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I SHOULD not have ventured to undertake the superintendence of a new edition of the Works of Shakespeare, bad I not felt confidence, arising not only out of recent but long-continued experience, that I should enjoy some important and peculiar advantages. The Duke of Devonshire and Lord Francis Egerton, I was sure, would allow me to resort to their libraries, in cases where search in our public depositories must be unavailing, in consequence of their inevitable deficiencies: this of itself would have been a singular facility; but I did not anticipate that these two noblemen would at once have permitted me, as they have done, to take home, for the purpose of constant and careful collation, every early impression of Shakespeare's productions they possessed.
The collection of the Duke of Devonshire is notoriously the most complete in the world : his Grace has a perfect series, including, of course, every first edition, several of which are neither at Oxford, Cambridge, nor in the British Museum ; and Lord Francis Egerton has various impressions of the utmost rarity, besides plays, poems, and tracts of the time, illustrative of the works of our great dramatist. All these I have had in my hands during the preparation and printing of the ensuing volumes, so that I have had the opportunity of going over every line and letter of the text, not merely with one, but with several original copies (sometimes varying materially from each other) under my eyes. Wherever, therefore, the text of the present edition is faulty, I can offer no excuse founded upon want of most easy access to the best authorities.
With regard to the notes, I am bound to admit that the substance of them has been derived, in many if not in most instances, from those of preceding editors : I have given rather their results than their details; and the bibliographical and philological knowledge obtained of late has enabled me now and then to correct their mistakes, not unfrequently to confirm their conjectures, and sometimes to add to their information. Having devoted more than thirty years of my life to the study of our early popular literature, I have here and there found occasion to dissent from the opinions of my predecessors : I have expressed that dissent with as much brevity as possible, but, I hope, with due respect for the learning and labours of others. I have never thought it necessary to enter into the angry controversies of some previous editors, upon matters of trifling import, bearing in mind the prophetic words of Ben Jonson, when he exclaims in his “Discoveries,” “ What a sight it is, to see writers committed together by the ears for ceremonies, syllables, points, colons, commas, hyphens, and the like; fighting, as it were, for their fires and altars, and angry that none are frighted at their noises !”
My main object has been to ascertain the true language of the poet, and my next to encumber his language with no more, in the shape of comment, than is necessary to render the text intelligible; and I may add, that I have the utmost confidence in the perspicuity of Shakespeare's mode of expressing his own meaning, when once his precise words have been established.
The Introductions to the separate dramas are intended to comprise all the existing information regarding the origin of the plot, the period when each play was written and printed, the sources of the most accurate readings, and any remarkable circumstances attending composition, production, or performance.
I have arranged the whole, for the first time, in the precise sequence observed by Heminge and Condell in the folio of 1623: they were fellow-actors with Shakespeare, and had played, perhaps, in every drama they published; and as they executed their task with intelligence and discretion in other respects, we may presume that they did not without reason settle the order of the plays in their noble monument to the author's memory.
For about half the whole number their volume affords the most ancient and authentic text; but with respect to the rest, printed in quarto before
the appearance of the folio, I have in every instance traced the text through the earlier impressions, and have shown in what manner, and to what degree, it has been changed and corrupted.
In the biographical memoir of the poet, of whom it is not too much to say, that he combined in himself more than all the excellences of every dramatist before or since the revival of letters, I have been anxious to include the most minute particles of information, whether of tradition or discovery. This information is now hardly as scanty as it was formerly represented, and, by the favour of friends and my own research, I have been able to add to it some particulars entirely new, and of no little importance. I have disposed the whole chronologically, as far as was possible; and I have endeavoured to show in what way one fact bears upon and illustrates another, and how circumstances, insignificant in themselves, acquire value in connexion with the history and progress of Shakespeare's mind. Mere personal incidents are of small worth, unless they enable us better to understand and appreciate an author in his productions.
The account of our drama and stage to the time of Shakespeare is necessarily brief and summary, but it is hoped that it will be deemed sufficient. I need not apologize for partial changes of opinion since the appearance of my former work, because those changes have been produced by subsequent information, or by more mature reflection.
The glossarial index, which concludes the preliminary portion of this work, will perhaps demand some forbearance on the part of the reader: it is, I believe, the first time an alphabetical list of words used by Shakespeare has been made to answer the double purpose of a mere glossary, and of a means of reference to notes where explanatory matter is inserted. An index to the notes might perhaps have answered the purpose, and have saved much trouble to the editor; but in that case the reader, who only wanted to know the meaning of an obsolete word, would have had to turn to different volumes, instead of at once obtaining the knowledge he required. Due allowance must here be made for brevity, and for the not unfrequent necessity of reducing a complex term to its simplest signification.
Besides the gratitude I must ever feel to the Duke of Devonshire for a new proof of most considerate confidence, and to Lord Francis Egerton for so instantly following an example, which he would have been equally ready to set, I have many friends to thank for welcome and necessary assistance. I am not aware that in a single instance I have omitted separately to state my obligations; but, nevertheless, I cannot refuse myself the gratification of placing their names in connection here, that it may be seen at once how many individuals, distinguished in their various departments, bave taken an interest in the progress and success of my undertaking :—Sir Charles Young, Garter King at Arms; Sir Henry Ellis, Principal Librarian of the British Museum; Sir Frederick Madden, Keeper of the Manuscripts in the same institution ; Sir N. Harris