Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare's Plays Published in 1778

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Shakespeare, William, Samuel Johnson, George Steevens, and Edmund Malone. Supplement to the Edition of Shakspeare’s Plays Published in 1778 By Samuel Johnson and George Steevens. London: J. Murray, 1780.

Image source: University of Oregon Rare Books Library

In 1778 Edmund Malone reedited the sonnets as a supplement to the Johnson-Steevens edition, sequencing them in the original order of the 1609 quarto for the first time since they were first published.

This supplement to Johnson and Steevens’s 1778 edition was the first to include Shakespeare’s Sonnets  in the order of the original 1609 quarto publication and without interpretive headings, reflecting the work and new editorial thinking of Edmund Malone. As in 1609, here the sonnets were simply numbered. In Steevens’s prior editions, the sonnets had been printed in Benson’s order and without the editorial apparatus provided to the plays, as though the sonnets were not suitable for serious study or fully part of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. By contrast, Malone saw the Sonnets as an important source of information about Shakespeare’s experience and personality.

Whereas the authorship of the poems had been doubted prior to Malone, Malone argued energetically for their Shakespearean authorship. By 1790, Malone, editing alone, would even change the name of the entire edition, which had been known throughout the 18th century as Shakespeare’s Works  or Shakespeare’s Plays . Malone’s edition was titled The Plays and Poems , presenting Shakespeare as equally dramatist and poet. To support all of his claims – that the Sonnets  were authentically Shakespearean, important, and personal – editorial notes on them in this supplementary volume stressed their stylistic and verbal echoes of Shakespeare’s plays (which might then be read for personal content also). This helped argue that the plays and poems were written by the same person.

Malone’s new way of thinking about the sonnets as reflecting Shakespeare’s personal experience had complex effects. Here, one of the editors struggles with Shakespeare’s vocabulary for a male love object in the sonnets.

While they argue that the Sonnets ' speaker is Shakespeare, the editorial notes also reflect some discomfort with the idea that their content was personal to their author, at least on Steevens’s part. For example, in his note 7 on Sonnet 20 (click to enlarge), Steevens expresses distaste for Shakespeare’s depiction of a male love interest. Steevens’s complaint is directed not so much at the gender of the love object, as at Shakespeare’s terminology: “master-mistress.” Steevens appears to object to the implication in “master” that the male love interest is of high birth. In the note, Steevens suggests an alternative phrasing, “male varlet,” which he finds elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works. “Varlet” signals a lower-class identity that Steevens seems to prefer for a male love object.

The male gender of the love object in the seeming majority of the sonnets would continue to both interest and trouble editors and readers. Shakespeare was not the only early modern poet to devote a sonnet sequence to a male-male relationship. As attitudes toward male-male relationships became more disapproving with the emergence of modern categories of sexual identity, and as Shakespeare’s reputation soared nationally and internationally, reading the Sonnets  as Malone had pioneered – as personal Shakespearean expressions – had complex effects.

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Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare's Plays Published in 1778