This eminent Scholar and profoundly learned Commentator was the only son of George Steevens, esq. of Stepney, many years an East-India Captain, and afterwards a Director of the East India Company, who died in 1768. He was born at Stepney, May 10, 1736, and admitted of King's College, Cambridge, about 1751 or 1752. But he is best known as editor of Shakspeare's Plays, Twenty of which he published 1766, in four volumes, 8vo.
A year before the appearance of this edition, Dr Johnson had published an edition, with notes, in eight volumes, 8vo. A coalition between these two editors having been negotiated, another edition, known by the name of "Johnson and Steevens' Edition," made its appearance in 10 vols. 8vo, 1773.
It was reprinted by these gentlemen, in the same number of volumes, five years after; and again, in 1785, under the care of Isaac Reed, esq. of Staple-inn, who, at the request of his friends Mr. Steevens and Dr. Farmer, undertook the office of editor.
A fourth edition of this work, with great additions and improvements, was published by Mr. Steevens in fifteen volumes, 8vo, 1793, which at the time was certainly the most complete edition extant of Shakspeare's Plays. This work, which, through the indefatigable exertions of the editor, was carried through the press in the space of eighteen months, is enriched with much novelty of remark, and contains the accumulated result of his acute and critical observations, made during a long course of reading, chiefly devoted to the illustration of his favourite Bard. The diligent editor has taken all possible pains to render his work full, clear, and convenient; and whoever considers the prolegomena and notes, joined to the elegance of the typographical execution, will be of opinion that our immortal Bard was edited in a manner worthy his fame.
But this talent at explaining and illustrating the difficulties and beauties of Shakspeare was disgraced by the worst of foils, a severity of satire, which too strongly marked a malevolence of heart, from which his best friends cannot vindicate the editor. The severity of his satire has, in some instances, recoiled on himself; and perhaps the retort courteous was never better played off against him than by our friend, honest and generous Tom Davies, in his vigorous character of Master Stephen . It would be happy for him could as much he said for him as for that unfortunate and worthy man on a similar occasion. But "Peace be to his soul, if God's good pleasure be!"
Mr. Steevens was a good classical scholar, and was remarkable for the brilliancy of his wit, and for his satirical talents. The latter he occasionally indulged in some excellent jeux d'esprit, which made their appearance in various periodical publications.
"The Frantic Lover," mentioned in p. 651, appeared in Almon's New Foundling Hospital for Wit, 1771, vol. IV. p. 189. And see the St. James's Chronicle, Jan. 11, 1774, for a Song written by him in the character of a Stationer; and two or three other poems, one called "The Insensible Lover," just before or after, in the same Chronicle, which were all written as coming from a very worthy man who carried on that trade under the Exchange.
See also Gent. Mag. vol. LII. page 276, for a portrait, invented by him, of Chedder, a poet older than Rowley; and, for his sketch of Dean Milles's wig, see the same volume, p. 288.
He died January 22, 1800, at his house at Hampstead, where he had lived several years in the most recluse and unsocial retirement; and was buried in the chapel at Poplar, where, in the North aile, there is a monument to his memory by Flaxman, of which an engraving, in an elegant outline, is given by the Rev. Daniel Lysons in the Supplementary Volume of his Environs of London.
Underneath is the following inscription; the verses in which are from the pen of Mr. Hayley:
In the middle aile of this chapel
lie the remains of George Steevens, esq.
who, after having cheerfully employed
a considerable portion of his life and fortune
in the illustration of Shakspeare,
expired at Hampstead the 22d day of January 1800,
in his 64th year.
Peace to these reliques, once the bright attire
Of spirits sparkling with no common fire;
How oft has pleasure in the social hour
Smil'd at his wit's exhilarating power;
And truth attested with delight intense
The serious charms of his colloquial sense:
His talents, varying as the diamond's ray,
Could strike the grave, or fascinate the gay.
His critic labours of unwearied force
Collected light from every distant source;
Want with such true beneficence he cheer'd,
All that his bounty gave, his zeal endear'd;
Learning as vast as mental power could seize,
In sport displaying, and with graceful ease;
Lightly the stage of checquer'd life he trod,
Careless of chance, confiding in his God.
A capital portrait of Mr. Steevens was accidentally discovered, a few years since, which he had looked all London through to find, but to no purpose. It was the intention of the Original to serve this inimitable likeness as he had before done a miniature of himself by Myers, and a whole-length, in the character of Barbarossa, which Mr. Steevens played on a private theatre with great eclat. Fortunately the third and last picture of this extraordinary man escaped the ravage of the self-destroyer. It was painted by Zoffanii before he went to India, and sold, with many others, to a Mr. Clark, in Princess-street, having been left in the Painter's hands, who got rid of all his portraits when he set out on his Eastern expedition. From this picture an excellent print was engraved for sale, at the expence of Mr. Sylvester Harding, in whose family the plate now remains.
Mr. Steevens was rich in books and prints. He bought largely at Mr. Baker's auction of sir Clement Dormer's library, 1764, collected by General Dormer, where he got the French translation of Xenophon's Works by Pyramus de Candale, Cologn, 1613, bound in Morocco and gilt leaves, worth £40 and upwards, for £12 12s.
He had the Second Folio of Shakspeare, with notes, and alterations of the scenes, by King Charles the First; together with that Monarch's name and motto, "Dum spiro spero," in his own handwriting. This curious volume Mr. Steevens bought at Dr. Askew's sale of books; and at his own sale it was purchased for the Royal Library, where it now remains.
Mr. Steevens had also illustrated a copy of his own edition of Shakspeare, 1793, with 1500 portraits of all the persons and places mentioned in the notes and text, of which he could make drawings, or procure engravings.
His set of Hogarth's Prints may be considered as the completest that ever was collected; and his commentary on the productions of that inimitable Painter, which accompanies Mr. Nichols's Biographical Anecdotes, would alone have stamped a lasting fame on his critical acumen.
His illustrated copy of Shakspeare he bequeathed to Earl Spencer; his Hogarth (perfect, with the exception of one or two pieces) to that eminent statesman the late Mr. Windham, of Fellbrig in Norfolk; and his corrected copy of Shakspeare to Mr. Reed, with a bequest of 200 guineas.
To his niece, Miss Steevens, who was the residuary legatee, he left the bulk of his fortune, including his well-stored Library.
There were only two or three other small legacies in money.
Mr. Steevens was a most valuable member of the literary world, and a bright star in the constellation of editors of that century in which the names of Pope, Theobald, Rowe, Warburton, Garrick, Johnson, Capel, and Malone, are conspicuous. Adorned with a versatility of talents, he was eminent both by his pen and his pencil; with the one there was nothing he could not compose, and with the other nothing he could not imitate so closely, as to leave a doubt which was the original and which the copy. But his chief excellence lay in his critical knowledge of an author's text, and the best pattern of his great abilities is his edition of Shakspeare, in which he has left every competitor far behind him; and even Johnson, with his giant strides, could not walk by his side.
Mr. Steevens had a happy memory, richly stored, was a very pleasant tete-a-tete companion, communicative of his knowledge, but jealous of other men's.
He was a man of the greatest perseverance in every thing he undertook; often constant, but not always consistent, as he would sometimes break off his longest habits without any ostensible reason. He discontinued his daily visits at Mr. White's, the bookseller, after many years regular attendance, for no real cause; and left Mr. Stockdale, whom he took up on quitting Mr. White, all at once in the same eccentric and unaccountable manner. He never took a pinch of snuff after he lost his box in St. Paul's Church-yard, though it had been the custom of his life, and he was much addicted to the practice, and in the habit of making his memorandums by bits of paper in his box.
His Library (which contained a valuable collection of Classics, and was particularly rich in dramatic and other poetry, and in the miscellaneous productions of the English press during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James I. was sold by auction (with the exception of the three curious articles before mentioned as bequeathed to Lord Spencer, Mr. Windham, and Mr. Reed,) in the month of May 1800, and produced the sum of £2700.
Six Plays sold for £158 4s. — Fuller's Worthies, full of MS notes by the late Mr. Oldys, Mr. Thoresby, and Mr. Steevens, £43 — Rapin, 51 guineas — Purchas' Pilgrims, 22 guineas. — Beaver's Military Punishments, £13 5s. — Tracts relative to Mary Toft, £14 10s. — Dodsley's Old Plays, 12 vols. L.P. 12 guineas. — Nichols's Hogarth, with MS notes by Mr. S. £13 — Ireland's Pamphlets, with Imitations of the old Deeds, &c. sold originally from Ireland, Jun. to F. G. Waldron, for 18s. and purchased of him by Mr. S. for £2 2s. 17 guineas. — Plot of two Plays prior to the time of Shakspeare on two pasteboards, £11 — Paradice of Dainty Devices, £21 10s. 6d. — The second folio of Shakspeare, 18 guineas, and a copy of "Dido," 17 guineas.