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This expurgatory task has been more than once undertaken, but has never hitherto, it is believed, been executed entirely to the satisfaction of the admirers of our great Poet: and the work has even now devolved upon one who, though not wholly unprepared for it by previous studies, has perhaps manifested his presumption in undertaking it with weak and unexamined shoulders.' He does not, however, shrink from a comparison with the labours of his predecessors, but would rather solicit that equitable mode of being judged; and will patiently, and with all be coming submission to the decision of a competent tribunal, abide the result.
As a new candidate for public favour, it may be expected that the Editor should explain the ground of his pretensions. The object then of the present publication is to afford the general reader a correct edition of Shakspeare, accompanied by an abridged commentary, in which all superfluous and refuted explanations and conjectures, and all the controversies and squabbles of contending critics should be omitted; and such elucidations only of obsolete words and obscure phrases, and such critical illustrations.
of the text as might be deemed most generally useful be retained. To effect this it has been necessary, for the sake of compression, to condense in some cases several pages of excursive discussion into a few lines, and often to blend together the information conveyed in the notes of several commentators into one. When these explanations are mere transcripts or abridgments of the labours of his predecessors, and are unaccompanied by any observation of his own, it will of course be understood that the Editor intends to imply by silent acquiescence that he has nothing better to propose.' Fortune, however, seems to have been propitious to his labours, for he flatters himself that he has been enabled in many instances to present the reader with more satisfactory explanations of difficult passages, and with more exact definitions of obsolete words and phrases, than are to be found in the notes to the variorum editions.
The causes which have operated to overwhelm the pages of Shakspeare with superfluous notes are many; but Steevens, though eminently fitted for the task he undertook, was chiefly instrumental in increasing the evil. He has indeed been happily designated 'the
Puck of commentators:' he frequently wrote notes, not with the view of illustrating the Poet, but for the purpose of misleading Malone, and of enjoying the pleasure of turning against him that playful ridicule which he knew so well how to direct. Steevens, like Malone, began his career as an editor of Shakspeare with scrupulous attention to the old copies, but when he once came to entertain some jealousy of Malone's intrusion into his province, he all at once shifted his ground, and adopted maxims entirely opposed to those which guided his rival editor. Upon a recent perusal of a considerable portion of the correspondence between them, one letter seemed to display the circumstances which led to the interruptionof their intimacy in so clear a light, and to explain the causes which have so unnecessa rily swelled the comments on Shakspeare, that it has been thought not unworthy of the reader's attention. The letter has no date:
'Sir, I am at present so much harassed with private business that it is not in my power to afford you the long and regular answer which your letter deserves. Permit me, however, to desert order and propriety, replying to your last sentence first. I assure you that
I only erased the word friend because, considering how much controversy was to follow, that distinction seemed to be out of its place, and appeared to carry with it somewhat of a burlesque air. Such was my single motive for the change, and I hope you will do me the honour to believe I had no other design in it.
'As it is some time since my opinions have had the good fortune to coincide with yours in the least matter of consequence, I begin to think so indifferently of my own judgment, that I am ready to give it up without reluctance on the present occasion. You are at liberty to leave out whatever parts of my note you please. However we may privately disagree, there is no reason why we should make sport for the world, for such is the only effect of public controversies; neither should I have leisure at present to pursue such an undertaking, I only meant to do justice to myself; and as I had no opportunity of replying to your reiterated contradictions in their natural order, on account of your perpetual additions to them; I thought myself under the necessity of observing, that I ought not to be suspected of being impotently silent in regard to objections which I had never read till it was
too late for any replication on my side to be made. You rely much on the authority of an editor; but till I am convinced that volunteers are to be treated with less indulgence than other soldiers, I shall still think I have some fight at least to be disgusted; especially after I had been permitted to observe that truth, not victory, was the object of our critical warfare,
'As for the note at the conclusion of The Puritan, since it gives so much offence (an offence as undesigned as unforeseen), I will change a part of it, and subjoin reasons for my dissent both from you and Mr. Tyrwhitt. You cannot surely suspect me of having wished to commence hostilities with either of you; but you have made a very singular comment on this remark indeed. Because I have said I could overturn some of both your arguments on other occasions with ease, you are willing to infer that I meant all of them. Let me ask, for instance sake, what would become of his "undertakers," &c. were I to advance all I could on that subject. I will not offend you by naming any particular Son of your own which could with success be disputed. I cannot, however, help adding, that had I followed every sentence of