Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Capell, Edward

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CAPELL, EDWARD (1713–1781), Shakespearean commentator, son of the Rev. Gamaliel Capell, rector of Stanton in Suffolk, was born 11 June 1713 at Troston Hall, near Bury St. Edmunds. He was educated at Bury grammar school and Catharine Hall, Cambridge. In 1737 he was appointed deputy-inspector of plays by the Duke of Grafton, from whom, in 1745, he also received the post of groom of the privy chamber. In discharging the duties of deputy-inspector he occasionally acted with little discretion, as when he refused to license Macklin's ‘Man of the World’ under its original title, ‘The True-born Scotchman’ (Biogr. Dram., ed. Jones, iii. 15–16). His official position gave him leisure to devote himself to his favourite pursuit—the study of Shakespeare and of Elizabethan literature. He published in 1760 ‘Prolusions, or Select Pieces of Ancient Poetry.’ In this collection appeared a reprint of the anonymous play, ‘Edward III,’ which Capell tentatively assigned to Shakespeare. Eight years afterwards (1768) he published his edition of Shakespeare in ten volumes, with a dedication to the Duke of Grafton, grandson of the patron who had appointed him deputy-inspector. In the dedicatory epistle he states that he had devoted twenty years to the preparation of the edition. An introduction, chiefly bibliographical, was prefixed, but the commentary was reserved for separate publication. Capell aimed at supplying in the first instance an accurate text based on a careful collation of the old copies, and he did his work very thoroughly. The first part of the commentary—notes to nine plays, together with the glossary—appeared in 1774. As it met with little success, he recalled the impression and determined to publish the entire commentary, in three quarto volumes, by subscription. The printing of the first volume was finished in March 1779, and the second volume was ready in the following February; but subscribers' names were difficult to procure, and Capell did not live to see the publication of his labours. He died 24 Feb. 1781. In 1783 the complete work was issued in three volumes, under the title of ‘Notes and Various Readings to Shakespeare.’ As a textual critic Capell was singularly acute, and his commentary is a valuable contribution to scholarship. The third volume is entitled 'The School of Shakespeare' and consists of 'authentic extracts from divers English books that were in print in that author's time' to which is appended 'Notitia Dramatica; or Tables of Ancient Plays (from their beginning to the Restoration of Charles the Second).' In the dedicatory epistle it is alleged by the editor, John Collins, that Steevens appropriated Capell's notes while disclaiming all acquaintance with them. There was a report that when Capell's Shakespeare was being printed Steevens bribed the printer's servant to let him have the first sheets (Nichols, Literary Anecdotes, viii. 540). Capell had many enemies among contemporary commentators. Farmer, in his letter to Steevens, speaks of him contemptuously, and Dr. Johnson observed that his abilities 'were just sufficient to select the black hairs from the white for the use of the periwig makers.' Capell was a friend of Garrick, but became estranged from him in later life. He used to say that Garrick 'spoke many speeches in Shakespeare without understanding them.' During the last twenty years of his life he spent the whole of each summer at Hastings, where he had built himself a house close to the sea. His rooms in London were at Brick Court, Temple, where in later life he lived in such seclusion that only the most urgent business could draw him out of doors. He died at Brick Court on 24 Feb. 1781, and was buried at Fornham All Saints, Suffolk. He had collected a very valuable library, the choicest portion of which he presented to Trinity College, Cambridge. Steevens printed privately a catalogue of this collection in 1779; it is reprinted in Hartshorne's 'Book Rarities in the University of Cambridge.' Capell is described by Samuel Pegge as 'a personable well-made man of the middle stature,' and it is added that he 'had much of the carriage, manners, and sentiments of a gentleman.' His industry was astonishing; and it is reported that he transcribed the whole of Shakespeare ten times. It is admitted that he was possessed of no little vanity, and that he was somewhat unsociable; but his temper had been soured by neglect. In addition to the works already mentioned, Capell published, 1. 'Two Tables elucidating the Sounds of Letters,' 1749, fol. 2. 'Reflections on Originality in Authors: being Remarks on a Letter to Mr. Mason on the Marks of Imitation,' 1706, 8vo. With the assistance of Garrick he published in 1758 an edition of 'Antony and Cleopatra,' 'fitted for the stage by abridging only.'

[Nichols's Literary Illustrations, i. 465-76, iii. 203, v. 421; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes viii. 540; Davy's Athens Suffolcienses, Add. MS. 19166; Halliwell's Defence of Edward Capell, 1861; a letter to George Hardinge, esq., 1777; Monthly Review, liii. 394-403, lxix. 484-488, lxx. 15-23; Biographia Dramatica, ed. Jones, i. 82, iii. 15-16.]

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