The Labors of Nicholas Rowe

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


As adjunct to my work on the New Variorum Julius Caesar, I’ve embarked on another project, an account of the three Shakespeare editions that the playwright, poet, classicist, and translator Nicholas Rowe prepared for the powerful London publisher Jacob Tonson (1709, 1710, 1714). Rowe is probably best known for a triumvirate of plays that a previous generation of male critics dismissed as “she-tragedies”: The Fair Penitent (1702), The Tragedy of Jane Shore (1714), and The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey (1715). Like his predecessor Thomas Heywood, Rowe’s interest in women as important components of his drama and corresponding theatre audience extended to his editorial practices. Yet commentators have not noticed this ligature or have implied instead—anachronistically—that he lacked gender sensitivity, perhaps to discredit him as an editor. In his innovation of providing the dramatis personae at the beginning of each Shakespeare play, he failed, it seems, to integrate the male and female roles, listing the men first. Since Rowe was merely following contemporary practice, this lapse probably does not signify that he thought of women as inferior. That he took considerable artistic and financial risks, and endured ridicule, in writing and producing neo-Shakespearean tragedies devoted to the two English Janes, aimed at women spectators, argues the opposite. As Charles Gildon, one of his detractors, said of Jane Shore: “the bold Tragic Genius of our Stage, / With Novelty resolves t’oblige the Age, / And with an Heroine PUNK, the Ladies will engage.” [1]

Rowe was neither a self-promoter nor a blowhard, so his most important work in his The Works of Mr. William Shakespear does not herald itself. Unless one knows where to look for such details, one will miss them entirely, such as in the infrequently-celebrated Love’s Labour’s Lost. For those unfamiliar with this comedy, it has been accounted one of Shakespeare’s most learned. It features the highest percentage of rhyming lines, the longest scene (5.2), word “honorificabilitudinitatibus” (5.1.39-40), and speech (4.3.284-361).[2] Mostly, it aims its satirical barbs at men who try to broadcast their brainpower, portraying such pseudo-intellectuals as dolts, most ridiculous of all in pursuit of the love of women. King Ferdinand of Navarre and his three companions, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, agree to eschew the company of women for the sake of study—until the quartet meets the Princess of France and her three ladies, Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine, almost immediately after this fatuous vow. Much foolishness occurs, heightened by Shakespeare’s focus on the abuses of language perpetrated by the monarch and his courtiers.

In Rowe’s three texts of the play, his dramatis personae and revision of a notoriously difficult set of speech-prefixes suggest his interest in recapturing Shakespeare’s intentions regarding his women characters. None of the Folios, including the often-derided Fourth (F4, 1685) that served as his copy-text, consistently identifies the aforementioned ladies attending the Princess: Rosaline, Katherine, and Maria. Earlier compositors sometimes assigned them names such as “Ma.” “Lad. Ma.,” “Lady Ros.” “Rosa,” and even “1 Lad.” and “2 Lad.,” so that it can be difficult to distinguish between them and thus to imagine three separate dramatic personalities, as boy players must have done in the sixteenth century and actresses generally do today. Careful negotiation of F4, such as noting which variously-titled female speaker names which complementary lord as a possible suitor, is essential: again, Berowne, Dumaine, Longaville.

As a side note, a further difficulty arises for the scholar who wishes to collate the 1598 quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost, about whose existence Rowe probably knew nothing, with F1 in order to create a traditionally conflated text. During the first meeting of the lords and ladies, Berowne approaches a woman, identified as Katherine in the quarto but Rosaline in the Folios (2.1.113-25). Critics have found this problematic because he focuses exclusively on the latter character later in the scene in both early printed versions (177-90). Yet, except for the lack of conventionally symmetric one-man, one-woman pairing, it does not seem that unusual for this somewhat enthusiastic and hyperbolic young man to attend to more than a single lady. However, Rowe’s probable access to F4 and no other version dictated that he simply follow the clues in his close reading of 1685. There, “1 Lad.” and “2 Lad.” identify Longaville and Dumaine, respectively, to the Princess (2.1.43, 56) as possible suitors for her ladies—interest that the lords enthusiastically return by identifying them as Katherine (2.1.194) and Maria (4.1.51). Rosaline, her speech-prefix written out as “Rosa.,” identifies Berowne (2.1.66), which he reciprocates in naming her (3.1.155). Since the F4 compositors label Maria most consistently as herself, Rowe was able to detect her presence easily where he found typographical ambiguity. So he distinguished between Katherine and Rosaline by the latter’s sharp sense of humor and comic bluntness with Berowne. In short, their personalities as dramatic entities mattered to him since their individual brilliance, charisma, and nuanced dialogue essentially make the play what it is. So he regularized the speech-prefixes and clarified their identities in his list of persons (1709 1:390), the only change being Catherine with a C. That he cared about women in his editing of Shakespeare squares with his emphasis on the feminine in his drama.

Rowe de-obfuscated other elements of attribution in Love’s Labour’s Lost for Tonson and, consequently, for performers and readers ever since. The contrapuntal underplot that enhances this main action featuring tripartite couples fittingly forms a supporting triangle, the rivalry between the “fantastical Spaniard” Don Armado and Costard the clown for the affections of Jaquenetta, a “Country Wench.” Two other seemingly extraneous characters involved in this business, Holofernes the pedant and Sir Nathaniel the curate, actually enunciate Shakespeare’s familiar observations about language, reading, education, poetry, and love, though both are, like the other men in the play, utter boobs.

Act 4 Scene 2 comprises the epicenter of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which Rowe appears to have recognized in his editorial efforts. Its purported object of interest is a misdelivered letter, a love note from Berowne to Rosaline that Costard gave to Jaquenetta instead of the romantic note that Armado had commanded him to deliver. It may serve as what Alfred Hitchcock described as a “McGuffin,” a deceptively innocuous prop or concept whose nevertheless essential single function is to advance dramatic action or reveal character. The unsophisticated young woman finds herself confused and seeks clarification from Holofernes and Nathaniel.

Approximately midway through Act 4 (, before the entrance of Costard and Jaquenetta with the letter, Nathaniel and Holofernes participate in an exchange that Shakespeare seems to have designed for them to reveal more of their personalities and to enunciate the comedy’s aforementioned thematic business. Shakespeare allegorizes virtually all the play’s motifs in these conversations: intellectual vanity; the secular versus the sacred; bad poetry; the complementary ratios between swollen and bombastic rhetoric and the infinitesimally positive effect it has on its intended audience; a failure to understand the true weight of one’s words; and the inevitability of miscommunication in love. The compositors in the four Folios keep the speech-prefixes the same, but Rowe certainly noticed that these stock figures begin speaking in symbolic ways most uncharacteristic of them to this point:


            (F4, 1685, fol. K3)

             (Rowe, 1714, 2:38)

The first speech, “This is a gift,” laughable in its self-conscious rhetoric inadvertently revelatory of the speaker’s egotism, would seem to be a preview-parody of Hamlet’s observations about what a piece of work a man is. Piece of work, indeed: this man’s notion of his giftedness not only says no less but also more about himself than he intended. Yet F4, like its three ancestors, assigns it to the curate, not to the verbose pedant. The response, “Sir, I praise the Lord for you,” here flows from a Holofernes not given to such religious enthusiasm rather than the Right Reverend, who is. And the surely unintended sex puns also seem misplaced. The naïve second-person address in “their Daughters profit very greatly under you” and the worldly first-person “If their Daughters be capable, I will put it to them” surely befit Nathaniel and Holofernes, respectively.  Rowe noticed this and made the appropriate changes, which have not been credibly challenged by any textual scholar since. The misassigned Latin tag, “Vir sapit, qui pauca loquitur” (a wise man says little), is usefully ironic in the mouth of the pedant.

Rowe intervenes, crucially, at another juncture later in this scene (4.2.83-109). Somewhat bizarrely, the quartet of Folio editors assigns the first lines (“Master Parson”) to Nathaniel so that he addresses himself in the vocative. This oddness continues when he demonstrates a verbal facility for which he is not known, improvising rhetorically on Costard’s invocation of a hogshead:

(F4, 1685, fol. K3)

(Rowe 1709, 1710, 2:421-2)

( Rowe, 1714, 2:39)

After Jaquenetta asks “Good Master

After Jaquenetta asks “Good Master Parson” to read the misdirected letter aloud from Berowne to Rosaline, he expostulates on a line from the Renaissance Latin poet Mantuan, with whom he has shown no previous familiarity. The F4 Holofernes, not known for his deference, modesty, or praise of others, nevertheless commends the F4 Nathaniel (“I sir, and very learned”), who then asks to hear a stanza from Berowne’s poetasting before complying with his own request and reciting as Jacquenetta had originally asked. Subsequent scholarship found this strange, such as that of Styan Thirlby, the great annotator who corresponded with the later Shakespeare editors Lewis Theobald and William Warburton. In the process of savaging Alexander Pope’s 1725 and 1728 editions of the playwright’s works, Thirlby suggested in a letter to Theobald of 7 May 1729 that the Mantuan expostulation be reassigned to Holofernes, “for the speech most certainly belongs to the Pedant. Nathaniel, I suppose, is reading the letter to himself.”[3] Theobald thereupon credited himself, with his friend’s help, for making this change, but as it happens, Rowe had done exactly this in his 1709 and 1710 editions, then splitting the speech between curate and pedant after “Under pardon” in 1714 (LLL 4.2.100-02). Pope, working from the latter as copy-text, adopted it. So Theobald merely restored Rowe’s earlier reading by giving the entire section to Holofernes, and referred to his predecessor as “blundering.”[4]

Textual scholars traditionally credited Rowe as the “first named editor” of Shakespeare, a distinction that has been challenged, if not outright derided, over recent decades. Further back, R. B. McKerrow insisted that Rowe merely presided over “little more [. . . ] than a revision” of F4 that served as his copy-text for his six- and eight-volume editions under the aegis of Jacob Tonson, and a “haphazard” one, at that.[5] One common theme among these examiners of Shakespeare’s texts is that no matter how slight the actual evidence they present for the supremacy of their candidate for first-strike status might be, the embedded assumption runs that Rowe does not deserve much (or any) credit for his achievements, which remain considerable. His “corrections” transcend the surface level, and his four major types of regularization of this kind—speech-prefixes, scene-divisions, character names, syllable- and line-lengths in verse passages—meant that his successors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were free to focus on other matters, such as speculative emendation and arguing with or sniping at one another in lengthy footnotes. That Rowe’s collaboration with Tonson resulted in a multivolume edition became standard for Shakespeare editions, as opposed to the weightier and less nimble folio. Though the 1709 edition/volume was not inexpensive, the idea that Shakespeare should be affordable seems to have become normative, given the less costly versions produced in The Hague by Thomas Johnson (1711-12) and later by Robert Walker (1734) in a publishing war with the Tonsons.

And this was hardly all. The regularization of character names resulted in the creation of dramatis personae for all the plays, or vice-versa, which has been accepted practice for three centuries to the benefit of readers, directors, and actors. Because of Rowe, we know Shakespeare’s comedy as A Midsummer Night’s Dream rather than A Midsommers Nights Dream, and its mischievous sprite as Puck rather than Robin. We refer to Hamlet’s mother as Gertrude, not Gertred or, even worse, Gerterd. Subsequent editors have accepted Rowe’s consistent divisions of acts into scenes without much change to his original breaks. For virtually the first time, those episodes had loci, or place names, which have influenced the imaginations of readers and the set-building of theatrical companies ever since. Rowe the practicing dramatist included several performance-oriented stage directions in each play that his successors have, again, tended to accept without question. The Rowe-Tonson editions included a glossary and a somewhat fanciful biography whose information was mostly garnered by the renowned tragedian Thomas Betterton, who visited Stratford, presumably at the behest of both men because of his theatrical stature and his acquaintance with the theatrical entrepreneur and poet-playwright William Davenant, who claimed to have known or even to have been sired by Shakespeare himself. And there is evidence of editorial recension—the idea that by the collation of early editions of Shakespeare, one might arrive at the best readings and create a conflated text—though Rowe would certainly not undertake this practice to the extent of his successors in the next three centuries, which climaxed in the era of the New Bibliographers in the twentieth. His self-effacing editorial method might be best described from that motto in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Vir sapit, qui pauca loquitur.”


[1] [Charles Gildon,] “A Prologue sent to Mr. Bays, to his new Play The Fair Penitent; design’d to be spoken by Mr. Betterton, but refus’d,” in The New Rehearsal, Or, Bays the Younger, Being Remarks on All of Mr. Rowe’s Plays (London: J. Roberts, 1715), 59.

[2] All references to Shakespeare’s text follow the standard lineation of The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

[3] John Bowyer Nichols, ed., Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century: Consisting of Authentic Memoirs and Original Letters of Eminent Persons, 9 vols. (London: Nichols, 1812-22), 3:225. 

[4] Lewis Theobald, ed., The Works of Shakespeare in Seven Volumes (London: Printed for A. Bettesworth, C. Hitch, J. Tonson, et al., 1733), 2:130.


[5] R. B. McKerrow, The Treatment  of Shakespeare’s Text by His Earlier Editors, 1709-1768 (London: Humphrey Milford, 1933), 8, 9.