- Shakespeare's Novels:Charlotte Lennox Illustrated
In 1753, Andrew Millar published one of the earliest critical books on Shakespeare, entitled Shakespear Illustrated: or the Novels and Histories, On Which the Plays of Shakespear are Founded, Collected and Translated from the Original Authors. The title page also announces that the "Novels and Histories" are offered "With Critical Remarks" and that the work is "By the Author of the Female Quixote." Charlotte Lennox's novel of the previous year was already sufficiently celebrated to be used in the advertising of Shakespear Illustrated. The first two volumes of this work deal with ten plays; the appearance of Volume III in 1754 brought the number of plays considered to twenty-two, but the treatment of the history plays in Volume III is less careful than the analysis of the chief comedies and tragedies and their sources. Volumes I and II were obviously in some sort a labor of love, and the writing, especially in the "Critical Remarks," is lively, engaged, and emphatic.
Lennox's work is a pioneer of its kind, an original and scholarly Shakespeare study. Hitherto, what scholarly comment existed on the subject of Shakespeare was largely to be found in editions. Larger-scale criticism, such as that of Rymer, was not concerned with producing new contextual material. It has been suggested that Charlotte Lennox might have been urged by Samuel Johnson to perform the task of presenting the sources, as it would have eased his editing of Shakespeare if he did not have to go into such matters himself, but could simply direct readers to another book.1 But in 1752-53 Johnson's Shakespeare project was neither imminent nor certain. It is true that in his own long-delayed edition of Shakespeare (1765) Johnson alludes to Lennox three times (he is one of the very few editors to draw on her work). That Samuel Johnson admired what Shakespear Illustrated achieved can be accepted without our having to believe that his suggestion or his interest was necessarily the only or the strongest motive for the production of Lennox's book. Certainly, Johnson did not initiate the tone or nature of the "Critical [End Page 72] Remarks" which accompany and complete her scholarly presentation of the sources.
In the past two centuries, the view of Shakespear Illustrated has been largely negative—a view the more readily taken because of an increasing Shakespeare idolatry since the Romantic age. It has been customary to believe that Lennox's remarks exhibit a personal lack of literary insight, and that her dullness is complicated by an unfortunate cultural manifestation of an outdated aesthetic. For instance, Thomas R. Lounsbury, professor of English at Yale in 1901, sarcastically found Lennox suffering the "unhappy fate" of being "born at the wrong time": "She missed her century. Had she flourished in the period immediately following the Restoration, she would have found herself in a far more congenial atmosphere….Had she in addition become Mrs. Rymer, the conjunction of these two stars…would have attracted the attention of observers for all time."2 More recently, in 1935, Charlotte Lennox's biographer, Miriam Rossiter Small, also dismissed Lennox's judgments as mistaken and embarrassing:
Having finished the drudgery of finding and presenting the sources, the lady unfortunately wished to express her own opinions, and profited by her hours of toil to display all the erudition of which she could make herself mistress. Having concentrated upon the plots almost entirely, she naturally tended to regard only the plots of Shakespeare's plays. Therefore, arming herself with the pseudoclassical standards of Probability, Decorum, and Poetical Justice, Mrs. Lennox advanced upon the plays of Shakespeare. Dire were the results of her invasion to her reputation as a Shakespearean critic and a judge of true values.3
An inferior critic, a mere "lady" advancing on Shakespeare, a lady who, moreover, adheres blindly to mistaken old "pseudo-classical" standards—this is the author of Shakespear Illustrated according to one kind of judgment. There is no need for us to accept that judgment. In our own period, when critics like Janet Adelman, Janice Jardine, and Coppelia Kahn have also advanced upon the plays of Shakespeare...