- Edmond Malone, Shakespearean Scholar: A Literary Biography by Peter Martin
Cambridge, 298 pp, £40.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 521 46030 1
Anyone who has ever taken the slightest interest in Shakespeare and his times owes a great deal to Edmond Malone. It was Malone who in a single month, June 1789, discovered not only the papers of the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, on which most of our knowledge of the working practices of the Elizabethan theatre is based, but the records of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels from 1622 to 1642, a complementary treasure-trove on Jacobean and Caroline court entertainments and dramatic censorship; Malone who first trawled systematically through the parish and corporation records of Stratford for the surviving documentary traces of Shakespeare’s family, and in the process found the only extant item of his personal correspondence, a letter to him from his neighbour Richard Quiney; Malone who found what remains the only known copy of the 1594 first quarto of Venus and Adonis (and later bequeathed it, along with most of his remarkable library, to the Bodleian); Malone whose path-breaking edition of 1790, with its insistence on the paramount authority of the early quartos and the First Folio, was the first to include reliable biographical information about Shakespeare, a chronology of the plays and a properly-edited text of the Sonnets. Scholars of the Restoration and 18th century are only slightly less in his debt: it was Malone who, with massive scrupulousness, collected and edited the writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Malone who rediscovered Aubrey’s Brief Lives; Malone who wrote the first biography of Dryden based on primary documentary sources; and Malone whose editorial encouragement and insistence finally coaxed his friend Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Life of Johnson into shape and into print. In the hands of this apparently diffident Irishman, the practice of literary history changed for ever: as far as the privileging of meticulous textual scholarship and painstaking archival research is concerned, Malone wrote the book.
It is very hard, however, actually to like the prissy, intolerant-looking man whose glinting eyes, in Reynolds’s 1778 portrait, stare fixedly past us from the dust-jacket of Peter Martin’s biography. Indeed the book’s steady prose, for all its professions of admiration, does little to suggest that Martin (the first writer to undertake a life of Malone since 1860) has managed to muster much of the personal empathy and enthusiasm for his subject which informs his earlier work on Pope and the 18th-century garden. Although its purpose is to vindicate Malone in the face of what Martin regards as recent disparagements of his epoch-making editorial project – most importantly Margreta de Grazia’s excellent full-length study, Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus (1991) – the overall effect of this biography is to provoke considerable misgivings about Malone’s enduring legacy. The critic we meet in these pages, however unique his achievements, seems eerily familiar; it becomes clear that Edmond Malone pioneered not only a certain model of Shakespearean scholarship but also the personal foibles which have been dangerously prone to accompany and drive it ever since. Inoffensive and genial in conversation but ruthlessly vindictive in footnotes (‘rather of a mild disposition, except when he had to support the truth’, as one friend put it), blessed with a justified sense of his own scholarly pre-eminence but cursed with an inflated sense of its importance, fatally overestimating his appeal to a succession of potential wives (his love-letters display an unendearing combination of self-pity, arrogance and wounded dignity), Malone seems to have resembled less the generous, self-effacing playwright whom he called his ‘MASTER’ than the most earnest servant, self-lover and close-reader in the Shakespeare canon, Malvolio. The steward’s rebuke to Sir Toby Belch and friends – ‘Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?’ – would serve just as well as a summary of Malone’s response to all his editorial precursors since Heminge and Condell: with his censorious arrival, the cakes and ale of the earlier 18th-century Shakespeare industry – picturesque biographical traditions, wilfully tasteful emendations, apocryphal portraits – are removed from the menu for ever.
Vol. 17 No. 13 · 6 July 1995
Michael Dobson’s review of my biography of Edmond Malone is much more about Malone, whom he dislikes, than about my book (LRB, 8 June). ‘It is very hard actually to like the prissy, intolerant-looking man whose glinting eyes, in Reynolds’s portrait, stare fixedly past us from the dustjacket,’ Dobson writes. Sentences such as this make one suspect that critical intolerance here may be in the eye of the beholder.
Dobson would like to see in Malone’s Irishness fertile soil for his impatience with criticism and his hostility towards forgeries. Is it not more productive to try to see Malone’s vigorous exposures of forgeries, at a time when authentic literary manuscripts were more than ever highly prized as sources for literary history, as part of the profound commitment to historical veracity for which generations of scholars and students of literature have thanked him? One does, indeed, wish he had spent less time on the forgeries and saved himself for his major Shakespeare edition which he never completed, but Malone, with some justification, saw the times as especially vulnerable to such quackery.
Is it fair to Malone to cite his unsuccessful efforts to marry as some sort of evidence of a character flaw that raises ‘misgivings about [his] enduring legacy’ as a scholar, as if an alleged scholarly spitefulness made him unattractive to women? Dobson suggests that Malone’s failure to marry and other ‘personal foibles’ comprise ‘a certain model of Shakespearean scholarship … [and] have been dangerously prone to accompany and drive it ever since’. Malone becomes Malvolio, denying cakes and ale to anyone he opposes. He is also Hamlet, ‘sacrificing his own life in solitary, martyred loyalty to the posthumous interests of his literary fathers’. As I make clear, Malone the scholar was neither solitary – no more than most scholars are, that is – nor self-sacrificing in a morbid, funerary, Hamletesque vein. He thrived happily in the intellectual world of Johnson, Boswell, Burke, Reynolds, Windham, Siddons, Kemble, the Burneys and so on. Unlike Malvolio, he was a frequent dinner guest and quick to join in with the fun and frolics of The Gang, the festive four consisting of himself, Boswell, Courtenay and Reynolds. As for marriage, his first choice was strongly rejected by his family, his second decided not to marry anyone and died an invalid, and the third married far above Malone socially.
Dobson conveys the sense that anyone, past and present, who does sound scholarly work, using primary sources and archives to get at the evidence, has something for which to apologise, He asserts that Malone was ‘remarkable for what he didn’t do’: he is ‘scarcely a Shakespearean critic at all’, not at any rate in the Johnsonian sense, for his thorough documentary scholarship blocked him from interpretation. But Malone never pretended he was a critic, though as a commentator he is frequently interpretative and evaluative and provides a host of insights on the plays. Dobson faults Malone for treating the Elizabethans ‘as exemplars primarily of their own long-departed time rather than of humanity in general’; but what does this mean? Does it mean that Malone’s commentary lacks relevance to human nature? If so, it clearly is wrong, as any cursory perusal of his 1790 Shakespeare edition will reveal. Does it mean that Malone should have been aware of future parameters of Shakespearean criticism? The shift in historical consciousness over which Malone presided was a shift away from impressionism, myths and legends, not away from criticism about ‘humanity in general’.
A last point is that Malone’s achievements as a scholar cannot be fully and roundly measured without reference to his non-Shakespearean work, from Dryden and Pope to Reynolds, Boswell and Johnson.
Bury, West Sussex
Vol. 17 No. 15 · 3 August 1995
Although Peter Martin clearly finds both the personal character of Edmond Malone and the gentlemen’s-club social milieu he inhabited considerably more sympathique than I do, his response to my review of his conscientious and valuable biography in other respects greatly exaggerates our differences (Letters, 6 July). So far from cherishing an animus against ‘sound scholarly work, using primary sources and archives to get at the evidence’, for example, I actually perform it for a living; and so far from deriding Malone for his sense of the historical differences separating his world from that of Shakespeare, my review repeatedly points out that this is what makes his work so important – even if it is also what inhibits Malone from offering the fascinatingly different kind of criticism licensed by his friend Dr Johnson’s comparatively uncomplicated faith in the timelessness of human nature. (This is a faith, incidentally, which I do not share, pace Martin, much as I enjoy Johnson’s work.) I am, furthermore, in full agreement with Martin’s opening observation that my review is more about Malone than it is about his book (I admit that I find the former more interesting than the latter), and equally with his concluding point that Malone’s non-Shakespearean activities deserve serious attention too – although to fault a review of a book called Edmond Malone: Shakespearean Scholar for writing about Edmond Malone as a Shakespearean scholar might seem a little perverse.
What will not do, however, is Martin’s wild and completely unfounded allegation that I attribute the ‘impatience’ and ‘hostility’ found in some of Malone’s writing to a stereotypical notion of the Irish national character, a notion to which I in no way subscribe. What my review in fact wonders is whether Malone’s position as an expatriate Ascendancy Irishman helped sharpen the acute awareness of cultural difference which distinguishes his work so remarkably from that of his critical predecessors – which is hardly the same thing. Since I have no wish to become Joseph Ritson, however thoroughly Martin may identify with his great antagonist, I hope this will complete an exchange of letters which – such is the insidious longevity of Malone’s particular mind-set – is already in danger of sounding like something from the Gentleman’s Magazine of the 1790s.
University of Illinois, Chicago