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"Can it be wondered at (says Mr. Gifford) that Shakspeare should swell into twenty or even twice twenty volumes, when the latest editor (like the wind Cecias) constantly draws round him the floating errors of all his predecessors. Upwards of twenty years ago, when the evil was not so great as it has since become, Steevens confessed that there was an * exuberance of comment,' arising from the
ambition in each little Hercules to set up pillars ascertaining how far he had travelled through the dreary wilds of black letter;' so that there was some danger of readers being • frighted away from Shakspeare, as the soldiers of Cato deserted their comrade when he became bloated with poison-crescens fugère cadaver.' He saw with a prophetic eye that the evil must cure itself, and that the time would arrive when some of this ivy must be removed, which only served to “bide the princely trunk, and suck the verdure out of it.'
This expurgatory task has been more than once undertaken, but has never hitherto, it is believed, been executed entirely to the satisfaction of the admirers of our great Poet: and the work has even now devolved upon one who, though not wholly unprepared for it by previous studies, has perhaps manifested his presumption in undertaking it with weak and unexamined shoulders.' He does not, however, shrink from a comparison with the labours of his predecessors, but would rather solicit that equitable mode of being judged; and will patiently, and with all becoming submission to the decision of a competent tribunal, abide the result.
As a new candidate for public favour, it may be expected that the Editor should explain the ground of his pretensions. The object then of the present publication is to afford the general reader a correct edition of Shakspeare, accompanied by an abridged commentary, in which all superfluous and refuted explanations and conjectures, and all the controversies and squabbles of contending critics should be omitted; and such elucidations only of obsolete words and obscure phrases, and such critical illustrations of the text as might be deemed most generally useful be retained. To effect this it has been necessary, for the sake of compression, to condense in some cases several pages of excursive discussion into a few lines, and
often to blend together the information conveyed in the notes of several commentators into one. When these explanations are mere transcripts or abridgments of the labours of his predecessors, and are unaccompanied by any observation of his own, it will of course be understood that the Editor intends to imply by silent ' acquiescence that he has nothing better to propose.' Fortune, however, seems to have been propitious to his labours, for he flatters himself that he has been enabled in many instances to present the reader with more satisfactory explanations of difficult passages, and with more exact definitions of obsolete words and phrases, than are to be found in the notes to the variorum editions.
The causes which have operated to overwhelm the pages of Shakspeare with superfluous notes are many; but Steevens, though eminently fitted for the task he undertook, was chiefly instrumental in increasing the evil. He has indeed been happily designated • the Puck of commentators:' he frequently wrote notes, not with the view of illustrating the Poet, but for the purpose of misleading Malone, and of enjoying the pleasure of turning against him that playful ridicule which he knew so well how to direct. Steevens, like Malone, began his career as an editor of Shakspeare with scrupulous attention to the old copies, but when he once came to enter
tain some jealousy of Malone's intrusion into his province, he all at once shifted his ground, and adopted maxims entirely opposed to those which guided his rival editor. Upon a recent perusal of a considerable portion of the correspondence between them, one letter seemed to display the circumstances which led to the interruption of their intimacy in so clear a light, and to explain the causes which have so unnecessarily swelled the comments on Shakspeare, that it has been thought not unworthy of the reader's attention. The letter has no date :
Sir,—I am at present so much harrassed with private business that it is not in my power to afford you the long and regular answer which your letter deserves. Permit me, however, to desert order and propriety, replying to your last sentence first.—I assure you that I only erased the word friend because, considering how much controversy was to follow, that distinction seemed to be out of its place, and appeared to carry with it somewhat of a burlesque air. Such was my single motive for the change, and I hope you will do me the honour to believe I had no other design in it.
*As it is some time since my opinions have had the good fortune to coincide with yours in the least matter of consequence, I begin to think so indifferently of my own judgment, that I am ready to give it up without reluctance on the present occasion. You are at liberty to leave out whatever parts of my note you please. However we may privately disagree, there is no reason why we should make sport for the world, for such is the only effect of publick controversies; neither should I have leisure at present to pursue such an undertaking, I only meant to do justice to myself; and as I had no opportunity of replying to your reiterated contradictions in their natural order, on account of your perpetual additions to them; I thought myself under the necessity of observing, that I ought not to be suspected of being impotently silent in regard to objections which I had never read till it was too late for any replication on my side to be made. You rely much on the authority of an editor; but till I am convinced that volunteers are to be treated with less indulgence than other soldiers, I shall still think I have some right at least to be disgusted; especially after I had been permitted to observe that truth, not victory, was the object of our critical warfare.
? As for the note at the conclusion of The Puritan, since it gives so much offence (an offence as undesigned as unforeseen), I will change a part of it, and subjoin reasons for my dissent both from you and Mr. Tyrwhitt. You cannot surely suspect me of having wished to commence hostilities with either of