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Some Account of the Life of Mr. William Shakespear (1709) online

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No. 1

Nicholas Rowe, _Some Account of the Life of
Mr. William Shakespear_ (1709)

With an Introduction by
Samuel H. Monk

The Augustan Reprint Society
November, 1948
_Price. One Dollar_


RICHARD C. BOYS, _University of Michigan_
EDWARD NILES HOOKER, _University of California, Los Angeles_
H.T. SWEDENBERG, JR., _University of California, Los Angeles_


W. EARL BRITTON, _University of Michigan_


EMMETT L. AVERY, _State College of Washington_
BENJAMIN BOYCE, _University of Nebraska_
LOUIS I. BREDVOLD, _University of Michigan_
CLEANTH BROOKS, _Yale University_
JAMES L. CLIFFORD, _Columbia University_
ARTHUR FRIEDMAN, _University of Chicago_
SAMUEL H. MONK, _University of Minnesota_
ERNEST MOSSNER, _University of Texas_
JAMES SUTHERLAND, _Queen Mary College, London_

Lithoprinted from copy supplied by author
Edwards Brothers, Inc.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A.


The Rowe-Tonson edition of Shakespeare's plays (1709) is an important
event in the history of both Shakespeare studies and English literary
criticism. Though based substantially on the Fourth Folio (1685), it is
the first, "edited" edition: Rowe modernized spelling and punctuation
and quietly made a number of sensible emendations. It is the first
edition to include _dramatis personae_, the first to attempt a
systematic division of all the plays into acts and scenes, and the first
to give to scenes their distinct locations. It is the first of many
illustrated editions. It is the first to abandon the clumsy folio format
and to attempt to bring the plays within reach of the understanding and
the pocketbooks of the average reader. Finally, it is the first to
include an extended life and critique of the author.

Shakespeare scholars from Pope to the present have not been kind to Rowe
either as editor or as critic; but all eighteenth-century editors
accepted many of his emendations, and the biographical material that he
and Betterton assembled remained the basis of all accounts of the
dramatist until the scepticism and scholarship of Steevens and Malone
proved most of it to be merely dubious tradition. Johnson, indeed, spoke
generously of the edition. In the _Life of Rowe_ he said that as an
editor Howe "has done more than he promised; and that, without the pomp
of notes or the boast of criticism, many passages are happily restored."
The preface, in his opinion, "cannot be said to discover much profundity
or penetration." But he acknowledged Rowe's influence on Shakespeare's
reputation. In our own century, more justice has been done Rowe, at
least as an editor.[1]

The years 1709-14 were of great importance in the growth of
Shakespeare's reputation. As we shall see, the plays as well as the
poems, both authentic and spurious, were frequently printed and bought.
With the passing of the seventeenth-century folios and the occasional
quartos of acting versions of single plays, Shakespeare could find a
place in libraries and could be intimately known by hundreds who had
hitherto known him only in the theater. Tonson's business acumen made
Shakespeare available to the general reader in the reign of Anne; Rowe's
editorial, biographical, and critical work helped to make him
comprehensible within the framework of contemporary taste.

When Rowe's edition appeared twenty-four years had passed since the
publication of the Fourth Folio. As Allardyce Nicoll has shown, Tonson
owned certain rights in the publication of the plays, rights derived
ultimately from the printers of the First Folio. Precisely when he
decided to publish a revised octavo edition is not known, nor do we know
when Rowe accepted the commission and began his work. McKerrow has
plausibly suggested that Tonson may have been anxious to call attention
to his rights in Shakespeare on the eve of the passage of the copyright
law which went into effect in April, 1710.[2] Certainly Tonson must have
felt that he was adding to the prestige which his publishing house had
gained by the publication of Milton and Dryden's Virgil.

In March 1708/9 Tonson was advertising for materials "serviceable to
[the] Design" of publishing an edition of Shakespeare's works in six
volumes octavo, which would be ready "in a Month." There was a delay,
however, and it was on 2 June that Tonson finally announced: "There is
this day Publish'd ... the Works of Mr. William Shakespear, in six Vols.
8vo. adorn'd with Cuts, Revis'd and carefully Corrected: With an Account
of the Life and Writings of the Author, by N. Rowe, Esq; Price 30s."
Subscription copies on large paper, some few to be bound in nine
volumes, were to be had at his shop.[3]

The success of the venture must have been immediately apparent. By 1710
a second edition, identical in title page and typography with the first,
but differing in many details, had been printed,[4] followed in 1714 by
a third in duodecimo. This so-called second edition exists in three
issues, the first made up of eight volumes, the third of nine. In all
three editions the spurious plays were collected in the last volume,
except in the third issue of 1714, in which the ninth volume contains
the poems.

That other publishers sensed the profits in Shakespeare is evident from
the activities of Edmund Curll and Bernard Lintot. Curll acted with
imagination and promptness: within three weeks of the publication of
Tonson's edition, he advertised as Volume VII of the works of
Shakespeare his forthcoming volume of the poems. This volume, misdated
1710 on the title page, seems to have been published in September 1709.
A reprint with corrections and some emendations of the Cotes-Benson
Poems _Written By Wil. Shake-speare. Gent._, 1640, it contains Charles
Gildon's "Essay on the Art, Rise, and Progress of the Stage in _Greece_,
_Rome_, and _England_," his "Remarks" on the separate plays, his
"References to Classic Authors," and his glossary. With great shrewdness
Curll produced a volume uniform in size and format with Rowe's edition
and equipped with an essay which opens with an attack on Tonson for
printing doubtful plays and for attempting to disparage the poems
through envy of their publisher. This attack was certainly provoked by
the curious final paragraph of Rowe's introduction, in which he refused
to determine the genuineness of the 1640 poems. Obviously Tonson was
perturbed when he learned that Curll was publishing the poems as an
appendix to Rowe's edition.

Once again a Shakespearian publication was successful, and Tonson
incorporated the Curll volume into the third issue of the 1714 edition,
having apparently come to some agreement with Curll, since the title
page of Volume IX states that it was "Printed for J. Tonson, E. Curll,
J. Pemberton, and K. Sanger." In this edition Gildon omitted his
offensive remarks about Tonson, as well as the "References to Classic
Authors," in which he had suggested topics treated by both the ancients
and Shakespeare. This volume was revised by George Sewell and appeared
in appropriate format as an addition to Pope's Shakespeare, 1723-25.

Meanwhile, in July, 1709, Lintot had begun to advertise his edition of
the poems, which was expanded in 1710/11 to include the sonnets in a
second volume.[5] Thus within a year of the publication of Rowe's
edition, all of Shakespeare, as well as some spurious works, was on the
market. With the publication of these volumes, Shakespeare began to pass
rapidly into the literary consciousness of the race. And formal
criticism of his writings inevitably followed.

Rowe's "Some Account of the Life, &c. of Mr. William Shakespear,"
reprinted with a very few trifling typographical changes in 1714,
survived in all the important eighteenth-century editions, but it was
never reprinted in its original form. Pope re-arranged the material,
giving it a more orderly structure and omitting passages that were
obviously erroneous or that seemed outmoded.[6] It is odd that all later
eighteenth-century editors seem to have believed that Pope's revision
was actually Rowe's own re-writing of the _Account_ for the 1714
edition. Theobald did not reprint the essay, but he used and amplified
Rowe's material in his biography of Shakespeare; Warburton, of course,
reprinted Pope's version, as did Johnson, Steevens, and Malone. Both
Steevens and Malone identified the Pope revision as Rowe's.[7]

Thus it came about that Rowe's preface in its original form was lost
from sight during the entire eighteenth century. Even in the twentieth,
Pope's revision has been printed with the statement that it is taken
"from the second edition (1714), slightly altered from the first edition
of 1709."[8] Only D. Nichol Smith has republished the original essay in
his _Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare_, 1903.

The biographical part of Rowe's _Account_ assembled the few facts and
most of the traditions still current about Shakespeare a century after
his death. It would be easy for any undergraduate to distinguish fact
from legend in Rowe's preface; and scholarship since Steevens and Malone
has demonstrated the unreliability of most of the local traditions that
Betterton reported from Warwickshire. Antiquarian research has added a
vast amount of detail about the world in which Shakespeare lived and has
raised and answered questions that never occurred to Rowe; but it has
recovered little more of the man himself than Rowe knew.

The critical portions of Rowe's account look backward and forward:
backward to the Restoration, among whose critical controversies the
eighteenth-century Shakespeare took shape; and forward to the long
succession of critical writings that, by the end of the century, had
secured for Shakespeare his position as the greatest of the English
poets. Until Dryden and Rymer, criticism of Shakespeare in the
seventeenth century had been occasional rather than systematic. Dryden,
by his own acknowledgement, derived his enthusiasm for Shakespeare from
Davenant, and thus, in a way, spoke for a man who had known the poet.
Shakespeare was constantly in his mind, and the critical problems that
the plays raised in the literary milieu of the Restoration constantly
fascinated him. Rymer's attack served to solidify opinion and to force
Shakespeare's admirers to examine the grounds of their faith. By 1700 a
conventional manner of regarding Shakespeare and the plays had been

The growth of Shakespeare's reputation during the century after his
death is a familiar episode in English criticism. Bentley has
demonstrated the dominant position of Jonson up to the end of the
century.[9] But Jonson's reputation and authority worked for Shakespeare
and helped to shape, a critical attitude toward the plays. His official
praise in the first Folio had declared Shakespeare at least the equal of
the ancients and the very poet of nature. He had raised the issue of
Shakespeare's learning, thus helping to emphasize the idea of
Shakespeare as a natural genius; and in the _Discoveries_ he had blamed
his friend for too great facility and for bombast.

In his commendatory sonnet in the Second Folio (1632), Milton took the
Jonsonian view of Shakespeare, whose "easy numbers" he contrasted with
"slow-endeavouring Art," and readers of the poems of 1645 found in
_L'Allegro_ an early formulation of what was to become the stock
comparison of the two great Jacobean dramatists in the lines about
Jonson's "learned sock" and Shakespeare, "Fancy's child." This contrast
became a constant theme in Restoration allusions to the two poets.

Two other early critical ideas were to be elaborated in the last four
decades of the century. In the first Folio Leonard Digges had spoken of
Shakespeare's "fire and fancy," and I.M.S. had written in the Second
Folio of his ability to move the passions. Finally, throughout the last
half of the century, as Bentley has shown, Shakespeare was admired above
all English dramatists for his ability to create characters, of whom
Falstaff was the most frequently mentioned.

All of these opinions were developed in Dryden's frequent critical
remarks on his favorite dramatist. No one was more clearly aware than
he of the faults of the "divine Shakespeare" as they appeared in the new
era of letters that Dryden himself helped to shape. And no man ever
praised Shakespeare more generously. For Dryden Shakespeare was the
greatest of original geniuses, who, "taught by none," laid the
foundations of English drama; he was a poet of bold imagination,
especially gifted in "magick" or the supernatural, the poet of nature,
who could dispense with "art," the poet of the passions, of varied
characters and moods, the poet of large and comprehensive soul. To him,
as to most of his contemporaries, the contrast between Jonson and
Shakespeare was important: the one showed what poets ought to do; the
other what untutored genius can do. When Dryden praised Shakespeare, his
tone became warmer than when he judicially appraised Jonson.

Like most of his contemporaries Dryden did not heed Jonson's caveat
that, despite his lack of learning, Shakespeare did have art. He was too
obsessed with the idea that Shakespeare, ignorant of the health-giving
art of the ancients, was infected with the faults of his age, faults
that even Jonson did not always escape. Shakespeare was often incorrect
in grammar; he frequently sank to flatness or soared into bombast; his
wit could be coarse and low and too dependent on puns; his plot
structure was at times faulty, and he lacked the sense for order and
arrangement that the new taste valued. All this he could and did admit,
and he was impressed by the learning and critical standards of Rymer's
attack. But like Samuel Johnson he was not often prone to substitute
theory for experience, and like most of his contemporaries he felt
Shakespeare's power to move and to convince. Perhaps the most trenchant
expression of his final stand in regard to Shakespeare and to the whole
art of poetry is to be found in his letter to Dennis, dated 3 March,
1693/4. Shakespeare, he said, had genius, which is "alone a greater
Virtue ... than all the other Qualifications put together." He admitted
that all the faults pointed out by Rymer are real enough, but he added a
question that removed the discussion from theory to immediate
experience: "Yet who will read Mr. Rym[er] or not read Shakespear?" When
Dryden died in 1700, the age of Jonson had passed and the age of
Shakespeare was about to begin.

The Shakespeare of Rowe's _Account_ is in most essentials the
Shakespeare of Restoration criticism, minus the consideration of his
faults. As Nichol Smith has observed, Dryden and Rymer were continually
in Rowe's mind as he wrote. It is likely that Smith is correct in
suspecting in the _Account_ echoes of Dryden's conversation as well as
of his published writings;[10] and the respect in which Rymer was then
held is evident in Rowe's desire not to enter into controversy with that
redoubtable critic and in his inability to refrain from doing so.

If one reads the _Account_ in Pope's neat and tidy revision and then as
Rowe published it, one is impressed with its Restoration quality. It
seems almost deliberately modelled on Dryden's prefaces, for it is
loosely organized, discursive, intimate, and it even has something of
Dryden's contagious enthusiasm. Rowe presents to his reader the
Restoration Shakespeare: the original genius, the antithesis of Jonson,
the exception to the rule and the instance that diminishes the
importance of the rules. Shakespeare "lived under a kind of mere light
of nature," and knowing nothing of the rules should not be judged by
them. Admitting the poor plot structure and the neglect of the unities,
except in an occasional play, Rowe concentrates on Shakespeare's
virtues: his images, "so lively, that the thing he would represent
stands full before you, and you possess every part of it;" his command
over the passions, especially terror; his magic; his characters and
their "manners."

Bentley has demonstrated statistically that the Restoration had little
appreciation of the romantic comedies. And yet Rowe, so thoroughly
saturated with Restoration criticism, lists character after character
from these plays as instances of Shakespeare's ability to depict the
manners. Have we perhaps here a response to Shakespeare read as opposed
to Shakespeare seen? Certainly the romantic comedies could not stand the
test of the critical canons so well as did the _Merry Wives_ or even
_Othello_; and they were not much liked on the stage. But it seems
probable that a generation which read French romances would not have
felt especially hostile to the romantic comedies when read in the
closet. Rowe's criticism is so little original, so far from
idiosyncratic, that it is unnecessary to assume that his response to the
characters in the comedies is unique.

Be that as it may, it was well that at the moment when the reading
public began rapidly to expand in England, Tonson should have made
Shakespeare available in an attractive and convenient format; and it was
a happy choice that brought Rowe to the editorship of these six volumes.
As poet, playwright, and man of taste, Rowe was admirably fitted to
introduce Shakespeare to a multitude of new readers. Relatively innocent
of the technical duties of an editor though he was, he none the less was
capable of accomplishing what proved to be his historic mission: the
easy re-statement of a view of Shakespeare which Dryden had earlier
articulated and the demonstration that the plays could be read and
admired despite the objections of formal dramatic criticism. He is more
than a chronological predecessor of Pope, Johnson, and Morgann. The line
is direct from Shakespeare to Davenant, to Dryden, to Rowe; and he is an
organic link between this seventeenth-century tradition and the
increasingly rich Shakespeare scholarship and criticism that flowed
through the eighteenth century into the romantic era.


[Footnote 1: Alfred Jackson, "Rowe's edition of Shakespeare," _Library_
X (1930), 455-473; Allardyce Nicoll, "The editors of Shakespeare from
first folio to Malone," _Studies in the first Folio_, London (1924), pp.
158-161; Ronald B. McKerrow, "The treatment of Shakespeare's text by his
earlier editors, 1709-1768," _Proceedings of the British Academy_, XIX
(1933), 89-122; Augustus Ralli, _A history of Shakespearian criticism_,
London, 1932; Herbert S. Robinson, _English Shakespearian criticism in
the eighteenth century_, New York, 1932.]

[Footnote 2: Nicoll, _op. cit._, pp. 158-161; McKerrow, _op. cit._, p.

[Footnote 3: London _Gazette_, From Monday March 14 to Thursday March
17, 1708, and From Monday May 30 to Thursday June 2, 1709. For
descriptions and collations of this edition, see A. Jackson, _op. cit._;
H.L. Ford, _Shakespeare 1700-1740_, Oxford (1935), pp. 9, 10; _TLS_ 16
May, 1929, p. 408; Edward Wagenknecht, "The first editor of
Shakespeare," _Colophon_ VIII, 1931. According to a writer in _The
Gentleman's Magazine_ (LVII, 1787, p. 76), Rowe was paid thirty-six
pounds, ten shillings by Tonson.]

[Footnote 4: Identified and described by McKerrow, _TLS_ 8 March, 1934,
p. 168. See also Ford, _op. cit._, pp. 11, 12.]

[Footnote 5: The best discussion of the Curll and Lintot Poems is that
of Hyder Rollins in _A new variorum edition of Shakespeare: the poems_,
Philadelphia and London (1938) pp. 380-382, to which I am obviously
indebted. See also Raymond M. Alden, "The 1710 and 1714 texts of
Shakespeare's poems," _MLN_ XXXI (1916), 268-274; and Ford, _op. cit._,
pp. 37-40.]

[Footnote 6: For example, he dropped out Rowe's opinion that Shakespeare
had little learning; the reference to Dryden's view as to the date of
Pericles; the statement that _Venus and Adonis_ is the only work that
Shakespeare himself published; the identification of Spenser's "pleasant
Willy" with Shakespeare; the account of Jonson's grudging attitude
toward Shakespeare; the attack on Rymer and the defence of _Othello_;
and the discussion of the Davenant-Dryden _Tempest_, together with the
quotation from Dryden's prologue to that play.]

[Footnote 7: Edmond Malone, _The plays and poems of William
Shakespeare_, London (1790), I, 154. Difficult as it is to believe that
so careful a scholar as Malone could have made this error, it is none
the less true that he observed the omission of the passage on "pleasant
Willy" and stated that Rowe had obviously altered his opinion by 1714.]

[Footnote 8: Beverley Warner, _Famous introductions to Shakespeare's
plays_, New York (1906), p. 6.]

[Footnote 9: Gerald E. Bentley, _Shakespeare and Jonson_, Chicago
(1945). Vol. I.]

[Footnote 10: D. Nichol Smith, _Eighteenth century essays on
Shakespeare_, Glasgow (1903), pp. xiv-xv.]

The writer wishes to express his appreciation of a Research Grant from
the University of Minnesota for the summer of 1948, during which this
introduction was written.

- Samuel Holt Monk
University of Minnesota

[Illustration: Picture of Shakespeare surrounded by angels]




Mr. _William Shakespear_;




Revis'd and Corrected, with an Account of the Life and Writings of the

By _N. ROWE_, Esq;

_L O N D O N_:

Printed for _Jacob Tonson_, within _Grays-Inn_ Gate, next _Grays-Inn_

[Illustration: Decorative motif]




LIFE, _&c._


Mr. _William Shakespear_.

It seems to be a kind of Respect due to the Memory of Excellent Men,
especially of those whom their Wit and Learning have made Famous, to
deliver some Account of themselves, as well as their Works, to
Posterity. For this Reason, how fond do we see some People of
discovering any little Personal Story of the great Men of Antiquity,
their Families, the common Accidents of their Lives, and even their
Shape, Make and Features have been the Subject of critical Enquiries.
How trifling soever this Curiosity may seem to be, it is certainly very
Natural; and we are hardly satisfy'd with an Account of any remarkable
Person, 'till we have heard him describ'd even to the very Cloaths he
wears. As for what relates to Men of Letters, the knowledge of an Author
may sometimes conduce to the better understanding his Book: And tho' the
Works of Mr. _Shakespear_ may seem to many not to want a Comment, yet I
fancy some little Account of the Man himself may not be thought improper
to go along with them.

He was the Son of Mr. _John Shakespear_, and was Born at _Stratford_
upon _Avon_, in _Warwickshire_, in _April_ 1564. His Family, as appears
by the Register and Publick Writings relating to that Town, were of good
Figure and Fashion there, and are mention'd as Gentlemen. His Father,
who was a considerable Dealer in Wool, had so large a Family, ten
Children in all, that tho' he was his eldest Son, he could give him no
better Education than his own Employment. He had bred him, 'tis true,
for some time at a Free-School, where 'tis probable he acquir'd that
little _Latin_ he was Master of: But the narrowness of his
Circumstances, and the want of his assistance at Home, forc'd his
Father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further
Proficiency in that Language. It is without Controversie, that he had no
knowledge of the Writings of the Antient Poets, not only from this
Reason, but from his Works themselves, where we find no traces of any
thing that looks like an Imitation of 'em; the Delicacy of his Taste,
and the natural Bent of his own Great _Genius_, equal, if not superior
to some of the best of theirs, would certainly have led him to Read and
Study 'em with so much Pleasure, that some of their fine Images would
naturally have insinuated themselves into, and been mix'd with his own
Writings; so that his not copying at least something from them, may be
an Argument of his never having read 'em. Whether his Ignorance of the
Antients were a disadvantage to him or no, may admit of a Dispute: For
tho' the knowledge of 'em might have made him more Correct, yet it is
not improbable but that the Regularity and Deference for them, which
would have attended that Correctness, might have restrain'd some of that
Fire, Impetuosity, and even beautiful Extravagance which we admire in
_Shakespear_: And I believe we are better pleas'd with those Thoughts,
altogether New and Uncommon, which his own Imagination supply'd him so

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