Working on this edition nearly broke me. That’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. Starting out, things looked to be plain sailing, with a brief introduction and a relatively unadorned text to the plays. I spotted, though, a few footnotes directing me to the ‘notes’, which I dutifully called up from the bowels of the University Library. When those notes came, they came in three massive volumes, filled with double-column pages all in tiny print. As an estimate, Edward Capell probably produced around 800 such pages of footnotes, many of them far longer than they needed to be, and all of them written with what I shall charitably call idiosyncratic punctuation.
What did I find? A few small things, confirming a starting hypothesis that the energy present for these later editors in the idea of the actor was on the wane. Capell’s Notes and Readings date from 1779-1783, and it is often the case that Capell is far more interested in attacking the shoddy labours of what he calls the “modern editors” (Pope, Theobald, Hanmer, Warburton, Steevens) than the original player-editors. The poor state of the first Folio is now taken as a given, and – instead of blaming players and so on – later revisers are criticised for not doing enough to counter what were unavoidable and now glaring errors. This long note (actually quite short by Capell’s standards) about the witches’ songs in Macbeth will give an idea of what I mean:
Black spirits, &c. ] That this song’s remainder, and that of one in p.49 (l.3) were left out by direction, there is no foundation for thinking: the likelier cuase of their miss, is – the author’s negligence, and that of his publishers; his copy wanted them, and they forbore resorting to papers that were certainly in their power, out of which they might have cured the deficiency. Whether the thing neglected by them was performed agterwards with any fidelity, we have no external assurance from those who have filled up that of this page in the following manner; – Black spirits, and white | Blue spirits, and grey | Mingle, mingle, mingle, | You that mingle may: – moderns take it from one another successively, and each obtrudes it upon his reader in deep silence leaving him to imagine tha the whole song has the same authority as the other parts of the play: But the supplementary words of it, their leader received (as we believe) from an altered Macbeth, brought upon the stage by sir William Davenant after the restoration: many papers of Shakespeare, and of the old stage, were doubtless in his possession, among the rest – their music; and to them sir William might go, for what the player editors should have done, – the song in 22: question – but the whole is precarious, and rests (as the reader sees) on surmises; the validity of which he must determine for himself, aided by what internal conviction the supplement itself offers, which is not inconsiderable: in the meanwhile, the editors (it is presumed) will stand fully excused by him for not making it a part of his text.
The real subject here is not that of whether Davenant and the larger borrowings and transmissions of the theatre world could provide reasonable support for emendation, but more simply that modern editors have never even considered the provenance of the lyrics sung by the witches.
So far, I am aware I may have over-emphasised certain aspects of Capell’s attitude to performance. I’ll now try and correct this by looking at the ambiguities of this editor’s position. First of all, Capell only rarely speaks of actors in the vast expanses of his notes. Second, there are almost as many cases of antitheatricality (errors introduced by “some player” and all that) as there are moments in which this editor tries to imagine what’s happening on the stage. Two biographical detail are also worth mentioning, for they further add to a rather conflicted picture of Capell’s attitude to the stage. First, Capell was good friends with Garrick and, with the manager, helped create a version of Antony and Cleopatra performed at Drury Lane. This performance is mentioned in volume one of Capell’s Notes, although the editor does not reveal his authorship. It does, however, make for an extremely rare reference to the contemporary stage in an edition of Shakespeare. Second, Capell was also censor to the British stage, meaning that he must have had a detailed knowledge of performance, something which he rarely exercises in this edition, perhaps indicating a division in his own thinking between editorial labour and censorship work.
There’s one other rarity to note here, and this occurs in Capell’s introduction. Once he’s argued that everything from the lack of concern for posterity to the many errors in the quartos are proof of Shakespeare’s genius, Capell then – after a brief Steevens-like passage on how the quartos are superior to the folio – sets out to justify the status of Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus as plays written by Shakespeare. I’ll spare you the details for the first two plays, but the justification for Titus Andronicus deserves quoting in full.
[Titus Andronicus] came out at the same time with the plays above mentioned, is most exactly like them in almost every particular; their very numbers, consisting all of ten sylables with hardly any redudant, are copy’d by this Proteus, who could put on any shape that either served his interest or suited his inclination: and this, we hope, is a fair and unforced way of accounting for Andronicus; and may convince the most prejudiced – that Shakespeare might be the writer of it; as he might also of Locrine which is ascribed to him, a ninth tragedy, in form and time agreeing so perfectly with the others.
The important word here is “Proteus”, and I have a hunch that this may be one of the first times it is applied to Shakespeare. Even if it isn’t, the word is remarkable since such a nickname is most commonly given to actors (Burbage, for example) in this period, before Shakespeare starts to receive such a designation from later, romantic critics of the early nineteenth century. In all these cases, the ‘proteus’ is someone able to imitate character, to take on the role of another, either to perform that role as an actor (roughly, the eighteenth-century view of the great actor), or to write it down as the inspired author (roughly, the early nineteenth-century view of Shakespeare). Yet for Cappell, Shakespeare’s protean qualities aren’t so much to do with understanding human nature but rather to do with his ability to imitate artistic styles.
In a way, I suppose it’s fitting that this great producer of footnotes sees in the Protean Shakespeare, not an imitator of human nature, but rather someone rather like himself, a close reader of Elizabethan and early Jacobean drama.