Falstaff’s popularity, still strong today, owes much to the particular qualities of that character’s dialogue, actions, and zest, as first crafted by Shakespeare. But the life of that character, like so many of Shakespeare’s creations, enjoyed some considerable growth in the generations after Shakespeare’s death, so expanding in size, vitality, and charm as to prompt these twenty engravings of the character by the artist George Cruikshank, printed in 1857:
By 1773, when this anthology of satirical and serious poems was printed, David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, Pope and Theobald and so many others had done much to solidify the high cultural standing of Shakespeare’s plays; both a consequence and a catalyst of that cultural standing were the many compilations, re-iterations, and performances of Shakespeare’s plays, monologues, and most memorable lines. Those many rememberings of Shakespeare’s work were quite frequently reverent–but this was not always the case.
This page from the collection of poems, featuring a parody of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the Danish prince’s lines, changing that crucial infinitive–“to be”–to a word that has much to do with the ways we remember Shakespeare, as well as so much else: “to print.”
If revisions of plays like The Tempest and Macbeth testified to a shared desire of the generations after Shakespeare to make him more, in a way, of the moment–more pertinent and fashionable than his Elizabethan origins would allow–then this edition of Modern Characters of Shakespeare, printed in 1778, gives another shape to that desire.
Variously attributed to the eighteenth century Reverend Barton Cutts, to the Baroness Elizabeth Craven, to Sir Henry Bate and to Lady Dudley, the book operates as something of a printed commonplace book, excerpting and compiling some of Shakespeare’s most memorable quotations from across his plays; the first heading of this page, for instance, re-prints Jessica’s fond praise of Portia from The Merchant of Venice:
“Why, if two gods should play some heav’nly match
And on the wager lay two earthly women,
And Portia one–there must be something else
Pawn’d with the other; for the poor, rude world
Hath not her fellow.–“
Unlike traditional printed commonplace books, though, Modern Characters of Shakespeare takes such elaborate descriptions of Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines and applies them to living eighteenth-century figures whose names have been excised by the printer–but only just enough to let him off the hook. See, in this edition, where the reader of the work has filled in the blank spaces of the names based on the letters and the passages provided.
As its prefatory pages attest, Double Falsehood–this version of it printed in 1728–was one of many plays formerly thought to be penned by Shakespeare; and like The Enchanted Island and Davenant’s Macbeth, this edition of the play received some editorial touch-ups to cater it to the tastes of its moment–in this case, by none other than Shakespeare’s famed editor, Lewis Theobald.
William Winstanley’s Lives of The English Poets, or the Honour of Parnassus, published in 1687, attempted to bring together a compendium of sorts of England’s greatest poets, from William the Conqueror almost directly up to Winstanley’s moment.
It is hardly surprising that Shakespeare should receive the mention that he does, but the way Winstanley chooses to differentiate them points the way forward to the broader cultural imagination, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of Shakespeare as the writer of spontaneous genius, as opposed to Ben Jonson’s less agile learning:
“Many were the Wit combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson,” Winstanley writes, “which two we may compare to a Spanish Galleon, and an English Man of War; Mr. Jonson (like the former), was built far higher in Learning, solid, but slow in his performances; Shakespeare, with the English Man of War, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all Tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his Wit and Invention.”
Artistic renditions of Shakespeare and his works have made their way into earlier entries, but the illustrations for this 1803 collection of prints taken from paintings by various English artists–including Josiah Boydell, Henry Fussell, Robert Smirke, and James Northcote–exceed earlier engravings by far, charged as they are with a Romantic energy that far surpasses anything that could be depicted on the stage.
Here, for instance, is an illustration for The Tempest, a diffident Miranda clinging to her father as he chastens the enchanted island’s famous unloved native, Caliban:
And here is one of the more festive scenes from A Midsummer Nights Dream:
While this illustration, aspiring to the status of parable, offers a visual illustration of Jacques’ famous “seven ages of man” speech from As You Like It:
But most the rich and strange of them all, perhaps, is this illustration of the infant Shakespeare’s birth, attended–fittingly enough for a Romantic audience–by Nature and the Passions:
Alexander Pope’s edition of Shakespeare’s works preceded Theobald’s by some years, and it, too, was propped up by studious research on the part of its editor. Fresh off his translation efforts of The Odyssey and The Iliad, Pope gladly accepted the commission to put out a new edition of Shakespeare’s works, pouring over close to every edition of the plays that had been printed before the 1623 First Folio.
The thoroughness of those efforts, though, induced even in Pope its fair share of anxiety, prompting him to lament at one point that, “It is impossible to repair the Injuries already done him, too much time has elaps’d and the materials are too few.”