1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Capell

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 8:198-201.



EDWARD CAPELL, a gentleman well known by his indefatigable attention to the works of Shakspeare, was born at Troston, near Bury, Suffolk, June 11, 1713, and received his education at the school of St. Edmund's Bury. In the dedication of his edition of Shakspeare, in 1763, 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." The office which his grace bestowed on Mr. Capell was that of deputy inspector of the plays, to which a salary is annexed of £200 a year. So early as the year 1745, as Capell himself informs us, shocked at the licentiousness of Hanmer's plan, he first projected an edition of Shakspeare, of the strictest accuracy, to be collated and published, in due time, "ex fide codicum." He immediately proceeded to collect and compare the oldest and scarcest copies; noting the original excellencies and defects of the rarest quartos, and distinguishing the improvements or variations of the first, second, and third folios. But while all this mass of profound criticism was tempering in the forge, he appeared at last a self-armed Aristarchus, almost as lawless as any of his predecessors, vindicating his claim to public notice by his established reputation, the authoritative air of his notes, and the shrewd observations, as well as majesty, of his preface. His edition, however, was the effort of a poet, rather than of a critic; and Mr. Capell lay fortified and secure in his strong holds, entrenched in the black letter. Three years after (to use his own language) he "set out his own edition, in ten volumes, small octavo, with an introduction," 1768, printed at the expence of the principal booksellers of London, who gave him £300 for his labours. There is not, among the various publications of the present literary aera, a more singular composition than that "Introduction." In style and manner it is more obsolete, and antique, than the age of which it treats. It is lord Herbert of Cherbury walking the new pavement in all the trappings of romance; but, like lord Herbert, it displays many valuable qualities accompanying this air of extravagance, much sound sense, and appropriate erudition. It has since been added to the prolegomena of Johnson and Steevens's edition. In the title-page of this work was also announced, "Whereunto will be added, in some other volumes, notes, critical and explanatory, and a body of various readings entire." The introduction likewise declared, that these "notes and various readings" would be accompanied with another work, disclosing the sources from which Shakspeare "drew the greater part of his knowledge in mythological and classical matters, his fable, his history, and even the seeming peculiarities of his language — to which," says Mr. Capell, "we have given for title, The School of Shakspeare." Nothing surely could be more properly conceived than such designs, nor have we ever met with any thing better grounded on the subject of "the learning of Shakspeare" than what may be found in the long note to this part of Mr. Capell's introduction. It is more solid than even the popular essay on this topic. Such were the meditated achievements of the critical knight-errant, Edward Capell. But, alas art is long, and life is short. Three-and-twenty years had elapsed, in collection, collation, compilation, and transcription, between the conception and production of his projected edition and it then came, like human births, naked into the world, without notes or commentary, save the critical matter dispersed through the introduction, and a brief account of the origin of the fables of the several plays, and a table of the different editions. Certain quaintnesses of style, and peculiarities of printing and punctuation, attended the whole of this publication. The outline, however, was correct. The critic, with unremitting toil, proceeded in his undertaking. But while be was diving into the classics of Caxton, and working his way under ground, like the river Mole, in order to emerge with all his glories; while he was looking forward to his triumphs; certain other active spirits went to work upon his plan, and, digging out the promised treasures, laid them prematurely before the public, defeating the effect of our critic's discoveries by anticipation. Steevens, Malone, Farmer, Percy, Reed, and a whole host of literary ferrets, burrowed into every hole and corner of the warren of modern antiquity, and overran all the country, whose map had been delineated by Edward Capell. Such a contingency nearly staggered the steady and unshaken perseverance of our critic, at the very eve of the completion of his labours, and, as his editor informs us — for, alas! at the end of near forty years, the publication was posthumous, and the critic himself no more! — we say then, as his editor relates, he was almost determined to lay the work wholly aside. He persevered, however (as we learn from the rev. editor, Mr. Collins), by the encouragement of some noble and worthy persons: and to such their encouragement, and his perseverance, the public was, in 1783, indebted for three large volumes in 4to, under the title of "Notes and various readings of Shakspeare; together with the School of Shakspeare, or extracts from divers English books, that were in print in the author's time; evidently shewing from whence his several fables were taken, and some parcel of his dialogue. Also farther extracts, which contribute to a due understanding of his writings, or give a light to the history of his life, or to the dramatic history of his time."

Besides the works already mentioned, Mr. Capell was the editor of a volume of ancient poems called "Prolusions;" and the alteration of Anthony and Cleopatra, as acted at Drury-lane in 1758. He died Jan. 4, 1781.

This lively account of Mr. Capell, which appeared in the two last editions of this Dictionary, seems to be principally taken from an ingenious criticism in vol. XLIX, of the Monthly Review; and those who wish to investigate the merits of Mr. Capell, as an editor, at a small expence of time, may be referred to the other volumes of that review in which his works are characterised, and to the Critical Review, vol. XLI. and LVI. In vol. XLIX. of the Crit. Review is a list of his MSS. and printed books, which he gave to Trinity college, Cambridge; and from a note on one of these there is some reason to suspect that he was, in a considerable measure, the author of a defence of himself, entitled "A Letter to George Hardinge, esq. on the subject of a passage in Mr. Steevens's Preface to his impression of Shakspeare," 1777, 4to, unless, indeed, the gentleman to whom the letter was attributed, the rev. Mr. Collins, was disposed to flatter him beyond all reasonable bounds, and at the expence of his own sense and taste. Mr. Capell, we are told, spent a whole life on Shakspeare; and if it be true, which we are also told, that he transcribed the works of that illustrious poet ten times with his own hand, it is no breach of charity to add, that much of a life that might nave been employed to more valuable purposes, was miserably wasted.