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With the causes of corruption that make the revisal of Shakespeare's dramatic pieces necessary, may be enumerated the causes of obscurity, which may be partly imputed to his age, and partly to himself.
When a writer outlives his contemporaries, and remains almost the only unforgotten name of a distant time, he is necessarily obscure. Every age has its modes of speech, and its cast of thought ; which, though easily explained when there are many books to be compared with each other, become sometimes unintelligible and always difficult, when there are no parallel passages that may conduce to their illustration. Shakespeare is the first considerable author of sublime or familiar dialogue in our language. Of the books which he read, and from which he formed his style, some perhaps have perished, and the rest are neglected. His imitations are therefore unnoted, his allusions are undiscovered, and many beauties, both of pleasantry and greatness, are lost with the objects to which they were united, as the figures vanish when the canvas has decayed.
It is the great excellence of Shakespeare, that he drew his scenes from nature, and from life. He copied the manners of the world then passing before him, and has more allusions than other poets to the traditions and superstition of the vulgar ; which must therefore be traced before he can be understood.
He wrote at a time when our poetical language was yet unformed, when the meaning of our phrases was yet in fluctuation, when words
were adopted at pleasure from the neighbouring languages, and while the Saxon was still visibly mingled in our diction. The reader is therefore embarrassed at once with dead and with foreign languages, with obsoleteness and innovation. In that age, as in all others, fashion produced phraseology, which succeeding fashion swept away before its meaning was generally known, or sufficiently authorised : and in that age, above all others, experiments were made upon our language, which distorted its combinations, and disturbed its uniformity.
If Shakespeare has difficulties above other writers, it is to be imputed to the nature of his work, which required the use of the common colloquial language, and consequently admitted many phrases allusive, elliptical, and proverbial, such as we speak and hear every hour without observing them; and of which, being now familiar, we do not suspect that they can ever grow uncouth, or that, being now obvious, they can ever seem remote.
These are the principal causes of the obscurity of Shakespeare ; to which might be added the fulness of idea, which might sometimes load his words with more sentiment than they could conveniently convey, and that rapidity of imagination which might hurry him to a second thought before he had fully explained the first. But my opinion is, that very few of his lines were difficult to his audience, and that he used such expressions as were then common, though the paucity of contemporary writers makes them now seem peculiar.
Anthors are often praised for improvement, or
blamed for innovation, with very little justice, by those who read few other books of the same age. Addison himself has been so unsuccessful in enumerating the words with which Milton has enriched our language, as perhaps not to have named one of which Milton was the author; and Bentley has yet more unhappily praised him as the introducer of those elisions into English poetry, which had been used from the first
of versification among us, and which Milton was indeed the last that practised.
Another impediment, not the least vexatious to the commentator, is the exactness with which Shakespeare followed his authors. Instead of dilating his thoughts into generalities, and expressing incidents with poetical latitude, he often combines circumstances unnecessary to his main design, only because he happened to find them together. Such passages can be illustrated only by him who has read the same story in the very book which Shakespeare consulted.
He that undertakes an edition of Shakespeare, has all these difficulties to encounter, and all these obstructions to remove.
The corruptions of the text will be corrected by a careful collation of the oldest copies, by which it is hoped that many restorations may yet be made : at least it will be necessary to collect and note the variation as materials for future criticks; for it very often happens that a wrong reading has affinity to the right.
In this part all the present editions are apparently and intentionally defective. The criticks did not so much as wish to facilitate the labour
of those that followed them. The same books are still to be compared; the work that has been done, is to be done again ; and no single edition will supply the reader with a text on which he can rely as the best copy of the works of Shakespeare.
The edition now proposed will at least have this advantage over others. It will exhibit all the observable varieties of all the copies that can be found ; that, if the reader is not satisfied with the editor's determination, he may
have the means of choosing better for himself.
Where all the books are evidently vitiated, and collation can give no assistance, then begins the task of critical sagacity: and some changes may well be admitted in a text never settled by the author, and so long exposed to caprice and igno
But nothing shall be imposed, as in the : Oxford edition, without notice of the alteration ;
nor shall conjecture be wantonly or unnecessarily indulged.
It has been long found, that very specious emendations do not equally strike all minds with conviction, nor even the same mind at different times ; and therefore, though perhaps many alterations may be proposed as eligible, very few will be obtruded as certain. In a language so ungrammatical as the English, and so licentious as that of Shakespeare, emendatory criticism is always hazardous; nor can it be allowed to any man who is not particularly versed in the writings of that age, and particularly studious of his author's diction. There is danger lest peculiarities should be mistaken for corruptions and passages rejected Vol. II.
as unintelligible, which a narrow mind happens not to understand.
All the former critics have been so much em. ployed on the correction of the text, that they have not sufficiently attended to the elucidation of passages obscured by accident or time. The editor will endeavour to read the books which the author read, to trace his knowledge to its source, and compare his copies with their originals. If in this part of his design he hopes to attain any degree of superiority to his predecessors, it must be considered, that he has the advantage of their labours ; that part of the work being already done, more care is naturally bestowed on the other part ; and that, to declare the truth, Mr Rowe and Mr Pope were very ignorant of the ancient English literature ; Dr Warburton was detained by more important studies; and Mr Theobald, if fame be just to his memory, considered learning only as an instrument of gain, and made no further enquiry after his author's meaning, when once he had notes sufficient to embellish his
page with the expected decorations.
With regard to obsolete or peculiar diction, the editor may perhaps claim some degree of confidence, having had more motives to consider the whole extent of our language than any other man from its first formation. He hopes that, by comparing the works of Shakespeare with those of writers who lived at the same time, immediately preceded, or immediately followed him, he shall be able to ascertain his ambiguities, disentangle his intricacies, and recover the meaning of words now lost in the darkness of antiquity.