Shakespeare scholarship in the mid 19th century, one gathers, was not only very competitive but also morally dangerous. It could threaten the virtue, even on occasion the sanity, of its practitioners, a diverse group united only by their lust for Shakespeareana and their unflaggingly competitive spirit. Enthusiastic, self-taught amateurs, they developed professional skills at a time when university professionals took little interest in vernacular scholarship. They mostly earned their livings in other clerkly trades, as journalists, parliamentary reporters or lawyers. In their spare time they collected 16th and 17th-century books and manuscripts, learned booty which was much easier to find than it later became, and pored unsupervised over ancient documents in virtually unexplored public and private collections. They worked heroically and announced their discoveries with extraordinary fervour. They met, to compliment or deceive one another, at certain booksellers, or in the British Museum Reading Rooms, where they might make the acquaintance of the scholarly but not always accessible palaeographers who dominated that library. They anxiously cultivated the aristocratic owners of great private collections, and they published their discoveries at a rate that can only be called abandoned, meanwhile exchanging insults, though mostly in gentlemanly prose. For learned disputes had gentlemanly antecedents, and so had learned fabrications; even Thomas Warton was guilty, and he was the author of the standard History of English Poetry, a work some Shakespeare hunters saw as a model for their much desired history of English drama.
LRB 16 December 2004 | PDF Download