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In venturing upon a new edition of SHAKESPEARE's Works, perhaps it were as well to leave the reasons of the undertaking to be gathered from the manner of the performance. But as the statement of those reasons will serve in some measure to unfold the plan of the work, it is thought best to give a brief expression of them.
The celebrated Chiswick edition, of which this is meant to be as near an imitation as the present state of Shakespearian literature renders desirable, was published in 1826, and has for some time been out of print. In size of volume, in type, style of execution, and adaptedness to the wants of both the scholar and the general reader, it presented a combination of advantages possessed by no other edition at the time of its appearance. The text, however, abounds in corruptions introduced by preceding editors under the name of corrections. Of the number and nature of these corruptions no adequate idea can be formed but by a close comparison, line by line, and word by word, with the original editions.
The Chiswick edition, though perhaps the most popular that has yet been issued, has never, strange to say, been reprinted in this country. For putting forth an American edition retaining the advantages of that, without its defects, no apology, it is presumed, will be thought needful. How far those advantages are retained in the present edition, will appear upon a very slight comparison : how far those defects have been removed, we may be allowed to say that no little study and examination will be required to the forming of a right judgment. In all of the plays the chief, and in many of them the only, basis and standard whereby to ascertain the true text, is the folio of 1623. In our preparing of copy we have this continually open before us, at the same time availing ourselves of whatsoever aid is to be drawn from earlier impressions, in case of such plays as were published during the author's life. So that, if a thorough revisal of every line, every word, every letter, and every point, with a continual reference to the original copies, be a reasonable ground of confidence; then we can confidently assure the reader that he will here find the genuine text of
Shakespeare. ( The process of purification has been rendered much more laborious, and therefore much more necessary, by the mode in which it was for a long time customary to edit the Poet's works. This mode is well exemplified in the case of Malone and Steevens, who, carrying on their editorial labours simultaneously, seem to have vied with each other which should most enrich his edition with textual emendations. Both of them had been very good editors, but for the unwarrantable liberty which they not only took, but gloried in taking, with the text of their author; and, even as it was, they undoubtedly rendered much valuable service. And the same work, though not always in so great a degree, has been carried on by many others: sometimes the alleged corrections of several editors have been brought together, that the various advantages of them all might be combined
and presented in one. Thus corruptions of the text have accumulated, each successive editor adding his own to those of his predecessors. Many of these so called improvements were thrown out by the editor of the Chiswick edition; but no decisive steps in the way of a return to the original text were taken till within a very limited period. Knight, Collier, Verplanck, and Halliwell, to all of whom this edition is under great obligations, have pretty effectually put a stop to the old mode of Shakespearian editing ; nor is there much reason to apprehend that any one will at present venture upon a revival of it.
Of the editions hitherto published in America, Mr. Verplanck's is the only one, so far as we know, that is at all free from the accumulated emendations of preceding editors. Adopting, in the main, the text of Mr. Collier, he brought to the work, however, his own excellent taste and judgment, wherein he as far surpasses the English editor as he necessarily falls short of him in such external advantages as the libraries, public and private, of England alone can supply. And Mr. Collier's text is indeed remarkably pure : nor, perhaps, can any other man of modern times be named, to whom Shakespearian literature is, on the whole, so largely indebted. How much he has done, need not be dwelt upon here, as the results thereof will be found scattered all through this edition. Yet it seems not a little questionable whether both he and Knight have not fallen into a serious error; though it must be confessed that such error, if it be one, is on the right side, inasmuch as their fidelity to the original text extends to the adopting, sometimes of probable, sometimes of palpable, or nearly palpable misprints. In these Mr. Verplanck has judiciously deviated from his English model, and his fine judgment appears to equal advantage in what he adopts and in what he rejects. Of his critical remarks it is enough at present to express the belief, that in this department he has no rival in this country, and will not soon be beaten. Further acknowledgments, both to him and to the other three editors named, will be duly and cheerfully made, as the occasions for them shall arise.
There is one class of corrections which we shall hope to be excused for mentioning, inasmuch as, while they are separately so small as to escape notice, the number of them is so great as to be a matter of considerable importance. Every one at all conversant with the old writers must be aware, that in their use of verbs, participles, and participial adjectives the termination ed generally made a syllable by itself. We say generally, because there are some exceptions, as when ed is preceded by i, u, or l. This class of words being very numerous, not a little variety and flexibility of language were gained by omitting or retaining the e at an author's discretion. In Shakespeare's verse the pronouncing of ed as a distinct syllable is often required by the measure ; and the necessity of distinguishing when it is to be so pronounced, and when not, has availed in some degree to keep the text pure in this respect. But such is by no means the case with his prose, though his prose originally had quite as much variety in this particular as his verse. In all modern editions, except Mr. Halliwell's, the Poet's usage on this point has been almost entirely ignored, and the rhythm of his prose (for good prose, no less than verse, has a rhythm of its own) thereby greatly