Editors and Actors: Steevens

George Steevens’s edition of twenty plays of Shakespeare, being all those works published during the playwright’s lifetime, has a clear, and wonderfully scholarly, aim: disgusted at the variously exaggerated and insufficient efforts at collating Shakespeare’s plays so far, Steevens aspires simply to have “collected materials for future artists”, by making the quartos accessible to a wider audience. Steevens was helped in this by David Garrick, who loaned him a great many rare early editions of Shakespeare’s plays; yet while Steevens was on very good terms with contemporary actors, he has a predicatbly low opinion of the players of Shakespeare’s time.

George Steevens, an 1800 engraving of an earlier portrait by Zoffany.
It all begins on the eighth page of Steevens’s “Advertisement to the Reader”, where he quotes Pope‘s view of “the general character of the quarto editions”, which was that these versions were superior to the First Folio, since this latter was stuffed with “additions of trifling and bombast passages” by its player-editors, Heminges and Condell. If such disparagement of the player-editor was not enough, Steevens goes on to enumerate further errors due to actors and found in the First Folio, such as “an unusual word changed into one more popular”. This would never have had the “consent of the author: for he would hardly have unnerved a line in his written copy”, but the actor – ever a figure who panders to public demand – must have committed this atrocity. Indeed, the only thing the player-editors are praised for is their “caution against profaneness”, which allowed them to remove much swearing from the quartos.

As well as criticising the First Folio, Steevens does much to praise the quartos. Perhaps taking his cue from the title pages he reproduces, which often mention the text being “written by William Shakespeare” or “newly corrected and enlarged”, Steevens holds that these early editions allow us to see Shakespeare’s mind at work without the interpolations of the players getting in the way. These are his words:

In the plays [this book] contains, the poet’s first thoughts as well as words are preserved; the additions made in subsequent impressions, distinguished in italics, and the performances themselves make their appearance with every typographical error, such as they were before they fell into the hand of the player-editors.

The idea that these texts allow an entry into Shakespeare’s creative process is interesting since it makes a claim for textual scholarship that was previously made for performance. Betterton, and later Garrick, were both believed to have, as skilled actors, a closer relationship to Shakespeare than others, yet now, by studying textual evidence, non-actors, scholars can have such insight too. Such process is encouraged by Steevens as he includes the non-Shakespearean History of King Leir (note the spelling) as a source that, when compared to Shakespeare’s Lear will reveal how much greater this writer was than his contemporaries.

Steevens’s view of the difference between quarto editions and the First Folio is very interesting, but it also raises some tricky questions. If Steevens was inspired by the publication dates and title pages of the quartos to emphasise Shakespeare’s involvement in their production, what does he make of the fact that all these editions also announce performances, and in some cases describe where the play was acted and do not give the author’s name? At the very least, this might suggest that printers and readers, even during Shakespeare’s life, were in fact more interested in the text as property of the actors than as property of the author. Of course, the riposte to this has already been articulated by Pope (and reprinted by Steevens): such reference to performance is just proof of how Shakespeare was obliged to lower his genius to the level of the theatregoing public. A slightly harder question to ask of Steevens would be why he imposes Folio act and scene divisions on the quarto of Richard II, or why he seems to suggest (amongst much contempt for the Folio elsewhere) that the Folio edition of King John is proof that Shakespeare rewrote the quarto to improve it.

There’s no way of getting an answer to these questions, but they all lead back to the enduring curiosity about Shakespeare’s methods, and the extent to which the workings of his genius were recoverable. Perhaps the most important point of this edition, then, for me, is Steevens’s wholehearted belief that textual scholarship offered a way of getting past the corruptions of the stage to at least perceive Shakespeare at work. Revealingly, Steevens first elaborates this idea with a metaphor drawn not from the world of letters but from that of painting. I’ll conclude with this passage, which occurs when this editor wishes to explain why such a collection of quartos is necessary for those who are true aficionados of Shakespeare.

Of some [plays] I have printed more than one copy; as there are many persons, who not contented with the possession of a finished picture of some great master, are desirous to procure the first sketch that was made for it, that they may have the pleasure of tracing the progress of the artist from the first light colouring to the finishing stroke.

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