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‘CAN it be wondered at (says Mr. Gifford) that Shakspeare should swell into twenty or even twice twenty volumes, when the latest editor (like the wind Cecias) constantly draws round him the floating errors of all his predecessors o' Upwards of twenty years ago, when the evil was not so great as it has since become, Steevens confessed that there was an ‘exuberance of comment,’ arising from the “ambition in each little Hercules to set up pillars ascertaining how far he had travelled through the dreary wilds of black letter;' so that there was some danger of readers being ‘frighted away from Shakspeare, as the soldiers of Cato deserted their comrade when he became bloated with poison— crescens fugere cadaver.' He saw with a prophetic eye that the evil must cure itself, and that the time would arrive when some of this ivy must be removed, which only served to “hide the princely trunk, and suck the verdure out of it.” 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 o 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 becoming 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 proitious to his labours, for he flatters himself that he !. been enabled in many instances to present, the reader with more satisfactory explanations of diffi: cult 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 Shaskpeare with superfluous notes are many; but Steevens, though eminently fitted for
the task he undertook, was chiefly instrumental n 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 rivai 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 interruption of their intimacy in so clear a light, and to explain the causes which have so unnecessarily swelled the comments on Shakspeare, that it has been thought not unworo of the reader's attention. The letter has no ate :‘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. #. me, however, to desert order and propriety, repl . to your last sentence first.— I assure you that Y. y erased the word friend because, considering how much controversy was to follow, that distinction seemed to be out of its |. and appeared to carry with it somewhat of a urlesque 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 mako 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 right 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 c. sent 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 com: ment 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 . particular position of your own which could with success be dis; uted. I cannot, however, help adding, that had I Élod every sentence of your attempt to ascertain the order of the plays, with a contradiction sedulous and unremitted as that with which you have pursued my Observations on Shakspeare's Will and his Sonnets, you at least would not have found your undertaking a very comfortable one. I was then an editor, and oil. * with even a printed soul copy of your work, which you o as long as you thought fit.—The arrival of people on business prevents me from adding more than that I hope to be still indulged with the correction of my own notes on the Yforkshire) T[ragedy]. ... I expect almost every one of them to be disputed, but assure you that I will not add a single word by way of reply. I have not returned you so complete an answer as I would have done had I been at leisure. You have, however, the real sentiments of your most humble servan G. STEEve Ns.” The temper in which this letter was written is obvious. Steevens was at the time assisting Malone in preparing his so to so and had previously made a liberal present to him of his valuable collection of old plays; he afterwards called himself “a dowager editor,’ and said he would never more trouble himself about Shakspeare. This is gathered from a memorandum by Malone, but Steevens does in effect say in one of his letters; adding, “Nor will such assistance as I may be able to furnish ever go towards any future gratuitous publication of the same author: ingratitude and impertinence from several booksellers have been my reward for conducting two laborious editions, both of which, except a few copies, are already sold.’ In another letter, in reply to a remonstrance about the susp;nsion of his visits to Malone, Steevens says: — I will confess to you without reserve the cause why I have not made even my business submit to my desire of seeing you. I readily allow that any distinct and subjoined reply to my remarks on your notes is fair; but to change (in conseuence of private conversation) the notes that drew m me those remarks, is to turn my own weapons against me. Surely, therefore, it is unnecessary to let me continue building when you are previously determined to destroy my very foundations. As I observed to you yesterday, the result of this proceedin wo be, that such of my strictures as might be just on the first copies of your notes, must often prove no better than idle cavils, when applied to the second and amended editions of them. know not that any editor has insisted on the very extensive privileges which you have continued to claim. In some parts of my Dissertation on Pericles, I am almost reduced to combat with shadows. We had resolved (as I once imagined) to proceed without reserve on either side through the whole of that controversy, but finally you acquainted me with our resolution (in right of editorship) to have the •st word. However, for the future, I beg I may be led to trouble you only with observations relative to notes which are fired ones. I had that advantage over my predecessors, and you have enjoyed the same over me; but I never yet possessed the means of obviating objections before they could be effectually made,’ &c. Here then is the secret developed of the subsequent, unceasing, and unrelenting opposition with which Steevens opposed Malone's notes: their controversies served not “to make sport for the world,” but to annoy the admirers of Shakspeare, by overloading his page with frivolous contention.
Steevens had undoubtedly, as he says of himself on another occasion— • Fallen in the plash his wickedness had made;’ and in some instances contested the force and propriety of his own remarks when applied by A.!. to o passages; or, as Malone observes: “They are very good remarks, so far forth as they are his; but when used by me are good for nothing; and the disputed passages become printers' blunders, or Hemingisms and condeism’.” Hence his unremitted censure of the first folio copy, and suport of the readings of the second folio, which Ma|. treats as of no authority;—his affected contempt for the Poems of Shakspeare, &c. Mr. Boswell has judiciously characterized Steevens:–“With great diligence, an extensive acquaintance with early literature, and a remarkably retentive memory: he was besides, as Mr. Gifford has justly observed, “a wit and a scholar.” But his wit and the sprightliness of his style were too often employed to bewilder and mislead us. His consciousness of his own satirical powers made him much too fond of exercising them at the exense of truth and Justice. He was infected to a amentable degree with the jealousy of authorship ; and while his approbation was readily bestow upon those whose competition he thought he had no reason to dread, he was fretfully impatient of a brother near the throne: his clear understanding would generally have enabled him to discover what was right; but the spirit of contradiction could at any time induce him to maintain what was wrong. It would be impossible, indeed, to explain how any one, possessed of his taste and discernment, could have brought himself to advocate so many indefensible opinions, without entering into a long and ungracious history of the motives by which he was influenced.’ Malone was certainly not so happily gifted; o Mr. Boswell's, partiality in delineating his friend, presents us with the picture of an amiable and accomplished gentleman and scholar. There seems to have been a want of grasp in his mind to make proper use of the accumulated materials which his unwearied industry in his favourite pursuit had placed within his reach : his notes on Shakspeare are often tediously circumlocutory and ineffectual: neither does he seem to have been deficient in that jealousy of rivalship, or that pertinacious adherence to his own opinions, which have been attributed to his competitor. It is superfluous here to enlarge on this topi for the merits and defects of Johnson, Steevens o: Malone, as commentators on Shakspeare, and the characters of those who preceded them, the reader will find sketched with a masterly pen in the Biographical Preface of Dr. Symmons, which accom'anies this edition. The vindication of Shakspeare rom idle calumny and ill founded critical animadversion, could not have been placed in better hands than in those of the vindicator of Milton; and his
I eloquent Essay must afford pleasure to every lover
of our immortal Bard. It should be observed that the Editor, in his adoption of readings, differs in opinion on some points from his able coadjutor, with whom he has not the honour of a personal acquaintance. It is to be regretted that no part of the work was communicated to Dr. Symmons until nearly the whole of the Plays were printed; or the Editor and the Public wo doubtless have benefited by his animadversions and suggestions in its progress through the press. The reader will not M. be surprised at the preliminary censure of some readings which are still ...?. the text. Dr. Johnson's far famed Preface—which has so long hung as a dead weight upon the reputation of our great Poet, and which has been justly said to look like ‘a laborious attempt to bury the characteristic merits of his author under a load of cumbrous phraseology, and to weign nis excellencies and defects in equal scales stuffed full of sw figures and sonorous epithets,'—will, for obvious reasons, form no part of this publication. His briel strictures at the end of each o have been retained in compliance with custom, but not without an occasional note of dissent. e may suppose that Johnson himself did not estimate these observations very highly, for he tells us that ‘in the plays which are condemned there may be much to be praised, and in those which are praised much to be condemned '' Far be it from us to undervalue or speak slightingly of our great moralist; but his most strenuous admirers must acknowledge that the construction of his mind incapacitated him from forming a true judgment of the creations of one who was ‘of imagination all compact,' no less than his physical defects prevented him from relishing the beautiful and harmonious in nature and art. * Quid valet ad surdas si cantet Phemius aures : Quid caecum Thamyram picta tabella juvat?” It has been the studious endeavour of the Editor to avoid those splenetic and insulting reflections upon the errors of the commentators, where it has been his good fortune to detect them, which have been sometimes too captiously indulged in by labourers in this field of verbal criticism. Indeed it would ill become him to speak contemptuously of those who, with all their ... have deserved the gratitude of the age; for it is chiefly owing to the labours of Tyrwhitt, Warton, Percy, Steevens, Farmer, and their successors, that attention has been drawn to the mine of wealth which our early literature affords; and no one will affect to deny that a recurrence to it has not been attended with beneficial effects, if it has not raised us in the moral scale of nations. The plan pursued in the selection, abridgment, and concentration of the notes of others, precluded the necessity of affixing the names of the commentators from whom the information was borrowed; and, excepting in a few cases of controversial discussion, and of some critical observations, authoritles are not given. The very curious and valuable Illustrations of Shakspeare by Mr. Douce have been laid under frequent contribution; the obligation has not always been expressed; and it is therefore here acknowledged with thankfulness. It will be seen that the Editor has not thought, with some of his predecessors. that the text of Shakspeare was “fixed' in any particular edition beyond the hope or probability of future amendment.'. He has rather coincided with the opinion of Mr. Gifford, ‘that those would deserve well of the blic who should bring back some readings which teevens discarded, and reject others which he has doyted.”
The text of the present edition is formed upon those of Steevens and Malone, occasionally com pared with the early editions; and the satisfaction arising from a rejection of modern unwarranted deviations from the old copies has not unfrequently been the reward of this labour.
The preliminary remarks to each play are augmented with extracts from the more recent writers upon Shakspeare, and generally contain brief critical observations which are in many instances opposed to the dictum of Dr. Johnson. Some of these are extracted from the Lectures on the Drama. b the distinguished German critic, A. W. Schle he y a writer to whom the nation is deeply indebted, for having pointed out the characteristic excellencies of the great Poet of nature, in an eloquent and philosophical spirit of criticism; which, though it may sometimes be thought a little tinctured with mystical enthusiasm, has dealt out to Shakspeare hi due meed of praise; and has, no doubt, tended to dissipate the prejudices of some neighbouring nations who have been too long wilfully blind to his merits.
Mr. Gifford, as it appears, once proposed to favour the public with an edition of Shakspeare: how admirably that excellent critic would have performed the task the world need not now be told. The Editor, who has been frequently indebted to the remarks on the language . our great Poet which occur in the notes to the works of Ben Jonson and Massinger, may be permitted to anticipate the public regret that these humble labours were not presented by that more skilful hand. As it is, he must console himself with having used his best endeavour to accomplish the task which he was solicited to undertake; had his power equalled his desire to render it useful and acceptable, the work would have been more worthy of the public favour, and of the Poet whom he .all unite in idolizing—