Works and plays of Shakespeare: Nicholas Rowe, editor (1709); Alexander Pope (1723–25); Samuel Johnson, editor (1765)

Following in his father’s footsteps, Nicholas Rowe trained for a career in law. With his keen interest in literature, however, he turned from the bar to writing drama, supported by an ample inheritance after his father’s death in 1692. His first tragedy, The Ambitious Stepmother, was produced in 1700 and his last in 1715. Yet, Rowe’s most lasting achievement was his edition of Shakespeare’s works, which was commissioned by Jacob Tonson. Tonson was founder of a publishing house that dominated Shakespeare in print in the 18th century.

Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare was groundbreaking in many respects. The introductory material included the first biography of Shakespeare, written by Rowe drawing on materials gathered by actor Thomas Betterton, whose research included travel to Stratford to talk to residents. Rowe based his edition on the text of the Fourth Folio and put concerted effort into “regularizing” the presentation of the plays. Notably, he included lists of dramatis personae to each of plays, and applying his skills as a playwright, consistently broke the plays into acts and scenes and added entrances and exits of players.

In a break from tradition, The Works of William Shakespear was published as a six-volume set of octavos rather than a large folio. The set was “Adorn’d with Cuts”—each of the forty-three plays (including apocrypha) was prefaced with an image depicted a scene. Produced in a short amount of time, François Boitard’s baroque-style engravings were likely based on a reading of the plays and limited attendance of performances.

Other significant 18th-century editions followed; renowned editors included Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. Tonson engaged Alexander Pope to produce a handsome new edition, correcting text faults in Rowe’s work. Pope treaded beyond reconciling differences among early editions and eliminated passages that he believed were actors’ inclusions and not written by Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson’s edition is best remembered for his preface. He had devoted twenty years studying Shakespeare to prepare his monumental Dictionary. Johnson moved the editing of Shakespeare in the direction of considering the earlier texts to be most authoritative. The century ended with the edition by Edmond Malone (1790), who is considered to be the best of the editors and his work served as a standard for many years. (The Clark Library recently acquired a first edition).

Chrzanowski 1709s*, f Chrzanowski 1725s*, and Chrzanowski 1765s*

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675