April 15th

As editions of Shakespeare’s works began to proliferate across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, editorial practices–ranging from matters of punctuation and orthography to larger questions of attribution–became a matter of increasing scholarly concern. Nicholas Rowe was the first of many eighteenth century editors of Shakespeare, and his complete edition of the works, appearing in 1709 as a replacement of the fourth folio, set a standard for editions to come, arriving as it did in a smaller, more portable format–six octavo volumes rather than the bulkier single folio–and acknowledging up front the material constraints limiting any attempt to produce a complete and true Shakespeare:

“I must not pretend… to have restor’d this Work to the Exactness of the Author’s Original Manuscripts. Those are lost, or, at least are gone beyond any Inquiry I could make; so that there was nothing left, but to compare the several editions, and give the true Reading as well as I could from thence.”

Not soon after Rowe’s edition came, in 1721, a version edited by the celebrated poet Alexander Pope and then another overseen by Lewis Theobald, published in 1733 and pictured here. Theobald’s edition was a thorough one, scrupulously collated, issued with an elaborate apparatus of notes and annotations, and offering one of the most famous emendations of Shakespeare’s work to date. In Henry V, when Mistress Quickly is recounting the death of Falstaff, she perplexingly mentions, in earlier Folio editions, “A table of green fields.” But armed with a deep understanding Shakespeare’s idiom and of early modern writing practices–in which “a” often means “he” and “b” often resembles “t”–Theobald was able to make enough sense of Quickly’s line to alter it to read, movingly, “a babbled of green fields.”

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