1790 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Capell

Samuel Pegge, "Memoirs of Edward Capell" in Nichols, Illustrations of the Literary History of the XVIII Century (1817-58) 1:465-76.



The Writer of the following Minutes, for he is not master of regular biographical information, was led to them by the very transient and disrespectful mention that is made of Mr. Capell in the Biographia Dramatica (Second Edition, 1782).

The cold manner in which he is there treated as an Editor of Shakespeare; the small credit given to his erudition; and the suggestion that he was in circumstances merely above want, by virtue of the post of Deputy Inspector of the Plays, are insinuations which seem to have been designedly brought forward to depress him in the opinion of the world. The Editor, it is plain, thought Mr. Capell was living when he wrote the ill-natured account of him published in 1782, though (in his Additions and Corrections) he chose to find out that he had died in 1781. I do not lay this account to the charge of the Compiler of the Biographia Dramatica; but rather consider it as a guiltless subornation, and that the Memoir was dictated by a party inimical to Mr. Capell — "Delenda est Carthago." — But, before we comment, let us see the text. The short Memoir in the "Biographia Dramatica" runs in these words:

"CAPELL, EDWARD. This gentleman appears to have been of the county of Suffolk, and received his education at the school of Bury St. Edmund's. In the Dedication of his Edition of Shakespeare to the Duke of Grafton he observes, that his father and the grandfather of his Grace were friends; and to the patronage of the deceased Nobleman he owed the leisure which enabled him to bestow the attention of twenty years on that work. He was Deputy Inspector of Plays, a situation of some profit; and died Feb. 24, 1781. He (with the assistance of Mr. Garrick) altered one Play from Shakespeare, which was performed at Drury-lane, viz. [Antony and Cleopatra, Historical Play, 8vo, 1758. Since his death, his School of Shakespeare has been published, in three volumes, 4to. 1783]."

Mr. Capell was born at Troston, near Bury, in Suffolk, June 11, 1713. He was descended from the Capells of that County, but from what branch of them the Writer cannot say with precision, though it became collateral before the family was ennobled, and therefore was not in the entail of its honours, as some have imagined. This has been acknowledged by Mr. Capell, for an affectation of this kind of pride was not among his foibles.

The Father of the gentleman before us was a Clergyman, and held the family living hereafter mentioned; and, I presume, was a younger brother, and became heir to his elder brother, for he enjoyed a considerable patrimonial estate, which afterwards devolved to Edward his eldest son; while the living, with a younger brother's fortune, went to Robert the younger and only brother of Edward.

Edward had one brother, Robert; and three sisters, Hester, Dorothy, and Anne. He had an uncle of the name of Maddox, who was a Clerk in the Lord Chamberlain's office under Charles Duke of Grafton. This was probably on the mother's side.

Edward was, I think, of Catherine Hall, though he left his MSS. and Books relative to Shakespeare, to Trinity College. His brother was a Fellow (a Senior) at the time: but that was not the reason of such bequest. The former College was, in his opinion, too obscure a place for such a deposit; for nothing but his industry could exceed his vanity.

More than twenty years of his life were spent in preparing the Text of Shakespeare for the press. He must at the same time have attended to his Notes, Glossary, and the School of Shakespeare, which he did not live to publish; though not more than two or three sheets were left unprinted; so that, in fact, 33 years of his life were absorbed in these Works: for he did little else; though he preserved the languages in a more or less degree to the last. He was no mean classical scholar, and to the dead languages had added the French and the Italian; the last of which was necessary to him in his post of Deputy Inspector of the Plays, including the Operas, which were sent to him untranslated.

The offices of Inspector and Deputy Inspector of the Plays, &c. were erected in consequence of an Act of Parliament, 1737, which allows no Plays to be performed without the license of the Lord Chamberlain. In the first of these posts William Chetwynd, Esq. was placed; and in the second Edward Capell, Esq. both presented by the Duke of Grafton, Lord Chamberlain, in whose patronage they were. On the decease of Mr. Capell, the Earl of Hertford, then Lord Chamberlain, conferred the post on James Trail, Esq.; though in the year 1782 it was abolished, in the general reform that took place in consequence of Mr. Burke's Bill.

Mr. Capell held likewise, under the Lord Chamberlain, the place of a Groom of the Privy Chamber, in which he was likewise put by his Grace of Grafton, 1745, vice John Parsons, Esq. and in which also he was succeeded by Mr. Trail. The nett produce of these two appointments was, "communibus annis," very nearly worth 300.

It was to these two appointments that Mr. Capell alludes in the Dedication of his Edition of Shakespeare's Plays, wherein he tells Augustus-Henry, then Duke of Grafton, that — "Your illustrious Grandfather vouchsafed to call mine his friend, and always spoke of him with pleasure: he honoured me early with his patronage, and to him I owe the leisure that has enabled me to bestow upon this Work the attention of twenty years." — It may be asked, what was Mr. Capell's Vocation from which the Duke's favour withdrew his attention? I answer, the Bar, to which he had been called, I presume, with a view to the practice of the profession of the Law. These appointments, added to his patrimonial estate, or at least his expectations, gave him that "otium cum dignitate" which enabled him to pursue the bent of his inclination. No one can judge of his abilities as an Advocate, though I should not suspect they were considerable; so that his Grace of Grafton was not only his Patron, but, perhaps, his best Client.

It cannot be allowed that Mr. Capell had any genius, by which I mean wit or invention; for nothing original is known to have been written by him. Once indeed he shewed to a friend a bald, ill-written, and unpointed Epigram, leveled at his persecutors, which he himself chuckled at as a happy thought. Neither had he any tincture of what is called taste. He had not even pretensions to the intermediate rank of an Antiquary (for he held them rather in contempt), though he of necessity met with so many passages in Shakespeare relative to ancient customs and manners. These he seems to have overlooked in search of various readings, for which I need but refer to his Notes, wherein he is much more busy in comparing Editions than in elucidating his Author. He is so far rather a Commentator on the old Editors than on the Poet himself; a task hardly worth the pains of a German Grammarian, considering how loosely Shakespeare has been printed in the first impressions. Dr. Zachary Grey gives into it a little; but Mr. Capell, it must be confessed, adheres to it in the most frivolous instances. The Poet wrote with so little regard to posthumous fame, that even the first Quarto publication, which appeared in his life-time, one would think (from the careless manner it seems to have been edited) hardly underwent his own correction, at least with any tolerable degree of attention. Had it been otherwise, subsequent copies could scarcely have suffered so much mutilation, and called forth so many Commentators. The Second Edition (the first Folios as they are called) were, no doubt, mangled by the fanciful wantonness, or ignorance, of the Publishers. Thus much for Mr. Capell's Notes: — but as to the Text, I confess to think it as faithfully given, if not more so, than by any of his antecessors, or contemporaries.

The passages which he has restored, by transposition of words, lines, and even speeches (though I think he has overlooked some that still want it) have rendered the Author more intelligible, and his own Edition most eligible to read, by those at least who would wish to see the Poet in his native dress.

He piqued himself, and not without some justice, in having purged and reclaimed his Author's Text; insomuch that, being complimented with the title of the Restorer of Shakespeare by a Literary Peer (I think Lord Dacre) he was known to have wept whenever he read the Letter. His vanity, it must be allowed, was a little aided in this weakness by the irritable state of his nerves, occasioned by a sedentary and secluded life. This appellation was the maximum of his wishes; — the misfortune was, that it was said in a private Letter, and not to the world, with which he was undesignedly at war.

I do not know that ever he wrote any thing to draw down the indignation of the world upon him: but his contemporary Editors are represented as inimical to him, and as having thrown out insinuations to his prejudice, though he was a harmless Editor of Shakespeare, who religiously prayed to die in the service, at the hazard of his literary salvation. Certain it is he sought no profit; for Tonson's property in the Author prevented it, and the expence rested solely on Mr. Capell.

Mr. Capell's style, it cannot but be confessed, is turgid to a great degree; and every trait of him, be it found where it way, betrays a fondness for singularity, which prevailed over him in every thing. His Introduction to the Dramas of Shakespeare is a sample of his manner of writing: the very type of the Work is pedantic, by his avoiding the compound letters where he can: and, I believe, the paper was made on purpose, without the wire-mark. His Notes, &c. being printed in columns, has frequently obliged the compositor to divide monosyllables contrary to all rule, which had been avoided by long lines: — but this would have been doing like other people. When asked why he did not print the Notes under the Text, he urged deformity of his page, and thought it was more agreeable and convenient to read the text in one book, and the notes in another. That is as every one shall judge for himself: but how is it to be done in the case of the Work before us; — while the pure text came out 1768; — the Notes to Nine Plays, together with the Glossary, not till 1774; — and the rest of the Notes, with the School of Shakespeare, in 1783. Here, according to Mr. Capell's idea, is an interval of fifteen years before the Text and the Notes can be read in concert.

This place affords an opportunity of remarking Mr. Capell's liberality on occasion of his publishing the first part of his Notes and Various Readings. This was done in one thin volume (price 16s.) quarto, and was intended to have been succeeded by another volume of Notes, and a third Volume containing what he, not improperly, calls, the School of Shakespeare, or an Exemplification of such Novels, Romances, Histories, &c. from whence the Poet formed his Plays, both Tragic and Comic.

This first volume, if I mistake not, he sold to Messrs. Edward and Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, his publishers: and the fate of it shews the Author's disinterestedness; for, on finding it had little or no sale, he re-called the impression, as far as he could, and repaid the balance of what had been the original consideration for the unsold copies; reserving this first volume for a re-publication with the other two, a circumstance attended with an immediate loss of some hundred pounds. — Mr. Capell was then advised to reprint the three volumes by a moderate subscription, which was entered into, and Proposals were further insinuated among the friends to whom he was known, and by whom he was patronized, without his name appearing. The subscription was three guineas for the whole, with a deposit of one guinea, which was lodged with a banker till, by publication, the whole became demandable. This event he did not live to see accomplished, and thereby perhaps avoided still greater mortification than he before experienced. The subscription was respectable, though not numerous. This, however, he did not regret so much as the inattention of a Friend (not to be mentioned) who had given him the most flattering hopes, through his personal interest, of a long list of names, which eventually amounted to very few. This, I say, did not weigh with Mr. Capell, so much as the Work not appearing so soon as he expected, for want of a competent number of names; and, I doubt not, embittered some of his latter hours: for, had the subscription equalled the pride of his expectations, he has been heard to say, that, at all events, "he was prepared to lose several hundred pounds by the publication."

His attachment to the Work was so great, that, as appears by his Will, he charged his personal estate with any and every expence that might attend the publication after his decease. As he had received subscriptions in part, his honour now came in aid of his vanity; which, it must be said, was of superior consideration, great as the latter might be.

Mr. Capell was a personable, well-made man, of the middle stature, and had much of the carriage, manners, and sentiments of a gentleman.

The Bust prefixed to his Notes and the School of Shakespeare, was taken, I presume, when he was in the meridian of health; for it conveys nothing of his features in profile to those who only knew him in the latter part of his life, when he was much afflicted with a scorbutic humour which shewed itself so much in his face, that his features became coarse, swoln, and disguised. When he was a young man, both at College and at the Temple, he was a professed beau, and much inclined to gallantry, as well as gaiety in dress. He "knew where the bona-robas were;" and his constitution, from the nature of those infirmities which carried him off, suffered ultimately by these inamoratas. These circumstances he has been heard to declare to his intimates, in those few moments when he gave way to freedom of conversation, and openness of heart.

During the time that he was so immersed in Shakespeare, he secluded himself in great measure from the world, admitting very few people to an audience, and these were such as could talk about Shakespeare themselves, or had patience to hear him on the subject: — but he that strenuously opposed his opinions was forbid the court. If you had sufficient address to hear him prose about various readings, transpositions of passages. &c. you might preserve yourself tolerably well in his graces: — but it was labour and sorrow, for he was all over Shakespeare. He used to frequent the evening conversazione at the Bishop of Lincoln's (Green) — and afterwards at Dr. Heberden's; but it is said that the share he took in them was not the most agreeable from his being too "opiniatre" and dictatorial. When he left off attending these Attic evenings, he became almost an anchorite.

There was once much intercourse between him and Mr. Garrick; for I may not call it intimacy, as two men of such predominant vanities could never coalesce for any long time. When they happened to flatter each other, they accorded tolerably well; but the least slight on either side put things out of tune. He has been heard to say, when Mr. Garrick was not in favour, "that he spoke many speeches in Shakespeare without understanding them:" — meaning, I presume, not according to his (Mr. Capell's) text. There was once a moment, but from what degree of duplicity on the part of Mr. Garrick I know not, when Mr. Capell cautioned a friend, in the manner of Pontius Pilate's Wife, "never to have any thing to do with David Garrick; for, depend upon it, he will deceive you." This was at the close of Mr. Capell's life, when he was, as it were, determined to have the last blow, and when his peevishness, and dissatisfactions, perchance, at feeling himself of no consequence, entirely had soured a disposition that was naturally upon the fret, and easily fermented.

It is matter of no surprise that one who had affected so much refinement should fancy himself a man of taste. Painting, and Musick, I think, he was equally a stranger to; he might, for the sake of Shakespeare, like Poetry; though he was not perhaps, generally speaking, a competent judge. As he must shew a taste in something, he chose Architecture, and built a house on the faith of his own skill in that Science, for which he paid exceedingly dear, to the great disappointment of those who succeeded to his fortune. This house was placed in a situation of all others the most uninteresting to a man of taste, who looks for diversity of prospect, lawns, groves, rivulets, &c.; for it was close to the sea, at the dirty Port of Hastings. Here was he so much cramped in the scope about his house, that he was obliged to hire several adjacencies, or pay for them "inch-meal." This whim cost him by his own account, and he was not given to exaggeration, near 5000 — and, lamentable to tell! did not after his decease produce much more than 1300. Here, for the last twenty years of his life, he passed his hours from May till October, equally unknowing and unknown, for he was of too haughty a spirit to associate with the inhabitants, and too much an humourist to be sought for by the neighbouring gentry. At first indeed he used to make morning visits to the Earl of Ashburnham and the Bishop of Chichester (Sir William Ashburnham, who had a patrimonial seat in the neighbourhood); but even these wore away, and he became at last as much a Hermit at Hastings as in his Chambers in the Temple.

When he came to town in October, for the ten years preceding his death, nothing but the most urgent business could draw him out of doors. He was, however, exceedingly temperate in his diet, eating sparingly of simple things, and chiefly white-meats, and drinking no wine, except one glass if perchance any one was allowed to partake of his little repast. He was prudent, not covetous; — expensive he could not be, though he was always neat in his dress to the last, which was as plain and simple as it had once been gaudy. Having never seen his house at Hastings, I am entitled to say little of it, but that it is now a lodging-house; a circumstance which could he have foreseen, he would, no doubt, have pulled it down, and not left one stone upon another. The spirit of nicety and refinement, however, prevailed in it so much during his life-time, that when a Friend (a Baronet) called upon him in a tour, he was desired to leave his cane in the vestibule, lest he should either dirt the floors with it, or soil the carpet. No one but himself was permitted to stir his fire, or snuff his candles; and to remove and misplace the most trifling thing in his room was a heinous offence. Thus, while he mistook literary industry for genius, he thought preciseness was a proof of a refined understanding; — long habit had changed the latter into a humoursome particularity and peevishness which drove his friends from even making him elemosinary visits when he really wished and begged for a little company. He died Jan. 24,1781, aet. 68.