Editors and Actors: Theobald

I’ve returned to Shakespeare’s editors, continuing the groundwork to chapter one begun at the end of summer. Having gone through Rowe and Pope, it was now the turn of Theobald. The UL had the first volume of his 1733 edition, but the rest I had to squint at on the HathiTrust website. It’s taken me three days of such squinting, but I have found some interesting things with regard to how this editor thinks about the stage. I’ll share a few of them here.

The first item I have is an extraordinary assertion that appears sixteen pages into Theobald’s preface. It goes like this:

The ease and sweetness of [Shakespeare’s] temper might not a little contribute to his facility in writing; as his employment as a player, gave him an advantage and habit of fancying himself the very character he meant to delineate. He used the helps of his function in forming himself to create and express that sublime, which other actors can only copy, and throw out, in action and graceful attitude. But nullum sine seia placuit ingenium, say Seneca, The genius that gives us the greatest pleasure sometimes stands in need of our indulgence.

Now the idea that being an actor helped Shakespeare write his plays might seem rather obvious, but what Theobald is doing here marks a striking departure from Pope, and indeed much other writing about Shakespeare, where many of Shakespeare’s faults were attributed to his association with the common stage and his need to earn money from it. Rather than emphasise the restriction the theatrical life placed upon Shakespeare’s poetic genius, Theobald instead proposes that work as an actor helped it bloom. This is the only time such a claim is made by Theobald, but little hints appear elsewhere to indicate that Theobald occasionally thought of Shakespeare the theatrical practitioner with less distaste than Pope. When discussing the Henry VI plays, he hypothesises that they were only finished (and not composed) by Shakespeare in his role of (the mysteriously named) “director of the stage”. In an earlier volume, this time in a footnote to Henry IV Part One, Theobald goes as far as to wish for more errors in texts where actors’ names were copied instead of characters’, if this were the case, “we might have known what particular parts were performed by Shakespeare himself, and the other eminent actors in the company with him.”

Accompanying this interest in the role of the theatre in Shakespeare’s imagination is Theobald’s own striking ability to imagine what would be happening on stage. This results in glosses and justifications for emendations of a very different kind from the more common, comparative or palaeographic procedures. Pope’s harmonisation of some verse in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is criticised for ruining the humour of a speech that depends on the actor mis-stopping his lines, Posthumous’ costume changes are clear on the stage but obscure in the printed text, while one only has to imagine the scene in Hamlet to work out what Polonius does when he says “there” to Laertes in the line: “ The Wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, / And you are stay’d for[] there[.] My blessing…”

There – where? In the shoulder of his sail? For to that must this local adverb relate, as tis situated. Besides, it is a dragging idle expletive, and seems of no use but to support the measure of the verse. But when we come to point this passage right, and to the poet’s intention in it, we shall find it neither unnecessary, nor improper, in its place. In the speech immediately preceding this, Laertes taxes himself for staying so long; but seeing his father approach, he is willing to stay for a second blessing, and kneels down to that end: Polonius accordingly lays his hand on his head, and gives him the second blessing. The manner, in which a comic actor, behaved upon this occasion, was sure to raise a laugh of pleasure in the audience: and the oldest quarto’s, in the pointing, are a confirmation that thus the poet intended it, and thus the stage expressed it.

I could give other examples, but I’ll stop here and pick out too Theobald’s implicit understanding of actor-author relations in the way he describes the stage as the expression of the poet’s intention in the last sentence of this note.

Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia in a modern production of Hamlet, found on flickr.

As well as a well-developed theatrical imaginary, Theobald’s edition stands out in one other way with regard to actors. If Pope had castigated the ‘player editor’ as the source of so many of the errors in Shakespeare’s text, Theobald goes one step further and criticises both player-editors and ‘poet-editors’. The latter is, in many respects, a clear dig at Pope, continuing the war that began with Theobald’s Shakespeare Restored and continues into Pope’s The Dunciad, but it also incorporates Rowe, since he was also a playwright-poet. Theobald’s point is that neither player nor poet make adequate editors, only such a person as he.

‘Poet-editors’ are criticised for adding euphony to the detriment of sense, missing obvious emendations dictated by the meter, wishing to create something of their own and so defacing Shakespeare, not doing the graft of collation, and so on. The list for ‘player editors’ is just as long, and would probably be longer if one also included all those errors Theobald lists as arising from the mechanics of transmitting a script from stage to page. The ‘player editors’, in short, prefer sound over sense, misspell or replace any complicated words they don’t recognise, reorganise and stretch verse for a big effect, and, perhaps worse of all, create negative feedback loops by incorporating one set of errors into future influential productions.

This is only meant to be a summary, so I won’t go into more details here. While Theobald may appear quite sympathetic to the role of the stage in the transmission of Shakespeare, it is still – I think – only a relative measure. The real emphasis on what is new with Theobald in this area should lie on two things: first, his detailed imagination of theatrical process, which allows both praise and a more discerning attribution of blame; and, second, his hostility to all previous editors, both poet and player. One observation from my tallying comes in handy here, and will also serve me as conclusion: did you know that out of the 1 350 notes to his edition, Theobald criticises Pope in almost 300 of them?

Download my spreadsheet here if you wish to generate more such tidbits.


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