Flushed with success from his famous Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, Samuel Johnson then decided to tackle Shakespeare. On 10th October 1765 he published his long-delayed edition - with it he provided the cornerstone of modern Shakespearean criticism.
By Lynda Mugglestone
On 10 October 1765, Samuel Johnson published his long-delayed eight-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays. This was by no means the first edition of Shakespeare to appear. The eighteenth century alone had seen editions by William Warburton (published in 1747 as Johnson worked on his celebrated Dictionary), by Lewis Theobald in 1733, by Thomas Hanmer in 1743-4, by Alexander Pope (1725) and by Nicholas Rowe in 1709, the year of Johnson’s birth. Johnson’s work would, however, present a significant development.
An edition, as Johnson had explained in his Dictionary, generally involves ‘some revisal or correcting’. “The business of him that republishes an ancient book is, to correct what is corrupt, and to explain what is obscure”, he further stated in the Proposals for Printing Shakespeare’s Dramatick Works which he issued in 1756.
Having spent the previous nine years grappling with the nature of words and meaning in English, Johnson’s work on the Dictionary would, in fact, offered one immediate advantage for the Shakespeare edition he was to undertake. By virtue of his role as lexicographer, he was uniquely qualified to ‘explain what is obscure’ in Shakespeare’s work. His annotated copy of Shakespeare which he had used during the dictionary years (now kept at the Hugh Owen Library at the University of Wales) confirms his careful attention to Shakespeare’s language, and the challenges that this could pose.
Johnson’s role is, as a result, made part of an on-going conversation with previous scholars, with readers, and the text itself. After all, as Johnson explained, determining the text was a challenge - Shakespeare’s works had been through a complex process of transmission, first being ‘transcribed for the players’ (and, Johnson added, ‘by those who may be supposed to have seldom understood them’), before being ‘transmitted by copiers equally unskilful, who still multiplied errours’. As texts in performance, the plays were also ‘perhaps sometimes mutilated by the actors, for the sake of shortening the speeches’ while, when they were, at last, printed, this was also ‘without correction of the press’. Each previous editor had moreover introduced emendations and other intended improvements.
Amid this history of change and uncertainty, Johnson’s own editorial caution was marked. ‘It has been my settled principle, that the reading of the ancient books is probably true, and therefore is not to be disturbed for the sake of elegance, perspicuity, or mere improvement of the sense’, he argued. The editor was not to rewrite the text, nor introduce new words and readings based on individual predilection For Johnson, editing was instead seen as freighted with responsibility, as well as a form of ‘modest industry’ by which he had, in terms of Shakespeare, ‘rescued many lines from the violations of temerity, and secured many scenes from the inroads of correction’. Like lexicography, editorial correction was, at best, a judicious process, in which all the evidence must be taken into account. In ways which resonate with his famous concern for the ‘common reader’, Johnson stressed that his own changes were often made in the hope of making ‘meaning accessible to many who before were frighted from perusing’ Shakespeare’s works.
Above: Actor and theatre manager David Garrick organised music and plays for the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee
Nevertheless, given the scope of what had to be accomplished, it was perhaps unsurprising that this ambitious endeavour did not materialise quite as planned. The advertised date of completion – before Christmas 1757 – came and went. It took a further seven years before the finished text appeared, a delay immortalised in poetry by Charles Churchill in 1763 (‘He for Subscribers baits his hook,// And takes their cash––but where’s the Book’). The edition was, however, widely seen as worth the wait. Just as Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, declared, it exhibits ‘such a mode of annotation, as may be beneficial to all subsequent editors’. Johnson’s opinion and careful critical engagement with Shakespeare’s plays can still prompt renewed enquiry and reassessment.
Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century: Johnson, Garrick and friends at Dr Johnson's House explores the treatment of Shakespeare in this period and celebrates the 250th anniversary of Johnson’s edition