The very celebrated commentator on Shakspeare, born 1735, was the only son of George Steevens, esq. of Stepney, many years an East India captain, and afterward a director of the East India company, who died in 1768. He was 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 4 vols. 8vo. A year before the appearance of this edition, Dr. Johnson had pubIished an edition, with notes in 8 vol. 8vo. A coalition between these two editors having been negociated, another edition, known by the name of Johnson and Steevens' edition, made its appearance in 10 vol. 8vo, 1773. It was reprinted by these gentlemen, in the same number of volumes, five years after, and again, 1795. A fourth edition of this work, with great additions and improvements, was published by Mr. Steevens, in 15 vol. 8vo, in 1793, which is the most beautiful and complete edition extant of Shakspeare's plays. 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 is 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.
He was, however, a 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 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, and sometimes for a very whimsical reason. 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.
He was rich in books and prints, which were all lately disposed of by his heiress. His set of Hogarth, which he bequeathed to the right hon. W. Wyndham, is supposed to be the most complete of any that ever was collected, and his commentary on the productions of that inimitable painter, which accompanies Mr. Nichols' Biographical Anecdotes, would alone have stamped a lasting fame on his critical acumen.
Though Mr. Steevens is known rather as a commentator, than as an original writer, yet when the works which he illustrated, the learning, sagacity, taste, and general knowledge which he brought to the task, and the success which crowned his labours, are considered, it would be an act of injustice to refuse him a place among the first literary characters of the age. Mr. Steevens possessed that knowledge which qualified him, in a superior degree, for the illustration of Shakspeare; and without which the utmost critical acumen would have proved abortive. He had, in short, studied the age of Shakspeare, and had employed his persevering industry in becoming acquainted with the writings, manners, and laws of that period, as well as the provincial peculiarities, whether of language or custom, which prevailed in different parts of the kingdom, but more particularly in those where Shakspeare passed the early years of his life. This store of knowledge he was continually increasing, by the acquisition of the rare and obsolete publications of a former age, which he spared no expence to obtain; while his critical sagacity and acute observation were employed incessantly in calling forth the hidden meanings of the great dramatic bard, from their covert; and consequently enlarging the display of his beauties.
That Mr. Steevens contented himself with being a commentator, arose probably from the habits of his life, and devotion to the name, which, with his own, will descend to the latest posterity. It is probable that many of his jeux d'esprit might be collected; there is a poem of his in the old Annual Register, under the title of the Frantic Lover, which is reckoned superior to any similar production in the English language, although the language is certainty more than bordering on indecency. Mr. Steevens was a classical scholar of the first order. He was equally acquainted with the Belles Lettres of Europe. He had studied history, ancient and modern, but particularly that of his own country. He possessed a very handsome fortune, which he managed with discretion, and was enabled by it to gratify his wishes, which he did without any regard to expence, in forming his distinguished collections of classical learning, literary antiquity, and the arts connected with it. — He received the first part of his education at Kingston upon Thames; from thence he went to Eton, and from that to Cambridge. He also accepted a commission in the Essex militia on its first establishment. The latter years of his life he chiefly passed at Hampstead, where he died Jan. 22, 1800.