« PreviousContinue »
"HE most obvious peculiarity of this edition is, that it
has two sets of notes; one mainly devoted to explaining the text, and printed at the foot of the page; the other mostly occupied with matters of textual comment and criticism, and printed at the end of each play. Of course the purpose of this double annotation is, to suit the work, as far as practicable, to the uses both of the general reader and of the special student. Now, whatever of explanation general readers may need, they naturally prefer to have it directly before them; and in at least nine cases out of ten they will pass over an obscure word or phrase or allusion without understanding it, rather than stay to look up the explanation either in another volume or in another part of the same volume. Often, too, in case the explanation be not directly at hand, they will go elsewhere in quest of it, and then find, after all, that the editor has left the matter unexplained ; so that the search will be to no purpose : whereas, with the plan of foot-notes, they will commonly see at once how the matter stands, and what they have to expect, and so will be spared the labour and vexation of a fruitless quest.
It scarce need be said that with special students the case is very different. In studying such an author as Shakespeare, these naturally expect to light upon many things for the full discussion or elucidation of which they will have to go heyond the page before them ; though I believe even these like to have the matter within convenient reach and
easy reference. At all events, they are, or well may be, much less apt to get so intent on the author's thought, and so drawn onwards by the interest of the work, but that they can readily pause, and turn elsewhere, to study out such points as may call, or seem to call, for particular investigation. In fact, general readers, for the most part, pay little or no attention to the language of what they are reading, and seldom if ever interrogate, or even think of, the words, save when the interest of the matter is choked or checked by some strangeness or obscurity of expression; whereas special students commonly are or should be carrying on a silent process of verbal interrogation, even when the matter is their chief concern: and as these are more sharp-sighted and more on the look-out for verbal difficulties than the former, so they are less impatient of the pauses required for out-of-the-way explanation.
This edition has been undertaken, and the plan of it shaped, with a special view to meeting what is believed to be a general want, and what has indeed been repeatedly urged as such within the last few years. It has been said, and, I think, justly said, that a need is widely felt of an edition of Shakespeare, with such and so much of explanatory comment as may suffice for the state of those unlearned but sane-thoughted and earnest readers who have, or wish to have, their tastes raised and set to a higher and heartier kind of mental feeding than the literary smoke and chaff of the time. I have known many bright and upward-looking minds, – minds honestly craving to drink from the higher and purer springs of intellectual power and beauty, — who were frank to own that it was a sin and a shame not to love Shakespeare, but who could hardly, if at all, make that love come free and natural to them.
To be plying such minds with arguments of duty, or with thoughts of the good to be gained by standing through unpleasant task-work, seems to me a rather ungracious and impotent business. For it has long been a settled axiom that the proper office of poetry is to please; of the highest poetry, to make wisdom and virtue pleasant, to crown the True and the Good with delight and joy. This is the very constituent of the poet's art; that without which it has no adequate reason for being. To clothe the austere forms of truth and wisdom with heart-taking beauty and sweetness, is its life and law. Poetry, then, ought of course to be read as poetry; and when not read with pleasure, the right grace and profit of the reading are missed. For the proper instructiveness of poetry is essentially dependant on its pleasantness; whereas in other forms of writing this order is or may be reversed. The sense or the conscience of what is morally good and right should indeed have a hand, and a prerogative hand, in shaping our pleasures; and so indeed it must be, else the pleasures will needs be transient, and even the seedtime of future pains. So right-minded people ought to desire, and do desire, to find pleasure in what is right and good; the highest pleasure in what is rightest and best : nevertheless the pleasure of the thing is what puts its healing, purifying, regenerating virtue into act; and to converse with what is in itself beautiful and good without tasting any pleasantness in it, is or may be a positive harm.
How, then, in reference to Shakespeare, is the case of common readers to be met?
As before remarked, to urge reasons of duty is quite from the purpose : reading Shakespeare as duty and without pleasure is of no use, save as it may lift and draw them into a sense of his pleasantness. The question is, therefore, how to make him pleasant and attractive to them; how to put him before them, so that his spirit may have a fair chance to breathe into them, and quicken their congenial susceptibilities; for, surely, his soul and theirs are essentially attuned to the same music. Doubtless a full sense of his pleasantness is not to be extemporized : with most of us, nay, with the best of us, this is and must be a matter of growth : none but Shakespeare himself can educate us into a love of Shakespeare ; and such education, indeed all education, is a work of time. But I must insist upon it, that his works can and should be so edited, that average readers may find enough of pleasantness in them from the first to hold them to the perusal : and when they have been so held long enough for the workmanship to steal its virtue and sweetness into them, then they will be naturally and freely carried onwards to the condition where “love is an unerring light, and joy its own security.”
These remarks, I believe, indicate, as well as I know how to do, my idea I can hardly say, I dare not say, my ideal of what a popular edition of Shakespeare ought to be. The editorial part should, as far as possible, be so cast and tempered and ordered as to make the Poet's pages pleasant and attractive to common minds. Generally to such minds, and often even to uncommon minds, Shakespeare's world may well seem at first a strange world, — strange not only for the spiritualized realism of it, but because it is so much more deeply and truly natural than the book-world to which they have been accustomed. The strangeness of the place, together with the difficulty they find in clearly seeing the real forms and relations of the objects before them, is apt to render the place unattractive, if not positively repulsive, to them. The place is so emphatically the native home of both the soul and the senses, that they feel lost in it; and this because they have so long travelled in literary regions where the soul and the senses have been trained into an estrangement from their proper home. It is like coming back to realities after having strayed among shadows till the shadows have come to seem realities.
Not seldom the very naturalness of Shakespeare's world frightens unaccustomed readers : they find, or feel, so to speak, a kind of estranged familiarity about it, as of a place they have once known, but have lost the memory of; so that it seems to them a land peopled with the ghosts of what had long ago been to them real living things. Thus the effect, for some time, is rather to scare and chill their interest than to kindle and heighten it. And the Poet is continually popping his thoughts upon them so pointedly, so vividly, so directly, so unceremoniously, that their sensibilities are startled, and would fain shrink back within the shell of custom ; so different is it from the pulpy, pointless, euphemistic roundaboutness and volubility which they have been used to hearing from the Pulpit, the Press, the vulgar oratory, and the popular authorship of the day. Therewithal, the Poet often springs upon them such abrupt and searching revelations of their inner selves, so stings them with his truth, so wounds them with his healing, and causes such an undreamed-of birth of thoughts and feelings within them, that they stare about them with a certain dread and shudder, and “tremble like a guilty thing surprised," as in the presence of a magician that has stolen their inmost secrets from them, and is showing them up to the world.
But this is not all. Besides the unfamiliarity of Shakespeare's matter, so many and so great lingual changes have taken place since his time, and, still more, his manner both of thought and expression is so intensely idiomatic, his diction so suggestive and overcharged with meaning, his imagery so strong and bold, his sense so subtile and delicate, his modulation so various and of such solid and piercing sweetness, that common readers naturally have no little difficulty in coming to an easy and familiar converse with him. On some of these points, an editor can give little or no positive help: he can at the best but remove or lessen hindrances, and perhaps throw in now and then a kindling word or breath. But,