William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 6

By Brian Vickers | Go to book overview

274.

Joseph Ritson, Shakespeare’s editors corrected

1783

From Remarks, Critical and Illustrative, on the Text and Notes of the last Edition of Shakespeare (1783).

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) worked his way up from a humble beginning as a clerk and conveyancer, was admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1784, and was called to the bar in 1789. A lifelong student of early English poetry, especially the ballad, in 1782 he published a criticism of Warton’s History of English Poetry which exposed many errors but gave offence by its violent tone. He attacked, in similar vein, the Johnson—Steevens 1778 edition in these Remarks, and the Reed revision of it in The Quip Modest (1788). His Cursory Criticisms (1792) were directed against Malone’s edition, and in 1795 he exposed the Ireland forgeries. Despite his harshness in controversy and other eccentricities, his learning was universally recognized. In the Monthly Review Charles Burney commented on Ritson’s ‘petulance’, but acknowledged his ‘critical abilities’: lxx (1784), pp. 334-8; the Critical Review (perhaps by Steevens) was less favourable: lvi (1783), pp. 81-9. Many of his Shakespeare corrections were absorbed into the 1785 edition by Reed, and (with virtually no acknowledgement) by Malone in 1790, and indeed (equally unacknowledged) by some modern editors. For the 1793 edition (see No. 303) Steevens used him as a virtual collaborator, but not always wisely. Ritson’s many publications on early songs and Scottish poetry brought him to the attention of Sir Walter Scott, who planned to collaborate with him in a work on ‘Border Minstrelsy’. In 1802 Ritson published Bibliographica Poetica, a catalogue of English poets from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and Ancient Engleish Metrical Romancëes; shortly afterwards his nervous ailments caused a mental breakdown. For a full modern study

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