I. Discover’d, not Devised: Pope as editor

Pope’s view of Shakespeare in contrast to classical authors; extremities within Shakespeare’s work; Pope’s views as expressed outside his edition; Shakespeare and Ben Jonson; Pope as editor of his own work; Pope’s editorial strategies; The best Shakespeare; Attribution; The worst Shakespeare; Faults in Histories, Tragedies and Comedies; Lineation.

Pope’s opinion of Shakespeare before he started to edit his plays is not easy to ascertain in detail, but some broad notions can be derived by glancing at some of his earlier writing. Some idea of who Pope’s favourite and most revered poets were, can be gleaned from his poem The Temple of Fame, a loose imitation of Chaucer’s The House of Fame. In Chaucer’s poem there comes a point at which the narrator sees those who have achieved a place in the temple through literary merit. Standing on metal pillars within this house of fame are Statius, Homer, Dares Phrygius, Dictys Cretensis, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, among others. Chaucer is at pains to point out that there is no particular significance in the order in which these poets appear. (The confusion was perhaps increased by the corruption of Pope’s text at this point. The text Pope used is quoted, followed by the Riverside edition’s text.)

To hand forth on either rowe
Of hem, which I could know
Though I by order hem not tell
To make you to long to dwell[i]
Thoo stoden forth on every rowe
Of hem which that I koude knowe,
Though I hem noght be ordre telle,
To make yow to longe to duelle [...]                                              (1451-1454)
[Then there stood forth in every row, of those whom I was able to recognise (though I do not list them one by one, which would detain you too long)]

Pope’s treatment of the passage departs significantly from Chaucer’s arrangement. For Pope order is all important here:

But in the Centre of the hallow’d Quire
Six pompous Columns o’er the rest aspire;
Around the Shrine it self of Fame they stand,
Hold the chief Honours, and the Fane command.
High on the first, the mighty Homer shone;
Eternal adamant compos’d his Throne;
Father of Verse! in holy Fillets drest,
His Silver Beard wav’d gently o’er his Breast;
Tho’ blind, a Boldness in his Looks appears,
In Years he seem’d but not impair’d by Years.  (179-187)

The ‘father of verse’ is not simply the originator of all that follows, but is not ‘impair’d by years’: this is after all, a temple of fame, and not a museum; and the fact that Pope can reiterate Chaucer’s selection of authors strengthens the thought behind Pope’s choice of ‘eternal adamant’ for Homer’s throne. But the pre-eminence of Homer in Pope’s mind suggested by this extract was not simply a reflection of Chaucer. In An Essay on Criticism Pope offers as advice to the aspiring poet or critic,

Be Homer’s Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night ... (124-125)

and Pope’s own study and delight of Homer is further apparent in his thoughts in the preface to his edition of Homer. Here he takes some time to characterise some of his favourite poets’ poetic qualities. Pope uses imagery of light and fire to describe Homer,

The course of his verse resembles that of the army he describes, ‘They pour along like a fire that sweeps the whole earth before it.’ ... Exact disposition, just thought, correct elocution, polished numbers, may have been found in a thousand; but this poetic fire, this ‘vivida vis animi,’ in a very few. (Albion edition, p. xxxviii)

It is the power and consistency of Homer’s poetic ‘fire’ which characterises Homer. Other exalted poets have the same kind of excellence but of slightly different type and in different measure,

This fire is discerned in Virgil, but discerned as through a glass, reflected by Homer, more shining than fierce, but everywhere equal and constant: In Lucan and Statius it bursts out in sudden, short, interrupted flashes ... (ibid.)

We might deduce that Pope thought Homer the possessor of an extraordinary force, which in each of his poetic successors has become progressively enfeebled. Pope’s description of Milton might support this view: ‘in Milton it [the fire] glows like a furnace kept up to an uncommon ardour by the force of art’. If we take Pope’s image to convey precisely the quality of poetic ‘fire’, then a furnace, presumably, is as bright as Homer’s fire; but at the same time of course it is contained whereas Homer’s might ‘[sweep] the whole earth before it’. The phrases ‘uncommon ardour’ and ‘force of art’ have further implications: Milton’s fire seems less ‘natural’ than Homer’s — a furnace must be constructed, fuelled, and somebody must continually operate the bellows, while Homer’s fire is likened to a self-perpetuating natural phenomenon started, so Pope writes, as Homer’s ‘fancy’ increases with the poem’s progress: ‘it [his fancy] grows in the progress both upon himself and others, and becomes on fire, like a chariot-wheel, by its own rapidity.’ It therefore seems that there is a slight, but discernable decline over the centuries of the power of poets and their works. The descriptions here and in Pope’s poetry might go some way towards explaining why Pope sometimes attracts the tag ‘neo-classical’, since for him the extremities of critical admiration are reserved for the ancients in general, and Homer in particular.

However, a view of Pope valuing the ancients above the moderns (like those whom he censures in An Essay on Criticism, who ‘The Ancients only, or the Moderns prize’ [395]) is confounded by the last of the poets described. The fact that Shakespeare is included here at all already elevates him into select company indeed, and the image used to characterise Shakespeare’s ‘poetic fire’ is surprising: ‘in Shakespeare it strikes before we are aware, like an accidental fire from heaven: but in Homer, it burns everywhere clearly and everywhere irresistibly.’ In contrast to Homer’s consistency, this neighbouring image suggests occasional extreme power, occurring unpredictably (Johnson lists as a meaning for ‘accident’, ‘that which happens unforseen; casualty, chance’). The image may suggest a flash of lightning, but this is a fire from heaven and Pope may have had in mind a biblical sense of enlightenment, like the Pentecostal fire described in the second chapter of Acts,

            And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
            And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
(Authorized Bible, Acts 2:2)

Or, given the occasion, Pope may have had in mind one of Jove’s thunderbolts.

Whether it is a natural, a Christian or a pagan heaven Pope has in mind, the distinguishing element of his image for Shakespeare is clear: even given that the effect of Shakespeare’s excellence is unforseen, the image of ‘accidental fire from heaven’ implies that its power can be greater even than Homer’s, and certainly exceeds the ‘short, interrupted flashes’ of Statius and Lucan. However bright Homer’s blaze or Milton’s furnace, Pope’s images for them are earth-bound, while Shakespeare has a power which is described as heavenly.

When Pope, having edited the plays, came to write the Preface to his edition of Shakespeare, the ideas hinted at earlier in his life took fuller form. His earlier impressions of Shakespeare were confirmed rather than contradicted by his detailed work on the text. It is apparent throughout his edition that he held a complex but precise idea as to exactly what kind of a writer Shakespeare was. The essence of this view is well conveyed by the simile with which Pope concludes his preface:

... one may look upon his works, in comparison of those that are more finish’d and regular, as upon an ancient majestick piece of Gothick 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 greater variety, and much the nobler apartments; tho’ we are often conducted to them by the 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. (Preface to edition p. xxiv)

Pope’s reverence for Shakespeare is clearly evident, and his image of ‘majestick .. Gothick architecture’ strongly suggests a cathedral-like grandeur. Whether his image is intended to compare Shakespeare’s works with the plays of Pope’s own time (English or French), or to contrast Shakespeare’s works with more finished Renaissance dramatists (Ben Jonson perhaps), the ‘neat modern building’ which Pope has chosen to represent works ‘that are more finished and regular’ seems paltry by comparison, especially when it is called ‘more elegant and glaring’. However, Pope’s continued metaphor in praise of Shakespeare, his ‘greater variety’, and ‘nobler apartments’ is qualified. There are ‘dark, odd, and uncouth passages’ within the edifice as a whole, and ‘many of the parts are childish, ill-plac’d, and unequal to its grandeur’.

Within Shakespeare’s works therefore, Pope suggests, two extremes rub shoulders, and it is this mixture which must prompt critical activity:

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 the most conspicuous instances, both of beauties and faults of all sorts. (ibid. p. i)

Pope’s assessment would seem to make the job of the Shakespeare critic and editor both very easy and very hard at the same time. Since the faults and beauties are both the most numerous and the most conspicuous (that is, most highly visible) in all English poetry before 1725, then they should be easy to spot. Pope did not see himself as applying a purely personal judgement to Shakespeare’s plays, but rather as recording and reacting to the potential judgement of mankind. ‘I have,’ he wrote, ‘discharg’d the dull duty of an Editor, to my best judgement, with more labour than I expect thanks, with a religious abhorrence of all Innovation, and without any indulgence to my private sense or conjecture.’ [ii]

On the other hand his opinion that Shakespeare’s faults and beauties are ‘of all sorts’ alerts us to the fact that he, in common with every reader, must use many different criteria when he reads, and that the widest possible sensibility must be applied.

That editing Shakespeare had caused a refinement of Pope’s general critical view of the dramatist seems likely from a consideration of Pope’s references to Shakespeare in works that were composed after his edition. One instance is in his imitation of the first epistle of the second book of Horace, in which the reflections of Horace in his letter to Augustus are applied to Pope’s own time. (The poem was written a good ten years after the edition of Shakespeare[iii]: any opinions expressed here were presumably founded on a more intimate knowledge of the text than Pope formerly had.) In one passage considering the rights of poets to immortality, Pope offers some thoughts on Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and writes,

Shakespear, (whom you and ev’ry Play-house bill
Style the divine, the matchless, what you will)
For gain, not glory, wing’d his roving flight,
And grew Immortal in his own despight.                                               (69-72)

To these lines, Pope attached a note, ‘Shakespear and Ben. Jonson may truly be said not much to have thought of this Immortality, the one in many pieces composed in haste for the Stage; the other in his Latter works in general, which Dryden call’d his Dotages.’ In the poem, Pope lets us know that Shakespeare had already attained, in the play-house, an almost divine status, but the juxtaposition of the ‘Play-house bill’ with the throwaway assessment of him ‘the divine, the matchless, what you will’ conveys a sense of excess ease – of judgement too incautiously reached. Some evidence as to why this ease might be excessive comes in the next couplet; Pope’s lines remind us that Shakespeare had an eye to profit and took no personal care of managing his texts. He ‘grew Immortal in his own despight’ because he took no care to preserve his ‘glory’. This phrase ‘in his despight’ has wider resonances than the local context, however – especially when taken together with Pope’s footnote; the fact that ‘[Shakespeare] composed in haste for the Stage’ contains two further reasons why Shakespeare was lucky to attain glory. ‘Haste’ implies precipitation, and the process of writing ‘for the stage’ was one which might put easy gain before artistic considerations.  Pope had written in his Preface to his Shakespeare edition, as a possible explanation of Shakespeare’s defects,

One cannot ... wonder, if Shakespear having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. (Preface to edition, p. v)

This is a sentiment which I shall be arguing informed Pope’s editorial decisions throughout his edition.

Later in the Epistle, Pope offers a witty historical survey of England’s poetry. Again, Shakespeare is mentioned and again the context suggests a great degree of carelessness on Shakespeare’s part:

But Otway fail’d to polish or refine,
And fluent Shakespear scarce effac’d a line.
Ev’n copious Dryden, wanted, or forgot,
The last and greatest Art, the Art to blot.                                          (278-281)

This passage alludes to the tradition in Shakespearean scholarship that Shakespeare did not correct his work. Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare ‘never blotted out line’, and the 1623 Folio editors, Heminge and Condell, wrote in their edition that ‘His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers’. While such a sentiment might sometimes be taken to reflect on his ready genius, in Pope’s Epistle the spirit of the whole of Jonson’s original sentiment is preserved. Here is the Jonson passage in full:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand’; which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who choose to commend their friend wherein he most faulted. (Timber, Oxford edition, p. 539)

Critical opinion has, down the ages, tended sometimes to converge with the opinion of the Elizabethan actors, that Shakespeare’s fluency was praiseworthy, and that Jonson is here being malevolent. But in Pope Jonson has a poetic successor who appears to be in agreement. The context of Pope’s line on Shakespeare, flanked as it is by a description of Otway’s and Dryden’s greatest faults, suggests, perhaps, that Pope considered Shakespeare’s own greatest fault was his failure to efface some of his own lines. Pope would have earned the approval of Jonson for not commending Shakespeare wherein he most faulted. And as we may see later from Pope’s edition, he may even have eased Jonson’s ghost by doing Shakespeare’s blotting for him.

‘Blotting’ was certainly a skill that Pope himself practiced. There are many reasons for thinking that his own notion of himself as a poet and his sense of his relation to his predecessor Dryden were largely dictated by a concern to create for himself the space and the time to avoid his predecessor’s lack of that ‘last and greatest art, the art to blot’. Pope did not have the belief that his hand and his mind were one, for his poems were often greatly revised and re-worked on the page during composition. A look at a page from Pope’s manuscripts will often show extensive revision and alteration on both the large and small scale, from the considered re-writing or deletion of several lines to single-word emendations and insertions. Even after a work had gone into print, Pope was apt to revise it for subsequent editions.[iv]

Any assessment of Pope as an editor should take into account Pope’s experience of editing his own work. A self-revising poet approaching the task of editing for the first time has had experience of altering text that cannot but alter the way in which they edit another’s work[v]

For Pope, editing prior to the Shakespeare edition had always been a matter of getting the text right, and for a text that has been righted, there was no need for explanation or for a history of textual ancestry. But unlike editing his own work, the task of preparing an edition of Shakespeare presented numerous problems beyond Pope’s ultimate control. He could not know what was intended at every place, or the status of different printings. To edit Shakespeare would require new approaches.

To some extent Pope’s task had been helped by the preparation of a Shakespeare edition by the poet and playwright Nicholas Rowe in 1709. Rowe had tidied the existing folio texts, including lists of Dramatis Personae, regularising names throughout the plays, re-dividing each play into acts and scenes according to exits and entrances, providing stage-directions, and so on. Rowe’s edition alleviated and accentuated the difficulties facing an editor of Shakespeare. It alleviated them because many major impediments for performance had been removed; and accentuated them by leaving unexamined all the potential problems created by the existence of all the different texts printed in quarto.

This problem was immediately apparent to Pope. Even including Rowe’s edition, plays had been in widespread circulation only in editions based on the Folio of 1623, which was produced and edited by the players Heminge and Condell. Pope seems to have regarded the folio-based texts with the deepest possible suspicion: he wrote of them:

they declare, that all the other editions were stolen and surreptitious, and affirm theirs to be purged of the errors of the former [earlier editions]. This is true as to the literal errors, and no other; for in all respects else it is far worse than the Quarto’s. (Preface to edition, p. xvi)

In addition to adopting and improving some of Rowe’s scene divisions and minor textual revisions, Pope also eagerly sought out and obtained many ‘quartos’. These are printings of individual plays which appeared, often in Shakespeare’s lifetime, long before the folios. In some cases quarto texts differ radically from their folio equivalents. Rowe, it seems, had access only to quarto editions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but (as can be seen from the table concluding the edition) Pope managed to assemble many quarto editions, giving him access to all the major textual variants of Shakespearean texts.

Pope’s approach to the variant Shakespearean texts, however, was very different from that adopted by all subsequent editors of Shakespeare. While much modern scholarship attempts - with varying degrees of success - to determine which of the quartos are genuinely Shakespeare’s on the basis of extra-critical textual evidence, Pope considered the folio and quarto materials according to his own confidence in being able to divine ultimately which writing was Shakespeare’s. He did arrive at general propositions about the quality of each individual text, but his ultimate criteria were atextual in the sense that his final judgements were based on poetic, stylistic and dramatic principles. There were, he was convinced, passages of good and bad writing in all the texts before him.

Pope was convinced, for example, that most of the folio texts contained material that was not of Shakespeare’s hand. He wrote,

Whatever had been added, since those Quarto’s, by the actors, or had stolen from the 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 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. (ibid. p. xvi)

Within the folio texts then, there was for Pope an additional source of bad writing to the occasional ‘uncouth passages’ of Shakespeare: the additions and alterations to the text by the players. And to complicate matters still further, Pope was also the first editor to believe that in some respects the folios omitted some of Shakespeare’s writing that had been preserved in the quartos. He wrote ‘a number of beautiful passages which are extant in the first single editions, are omitted in [the folios]’.

And so to recap, the texts as Pope found them in the folios were sometimes incomplete, and sometimes burdened with extraneous material. They contained, in his opinion, a curious jumble of features:

Pope attempted to differentiate between these three categories with three editorial strategies, which can be found illustrated in figures 1 to 4:

He marked what he considered to be ‘the best’ Shakespeare. ‘Some of the most shining passages are distinguish’d by comma’s in the margin,’ he wrote, and included throughout the volumes large single open-quotation marks in the left- hand margin to indicate some of these passages of choicest Shakespeare.

He ‘degraded’ (i.e., printed in small type at the bottom of the page) passages which he considered excessively corrupt: ‘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.’

Quarto passages which Pope considered Shakespearean were restored into the text. Often variant readings were recorded in a note at the bottom of the page, but where there were many variant readings, and too much material for this to be done unobtrusively (or where, perhaps, Pope thought the poetry too poor for his readers’ eyes) he silently emended the text.

Any survey of Pope’s edition must balance his marks of approbation with his rooting-out of what he thought poor writing. It is one of the leading contentions of this thesis that Pope’s critical decisions are not predictable by any single or simple notion of his critical principles. If we thought Pope a cramped neo-classicist, for example, then we would not be surprised at his having cut the Porter’s speech from Macbeth, but might be very surprised to find him giving marks of approbation to the clown who brings the fatal worm to Cleopatra.

This unpredictability is as evident in Pope’s selection of passages which evidenced the ‘vivida vis animi’ as in those which he relegated to the bottom of the page or cut entirely. It seems hard to devise any method that could predict with any accuracy the passages that Pope would allocate approving marginal commas.

Glory is like a circle in the water;
Which never ceaseth to enlarge it self,
’Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.                                            (Henry VI, part 1)

For now I stand, as one upon a rock,
Environ’d with a wilderness of sea,
Who marks the waxing tide grow wave by wave,
Expecting ever when some envious surge
Will in his brinish bowels swallow him.                                                (Titus Andronicus)

Tho’ now this grained face of mine be hid
In sap-consuming winter’s drizled snow,
And all the conduits of my blood froze up;
Yet hath my night of life some memory,
My wasting lamp some fading glimmer left;
My dull deaf ears a little use to hear:
All these old witnesses, I cannot err,
Tell me thou art my son Antipholis.                                        (The Comedy of Errors)

Looking over these extracts, is it not striking how accurately Pope isolated poetry which could, perhaps, teach us something about neglected passages of Shakespeare?

As has been mentioned, a very surprising instance of Pope’s comma-ing comes in Antony and Cleopatra when the clown brings Cleopatra an asp. As Mack comments, ‘[this is] an episode one might have thought he would overlook or even degrade to the foot of the page as "low"’.[vi]

  Clown. Look you, the worm is not to be trusted; but in the
keeping of wise people; for indeed there is no goodness in
the worm.
  Cleo. Take no care, it shall be heeded.
  Clown. Very good: give it nothing I pray you, for it is not
worth the feeding.
  Cleo. Will it eat me?
  Clown. You must not think I am so simple, but I know the
devil himself will not eat a woman: I know, that a woman is
a dish for the Gods, if the devil dress her not. But truly, these
same whore-son devils do the Gods great harm in their women:
for in every ten they make, the devils mar five.
  Cleo. Well, get thee gone, farewel.
  Clown. Yes forsooth, I wish you joy o’th’worm.                    [Exit.

It seems Pope has chosen to mark extraordinary writing beyond the scope of any simple set of critical principles such as those sometimes grouped under the heading ‘neo-classicism’. His notion of Shakespeare appears rather to have been that Shakespeare excelled in all kinds of styles, genres, and modes of writing, rather than him being a poet whose distinguishing marks were easily identifiable or consistent. It is significant in this instance that Pope expressed his admiration for kinds of writing distinctly unlike anything he had written, or would write, himself.

The same unpredictability extends to Pope’s relagations and cuts — the ‘suspected passages’ which should be excised as being foisted on the texts by less talented hands. On the large scale, he was faced with the question of attribution. A number of plays then, as now, were vying for admission to the Shakespearean canon. Pope, in his Preface, declared his position:

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 Oldcastle, Yorkshire Tragedy, Lord Cromwell, The Puritan, and London Prodigal, cannot be admitted as his. And I should conjecture of some of the others, (particularly Love’s Labour Lost, The Winter’s Tale, and Titus Adronicus) that only some characters, single scenes, or perhaps a few particular passages, were of his hand.                                             ([sic] Preface to edition, p. xx)

An initial reaction today to this passage might be to commend Pope for being nearly right. However, Pope’s attribution was the result only of his critical perspicacity – his critical perception that the plays included in the First Folio were by and large superior to those that had since been added. Our knowledge (or belief) that Yorkshire Tragedy is not Shakespeare’s, or that Pericles is only partly his, merely shows textual scholarship following in the wake of criticism (where textual scholarship can never produce substantial evidence of authorship, as for example in the case of The Winter’s Tale, is it safe to disregard a critical faculty that by itself could, so far as we know, come close to the truth?)

Even once Pope had selected the plays to edit, and decided on his editorial strategies, there remained one type of writing which his edition does not so easily identify for us – passages which are both bad and genuinely Shakespeare’s. While we can see what he thought the best Shakespeare, and can know - to an extent - what he considered to be of doubtful origin, it difficult to identify the writing that Pope considered represented Shakespeare at his worst. Since Shakespeare afforded ‘the most conspicuous instances, both of beauties and faults of all sorts,’ then presumably there are as many passages worthy of censure as were given approbatory commas. ‘As he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other’ writes Pope, but includes in his preface no plan for marks of censure to counterbalance the marks of approbation. However, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the third play of volume 1, Pope attaches a triple dagger mark (†††) to the top of the second scene and puts this note,

This whole scene, like many others in these Plays, (some of which I believe were written by Shakespear, and others interpolated by the Players) is compos’d of the lowest and most trifling conceits, to be accounted for only from the gross taste of the age he lived in; Populo ut placerent. I wish I had authority to leave them out, but I have done all I could, set a mark of reprobation upon them; throughout this edition. ††† (Pope’s edition, vol. I, p. 155)

And so added to Pope’s editorial armoury is this new sign, an opposite to the star affixed to scenes ‘where the beauty lay not in particulars but the whole’. As well as expanding our understanding of Pope’s opinion of Shakespeare, the existence of these marks helps us to refine our understanding of Pope’s editorial objectives, in guiding, confirming, or challenging a reader’s critical response.

A good general indication of what Pope believed to be Shakespeare’s ‘worst’ is attributed to Shakespeare’s having to write for the stage, and ‘hit the taste’ of the audience. Pope carefully categorises the faults of the age, as he saw them, in the histories, tragedies and comedies. However, the criticism is made indirect by Pope allocating these faults to other writers besides Shakespeare:

the images of Life were to be drawn from those of their [the audience’s] own rank: accordingly we find, that not our Author’s only but almost all the old Comedies have their Scene among Tradesmen and Mechaniks: 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 bufoonery, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of fools and clowns.  (Preface to edition, p. v)

Pope’s worry seems to be that in the histories of the time, dramatists included characters that resemble too closely Elizabethan theatre-goers. Pope’s is not an objection to ‘tradesmen or mechaniks’, but that Elizabethan theatre erred when it ‘strictly followed the common Old Stories or Vulgar Traditions of that kind of people’ in its histories. Thus Elizabethan comic culture is anachronistically transplanted into different ages, so that contemporary public whims are addressed in plays no matter how many centuries old the action is meant to be. The plebian interest in Henry V and King Lear appeals to the same contemporary sense (Pope, following the folios, classed King Lear as a history), and in King Lear the popular and topical Tom a’Bedlam story is anachronistically retold in the character of Edgar.

In contrast to the objection to anachronistic comedy in the age’s - and Shakespeare’s - history plays, Pope also praises Shakespeare’s historical sense, presumably as manifested in the principal characters: ‘In Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, not only the Spirit, but Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is shown, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former, and of the latter.’ For Shakespeare’s histories, as for his writing as a whole, Pope’s critical opinion admits extremes.

Pope’s opinion on the faults of the age’s tragedy includes a specific mention of language, he alleges they contain ‘the most verbose and bombast Expression; the most pompous Rhymes, and thundering Versification.’ Here he may have had in mind Dryden’s criticism of Shakespeare in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy that he ‘is many times flat, insipid, his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast’.[vii]

Fortunately, a specific example of what Pope might have meant is preserved in the reminiscences of his friend Joseph Spence, who attributed the following comments to Pope:

Shakespeare generally used to stiffen his style with high words and metaphors for the speeches of his kings and great men. He mistook it for a mark of greatness. This is strongest in his early plays, but in his very last play, his Othello, what a forced language he puts into the mouth of the Duke of Venice! This was the way of Chapman, Massinger, and all the tragic writers of those days.   (Spence’s Anecdotes, No. 421 (Vol I, page 183)).

It is not difficult to pinpoint which of the few speeches given to the Duke of Venice in Othello Pope must have objected to. One can almost imagine Pope including this following passage in PERI BATHOUS as an example of ‘the CUMBROUS, which moves heavily under a Load of Metaphors, and draws after it a long Train of Words’:[viii]

  Duke. The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus: Othello, the fortitude of the place is best known to you. And though we have there a substitute of most allowed sufficiency; yet opinion, a more sovereign mistress of effects, throws a more safe voice on you; you must therefore be content to slubber the ggloss of your new fortunes, with this more stubborn and boistrous expedition.

     g gross [Pope’s note]           (Pope’s edition, Vol. VI, p. 493)

For the comedies, we are also fortunate that Pope recorded his displeasure in certain scenes, chiefly in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labours Lost. Here, his triple dagger marks point to scenes which Pope thought ‘compos’d of the lowest and most trifling conceits.’ Again, however, the distinction is a little puzzling. While the exchange early in the play between Speed and Proteus is criticised as just such a poor scene, the later monologues of Launce receive approbatory commas. What may appear to us as two examples of Shakespearean clownery, appeared to Pope as examples of the very worst, and the very best writing to be found in Shakespeare. The worst is like this,

  Pro. Indeed a sheep doth very often stray,
An if the shepherd be awhile away.
  Speed. You conclude that my master is a shepherd then, and
I a sheep?
  Pro. I do.
  Speed. Why then my horns are his horns, whether I wake or sleep.
  Pro. A silly answer, and fitting well a sheep.
  Speed. This proves me still a sheep.
  Pro. True; and thy master a shepherd. (ibid. Vol I, p. 158)

The best is like this:

   Laun. Nay ’twill be this hour ere I have done weeping;
all the kind of the Launces have this very fault: I have
receiv’d my proportion, like the prodigious son, and am going
with Sir Protheus to the Imperial’s court. I think crab my dog
be the sowrest-natur’d dog that lives: my mother weeping,
my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our
cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity;
yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear! he is a
stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than
a dog. (ibid. Vol I, p. 174)

Again, while Pope’s overall opinion admits Shakespeare was a writer of extremes, it is surprising to find where Pope thought those extremities lay. Once again, any idea that Pope’s opinion could be aligned with any one set of external critical principles, founders on this polarised preference for prose over verse, for a monologue on a dog over a witty verbal exchange.

While such apparently curious treatment of diverse passages can never be accommodated to any final and definitive explanation, in some more technical aspects of editing, Pope’s thoughts and actions can be approached with a greater degree of certainty. One recurring problem that has faced generations of Shakespeare editors, is the question of lineation. Pope writes of Heminge and Condell ‘prose from verse they did not know’, in a phrase which seems poised between the two forms itself, ‘and they accordingly printed one for the other throughout the volume.’ Nevertheless, throughout the edition, sometimes Pope seems happy to leave as prose what will only reluctantly sit as verse, for example King Lear’s ‘mad’ utterances in Act 4 of The Life and Death of King Lear. Pope’s edition has as prose this speech:

  Lear. Ay, every inch a King.
When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause?
Adultery? thou shalt not die; die for adultery? no, the wren
goes to’t, and the small gilded flie does letcher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive: for Glo’ster’s bastard son was kinder
to his father, than my daughters got ’tween the lawful
sheets. To’t luxury pell-mell, for I lack soldiers. Behold yon
simpering dame, whose face ’tween her forks presages snow;
that minces virtue, and does shake the head to hear of pleasure’s
name. The fitchew, nor the soyled horse goes to’t with a
more riotous appetite: down from the waste they are centaurs,
though women all above; but to the girdle do the gods inherit,
beneath is all the fiends. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there
is the sulphorous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption:
fie, fie, fie; pah, pah; give me an ounce of civet, good apo-
thecary, to sweeten my imagination! there’s money for thee.

but it appears in the Arden edition thus:

Lear. Ay, every inch a king:
  When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
  I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause?
  Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
  The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly
  Does letcher in my sight.
  Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester’s bastard son
  Was kinder to his father than my daughters
  Got ’tween the lawful sheets. To’t, Luxury, pell-mell!
  For I lack soldiers. Behold yond simp’ring dame,
  Whose face between her forks presages snow;
  That minces virtue, and does shake the head
  To hear of pleasure’s name;
  The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t
  With a more riotous appetite.
  Down from the waste they are Centaurs,
  Though women all above:
  But to the girdle do the Gods inherit,
  Beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness,
  There is the sulphorous pit—burning, scalding,
  Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!
  Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
  To sweeten my imagination.
  There’s money for thee.

On many occasions, Pope seems to have been the first editor to hit upon a pattern which subsequent editors have been happy to accept. At other times, however, he shows a disregard for the text which is completely at odds with modern editorial procedure. It seems that occasionally he fixes on a pattern of lineation which becomes difficult to support, leaving him, at the end of the speech, with a remainder of syllables that cannot be accommodated into the verse scheme. His reaction was to delete or dissipate this remainder, and continue. For example, a speech of Bolingbroke’s in Richard II runs like this in the 1623 Folio:

Noble Lords,
Goe to the rude Ribs of that ancient Castle,
Through Brazen Trumpet send the breath of Parle
Into his ruin'd Eares, and thus deliver:
Henry Bullingbrooke upon his knees doth kisse
King Richards hand, and sends allegance
And true faith of heart to his Royall Person: hither come
Even at his feet, to lay my Armes and Power,
Provided, that my Banishment repeal'd,
And lands restor'd againe, be freely granted ...

The result of mislineation sticks out clearly in the longest line with its unwieldy fourteen syllables, but can be neatly solved by adding a new line following ‘Henry Bullingbrooke’, thus:

Noble Lords,
Goe to the rude Ribs of that ancient Castle,
Through Brazen Trumpet send the breath of Parle
Into his ruin'd Eares, and thus deliver:
Henry Bullingbrooke
Upon his knees doth kisse King Richards hand,
And sends allegance and true faith of heart
To his [most] Royall Person: hither come
Even at his feet, to lay my Armes and Power,
Provided, that my Banishment repeal'd,
And lands restor'd againe, be freely granted ...

The ten-syllable units are maintained even better if (as above) the word ‘most’ is imported from the quarto readings. Pope, however, gives us the following: underlining signifies insertions; strikeout, deletions:

Noble lord,
Go to the rude ribs of that ancient castle,
Through brazen trumpet send the breath of parle
Into his ruin’d ears, and thus deliver:
Henry of Bolingbroke upon his knees
Doth kiss King Richard’s hand, and sends allegiance
And true faith of heart unto his royal person: hither come
Ev’n at his feet I to lay my arms and pow’r,
Provided, that my banishment repeal’d,
And lands restored again, be freely granted ...

Although initially the small addition of ‘of’ to Bolingbroke’s title maintains a decasyllabic line, the subsequent arrival at the fourteen syllable line needs drastic action if no new line ending has been made. In order to retain the pulse of the verse: ‘true’ is deleted presumably to prevent a big retardation on ‘true faith’ which would have become a spondee to a reader expecting iambs. This leaves Pope a syllable short, which he overcomes by bolstering ‘to’ into ‘unto’. Deleting the (by now) hypermetric ‘hither come’ has syntactic consequences, since now it seems as if Bolingbroke’s opening period ends at the end of this line. Consequently the ‘to’ in the next lines now looks nonsensical and Pope has to emend it to ‘I’ in order to retrieve the sense. While it is perhaps too much to expect an editor to discover the correct lineation on every occasion, Pope’s effort here can hardly be considered to improve the original.

It is perhaps because Pope’s editorial method is unique, that it can be easily faulted in detail – lineation, word-glossing, or (sometimes) emendation. Perhaps an analogue for his editorial method is his description of how he learned to translate Homer, another area of scholarly activity that has traditionally been the province of the expert. He writes,

I did not follow the grammar, but rather hunted in the authors for a syntax of my own, and then began translating any parts that pleased me particularly in the best Greek and Latin poets [...] [ix]

This unconventional approach to the process of translating parallels Pope’s editorial method. Rather than apply himself to learning the rules of translation, and then applying them to the text, he instead claims to have found the correct syntax in the text itself. Pope’s command of classical language, like his command of editing, has often been the butt of derisory critical comments. But by looking beyond the blunders, and approaching Pope’s edition determined to judge by the best, as well as the worst, of his effort, perhaps a more balanced judgement may be attained.

For the materials that have been so far examined it is possible to recreate something of Pope’s notion of Shakespeare as a writer. He was a writer who, like Dryden, (and perhaps the later Ben Jonson), wrote quickly and carelessly, and whose concern was only for immediate success in the theatre. On the other hand, his natural abilities were such that he was incapable of incompetent writing whether in verse or in prose or in passages poised between the two. At his best - and he might be at his best at any moment and in any kind of writing - Shakespeare was at least the equal of Homer.

Notes for Chapter I

[i]. Speght’s edition (op. cit.) Fol.281.

[ii]. This reference of Pope’s to the ‘dull duty of an editor’ drew a comment from Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare: ‘The duty of a collator is indeed dull, yet, like other tedious tasks, is very necessary; but an emendatory critick would ill discharge his duty, without qualities very different from dulness.’

[iii]. The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace Imitated was published in 1737. John Butt gives the date of composition as c. 1736 (Twickenham edition, page 634). The edition of Shakespeare was published in 1725, although the volumes themselves are dated 1723.

[iv]. See, for a graphic example,Pope’s Epistle to Bathurst: A Critical Reading with An Edition of the Manuscripts (op. cit.).

[v]. Perhaps a parallel might be found in music. If we tend towards the school of thought that thinks Shakespeare’s texts very imperfect, then a master-hand is needed for completion, not a mechanical hand for editing. The choice in this case would be similar to that which faces the editor of Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Do we listen just to the movements, half-movements and outlines that are authentic, or prefer the non-original, but completed version?

[vi]. Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life, p. 420.

[vii]. See Dryden (Oxford Authors ed.), An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, p. 74.

[viii]. PERI BATHOUS, or The Art of Sinking of Poetry was a satirical work written by Pope in collaboration with others (probably including Swift and Gay). The book is a manual counselling the aspiring poet how to write bathetically. Under the section referred to, "the CUMBROUS", to which Pope subjoins the "BUSKIN" style, are a number of examples of mundane statements which have been re-written to conform to the requirements of bathos. The list includes two lines from The Tempest, which are offered as a re-writing of the phrase "See who is there’:

Advance the fringed Curtains of thy Eyes,
And tell me who comes yonder.──

[ix]. See Spence’s Anecdotes.