« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »
our drama might excufe us; but I have seen, in the book of fome modern critick, a collection of anomalies, which fhow that he has corrupted language by every mode of depravation, but which his admirer has accumulated as a monument of honour.
He has scenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence, but perhaps not one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclufion. I am indeed far from thinking, that his works were wrought to his own ideas of perfection; when they were fuch as would fatisfy the audience, they fatisfied the writer. It is feldom that authors, though more ftudious of fame than Shakspeare, rife much above the standard of their own age; to add a little to what is best will always be fufficient for present praife, and those who find themselves exalted into fame, are willing to credit their encomiafts, and to fpare the labour of contending with themselves.
It does not appear, that Shakspeare thought his works worthy of pofterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further profpect, than of prefent popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he folicited no addition of honour from the reader. He therefore made no fcruple to repeat the fame jefts in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots by the fame knot of perplexity, which may be at least forgiven him, by those who recollect, that of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded by a marriage in a mask, by a deception, which perhaps never happened, and which, whether likely or not, he did not invent.
So careless was this great poet of future fame,
that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little declined into the vale of years, before he could be difgufted with fatigue, or difabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor, defired to rescue thofe that had been already published from the depravations that obfcured them, or fecure to the reft a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.
Of the plays which bear the name of Shakspeare in the late editions, the greater part were not publifhed till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the author, and therefore probably without his knowledge.
Of all the publishers, clandeftine or profeffed, the negligence and unfkilfulness has by the late revisers been fufficiently fhown. The faults of all are indeed numerous and grofs, and have not only corrupted many paffages perhaps beyond recovery, but have brought others into fufpicion, which are only obfcured by obfolete phrafeology, or by the writer's unfkilfulness and affectation. To alter is more easy than to explain, and temerity is a more common quality than diligence. Thofe who faw that they must employ conjecture to a certain degree, were willing to indulge it a little further. Had the author published his own works, we should have fat quietly down to disentangle his intricacies, and clear his obfcurities; but now we tear what we cannot loose, and eject what we happen not to understand.
The faults are more than could have happened
* What Montaigne has faid of his own works may almost be applied to thofe of Shakspeare, who " n'avoit point d'autre fergent de bande à ranger fes pieces, que la fortune." STEEVENS.
without the concurrence of many causes. ftyle of Shakspeare was in itself ungrammatical, perplexed, and obfcure; his works were tranfcribed for the players by thofe who may be fupposed to have seldom understood them; they were tranfmitted by copiers equally unskilful, who still multiplied errors; they were perhaps fometimes mutilated by the actors, for the fake of fhortening the speeches; and were at last printed without correction of the press.9
In this state they remained, not as Dr. Warburton fuppofes, because they were unregarded, but because the editor's art was not yet applied to modern languages, and our ancestors were accuftomed to fo much negligence of English printers, that they could very patiently endure it. At laft an edition was undertaken by Rowe; not because a poet was to be published by a poet, for Rowe feems to have thought very little on correction or explanation, but that our author's works might appear like thofe of his fraternity, with the appendages of a life and
9 Much deferved cenfure has been thrown out on the careleffness of our ancient printers, as well as on the wretched tranfcripts they obtained from contemporary theatres. Yet I cannot help obferving that, even at this inftant, fhould any one undertake to publish a play of Shakspeare from pages of no greater fidelity than fuch as are iffued out for the use of performers, the prefs would teem with as interpolated and inextricable nonfenfe as it produced above a century ago. Mr. Colman (who cannot be fufpected of ignorance or misrepresentation) in his preface to the laft edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, very forcibly ftyles the prompter's books "the most inaccurate and barbarous of all manufcripts." And well may they deserve that character; for verfe (as I am informed) ftill continues to be transcribed as profe by a fet of mercenaries, who in general have neither the advantage of literature or understanding. Foliis tantum ne carmina manda, ne turbata volent ludibria, was the request of Virgil's Hero to the Sybil, and should also be the fupplication of every dramatick poet to the agents of a prompter. STEEVENS
recommendatory preface. Rowe has been clamoroufly blamed for not performing what he did not undertake, and it is time that justice be done him, by confeffing, that though he seems to have had no thought of corruption beyond the printer's errors, yet he has made many emendations, if they were not made before, which his fucceffors have received without acknowledgment, and which, if they had produced them, would have filled pages and pages with cenfures of the ftupidity by which the faults were committed, with difplays of the abfurdities which they involved, with oftentatious expofitions of the new reading, and felf-congratulations on the happiness of discovering it.
As of the other editors I have preferved the prefaces, I have likewife borrowed the author's life from Rowe, though not written with much elegance or fpirit; it relates, however, what is now to be known, and therefore deserves to pass through all fucceeding publications.
The nation had been for many years content enough with Mr. Rowe's performance, when Mr. Pope made them acquainted with the true ftate of Shakspeare's text, fhowed that it was extremely corrupt, and gave reafon to hope that there were means of reforming it. He collated the old copies, which none had thought to examine before, and reftored many lines to their integrity; but, by a very compendious criticifm, he rejected whatever he disliked, and thought more of amputation than of cure.
I know not why he is commended by Dr. Warburton for diftinguishing the genuine from the fpurious plays. In this choice he exerted no judgment of his own; the plays which he received, were given to Hemings and Condel, the firft edi
tors; and those which he rejected, though, according to the licentiousness of the press in those times, they were printed during Shakspeare's life, with his name, had been omitted by his friends, and were never added to his works before the edition of 1664, from which they were copied by the latter printers.
This was a work which Pope feems to have thought unworthy of his abilities, being not able to fupprefs his contempt of the dull duty of an editor. He understood but half his undertaking. The duty of a collator is indeed dull, yet, like other tedious tasks is very neceffary; but an emendatory critick would ill discharge his duty, without qualities very different from dullness. In perufing a corrupted piece, he must have before him all poffibilities of meaning, with all poffibilities of expreffion. Such must be his comprehenfion of thought, and fuch his copioufnefs of language. Out of many readings poffible, he must be able to select that which beft fuits with the ftate, opinions, and modes of language prevailing in every age, and with his author's particular caft of thought, and turn of expreffion. Such must be his knowledge, and fuch his tafte. Conjectural criticism demands more than humanity poffeffes, and he that exercises it with most praife, has very frequent need of indulgence. Let us now be told no more of the dull duty of an editor.
Confidence is the common confequence of fuccefs. They whose excellence of any kind has been loudly celebrated, are ready to conclude, that their powers are univerfal. Pope's edition fell below his own expectations, and he was fo much offended, when he was found to have left any thing for others VOL. I. U