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With the caufes of corruption that make the revifal of Shakespeare'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 fpeech, and its caft of thought; which, though easily 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. Shakefore is the first 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 undifcovered, and many beauties, both of pleasantry and greatneis, are loft with the objects to which they were united, as the figures vanith when the canvas has decayed.
It is the great exccllence of shakespeare, that he drew his fcenes from nature, and from life. He copied the manners of the world then paffing before hun, and has n.ore allufions than other poets to the traditions and fuperftition of the vulgar; which must therefore be traced before he can be underfood.
He wrote at a time when our poetical language was yet unformed, when the meaning of our phrafes was yet in Euctuation, 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 fwept away before its meaning was generally known, or fufficiently authorised: and in that age, above all others, experiments were made upon our language, which diftorted its combinations, and disturbed its uniformity.
If Shakespeare 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 phrases allufive, elliptical, and proverbial, fuch as we speak 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 seem remote.
These are the principal caufes of the obfcurity of Shakespeare; to which might be added the fulness of idea, which might fometimes 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 first. 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 seem peculiar.
Authors are often praised for improvement, or blamed for innovation, with very little justice, by thofe
thofe 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 practifed.
Another impediment, not the leaft vexatious to the commentator, is the exactnefs with which ShakeSpeare followed his authors. Inftead of dilating his thoughts into generalities, and expreffing incidents with poetical latitude, he often combines circumstances 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 ftory in the very book which Shakespeare confulted.
He that undertakes an edition of Shakespeare, has all thefe 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 variation 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 so much as wish to facilitate the labour of thofe that followed them. The fame books are ftill to be compared;
compared; the work that has been done, is to be done again; and no fingle edition will fupply the reader with a text on which he can rely as the best copy of the works of Shakespeare.
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 choosing better for himself.
Where all the books are evidently vitiated, and collation can give no affiftance, then begins the task of critical fagacity; and fome changes may well be admitted in a text never fettled by the author, and fo long expofed to caprice and ignoBut nothing fhall be impofed, as in the Oxford edition, without notice of the alteration; nor shall conjecture be wantonly or unneceffarily indulged.
It has been long found, that very fpecious emendations do not equally ftrike all minds with conviction, nor even the fame mind at different times; and therefore, though perhaps many alterations may be proposed as eligible, very few will be obtruded as certain. In a language fo ungrammatical as the English, and fo licentious as that of Shakespeare, emendatory criticism is always hazardous; nor can it be allowed to any man who is not particularly verfed in the writings of that age, and particularly ftudious of his author's diction. There is danger left peculiarities should be mistaken for corruptions, and paffages rejected as unintelligible, which a narrow mind happens not to understand.
All the former criticks have been fo much employed on the correction of the text, that they have not fufficiently attended to the elucidation of paffages obfcured by accident or time. The editor will endeavour to read the books which the author read, to trace his knowledge to its fource, and compare his copies with their originals. If in this part of his defign he hopes to attain any degree of fuperiority to his predeceffors, it must be confidered, that he has the advantage of their labours; that part of the work being already done, more care is naturally beftowed on the other part; and that, to declare the truth, Mr. Rowe and Mr. Pope were very ignorant of the ancient English literature; Dr. Warburton was detained by more important ftudies; and Mr. Theobald, if fame be just to his memory, confidered learning only as an inftrument of gain, and made no further enquiry after his author's meaning, when once he had notes fufficient to em bellish his page with the expected decorations.
With regard to obfolete or peculiar diction, the editor may perhaps claim fome degree of confidence, having had more motives to confider the whole extent of our language than any other man from its first formation. He hopes that, by comparing the works of Shakespeare with thofe of writers who lived at the fame time, immediately preceded, or immediately followed him, he fhall be able to afcertain his ambiguities, difentangle his intricacies, and recover the meaning of words now loft in the darknefs of antiquity.
When therefore any obfcurity arifes from an allufion to fome other book, the paffage will be quot