Preface to Shakespeare

By Alexander Pope

Edited by Jack Lynch

The Preface first appeared in vol. 1 of The Works of Shakespear, ed. Alexander Pope, 6 vols. (London, 1725). Pope's was the second eighteenth-century edition; he followed Nicholas Rowe, who in 1709 was the first editor to put his name to an edition. This text follows the second edition of 1728, with the addition of my own paragraph numbers and commentary.


[1] It is not my design to enter into a Criticism upon this Author; tho' to do it effectually and not superficially would be the best occasion that any just Writer could take to form the judgment and taste of our nation. For of all English Poets Shakespeare must be confessed to be the fairest and fullest subject for Criticism, and to afford the most numerous as well as most conspicuous instances both of Beauties and Faults of all sorts. But this far exceeds the bounds of a Preface, the business of which is only to give an account of the fate of his Works and the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us. We shall hereby extenuate many faults which are his, and clear him from the imputation of many which are not: a design which, tho' it can be no guide to future Criticks to do him justice in one way, will at least be sufficient to prevent their doing him an injustice in the other.

[2] I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristic Excellencies, for which (notwithstanding his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other Dramatic Writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occasion of doing it.

[3] If ever any Author deserved the name of an Original, it was Shakespeare. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of Nature: it proceeded thro' Egyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning or some cast of the models of those before him. The Poetry of Shakespeare was Inspiration indeed: he is not so much an Imitator as an Instrument of Nature; and 'tis not so just to say that he speaks from her as that she speaks thro' him.

[4] His Characters are so much Nature her self that 'tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as Copies of her. Those of other Poets have a constant resemblance, which shews that they receiv'd them from one another and were but multiplyers of the same image: each picture like a mock-rainbow is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every single character in Shakespeare is as much an Individual as those in Life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be Twins will upon comparison be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of Character we must add the wonderful Preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays that had all the Speeches been printed without the very names of the persons I believe one might have apply'd them with certainty to every speaker.

[5] The Power over our Passions was never possess'd in a more eminent degree or display's in so different instances. Yet all along there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide our guess to the effect or be perceiv'd to lead toward it: but the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places. We are surpriz'd, the moment we weep; and yet upon reflection find the passion so just that we shou'd be surpriz'd if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment.

[6] How astonishing is it again that the passions directly opposite to these, Laughter and Spleen, are no less at his command; that he is not more a master of the Great than of the Ridiculous in human nature; of our noblest tenderness, than of our vainest foibles; or our strongest emotions, than of our idlest sensations!

[7] Nor does he only excell in the Passions: in the coolness of Reflection and Reasoning he is full as admirable. His Sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject, but by a talent very peculiar — something between Penetration and Felicity — he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing from a man of no education or experience in those great and publick scenes of life which are usually the subject of his thoughts. So that he seems to have known the word by Intuition, to have look'd thro' humane nature at one glance and to be the only Author that gives ground for a very new opinion, that the Philosopher and even the Man of the world may be Born, as well as the Poet.

[8] It must be own'd that with all these great excellencies he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better so he has perhaps written worse than any other. But I think I can in some measure account for these defects from several causes and accidents, without which it is hard to imagine that so large and so enlighten'd a mind could ever have been susceptible to them. That all these Contingencies should unite to his disadvantage seems to me almost as singularly unlucky, as that so many various (nay contrary) Talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.

[9] It must be allowed that Stage-Poetry of all other is more particularly levell'd to please the Populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the Common Suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder if Shakespeare, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a substinance, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The Audience was generally composed of the meaner sort of people, and therefore the Images of Life were to be drawn from those of their own rank. Accordingly we find that not our Author's only but almost all the old Comedies have their Scene among Tradesmen and Mechanicks, and even their Historical Plays strictly follow the common Old Stories or Vulgar Traditions of that kind of people. In Tragedy nothing was so sure to Surprize and cause Admiration as the most strange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural Events and Incidents; the most exaggerated Thoughts; the most verbose and bombast Expression; the most pompous Rhymes, and thundering Versification. In Comedy nothing was so sure to please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of fools and clowns. Yet even in these our Author's Wit buoys up, and is borne above his subject. His genius in those low parts is like some Prince of a Romance in the disguise of a Shepherd or Peasant: a certain Greatness and Spirit now and then break out which manifest his higher extraction and qualities.

[10] It may be added that not only the common Audience had no notion of the rules of writing but few even of the better sort piqu'd themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben Jonson, getting possession of the Stage, brought critical learning into vogue. And that this was done without difficulty may appear from those frequent lessons (and indeed almost Declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his Actors, the Grex, Chorus, &c. to remove the prejudices and inform the judgment of his hearers. Till then our Authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the Ancients. Their Tragedies were only Histories in Dialogue, and their Comedies follow'd the thread of any Novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true History.

[11] To judge therefore of Shakespeare by Aristotle's rules is like trying a man by the Laws of one Country who acted under those of another. He writ to the People; and writ at first without patronage from the better sort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them; without assistance or advice from the Learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them; without that knowledge of the best models, the Ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of them; in a word, without any views of Reputation, and of what Poets are pleas'd to call Immortality: some or all of which have encourag'd the vanity or animated the ambition of other writers.

[12] Yet it must be observ'd that when his performances had merited the protection of his Prince, and when the encouragement of the Court had succeeded to that of the Town, the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former. The Dates of his plays sufficiently evidence that his productions improved in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this observation would be found true in every instance were but Editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the Town or the Court.

[13] Another Cause (and no less strong than the former) may be deduced from our Author's being a Player, and forming himself first upon the judgments of that body of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a Standard to themselves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. As they live by the Majority they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour and complying with the wit in fashion; a consideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is right as Taylors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow that most of our Author's faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a Poet than to his right judgment as a Player.

[14] By these men it was thought a praise to Shakespeare that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they industriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Jonson in his Discoveries, and from the preface of Heminge and Condell to their first folio Edition. But in reality (however it has prevailed) there never was a more groundless report, or to the contrary of which there are more undeniable evidences. As, the Comedy of the Merry Wives of Windsor, which he entirely new writ; the History of Henry VI, which was first published under the Title of The Contention of York and Lancaster; and that of Henry V, extreamly improved; that of Hamlet enlarged to almost as much again as at first, and many others. I believe the common opinion of his want of Learning proceeded from no better ground. This too might be thought a Praise by some, and to this his Errors have as injudiciously been ascribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it could concern but a small part of them; the most are such as are not properly Defects but Superfoetations, and arise not from the want of learning or reading but from want of thinking or judging: or rather (to be more just to our Author) from a compliance to to those wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forc'd expressions, &c. if these are not to be ascribed to the foresaid accidental reasons they must be charg'd upon the Poet himself and there is no help for it. But I think the two Disadvantages which I have mentioned (to be obliged to please the lowest of people, and to keep the worst of company) if the consideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will appear sufficient to mis-lead and depress the greatest Genius upon earth. Nay the more modesty with which such a one is endued the more he is in danger of submitting and conforming to others against his own better judgment.

[15] But as to his Want of Learning it may be necessary to say something more: there is certainly a vast difference between Learning and Languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter I cannot determine; but 'tis plain he had much Reading at least, if they will not call it Learning. Nor is it any great matter, if a man has Knowledge, whether he has it from one language or from another. Nothing is more evident than that he had a taste of natural Philosophy, Mechanicks, ancient and modern History, Poetical learning and Mythology: we find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of Antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Caesar not only the Spirit but Manners of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is shown, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former and of the latter. His reading in the ancient Historians is no less conspicuous in many references to particular passages; and the speeches copy'd from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an instance of his learning as those copy'd from Cicero in Catilene of Ben Jonson's. The manners of other nations in general, the Egyptians, Venetians, French, &c. are drawn with equal propriety. Whatever object of nature or branch of science he either speaks of or describes it is always with competent if not extensive knowledge. His descriptions are still exact; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of each subject. When he treats of Ethic or Politic we may constantly observe a wonderful justness of distinction as well as extent of comprehension. No one is more a master of the Poetical story or has more frequent allusions to the various parts of it: Mr. Waller (who has been celebrated for this last particular) has not shown more learning this way than Shakespeare. We have Translations from Ovid published in his name among those Poems which pass for his and for some of which we have undoubted authority (being published by himself, and dedicated to his noble Patron the Earl of Southampton). He appears also to have been conversant in Plautus, from whom he has taken the plot of one of his plays; he follows the Greek Authors, and particularly Dares Phrygius, in another (altho' I will not pretend to say in what language he read them). The modern Italian writers of Novels he was manifestly acquainted with, and we may conclude him to be no less conversant with the Ancients of his own country from the use he has made of Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida, and in the Two Noble Kinsmen — if that Play be his, as there goes a Tradition it was (and indeed it has little resemblance of Fletcher, and more of our Author than some of those which have been received as genuine.)

[16] I am inclined to think this opinion proceeded originally from the zeal of the Partizans of our Author and Ben Jonson, as they endeavoured to exalt one at the expence of the other. It is ever the nature of Parties to be in extremes, and nothing is so probable as that because Ben Jonson had much the most learning it was said on the one hand that Shakespeare had none at all; and because Shakespeare had much the most wit and fancy it was retorted on the other that Jonson wanted both. Because Shakespeare borrowed nothing it was said that Ben Jonson borrowed everything. Because Jonson did not write extempore he was reproached with being a year about every piece; and because Shakespeare wrote with ease and rapidity they cryed he never once made a blot. Nay the spirit of opposition ran so high that whatever those of the one side objected to the other was taken at the rebound and turned into Praises, as injudiciously as their antagonists before had made them Objections.

[17] Poets are always afraid of Envy, but sure they have as much reason to be afraid of Admiration. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of Authors: those who escape one often fall by the other. Pessimum genus inimicorum Laudantes, says Tacitus; and Virgil desires to wear a charm against those who praise a Poet without rule or reason.

—— Si ultra placitum laudarit, baccare frontem
Cingito, ne Vati noceat

But however this contention might be carried on by the Partizans on either side I cannot help thinking those two great Poets were good friends, and lived on amicable terms and in offices of society with each other. Is is an acknowledged fact that Ben Jonson was introduced upon the Stage, and his first works encouraged, by Shakespeare. And after his death that Author writes To the memory of his beloved Mr. William Shakespeare, which shows as if the friendship had continued thro' life. I cannot for my own part find any thing Invidious or Sparing in those verses, but wonder Mr. Dryden was of that opinion. He exalts him not only above his Contemporaries but above Chaucer and Spenser, whom he will not allow to be great enough to be rank'd with him; and challenges the names of Sophocles, Euripides, and Æschylus, nay all Greece and Rome at once, to equal him. And (which is very particular) expresly vindicates him from the imputation of wanting Art, not enduring that all his excellencies shou'd be attributed to Nature. It is remarkable, too, that the praise he gives him in his Discoveries seems to proceed from a personal kindness: he tells us that he lov'd the man as well as honoured his memory; celebrates the honesty, openness, and frankness of his temper; and only distinguishes, as he reasonably ought, between the real merit of the Author and the silly and derogatory applauses of the Players. Ben Jonson might indeed be sparing in his Commendations (tho' certainly he is not so in this instance) partly from his own nature and partly from judgment. For men of judgment think they do any man more service in praising him justly than lavishly. I say, I would fain believe they were Friends, tho' the violence and ill-breeding of their Followers and Flatterers were enough to give rise to the contrary report. I would hope that it may be with Parties, both in Wit and State, as with those Monsters described by the Poets, and that their Heads at least may have something humane tho' their Bodies and Tails are wild beasts and serpents.

[18] As I believe that what I have mentioned gave rise to the opinions of Shakespeare's want of learning, so what has continued it down to us may have been the blunders and illiteracies of the first Publishers of his works. In these Editions their ignorance shines almost in every page; nothing is more common than Actus tertia, Exit Omnes, Enter three Witches solus. Their French is as bad as their Latin, both in construction and spelling; their very Welsh is false. Nothing is more likely than that those palpable blunders of Hector's quoting Aristotle, with others of that gross kind, sprung from the same root, it not being at all credible that these could be the errors of any man who had the least tincture of a School, or the least conversation with such as had. Ben Jonson (whom they will not think partial to him) allows him at least to have had some Latin, which is utterly inconsistent with mistakes like these. Nay the constant blunders in proper names of persons and places are such as must have proceeded from a man who had not so much as read any history in any language: so could not be Shakespeare's.

[19] I shall now lay before the reader some of those almost innumerable Errors which have risen from one source, the ignorance of the Players, both as his actors and as his editors. When the nature and kinds of these are enumerated and considered I dare to say that not Shakespeare only but Aristotle or Cicero, had their works undergone the same fate, might have appear'd to want sense as well as learning.

[20] It is not certain that any one of his Plays was published by himself. During the time of his employment in the Theatre several of his pieces were printed separately in Quarto. What makes me think that most of these were not publish'd by him is the excessive carelessness of the press. Every page is so scandalously false spelled, and almost all the learned or unusual words so intolerably mangled that it's plain there either was no Corrector to the press at all or one totally illiterate. If any were supervised by himself I should fancy the two parts of Henry IV, and Midsummer-Night's Dream might have been so, because I find no other printed with any exactness; and (contrary to rest) there is very little variation in all the subsequent editions of them. There are extant two Prefaces, to the first quarto edition of Troilus and Cressida in 1609, and to that of Othello; by which it appears that the first was publish'd without his knowledge or consent and even before it was acted, so late as seven or eight years before he died; and that the latter was not printed till after his death. The whole number of genuine plays which we have been able to find printed in his life-time amounts but to eleven. And of some of these we meet with two or more editions by different printers each of which has whole heaps of trash different from the other: which I should fancy was occasion'd by their being taken from different copies belonging to different Playhouses.

[21] The folio edition (in which all the plays we now receive as his were first collected) was published by two Players, Heminge and Condell, in 1623, seven years after his decease. They declare that all the other editions were stolen and surreptitious, and affirm theirs to be purged from the errors of the former. This is true as to the literal errors and no other, for in all respects else it is far worse than the Quartos.

[22] First, because the additions of trifling and bombast passages are in this edition far more numerous. For whatever had been added since those Quartos by the actors, or had stolen from their mouths into the written parts, were from thence conveyed into the printed text and all stand charged upon the Author. He himself complained of this usage in Hamlet, where he wishes that those who play the Clowns wou'd speak no more than is set down for them. (Act. 3. Sc. 4.) But as proof that he could not escape it, in the old editions of Romeo and Juliet there is no hint of a great number of the mean conceits and ribaldries now to be found there. In others the low scenes of Mobs, Plebeians and Clowns are vastly shorter than at present: and I have seen one in particular (which seems to have belonged to the playhouse, by having the parts divided with lines and the Actors' names in the margin) where several of those very passages were added in a written hand, which are since to be found in the folio.

[23] In the next place, a number of beautiful passages which are extant in the first single editions are omitted in this. As it seems, without any other reason than their willingness to shorten some scenes: these men (as it was said of Procrustes) either lopping or stretching an Author to make him just fit for their Stage.

[24] This edition is said to be printed from the Original Copies. I believe they meant those which had lain ever since the Author's days in the playhouse, and had from time to time been cut or added to arbitrarily. It appears that this edition, as well as the Quarto's, was printed (at least partly) from no better copies than the Prompter's Book, or Piece-meal Parts written out for the use of the actors: for in some places their very names are thro' carelessness set down instead of the Personae Dramatis, and in others the notes of direction to the Property-men for their Moveables, and to the Players for their Entries, are inserted into the Text thro' the ignorance of the Transcribers.

[25] The Plays not having been before so much as distinguish'd by Acts and Scenes, they are in this edition divided according as they play'd them, often where there is no pause in the action, or where they thought fit to make a breach in it for the sake of Musick, Masques, or Monsters.

[26] Sometimes the scenes are transposed ans shuffled backward and forward, a thing which could no otherwise happen but by their being taken from seperate and piece-meal-written parts.

[27] Many verses are omitted entirely and others transposed, from whence invincible obscurities have arisen, past the guess of any Commentator to clear up, but just where the accidental glympse of an old edition enlightens us.

[28] Some Characters were confounded and mix'd, or two put into one, for want of a competent number of actors. Thus in the Quarto edition of Midsummer-Night's Dream, Act. 5, Shakespeare introduces a kind of Master of Revels called Philostratus, all whose part is given to another character (that of Ægeus) in the subsequent editions; so also in Hamlet and King Lear. This too makes it probable that the Prompter's Books were what they call'd the Original Copies.

[29] From liberties of this kind many speeches also were put into the mouths of wrong persons, where the Author now seems chargeable with making them speak out of character; or sometimes perhaps for no better reason than that a governing Player, to have the mouthing of some favourite speech himself, would snatch it from the unworthy lips of an underling.

[30] Prose from verse they did not know, and they accordingly printed one for the other throughout the volume.

[31] Having been forced to say so much of the Players I think I ought in justice to remark that the Judgment, as well as Condition, of that class of people was then far inferior to what it is in our days. As then the best Playhouses were Inns and Taverns (the Globe, the Hope, the Red Bull, the Fortune, &c.) so the top of the profession were then meer Players, not Gentlemen of the stage. They were led into the Buttery by the Steward, not plac'd at the Lord's table or Lady's toilette; and consequently were entirely depriv'd of those advantages they now enjoy in the familier conversation of our Nobility, and an intimacy (not to say dearness) with people of the first condition.

[32] From what has been said there can be no question but had Shakespeare published his works himself (especially in his latter time, and after his retreat from the stage) we should not only be certain which are genuine but should find in those that are the errors lessened by some thousands. If I may judge from all the distinguishing marks of his style, and his manner of thinking and writing, I make no doubt to declare that those wretched plays, Pericles, Locrine, Sir John Oldcastle, Yorkshire Tragedy, Lord Cromwell, The Puritan, and London Prodigal cannot be admitted as his. And I should conjecture of some of the others (particularly Love's Labour's Lost, The Winter's Tale, and Titus Andronicus) that only some characters, single scenes, or perhaps a few particular passages were of his hand. It is very probable what occasion'd some Plays to be supposed Shakespeare's was only this, that they were pieces produced by unknown authors or fitted up for the Theatre while it was under his administration; and no owner claiming them they were adjudged to him, as they give strays to the Lord of the Manor. A mistake which (one may also observe), it was not for the interest of the House to remove. Yet the Players themselves, Heminge and Condell, afterwards did Shakespeare the justice to reject those eight plays in their edition, tho' they were then printed in his name, in every body's hands, and acted with some applause (as we learn from what Ben Jonson says of Pericles in his Ode on the New Inn.) That Titus Andronicus is one of this class I am the rather induced to believe by finding the same Author openly express his contempt of it in the Induction to Bartholomew Fair in the year 1614, when Shakespeare was yet living. And there is no better authority for these latter sort than for the former, which were equally published in his life-time.

[33] If we give in to this opinion, how many low and vicious parts and passages might no longer reflect upon this great Genius, but appear unworthily charged upon him? And even in those which are really his how many faults may have been unjustly laid to his account from arbitrary Additions, Expunctions, Transposition of scenes and lines, confusion of Characters and Persons, wrong application of Speeches, corruptions of innumerable Passages by the Ignorance, and wrong Corrections of 'em again by the Impertinence of his first Editors? From one or other of these considerations I am verily perswaded that the greatest and the grossest part of what are thought his errors would vanish, and leave his character in a light very different from that disadvantageous one in which it now appears to us.

[34] This is the state in which Shakespeare's writings lye at present, for since the above-mentioned Folio Edition all the rest have implicitly followed it without having recourse to any of the former, or ever making the comparison between them. It is impossible to repair the Injuries already done him; too much time has elaps'd, and the materials are too few. In what I have done I have rather given a proof of my willingness and desire than of my ability to do him justice. I have discharg'd the dull duty of an Editor to my best judgment, with more labour than I expect thanks, with a religious abhorrence of all Innovation, and without any indulgence to my private sense or conjecture. The method taken in this Edition will show it self. The various Readings are fairly put in the margin so that every one may compare 'em, and those I have prefer'd into the Text are constantly ex fide Codicum, upon authority. The Alterations or Additions which Shakespeare himself made are taken notice of as they occur. Some suspected passages which are excessively bad (and which seem Interpolations by being so inserted that one can intirely omit them without any chasm or deficience in the context), are degraded to the bottom of the page, with an Asterisk referring to the places of their insertion. The Scenes are mark'd so distinctly that every removal of place is specify'd — which is more necessary in this Author than any other since he shifts them more frequently; and sometimes, without attending to this particular, the reader would have met with obscurities. The more obsolete or unusual words are explained. Some of the most shining passages are distinguish'd by comma's in the margin, and where the beauty lay not in particulars but in the whole a star is prefix'd to the scene. This seems to me a shorter and less ostentatious method of performing the better half of Criticism (namely the pointing out an Author's excellencies) than to fill a whole paper with citations of fine passages, with general Applauses or empty Exclamations at the tail of them. There is also subjoin'd a Catalogue of those first Editions by which the greater part of the various readings and of the corrected passages are authorised (most of which are such as carry their own evidence along with them). These Editions now hold the place of Originals, and are the only materials left to repair the deficiences or restore the corrupted sense of the Author. I can only wish that the greater number of them (if a greater were ever published) may yet be found, by a search more successful than mine, for the better accomplishment of this end.

[35] I will conclude by saying of Shakespeare that, with all his faults, and with all the irregularity of his Drama, one may look upon his works, in comparison of those that are more finish'd and regular, as upon an ancient majestick piece of Gothick Architecture compar'd with a neat Modern building: the latter is more elegant and glaring, but the former is more strong and solemn. It must be allow'd that in one of these there are materials enough to make many of the other. It has much the greater variety, and much the nobler apartments; tho' we are often conducted to them by dark, odd, and uncouth passages. Nor does the whole fail to strike us with greater reverence, tho' many of the Parts are childish, ill-plac'd, and unequal to its grandeur.


I am indebted to Rosemary Cowler's edition of Pope's Preface in The Prose Works of Alexander Pope, vol. 2 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1986).

[1] Beauties and Faults: A common feature of eighteenth-century criticism is a catalogue of "beauties" and "faults" in an author's works: see, for instance, Johnson's Preface to his edition of Shakespeare's works.

[1] the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us: It was an eighteenth-century commonplace that Shakespeare's texts were in exceptionally bad shape, having been corrupted by early actors and publishers. Compare the comments of some of Pope's contemporaries and successors:

[3] Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of Nature: Compare Pope's Essay on Criticism:

When first young Maro [Virgil] in his boundless Mind
A Work t' outlast Immortal Rome design'd,
Perhaps he seem'd above the Critick's Law,
And but from Nature's Fountains scorn'd to draw:
But when t'examine ev'ry Part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.
Homer's proximity to nature is the subject of many eighteenth-century works of criticism, including, most influentially, Thomas Blackwell's Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer (London, 1735).

[3] Egyptian strainers and channels: Many early critics believed Homer had traveled to Egypt, which was in legend the original home of the arts and sciences.

[4] His characters are so much Nature her self: His skill at drawing characters was more than anything else the basis of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century praise of Shakespeare.

[7] Sentiments: In early eighteenth-century criticism, sentiment usually means just "thought," without any strong emotional component. As the century progresses, and especially beginning in the 1760s, sentiment shifts its meaning.

[9] to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed: Blaming Shakespeare's age for his apparent blemishes was a common eighteenth-century habit. Compare George Sewell's warning to those who criticize Shakespeare: "Yet, you great Judges, sometimes wink at Crimes,/Most were not his, but Errors of the Times" (cited in Earl Wasserman, Elizabethan Poetry in the Eighteenth Century [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1974], p. 13). The Biographia Britannica makes a similar case about Beaumont and Fletcher: "The absurdities they committed are rather the age's fault than theirs" (Biographia Britannica, 6 vols. in 7 {London, 1747-66], 1:626).

[10] Ben Jonson . . . brought critical learning into vogue: Jonson's works were widely admired in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as models of decorum. In 1675, Edward Phillips (Milton's nephew) called Jonson "the most learned judicious and correct, generally so accounted, of our English Comedians" (Theatrum Poetarum; or, A Compleat Collection of the Poets [London, 1675]), a phrase echoed by Dryden in his Essay of Dramatick Poesie: Jonson was "the most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had." (Pope, however, supposedly said of Jonson in conversation, "What trash are his works, taken all together!" [Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men Collected from Conversation, ed. James M. Osborn, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), p. 184].)

[10] Grex: Latin for "herd."

[14] he scarce ever blotted a line: In a headnote, "To the Great Variety of Readers," in the First Folio of 1623, Heminge and Condell observed, "And what he thought, he vttered with that easiness, that wee haue scarce receiued from him a blot in his papers." (For Heminge and Condell, see below.) Ben Jonson, in "Timber," answered it: "I remember the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, what soever he penn'd, hee never blotted out [a] line. My answer hath beene; would he had blotted a thousand." Pope picks up on the topic in his "Epistle to Augustus": "And fluent Shakespeare scarce effac'd a line./ Ev'n copious Dryden, wanted, or forgot,/ The last and greatest Art, the Art to blot" (279-81).

[15] his Want of Learning: How Shakespeare produced such works without the benefit of a university education or experience of the court was the subject of endless discussion in the eighteenth century. No one, however, went so far as those nineteenth-century critics who denied that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author of the plays attributed to him: the "authorship controversy" came much later.

[15] Mr. Waller: Edmund Waller (1606-87), English poet, celebrated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for his decorum and "correctness."

[17] Si ultra placitum laudarit, baccare frontem/ Cingito, ne Vati noceat: "If he [Codrus] should praise me too much, then wreathe my brow with foxglove, so that he doesn't harm the poet" (Virgil, Eclogues 7.27-28).

[17] the praise he gives him in his Discoveries: Pope refers to Jonson's famous comments on Shakespeare in "Timber": "I lov'd the man, and doe honour his memory, on this side Idolatry; as much as any."

[18] Actus tertia, Exit Omnes, Enter three Witches solus: The first two are bad Latin (actus is masculine, tertia feminine; omnes is plural but exit singular). "Enter three Witches solus" does not appear in Shakespeare's works: Pope perhaps misremembered the text.

[18] Hector's quoting Aristotle: In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, set in the Trojan War, Hector quotes the Greek philosopher who lived centuries after the war was supposed to have taken place. It is one of the most famous anachronisms in Shakespeare's works. Eighteenth-century critics began to pay increasing attention to such anachronisms, suggesting a new attitude toward the place of historical accuracy in art.

[18] some Latin: Jonson noted that Shakespeare had "small Latine and lesse Greeke."

[32] those wretched plays: The references are to Pericles Prince of Tyre, The Tragedy of Locrine, Sir John Oldcastle Lord Cobham, A Yorkshire Tragedy, The History of Thomas Ld Cromwell, The Puritan Widow, and The London Prodigall. Several of these plays had appeared under Shakespeare's name, or under the initials "W.S.," during his lifetime. All seven were included as Shakespeare's in the folio of 1664, and continued to appear in collected editions until Pope rejected them. Of the seven, only Pericles is now considered Shakespeare's.

[32] Heminge and Condell: John Heminge and Henry Condell, partners in Shakespeare's company and compilers of the first folio.

[32] what Ben Jonson says of Pericles: "No doubt some mouldy tale,/ Like Pericles; and stale / As the Shrieues crusts, and nasty as his fish-/ scraps, out euery dish,/ Throwne forth, and rak't into the common tub,/ May keepe vp the Play-club" ("Ode" to The New Inne [1631], 21-26).

[34] The method taken in this Edition will show it self: For a sample of "degrading" "excessively bad" passages to the bottom of the page, see the University of Pennsylvania's on-line facsimile of Pope's King Lear, p. 22; for his marginal commas to indicate "the most shining passages," see p. 23.

[35] piece of Gothick Architecture: Thomas Rymer had criticized early modern literature by likening to a Gothic building: "I have thought our Poetry of the last Age was as rude as our Architecture" (The Tragedies of the Last Age Consider'd and Examin'd by the Practice of the Ancients [London, 1678], p. 142). Pope preserves the comparison, but now treats it favorably. He was anticipated in the comparison by John Hughes, who in 1715 wrote of Spenser's Fairie Queene: "It ought rather to be consider'd as a Poem of a particular kind, describing in a Series of Allegorical Adventures or Episodes the most noted Virtues and Vices: to compare it therefore with the Models of Antiquity, wou'd be like drawing a Parallel between the Roman and the Gothick Architecture. In the first there is doubtless a more natural Grandeur and Simplicity: in the latter, we find great Mixtures of Beauty and Barbarism, yet assisted by the Invention of a Variety of inferior Ornaments" (The Works of Mr. Edmund Spenser, ed. John Hughes, 6 vols. [London, 1715], 1:lx-lxi). Compare Richard Hurd, writing at the end of the eighteenth century: "When an architect examines a Gothic structure by Grecian rules, he finds nothing but deformity. But the Gothic structure has its own rules, by which when it comes to be examined, it is seen to have its merit, as well as the Grecian" (The Works of Richard Hurd, 8 vols. [London, 1811], 4:296).