London: A. Millar in the Strand, 1753. Two twelvemo volumes, measuring 6.5 x 4 inches: xii, , 292; , 274, . Modern black paneled calf, raised bands, spine compartments elaborately tooled in gilt, red morocco spine labels lettered in gilt, marbled endpapers. Woodcut headpieces, tailpieces, and initials throughout text; two pages of publisher’s advertisements at end of Volume II. Shelf marks in red ink to upper righthand corners of title pages, blue pencil note to verso of title in Volume I.
First edition of the first scholarly work on Shakespeare written by a woman. Novelist Charlotte Lennox achieved early success with her 1752 comic novel The Female Quixote, in which she recasts Cervantes’s deluded knight as a modern heroine whose judgment is formed by her passionate reading of French romances. Encouraged by her friend Samuel Johnson, who ghost-wrote the dedication, Lennox embarked on this feminist study of Shakespeare’s literary sources, many of which were popular romances every bit as fantastical as those satirized in The Female Quixote. In this first edition, Lennox pulls together original source material for ten of Shakespeare’s plays. She reprints two English texts: the passage from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles that inspired Macbeth, and Robert Greene’s romance “Dorastus and Fawnia,” a source for The Winter’s Tale. She also provides translations for sources in Latin (Plautus), Danish (Saxo Grammaticus), and Italian (Cinthio, Bandello, and Boccaccio.) Lennox analyzes each pairing of source and play, noting that Shakespeare often flattens the female characters he adapts, losing their individual motives in the shift to the stage. Cinthio, for instance, depicts Iago’s wife as implicated in the handkerchief plot “much against her Will,” actively trying to put Desdemona “upon her Guard,” while Shakespeare just makes Emilia dim: “If her Husband wants [the handkerchief] for any Purpose of Importance, that Purpose cannot be very good; this Suspicion however never enters her Mind, but she gives it him only upon that very Condition, which ought to have made her refuse it.” Half-impressed, half-appalled, Johnson responded: “When Shakespeare is demolished your wings will be full summed and I will fly You at Milton; for you are a bird of Prey, but the Bird of Jupiter.” The success of Shakespear Illustrated prompted Lennox to publish a hastily assembled third volume in 1754, but this first edition is complete “in two volumes,” as issued. A very good copy of a landmark in Shakespearean and feminist literary criticism.