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Shakspeare might have been obtained; but that was an age as deficient in literary curiofity as in taste.
It is remarkable that in a century after our poet's death, five editions only of his plays were publifhed; which probably confifted of not more than three thousand copies. During the fame period three editions of the plays of Fletcher, and four of thofe of Jonfon had appeared. On the other hand, from the year 1716 to the present time, that is, in feventy-four years, but two editions of the former writer, and one of the latter, have been iffued from the prefs; while above thirty thousand copies of Shakspeare have been dispersed through England. That nearly as many editions of the works of Jonfon as of Shakspeare should have been demanded in the last century, will not appear furprifing, when we recollect what Dryden has related foon after the Restoration: that "others were then generally preferred before him."4 By others Jonfon
3 Notwithstanding our high admiration of Shakspeare, we are yet without a fplendid edition of his works, with the illuftrations which the united efforts of various commentators have contributed; while in other countries the moft brilliant decorations have been lavished on their distinguished poets. The editions of Pope and Hanmer, may, with almoft as much propriety, be called their works, as thofe of Shakspeare; and therefore can have no claim to be admitted into any elegant library. Nor will the promised edition, with engravings, undertaken by Mr. Alderman Boydell, remedy this defect, for it is not to be accompanied with notes. At fome future, and no very diftant time, I mean to furnish the publick with an elegant edition in quarto, (without engravings,) in which the text of the prefent edition shall be followed, with the illuftrations fubjoined in the fame page.
* In the year 1642, whether from fome capricious viciffitude in the publick tafte, or from a general inattention to the drama, we find Shirley complaining that few came to see our author's performances:
and Fletcher were meant. To attempt to show to the readers of the prefent day the abfurdity of
"What audience we have: what company
"To Shakspeare comes? whofe mirth did once beguile
Prologue to The Sifters.
Shakspeare to thee was dull, whofe beft jeft lies "I'th lady's queftions, and the fool's replies; "Old fafhion'd wit, which walk'd from town to town, “In trunk-hose, which our fathers call'd the clown; "Whose wit our nicer times would obsceneness call, “And which made bawdry pass for comical. "Nature was all his art; thy vein was free "As his, but without his fcurrility."
Verses on Fletcher, by William Cartwright, 1647.
After the Restoration, on the revival of the theatres, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were esteemed so much superior to those of our author, that we are told by Dryden, “two of their pieces were acted through the year, for one of Shakspeare's." If his teftimony needed any corroboration, the following verfes would afford it :
"In our old plays, the humour, love, and paffion,
Prologue to Shirley's Love Tricks, 1667.
"Crown's Mafk, bound up with Settle's choiceft labours,
"And promises some new effay of Babor's."
SATIRE, published in 1680.
against old as well as new to rage,
"Is the peculiar frenzy of this age.
Shakspeare muft down, and you must praise no more, "Soft Desdemona, nor the jealous Moor:
fuch a preference, would be an infult to their underftandings. When we endeavour to trace any thing like a ground for this prepofterous tafte, we are told of Fletcher's eafe, and Jonfon's learning. Of how little ufe his learning was to him, an ingenious writer of our own time has fhown with that vigour and animation for which he was diftinguished. "Jonfon, in the ferious drama, is as much an imitator, as Shakspeare is an original. He was very learned, as Sampfon was very ftrong, to his own hurt. Blind to the nature of tragedy, he pulled down all antiquity on his head, and buried himself under it. We fee nothing of Jonfon, nor indeed of his admired (but alfo murdered) ancients; for what fhone in the hiftorian is a cloud on the poet, and Catiline might have been a good play, if Salluft had never written.
"Who knows whether Shakspeare might not have thought lefs, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of Jonfon's learning, as Enceladus under Ætna? His mighty genius, indeed, through the most mountainous oppreffion would have breathed
"Shakspeare, whose fruitful genius, happy wit,
Prologue by Sir Charles Sedley, to the Wary Widow,
To the honour of Margaret Duchefs of Newcastle be it remembered, that however fantastick in other respects, she had tafte enough to be fully fenfible of our poet's merit, and was one of the firft who after the Restoration published a very high eulogy on him. See her Sociable Letters, folio, 1664, p. 244.
out fome of his inextinguishable fire; yet poffibly he might not have rifen up into that giant, that much more than common man, at which we now gaze with amazement and delight. Perhaps he was as learned as his dramatick province required; for whatever other learning he wanted, he was mafter of two books unknown to many of the profoundly read, though books which the laft conflagration alone can deftroy; the book of nature, and that of man."5
To this and the other encomiums on our great poet which will be found in the following pages, fhall not attempt to make any addition. He has justly observed, that
"To guard a title that was rich before,
Let me, however, be permitted to remark, that befide all his other tranfcendent merits, he was the great refiner and polifher of our language. His compound epithets, his bold metaphors, the energy of his expreffions, the harmony of his numbers, all these render the language of Shakspeare one of his principal beauties. Unfortunately none of his letters, or other profe compofitions, not in a dramatick form, have reached pofterity; but if any of them ever fhall be discovered, they will, I am confident, exhibit the fame perfpicuity,
5 Conjectures on Original Compofition, by Dr. Edward Young.
the fame cadence, the fame elegance and vigour, which we find in his plays. "Words and phrafes," fays Dryden," muft of neceffity receive a change in fucceeding ages; but it is almost a miracle, that much of his language remains fo pure; and that he who began dramatick poetry amongst us, untaught by any, and, as Ben Jonfon tells us, without learning, fhould by the force of his own genius perform fo much, that in a manner he has left no praise for any who come after him."
In these prefatory obfervations my principal object was, to ascertain the true ftate and refpective value of the ancient copies, and to mark out the course which has been pursued in the edition now offered to the publick. It only remains, that I should return my very fincere acknowledgements to those gentlemen, to whofe good offices I have been indebted in the progrefs of my work. My thanks are particularly due to Francis Ingram, of Ribbisford in Worcestershire, Efq. for the very valuable Office-book of Sir Henry Herbert, and feveral other curious papers, which formerly belonged to that gentleman; to Penn Afheton Curzon, Efq. for the use of the very rare copy of King Richard 111. printed in 1597; to the Mafter, and the Rey. Mr. Smith, librarian, of Dulwich College, for the Manufcripts relative to one of our ancient theatres, which they obligingly tranfmitted to me; to John Kipling, Efq. keeper of the rolls in Chancery, who in the most liberal manner directed every fearch to be made in the Chapel of the Rolls that I fhould require, with a view to illuftrate the hiftory of our poet's life; and to Mr. Richard Clarke, regiftror of the diocefe of Worcester, who with equal liberality, at my request, made many searches in his office for