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favour by this plea: but as thefe in my opinion have in fome particulars been over-rated, and in others not fufficiently infifted on, and as the true state of the ancient copies of this poet's writings has never been laid before the publick, I fhall confider the fubject as if it had not been already difcuffed by preceding editors.
In the year 1756 Dr. Johnfon publifhed the following excellent scheme of a new edition of Shakfpeare's dramatick pieces, which he completed in 1765:
"When the works of Shakspeare are, after fo many editions, again offered to the publick, it will doubtless be enquired, why Shakspeare ftands in more need of critical affiftance than any other of the English writers, and what are the deficiencies of the late attempts, which another editor may hope to fupply.
"The bufinefs of him that republishes an ancient book is, to correct what is corrupt, and to explain what is obfcure. To have a text corrupt in many places, and in many doubtful, is, among the authors that have written fince the use of types, almoft peculiar to Shakspeare. Moft writers, by publishing their own works, prevent all various readings, and preclude all conjectural criticism. Books indeed are fometimes published after the death of him who produced them, but they are better fecured from corruptions than thefe unfortunate compofitions. They fubfift in a fingle copy, written or revised by the author; and the faults of the printed volume can be only faults of one defcent.
"But of the works of Shakspeare the condition has been far different: he fold them, not to be printed, but to be played. They were immediately
copied for the actors, and multiplied by transcript after transcript, vitiated by the blunders of the penman, or changed by the affectation of the player; perhaps enlarged to introduce a jeft, or mutilated to fhorten the representation; and printed at last without the concurrence of the author, without the confent of the proprietor, from compilations made by chance or by ftealth out of the separate parts written for the theatre: and thus thrust into the world furreptitiously and haftily, they fuffered another depravation from the ignorance and negligence of the printers, as every man who knows the ftate of the prefs in that age will readily con
"It is not eafy for invention to bring together fo many causes concurring to vitiate a text. No other author ever gave up his works to fortune and time with fo little care; no books could be left in hands fo likely to injure them, as plays frequently acted, yet continued in manufcript: no other transcribers were likely to be fo little qualified for their task, as thofe who copied for the ftage, at a time when the lower ranks of the people were univerfally illiterate: no other editions were made from fragments fo minutely broken, and fo fortuitoufly re-united; and in no other age was the art of printing in fuch unfkilful hands.
"With the causes of corruption that make the revifal of Shakspeare's dramatick pieces neceffary, may be enumerated the caufes of obfcurity, which may be partly imputed to his age, and partly to himself.
"When a writer outlives his contemporaries, and remains almoft the only unforgotten name of a diftant time, he is neceffarily obfcure. Every age has its modes of speech, and its cast of thought;
which, though eafily explained when there are many books to be compared with each other, become fometimes unintelligible, and always difficult, when there are no parallel paffages that may conduce to their illuftration. Shakspeare is the firft confiderable author of fublime or familiar dialogue in our language. Of the books which he read, and from which he formed his ftyle, fome perhaps have perished, and the reft are neglected. His imitations are therefore unnoted, his allufions are undiscovered, and many beauties, both of pleasantry and greatness, are loft with the objects to which they were united, as the figures vanish when the canvas has decayed.
"It is the great excellence of Shakspeare, that he drew his fcenes from nature, and from life. He copied the manners of the world then paffing before him, and has more allufions than other poets to the traditions and fuperftitions of the vulgar; which muft therefore be traced before he can be understood.
"He wrote at a time when our poetical language was yet unformed, when the meaning of our phrafes was yet in fluctuation, when words were adopted at pleasure from the neighbouring languages, and while the Saxon was ftill vifibly mingled in our diction. The reader is therefore embarraffed at once with dead and with foreign languages, with obfoleteness and innovation. In that age, as in all others, fashion produced phrafeology, which fucceeding fashion swept away before its meaning was generally known, or fufficiently authorized and in that age, above all others, experiments were made upon our language, which diftorted its combinations, and difturbed its uniformity.
"If Shakspeare has difficulties above other
writers, it is to be imputed to the nature of his work, which required the use of the common colloquial language, and confequently admitted many phrafes allufive, elliptical, and proverbial, fuch as we fpeak and hear every hour without obferving them; and of which, being now familiar, we do not fufpect that they can ever grow uncouth, or that, being now obvious, they can ever feem re
"Thefe are the principal caufes of the obfcurity of Shakspeare; to which may be added that fullnefs of idea, which might sometimes load his words with more fentiment than they could conveniently convey, and that rapidity of imagination which might hurry him to a fecond thought before he had fully explained the firft. But my opinion is, that very few of his lines were difficult to his audience, and that he used fuch expreffions as were then common, though the paucity of contemporary writers makes them now feem peculiar.
"Authors are often praised for improvement, or blamed for innovation, with very little juftice, by those who read few other books of the fame age. Addifon himself has been fo unfuccefsful in enumerating the words with which Milton has enriched our language, as perhaps not to have named one of which Milton was the author: and Bentley has yet more unhappily praifed him as the introducer of thofe elifions into English poetry, which had been ufed from the firft effays of verfification among us, and which Milton was indeed the last that practised.
"Another impediment, not the least vexatious to the commentator, is the exactnefs with which Shakspeare followed his author. Inftead of dilating his thoughts into generalities, and expreffing
incidents with poetical latitude, he often combines circumftances unneceffary to his main defign, only because he happened to find them together. Such paffages can be illuftrated only by him who has read the fame story in the very book which Shakspeare confulted.
"He that undertakes an edition of Shakspeare, has all these difficulties to encounter, and all these obftructions to remove.
"The corruptions of the text will be corrected by a careful collation of the oldeft copies, by which it is hoped that many restorations may yet be made; at least it will be neceffary to collect and note the variations as materials for future criticks, for it very often happens that a wrong reading has affinity to the right.
"In this part all the prefent editions are apparently and intentionally defective. The criticks did not fo much as with to facilitate the labour of thofe that followed them. The fame books are ftill to be compared; the work that has been done, is to be done again, and no fingle edition will fup. ply the reader with a text on which he can rely as the best copy of the works of Shakspeare.
"The edition now propofed will at least have this advantage over others. It will exhibit all the obfervable varieties of all the copies that can be found; that, if the reader is not fatisfied with the editor's determination, he may have the means of choofing better for himself.
"Where all the books are evidently vitiated, and collation can give no affistance, then begins the tafk of critical fagacity: and fome changes may well be admitted in a text never fettled by the anthor, and fo long expofed to caprice and ignoralce. But nothing fhall be impofed, as in the