English and Drama blog

13 December 2012

Blockheads and coxcombs: a belated bicentenary mention for Edmond Malone

Today’s blog post is somewhat delayed … by a little over six months. One thing and another prevented me from posting this in the spring but I’ve been spurred into writing it for a couple of reasons: firstly because I’ve recently been taking a closer look at some of the British Library’s unique Shakespeare material; and, secondly, because 2012 has clearly been the year of literary bicentenaries and I have to get in before it ends.

Dickens, Lear and Browning have perhaps sapped everyone’s enthusiasm for 200 year anniversaries, but I was a little surprised when 25 May passed and no one had mentioned Edmond Malone. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places but the least I expected was a nod in his direction on Twitter.

Malone, that eminent man of letters, died on 25 May 1812. He was the last of the great 18th-century Shakespeare editors; in fact, his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography records him as the greatest of them all, leaving Messrs. Steevens, Johnson, Theobald, Pope, Rowe and Capell in his dust.

The British Library holds a good number of Malone-related books and manuscripts but the item that caught my eye is a copy of the Edward Capell-edited Mr William Shakespeare his comedies, histories, and tragedies (London, 1768 – shelfmark C.60.g.10). It’s a fairly common edition but what sets this copy apart is the fact that it was once owned by Malone. In fact, it may well be the copy that he refers to in his Second appendix of 1783, when he writes that ‘I had lately to look into his [Capell’s] volumes'.

Annotated throughout, but particularly in the introduction, it’s a great example of the one-upmanship, jealousy and general bickering that wasn’t uncommon among the big Shakespeare guns of the 18th century (in William Shakespeare: the critical heritage (vol. 6, 1995), Brian Vickers describes it as ‘full of virulent abuse’). Malone wasn’t shy in criticising his fellow Shakespeareans – he publicly derided Capell’s work – but as can be seen from the following examples he reserved his most biting comments for his private jottings.

Where to begin? On p.8 Capell is described as an ‘absurd coxcomb’ for the way he lists Shakespeare’s plays:

Absurd coxcomb
This absurd coxcomb has been misunderstood here ...

On p.67 Malone throws in a sarcastic dig about Capell’s outdated assertion that there is no source for The Taming of the Shrew. To which Malone responds:

Except a play with the same title, containing all the great outlines of Shakspeare's comedy!!!!

I wonder if the four exclamation marks indicate the pleasure Malone took in making this correction, for he and Capell had history with this play. In 1779 Malone purchased a 1607 edition of The Taming of a Shrew (now in the Beinecke, Malone 152), a purchase that Capell begged Malone to give to him, even offering three earlier Shakespeare quartos in exchange. Malone refused, writing on the back of the title-page, ‘Mr Capel for 30 years searched for one in vain'.

Malone’s bluntest comment can be found on p.44. In response to Capell’s assertion that Shakespeare may have written Titus Andronicus, Malone writes:

Would not any one but this blockhead have concluded from the very arguments that he himself brings, viz from T. Andronicus exactly resembling these wretched plays, The Wars of Cyrus etc. in the style of versification, that it was written by some one of the authors of those pieces, and not by Shakspeare?

In this instance hindsight hasn’t really worked out in Malone’s favour.

So, when were these uncomplimentary musings jotted down? At a point when both men were at the top of their games? In jealous response to a scholarly triumph by Capell? Amazingly, just a few months after Capell’s death in 1781. Malone’s introductory notes, dated 20 June 1781, mention his rival’s death, together with another set of four exclamation marks which seemingly ridicule the pace of the recently-deceased man's work:

At length death over took him Feby. 24 1781, and the work is not yet finished!!!!

Actually, perhaps it was a good idea for me to delay this post. It's not exactly the most celebratory portrayal of Malone!!!!


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