Preface to the Works of Shakespeare

Preface to the Works of Shakespeare

Preface to the Works of Shakespeare

Preface to the Works of Shakespeare

Excerpt

Lewis Theobald's edition of Shakespeare (1734) is one cornerstone of modern Shakespearian scholarship and hence of English literary scholarship in general. It is the first edition of an English writer in which a man with a professional breadth and concentration of reading in the writer's period tried to bring all relevant, ascertainable fact to bear on the establishment of the author's text and the explication of his obscurities. For Theobald was the first editor of Shakespeare who displayed a well grounded knowledge of Shakespeare's language and metrical practice and that of his contemporaries, the sources and chronology of his plays, and the broad range of Elizabethan-Jacobean drama as a means of illuminating the work of the master writer. Thus both in the edition itself and in his Preface, which stands as the first significant statement of a scholar's editorial duties and methods in handling an English classic, Theobald takes his place as an important progenitor of modern English studies.

It is regrettable, though it was perhaps historically inevitable, that this pioneer of English literary scholarship ahould have been tagged "piddling Theobald" by Pope and crowned the first king of The Dunciad. Pope's edition of Shakespeare was completed by 1725, and in the following year Theobald made the poet his implacable enemy when he issued his Shakespeare Restored, which demolished Pope's pretensions as an editor by offering some two hundred corrections. But the conflict was not merely strife between two writers: it was a clash between two kinds of criticism in which the weight of tradition and polite taste were all on the side of Pope. What Theobald had done, in modern terms, was to open the rift between criticism and scholarship or, in eighteenth-century terms, to proclaim himself a "literal critic" and to insist upon the need for "literal criticism" in the understanding and just appreciation of an older writer. The new concept, which Theobald owed largely to Richard Bentley as primate of the classical scholars, was of course the . . .

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