for the first volume.

As before stated, the size of the volumes is quarto, and they are quite well printed. The paper is ribbed and of fair quality. The portrait that is prefixed to the first volume is a most remarkable one. It is supposed to be an engraving from the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, and is engraved by G. Vertue. It is dated 1721, and bears no resemblance to that portrait whatever. Indeed, it is far more like the pictures of James I than the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. In the Life of Shakespeare, by Rowe, that follows the preface in this edition, there is inserted an engraving, also by G. Vertue, which is intended to represent the Stratford bust of Shakespeare, but the head of the effigy is from the Chandos portrait! No doubt Pope left the selection of these portraits to his publisher, but certainly he did not perform part of his duty as an editor in not selecting proper representations of his author.

In 1721 Pope commenced work on this edition. Great hopes were no doubt raised by the announcement that so great a poet was about to edit the works of the greatest of all poets, but when the edition appeared it must have rudely dispelled them. His preface was well written and showed that he understood the duties of an editor, but he did not carry out in his edition the plan he set forth in the preface.

In speaking of the state in which he found the text of Shakespeare he says:

“It is impossible to repair the Injuries already done him; too much time has elaps’d, and the materials are too few. In what I have done I have rather given a proof of my willingness and desire, than of my ability, to do him justice. I have discharg’d the dull duty of an Editor, to my judgment with more labour than I expect thanks, with a religious abhorrence of all Innovation, and without any indulgence to my private sense or conjecture. The method taken in this Edition will show it self. The various Readings are fairly put in the margin, so that every one may compare ’em ; and those I have prefer’d into the Text are constantly ex fide Codicum, upon authority. The Alterations or Additions which Shakespear himself made, are taken notice of as they occur. Some suspected passages which are excessively bad (and which seem Interpolations by being so inserted that one can entirely omit them without any chasm, or deficience in the context),’are degraded to the bottom of the page ; with an Asterisk referring to the places of their insertion. The Scenes are mark’d soTlistinctly that every removal of place is specify’d; which is more necessary in this Author than any other, since he shifts them more frequently: and sometimes without attending to this particular, the reader would have met with obscurities. The more obsolete or unusual words are explained.”

At the end of the sixth volume Pope printed a list of the editions of Shakespeare that he made use of in the preparation of his work. This list embraces the First and Second Folios and twenty-seven quartos. Had Pope carefully collated them all, and carried out the rules he laid down in his preface, he would have been able to make a good text. Unfortunately, his statements of what he had done were one thing, and what he really did quite another. It is true that he did restore quite a number of passages in the text that were wanting in the folios, and he did something to improve the old editions in marking the scenes and the localities where they take place; but he introduced many conjectures, and in numerous instances he placed readings in his text without any authority. Very few of the various readings were given at the foot of the page, and his arbitrary excisions are equally without warrant. His notes are very few and short, but some of his emendations are undoubtedly clever, and quite a number are still retained in the modern text.

Pope used Rowe’s second edition to print from, and has adopted some curious methods of pointing out the beauties of his author. Thus he informs us that ” the most shining passages are distinguished by commas in the margin; and where the beauty lay not in particulars but in the whole, a star is prefix’d to the scene.”

Some of the passages in the plays (often extending to a whole scene) Pope did not believe were written by Shakespeare, but had been interpolated by the actors. As these suspected passages were in the text, however, and he had no proof of their interpolation, he feared to leave them out of his edition, but marked them with daggers, thus: †††. This ne calls his “mark of reprobation.”

In the matter of division of the acts into scenes Pope was over zealous, and he divided them up in a very unnecessary manner. Thus in The Merry Wives of Windsor he makes eleven scenes out of Act II. Modern editors, on the contrary, have found that three are sufficient.

As before stated, he was often very arbitrary in omitting from his text such passages as he did not believe to have been written by Shakespeare. His plan was to print these discarded portions at the bottom of the page in a smaller type. Thus in The Comedy of Errors he omits eighty-eight lines in Scene ii of Act II—and this for no reason than that it did not please the editor, and he did not think the matter omitted had been written by Shakespeare! No wonder that people speedily tired of such an editor, and that now his edition is considered one of the poorest in existence.

Although Pope called his edition “the works of Shakespeare,” he only printed the plays and omitted the poems. The plays that he included were those given in the First Folio. Warburton praises him for rejecting the spurious plays which Rowe found in the Fourth Folio and printed in his edition. Whereupon Dr. Johnson remarks: “I know not why he is commended by Dr. Warburton for distinguishing the genuine from the spurious plays. In this choice he exerted no judgment of his own ; the plays which he received were given by Hemings and Condel, the first editors; and those which he rejected, though, according to the licentiousness of the press in those times, they were printed during Shakespeare’s life, with his name, had been omitted by his friends, and were never added to his works before the edition of 1664, from which they were copied by the later printers.”

Dr. Johnson then criticizes Pope for his reference to “the dull duty of an editor,” and says further of his work: “Pope’s edition fell below his own expectations, and he was so much offended, when he was found to have left anything for others to do, that he past the latter part of his life in a state of hostility with verbal criticism.”

From a list printed in the first volume it appears that four hundred and eleven copies of the edition were subscribed for. The total number of copies printed was seven hundred and fifty, and the price was six pounds six shillings. Pope was paid two hundred and seventeen pounds for his editorial work.

In 1725 there was published a quarto volume of the same size as Pope’s edition, and having the same kind of type, paper, etc., as that work. The title-page reads:

“The Works of Mr. William Shakespear. The seventh volume. Containing Venus and Adonis. Tarquin and Lucrece. And Mr. Shakespear’s Miscellany Poems. To which is Prefix’d An Essay on the Art, Rise, and Progress of the Stage, in Greece, Rome, and England. The whole Revis’d and Corrected, with a Preface. London : Printed by J. Darby, for A. Bettesworth. F. Fayram, W. Mears, J. Pemberton, J. Hooke, C. Rivington, F. Clay, J. Batley, E. Symon. M.DCC.XXV.”

This volume is often found with Pope’s edition, but he had nothing to do with its preparation. It seems to have been issued by the booksellers, like a similar one (in octavo) was in 1710, for Rowe’s edition, to supply the poems which both Rowe and Pope omitted.

In 1728 a second edition of Pope’s Shakespeare was published by Tonson in ten volumes duodecimo. It contains a few additional notes and corrections, and the text is slightly different. Again it was reprinted in 1731, in nine volumes I8mo, by Knapton, and in 1735 Tonson issued another edition in eight volumes duodecimo. A ninth volume containing the spurious plays was added to the latter edition.

In 1766 Foulis, of Glasgow, published another edition in eight volumes I8mo, and two years later, in 1768, a beautiful edition was published by Baskerville, in Birmingham, in nine volumes octavo. This latter was printed from Baskerville’s celebrated types at David Garrick’s suggestion, and copies of it were sold at the Stratford Jubilee the following year.

Pope’s Edition of Shakespeare from the Cambridge History of English and American Literature

“Pope’s treatment of his coadjutors figured prominently henceforward in the personalities of his opponents. But the Odyssey was also the occasion of his friendship with Joseph Spence, through the latter’s Essay on Pope’s Odyssey (1726–7). During this time, Pope had been engaged on his edition of Shakespeare, undertaken at Tonson’s invitation and published in March, 1725. His main disqualifications are patent. He had no intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan period and lacked some of the qualities—above all the patience—requisite for a thorough editing of the text. But a man of his genius could hardly devote himself to a literary subject without leaving some result. “Proofs of the time and toil he spent upon the text can be found on nearly every page.” [see Lounsbury, T. R., The first editors of Shakespeare, p. 100.]. His preface has, at least, the merit of a sincere recognition of Shakespeare’s greatness. The task of pointing out the errors in Pope’s edition was undertaken by Lewis Theobald, a man memorable for his high deserts among Shakespearean critics. This was the offence that gained him the laurel in The Dunciad…”

(The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift. III. Pope § 13. His edition of Shakespeare.)

On the “Conjectures and Restorations of Pope,” From the Cambridge History of English and American Literature:

“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 [see below]—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.”

(The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One. XI. The Text of Shakespeare. § 11. Conjectures and restorations of Pope.)

An Introduction to Pope’s Preface to the 1725 Edition by D. Nichol Smith, from Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare (p. xl-xli; 1903)

“POPE’S edition of Shakespeare was published by Tonson in six quarto volumes. The first appeared in 1725, as the title-page shows ; all the others are dated ‘ 1723.’ In the note to the line in the Dunciad in which he laments his “ten years to comment and translate,” Pope gives us to understand that he prepared his edition of Shakespeare after he had completed the translation of the Iliad and before he set to work on the Odyssey. His own correspondence, however, shows that he was engaged on Shakespeare and the Odyssey at the same time. There is some uncertainty as to when his edition was begun. The inference to be drawn from a letter to Pope from Atterbury is that it had been undertaken by August, 1721. We have more definite information as to the date of its completion. In a letter to Broome of 31st October, 1724, Pope writes: ” Shakespear is finished. I have just written the Preface, and in less than three weeks it will be public”…[See J. W. Croker, The Works of Alexander Pope, p. 87]  But it did not appear till March. Pope himself was partly to blame for the delay. In December we find Tonson ” impatient ” for the return of the Preface… In the revision of the text Pope was assisted by Fenton and Gay [See , John Undrhill, The Poetical Works of John Gay, p.xli where it is recorded that Gay received 35£, 17s 6d from Pope “for the assistance he rendered Pope in connection with his edition of Shakespeare”]…

“A seventh volume containing the poems was added in 1725, but Pope had no share in it. It is a reprint of the supplementary volume of Rowe’s edition, “the whole revised and corrected, with a Preface, by Dr. Sewell.” The most prominent share in this volume of ‘ Pope’s Shakespeare’ thus fell to Charles Gildon, who had attacked Pope in his Art of Poetry and elsewhere, and was to appear later in the Dunciad. Sewell’s preface is dated Nov. 24, 1724.

“Pope made few changes in his Preface in the second edition (1728, 8 vols., 12mo). The chief difference is the inclusion of the Double Falshood, which Theobald had produced in 1727 as Shakespeare’s, in the list of the spurious plays.

The references in the Preface to the old actors were criticised by John Roberts in 1729 in a pamphlet entitled An Answer to Mr. Pope’s Preface to Shakespear. In a Letter to a Friend. Being a Vindication of the Old Actors who were the Publishers and Performers of that Authors Plays. . . . By a Stroling Player.”

Pope’s Preface to his 1725 edition of Shakespeare

[I have placed section numbers in square brackets before each of the original paragraphs -tg].

[1]  It is not my design to enter into a Criticism upon this Author; tho’ to do it effectually and not superficially would be the best occasion that any just Writer could take, to form the judgment and taste of our nation. For of all English Poets Shakespear must be confessed to be the fairest and fullest subject for Criticism, and to afford the most numerous as well as most conspicuous instances, both of Beauties and Faults of all sorts. But this far exceeds the bounds of a Preface, the business of which is only to give an account of the fate of his Works, and the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us. We shall hereby extenuate many faults which are his, and clear him from the imputation of many which are not : A design, which, tho’ it can be no guide to future Criticks to do him justice in one way, will at least be sufficient to prevent their doing him an injustice in the other (note 1).

[2]  I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristic Excellencies, for which (notwithstanding his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other Dramatic Writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occasion of doing it.

[3]  If ever any Author deserved the name of an Original, it was ShakespearHomer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of Nature; it proceeded thro’ Ægyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The Poetry of Shakespear was Inspiration indeed : he is not so much an Imitator, as an Instrument, of Nature ; and ’tis not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks thro’ him.

[4]  His Characters are so much Nature her self, that ’tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as Copies of her. Those of other Poets have a constant resemblance, which shews that they receiv’d them from one another, and were but multiplyers of the same image : each picture, like a mock-rainbow, is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every single character in Shakespear is as much an Individual as those in Life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike ; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be Twins, will upon comparison be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of Character, we must add the wonderful Preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays, that had all the Speeches been printed without the very names of the Persons, I believe one might have apply’d them with certainty to every speaker.

[5]  The Power over our Passions was never possess’d in a more eminent degree, or display’d in so different instances. Yet all along, there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them ; no preparation to guide our guess to the effect, or be perceiv’d to lead toward it: But the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places : We are surpriz’d, the moment we weep ; and yet upon reflection find the passion so just, that we shou’d be surpriz’d if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment.

[6]  How astonishing is it again, that the passions directly opposite to these, Laughter and Spleen, are no less at his command ! that he is not more a master of the Great, than of the Ridiculous in human nature ; of our noblest tendernesses, than of our vainest foibles ; of our strongest emotions, than of our idlest sensations!

[7]  Nor does he only excel in the Passions : In the coolness of Reflection and Reasoning he is full as admirable. His Sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but by a talent very peculiar, something between Penetration and Felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a man of no education or experience in those great and publick scenes of life which are usually the subject of his thoughts : So that he seems to have known the world by Intuition, to have look’d thro’ humane nature at one glance, and to be the only Author that gives ground for a very new opinion, That the Philosopher, and even the Man of the world, may be Born, as well as the Poet.

[8]  It must be own’d that with all these great excellencies he has almost as great defects ; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other. But I think I can in some measure account for these defects, from several causes and accidents ; without which it is hard to imagine that so large and so enlighten’d a mind could ever have been susceptible of them. That all these Contingencies should unite to his disadvantage seems to me almost as singularly unlucky, as that so many various (nay contrary) Talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.

[9]  It must be allowed that Stage-Poetry of all other is more particularly levell’d to please the Populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the Common Suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespear, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistance, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The Audience was generally composed of the meaner sort of people ; and therefore the Images of Life were to be drawn from those of their own rank : accordingly we find that not our Author’s only but almost all the old Comedies have their Scene among Tradesmen and Mechanicks : And even their Historical Plays strictly follow the common Old Stories or Vulgar Traditions of that kind of people. In Tragedy, nothing was so sure to Surprize and cause Admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural, Events and Incidents; the most exaggerated Thoughts; the most verbose and bombast Expression ; the most pompous Rhymes, and thundering Versification. In Comedy, nothing was so sure to please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of fools and clowns. Yet even in these our Author’s Wit buoys up, and is born above his subject: his Genius in those low parts is like some Prince of a Romance in the disguise of a Shepherd or Peasant; a certain Greatness and Spirit now and then break out, which manifest his higher extraction and qualities.

[10]  It may be added, that not only the common Audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better sort piqu’d themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way, till Ben Johnson getting possession of the Stage brought critical learning into vogue : And that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent lessons (and indeed almost Declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his Actors, the Grex, Chorus, &c. to remove the prejudices, and inform the judgment of his hearers. Till then, our Authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the Ancients : their Tragedies were only Histories in Dialogue ; and their Comedies follow’d the thread of any Novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true History.

[11]  To judge therefore of Shakespear by Aristotle’s rules, is like trying a man by the Laws of one Country, who acted under those of another. He writ to the People ; and writ at first without patronage from the better sort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them : without assistance or advice from the Learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them : without that knowledge of the best models, the Ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of them ; in a word, without any views of Reputation, and of what Poets are pleas’d to call Immortality : Some or all of which have encourag’d the vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.

[12]  Yet it must be observ’d, that when his performances had merited the protection of his Prince, and when the encouragement of the Court had succeeded to that of the Town, the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former. The Dates of his plays sufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this observation will be found true in every instance, were but Editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the Town or the Court.

[13]  Another Cause (and no less strong than the former) may be deduced from our Author’s being a Player, and forming himself first upon the judgments of that body of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a Standard to themselves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. As they live by the Majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion ; a consideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is right, as Taylors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our Author’s faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a Poet, than to his right judgment as a Player.

[14]  By these men it was thought a praise to Shakespear, that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they industriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Johnson in his Discoveries, and from the preface of Heminges and Condell to the first folio Edition. But in reality (however it has prevailed) there never was a more groundless report, or to the contrary of which there are more undeniable evidences: As, the Comedy of the Merry Wives of Windsor, which he entirely new writ; the History of Henry the 6th, which was first published under the Title of the Contention ofYork and Lancaster; and that of Henry the 5th, extreamly improved ; that of Hamlet enlarged to almost as much again as at first, and many others. I believe the common opinion of his want of Learning proceeded from no better ground. This too might be thought a Praise by some ; and to this his Errors have as injudiciously been ascribed by others. For ’tis certain, were it true, it would concern but a small part of them ; the most are such as are not properly Defects, but Superfoetations : and arise not from want or learning or reading, but from want of thinking or judging : or rather (to be more just to our Author) from a compliance to those wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forc’d expressions, &c. if these are not to be ascrib’d to the foresaid accidental reasons, they must be charg’d upon the Poet himself, and there is no help for it. But I think the two Disadvantages which I have mentioned (to be obliged to please the lowest of the people, and to keep the worst of company), if the consideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will appear sufficient to mislead and depress the greatest Genius upon earth. Nay the more modesty with which such a one is endued, the more he is in danger of submitting and conforming to others, against his own better judgment.

[15]  But as to his Want of Learning it may be necessary to say something more : There is certainly a vast difference between Learning and Languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine ; but ’tis plain he had much Reading at least, if they will not call it Learning. Nor is it any great matter, if a man has Knowledge, whether he has it from one language or from another. Nothing is more evident than that he had a taste of natural Philosophy, Mechanicks, ancient and modern History, Poetical learning, and Mythology : We find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of Antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, not only the Spirit, but Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn ; and still a nicer distinction is shewn, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former and of the latter. His reading in the ancient Historians is no less conspicuous, in many references to particular passages : and the speeches copy’d from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an instance of his learning, as those copy’d from Cicero in Catiline, of Ben Johnson’s. The manners of other nations in general, the Egyptians, Venetians, French, &c., are drawn with equal propriety. Whatever object of nature, or branch or science, he either speaks of or describes, it is always with competent, if not extensive knowledge : his descriptions are still exact; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of each subject. When he treats of Ethic or Politic, we may constantly observe a wonderful justness of distinction, as well as extent of comprehension. No one is more a master of the Poetical story, or has more frequent allusions to the various parts of it : Mr. Waller (who has been celebrated for this last particular) has not shown more learning this way than Shakespear. We have Translations from Ovid published in his name, among those Poems which pass for his, and for some of which we have undoubted authority (being published by himself, and dedicated to his noble Patron the Earl of Southampton). He appears also to have been conversant in Plautus, from whom he has taken the plot of one of his plays : he follows the Greek Authors, and particularly Dares Phrygius, in another (altho’ I will not pretend to say in what language he read them). The modern Italian writers of Novels he was manifestly acquainted with ; and we may conclude him to be no less conversant with the Ancients of his own country, from the use he has made of Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida, and in the Two Noble Kinsmen, if that Play be his, as there goes a Tradition it was (and indeed it has little resemblance of Fletcher, and more of our Author than some of those which have been received as genuine).

[16]  I am inclined to think, this opinion proceeded originally from the zeal of the Partizans of our Author and Ben Johnson ; as they endeavoured to exalt the one at the expence of the other. It is ever the nature of Parties to be in extremes; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben Johnsonhad much the more learning, it was said on the one hand that Shakespear had none at all; and because Shakespear had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Johnson wanted both. Because Shakespear borrowed nothing, it was said that Ben Johnson borrowed every thing. Because Johnson did not write extempore, he was reproached with being a year about every piece ; and because Shakespear wrote with ease and rapidity, they cryed, he never once made a blot. Nay the spirit of opposition ran so high, that whatever those of the one side objected to the other, was taken at the rebound, and turned into Praises ; as injudiciously as their antagonists before had made them Objections.

[17]  Poets are always afraid of Envy ; but sure they have as much reason to be afraid of Admiration. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of Authors ; those who escape one, often fall by the other. Pessimum genus inimicorum Laudantes, says Tacitus : and Virgil desires to wear a charm against those who praise a Poet without rule or reason.

—Si ultra placitum laudarit, baccare frontem
Cingito, ne Vati noceat—.

But however this contention might be carried on by the Partizans on either side, I cannot help thinking these two great Poets were good friends, and lived on amicable terms and in offices of society with each other. It is an acknowledged fact, that Ben Johnson was introduced upon the Stage, and his first works encouraged, by Shakespear. And after his death, that Author writes To the memory of his beloved Mr. William Shakespear, which shows as if the friendship had continued thro’ life. I cannot for my own part find any thing Invidious or Sparing in those verses, but wonder Mr.Dryden was of that opinion. He exalts him not only above all his Contemporaries, but above Chaucer and Spenser, whom he will not allow to be great enough to be rank’d with him ; and challenges the names of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, nay all Greece and Rome at once, to equal him: And (which is very particular) expressly vindicates him from the imputation of wanting Art, not enduring that all his excellencies shou’d be attributed to Nature. It is remarkable too, that the praise he gives him in his Discoveries seems to proceed from a personal kindness; he tells us that he lov’d the man, as well as honoured his memory ; celebrates the honesty, openness, and frankness of his temper; and only distinguishes, as he reasonably ought, between the real merit of the Author, and the silly and derogatory applauses of the Players. Ben Johnson might indeed be sparing in his Commendations (tho’ certainly he is not so in this instance) partly from his own nature, and partly from judgment. For men of judgment think they do any man more service in praising him justly, than lavishly. I say, I would fain believe they were Friends, tho’ the violence and ill-breeding of their Followers and Flatterers were enough to give rise to the contrary report. I would hope that it may be with Parties, both in Wit and State, as with those Monsters described by the Poets ; and that their Heads at least may have something humane, tho’ their Bodies and Tails are wild beasts and serpents.

[18] As I believe that what I have mentioned gave rise to the opinion of Shakespear’s want of learning ; so what has continued it down to us may have been the many blunders and illiteracies of the first Publishers of his works. In these Editions their ignorance shines almost in every page; nothing is more common than Actus tertiaExit OmnesEnter three Witches solus. Their French is as bad as their Latin, both in construction and spelling: Their very Welsh is false. Nothing is more likely than that those palpable blunders of Hector’s quoting Aristotle, with others of that gross kind, sprung from the same root : It not being at all credible that these could be the errors of any man who had the least tincture of a School, or the least conversation with such as had Ben Johnson (whom they will not think partial to him) allows him at least to have had some Latin ; which is utterly inconsistent with mistakes like these. Nay the constant blunders in proper names of persons and places, are such as must have proceeded from a man who had not so much as read any history, in any language : so could not be Shakespear’s.

[19]  I shall now lay before the reader some of those almost innumerable Errors which have risen from one source, the ignorance of the Players, both as his actors, and as his editors. When the nature and kinds of these are enumerated and considered, I dare to say that not Shakespear only, butAristotle or Cicero, had their works undergone the same fate, might have appear’d to want sense as well as learning.

[20]  It is not certain that any one of his Plays was published by himself. During the time of his employment in the Theatre, several of his pieces were printed separately in Quarto. What makes me think that most of these were not publish’d by him, is the excessive carelessness of the press : every page is so scandalously false spelled, and almost all the learned and unusual words so intolerably mangled, that it’s plain there either was no Correcter to the press at all, or one totally illiterate. If any were supervised by himself, I should fancy the two parts of Henry the 4th and Midsummer-Night’s Dream might have been so : because I find no other printed with any exactness ; and (contrary to the rest) there is very little variation in all the subsequent editions of them. There are extant two Prefaces, to the first quarto edition of Troilus and Cressida in 1609, and to that of Othello ; by which it appears, that the first was publish’d without his knowledge or consent, and even before it was acted, so late as seven or eight years before he died : and that the latter was not printed till after his death. The whole number of genuine plays which we have been able to find printed in his life-time, amounts but to eleven. And of some of these, we meet with two or more editions by different printers, each of which has whole heaps of trash different from the other : which I should fancy was occasion’d by their being taken from different copies, belonging to different Playhouses.

[21]  The folio edition (in which all the plays we now receive as his were first collected) was published by two Players, Heming and Condell, in 1623, seven years after his decease. They declare that all the other editions were stolen and surreptitious, and affirm theirs to be purged from the errors of the former. This is true as to the literal errors, and no other ; for in all respects else it is far worse than the Quarto’s :

[22]  First, because the additions of trifling and bombast passages are in this edition far more numerous. For whatever had been added, since those Quarto’s, by the actors, or had stolen from their mouths into the written parts, were from thence conveyed into the printed text, and all stand charged upon the Author. He himself complained of this usage in Hamlet, where he wishes that those who play the Clowns wou’d speak no more than is set down for them (Act 3. Sc. 4.). But as a proof that he could not escape it, in the old editions of Romeo and Juliet there is no hint of a great number of the mean conceits and ribaldries now to be found there. In others, the low scenes of Mobs, Plebeians, and Clowns, are vastly shorter than at present: And I have seen one in particular (which seems to have belonged to the Playhouse, by having the parts divided with lines, and the Actors names in the margin) where several of those very passages were added in a written hand, which are since to be found in the folio.

[23]  In the next place, a number of beautiful passages which are extant in the first single editions, are omitted in this : as it seems, without any other reason than their willingness to shorten some scenes : These men (as it was said of Procrustes) either lopping or stretching an Author, to make him just fit for their Stage.

[24]  This edition is said to be printed from the Original Copies ; I believe they meant those which had lain ever since the Author’s days in the playhouse, and had from time to time been cut, or added to, arbitrarily. It appears that this edition, as well as the Quarto’s, was printed (at least partly) from no better copies than the Prompters Book or Piece-meal Parts written out for the use of the actors : For in some places their very1 names are thro’ carelessness set down instead of the Persona Dramatis : And in others the notes of direction to the Property-men for their Moveables, and to the Players for their Entries,2 are inserted into the Text, thro’ the ignorance of the Transcribers.

[25]  The Plays not having been before so much as distinguish’d by Acts and Scenes, they are in this edition divided according as they play’d them ; often when there is no pause in the action, or where they thought fit to make a breach in it, for the sake of Musick, Masques, or Monsters.

[26]  Sometimes the scenes are transposed and shuffled backward and forward ; a thing which could no [sic] otherwise happen, but by their being taken from separate and piecemeal-written parts.

[27]  Many verses are omitted intirely, and others transposed ; from whence invincible obscurities have arisen, past the guess of any Commentator to clear up, but just where the accidental glympse of an old edition enlightens us.

[28]  Some Characters were confounded and mix’d, or two put into one, for want of a competent number of actors. Thus in the Quarto edition of Midsummer-Night’s Dream, Act 5, Shakespear introduces a kind of Master of the Revels called Philostratus: all whose part is given to another character (that of AEgeus) in the subsequent editions : So also in Hamlet and King Lear. This too makes it probable that the Prompter’s Books were what they call’d the Original Copies.

[29]  From liberties of this kind, many speeches also were put into the mouths of wrong persons, where the Author now seems chargeable with making them speak out of character: Or sometimes perhaps for no better reason than that a governing Player, to have the mouthing of some favourite speech himself, would snatch it from the unworthy lips of an Underling.

[30]  Prose from verse they did not know, and they accordingly printed one for the other throughout the volume.

[31]  Having been forced to say so much of the Players, I think I ought in justice to remark, that the Judgment, as well as Condition, of that class of people was then far inferior to what it is in our days. As then the best Playhouses were Inns and Taverns (the Globe, the Hope, the Red Bull, theFortune, &c.), so the top of the profession were then meer Players, not Gentlemen of the stage: They were led into the Buttery by the Steward, not plac’d at the Lord’s table, or Lady’s toilette : and consequently were intirely depriv’d of those advantages they now enjoy, in the familiar conversation of our Nobility, and an intimacy (not to say dearness) with people of the first condition.

[32]  From what has been said, there can be no question but had Shakespear published his works himself (especially in his latter time, and after his retreat from the stage) we should not only be certain which are genuine ; but should find in those that are, the errors lessened by some thousands. If I may judge from all the distinguishing marks of his style, and his manner of thinking and writing, I make no doubt to declare that those wretched plays, Pericles, Locrine, Sir John Qldcastle, Yorkshire Tragedy, Lord Cromwell, The Puritan, and London Prodigal, cannot be admitted as his. And I should conjecture of some of the others (particularly Loves Labours Lost, The Winters Tale, and Titus Andronicus), that only some characters, single scenes, or perhaps a few particular passages, were of his hand. It is very probable what occasion’d some Plays to be supposed Shakespear’s was only this ; that they were pieces produced by unknown authors, or fitted up for the Theatre while it was under his administration : and no owner claiming them, they were adjudged to him, as they give Strays to the Lord of the Manor : A mistake which (one may also observe) it was not for the interest of the House to remove. Yet the Players themselves, Hemings and Condell, afterwards did Shakespear the justice to reject those eight plays in their edition ; tho’ they were then printed in his name, in every body’s hands, and acted with some applause (as we learn from what Ben Johnsonsays of Pericles in his Ode on the New Inn). That Titus Andronicus is one of this class I am the rather induced to believe, by finding the same Author openly express his contempt of it in the Induction to Bartholomew-Fair, in the year 1614, when Shakespear was yet living. And there is no better authority for these latter sort, than for the former, which were equally published in his lifetime.

[33]  If we give into this opinion, how many low and vicious parts and passages might no longer reflect upon this great Genius, but appear unworthily charged upon him? And even in those which are really his, how many faults may have been unjustly laid to his account from arbitrary Additions, Expunctions, Transpositions of scenes and lines, confusion of Characters and Persons, wrong application of Speeches, corruptions of innumerable Passages by the Ignorance, and wrong Corrections of ’em again by the Impertinence, of his first Editors? From one or other of these considerations, I am verily perswaded, that the greatest and the grossest part of what are thought his errors would vanish, and leave his character in a light very different from that disadvantageous one, in which it now appears to us.

[34]  This is the state in which Shakespear’s writings lye at present ; for since the above-mentioned Folio Edition, all the rest have implicitly followed it, without having recourse to any of the former, or ever making the comparison between them. It is impossible to repair the Injuries already done him ; too much time has elaps’d, and the materials are too few. In what I have done I have rather given a proof of my willingness and desire, than of my ability, to do him justice. I have discharg’d the dull duty of an Editor to my best judgment, with more labour than I expect thanks, with a religious abhorrence of all Innovation, and without any indulgence to my private sense or conjecture. The method taken in this Edition will show it self. The various Readings are fairly put in the margin, so that every one may compare ’em ; and those I have prefer’d into the Text are constantly ex fide Codicum, upon authority. The Alterations or Additions which Shakespear himself made, are taken notice of as they occur. Some suspected passages which are excessively bad (and which seem Interpolations by being so inserted that one can intirely omit them without any chasm or deficience in the context) are degraded to the bottom of the page ; with an Asterisk referring to the places of their insertion. The Scenes are mark’d so distinctly that every removal of place is specify’d ; which is more necessary in this Author than any other, since he shifts them more frequently : and sometimes, without attending to this particular, the reader would have met with obscurities. The more obsolete or unusual words are explained. Some of the most shining passages are distinguish’d by comma’s in the margin ; and where the beauty lay not in particulars but in the whole, a star is prefix’d to the scene. This seems to me a shorter and less ostentatious method of performing the better half of Criticism (namely the pointing out an Author’s excellencies) than to fill a whole paper with citations of fine passages, with general Applauses, or empty Exclamations at the tail of them. There is also subjoin’d a Catalogue of those first Editions by which the greater part of the various readings and of the corrected passages are authorised (most of which are such as carry their own evidence along with them). These Editions now hold the place of Originals, and are the only materials left to repair the deficiences or restore the corrupted sense of the Author : I can only wish that a greater number of them (if a greater were ever published) may yet be found, by a search more successful than mine, for the better accomplishment of this end.

[35]  I will conclude by saying of Shakespear, that with all his faults, and with all the irregularity of his Drama, one may look upon his works, in comparison of those that are more finish’d and regular, as upon an ancient majestick piece of Gothtck Architecture, compar’d with a neat Modern building : The latter is more elegant and glaring, but the former is more strong and more solemn. It must be allow’d that in one of these there are materials enough to make many of the other. It has much the greater variety, and much the nobler apartments ; tho’ we are often conducted to them by dark, odd, and uncouth passages. Nor does the Whole fail to strike us with greater reverence, tho’ many of the Parts are childish, ill-plac’d, and unequal to its grandeur.

Pope’s Notes to the Preface

1Much ado about nothing, Act z. Enter Prince, Leonato, Claudio, and Jack Wilson, instead of Balthasar. And in Act 4. Cowley, and Kemp, constantly thro’ a whole Scene. Edit. Fol. of 1623, and 1632. [Return to text]

2Such as, 
—My Queen is murder’d ! Ring the little Bell
—His nose grew as sharp as a pen, and a table of Greenfield’s, &c. [Return to text]

Editorial Notes to the Preface, by TG

Note 1:  Pope, being an editor of the text, makes the case that  Shakespeare’s “Faults” are really more apparent than real.  He lays the blame squarely on those non-textual interpreters of the works, the players.  More the pity, he indicates, that players became responsible for the transmission of the text.  Those things marred in the text can be plainly attributed, in many cases, to its inept handlers, who used it as a convenient rather than a valuable thing.  Pope’s case against the players is one of the prominent themes of the Preface.  [Return to the text]

Links to Pope’s Edition

It is nearly impossible to find links to the earliest edition of Pope’s text.  The second edition is much amended resultant to the controversy with Theobald (see below).  There is an excellent sample of King Lear from volume III (with the false date 1723 on its cover) from SCETI at the University of Pennsylvania:

  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616The life and death of King Lear. From The works of Shakespear : in six volumes / collated and corrected by the former editions, by Mr. Pope. London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, in the Strand, 1723-1725. In Horace Howard Furness Memorial (Shakespeare) Library.
  • For a thoroughgoing analysis of Pope’s editorial technique, with many illustrations, see Alexander Pope’s Edition of Shakespeare: An Introduction By A.D.J. Brown

Pope’s later text is duplicated in Warburton’s edition of 1747 (see Warburton).

Pope’s controversy with Theobald from the Cambridge History of English and American Literature

“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.”

(The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One. XI. The Text of Shakespeare.§ 12. His controversy with Theobald, and its effects on Theobald’s edition.)