1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Theobald, Lewis
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 1714 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 painstaking 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.