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rous than solid. He says, for instance, that “ the chief desire of him that comments an author, is to show how much other commentators have corrupted and obscured him.” But this is stating the matter perversely. It is certain that a commentator who finds his author obscure, is desirous of noting it: or for what, it may be asked, has he taken up the pen ; and it must be the same, if passages, by whatever means, are rendered corrupt. The fact is, not that he has a desire to show how much
preceding annotators have mistaken the sense of the writer they have sat down to expound, but that his works being corrupted, the annotator has a desire to restore him to himself. It is true that in doing this, he exposes the blunders of those who have gone before; this, however, should not be attributed to choice or desire" as the learned Gentleman has called it,--but to necessity and the nature of things.
I must further observe of this Critic, who by the way has been much too highly panegyrized by his followers, that he is remarkably wanting in consistency. In one page, we find him objecting to a word by saying, “it must not be admitted : there is no example of it.” In another, “this expression I am forced to propose without the support of any authority for it.” If so, why may not the same be practised by other persons and of other words?
With like inconsistency, and when speaking of the general merit of Shakspeare's performances, he observes, "the theatre, generally speaking, is peopled by such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which was never heard, upon topics which will never arise in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this author is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity,
that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned, by diligent selection, out of common conversation, and common occurrences :"_" this, therefore, is the praise of Shakspeare, that his drama is the mirror of life ; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstacies, by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.”—Again, “His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy, for the greater part, by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct. His comedy, indeed, often surpasses expectation or desire."-But how does this agree with what follows ?_“In his comic scenes he is seldom successful when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm ; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious ; neither his Gentlemen nor Ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners.”_“His declamations, or set speeches, are commonly cold and weak : when he endeavoured, like other tragic writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.”.
As to the employing of conjecture in the exposition of Shakspeare, I hold it absolutely indispensable, since, of those expressions which are evidently his own, there are very niany which have acquired abstruseness from the lapse of years : while others are wholly unintelligible, either from the carelessness of the transcriber, the printer,
or the error of the critic. It is not with the author, however, but with the latter, that the greater liberty is to be taken : it is with these that we can exercise our license without fear of reproof; and it is with these, indeed, that we have chiefly to do, here it is that the difficulties are principally found. In a word, and in fact, it is not so much the Poet as his Copier and Commentator that we have to correct. Dr. Johnson has said, though without a due consideration of circumstances, “ It were to be wished that we all explained more and amended less.” This is certainly desirable, and as it respects the genuine language of Shakspeare, it is a mode which should be pursued at all times; and it is here adopted, I am to hope, with success. But to attempt an interpretation of that which the transcriber, the printer, or the editor, has converted into nonsense, were a strange abuse of intellect indeed, and must infallibly be disgraceful to ourselves :—for how explain that which is wholly inexplicable as it stands, Nothing then is left for us but to.explain by conjecture ; and this, it should be remembered, can only be done by a particular attention to the context. But as it may even be thought by some that warrant were necessary for this : that is, for an indulgence in conjectural criticism, I shall bring forward the opinions, or rather positions, of certain writers, and which might deservedly be erected into laws.-" That many passages have passed in a state of depravation through all the editions is indubitably certain ; of these the restoration is only to be attempted by collation of copies, or sagacity of conjecture. The collator's province' is safe and easy, the conjecturer's perilous and difficult. Yet as the greater part of the plays are extant only in one copy, the peril must not be avoided, nor the difficulty refused.”
« That a conjectural critic should often be mistaken, cannot be wonderful, either to others or himself, if it be considered that in his art there is no system. His chance of error is renewed at every attempt. That is an unhappy state, in which danger is hid under pleasure. Conjecture has all the joy, and all the pride of invention; and he who has once started a happy change, is too much delighted to consider what objections may rise against it.” -Such is the reasoning of Johnson. But if the change is “happy," what will the objections which may be raised against it-amount to ? It should not be forgotten, however, that he shortly after proceeds in a different strain. _“Yet conjectural criticism has been of great use in the learned world ; nor is it my intention to depreciate a study, that has exercised so many mighty minds, from the revival of learning to our own age: from the Bishop of Aleria to English Bentley.”
This, indeed, is highly just. Alteration may further be admitted on his own principle, when he says,
« Since I have confined my imagination to the margin, it must not be considered as very reprehensible, if I have suffered it to play some freaks in its own dominion:"_" while the text remains uninjured, changes may be safely offered,” &c. Johnson's Pref. to Shak.
Shakspeare stands in precisely the same predicament as Quintus, the Smyrnean, of whom it has been well observed, “His poem is remarkable for having appeared in the successive editions which it has hitherto obtained, in a state of corruption which scarcely any other work of antiquity exhibits. It was first printed by Aldus from a very inaccurate MS. and the succeeding Editors have transmitted nearly all the errors of the original impression. Many of these, indeed, are little more than very obvious mistakes of transcribers, and muy,
instances, be corrected by the exercise of conjectural criticism alone, with a confidence little inferior to that which would be derived from the support of ancient MSS. This has accordingly been done by Rhodomannus, in his annotations on this poet, with distinguished success, and with a skill which proves his accurate and elegant knowledge of the ancient poetical diction.”
What Bishop Louth has observed of conjecture in regard to his translation of Isaiah, will apply sufficiently well to the text of Shakspeare. The words of the learned prelate are as follows: “If the translation should sometimes appear to be merely conjectural, I desire the reader to consider the exigence of the case : and to judge whether it is not better in a very obscure and doubtful passage, to give something probable by way of supplement to the author's sense apparently defective, than to leave such passage altogether unintelligible.” And Dr. Newcombe, in an introduction to his version of the minor prophets, has also said, “Of dark passages, or which exhibit no meaning as they stand, an intelligible reading should be made on the principles of sound criticism."
I have already remarked on the necessity of conjectural criticism in the elucidation of our great Poet; and have to hope that the sentiments of the learned and ingenious writers whom I have thus cited, will bear me out in regard to it. That I have not wantonly exercised the privilege granted by them, must be acknowledged by every one acquainted with the writings which I would willingly expound. In a word, I am clearly of opinion, that we should, like Alexander, cut the knot which it is impossible to untie.
One great particular to be attended to in the exposition of Shakspeare, is, his frequent use of French and