Michael Dobson

  • 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.

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