Category Archives: Summing-up Summer

Shakespeare’s off-stage beauties

Dodd (in his day job as clergyman) officiating at a Tyburn execution, date and author unknown

The Beauties of Shakespear, Regularly Selected from Each Play, with a General Index Digesting them under Proper Heads, Illustrated with Explanatory Notes and Similar Passages from Ancient and Modern Authors was a bestseller: my text was from 1752 (first edition), but reprintings of this anthology, each larger than the last, abounded. As well as being popular, William Dodd’s anthology is also a book that seems to do all it can to avoid contact with the stage, and I thought I’d take a moment to evaluate some of the work’s techniques in this respect.

The preface to the anthology contains the wish that critics had “sociably united; and instead of putting themselves in a posture of defence one against another, jointly taken the field, and united all their efforts to rescue so inimitable an author from the Gothic outrage of dull players, duller printers, and still duller editors.” The antipathy is clear, and continues in a more muted fashion with appeals to the “attentive reader” of Shakespeare, and a marked preference for the exploration of Shakespeare’s learning (the knowledge of the Athenian legal system displayed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example) and the discovery of classical parallels (such as the bees speech from Henry V and Virgil’s Georgics).

On top of this, Dodd presents his quotations shorn of all context. To the point that he has to reconstitute stage directions in a footnote in order to make sense of Rumour’s speech at the start of Henry IV part 2. It is hard to imagine any kind of stage when a speech is announced with such a title as “Tears compared to dew upon a lily” (any guesses?).

Nevertheless, if one looks closely enough, Dodd is not wholly antipathetic to the stage. Some of the beauties he selects are famous set pieces for actors (such as Adam’s scenes in As You Like It), while there are more than a few footnotes devoted to the praise of Garrick as Benedick or as King Lear. In addition to this, whereas Dodd occasionally bemoans the interpolations of actors, he ends up quoting Romeo’s solioquy upon his death in order to show how superior to the adapted stage versions are to it.

[On Romeo’s dying speech] I have given the reader this last speech of Romeo, rather to let him into the plot, and convince him of the merit of the lacerations made in it, than for any singular beauty of its own; Romeo’s surviving till Juliet awakens, is certainly productive of great beauties, particularly in the acting. And, indeed, this play of our author’s hath met with better success than any other which has been attempted to be altered: whoever reader Otway’s Caius Marius will soon be convinced of this; and it is to be wish’d none would presume to build upon Shakespeare’s foundation, but such as are equal masters with Otway.

This can be read two ways: either that Dodd believes there are some beauties of Shakespeare to be found on the stage, or that, since these adaptations are not from the pen of Shakespeare, they deserve no place in this anthology. After all, the actor and the theatre, in the little they appear, always remain in the footnotes: pride of place is given to the beauties, which do not announce themselves as stage beauties.

Malone’s Method

The following comes from an exchange between Edmund Malone and Joseph Ritson, where the latter violently attacked Malone’s 1778 edition of Shakespeare, stooping so low as to attribute any errors to Malone’s “irishness”. At one point, Malone gives his method regarding which texts to use as the basis of an edition.

The second edition of a printed book can only derive authority from its being printed with the author’s last corrections, or from some more correct manuscript of his work than that from which the first edition was printed. From whence should the authority of the second folio be derived? We know that Shakespeare did not correct his manuscripts for the press, even for the first edition which was published in 1623 […]

Edmund Malone, by Joshua Reynolds 1786

This short passage is interesting for not mentioning the role of actors in the preparation of the first folio, either for good or ill. After all, actors with a memory of Shakespeare’s performance were around when the first folio was published, and indeed when the second was issued in 1632 too. That Malone discounts the contribution of actors to the improvement of the text is indicative of a certain way of thinking about Shakespeare’s plays: they are the property of Shakespeare only, and best enjoyed as the sole expression of his own mind to the extent that such a thing is possible.

I shall, at some point, have to read Malone’s notes for references to the theatre. Given the attitude evinced here, I expect it to be very slim pickings indeed. That said, such slim pickings are useful in their own way: it’s important not to push the theatre into everything, and its exclusion is just as interesting as its inclusion.


Another quote from Malone on his method:

Thus some emendations have been taken even from Pope and Hanmer, as well as from the editor of the second folio; though all these editors have with almost equal licentiousness corrupted the author’s text; but they are adopted, not because their books are of any authority, but because the emendations themselves are evidently just; for the editor of the second folio, as soon as his book is proved not to be authentic, can rank only by the side of any other conjecturer, commentator, or verbal critic.

Except that any other conjecturer may not have been alive at a time when Shakespeare’s performances could be remembered and his actors interviewed…

Gildon on Illusion

Another quick post, this time after perusing Gildon’s Miscellaneous Letters and Essays (1694). I spotted two things here. First, that this text contains an early hypothesis about Shakespeare being influenced by the theatrical conditions of his time, with the idea that “the Person that Acted Iago was in much esteem for a Comedian”, so “Shakespeare put several words, and expressions into this part (perhaps not so agreeable to the Character) to make the Audience laugh, who had not yet learnt to endure to be serious a whole Play.” The phrase is useful for its disapproval of both audience and actor.

Still in Gildon’s discussion of Othello, there’s an interesting attempt at a biography for Othello, well before Richardson or Morgann attempted the same thing.

Supposing him therefore, the son or Nephew of the Emperor of Monomotopa, Aethiopia or Congo, forc’d to leave his Country for Religion, or any other occasion, coming to Europe by the convenience of the Portuguese Ships, might after several Fortunes, serve first as a Volunteer till he had signalised himself, and proved himself worthy of Command; part of this may very reasonably be drawn from what the Poet makes him say. [i.e. “I fetch my Life and Being from Men of Royal Siege” – quoted later]

Othello and Desdemona in Venice, Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856)

As with other biographies of dramatis personae the normal argument is to suggest that this detaches such characters from the play they are in. Again, however, I would point out that this passage actually arises as a way of defending Shakespeare’s Othello from Rhymer’s criticism that Venice’s employment of a Moor as general is improbable and therefore breaks all dramatic illusion. By positing an extra-textual life story for Othello, Gildon is interested in showing the coherence of the stage performance, the fact that it is possible to get lost within it, whatever Rhymer says.

This little piece will make a useful addition to the analysis of Shakespeare and dramatic illusion. Although such a pairing might be a bit odd (aren’t all plays engaged in dramatic illusion), it certainly seems that Shakespeare’s works are the only one to provoke such anxiety so regularly: I can’t think of any hypothetical biographies of Jaffeir, for example…

A Short Post on Dennis, Johnson and Montagu

This will be a short post. There’s just one part of Dennis’s Impartial Critick (1693) which caught my eye. It is found in the fifth dialogue, as the speakers continue to jusify (contra Rhymer) the absence of a chorus from the modern stage. Broadening the discussion, one interlocutor makes a comment about dramatic illusion:

BEAUM. Nay, I will grant you, that there is an occasion for us to give way to a wholesome delusion, if we design to receive either delight or profit from the Drama. But, however, a Poet is still to endeavour that his Representation be attended with as much probability as it is capable of: And it is much easier for a thousand Spectators to imagine themselves in some open place, either at Mycenae or Thebes, than to imagine themselves in a King’s Cabinet in either of those two places.

John Dennis, by John Vandergucht (1734)

Johnson takes issue with such statements when he argues that it is just as easy to imagine oneself in Egypt as spending twenty four extremely busy hours in a chamber of a palace. What distinguishes Dennis from Johnson further is the idea of “wholesome delusion”, that the audience must be lost in the world of the play in order to benefit from the moral improvement it offers. A more sophisticated version of this, again against Johnson (and this time, I suspect, deliberately) is to be found in Elizabeth Montagu’s An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare.

Her title’s ‘Writings and Genius’ actually echoes Dennis’s On the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare (1711). What goes around comes around.

Theobald and the Theatre

Hamlet Q1, discovered in 1823, long after Theobald’s death

The first book ever published about Hamlet was a scathing attack on the way Alexander Pope had edited the play, supplemented with additional point-scoring on the back of errors found elsewhere in the poet’s 1725 edition. This book was Theobald’s Shakespeare Restored, and I came to it with the slightly odd question of whether this volume, highly significant in the tradition of textual editing, had any connection to the stage alongside its devotion to the printed page. Having read it through, I can say that there is only a little, but what little there is, is interesting. Take, for example, the subject of Theobald’s dedication, the actor John Rich, better known for his extraordinary skills as a Harlequin. Given that pantomime was seen as the traditional enemy of such high theatre as Shakespeare’s, this leads to some rather complex witticisms on Theobald’s part. Having mused that pantomime may one day glorify Shakespeare, the lawyer-turned-editor then finds new ground for praise.

I am justified in this Address by another Consideration, which is, That however you may have been a Sinner against SHAKESPEARE, you are not an impenitent one. And as Kind Henry IV erected a Chapel to expiate the Injuries which he had done to his Predecessor, King Richard; so the Town at least say, you intend to appease the Manes of our Poet by erecting a MONUMENT to him.

Yet why Theobald chooses Rich is not really clear. My best hypothesis is that Theobald (as well as desirous of a manager’s patronage) also saw some affinity between himself and the king of pantomime. Both glorify Shakespeare (as an editor or as one of the supporters of the monument in Westminster Abbey) but both operate in an unusual way (Rich as Harlequin, Theobald as a critic of the pre-eminent poet of his day). This is not a strong argument, but it does make a little more sense of the dedication.

Beyond the address to Rich, Theobald dives into the catalogue of Pope’s errors. His reasoning for choosing Hamlet is worth first noting, though.

I can scarce suspect it will be thought, if I begin my Animadversions upon the Tragedy of HAMLET, that I have been partial to myself in picking out this Play, as one more fertile in Errors than any of the rest: On the contrary, I chose it for Reasons quite opposite. It is, perhaps, the best known, and one of the most favourite Plays of our Author: For these thirty years last past, I believe not a Seasons has elapsed, in which it has not been perform’d on the Stage more than once; and, consequently, we might presume it the most purg’d and free from Faults and Obscurity. Yet give me Leave to say, what I am ready to prove, it is not without very gross Corruptions. Nor does it stand by itself for Faults in Mr POPE’s Edition: No, it is a Specimen only of the epidemical Corruption, if I may be allowed to use that Phrase, which runs through all the work.

There is an implicit criticism of actors and of audiences here, who have been unable to discern deficiencies in the text and have thus blithely watched its many performances without purging it. Hence the importance of the editor, who steps in where actors have not trod.

Despite this unappealing start and the frequent mentions the ‘interpolations of the players’ as a source of textual corruption, Theobald actually finds only a tiny number of errors attributable to performers. Indeed, sometimes the stage supports actually certain emendations as they work best in an aural environment, such as the reduplication in “That father lost, lost his”, giving “an Energy and an Elegance, which is much easier to be conceiv’d, than explain’d in Terms.” Elsewhere, a similar argument about euphony is advanced to justify the elision of syllables to make lines metrical that Pope felt compelled to edit into regularity. While the stage may be incapable of refining the text, therefore, it does function as a proving ground for textual scholarship. Such a view of the theatre as a laboratory connects textual criticism to the character studies of the eighteenth century, who also appeal to performance to validate their conclusions about the inner life of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae.

So, with a dedication to Rich, and a clear view of the theatre as both incapable of purging the text and worthy as a laboratory, we find some interest in the little Theobald talks of the stage.

The curious ‘life’ of Thomas Betterton

Thomas Betterton (1635-1710), by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1690s)

Charles Gildon’s The Life of Mr Thomas Betterton (1710) is not really about the life of the famous actor, but rather has some claim to being amongst the earliest attempts at codifying acting in English. Given its novelty, the text unsurprisingly finds legitimacy where it can: the biographical skeleton offers an alluring framework and the placing of precepts in the mouth of a successful actor can only lend more weight to their injunctions. Similarly, Gildon’s work is riddled with classical references, often via French translation and including Quintilian, Lucian, Horace, Cicero and Plutarch. Not content with the conceit of a biography, Gildon also adds further protective frames, announcing that a digression on ancient dance comes from a friend’s manuscript, and inserting long passages from Pollux’s Onomastics on the propriety of pronunciation and from Saint-Evrémond on the insipidity of Opera.

From the early chapters of this book onwards, Gildon is keen to show the overlap between the stage, the pulpit and the bar, which is to say the similarities between actor, priest and barrister. Boswell continues this tradition, which has its roots in the the Ancient Greek and Roman world: many of the sources Gildon turns to for advice, such as Quintilian, are for orators not actors. This causes some problems. Quintilian is famous for arguing that an audience catches the emotion felt by an orator and expressed in his eyes, or, as Gildon puts, it “this Fire of their Eyes will easily strike those of their Audience, which are continually fixt on yours; and by a strange sympathetic Infection, it will set them on Fire too with the very same Passion.” However, whereas Quintilian is describing orators speaking directly to an audience, actors rarely address theatregoers directly and rather speak to each other: how then should they transmit the fire of their eyes out from the stage? This difficulty leads to a rather clumsy paragraph from Gildon:

I would not be misunderstood, when I say you must wholly place your Eyes on the Person or Persons you are engag’d with on the Stage; I mean, that at the same time both Parties keep such a Position in Regard of the Audience, that even these Beauties escape not their Observation, tho never so justly directed. As in a Piece of History-Painting, tho the Figures direct their Eyes never so directly to each other, yet the Beholder, by the Advantage of their Position, has a full View of the Expression of the Soul in the Eyes of the Figures.

The leap to painting as a field of reference (“History Painting” in particular) is also a tell-tale sign that Gildon’s conflation of orator/actor, the result of so many classical sources, has its limits.

Of course, it has its advantages too, for it allows Gildon to avoid, for the most part, naming contemporary actors. He worries, for example, about actresses taking offence at his strictures and so remains ambiguous. Later on, the density of classical examples helps to give the impression that Gildon is promulgating immutable rules of nature, as valid two thousand years ago as they are now.

But what advice does Gildon give? As with Wilkes, all such advice is, of course, also calculated to trigger admiration for those actors who have apparently followed it in becoming successful. This leads to some hyperbole, as praise and persuasion mix. In Gildon’s eyes, actors should, for example, be moral philosophers, sculptors and physically fit. Further, they should feel what they act, although here Gildon makes use of a very curious ‘instrument’ metaphor.

Every Passion or Emotion of the Mind has from Nature its proper and peculiar Countenance, Sound and Gesture; and the whole Body of Man, all his Looks, and every Sound of this Voice, like Strings on an Instrument receive their Sounds from the various Impulse of the Passions.

While this might look almost scientific and calculating to modern eyes, eighteenth-century understandings of the ‘artificial’ make it so that the human body is not so much the actor’s tool but rather the outward surface of the passions he has let take over his performing body. The metaphor is not of a wind instrument but of a violin, where the strings represent the body, vibrating with the energy of the bow.

This metaphor drops out of acting theories as the century goes on, but the general idea about the actor being subject to the passions of the role does not (at least until Diderot). Seeing that Gildon is so early and foundational, it is also worth asking what he has to say about Shakespeare. A cursory glance through the text shows a considerable number of references to Shakespeare’s works (far more than any other author), not to mention the repeated assertion that Shakespeare is the greatest of all playwrights. As well as this, Shakespeare is also a useful source of theatre lore himself. I’ll quote the section of Gildon in full by way of conclusion: it ties into the ‘sentimental’ view of the actor, constitutes yet another example of Gildon’s use of ‘authority’ to strengthen his advice, and – I believe – represents one of the earliest uses of Hamlet in such a context.

The Player therefore, nay, and the Orator too, ought to form in his Mind a very strong Idea of the Subject of his Passion, and then the Passion itself will not fail to follow, rise into the Eyes, and affect both the Sense and Understanding of the Spectators with the same tenderness. The Performance of this is express’d in Shakespeare’s Hamlet admirably well, and should be often consider’d by our young Players:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!

This shews that Shakespeare had a just Notion of Acting, whatever his performance was; for in these few lines is contain’d almost lal that can be said of Action, Looks, and Gesture.