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This chapter talks about the editing in Britain of patristic texts, classical texts and the writings of Shakespeare. The broader field of the editing of Greek and Latin classical texts similarly reflected cultural, academic and social issues, though in more complicated ways. Classical editing of course addressed itself to that audience which had access to knowledge of the learned languages, public- and grammar-school and university educated, primarily male. Major editorial work was carried on by gentleman scholars and by professional men. The editing of vernacular literary classics in the long eighteenth century shows a still more extensive and dramatic dissemination of reading, and development of professional institutions and practices and communities of scholarship. Shakespeare is the exemplary case: a native text, even by the beginning of the eighteenth century the great representative of a characteristically British literary genius, played with increasing frequency in the theatre, and the central ground of the exercises and battles of an emerging English literary scholarship.
The first two volumes of Tristram Shandy burst upon a surprised and marvelling world in 1759, from the pen of a clergyman almost unpublished before that date, and virtually unknown outside York ecclesiastical circles. What dragons' teeth had been sown to bear such an apparently full-grown progeny? What rough beast or shaggy dog was slouching, from Sterne's church living at Sutton-on-the-Forest, toward London to be born? We know a good deal about the literary traditions that influenced Tristram Shandy, or from which Tristram Shandy was conjured. They include (especially for Sterne's first two volumes) the writings of the French sixteenth-century humanist and humorist François Rabelais, author of Gargantua and Pantagruel; Jonathan Swift's first satiric masterpiece, A Tale of a Tub (1704), and its associated attack on enthusiastic religious dissent, A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit; and the satires of the Scriblerus Club, particularly The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, on early eighteenth-century abuses of learning. Our understanding of what such texts meant to Sterne, and how he set about re-forging these materials into something new and rather different, may be a little advanced by looking at two earlier and fragmentary pieces of writing from his hand: A Political Romance and the 'Rabelaisian Fragment'. A Political Romance was written as a contribution to a political dispute that arose in the diocese of York. Some initial disentangling of the skeins of that dispute is necessary.
It can be no surprise that Jonathan Swift wrote throughout his life on matters relating to the Anglican church, religion, worship, and discipline. He lived in a kingdom the overwhelming majority of whose inhabitants were believing, observing Christians. In England, much the greater part were baptized and practicing members of the Anglican church, the church established by law (the case in Ireland, as we shall see, was both demographically and politically rather different). Works of theology, divinity, and biblical commentary constituted, in the seventeenth century and through most of the eighteenth century, the most numerous of any class of writings published in Britain. And Swift of course, for virtually all his adult life, was an ordained member of the Anglican priesthood, engaged in its daily duties and its high political interests, and for three decades Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.
Eighteenth-century literary editing, of Shakespeare as well as Milton and other authors, has sometimes been characterized as tending to alter and construe the text in the light of distinctively eighteenth-century, and often distinctively personal, tastes and knowledges. That view has been subject to especially serious and repeated challenge in the last few years, but survives at some points in the writings of distinguished Shakespearian commentators, including Margreta de Grazia and Gary Taylor. In my own study of the subject, Shakespeare, Milton, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Editing (Cambridge University Press), to some of the materials and arguments of which this essay will recur, I have attempted to demonstrate that a number of the significant works of eighteenth-century scholarship and scholarly editing are based on coherent and often well-formulated theoretical understandings of interpretation, which profess to establish authorial readings, and to understand an original, authorially intended, meaning.
It is a truism that no book was more copiously studied and written about in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century than the Bible. The connections between biblical scholarship and literary criticism in the period are multiple and complex, the more so in that many debates about central literary theoretical questions took place within the numerous spheres of biblical discussion, rather than in works of secular literary criticism. This was inevitably the case; at the Restoration secular literary criticism in England was from some points of view in its infancy. There had been no full and systematic theory of poetry since the late sixteenth century, no extended critical analysis or scholarly edition of any English classic. The idea of a secular literary history would begin to take shape only in the eighteenth century.
I shall discuss in this essay, chiefly but not exclusively with reference to the work of British writers, two key themes: the development of appreciation and analysis of the Bible as a literary work, and of its poetic, aesthetic, and rhetorical qualities; and, at least as important to the history of literary criticism, the debates of biblical scholars about the textual and hermeneutic issues raised by the Holy Scriptures. The two themes are not unrelated.
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