BLACKSTONE (WILLIAM) Autograph letter signed to the pioneering Shakespearean scholar George Steevens, 1780
Lot 12
Sold for £ 1,875 (US$ 2,521) inc. premium

Lot Details
Autograph letter signed to the pioneering Shakespearean scholar George Steevens, thanking him for the gift of "Mr. Capel's curious list of Shakesperiana; & for the (to me) equally valuable piece of Mr. Prynne's"; and attempting to answer from memory ("I have no books here") Steevens's query concerning "the Manner of disabling Dogs by the Forest Laws", with the promise that he will consult "two or three of our ancient Writers" on his return to London, one page, integral address-leaf, seal-tear (repaired), 4to, Priory Place, 9 January 1780


  • SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE TO GEORGE STEEVENS, DISCUSSING A CRUX IN SHAKESPEARE. This letter seeks to elucidate the remark made by Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor: 'Ay, that I will, come cut and long-tail, under the degree of squire' (III, 4, line 46 in the Arden edition). Editors had hitherto thought this might refer to the practice of mutilating dogs to prevent them disturbing game under the terms of the draconian Forest Laws. It was Steevens with the help of Blackstone who came up with the simpler explanation – the one still favoured by modern editors – that the phrase merely referred to the practice of docking a horse or dog's tail, and was a proverbial expression meaning 'no matter who or what is concerned', since horses and dogs must fall into one of two causes, those with uncut and those with docked tails (H.J. Oliver in the Arden edition, p. 92, n. 46).

    Thus in the present letter, Blackstone tells Steevens: "My memory only furnishes me with that of Expeditation, or Lawing as it was called, by cutting off the Claws & Ball of the Forefoot. The Cutting off of the Tail would be chiefly necessary for Greyhounds, who steer themselves by that Rudder in the short Turns which they sometimes make in Coursing. But, as I remember, no other Dogs were allowed to be kept within the Limits of the Forest but Mastiffs (to guard the House) & those only on condition of being thus expeditated". This was to be expanded into Steevens's note on the passage in Merry Wives: 'come cut and long-tail) The last conversation I had the honour to enjoy with Sir William Blackstone, was on this subject; and by a series of accurate references to the whole collection of ancient Forest Laws, he convinced me of our repeated error, expeditation and genuscission, being the only established and technical modes ever used for disabling the canine species. Part of the tails of spaniels indeed, are generally cut off (ornamenti gratia) while they are puppies, so that (admitting a loose description) every kind of dog is comprehended in the phrase of cut and long-tail, and every rank of people in the same expression, if metaphorically used' (Reed-Steevens First Variorum).

    While William Blackstone remains celebrated for his great Commentaries on the Laws of England, first published in 1765–9, with a further five substantive editions appearing between 1770 and 1778, he did also find time for 'Poetical Criticism'. His researches in this field were communicated to Steevens who passed them on to his fellow Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone, who published them in his Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare's Plays, published in 1778, by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens (1780); Malone noting that Blackstone's notes 'show him to have been a man of excellent taste and accuracy, and a good critick' (see D.A. Lockmiller, Sir William Blackstone, 1938, pp. 80-81).

    Like both Blackstone and Malone, Steevens had begun his career as a lawyer and appears to have commenced his close friendship with Samuel Johnson when he resided at the Temple and Johnson lived nearby. But after only a brief time at the Temple he came into an inheritance which allowed him to devote his life to Shakespearean pursuits, with a side-line in literary hoaxes and feuds. He began his new career by helping Johnson with his famous edition of 1765 and was largely responsible for the revised edition of 1773. He went on to produce further editions either on his own account or collaboratively, in 1778 (the Johnson-Steevens Shakespeare), 1780 (Malone's Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare's Plays), 1785 (an expanded version of the Johnson-Steevens Shakespeare edited by Isaac Reed), 1793 (his own edition, in sixteen volumes) and, finally, a posthumous edition of 1802, again edited by Reed: 'The three great eighteenth-century editors of Shakespeare were, in chronological order, Steevens, Malone, and Reed. When one adds the name of Samuel Johnson, whose edition of Shakespeare's plays was to be the point of departure for the more scholarly editions of Reed and Malone, one has what is Steevens's greatest contribution to Shakespeare studies – the invaluable assistance he gave to all three. Indeed Malone's first essay into Shakespeare studies came at Steevens's invitation, to help complete the 1773 Johnson-Steevens Shakespeare... Steevens's own contribution to Shakespeare studies was the wealth of illustrative quotations from rare works that he brought to the annotation of the plays' (Arthur Sherbo, ODNB).

    Blackstone in this letter also thanks Steevens for his gift of "Mr. Capel's curious list of Shakesperiana; & for the (to me) equally valuable piece of Mr. Prynne's". Prynne of course can be identified as the puritan pamphleteer, William Prynne, author of the notorious attack on stage plays, Histriomastix. Blackstone was a keen collector of his works, bequeathing his collection to All Souls, Oxford. 'Capel' can be identified as Edward Capell, the first editor of Shakespeare to base his work on fresh transcripts and collation of comparative edition rather than, as hitherto, merely from marking-up preceding editions. Like Malone and Garrick, he formed an important collection of Shakespeare plays which he presented to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1779 in celebration of his sixty-sixth birthday, issuing at the same time a catalogue; this being presumably the "curious list of Shakesperiana" sent by Steevens to Blackstone. Capell's edition of Shakespeare appeared, after a delay caused by the publication of Johnson and Steevens's rival edition, in 1767-8: 'Capell did not name those who had contributed to his edition, and in turn much of his labours were either anticipated or appropriated by other scholars. In A Letter to George Hardinge (1777), ostensibly by the Revd John Collins, George Steevens was accused of plagiarism from Capell; it was rumoured that Steevens had bribed the printer to let him have the sheets as they were printed off, and that he sat up at night to copy them' (Paul Baines, ODNB).

    Blackstone was to die a month after writing this letter, on 14 February 1780.
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