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.

The great difference between Malone and Malvolio, however, is that Malone, so far from being taken in by any forged letter, would have published a big fat book exposing its inaccuracies. The supreme legalist of Shakespeare studies (he trained and worked as a barrister before turning full-time to the profession of letters), he seems to have been fired about equally by the desire to reveal the truth and the urge to convict others of misrepresentation. Nothing suited his skills and temperament better than the exposure of literary fraud. One of his first publications, Cursory Observations on the Poems Attributed to Thomas Rowley (1782), takes sixty exhaustive pages to demolish those who still believed that Chatterton’s poems were genuinely medieval, and his edition of Shakespeare devotes thirty more to discrediting a feeble pseudo-Jacobean pamphlet published forty years earlier by the actor Charles Macklin. Compared to his later tour de force in this line, however, these are mere squibs. When Samuel Ireland, unwitting dupe of his 19-year-old son William Henry, published Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare in 1795, Malone scented blood. An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Papers and Legal Instruments, Published Dec. 24, MDCCXCV and Attributed to Shakspeare, Queen Elizabeth, and Henry Earl of Southampton (1796) is the prosecution case Malone was born to present, and he relishes every one of the 424 pages he takes up in doing so. (‘If he does not overpower his adversaries,’ complained a dashed but still defiant Ireland, ‘he at least overwhelms his readers.’) By turns erudite, vituperative and laboriously facetious, and merciless throughout, it is in many respects the most revealing of all Malone’s books: reading it is rather like watching a regiment of tanks dealing with a rebellious mouse. As the Analytical Review remarked, ‘we might be disposed to regret, that so much ingenuity and diligence have been bestowed upon so unworthy a subject: for who would lift the club of Hercules against a dwarf?’

The answer, perhaps, is someone who saw that dwarf as a threat, however symbolic, to Authority itself, and his own newly-established professional authority in particular. As an Ascendancy gentleman who inherited the income which supported his scholarship in 1776, lived through the French Revolution and shared all his friend Burke’s worst fears about the direction world affairs seemed to have taken in those years, Malone was naturally inclined to feel rather paranoid in the climate of the mid-1790s. His Introduction to the Inquiry makes it clear that he saw his activities as editorial guardian of Shakespeare’s text as part of a wider defence of the sacrosanct monuments of the national past against the incursions of the contemporary and the foreign:

It has been said, and I believe truly, that every individual of this country, whose mind has been at all cultivated, feels a pride in being able to boast of our great dramatick poet, Shakspeare, as his countryman: and proportionate to our respect and veneration for that extraordinary man ought to be our care of his fame, and of those valuable writings that he has left us; and our solicitude to preserve them pure and unpolluted by any modern sophistication or foreign admixture whatsoever.

While Martin argues that the counter-revolutionary asides which dot the Inquiry are insignificant examples of a political axe-grinding from which Malone’s Shakespearean scholarship is otherwise free, there is nonetheless a sense in which all Malone’s work is implicitly anti-Jacobin in tendency: it is heavily concerned with the defence of private property – not just literary property, but Malone’s own material investment in early editions and historical documents. Among the responses to his 1790 edition was a letter from William Stanley, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1791, which, commenting on some of the ‘uncouth’ expressions newly restored by Malone to Shakespeare’s plays, looked back in only half-ironised nostalgia to the days when editors consulted tradition and their own taste rather than rare first editions, and concluded with a distinctly egalitarian proposal: ‘We have long had, Every Man his own Lawyer, – Every Man his own Physician, – and, Every Man his own Broker; and pray ... why should we not have – EVERY MAN HIS OWN SHAKSPEARE MAKER?’

Malone’s Inquiry implicitly answers this seditious question by treating the whole incident of the Ireland forgeries as an instructive example of the anarchy and folly which break loose when vulgarians without (his) proper qualifications set up as Shakspeare-makers. Its conclusion depicts Apollo passing a special judgment against all those mere belletrists who had rushed into print to express their belief in the forgeries, ‘an admonition never again to pronounce judgment on matters with which they were not conversant’. Malone championed a meticulous antiquarianism which re-oriented literary scholarship away from aesthetic judgment and towards forensic expertise: to be ‘conversant’ with matters Shakespearean now meant enjoying a practised familiarity with expensive rare books and manuscripts. Despite David Garrick’s bequest of his impressive collection of Renaissance playbooks to the new British Museum in 1779, this effectively meant that to be a legitimate Shakespearean critic now required the independent means to own a substantial private library – such as Malone’s. One of the publishing developments which irked Malone most in his later years was the availability from 1807 onwards of a facsimile reprint of the First Folio, a publication which threatened to enable every man to be his own Malone.

However important Malone’s participation in the transformation of literary history into an élite empirical science (a province of the gentleman specialist rather than the gentleman amateur), and however prodigious the erudition it required, Malone is liable now, for all Peter Martin’s advocacy, to seem remarkable for what he didn’t do as well as for what he did. He never completed the long-advertised second edition of his Shakespeare, and despite being easily the most important researcher on Shakespearean biography until Samuel Schoenbaum, he never finished a full-scale life. (Characteristically, his 1790 edition simply reprints Nicholas Rowe’s traditional 1709 biography, with extensive exasperated footnotes proving most of it wrong.) He bequeathed both these projects to Boswell’s younger son James, who spent nine years sorting Malone’s notes to produce the massive publication now known as the Malone-Boswell third variorum edition of 1821.

More revealing than these uncompleted endeavours are the things Malone never attempts at all. Whereas earlier 18th-century commentators understood Shakespeare’s age as simply a less polished, earlier phase of their own, sufficiently close for them to feel free to praise or correct his plays by their own lights, Malone’s then new historicism insisted that the Elizabethan past was another country, to be judged, if at all, only on its own terms. (How large a role his Irishness played in this crucial perception is something on which Martin doesn’t speculate, although it is a factor which few of his opponents in the vitriolic footnote and pamphlet wars of the 1780s and 1790s fail to mention.) Elizabethan texts are to be explained only by reference to one another, the Elizabethans themselves to be treated as exemplars primarily of their own long-departed times rather than of humanity in general: it is this intuition, part of the same momentous shift in historical consciousness which elsewhere produced the work of Edward Gibbon and Sir Walter Scott, which makes Malone’s work so important. At the same time, however, it is also what makes his work so confined in critical scope, since for him it makes virtually any critical activity beyond the provision of historical and linguistic glosses seem impertinent and anachronistic. By comparison with his hero Dr Johnson, whose edition of 1765 famously reproaches Shakespeare for bungling his endings and writing without a moral purpose (and cheerfully confesses to a preference for Nahum Tate’s happy ending to King Lear), Malone, however superior as a textual scholar, is scarcely a Shakespearean critic at all. He is content to use authentic historical documents to illuminate Shakespeare, and vice versa, but practically silent on the value or use of both.

His criticism is thus strangely empty of the aesthetic and the ethical, and it is equally thin on the dramatic: although a regular playgoer, Malone doesn’t seem to have regarded his own experiences of performance as of any particular relevance to his understanding of the world’s greatest playwright, and his ‘Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the English Stage’ suggests that even Garrick has now been upstaged as a proponent of Shakespeare’s fame by antiquarians such as himself. Since the 1740s, Malone wrote, ‘in consequence of Mr Garrick’s admirable performance of many of his principal characters, the frequent representation of his plays in nearly their original state, and above all, the various researches which have been made for the purpose of explaining and illustrating his works, our poet’s reputation has been yearly increasing.’ To judge by Martin’s account, Garrick was less important to Malone as an actor than as a bibliophile whose activities had pushed up the price of bad quartos. Live theatre was all very well, but the fading traces of dead writers were what really mattered. It is not for nothing that Malone’s best-remembered piece of Shakespearean close-reading explicates not a dramatic or poetic text at all, but a passage from a legal document, his will: ‘His wife had not wholly escaped his memory; he had forgot her, – he had recollected her, – but so recollected her, as more strongly to mark how little he esteemed her; he had already (as is vulgarly expressed) cut her off, not indeed with a shilling, but with an old bed.’

For Malone was, above all, an expert at dealing with legacies. One of the overall impressions Martin’s biography conveys is of a career subordinated to the wishes of the illustrious dead: Malone snatching just enough time from his eyesight-ruining labours straightening out Shakespeare’s literary remains to help raise a commemorative statue of Johnson in St Paul’s, or serve as literary executor to Reynolds and later Boswell, or carry Burke’s bier. There is something funerary about his whole approach to Shakespeare, as texts and contemporary references are reverently filed away into the great mausoleum of his edition; it seems appropriate that his greatest gaffe should have involved the defacing of a rival funerary monument to the Bard, the memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church. (Malone had it whitewashed in 1793, insisting that its excessively lifelike colouring could not possibly be authentic: such was his authority that this error was not rectified until 1861.) As executor par excellence, Malone perhaps has a touch of Hamlet as well as of Malvolio, sacrificing his own life in solitary, martyred loyalty to the posthumous interests of his literary fathers.

Malone even has an Ophelia, in the person of the mysterious Susanna Spencer – although Martin is frustratingly vague (only partly, it appears, as a result of gaps in the evidence) about the precise nature of their relationship. She was in some way socially ineligible for marriage, and Malone seems to have tried to break permanently with her after a brief liaison in Dublin in 1769, an effort which cost him two years of debilitating emotional crisis. Nonetheless, she was in London soon after he moved there permanently in 1777, and he seems to have seen her from time to time over the ensuing years, settling a generous annuity on her in 1781. (Could she have been the ‘Dulcinea’ with whom Boswell found him closeted one night in 1789, whom Martin blandly and without comment assumes to have been a common prostitute?) She last appears, tantalisingly briefly, in 1805, when Malone made arrangements to have her put in an insane asylum in Hoxton. That we hear nothing of Malone organising her funeral thereafter suggests that she was one of the few whom he cared for to outlive him. None of the professional rivals on whom most of his emotional energies were expended succeeded in doing so. In 1802 he triumphantly spent over two hundred pounds at an auction of rare books from the library of his early mentor and subsequent longtime antagonist George Steevens, against whom he was still planning a full-scale polemic, even though Steevens had by then been dead for two years. On the death of his fellow editor Isaac Reed five years later he solemnly declared: ‘I am the last of the Shakspearians.’ There is self-pity there, certainly, but also a grim (Beckettian?) satisfaction, as though now, with only his own funeral ahead of him, his memorialising labours and his emotional regrets alike could rest in peace.

But of course Malone has not been the last of the Shakspearians, and Martin’s book is itself ample proof that his particular style of scholarship is still very much with us. Here Malone has attracted very much the sort of literary biographer he was himself (if far better organised and less prone to digression): tireless at assembling relevant documents and putting them into chronological order, a faithful and unquestioning pleader for his subject, but damagingly suspicious of critical analysis and evaluation. The difference is that where Malone usually left interpretation well alone because he was so conscious of the cultural difference separating him from his subjects, Martin does so because he continues to take the intellectual agenda of Malone completely for granted. (To read this book is to realise how little has changed in the world of letters over the two centuries since Malone’s edition, compared to how much changed during the two which preceded it.) Martin is thus an excellent, if partisan, guide to the homosocial rivalries which divided Shakespeareans in the late 18th century, dealing convincingly, for example, with Joseph ‘Viper’ Ritson, who emerges from this account less the wronged radical some would have him than the Eric Sams of his day, his valuable insights warped out of all useful shape by obsessive hobbyhorsing. Martin is willing to acknowledge the points at which Malone fell short of his own scholarly standards, as in the case of his illicit bid to claim a monopoly on the use of Aubrey’s papers in the Ashmolean, and his sometimes permanent borrowing of priceless documents from other archives. (The Henslowe papers were missing several favourite passages when finally returned to Alleyn’s School after his death. Some of these were later found to have been snipped out and pasted into relevant books in Malone’s collection; the original Herbert records never resurfaced at all, surviving now only in his transcript.) On factual matters, in short, this biography is as scrupulous and reliable as one could wish.

Martin’s overall view of Malone as essentially a nice man with a self-evidently proper interest in the facts isn’t really adequate. Although this biography is pervaded by Malone’s lasting influence, it does not turn to examine it. Surprisingly absent from these pages, for example, is any reference to the Malone Society, which since 1910 has been minutely editing Renaissance dramatic texts and records. (Even more conspicuous is the lack of any reference to the most dubious of his living monuments, the Malone Society Dance, a disco held in its support at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America.) In the end, for all its wealth of minute and valuable detail, this eminently useful book does less justice to Malone’s achievements as a Shakespearean biographer than Schoenbaum, and, ironically, less justice to his achievements as a Shakespearean editor than de Grazia. Despite recent critical enthusiasm for precisely the earlier Shakespearean scholarship which Malone sought to overturn (evidenced, for example, by Peter Seary’s Lewis Theobald and the Editing of Shakespeare, 1990, or Jean Marsden’s The Reimagined Text, 1995), and despite the technological advances which have enabled Chadwyck-Healey to put all the important editions of Shakespeare from the quartos through Malone and beyond onto a single disc, turning anyone with access to a CD-Rom drive into their own Shakspeare-maker, Malone dies uncommonly hard.