Alexander Pope and Lewis Theobald

“Alexander Pope and Lewis Theobald: None but themselves can be their parallel.”

Apart from attracting fame and notoriety for his work on The Double Falsehood, Lewis Theobald was known in the early eighteenth century for a public falling-out with one of the Augustan Age’s greatest poets and satirists, Alexander Pope. The two met sometime shortly after the 1712 publication of Pope’s masterpiece, The Rape of the Lock, and seem to have been initially on friendly terms. When Pope published a translation of Homer’s Iliad in 1717, Theobald’s cultural magazine, The Censor, heaped praise upon it. Four years later, Theobald included two of Pope’s poems in a miscellany he was editing, titled The Grove. At some point between 1723 and 1725, however, when Pope’s monumental edition of Shakespeare appeared in print, the professional friendship between the two men must have gone sour.

During those years, Theobald was pursuing a career as a professional writer for the theater, and was gaining a reputation by collaborating with the impresario and performer John Rich on a series of lavish spectacles, called “pantomimes,” staged at Drury Lane to great popular acclaim. He’d also produced an adaptation of Richard II, and had thereby garnered some recognition among the London cognoscenti as a commentator on Shakespearean matters. Curiously enough, his view of Pope’s thoroughly revisionist edition of Shakespeare—which took extensive liberties in introducing rewritten verses, prosodic alterations, and large-scale cuts to the plays—was that Pope had often taken too reverent an approach and left too much unamended. In 1726, he published a 200-page comment on Pope’s version of Hamlet, scathingly titled 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 ever yet published.

Pope struck back quickly, but obliquely. In December of 1727, he published a mock-scenario for a pantomime in The Craftsman—a political journal established to oppose the Walpole premiership—entitled “The Mock Minister; or, Harlequin a Statesman.” The overt purpose of this scenario was to caricature both the Walpole government and the genre of pantomime simultaneously, but it also suggested an insidious complicity between the two. The scenario implied that proponents of the pantomime, like Theobald, were actively helping Walpole to keep the London population entertained and thus docile. When The Double Falsehood had its premiere at Drury Lane later that same month, and when the play appeared in print several weeks later, its title page proclaiming that it had been “Written Originally by W. SHAKESPEARE,” Pope seized the opportunity to launch a more direct counterattack.

In a volume of prose and verse co-published with Jonathan Swift in 1728, Pope savaged The Double Falsehood repeatedly for its failed attempts at poetic seriousness, and in so doing, introduced the term “bathos” into English literary criticism. One passage in particular suffered the brunt of Pope’s ire, a line spoken by Julio in the play’s third act: “Is there a treachery like this in baseness / Recorded anywhere? It is the deepest. / None but itself can be its parallel” (3.1.17). Pope fastened upon the last of these three lines, and—misquoting it as “None but himself can be his parallel”—lampooned it as a singular example of Theobald’s inadvertent, tautological vacuity. How could Shakespeare have written a line so vapid, Pope insinuated uncharitably, or one so awkwardly rhetorical as Violante’s exclamation upon opening Henriquez’s letter, “Wax, render up thy trust” (2.2.25)? Elsewhere in the volume, he dubbed Theobald as “piddling Tibbald,” a pedant and an academic quibbler, “Who thinks he reads when he but scans and spells.” Although Theobald fought back with a reply published in Mist’s Weekly Journal in April 1728, the worst was still yet to come.

In May 1728, Pope released the first version of a new mock-epic, The Dunciad, a work that would ultimately become one of the landmarks of eighteenth-century English literature. The poem’s titular Dunce and main character was none other than Theobald himself. The poem forced Theobald into the role of the dullest, most witless writer of the age, an author of dreary spectacle-shows and frivolous farces. Unfortunately for Theobald, this characterization would prove nearly impossible to shake off. When The Dunciad was re-released in April 1729, it appeared with a lengthy set of critical notes that went even farther—this time parodying Theobald’s hyperactive editorial tendencies (as revealed by his comments on Hamlet) by applying them to The Double Falsehood, and ultimately implying that The Double Falsehood was an out-and-out forgery on Theobald’s part. A pamphlet war ensued, and the notion that the play might be a whole-cloth fabrication began to gain traction.

During this time, Theobald resolved to unseat Pope as Shakespeare’s preeminent, eighteenth-century editor. In 1733 he released his own edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in seven volumes. (The Double Falsehood was conspicuously absent from this publication.) Theobald’s edition outshone Pope’s both in its critical thoroughness, the influential status it came to occupy among critics, and in the sales figures it generated, but it also had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the cartoonish profile Pope had already crafted for Theobald as a small-minded, over-zealous hair-splitter. After this, there was little Theobald could do to recuperate his public profile. Until only recently, with reawakened interest in The Double Falsehood, history would remember him mostly as King Dunce, a possible forger, and a picker of literary nits. Both he and Alexander Pope died in 1744.

Works Consulted / Further Reading

Hammond, Brean. Introduction and Appendix 1 to Double Falsehood (London: Methuen/Arden Shakespeare, 2010), 1-160 and 307-19.

Pope, Alexander. The Major Works, Pat Rogers, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press/Oxford World’s Classics, 2009).

“Shakespeare’s Editors – Lewis Theobald,” Palomar College, last modified September 21, 2009.