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Shakespeare's Midwives: Some Neglected Shakespeareans.

Shakespeare's Midwives, which continues Arthur Sherbo's useful series of studies of eighteenth-century Shakespearean scholarship, expands his investigation of the commentators who mainly contributed to the celebrated editions of Dr. Johnson and George Steevens and of Edmond Malone. This book focuses on six men - Thomas Tyrwhitt, editor of Chaucer; George Tollet, country gentleman; Sir William Blackstone, distinguished lawyer; Thomas Holt White, retired ironmonger; Samuel Henley, translator of Vathek; and Francis Douce, Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum - who provided more than 1300 notes, some of them extended discussions of passages in the plays of the Renaissance dramatist.

In addition, there is a chapter on James Boswell the Younger, the son of the famous biographer of Dr. Johnson and the actual editor of the twenty-one-volume Shakespeare that appeared in 1821 under Malone's name. Malone had died in 1812, and Boswell continued his work as literary executor. Sherbo convincingly argues that Boswell has not always been given the credit he deserves for his careful scholarship and his persistence in carrying through a project made all the more difficult by Malone's habit of writing things down on scrap paper and in a kind of shorthand. Boswell also, as Sherbo notes, should be given credit for a far more appreciative attitude toward drama prior to Shakespeare than Malone, who had announced his opinion that early English drama was generally unworthy of the theater historian's attention.

The more obscure figures discussed in Sherbo's book were also on occasion capable of quite remarkable insights and of extremely valuable observations. For example, George Tollet, from his retirement at Betley Hall in Staffordshire, contributed to the 1778 Johnson-Steevens edition a long note describing stained glass figures of morris dancers, Maid Marion, a hobby horse and a Maypole. While the Betley glass has been controversial, its date now is regarded as c. 1500-20, and hence this example is seen as important iconographic evidence for folk entertainment in the early Tudor period. The 1778 edition also includes an engraving illustrating this glass (Vol. V, fig. facing p. 248) which Sherbo would have done well to reproduce. But minor figure as Tollet may seem to be, he nevertheless contributed more than four hundred notes to this edition.

Eighteenth-century commentators could also sometimes engage in inspired speculation, as when the learned Douce, explicating Northumberland's reference to the "sullen" passing bell at Hotspur's death in 2 Henry IV I.i.102, stated that he felt "this bell might have been originally used to drive away demons who were watching to take possession of the soul of the deceased." While his evidence is circumstantial - early woodcuts of death scenes in liturgical books - the function of bells as protection against demons is corroborated by medieval writers such as Durandus. Douce likewise recognized the motif of the Dance of Death in Talbot's reference to "antic Death" in 1 Henry VI IV.vii.18 but could only point again to woodcuts, in this instance the well-known series by Holbein; he could not know that Shakespeare probably was familiar from childhood with the Dance of Death, which had apparently remained on the north wall of the nave of the Guild Chapel at Stratford-upon-Avon after the other wall paintings had been hidden away under whitewash and partition.

Sherbo's labors among the eighteenth-century commentators and editors have demonstrated that we cannot depend on the New Variorum or modern editions to select everything of value from the editions of that century. While the eighteenth century was the age, as Robert Witbeck Babcock pronounced more than sixty years ago, of the "genesis of Shakespeare idolatry," it was also a time of serious intellectual interest in Shakespeare's text and its meaning.

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Author:Davidson, Clifford
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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