Editors and Actors: Blair/Reid

An unflattering portrait of Blair, produced in 1798, two years before his death.
In order to look at this Scottish edition of Shakespeare, edited by Hugh Blair and John Reid, I had to take my first trip to the British Library. Even in this collection, the only version available was a 1753 London reprint of the original 1752 Edinburgh edition. It was all I needed to see, though, and I garnered a few bits of information for my first chapter, as well as a three-year membership of the BL, which I’m sure will come in handy.

This edition is both very lightly and very heavily edited. The voices of Hugh Blair and John Reid only really appear in a very short preface at the beginning of the first volume, where they announce their methodology. That methodology could be accurately described as an amalgamation of all the judgments of Pope, Warburton and Hanmer. Following these august figures, this edition marks all those passages found to be beauties by them (one comma for Pope, two for Warburton) and relegates everything thought to be unworthy of Shakespeare (either to the bottom of the page, like Pope and Hanmer, or between brackets like Warburton). As a result of all this textual disturbance, the presence of editing is very clear indeed, even if it is not orginally that of Blair and Reid.

Given that Blair is now famous for his lectures on rhetoric and his role in an effort to improve literary discernment, such wholesale incorporation of such discerning judges as Warburton, Pope and Hanmer is not too hard to understand. The absence of Theobald from this list is a good indication of how effective Pope’s attacks on this rival were: Pope and co. are models to look up to as models of good taste, Theobald – smeared by Pope – is not. On top of the comments of three editors, Blair and Reid also include an index that allows readers to find those passages marked by Dodd as beauties in his popular anthologisation of Shakespeare. Thus the reader can find even more easily those passages responsible for Blair’s own description of the playwright, found in his lectures:

…[he] pleases by his animated and masterly representations of characters, by the liveliness of his descriptions, the force of his sentiments, and his possessing beyond all writers, the natural language of passion: beauties which true criticism no less teaches us to place in the highest rank, than nature teaches us to feel.

Needless to say, such a beauty-driven approach to the plays of Shakespeare (the result of the thinking that underwrites the above quote) comes close to removing all connection with the world of the theatre. Even following the text of a play from start to finish, let alone imagining its performance, is hard when navigating the various relegations and marginal markings.

One other thing in this edition also caught my attention, and that is a potential connection to the work of Morgann and Richardson. At the end of volume eight, there is a fascinating set of indexes (based, I suspect, on those found in Warburton’s edition) that allow you to find pretty much any specific passage, whether you’re looking for something in terms of “character” or “sentiment”. Regarding character, one can choose between “fictional” and “historical”. In the case of the former, some characters have potted biographies at the beginning of their entries: Hamlet is “ an accomplished young prince unfortunate”, Juliet “ beautiful, constant, and unfortunate in love”. Having read this, I then turned to Falstaff, and encountered this monster of an entry:

Falstaff, Sir John, resolves on an intrigue with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page, i. 190. His billet-doux 195. Settles an assignation with Mrs Quickly, 203. His discovery of it to Ford, disguised like Brook 208. His first address to Mrs Ford 218. Surprised and escapes in a basket 220, 1. His account of his being thrown into the Thames 226. Another assignation with Mrs Quickly 227. Makes a full relation to Ford of his former disappointment 228. Meets with Mrs Ford, and is again surprised 232. Escapes undiscovered in the disguise of an old woman 237. His soliloquy on this occasion 246. He relates to Ford his late disappointment, ib. He meets Mrs Ford in Windsor park 248. Surprised, and seized by Mr Ford 251. His course of life described by Pr. Henry, iv. 82. He concerts a robbery with the Prince, 85. His horse taken from him in the adventure 98. Insults the Prince, to conceal his own cowardice 107. Personates the King, to chide Prince Henry 114. The tavern-bill found in his pocket 118. His rallery on Bardolph’s red nose 131. Quarrels with the hostess 131. His description of his new-raised company 139. His description of honour 148. His behaviour in the battle at Shrewsbury 151. Wounds Percy after he was dead, and assumes the merit of killing him 157. He rails at his page, the Prince, and the mercer 167. Reprimanded by the Chief Justice 179. Pacifies Mrs Quickly and borrows more money 180. His letter to the Prince 184. Treats Doll Tearsheet 188. Revenges her quarrel on Pistol 192. Surprised with her by te Prince whilst he was railing at him 193. Enlists soldiers before Justice Shallow 202. His character of the Justice 208. Takes Colevil prisoner 218. His encomium on the virtues of sack 220. His character of Justice Shallow and his family 233. Receives news of Henry IV’s death 241. Presents himself to Henry V. 243. Reprimanded by the King, and ordered to the fleet 244, 5. An account of his sickness 262. Host. and of his death 269.

In case you missed it, what is remarkable about this summary is the way it occludes what happens in which play, so that it reads almost as a list of all the major incidents in the life of Falstaff. In embryo, then, one finds here a biographical approach that Morgann will push to the extreme. This is important evidence for me, as I originally presumed that Morgann’s approach had its roots in stage illusion above all. However, I must now take into account the precedent of the biographical impression such index-based anthologisation gives. This shouldn’t be a problem: I don’t think many others have commented on this at all, not least because of the relative scarcity of Reid and Blair’s edition.

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