George Steevens

George Steevens

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George Steevens was an English Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

an commentator.

He was born at Poplar, the son of a captain and later director of the East India Company
British East India Company
The East India Company was an early English joint-stock company that was formed initially for pursuing trade with the East Indies, but that ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and China...

. He was educated at Eton College
Eton College
Eton College, often referred to simply as Eton, is a British independent school for boys aged 13 to 18. It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI as "The King's College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor"....

 and at King's College, Cambridge
King's College, Cambridge
King's College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, England. The college's full name is "The King's College of our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge", but it is usually referred to simply as "King's" within the University....

, where he remained from 1753 to 1756. Leaving the university without a degree, he settled in chambers in the Inner Temple
Inner Temple
The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, commonly known as Inner Temple, is one of the four Inns of Court in London. To be called to the Bar and practise as a barrister in England and Wales, an individual must belong to one of these Inns...

, moving later to a house on Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Heath is a large, ancient London park, covering . This grassy public space sits astride a sandy ridge, one of the highest points in London, running from Hampstead to Highgate, which rests on a band of London clay...

, where he collected a valuable library, rich in Elizabethan
Elizabethan era
The Elizabethan era was the epoch in English history of Queen Elizabeth I's reign . Historians often depict it as the golden age in English history...

 literature. He also accumulated a large collection of Hogarth
William Hogarth
William Hogarth was an English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic and editorial cartoonist who has been credited with pioneering western sequential art. His work ranged from realistic portraiture to comic strip-like series of pictures called "modern moral subjects"...

 prints, and his notes on the subject were incorporated in John Nichols
John Nichols (printer)
John Nichols was an English printer, author and antiquary.-Early life and apprenticeship:He was born in Islington, London to Edward Nichols and Anne Wilmot. On 22 June 1766 he married Anne Cradock daughter of William Cradock...

'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
Isaac Reed
Isaac Reed was an English Shakespearean editor.-Life:The son of a baker, he was born in London. He was articled to a solicitor, and eventually set up as a conveyancer at Staple Inn, where he had a large practice.-Works:...

, and, after making his daily round of the booksellers shops, returned to Hampstead. He began his work as a Shakespearean editor with reprints of the quarto editions of Shakespeare's plays, entitled Twenty of the Plays of Shakespeare ... (1766). Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson , often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

 was impressed by 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
A variorum is a work that collates all known variants of a text. It is a work of textual criticism, whereby all variations and emendations are set side by side so that a reader can track how textual decisions have been made in the preparation of a text for publication...

edition was revised and reprinted in 1778, and further edited in 1785 by Reed; but in 1793 Steevens, who had asserted that he was now a dowager-editor, was persuaded by his jealousy of Edmond Malone
Edmond Malone
Edmond Malone was an Irish Shakespearean scholar and editor of the works of William Shakespeare.Assured of an income after the death of his father in 1774, Malone was able to give up his law practice for at first political and then more congenial literary pursuits. He went to London, where he...

 to resume the task. 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 20 years between 1773 and 1793, Steevens was less harmlessly engaged in criticizing his fellows and playing malicious practical jokes on them. Dr Johnson, who was one of his staunchest 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
Thomas Chatterton
Thomas Chatterton was an English poet and forger of pseudo-medieval poetry. He died of arsenic poisoning, either from a suicide attempt or self-medication for a venereal disease.-Childhood:...

-Rowley and the Ireland forgeries
Ireland Shakespeare Forgeries
The Ireland Shakespeare forgeries were a cause célèbre in 1790s London, when author and engraver Samuel Ireland announced the discovery of a treasure-trove of Shakespearean manuscripts by his son William Henry Ireland. Among them were the manuscripts of four plays, two of them previously unknown...

. He wrote an entirely fictitious account of the Java upas tree, derived from an imaginary Dutch traveller, which imposed on Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin was an English physician who turned down George III's invitation to be a physician to the King. One of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave trade abolitionist,inventor and poet...

, and he hoaxed the Society of Antiquaries
Society of Antiquaries of London
The Society of Antiquaries of London is a learned society "charged by its Royal Charter of 1751 with 'the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries'." It is based at Burlington House, Piccadilly, London , and is...

 with the tombstone of Hardicanute, supposed to have been dug up in Kennington
Kennington is a district of South London, England, mainly within the London Borough of Lambeth, although part of the area is within the London Borough of Southwark....

, but really engraved with an Anglo-Saxon
Old English language
Old English or Anglo-Saxon is an early form of the English language that was spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons and their descendants in parts of what are now England and southeastern Scotland between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century...

 inscription of his own invention. He died at Hampstead on 22 January 1800. A monument to his memory by John Flaxman
John Flaxman
John Flaxman was an English sculptor and draughtsman.-Early life:He was born in York. His father was also named John, after an ancestor who, according to family tradition, had fought for Parliament at the Battle of Naseby, and afterwards settled as a carrier or farmer in Buckinghamshire...

, with an inscription commemorating his Shakespearian labours, was erected in Poplar Chapel. The sale catalogue of his valuable library is in the British Museum
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...


Steevens's Shakespeare was re-issued by 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.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in May 1767.