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AFTER the labours of so many acute and judicious men as, during almost a century past, have successively applied their talents to rectify and explain the works of Shakspeare, it might reasonably be supposed, that little room was left for further observation: that an authentic, or, at least, an approved text was firmly established ; that all inaccuracies were repaired or noted; that the viciousness of interpolation, and the ignorance or idleness of transcribers and reciters were no longer to be confounded with the effusions of the poet, and that every passage which had languished in the trammels of obscurity, was at length either redeemed to illustration, or abandoned finally to impervious darkness ; but a review of the plays, as they have been presented to the public by the last editor, will shew that such expectations remain, even yet, unfulfilled. It is true, indeed; · VOL. I.
the circumstances attending our great dramatist and his productions must ever leave questionable the authority even of the best copies, for, excepting A Midsummer Night's Dream, we shall not, perhaps, find a single play that is not evidently corrupted; and there exists no other rule whereby we can distinguish the genuine from the spurious parts, but that internal evidence which critical discernment may be able to extract from a patient and minute examination of the earliest copies, the consciousness of a peculiar and predominating style, and the sagacious perception of an original design, howsoever adulterated or deranged by innovation or unskilfulness. 0 6 04
On this ground, possibly, a rational hypothesis of purity may be erected, whenever there shall come forth a combination of talents and industry sufficient for the task: this, however, is a latitude of criticism, to which no editor, as yet, has extended his enquiry; they have all been satisfied with delivering the text of each drama as they found it, with preference occasionally to the readings of different impressions; and if the choice they made be deemed judicious, so much of their undertaking has been performed: but with regard to those anomalies in which the measure, construction, and sense, are often vitiated, they appear to have been strangely negligent; and, sometimes, more strangely mistaken: the want of meaning can never be excused; the disregard of syntax is no less reprehensible, and every poetic ear must be offended by metrical dissonance.
Yet all these faults abound without even a comment in the last edition of Shakspeare's plays. Upon examining the compositions before us, we must presently discern two different kinds of imperfections, one of them the result of haste or idleness; the other of habitual inaccuracy: those which were produced by mere inadvertency, whether of the poet himself or his transcriber; and where concord, prosody, and reason, unite in suggesting the true expression, should at once, perhaps, without scruple or remark, be set right in the text.(a)
The other, more compendious as well as mischievous class of errors, are those indigests of grammar, both in words and phrases, which are not, indeed, confined to this author, but equally disfigure the works of others; and are, unhappily, to be found in the volumes of writers the most applauded for correctness and elegance of diction: the frequency of these impurities, and the eminence of the names from which they seem to derive countenance, so far from furnishing any argument in their defence, present the strongest reason for their condemnation, since vicious modes and practices should, always, be resisted with a zeal proportioned to the danger arising from the prevalence of custom, and the seduction of example: and though much of what is here complained of cannot now be reformed, it should, at least, be stigmatised, to prevent what is indisputably wrong from being sanctioned by authority, or multiplied by adoption ; but the most pernicious, as well as copious source of disorder in these works, is what has poured into almost every page of them, a torrent of interpolation ; which, bearing on its surface the foam of antiquity, has been so mixed and blended with the rest, as to be at this day, not to the careless reader only, but to the most discerning critics, not very clearly distinguishable; and he who with the efficacy of just discrimination, and, in the confidence allied to great ability, should declare, “ Thus far our poet wrote, the rest is all imposture,” would claim and deserve a place “ Velut inter ignes luna minores,” supereminent, indeed, above all his competitors, in the honour of illustrating Shakspeare: this, however, were a project to the execution of which the present remarker professes himself incompetent: he will, therefore, confine his endeavours to that field of scrutiny which has bounded the ambition of men, much better qualified than he is, to extend its limits, assuming only as a datum, what no one will deny, that interpolation does exist, and is frequent ; and resting thereon, conjointly with the excellence of the poetry, which, indisputably is our author's, an argument that very few of the ungrammatical, unmetrical, or unmeaning scntences, exhibited in these works, have issued from his pen. As to prosody, or the unskilfulness in that art, so commonly imputed to our author, no charge was ever more