The following extract from Mr. [Thomas] Davies's third volume presents Mr. Steevens in so unfavourable a point of view, that as that gentleman will always retain a high reputation for his literary merits, I may properly introduce it as one among many rumours of the same description that were in circulation during his life, and were by those who knew him generally credited.
"Mr. Steevens," says Davies, "in addition to his large note, (on a particular passage in Hamlet,) assures us that there was more illiberal private abuse, and peevish satire, published in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James the First, than in any other age except the present. This is not very clear to me; but happy is the man who can, with a good conscience, affirm he never was guilty of the base practice of wounding the fair reputation of others, or of disturbing the peace of families, by malicious and rancorous slander. The propagation of obloquy, to gain wealth and preferment, may admit of some exculpation; but of all abuse, that which is spontaneous and unprovoked is the most unaccountable. What does Mr. Steevens think of a gentleman, who, when at his country-seat, found no amusement so pleasing as writing libels upon his neighbours, and throwing them over the garden-walls, with the malignant design to torment those who had never offended him?"
The charge implied in this question I had often heard urged against Mr. Steevens long before I read this passage in Mr. Davies's work; and in corroboration of it, I shall insert what I heard from my late friend Arthur Murphy, whose dramatic works will always keep possession of the stage. Mr. Murphy said that he had been some time out of town after the successful exhibition of one of his plays, but I do not recollect which. On his return to town Mr. Steevens called on him, and in the course of conversation asked if he had seen a severe attack on his play, in the St. James's Chronicle. Murphy said he had not. In a day or two after Mr. Steevens called on him again, and, referring to the same article, asked him if he had not seen it. Mr. Murphy asked him how long ago the article had appeared; Steevens told him about a fortnight. "Why, then," said Murphy, "would you have me search for it in the jakes, where only it now can probably be found?" There was something of apparent disappointment in the manner of Steevens, and it struck Mr. Murphy that he was probably the author. He therefore excused himself for putting an end to the interview then, pretending that he had some papers to examine; and as soon as Steevens had departed, Mr. Murphy set off post to the office of The St. James's Chronicle, and requested to see the manuscript of the article in question. The late Mr. Baldwin obligingly complied, and Mr. Murphy found that it was in the handwriting of Steevens. Steevens denied that it was his handwriting, and by mutual consent the matter was referred to the decision of Dr. Johnson. Mr. Murphy submitted his proofs to the doctor, and Mr. Steevens attempted a defence, but the doctor deemed it so unsatisfactory, that all he said on the occasion was, that Mr. Steevens must hereafter "lead the life of an outlaw."
The late Mr. Kemble told me, upon the authority of Mr. Malone, that when Mr. Steevens called, during the doctor's last illness, to inquire how he was, the black servant went and told the doctor that Mr. Steevens waited below. "Where is he?" said the doctor. "On the outside of the street-door," was the answer. "The best place for him," was the reply.
Mr. Steevens was accused of having treated his friend Mr. George Keate, a gentleman whose literary works are honourable to his talents, in the same manner with respect to one of those works, as he had acted towards Mr. Murphy's play.
Mr. Steevens was very intimate with Mr. Isaac Reed, a gentleman whose memory must be held in respect for his moral character, as well as for his literary attainments. Mr. Reed saw Mr. Steevens's last edition of "Shakspeare" through the press, and Mr. Steevens was accustomed to call at six in the morning for the proofs, which Mr. Reed laid at the door of his chambers in Staple Inn every night, that he might not he disturbed at so early an hour. Mr. Reed's veneration for Shakspeare, and desire to oblige his friend, induced him to be assiduous and punctual.
The following anecdote is told as a proof of the gratitude of Steevens. It is said that he employed a woman of the town, of some education and talents, to place herself at the door of Mr. Reed's chambers, and tell a pitiable tale of her distress and of the misfortunes which she had suffered. When Mr. Reed came home, she acted her part so well that he was strongly interested, and, as she said she was without a home, he offered her money to procure a bed where she could find one. In pursuance of the instructions which she had received, she said she was ignorant of that part of the town, and too weak to go to any other. Mr. Reed had but one bed, but rather than expose the poor woman to the necessity of wandering through the streets at a late hour, he actually resigned his bed to her, and slept at a neighbouring coffee-house.
This despicable trick of Mr. Steevens, by which he intended to try the virtue of Mr. Reed, and perhaps afterwards to disgrace him by promulgating the incident, which he doubtless hoped would have had a different termination, only proved the humanity of Mr. Reed, and the malignant character of his pretended friend.