Some Account of the Life of Mr. William Shakespear (1709) by Nicholas Rowe


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The Rowe-Tonson edition of Shakespeare's plays (1709) is an important
event in the history of both Shakespeare studies and English literary
criticism. Though based substantially on the Fourth Folio (1685), it is
the first, "edited" edition: Rowe modernized spelling and punctuation
and quietly made a number of sensible emendations. It is the first
edition to include _dramatis personae_, the first to attempt a
systematic division of all the plays into acts and scenes, and the first
to give to scenes their distinct locations. It is the first of many
illustrated editions. It is the first to abandon the clumsy folio format
and to attempt to bring the plays within reach of the understanding and
the pocketbooks of the average reader. Finally, it is the first to
include an extended life and critique of the author.

Shakespeare scholars from Pope to the present have not been kind to Rowe
either as editor or as critic; but all eighteenth-century editors
accepted many of his emendations, and the biographical material that he
and Betterton assembled remained the basis of all accounts of the
dramatist until the scepticism and scholarship of Steevens and Malone
proved most of it to be merely dubious tradition. Johnson, indeed, spoke
generously of the edition. In the _Life of Rowe_ he said that as an
editor Howe "has done more than he promised; and that, without the pomp
of notes or the boast of criticism, many passages are happily restored."
The preface, in his opinion, "cannot be said to discover much profundity
or penetration." But he acknowledged Rowe's influence on Shakespeare's
reputation. In our own century, more justice has been done Rowe, at
least as an editor.[1]

The years 1709-14 were of great importance in the growth of
Shakespeare's reputation. As we shall see, the plays as well as the
poems, both authentic and spurious, were frequently printed and bought.
With the passing of the seventeenth-century folios and the occasional
quartos of acting versions of single plays, Shakespeare could find a
place in libraries and could be intimately known by hundreds who had
hitherto known him only in the theater. Tonson's business acumen made
Shakespeare available to the general reader in the reign of Anne; Rowe's
editorial, biographical, and critical work helped to make him
comprehensible within the framework of contemporary taste.

When Rowe's edition appeared twenty-four years had passed since the
publication of the Fourth Folio. As Allardyce Nicoll has shown, Tonson
owned certain rights in the publication of the plays, rights derived
ultimately from the printers of the First Folio. Precisely when he
decided to publish a revised octavo edition is not known, nor do we know
when Rowe accepted the commission and began his work. McKerrow has
plausibly suggested that Tonson may have been anxious to call attention
to his rights in Shakespeare on the eve of the passage of the copyright
law which went into effect in April, 1710.[2] Certainly Tonson must have
felt that he was adding to the prestige which his publishing house had
gained by the publication of Milton and Dryden's Virgil.

In March 1708/9 Tonson was advertising for materials "serviceable to
[the] Design" of publishing an edition of Shakespeare's works in six
volumes octavo, which would be ready "in a Month." There was a delay,
however, and it was on 2 June that Tonson finally announced: "There is
this day Publish'd ... the Works of Mr. William Shakespear, in six Vols.
8vo. adorn'd with Cuts, Revis'd and carefully Corrected: With an Account
of the Life and Writings of the Author, by N. Rowe, Esq; Price 30s."
Subscription copies on large paper, some few to be bound in nine
volumes, were to be had at his shop.[3]

The success of the venture must have been immediately apparent. By 1710
a second edition, identical in title page and typography with the first,
but differing in many details, had been printed,[4] followed in 1714 by
a third in duodecimo. This so-called second edition exists in three
issues, the first made up of eight volumes, the third of nine. In all
three editions the spurious plays were collected in the last volume,
except in the third issue of 1714, in which the ninth volume contains
the poems.

That other publishers sensed the profits in Shakespeare is evident from
the activities of Edmund Curll and Bernard Lintot. Curll acted with
imagination and promptness: within three weeks of the publication of
Tonson's edition, he advertised as Volume VII of the works of
Shakespeare his forthcoming volume of the poems. This volume, misdated
1710 on the title page, seems to have been published in September 1709.
A reprint with corrections and some emendations of the Cotes-Benson
Poems _Written By Wil. Shake-speare. Gent._, 1640, it contains Charles
Gildon's "Essay on the Art, Rise, and Progress of the Stage in _Greece_,
_Rome_, and _England_," his "Remarks" on the separate plays, his
"References to Classic Authors," and his glossary. With great shrewdness
Curll produced a volume uniform in size and format with Rowe's edition
and equipped with an essay which opens with an attack on Tonson for
printing doubtful plays and for attempting to disparage the poems
through envy of their publisher. This attack was certainly provoked by
the curious final paragraph of Rowe's introduction, in which he refused
to determine the genuineness of the 1640 poems. Obviously Tonson was
perturbed when he learned that Curll was publishing the poems as an
appendix to Rowe's edition.

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