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As the great works of Shakspeare have engaged the attention of an active and a learned century, since they were edited by Rowe, little that is new on the subject of them can be expected from a pen of the present day. It is necessary, however, that we should notice them, lest our readers should be compelled to seek in another page than ours for the common information which they might conceive themselves to be entitled to expect from us.
Fourteen of his plays were published separately, in quarto copies, during our Poet's life; and, seven years after his death, a complete edition of them was given to the public, in folio, by his theatric fellows, Heminge and Condell. Of those productions of his which were circulated by the press while he was yet living, and were all surreptitious, our great Author seems to have been as utterly regardless as he necessarily was of those which appeared when he was mouldering in his grave.* We have already observed on the extraordinary indifference of this illustrious man toward the offspring of his fancy; and we make it again the subject of our remark, solely for the purpose of illustrating the cause of those numerous and pernicious errors which deform all the early editions of his plays.
The copies of the plays published antecedently to his death, were transcribed either by memory from their recitation on the stage; or from the separate parts, written out for the study of the particular actors, and to be pieced together by the skill of the editor; or, lastly, if stolen or bribed access could be obtained to it, from the prompter's book itself. From any of these sources of acquisition the copy would necessarily be polluted with very flagrant
* In his essay on the chronological order of Shakspeare's plays, Malone concludes very properly from the title-page of the earliest edition of Hamlet, which he believed then to be extant, that this edition (published in 1604) had been preceded by another of a less correct and leag perfect character. A copy of the elder edition, in question, has lately been discovered, and is, indeed, far more remote from perfection than its successor, which was collated by Malone. It obviously appears to have been printed from the rude draught of the drama, as it was sketched by the Poet from the first suggestions of his mind. But how this rude and imperfect draught could fall into the hands of its publisher, is a question not easily to be answered. Such, however, is the authority to be attached to all the early quartos. They were obtained by every indirect mean ; and the first incorrect Ms., blotted again and again by the pens of ignorant transcribers, and multiplied by the press, was suffered, by the apathy of its illustrious Author, to be circulated, without check, among the multitude. The variations of the copy of Hamlet immediately before us, which was published in 1603, from the perfect drama, as it subsequently issued from the press, are far too numerous to be noticed in this place, if indeed this place could properly be assigned to such a purpose.
errors; and from every edition through which it ran, it would naturally contract more pollution and a deeper stain. Such of the first copies as were fortunately transcribed from the prompter's book, would probably be in a state of greater relative correctness : but they are all, in different degrees, deformed with inaccuracies; and not one of them can claim the right to be followed as authority.
In 1623, the first complete edition of our Author's dramatic works was published in folio by his comrades of the theatre, Heminge and Condell; and in this we might expect a text tolerably incorrupt, if not perfectly pure. The editors denounced the copies which had preceded their edition as “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 numbers as he conceived them.” But, notwithstanding these professions, and their honest resentment against impostors and surreptitious copies, the labors of these sole possessors of Shakspeare's MSS. did not obtain the credit which they arrogated; and they are charged with printing from those very quartos on which they had heaped so much well-merited abuse. They printed, as there cannot be a doubt, from their prompter's book, (for by what temptation could they be enticed beyond it ?) but then, from the same book were transcribed many, .perhaps, of the surreptitious quartos; and it is not wonderful that transcripts of the same page should be precisely alike. These editors, however, of the first folio, have incurred the heavy displeasure of some of our modern critics, who are zealous on all occasions to depreciate their work. Wherever they differ from the first quartos, which, for the reason that I have assigned, they must in general very closely resemble, Malone is ready to decide against them, and to defer to the earlier edition. But it is against the editor of the second folio, published in 1632, that he points the full storm of his indignation. He charges this luckless wight, whoever he may be, with utter ignorance of the language of Shakspeare's time, and of the fabric of Shakspeare's verse; and he considers him and Pope as the grand corrupters of Shakspeare's text. -I am far from assuming to vindicate this editor from the commission of many flagrant errors : but he is frequently right, and was
unquestionably conversant, let Malone assert what he pleases, with his Author's language and metre. It was not, therefore, without cause, that Steevens held his labors in much estimation. Malone was an invaluable collector of facts: his industry was indefatigable: his researches were deep: his pursuit of truth was sincere and ardent: but he wanted the talents and the taste of a critic; and of all the editors, by whom Shakspeare has suffered, I must consider him as the most pernicious. Neither the indulged fancy of Pope, nor the fondness for innovation in Hanmer, nor the arrogant and headlong self-confidence of Warburton, has inflicted such cruel wounds on the text of Shakspeare, as the assuming dulness of Malone. Barbarism and broken rhythm dog him at the heels wherever he treads.
In praise of the third and the fourth folio editions of our Author's dramas, printed respectively in 1664 and 1685, nothing can be advanced. Each of these editions implicitly followed its immediate predecessor, and, adopting all its errors, increased them to a frightful accumulation with its own. With the text of Shakspeare in this disorder, the public of Britain remained satisfied during many years. At length, about the commencement of the last century, Britain began to open her eyes to the excellency of her illustrious son, THE GREAT
POET OF NATURE, and to discover a solicitude for the integrity of his works. A new and a more perfect edition of them became the demand of the public; and, to answer it, an edition, under the superintendence of Rowe, made its appearance in 1709. Rowe, however, either forgetting or shrinking from the high and laborious duties which he had undertaken, selected, most unfortunately, for his model, the last and the worst of the folio editions; and, without collating either of the first two folios or any of the earlier quartos, he gave to the disappointed public a transcript much too exact of the impure text which lay opened before him. Some of its grosser errors, however, he corrected ; and he prefixed to his edition a short memoir of the life of his Author, which, meagre and weakly written as it is, still constitutes the most authentic biography that we possess of our mighty Bard.
On the failure of this edition, after the pause of a few years, another was projected; and, that it might be more adequate to the claims of Shakspeare and of Britain, the conduct of it was placed, in homage to his just celebrity, in the hands of Pope. Pope showed himself more conscious of the nature of his task, and more faithful in his execution of it, than his predecessor. He disclosed to the public the very faulty state of his Author's text, and suggested the proper means of restoring it: he collated many of the earlier editions, and he cleared the page of Shakspeare from many of its deformities: but his collations were not sufficiently extensive ; and he indulged, perhaps, somewhat too much in conjectural emendation. This exposed him to the attacks of the petty and minute critics; and, the success of his work falling short of his expectations, he is said to have contracted that enmity to verbal criticism, which actuated him during the remaining days of his life. His edition was published in the year 1725. Before this was undertaken, Theobald, a man of no great abilities, and of little learning, had projected the restoration of Shakspeare ; but his labors had been suspended, or their result had been withheld from the press, till the issue of Pope's attempt was ascertained by its accomplishment, and publication. The Shakspeare of Theobald's editing was not given to the world before the year 1733; when it obtained more of the public regard than its illustrious predecessor, in consequence of its being drawn from a somewhat wider field of collation, and of its less frequent and presumptuous admission of conjocture. Theobald, indeed, did not wholly abstain from conjecture; but the palm of conjectural criticism was placed much too high for the reach of his hand.
To Theobald, as an editor of Shakspeare, succeeded Sir Thomas Hanmer, who, in 1744, published a superb edition of the great Dramatist from the press of Oxford. But Hanmer, building his work on that of Pope, and indulging in the wildest and most wanton innovations, deprived his edition of all pretensions to authenticity, and, consequently, to merit.
The bow of Ulysses was next seized by a mighty hand-by the hand of Warburton ; whose Shakspeare was published in 1747. It failed of success; for, conceiving that the editor intended to make his Author his showman to exhibit his erudition and intellectual power, the public quickly neglected his work; and it soon disappeared from circulation, though some of its proffered substitutions must be allowed to be happy, and some of its explanations to be just.
After an interval of eighteen years, Shakspeare obtained once more an editor of great name, and seemingly in every way accomplished to assert the rights of his Author. In 1765, Dr. Samuel Johnson presented the world with his long-promised edition of our Dramatist; and the public expectation, which had been highly raised, was again doomed to be disappointed. Johnson had a powerful intellect, and was perfectly conversant with human life ; but he was not sufficiently versed in black-letter lore; and, deficient in poetic taste, he was unable to accompany our great Bard in the higher flights of his imagination. The public in general were not satisfied with his commentary or his text; but to his Preface they gave the most unlimited applause. The array and glitter of its words; the regular and pompous march of its periods, with its pervading affectation of deep thought and of sententious remark, seem to have fascinated the popular mind; and to have withdrawn from the common observation its occasional poverty of meaning; the inconsistency of its praise and censure ; the falsity in some instances of its critical remarks; and its defects now and then even with respect to composition. It has, however, its merits, and Heaven forbid that I should not be just to them. It gives a right view of the difficulties to be encountered by the editor of Shakspeare: it speaks modestly of himself, and candidly of those who had preceded him in the path which he was treading : it assigns to Pope, Hanmer, and Warburton, those victims to the rage of the minute critics, their due proportion of praise : it is honorably just, in short, to all who come within the scope of its observations, with the exception of the editor's great Author alone. To him also the editor gives abundant praise; but against it he arrays such a frightful host of censure as to command the field ; and to leave us to wonder at our admiration of an object so little worthy of it, though he has been followed by the admiration of more than two entire centuries. As an unfolder of intricate and perplexed passages, Johnson must be allowed to excel. His explanations are always perspicuous, and his proffered amendments of a corrupt text are sometimes successful. But the expectations of the world had been too highly raised to be satisfied with his performance; and it was only to the most exceptionable part of it, the mighty Preface, that they gave their unmingled applause. — In the year following the publication of Johnson's