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The dedication was followed by an address “to the great variety of readers,” in which the editors claim “so to have published them as, where before you were abused with divers stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors that exposed them, even those are now offered to your view cured and perfect of their limbs, and all the rest absolute in their members as he conceived them ; who, as he was a happy imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it: his mind and hand went together; and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.”
Doubtless it was natural, perhaps it was excusable, for the editors to speak in this manner; nevertheless, some of their statements are far from being borne out by the character and execution of the work. Some of the plays here published for the first time are wretchedly printed, insomuch that we have great cause to regret the lack of quarto copies to help us in clearing and rectifying the Poet's text. Others of them, however, it must be confessed, as, for instance, As You Like It and Julius Cæsar, are printed remarkably well for that time, so that modern editors have no great difficulty in making out, on the whole, a pretty satisfactory presentation of the workmanship. Some, again, of those which had previously appeared in quarto, are here given with errors so great and so frequent, and omissions so important, that no one thinks of relying wholly or even mainly on the folio for settling the text. In several of the plays, the best modern editors, our Mr. Grant White excepted, have no scruple in preferring, on the whole, the quarto copies, and accordingly use them as the chief authority in their textual reproduction.
All these circumstances, taken together, render Shakespeare's dramas one of the hardest books in the world, perhaps the very hardest, to get delivered in a thoroughly satisfactory state. Aside from the many errors, palpable or probable, in the printing, the variations of text in the old copies, the folio differing much from the quartos, and the quartos not a little among themselves, often tax an editor's judgment and diligence to the utmost in fixing his choice of readings ; while, moreover, in hundreds of cases, not to say thousands, the claims of different readings are so nearly balanced as alınost to foreclose the possibility of editors ever agreeing entirely in their delivery of the text. Volumes enough to make a large library have been written in that behalf; and the result just proves that no two editors can agree with each other in the matter, or even any one with himself for two years together. Therewithal, in some of the plays, especially some of those first printed in the folio, as, for example, The Winter's Tale and Coriolanus, there are divers passages so defective or so corrupt as fairly to defy the utmost stress of critical ingenuity and resource for curing them into soundness; so that they just have to be given up as incurable.
The folio of 1623 was reprinted in 1632, with a good many small changes of text made by some unknown hand. The folio of 1632 is nt regarded as of any authority, though in some cases it furnishes aid of no little value.
I have thus drawn together, in as small a compass and as fair a statement as I could, such particulars relating to the state and sources of the Poet's text, as it seems needful that young students should have before them. For I cannot think it would be doing quite right, either by the subject or the student, to leave the latter altogether uninstructed touching the matters in question. Some further details in the same line are given from time to time, as occasion seemed to require, in the special introductions to particular plays.
This General Introduction may not improperly close with two note-worthy commendations of the Poet. The first, prefixed to the folio of 1623, is from the hand of “rare Ben Jonson,” who, though ten years younger than Shakespeare, was one of his most intimate personal and professional friends; a ripe scholar; a diligent, painstaking, and highly idiomatic writer; and a right honest, true-hearted, capable, and thoroughly estimable man. It is certainly one of the noblest tributes ever paid by one man to another. The second first appeared among the commendatory verses prefixed to the folio of 1632. It was there printed without any signature, but was included by Milton in a collection of his poems published in 1645, which of course identifies him as the author of it. Milton was born eight years before Shakespeare died, and was twenty-four years old when this glorious little piece was first given to the public. It is worthy alike of the author and of the subject. To the Memory of my beloved, the Author, Mr. William SHAKE.
SPEARE, and what he hath left us.
He was not of an age, but for all time!
An Epitaph on the admirable Dramatic Poet,
INTRODUCTION TO THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.
THIS is among the plays of Shakespeare mentioned by Francis
have no means of knowing; but, judging by the qualities of the workmanship, we cannot well assign the writing to a much earlier date. In July of the same year (1598), the play was registered in the Stationers' books, but with a special proviso, “ that it be not printed without license first had from the Right Hon. the Lord Chamberlain”
The theatrical company to which Shakespeare belonged were then known as “ The Lord Chamberlain's Servants ; and the purpose of the proviso was to keep the play out of print till the company's permission were given through their patron. The play was entered again at the same place in October, 1600; his lordship’s license having probably been obtained by that time. Accordingly, two distinct editions of it were published in quarto form in the course of that year. These editions were by different publishers, and were most likely printed from different manuscripts, though the printer was the same in both. The play was never issued again, that we know of, till in the folio of 1623, where the repetition of various misprints shows it to have been reprinted from one of the quarto copies. Except in one instance, there is little difficulty about the text, nor has there been much controversy on that score. That exception is in Act iii. scene 2, where all the old copies have “the beauteous scarf veiling an Indian beauty.” My own judgment of the passage is given in a note. A few varieties of reading are noted in the margin.
In this play, again, the Poet shows the same indifference to mere novelty of incident, which I have remarked in the case of As You Like It. Here, as there, he drew largely from preceding writers. Of invention, in the matter of plot and story, there is almost none. Nevertheless, in conception and development of character, in poetical texture and grain, in sap and flavour of wit and humour, and in all that touches the real life and virtue of the work, it is one of the most original productions that ever came from the human mind. Of the materials here used, some were so much the common stock of European literature before the Poet's time, and had been run into so many variations, that it is not easy to say what sources he was most indebted to for them. The incidents of the bond and the caskets are found separately in the Gesta Romanorum, an ancient and curious collection of tales. There was also an Italian novel, by Giovanni Fiorentini), written as early as 1378, but not printed till 1558, to which the Poet is clearly traceable. As nothing is known of any English translation of the novel, dating so far back as his time, it seems not unlikely that he may have been acquainted with it in the original.
The praise of The Merchant of Venice is in the mouth of nearly all the critics. That this praise is well deserved appears in that, from the reopening of the theatres at the Restoration (in 1660) till the present day, the play has kept its place on the boards; while it is also among the first of the Poet's works to be read, and the last to be forgotten ; its interest being as durable in the closet as on the stage. Well do I remember it as the very beginning of my acquaintance with Shakespeare. As in case of the preceding play, I probably cannot do better than by quoting the temperate and firm-footed judgment of Hallain :
“ The Merchant of Venice is generally esteemed the best of Shake. speare's comedies. In the management of the plot, which is sufficiently complex, without the slightest confusion or incoherence, I do not conceive that it has been surpassed in the annals of any theatre. Yet there are those who still affect to speak of Shakespeare as a barbarian ; and others who, giving what they think due credit to his genius, deny him all judgment and dramatic taste. A comparison of his works with those of his contemporaries — and it is surely to them that we should look — will prove that his judgment is by no means the least of his rare qualities. This is not so remarkable in the mere construction of his fable — though the present comedy is absolutely perfect in that point of view, and several others are excellently managed - - as in the general keeping of the characters, and the choice of incidents. The variety of the characters in The Merchant of Venice, and the powerful delineation of those upon whom the interest chiefly depends, the effectiveness of many scenes in representation, the copiousness of the wit, and the beauty of the language, it would be superfluous to extol ; nor is it our office to repeat a tale so often told as the praise of Shakespeare."
The remarks, also, of Schlegel on this drama are in so high a strain, and of a spirit so genial, that I cannot well forbear quoting a portion of them. * The Merchant of Venice,” says this admirable critic, “ is one of Shakespeare's perfectest works ; popular to an extraordinary degree, and calculated to produce the most powerful effect on the stage, and at the same time a wonder of ingenuity and art for the reflecting critic. Shylock, the Jew, is one of the inimitable masterpieces of characterization which are to be found only in Shakespeare. It is easy for both poet and player to exhibit a caricature of national sentiments, modes of speaking, and gestures. Shylock, however, is any thing but a common Jew: he has a strongly marked and original individuality, and yet we perceive a light touch of Judaism in every thing he says or does. The desire to avenge the wrongs and indigni. ties heaped upon his nation is, after avarice, his strongest spring of action. His baie is naturally directed chiefly against those Christians who are actuated by truly Christian sentiments : a disinterested love of our neighbour seems to him the most unrelenting persecution of the Jews. The letter of the law is his idol : he refuses his ear to the voice of mercy which speaks to him with heavenly eloquence from Portia's lips ; insisting on rigid and inflexible justice, which at last recoils on his own head. Thus he becomes a symbol of the general history of his unfortunate nation. The melancholy and self-sacrificing magnanimity of Antonio is affectingly sublime. Like a princely merchant, he is surrounded with a whole train of noble friends. The contrast which this forms to the selfish cruelty of the usurer Shylock was necessary to redeem the honour of human nature. The danger which, almost to the close of the Fourth Act, hangs over Antonio, would fill the mind with too painful anxiety, if the Poet did not also provide for its recreation and diversion. This is effected in a special manner by the scenes at Portia’s country-seat, which transport the spectator into quite another world. The judgment-scene, with which the Fourth Act is occupied, is in itself a perfect drama, concentrating in itself the interest of the whole. The knot now untied, and, according to the common ideas of theatrical satisfaction, the curtain ought to drop. But the Poet was unwilling to dismiss his audience with the gloomy impressions which Antonio's acquittal - effected with so much difficulty — and the condemnation of Shylock were calculated to leave behind them : he therefore added the Fifth Act by way of a musical afterlude to the piece itself. The episode of Jessica, the fugitive daughter of the Jew, in whom Shakespeare has contrived to throw a veil of sweetness over the national features, and the artifice by which Portia and her companion are enabled to rally their newly married husbands, supply him with the necessary materials.”