« PreviousContinue »
can be drawn from the works of Shakspeare to a forgotten poet, has had the effect of a stone thrown from the hand of Deucalion, and raised him at once into life. This may perhaps have been carried too far, and the zeal which has been exerted in collecting all the remains of the Elizabethan age, may perhaps, in some cases, have been inordinate; but it is surely preferable to the ignorance which prevailed on this subject not more than a century ago, when the knowledge of our literature was confined within so narrow a compass, that as far as intellectual eminence was concerned, we appeared to be a nation of yesterday. Our early writers, with all the faults of an untutored taste, had merits sufficient to redeem them from the oblivion to which they had been consigned. They were marble in the quarry, it is true, but still they were marble, and formed of those durable materials, which have at length obtained for English genius, that rank in Europe which the feebler muse of France had so long exclusively and unjustly usurped.
It was the object of Mr. Malone, from which he never deviated, to furnish the reader, as far as it was possible, with the author's unsophisticated text. In acting upon this principle he had at first the concurrence and even the example of Mr. Steevens to guide him. They both professed to follow the old copies with scrupulous fidelity, except where a clear necessity compelled them to depart from the readings which they supplied. To this plan it will be found Mr. Malone has still steadily adhered, while his rival critick has latterly adopted maxims directly contrary to the opinions which he formerly maintained. Corruptions have been supposed to exist in the phraseology of Shakspeare, which, in some instances, are not altogether obsolete in the present day; and the free versification of the poet has been lengthened or curtailed as suited the commentator's caprice, to bring it within the strict regularity which has been enjoined by the school of Pope. In proposing these corrections, as Mr. Steevens endeavours
to represent them, and in pointing out the fancied errors of the earlier copies, he has generally had recourse to ridicule, a weapon of which he was as fond, as he was skilful in its use. This mode of discussion gave him great advantages when the passages upon which it arose were scattered throughout a number of volumes, from which a great proportion of readers would be unwilling to take the pains of collecting a system of criticism for themselves; but would rather be content with acquiescing in opinions so pleasantly and humorously conveyed. Mr. Malone, to obviate this effect (in some measure, I believe, at my recommendation), determined to bring these topicks into one connected view, and therefore prepared materials for an express Essay on the Metre and Phraseology of Shakspeare, in which he had madẹ considerable progress, but which, I am sorry to say, he did not live to complete. I have taken some pains upon this subject, and have ventured to add the result of my reading to what my friend has left behind him. In another department of this work I have put myself to a good deal of unnecessary trouble, if the decision of Mr. Steevens should be considered as well founded, where he has ridiculed the notion that any advantage was to be derived from further and more accurate collation of the text; but upon this subject I must presume to say, that I cannot consider him as the best authority. Whatever were the qualities necessary for an editor which he possessed, and it would not be easy to point out a man who had more, yet he laboured under a marked deficiency in this respect, from the very first commencement of his critical career. His republication of the early quartos of Shakspeare in 1766, is one of the most grossly incorrect performances that I have ever seen; and his edition of our poet's plays, in conjunction with Dr. Johnson in 1773, was scarcely less objectionable. The following passage from the advertisement which he then prefixed, see p. 173, will show his notions of the unimportance of collation; and will enable me to apprize
the reader of the different view which I have taken of an editor's duty. "The dialogue might indeed be sometimes lengthened by yet other insertions then have been made, but without advantage either to its spirit or beauty; as in the following instance :-[Lear, Act II. Sc. IV.]
"Lear. No, I say.
"Kent. I say, yea."
"Here the quartos add:
"Lear. No, no, they would not.
"By the admission of this negation and affirmation, would any new idea be gained?" If it were the object of a dramatick writer to convey his ideas with all possible brevity, I should allow the force of this interrogation; but it should be left to the reader to determine whether this iteration of words, without any additional meaning, does not give us a more lively picture of the cholerick monarch, and the blunt freedom which characterizes the faithful Kent. Mr. Steevens, however, seems to have altered his opinion in this instance; for in his subsequent edition of 1778, these unimportant words are admitted into the text. In the commencement of Hamlet's interview with Ophelia, I have printed in the body of the work what Mr. Malone appears to have selected as the preferable reading, that of the quarto:
Good, my Lord, "How does your honour for this many a day?
"Hamlet. I humbly thank you; well."
But I have pointed out in the margin, that the folio gives this passage with the word well twice repeated, because others may think with myself, that this iteration is naturally suited to the irritable state of Hamlet's perturbed mind. As I have by no means set down all the variations,
or even the greater part of them, which occur in the different copies, for in that case, how few would have the patience to examine so copious a list with any degree of attention, I shall here explain the rules by which I have been guided in making a selection. In Romeo and Juliet, where the earliest quarto has all the appearance of being an imperfect sketch by the author himself, I have given the various readings very much in detail, as it is a matter of interesting curiosity, should this conjecture be correct, to trace the progress of his mind from his first thoughts to his more improved conceptions. In other plays, wherever I thought there might be a doubt with the reader, as to which copy had given most correctly what the author was likely to have written, I have afforded him an opportunity of judging for himself, by laying both before him. In the old editions we perpetually find a plural substantive governing a singular verb, which has generally been corrected by all the modern criticks, Mr. Malone among the rest; perhaps with some inconsistency on his part, as he has, on other occasions, contended in favour of phraseology as far removed from modern usage; but, that the reader may be aware of the nature of the alterations which have been made, I have, in some of the earlier plays, exhibited a few of these supposed grammatical anomalies; which, however, I am inclined to think were neither the blunders of a printer, nor the mistakes of a careless writer; but consonant to the universal practice of that age, even among the learned. Where a word is to be met with either in the folio or quarto, which by no error of the press could have been substituted for another, but which the commentators have passed over unnoticed, as it should seem, from their not discovering any meaning which it could bear, I have thought it the more necessary for that very reason, to put it in the view of those who might be better able to explain it. Thus in Troilus and Cressida, where Nestor says, addressing Hector:
“And I have seen thee pause, and take thy breath,
"When that a ring of Greeks have hemm'd thee in"
For hemm❜d the quarto has shrupt, which is, I confess, to me, unintelligible; but in the same manner, beteem in Hamlet,
"That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
"Visit her face too roughly,"
was for a long period supposed to be a corruption, till a passage in Golding's Ovid ascertained that it was a word of our author's time. This, indeed, is one of the principal advantages derived from exhibiting our collations. The earlier copies are of rare occurrence, and can only be procured by a fortunate chance, or at an immoderate price; but it by no means follows, that those alone who have access to those expensive rarities, are capable of using what they contain. A gentleman residing in one of the remote counties of England, from that very circumstance is much more likely to explain to us the meaning of a term, which, although from the changes that our language has undergone, it may now be confined to a particular province, may formerly have been in general use throughout the country. There are some passages which, after all that has been said upon them, are still in want of a satisfactory interpretation of this, Iago's contemptuous mention of Cassio, "a fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife," may be produced as an instance. It may possibly be a corruption, and if so, the original spelling dambd should be preserved as a guide to critical conjecture. In a very few instances I have given readings, both from the folio and the quarto, which have nothing to recommend them, but are palpably and sometimes ludicrously erroneous: I have done so, in order to show how necessary it is to collate them all, and how ill founded are the assertions of those who, like the late Mr. Horne Tooke, being possessed of no other ancient copy than the first folio, have endeavoured to contend for its exclusive authority.