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  • Pope's 1723–25 Shakespear, Classical Editing, and Humanistic Reading Practices
  • Edmund G. C. King

In his 1756 Proposals for a new edition of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson writes that "the observation of faults and beauties is one of the duties of an annotator." However, he goes on to add, "I have never observed that mankind was much delighted or improved by . . . asterisks, commas, or double commas; of which the only effect is, that they preclude the pleasure of judging for ourselves."1 Johnson's target here was Alexander Pope's 1725 Works of Shakespear, in which Pope had employed an elaborate set of typographical symbols to mark what he saw as the "Beauties" and "Faults" in Shakespeare's plays. Marginal inverted commas distinguished Shakespeare's "most shining Passages," while stars appeared at the heads of the most noteworthy scenes. On the other hand, lines that Pope judged "excessively bad" were removed from the text altogether. These so-called "degraded" passages, which Pope implied were non-Shakespearean interpolations, appeared, in small type, at the bottom of the page.2 "Low" scenes —often comic dialogues between minor characters —likewise received Pope's "mark of reprobation": three obelisks or daggers, set at the head of the scene.3 Pope explains what this meant at its first appearance in Two Gentlemen of Verona, act 1, scene 1: [End Page 3]

This whole Scene, like many others in the Plays, (some of which I believe were written by Shakespear, and others interpolated by the Players) is composed of the lowest and most trifling conceits, to be accounted for only from the gross taste of the age he liv'd in; Populo ut placerent. I wish I had authority to leave them out, but I have done all I could, set a mark of reprobation upon them; throughout this edition. †††.


Critical opinion of Pope's Shakespear since the eighteenth century has almost universally followed Johnson's judgment. Writing in 1906, Thomas Lounsbury called Pope's editorial interventions "the most unwarrantable liberty . . . ever . . . taken with the text of a great author." 4 Richard Foster Jones likewise assessed Pope's Shakespear against the norms of twentieth-century editorial method. Jones's narrative of Pope editing Shakespeare is accordingly one of failure —failure to collate against the oldest editions, refusal to follow proper editorial practice, and, finally, a basic inability to edit a text to scholarly standards.5 David Nichol Smith encapsulated this Whig approach to editorial history when he called Pope "a man of genius pursuing a wrong method," in contrast to his editorial successor Lewis Theobald, who was "a man of very moderate capacity striving towards the right" one.6

More recent criticism has placed Pope's efforts to distinguish between the faults and beauties of Shakespeare in the context of eighteenth-century ideologies of taste. In the words of Margreta de Grazia, Pope's Shakespear was an attempt to direct the "aesthetic and moral sensibility" of the British reading public. Pope's asterisks and inverted commas were, then, a signal, expressed through typography, of literary and moral worthiness.7 Indeed, as de Grazia shows, the marginal quotation mark had had a long history as a typographical marker of sententiae or commonplaces.8 Those lines marked in this way were, as Robert B. Hamm, Jr. has recently put it, a series of Shakespearean "highlights" —"the passages a reader of taste needed to know."9 The Shakespeare that emerged, winnowed of his faults, and with his virtues marked for commonplace-book appropriation, was a "respectabilized" one, suitable for eighteenth-century genteel consumption.10

On the one hand, then, Pope's editorial interventions have been seen as merely eccentric. Colin Franklin encapsulates this position when he remarks that "nothing . . . was more whimsical than the appearance or absence of Pope's commas in the margin, or his very rare award of a star to the scene."11 On the other hand, the observation of faults and beauties in Pope's Shakespear has been treated as part of a specifically contemporary [End Page 4] cultural movement —the cultivation of "eighteenth-century bourgeois taste" (de Grazia, "Shakespeare," 65). There has, however, been surprisingly little comment on Pope's typographical symbols...