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Italian words. But this source of explanation I shall here barely advert to, as I have, in several instances, had occasion to speak of it in the margin of the work.
The Editor, Johnson, reprobates, and justly, the conduct of critics, who speak scurrilously of each other : who rail at the “stupidity, negligence, ignorance, and asinine tastelessness, of the former editors,” &c. But it is a wretched mistake to give to such men the appellation of critic. He who is really deserving of such honorable distinction ; he who actually merits the “noble name" is of a totally different complexion. He will not attempt to condemn by assertion alone. He will not be content to say of the opinion he would dissent from, that “it is ridiculous : " if this be indeed the case, he will prove that such is its character. Scurrility, therefore, will amount to nothing. The “I am Sir Oracle”--the “ So I pronounce of it” of the Dogmatist will at no time be admitted by those who have been accustomed to think and judge for themselves. But true criticism, like true poetry, seems to be little understood.
I have spoken somewhat largely of Dr. Warburton, but with respect to the other, and numerous Editors, I have little to say. Their industry I can acknowledge without a pause. This their toil, it is true, and in the language of Pope, may well be called the dull duty of an editor : unfortunately, however, their labor, as far as it respects the language of the poet, has been not only dull but useless; since the dark passages are so invariably shunned bij them.'— That Mr. Steevens has cleared up many obscurities as they spring from the manners and customs of the time, I am by no means disposed to deny. In this particular, the world is certainly in
debted to him : yet this, it should be remembered, he was enabled to do by the aid of books. But with regard to difficulties and intricacies in the sentiment or language, and in the disentanglement of which the principal merit of a commentator lies, he has little to boast. Indeed, for any interpretation of those expressions which I have termed obscurities in the Poet's fancy, he had not the smallest talent. Plodding abilities he certainly possessed, and had he kept in mind the ne sutor, &c. all had been well; for it must be owned that such abilities, however inferior, are not unprofitable,– that is, and as I have before observed, in regard to the manners, &c. of the age. But unhappily for this critic, and still more unhappily for Shakspeare, he thought himself superior (will posterity believe it?) to almost every scholiast, ancient and modern: superior even to the great, the erudite Warburton! and at whom he has dared to sneer, after the example of that insipid versifier, Hayley, whose account of the Bishop, by the way, is false and contemptible, and such as can only be disgraceful to himself.
Mr. Malone has said in his preface, “the text is now settled.” But it will be seen, I think, that this assertion has been much too hastily made, and that the present publication is by no means a work of supererogation, but necessary at once to the fame of the Poet, and the country which gave him birth. It is not in the “multitude” of commentators, indeed, that “there is safety”.- it is not from their number that perfection is to proceed :-yet were particular apology required for what is here undertaken, it might be found in the following declaration of Dr. Johnson, and in which he invites to a fuller and nicer consideration of the text than that he had been able to give. “To time I have been obliged
to resign many passages,' which though I did not under. stand them, will perhaps hereafter be explained ; having, I hope, illustrated some, which others have neglected or mistaken, sometimes by short remarks or marginal directions, such as every editor has added at his will, and often by comments more laborious than the matter will seem to deserve; but that which is most difficult is not always most important, and to an editor nothing is a trifle by which his author is obscured.”
I repeat,--this invitation, as it may be called, of the critic, has influenced me greatly in regard to the Work. Every passage in the plays, however uncouth the expression, and which the commentators have given up as absolutely unintelligible” (Archaisms are stubborn things) will here be found interpreted : and, as I should hope, to the satisfaction of the admirers of Shakspeare.- As to other difficulties, they are various and many. Some proceed from the use of the grammatical figures, apharesis, syncope, and apocope ; and some from the punctuation, but the greater part, as I have already observed, arise from the carelessness of transcribers, printers, and editors.
Having delivered my sentiments with freedom, touching the qualifications of Mr. Steevens as an annotator (de mortuis nil nisi verum is the maxim I shall always pursue) it might be expected that I should strike his examples, as he calls them, from the page. There is, however, a necessity that they should keep their place. It is highly expedient that he be confuted; that his errors be fully and particularly shown : for were not this to be done, his opinions, which have largely gone abroad, might at some future day be received by an injudicious editor, and even recommended by him to the notice of the world; so that the great poet of nature would be reduced nearly to a level with those whom he was born to instruct. The matter at issue, indeed, is this : Shakspeare must be sacrificed to Mr. Steevens, or Mr. Steevens to Shakspeare. Now this being clearly the case, how was it possible to hesitate, even for a moment, respecting it : and this must be
vindication in regard to the ridicule which I have sometimes thrown on this gentleman, and his opinions. To attempt a serious confutal of him had been indeed absurd.--A fly is not to be broken on the wheel. To sum up the matter in a word-an honest indignation has prompted me to the present censures. I have certainly spoken of this latter editor without reserve: there was, as will be seen in the course of the ensuing pages, an absolute necessity for it. Yet I have been guided invariably by justice and truth. In fine, I speak from no kind of prejudice whatever. If Warburton is held by me'as the best, (though much was left by him to be done) and Steevens as the worst of the Poet's critics, it is not from any personal knowledge of either. They were known
Some of this Editor's notes, however, together with others of his • learned coadjutor,' I have expunged from the volumes of the edition now preparing for the press. They must be considered as an affront to the understanding of any man.
u Thaw and resolve itself into a dew." Ham. Resolte means thie same as dissolve.
“ Against all colour.” Without any pretence of right. “Spleen ridiculous" is a ridiculous fit.
“That was the way to make his god-head [Cupid] wax;
u For he hath been five thousand years a boy." To war anciently signified to grow. Yes, and modernly tuo, Mr. Steevens.
** To fine issues.” To great consequences.
" He said he was gentle, but unfortunate.” Gentle is well-born, of birth above the vulgar, &c. &c.
If such are to be called illustrations-But it were best to cast them into the oblivious pool, SHAK.
to me by nothing but their works. But if a further apology be necessary, I have only to say—It will always be pleasing to the ingenuous mind, to acknowledge genius wherever it may be found, and also to defend it, not only against the attacks of envy and malevolence, but against that which might perhaps be still more prejudicial—the feeble friendship of such a commentator as him whom I have been forced to proscribe.
I think it unnecessary to remark particularly on the merits of the other Commentators. My sentiments in regard to them will be seen in the following notes. It may not be improper, however, to observe, in a general way, that Warburton, by reason of his critical acumen, and of the taste and judgment so frequently found in his annotations, is entitled to the highest consideration as editor of Shakspeare. His pen may be said to have the power of that of the Poet; since he has in many instances given to “airy nothing ” (so considered from the expression not having been understood by those who had gone before him) an actual being, a “local habitation and a name : ” although, as already hinted, he has left not a little for others to do: for it must in fairness be acknowledged that the quickness of his conceptions have sometimes been fatal to that judgment of which he had so large a share, and he has much too hastily advanced opinions, and with a dogmatical air, which, in his cooler moments, I am persuaded he must have been inclined to retract. But still the boldness of his conjectures, and which the tamer critic will consider as a fault, must by the lovers of nature and real genius be commended, since in no one instance can he be charged with absurdity or with inconsistency of any kind-an excellence, indeed, which those who immediately succeeded him, have not to claim. All with him is uni