1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Steevens, George

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

STEEVENS, GEORGE (1736–1800), English Shakespearian commentator, was born at Poplar on the 10th of May 1736, the son of an East India captain, afterwards a director of the company. He was educated at Eton and at King’s College, Cambridge, where he resided from 1753 to 1756. Leaving the university without a degree, he settled in chambers in the Temple, removing later to a house on Hampstead Heath, where he collected a valuable library, rich in Elizabethan literature. He also accumulated a large collection of Hogarth prints, and his notes on the subject were incorporated in John Nichols’s Genuine Works of Hogarth. He walked from Hampstead to London every morning before seven o’clock, discussed Shakespearian questions with his friend, Isaac Reed, and, after making his daily round of the booksellers’ shops, returned to Hampstead. He began his labours as a Shakespearian editor with reprints of the quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays, entitled Twenty of the Plays of Shakespeare . . . (1766). Dr Johnson was impressed by the value of this work, and suggested that Steevens should prepare a complete edition of Shakespeare. The result, known as Johnson’s and Steevens’s edition, was The Works of Shakespeare with the Corrections and Illustrations of Various Commentators (10 vols., 1773), Johnson’s contributions to which were very slight. This early attempt at a variorum edition was revised and reprinted in 1778, and further edited in 1785 by Isaac Reed; but in 1793 Steevens, who had asserted that he was now a “dowager-editor,” was persuaded by his jealousy of Edmund Malone to resume his labours. The definitive result of his researches was embodied in an edition of fifteen volumes. He made changes in the text sometimes apparently with the sole object of showing how much abler he was as an emendator than Malone, but his wide knowledge of Elizabethan literature stood him in good stead, and subsequent editors have gone to his pages for parallel passages from contemporary authors. His deficiencies from the point of view of purely literary criticism are apparent from the fact that he excluded Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems because, he wrote, “the strongest act of parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service.” In the twenty years between 1773 and 1793 he was less harmlessly engaged in criticizing his fellows and playing malicious practical jokes on them. Dr Johnson, who was one of his stanchest friends, said he had come to live the life of an outlaw, but he was generous and to a small circle of friends civil and kind. He was one of the foremost in exposing the Chatterton-Rowley and the Ireland forgeries. He wrote an entirely fictitious account of the Java upas tree, derived from an imaginary Dutch traveller, which imposed on Erasmus Darwin, and he hoaxed the Society of Antiquaries with the tombstone of Hardicanute, supposed to have been dug up in Kennington, but really engraved with an Anglo-Saxon inscription of his own invention. He died at Hampstead on the 22nd of January 1800. A monument to his memory by Flaxman, with an inscription commemorating his Shakespearian labours, was erected in Poplar Chapel. The sale catalogue of his valuable library is in the British Museum.

Steevens’s Shakespeare was re-issued by Isaac Reed in 1803, in 21 volumes, with additional notes left by Steevens. This, which is known as the “first variorum” edition, was reprinted in 1813. Steevens’s notes are also incorporated in the edition of 1821, begun by Edmund Malone and completed by James Boswell the younger.