« PreviousContinue »
of mankind. He is many times flat and insipid; his comick wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him: no man can say, he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,
"Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi."
It is to be lamented, that such a writer should want a commentary; that his language should become obsolete, or his sentiments obscure. But it is vain to carry wishes beyond the condition of human things; that which must happen to all, has happened to Shakspeare, by accident and time; and more than has been suffered by any other writer since the use of types, has been suffered by him through his own negligence of fame, or perhaps by that superiority of mind, which despised its own performances, when it compared them with its powers, and judged those works unworthy to be preserved, which the criticks of following ages were to contend for the fame of restoring and explaining.
Among these candidates of inferior fame, I am now to stand the judgment of the publick; and wish that I could confidently produce my commentary as equal to the encouragement which I have had the honour of receiving. Every work of this kind is by its nature deficient, and I should feel little solicitude about the sentence, were it to be pronounced only by the skilful and the learned.
Of what has been performed in this revisal," an
This paragraph relates to the edition published in 1773, by George Steevens, Esq. MALONE.
account is given in the following pages by Mr. Steevens, who might have spoken both of his own diligence and sagacity, in terms of greater selfapprobation, without deviating from modesty or truth." JOHNSON.
[Prefixed to Mr. STEEVENS'S Edition of Twenty of the old Quarto Copies of SHAKSPEARE, &C. in 4 Vols. 8vo. 1766.]
THE plays of Shakspeare have been so often republished, with every seeming advantage which the joint labours of men of the first abilities could procure for them, that one would hardly imagine they could stand in need of any thing beyond the illustration of some few dark passages. Modes of expression must remain in obscurity, or be retrieved from time to time, as chance may throw
7 All prefatory matters being in the present edition printed according to the order of time in which they originally appeared, the Advertisement Dr. Johnson refers to, will be found immediately after Mr. Capell's Introduction. STEEVENS.
the books of that age into the hands of criticks who shall make a proper use of them. Many have been of opinion that his language will continue difficult to all those who are unacquainted with the provincial expressions which they suppose him to have used; yet, for my own part, I cannot believe but that those which are now local may once have been universal, and must have been the language of those persons before whom his plays were represented. However, it is certain, that the instances of obscurity from this source are very few.
Some have been of opinion that even a particular syntax prevailed in the time of Shakspeare; but, as I do not recollect that any proofs were ever brought in support of that sentiment, I own I am of the contrary opinion.
In his time indeed a different arrangement of syllables had been introduced in imitation of the Latin, as we find in Ascham; and the verb was frequently kept back in the sentence; but in Shakspeare no marks of it are discernible; and though the rules of syntax were more strictly observed by the writers of that age than they have been since, he of all the number is perhaps the most ungrammatical. To make his meaning intelligible to his audience seems to have been his only care, and with the ease of conversation he has adopted its incorrectness.
The past editors, eminently qualified as they were by genius and learning for this undertaking, wanted industry; to cover which they published catalogues, transcribed at random, of a greater number of old copies than ever they can be supposed to have had in their possession; when, at the same time, they never examined the few which we
know they had, with any degree of accuracy. The last editor alone has dealt fairly with the world in this particular; he professes to have made use of no more than he had really seen, and has annexed a list of such to every play, together with a complete one of those supposed to be in being, at the conclusion of his work, whether he had been able to procure them for the service of it or not.
For these reasons I thought it would not be unacceptable to the lovers of Shakspeare to collate all the quartos I could find, comparing one copy with the rest, where there were more than one of the same play; and to multiply the chances of their being preserved, by collecting them into volumes, instead of leaving the few that have escaped, to share the fate of the rest, which was probably hastened by their remaining in the form of pamphlets, their use and value being equally unknown to those into whose hands they fell.
Of some I have printed more copy; as there are many persons, who, not contented with the possession of a finished picture of some great master, are desirous to procure the first sketch that was made for it, that they may have the pleasure of tracing the progress of the artist from the first light colouring to the finishing stroke. To such the earlier editions of King John, Henry the Fifth, Henry the Sixth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Romeo and Juliet, will, I appréhend, not be unwelcome; since in these we may discern as much as will be found in the hasty outlines of the pencil, with a fair prospect of that perfection to which he brought every performance he took the pains to retouch.
The general character of the quarto editions may more advantageously be taken from the words
of Mr. Pope, than from any recommendation of my own.
"The folio edition (says he) in which all the plays we now receive as his were first collected, was published by two players, Heminges and Condell, in 1623, seven years after his decease. They declare that all the other editions were stolen and surreptitious, and affirm theirs to be purged from the errors of the former. This is true as to the literal errors, and no other; for in all respects else it is far worse than the quartos.
"First, because the additions of trifling and bombast passages are in this edition far more numerous. For whatever had been added since those quartos, by the actors, or had stolen from their mouths into the written parts, were from thence conveyed into the printed text, and all stand charged upon the author. He himself complained of this usage in Hamlet, where he wishes those who play the clowns would speak no more than is set down for them, (Act III. sc. iv.) But as a proof that he could not escape it, in the old editions of Romeo and Juliet, there is no hint of the mean conceits and ribaldries now to be found there. In others the scenes of the mobs, plebeians, and clowns, are vastly shorter than at present; and I have seen one in particular (which seems to have belonged to the play-house, by having the parts divided by lines, and the actors names in the margin,) where several of those very passages were added
• It may be proper on this occasion to observe, that the actors printed several of the plays in their folio edition from the very quarto copies which they are here striving to depreciate; and additional corruption is the utmost that these copies gained by passing through their hands.