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Shakspeare might have been obtained; but that was an age as deficient in literary curiosity as in
It is remarkable that in a century after our poet's death, five editions only of his plays were published; which probably consisted of not more than three thousand copies. During the same period three editions of the plays of Fletcher, and four of those of Jonson had appeared. On the other hand, from the year 1716 to the present time, that is, in seventy-four years, but two editions of the former writer, and one of the latter, have been issued from the press; while above thirty thousand copies of Shakspeare have been dispersed through England. That nearly as many editions of the works of Jonson as of Shakspeare should have been demanded in the last century, will not appear surprising, when we recollect what Dryden has related soon after the Restoration: that "others were then generally preferred before him." By others Jonson
"Notwithstanding our high admiration of Shakspeare, we are yet without a splendid edition of his works, with the illustrations which the united efforts of various commentators have contributed; while in other countries the most brilliant decorations have been lavished on their distinguished poets. The editions of Pope and Hanmer, may, with almost as much propriety, be called their works, as those of Shakspeare; and therefore can have no claim to be admitted into any elegant library. Nor will the promised edition, with engravings, undertaken by Mr. Alderman Boydell, remedy this defect, for it is not to be accompanied with notes. At some future, and no very distant time, I mean to furnish the publick with an elegant edition in quarto, (without engravings,) in which the text of the present edition shall be followed, with the illustrations subjoined in the same page.
* In the year 1642, whether from some capricious vicissitude in the publick taste, or from a general inattention to the drama, we find Shirley complaining that few came to see our author's performances:
and Fletcher were meant.
To attempt to show to the readers of the present day the absurdity of
"What audience we have: what company
"To Shakspeare comes? whose mirth did once beguile
Prologue to The Sisters.
"Shakspeare to thee was dull, whose best jest lies
"Old fashion'd wit, which walk'd from town to town,
Verses on Fletcher, by William Cartwright,
After the Restoration, on the revival of the theatres, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were esteemed so much superior to those of our author, that we are told by Dryden, "two of their pieces were acted through the year, for one of Shakspeare's." If his testimony needed any corroboration, the following verses would afford it:
"In our old plays, the humour, love, and passion,
Prologue to Shirley's Love Tricks, 1667.
"At every shop, while Shakspeare's lofty stile
"Crown's Mask, bound up with Settle's choicest labours,
SATIRE, published in 1680.
against old as well as new to rage,
"Is the peculiar frenzy of this age.
"Shakspeare must down, and you must praise no more, "Soft Desdemona, nor the jealous Moor:
such a preference, would be an insult to their understandings. When we endeavour to trace any thing like a ground for this preposterous taste, we are told of Fletcher's ease, and Jonson's learning. Of how little use his learning was to him, an ingenious writer of our own time has shown with that vigour and animation for which he was distinguished. "Jonson, in the serious drama, is as much an imitator, as Shakspeare is an original. He was very learned, as Sampson was very strong, to his own hurt. Blind to the nature of tragedy, he pulled down all antiquity on his head, and buried himself under it. We see nothing of Jonson, nor indeed of his admired (but also murdered) ancients; for what shone in the historian is a cloud on the poet, and Catiline might have been a good play, if Sallust had never written.
Who knows whether Shakspeare might not have thought less, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of Jonson's learning, as Enceladus under Ætna? His mighty genius, indeed, through the most mountainous oppression would have breathed
"Shakspeare, whose fruitful genius, happy wit,
Prologue by Sir Charles Sedley, to the Wary Widow,
To the honour of Margaret Duchess of Newcastle be it remembered, that however fantastick in other respects, she had taste enough to be fully sensible of our poet's merit, and was one of the first who after the Restoration published a very high eulogy on him. See her Sociable Letters, folio, 1664, p. 244.
out some of his inextinguishable fire; yet possibly he might not have risen up into that giant, that much more than common man, at which we now gaze with amazement and delight. Perhaps he was as learned as his dramatick province required; for whatever other learning he wanted, he was master of two books unknown to many of the profoundly read, though books which the last conflagration alone can destroy; the book of nature, and that of man."5
To this and the other encomiums on our great poet which will be found in the following pages, I shall not attempt to make any addition. He has justly observed, that
"To guard a title that was rich before,
"To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Let me, however, be permitted to remark, that beside all his other transcendent merits, he was the great refiner and polisher of our language. His compound epithets, his bold metaphors, the energy of his expressions, the harmony of his numbers, all these render the language of Shakspeare one of his principal beauties. Unfortunately none of his letters, or other prose compositions, not in a dramatick form, have reached posterity; but if any of them ever shall be discovered, they will, I am confident, exhibit the same perspicuity,
* Conjectures on Original Composition, by Dr Edward Young.
the same cadence, the same elegance and vigour, which we find in his plays. "Words and phrases," says Dryden, "must of necessity receive a change in succeeding ages; but it is almost a miracle, that much of his language remains so pure; and that he who began dramatick poetry amongst us, untaught by any, and, as Ben Jonson tells us, without learning, should by the force of his own genius perform so much, that in a manner he has left no praise for any who come after him."
In these prefatory observations my principal object was, to ascertain the true state and respective value of the ancient copies, and to mark out the course which has been pursued in the edition now offered to the publick. It only remains, that I should return my very sincere acknowledgements to those gentlemen, to whose good offices I have been indebted in the progress of my work. My thanks are particularly due to Francis Ingram, of Ribbisford in Worcestershire, Esq. for the very valuable Office-book of Sir Henry Herbert, and several other curious papers, which formerly belonged to that gentleman; to Penn Asheton Curzon, Esq. for the use of the very rare copy of King Richard III. printed in 1597; to the Master, and the Rev. Mr. Smith, librarian, of Dulwich College, for the Manuscripts relative to one of our ancient theatres, which they obligingly transmitted to me; to John Kipling, Esq. keeper of the rolls in Chancery, who in the most liberal manner directed every search to be made in the Chapel of the Rolls that I should require, with a view to illustrate the history of our poet's life; and to Mr. Richard Clark, registrar of the diocese of Worcester, who with equal liberality, at my request, made many searches in his office for