Lewis Theobald (1688–1744)
Note: the 19th- and early 20th-century biographies below preserve a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
THEOBALD, LEWIS (1688–1744), editor of Shakespeare, was the son of Peter Theobald, an attorney practising at Sittingbourne in Kent. He was born in that town and was baptised at the parish church, as the register testifies, on 2 April 1688. He was placed under the tuition of an able schoolmaster, the Rev. M. Ellis of Isleworth (Baker MSS. extract in Gentleman's Magazine, lxi. 788). To Ellis he must have owed much, for Theobald's classical attainments were considerable, and it does not appear that he received any further instruction. It would seem from what he says in his dedication of the ‘Happy Captive’ to Lady Monson that he had early been left an orphan in great poverty, that he had been protected and educated by Lady Monson's father, her brother, Lord Sondes, being his fellow-pupil, but that he had not made the best of what ‘might have accrued to him from so favourable a situation in life.’ Like his father, he became an attorney; but the law was distasteful to him, and he very soon abandoned it for literature. His first publication was a Pindaric ode on the union of England and Scotland, which appeared in 1707. In his preface to his tragedy ‘The Persian Princess,’ printed in 1715, he tells us that that play was written and acted before he had completed his nineteenth year, which would be in 1707. In May 1713 he translated for Bernard Lintot the ‘Phædo’ of Plato, and entered into a contract for a translation of the tragedies of Æschylus. Lintot's account-books show that Theobald contracted for many translations which were either not finished or not published, but between 1714 and 1715 he published translations of the ‘Electra’ (1714), of the ‘Ajax’ (1714), and of the ‘Œdipus Rex’ (1715) of Sophocles, and of the ‘Plutus’ and the ‘Clouds’ (both in 1715) of Aristophanes. The translations from Sophocles are in free and spirited blank verse, the choruses in lyrics, and the tragedies are divided into acts and scenes; the versions of the ‘Plutus’ and the ‘Clouds’ are in vigorous and racy colloquial prose. Theobald had now settled down to the pursuits of the literary hack, being in all probability dependent on his pen for his livelihood. In 1713 he hurried out a catchpenny ‘Life of Cato’ for the benefit of the spectators and readers of Addison's tragedy which then held the town. Next year he published two poems—‘The Cave of Poverty,’ which he calls an imitation of Shakespeare, presumably because it is written in the measure and form of ‘Venus and Adonis,’ and ‘The Mausoleum,’ a funeral elegy in heroics on the death of Queen Anne. These poems, like all Theobald's poems, are perfectly worthless. On 11 April 1715 he began in ‘Mist's Journal’ ‘The Censor,’ a series of short essays on the model of the ‘Spectator,’ which appeared three times a week, ceasing with the thirtieth number on 17 June. Eighteen months afterwards they were resumed (1 Jan. 1717) as an independent publication running on to ninety-six numbers. When they were discontinued later in the same year, they were collected and published in three duodecimo volumes. By some remarks (see vol. ii. No. xxxiii.) which he had made on John Dennis he brought himself into collision with that formidable critic, who afterwards described him as ‘a notorious idiot, one hight Whachum, who, from an under spurleather to the law, is become an understrapper to the playhouse’ (Dennis, Remarks on Pope's Homer). Meanwhile Theobald had been engaged in other works. In 1715 appeared his tragedy, ‘The Perfidious Brother,’ which became the subject of a scandal reflecting very seriously on Theobald's honesty. It seems that Henry Meystayer, a watchmaker in the city, had submitted to Theobald the rough material of this play, requesting him to adapt it for the stage. The needful alterations involved the complete recasting and rewriting of the piece, costing Theobald, according to his own account, four months' labour. As he had ‘created it anew,’ he thought he was entitled to bring it out as his own work and to take the credit of it; and this he did. But as soon as the play was produced Meystayer claimed it as his own, and in the following year published what he asserted was his own version, with an ironical dedication to the alleged plagiarist. A comparison of the two shows that they are identical in plot and very often in expression. But as Meystayer's version succeeded Theobald's, it is of course impossible to settle the relative honesty or dishonesty of the one man or of the other. The fact that Theobald did not carry out his threat of publishing Meystayer's original manuscript is not a presumption in his favour. His next performances were a translation of the first book of the ‘Odyssey,’ with notes (1716); a prose romance founded on Corneille's tragi-comedy ‘Antiochus,’ entitled ‘The Loves of Antiochus and Stratonice;’ and an opera in one act, ‘Pan and Syrinx,’ both of which appeared in 1717. These were succeeded in 1718 by ‘The Lady's Triumph,’ a dramatic opera, and by ‘Decius and Paulina,’ a masque, both performed at Lincoln's Inn. In 1719 he published a ‘Memoir of Sir Walter Raleigh’ which is of no importance. In 1720 his adaptation of Shakespeare's ‘Richard II,’ though it procured for him a banknote for a hundred pounds ‘enclosed in an Egyptian pebble snuffbox’ from Lord Orrery, proved that the most exquisite of verbal critics may be the most wretched of dramatic artists. Next year he led off a poetical miscellany, ‘The Grove,’ published by William Meres [see under Meres, John], with a vapid and commonplace poetical version of the ‘Hero and Leander’ of the pseudo-Musæus. Nor can anything be said in favour of his pantomimes, ‘The Rape of Proserpine,’ or his ‘Harlequin a Sorcerer’ (1725), or his ‘Vocal Parts of an Entertainment, Apollo and Daphne’ (1726). He seems to have materially aided his friend John Rich [q. v.], the manager of Drury Lane, in establishing the popularity of his novel pantomimic entertainments. But Theobald was about to appear in a new character. In March 1725 Pope gave to the world his edition of Shakespeare—a task for which he was ill qualified. But what Pope lacked Theobald possessed, and early in 1726 appeared in a substantial quarto volume ‘Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr. Pope in his late edition of this poet: designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published. By Mr. Theobald.’ It was dedicated to John Rich, the manager, who on the 24th of the following May gave Theobald a benefit (Genest, Account of the English Stage, iii. 188). In the preface Pope is treated personally with the greatest respect. But Theobald asserted that his veneration for Shakespeare had induced him to assume a task which Pope ‘seems purposely, I was going to say, with too nice a scruple to have declined.’ In the body of the work he confines himself to animadversions on ‘Hamlet,’ but in an appendix of some forty-four closely printed pages in small type he deals similarly with portions of most of the other plays. This work not only exposed the incapacity of Pope as an editor, but gave conclusive proof of Theobald's competence for the task in which Pope had failed. Many of Theobald's most felicitous corrections and emendations of Shakespeare's text are to be found in this, his first contribution to textual criticism. Pope's resentment expressed itself characteristically. ‘From this time,’ says Johnson, ‘Pope became an enemy to editors, collators, commentators, and verbal critics, and hoped to persuade the world that he miscarried in this undertaking only by having a mind too great for such minute employment.’ In 1728 Pope brought out a second edition of his Shakespeare, in which he incorporated, without a word to indicate them, the greater part of Theobald's best conjectures and regulations of the text, inserting in his last volume the following note: ‘Since the publication of our first edition, there having been some attempts upon Shakespeare published by Lewis Theobald which he would not communicate during the time wherein that edition was preparing for the press, when we by public advertisement did request the assistance of all lovers of this author, we have inserted in this impression as many of 'em as are judged of any the least importance to the poet—the whole amounting to about twenty-five words’ (a gross misrepresentation of his debt to Theobald); ‘but to the end that every reader may judge for himself, we have annexed a complete list of the rest, which, if he shall think trivial or erroneous either in part or the whole, at worst it can but spoil half a sheet of paper that chances to be left vacant here’ (Appendix to vol. viii. of Pope's Shakespeare). Nor was Pope content with this. In March 1727–8 the third volume of the ‘Miscellanies’ containing the ‘Treatise on the Bathos’ was published, in which, in addition to three sarcastic quotations from Theobald's ‘Double Falsehood,’ L. T. figures among the swallows—‘authors that are eternally skimming and fluttering up and down, but all their ability is employed to catch flies’—and the eels, ‘obscure authors that wrap themselves up in their own mud, but are mighty nimble and pert.’ Two months afterwards appeared the first edition of the ‘Dunciad,’ of which poor Theobald was the hero (in 1741 ‘Tibbald,’ as Pope contemptuously called him, was ‘dethroned’ and Colley Cibber elevated in his place). It is, however, due to Pope to say that since the publication of ‘Shakespeare Restored,’ Theobald had been continually irritating him by further remarks about his edition. These were inserted in ‘Mist's Journal,’ to which he was in the habit of communicating notes on Shakespeare. To this Pope refers in the couplet:
Old puns restore, lost blunders nicely seek, And crucify poor Shakespeare once a week (Dunciad, i. 154–5, 1st edit.).
Pope's satire is chiefly directed against Theobald's pedantry, dulness, poverty, and ingratitude. Against the charge of ingratitude Theobald defended himself. In a publication called ‘The Author,’ dated 16 April 1729, from Wyan's Court, Great Russell Street, where Theobald continued to reside till his death, he says that he had asked Pope two favours: one was that he would assist him ‘in a few tickets towards my benefit,’ and the other that he would subscribe to his intended translation of Æschylus; that to each of these requests Pope had sent civil replies, but had granted neither. The charge of ingratitude, he adds, had been circulated for the purpose of injuring him in a subscription he was getting up for some ‘Remarks on Shakespeare,’ and to prejudice the public against a play which was about to be acted at a benefit for him at Drury Lane. The work referred to as ‘Remarks on Shakespeare’ he was induced to abandon for an edition of Shakespeare; the play to which he refers was ‘The Double Falsehood,’ a tragedy, first acted at Drury Lane in 1727, and published in 1728. Theobald professed to believe that it was by Shakespeare, and a patent was granted him giving him the sole and exclusive right of printing and publishing the work for a term of fourteen years, on the ground that he had, at considerable cost, purchased the manuscript copy (for its history see Theobald's dedication of it to Bubb Dodington; and for conjectures as to its real authorship, see Farmer's Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare, pp. 29–32, where it is assigned to Shirley. Malone was inclined to attribute it to Massinger. Reed thought it was in the main Theobald's own composition. To the present writer it seems all but certain that it was founded on some old play, the plot being borrowed from the story of Cardenio in ‘Don Quixote,’ but that it is for the most part from Theobald's own pen). In 1728 Theobald edited the posthumous works of William Wycherley and contributed some notes to Cooke's translation of Hesiod. Meanwhile he was accumulating materials for his edition of Shakespeare, corresponding on the subject with Matthew Concanen, who appears to have been on the staff of the ‘London Journal,’ with the learned Dr. Styan Thirlby [q. v.], then a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and with Warburton, at that time an obscure country clergyman in Lincolnshire. His correspondence with Warburton, to whom he was introduced by Concanen, was regularly continued between March 1729 and October 1734, and is printed in Nichols's ‘Illustrations of Literature’ (ii. 204–654). In September 1730 the death of Eusden left the poet-laureateship open, and Theobald became a candidate. Lord Gage introduced him to Sir Robert Walpole, who recommended him to the Duke of Grafton, then lord chamberlain, and these recommendations being seconded by Frederick, prince of Wales, Theobald had every prospect of success. But ‘after standing fair for the post at least three weeks,’ he had ‘the mortification to be supplanted’ by Colley Cibber (Letter to Warburton, December 1730; Nichols, Illustr. ii. 617). In the following year (1731) he had an opportunity of proving his claims to Greek scholarship. Jortin, with the assistance of two of the most eminent scholars of that time—Joseph Wasse [q. v.] and Zachary Pearce [q. v.], the editor of Longinus—published the first number of a periodical entitled ‘Miscellaneous Observations on Authors Ancient and Modern.’ To this Theobald contributed some ingenious, and in one or two cases very felicitous, emendations of Æschylus, Anacreon, Athenæus, Hesychius, Suidas, and Eustathius; and Jortin was so pleased with them that he not only inserted them, but asked Theobald for more. It seems that as early as 10 Nov. 1731 Theobald completed an arrangement with Tonson for bringing out his edition of Shakespeare, for which he was to receive eleven hundred guineas. But two laborious years passed before it was ready for the public. Meanwhile a pantomime, ‘Perseus and Andromeda,’ almost certainly from his pen, was produced (1730) at Lincoln's Inn Fields, and next year appeared at the same theatre ‘Orestes,’ described as a dramatic opera, but really a tragedy. In 1733 Pope's attack was followed by one from the pen of Mallet in the form of an epistle to Pope, entitled ‘Verbal Criticism.’ ‘Hang him, baboon!’ exclaimed Theobald, in the words of Falstaff; ‘his art is as thick as Tewkesbury mustard; there is no more conceit in him than in a Mallet.’ At last, in March 1733–4, the long-expected edition of Shakespeare was given to the world in seven volumes, dedicated to Lord Orrery. A long list of influential subscribers, including the Prince of Wales and the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, shows that no pains had been spared to insure its success. It would not be too much to say that the text of Shakespeare owes more to Theobald than to any other editor. Many desperate corruptions were rectified by him, and in the union of learning, critical acumen, tact, and good sense he has perhaps no equal among Shakespearean commentators. (For the general character of Theobald's work as an editor, and for a detailed exposure of the shameful injustice done him by succeeding editors, see the present writer's essay, ‘The Porson of Shakespearean Criticism,’ in Essays and Studies, 1895, pp. 263–315; cf. introduction to the Cambridge Shakespeare). In spite of the incessant attacks of contemporaries and successors, Theobald's work was properly appreciated by the public. Between 1734 and 1757 it passed through three editions, while between 1757 and 1773 it was reprinted four times, no less than 12,860 copies being sold (Nichols, Illustrations, ii. 714 n.) Theobald's net profits from his edition appear to have amounted to 652l. 10s., a large sum when compared with the receipts of other editors for similar work. But poverty still pursued Theobald, and he was driven back to his old drudgery for the stage. Between 1734 and 1741 he produced a pantomime, ‘Merlin, or the Devil at Stonehenge’ (1734); ‘The Fatal Secret,’ a tragedy, which is an adaptation of Webster's ‘Duchess of Malfi;’ two operas, ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ (1740) and ‘The Happy Captive’ (1741), founded on a story in the fourth book of the first part of ‘Don Quixote,’ and he also completed a tragedy, ‘The Death of Hannibal,’ which was neither acted nor printed. But misfortunes were now pressing hard on him, and in the ‘Daily Post,’ 13 May 1741, appears a letter from him announcing that the ‘situation of his affairs from a loss and disappointment obliged him to embrace a benefit, and laid him under the necessity of throwing himself on the favour of the public and the assistance of his friends;’ and from another part of the paper we learn that the play to be acted for his benefit was ‘The Double Falsehood.’ Next year he issued proposals for a critical edition of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, ‘desiring the assistance of all gentlemen who had made any comments on them.’ He was engaged on this when he died; and in 1750, six years after his death, appeared the well-known edition of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays in ten volumes, ‘edited by the late Mr. Theobald, Mr. Seward of Eyam in Derbyshire, and Mr. Sympson of Gainsborough.’ From the work itself we learn that Theobald had completed the editing and annotation of ‘The Maid's Tragedy,’ ‘Philaster,’ ‘A King and No King,’ ‘The Scornful Lady,’ ‘The Custom of the Country,’ ‘The Elder Brother,’ the first three acts of ‘The Spanish Curate,’ and part of ‘The Humorous Lieutenant’ (see vol. i. pref.) Of Theobald's death an account has been preserved written by a Mr. Stede of Covent Garden Theatre (printed in Nichols's ‘Illustrations,’ ii. 745 n.): ‘September 18th, 1744, about 10 A.M., died Mr. Lewis Theobald. … He was of a generous spirit, too generous for his circumstances; and none knew how to do a handsome thing or confer a benefit when in his power with a better grace than himself. He was my ancient friend of near thirty years' acquaintance. Interred at Pancras, the 20th, 6 o'clock P.M. I only attended him.’ This date is corroborated by a notice in the ‘Daily Post’ for 20 Sept. 1744: ‘Last Tuesday died Mr. Theobald, a gentleman well known for his poetical productions already printed, and for many more promised and subscribed for.’ He had a good private library, including two hundred and ninety-five old English plays in quarto, which was advertised to be sold by auction on 20 Oct. succeeding his death (Reed's note in Variorum Shakespeare, ed. 1803, i. 404). Theobald was married and left a son Lewis, who, by the patronage of Sir Edward Walpole, was appointed a clerk in the annuity pell office, and died young. It was suggested by George Steevens [q. v.] that Hogarth's plate, ‘The Distressed Poet,’ as first published on 3 March 1736, was intended as a satire on the much-abused Theobald. The composition was doubtless inspired by Pope's vivid picture of the dunce-laureate-elect brooding over his sunken fortunes (see Pope, Works, ed. Courthope, iv. 28).
[The fullest account of Theobald will be found in Nichols's Illustrations of Literature, ii. 707–748, but it contains several inaccuracies. Theobald's correspondence with Concanen and Warburton is of great interest, and embodies some biographical particulars, ib. pp. 189–653. There is a meagre memoir of him in Cibber's Lives of the Poets, v. 276–83, and brief notices in Giles Jacob's Historical Account of the Lives and Writings of English Poets, and in Baker's Biographia Dramatica. His own preface to his Shakespeare and the Dedications and Prefaces to his several works yield a few details; Meystayer's Dedication to his ‘Perfidious Brother;’ Dennis's Observations on Pope's Homer; A Miscellany on Taste (1732); Mist's Journal and the Daily Post passim; Genest's Account of the English Stage; notes to the various editions of the Dunciad; Warton's Essay on Pope; prefaces to the editions of Shakespeare by Pope, Warburton, Hanmer, Johnson, and Malone; Capell's appendix to the Preface to the edition of Beaumont and Fletcher (1750). See, too, Johnson's Life of Pope; Boswell's Life of Johnson; Watson's Life of Warburton. A few notes have been furnished by W. J. Lawrence, esq., of Belfast.]
J. C. C.
Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)
THEOBALD, LEWIS (1688–1744), English man of letters, playwright and Shakespearian commentator, the son of an attorney, was born at Sittingbourne, Kent, and was baptized on the 2nd of April 1688. He was educated under a clergyman named Ellis at Isleworth, and became a good classical scholar. He followed his father's profession, but soon abandoned it for literature. In 1713 he translated the Phaedo of Plato, and entered into a contract with Bernard Lintot the publisher to translate the tragedies of Aeschylus. He seems to have made other promises not carried out, but in 17 14 and 1715 appeared versions of the Electra, the Ajax, and the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, and the Plutus and the Clouds of Aristophanes. He became a regular hack-writer, contributing to Mist's Journal, and producing plays and poems of very small merit. The publication of his play The Perfidious Brother (acted 1715; printed 1716) involved Theobald in considerable difficulty. He apparently received a rough draft of the play from Henry Meystayer, a London watchmaker, with a commission to arrange it for the stage. Theobald brought it out as his own work. In the next year Meystayer produced a version, and charged Theobald with plagiarism, but there is no means of ascertaining the exact rights of the case. His poverty compelled him to produce rapidly. He translated the first book of the Odyssey (1716), wrote tragi-comedies, operas and masques, and helped John Rich in the production of pantomimes, then an innovation at Drury Lane. But in 1726 he produced Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many Errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr Pope in his late edition of this Poet; designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published (1726). However ill Theobald may have succeeded as a poet and dramatist, he showed great discrimination as a textual editor. Some of his happiest emendations are to be found in this work, which conclusively proved Pope's incompetence as a Shakespearian editor. Two years later a second edition of Pope's work appeared. In it he stated that he had incorporated some of Theobald's readings, in all amounting to about twenty-five words, and that he added the rest which could "at worst but spoil half a sheet of paper that chances to be left vacant here." He also insinuated that Theobald had maliciously kept back his emendations during the progress of the edition. All this was a gross misstatement of fact. He had in reality incorporated the majority of Theobald's best emendations. In the first edition of the Dunciad (1728) Theobald figured as the hero, and he occupied the place of chief victim until replaced by Colley Cibber in 1741. In spite of the critics, Theobald's work was appreciated by the public. In 1731 he undertook to edit Shakespeare for Tonson the publisher. The work appeared in seven volumes in 1734, and completely superseded Pope's edition. From 1729 to the date of its publication Theobald had been engaged in correspondence on the subject with Warburton, who after his friend's death published an edition of Shakespeare, in the preface of which he asserted that Theobald owed his best corrections to him. Study of the correspondence proves, however, that the indebtedness was on Warburton's side. Subsequent editors reaped, in most cases without acknowledgment or with actual scorn, the fruit of Theobald's pains-taking labour, his wide learning and his critical genius. But Pope's satire, as Johnson justly remarked, blasted the characters that it touched. Theobald remained the type of the dry-as-dust commentator. His merits obtained a tardy recognition on the publication of a detailed study of his critical work by Mr Churton Collins in an essay entitled "The Porson of Shakespearian Criticism" (Essays and Studies, 1895). Theobald gave proof of the same happy gift in classical scholarship in some emendations of Aeschylus, Eustathius, Athenaeus and others, contributed to a learned journal started by John Jortin in 1731. He was a candidate for the laureateship in 1730, but Cibber gained the coveted post. His last years were harassed by poverty and disease. He began a critical edition of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, completed by Seward and Sympson after his death, which took place on the 18th of September 1744.
His correspondence with Matthew Concanen, Styan Thirlby and William Warburton is to be found in Nichols's Illustrations of Literature (ii. 204–654), which also gives the fullest account of his life.