Category Archives: Eighteenth Century

The Canons of Criticism

I’ve just finished yet another book in the series Eighteenth-century Shakespeare, this time called The Canons of Criticism, by Thomas Edwards, first published in 1748, and reissued six times thereafter, finally stopping in 1765. The book is a critique of Bishop Warburton’s 1747 edition of Shakespeare’s works. It functions by fulfilling Warburton’s over-ambitious promise of a “supplement” (including “canons of criticism” and “glossary”) to his edition for him, albeit extremely critically. The first “Canon”, which Edwards claims to have kindly extracted from Warburton’s editing style, provides sufficient example of his intent:

A Professed Critic has a right to declare, that his Author wrote whatever he thinks he should have written; with as much positiveness as if he had been at his Elbow.

Unsurprisingly, Edwards was repeatedly denounced by Warburton, but still continued needling the Bishop, hence the seven editions from 1748 to 1765. In many ways, this book offers a fairly typical example of the pamphlets (and books) published as part of the long wrangle over editing Shakespeare. As I read it, though, I was interested in how much a text so deeply embroiled in debates of punctuation and glossing looked out to other spheres in which Shakespeare was active, such as references to French learning or invocations of how Shakespeare in performance..

The short answer is: not much. But then, I wasn’t expecting there to be, given that Edwards is so focussed on demolishing Warburton’s editing. Rather, what little I did find on the edges of the work was of some interest to me, and, as far as I know, unremarked by others.

First up, references to France. There are two things I noticed here. First, that any reference by Edwards to the world beyond the shores of Britain occurs only when Warburton instigates it: thus French neoclassical authorities like Bossu, Rapin or Dacier only crop up when the Bishop has (in the judgment of this text) misapplied them. Second, that by far the most frequent subject of references to France is the critique of Warburton’s attempt to insert French words into cruces of Shakespeare’s text. Here’s one neat example:

Examp. IV. Vol. 4. P. 97. I HENRY IV.
“No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall damp her lips with her own childrens blood.”
“Shall damp her lips] This nonsense should be read, shall trempe [from French, “tremper”, to soak], i.e. moisten; and refers to thirsty in the preceding line.” WARB.
Why must this be nonsense? And why must Shakespear thus continually be made to use improper French words, against the authority of the copies, instead of proper English? […]

There’s a tasty mix of patriotism (“proper English”) and editorial method (“authority of the copies”) here, but my problem is that these attacks on Walpole are not confined to his use of French: Italian, Latin, and Greek references all come under fire. This leads to a larger question about whether my thesis is solid enough if I focus just on French influences and appearances, since in cases such as these, all I end up doing is dismantling a jingoistic view of Shakesepeare in the period for a marginally less myopic binational version of events.

Bishop Warburton
William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester. I couldn’t find a picture of Edwards.

I’ll file that doubt for now.

The second marginal aspect of this text that caught my eye was references to the stage. These can be hard to identify: when Edwards talks about the effect of a line “on the hearers”, he is manifestly more interested in Shakespeare the poet than Shakespeare the dramatist, for example. Indeed, the frequent appeals to “a reader of common sense and common attention” make it clear why the stage does not often appear.

Nevertheless, there are a few useful tidbits. First is the common anitpathy of the textual critic to the actor. Edwards quotes Pope for the idea that the corruption of the text is the fault of the Jacobean actors’ sloppy habits, and then, in a sonnet at the end of the book, reiterates the point with talk of “the rubbish cast on thy fair page / By Players or ignorant or forgetive”. Yet for all this antipathy, Edwards is not above castigating Warburton for misdescribing passages as “interpolations of the players”, and, on one occasion, wryly remarks that such categorisation is all too easy, and leads to poor editing.

One final point about the theatre in this volume. After chipping away at Warburton for two hundred or so pages, Edwards copies in a series of remarks from a “Mr [Richard] Roderick”, included for their “acute yet sober criticisms of Shakespeare’s text”. As well as much on textual matters, Roderick also turns to performance when trying to explain all the shifts of emotion in Lear, observing that “the Looks of the Actor would convey the sentiment more effectually, than any explanation can do”. Given that Garrick was starring as Lear at this time, I suppose though, that it is not too surprising that the path from textual criticism to reflections on the actor should run through the stormy heath.

That said, the existence of such a path at all is important, and makes for an interesting, if unconsidered trifle to snap up.

Voltaire and Falstaff

This post was written when my work was orientated towards the influence of French literary criticism on the eighteenth-century appreciation of Shakespeare, and is thus slightly out of sync with the rest of the material presented on this website. More details here.

Eduard von Grützner's 1921 painting of Falstaff
Eduard von Grützner’s 1921 painting of Falstaff
Voltaire, although I’m afraid I don’t know the artist

I admit that Voltaire and Falstaff make for an unlikely pairing: one is best remembered as a wizened philosopher and champion of the persecuted, the other as “plump Jack” and a persecutor of champions. Despite this, I came across a curious couple of passages in Maurice Morgann’s Essay on the Dramatic Character of Falstaff which bring the two into unexpected and fruitful harmony.

As one of the earliest ‘character studies’ of a literary text, Morgann’s 1777 work is full of oddities and unusual reflections, many of which inspired such later writers as Hazlitt in the nineteenth and A.C. Bradley in the twentieth century. His union of Voltaire and Falstaff, however, deserves to be pointed out, since it is a particularly odd mix of the conventional and the unusual.

First, the conventional. Early on, Morgann launches into a critique of Voltaire as part of a general defence of how Shakespeare’s works go against neoclassical doctrine. In a similar vein, Samuel Johnson speaks of how Voltaire’s mocking of Shakespearean irregularity represents the “petty cavils of petty minds”, whilst Elizabeth Montagu simply calls the Frenchman’s claims “misrepresentations”. Morgann’s phrases, although particularly dramatic, are very much part of this Arouet-bashing tradition:

When the hand of time shall have brushed off [Shakespeare’s] present Editors and Commentators, and when the very name of Voltaire, and even the memory of the language in which he has written, shall be no more, the Apalachian mountains, the banks of the Ohio, and the plains of Sciota, shall resound with the accents of this Barbarian.

Now, the unconventional. Having consigned Voltaire and the entire French language to the dustbin of history, Morgann nevertheless reaches for Voltaire’s Candide as a way of explaining something particularly tricky: the question of how we can enjoy and even sympathise with something that we should, if thinking rationally, abhor. This is the case, Morgann claims, with Falstaff, whom, extracted from the theatre and encountered in real life, would be quite horrible. Yet Falstaff, “plump Jack” charms audiences, just as Candide, with its rapes, murders and thefts, should appal us and yet entertains.

Setting Shakespeare’s creation and Voltaire’s alongside each other (and suspending his anti-Gallic leanings) allows Morgann to propose a clever distinction. He argues that we respond to fiction (be it staged or read, but that’s a different debate) both with “understanding” and with “mental impressions”: our understanding would detest Falstaff or the plot of Candide, but our “mental impressions” win us over. From this, the critic’s task is to study those minute details that help to influence our “mental impressions”, whether they be “the gay, easy and light tone” of Voltaire or the “double character” of Falstaff.

So there you have it: Voltaire and Falstaff, an unlikely conjoining that helps lay the foundations for the study of those tiny details that govern “mental impressions”, a labour modern-day undergraduates might call “practical criticism”.

Diderot and Shakespeare’s Performability

This is the text of a five-minute presentation I recently gave as a training exercise at Cambridge. Since it was for a non-specialist audience, and had to be kept both short and clear, I thought it would make a great blog post. Enjoy.


Two observations. The performances of the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick were praised as a “commentary” on Shakespeare’s playtext; however, thirty years after Garrick’s retirement, romantic critics such as Hazlitt and Lamb wrote that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”.

Today, I’m going to offer an explanation for this reversal, which might also further our understanding about the relative strength of categories like ‘drama’ and ‘poetry’ at the end of the eighteenth century.

This work is drawn from one chapter of my PhD. In this short version, I will begin with a sketch of eighteenth-century writing about Shakespeare in performance, then show how the ideas Denis Diderot and James Boswell had about acting offer a connection to romantic claims about Shakespeare’s ‘unperformability’, concluding that Hazlitt and Lamb’s claims actually have clear roots in the French and English Enlightenment thought they appear to repudiate.

1. Shakespeare in and of the theatre

Shakespeare was frequently performed on the stages of eighteenth-century London. Because of this, and because of his availability in print, works that discuss the theatre from this period frequently use Shakespeare’s works and hypotheses about the writer himself to support their arguments. However, in so doing, they also paint a specific portrait of Shakespeare, one inextricable from the workings of the theatre. They do this in the following ways:

  •  By using quotations from Shakespeare to illustrate points of acting technique. An actor must “stiffen the sinews” to show anger (just as Shakespeare wrote in Henry V); or show the dignity that Shakespeare has Hamlet find in a portrait of his dead father.
  •  By imagining Shakespeare’s own involvement with the theatre, either as an actor, playing the ghost of Old Hamlet, or as a master of theatrical effect, as shown by the stage directions to The Tempest.
  •  By reproducing or subverting the link Garrick claimed between himself and Shakespeare. This is done positively, for example, in paintings showing Garrick wrapping a brotherly arm around a statue of Shakespeare; on the other hand, one also finds imaginative accounts of Garrick in the underworld, listening to Shakespeare condemn his acting skills.

Overall, through quotation, re-imagination and the influence of Garrick … the understanding of Shakespeare as an author, as well as the study of his works, appears deeply connected to the theatre in the eighteenth century.

2. New theories of acting

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Because of the connection between Shakespeare and the stage, it is reasonable to presume that new ways of thinking about acting might have a bearing on new ways of thinking about Shakespeare. The largest debate about performance in this period involved the question of whether actors feel what they are acting whilst they are acting it: does Garrick, for example, feel sadness when he plays a grieving King Lear? For the most part, the answer to this is yes; moreover, Shakespeare is himself imagined as having the same delicacy of feeling, something which only becomes fully apparent in performance of his works. In the face of this orthodoxy, two writers, James Boswell in England and Denis Diderot in France, argue that the actor takes some distance from his emotions when he is performing. This, I believe, impacts ways of thinking about Shakespeare.

  • Boswell, in 1770, argued that the actor has ‘two chambers’ in his head, one which is filled with all the emotion of the role, and one ‘inner chamber’ which remains cold and calculating, directing the performer’s movements according to a prepared script.
  • Diderot, at around the same time, argued that the actor feels nothing when acting but rather, prior to performance, has imagined the entirety of their role. When acting, the performer then attempts to correspond to the ideal image of the part that they have in their head.
James Boswell (1740-1795)
James Boswell (1740-1795)

What is striking about both these theories is that they displace the work of the performer from the stage to the period of preparation before going in front of an audience. This is crucial, because it means that ideas originally articulated with relation to what happens on stage can now be applied in all sorts of different arenas: to barristers (for Boswell), to prostitutes (for Diderot), and, more generally, to authors such as Shakespeare, who can have a dramatic genius but be separate from the stage. Shakespeare can be ‘unperformable’ and yet retain something of the actor, because, in the eyes of Diderot and Boswell, the real work of the actor occurs prior to the performance.


We have now seen how eighteenth-century claims about the importance of the theatre to understanding Shakespeare give rise to Lamb and Hazlitt’s claims that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”. This shift is facilitated by a new wave of acting theory that detaches the actor’s work from the stage, instead placing the emphasis on the actor’s preparation, preparation which can serve as a model for poetic creation.