Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

* 54 PREFACE TO SHAKSPEARE.

effeminacy. He endeavours indeed commonly to strike by the force and vigor of his dialogue, but he never executes his purpose better, than when he tries to sooth by softness. Yet it must be at last confessed, that as we owe every thing to him, he owes something to us; that, if much of his praise is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewise given by custom and veneration. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loath or despise. If we endured without praising, respect for the father of our drama might excuse us; but I have seen, in the book of some modern critic, a collection of anomalies, which shew 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 conclusion. I am indeed far from thinking, that his works were wrought to his own ideas of perfection; *When they were such as would satisfy the audience, they satisfied the writer. It is seldom that authors, though more studious of fame than Shaksheare, rise much above the standard of their own age ; to add a little to what is best will always be sufficient for present praise, and those who find themselves exalted into fame, are willing to credit their encomiasts, and to spare the labour of contending with themselves. It does not appear, that Shaksheare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon

future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end ; he solicited no addition of honour from the reader. He therefore made no scruple to repeat the same jests in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots by the same 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 disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the deprivations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state. Of the plays which bear the name of Shaksheare in the late editions, the greater part were not published 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, clandestine or professed, the negligence and unskilfulness has by the late revisers been sufficiently shewn. The faults of all are indeed numerous and gross, and have not only corrupted many passages perhaps beyond recovery, but have brought others into

suspicion, which are only obscured by obsolete phraseology, or by the writer's unskilfulness and affectation. To alter is more easy than to explain, and temerity is a more common quality than diligence. Those who saw 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 sat quietly down to disentangle his intricacies, and clear his obscurities; but now we tear what we cannot lose, and eject what we happen not to understand. The faults are more than could have happened without the concurrence of many causes. The style of Shaksheare was in itself ungrammatical, perplexed, and obscure ; his works were transcribed for the players by those who may be supposed to have seldom understood them ; they were transmitted by copiers equally unskilful, who still multiplied errors; they were perhaps or sometimes mutilated by the actors, for the sake of shortening the speeches; and were at last printed without correction of the press.

In this state they remained, not as Dr. Warburton

supposes, because they were unregarded, but because the editor's art was not yet applied to modern languages, and our ancestors were accustomed to so much negligence of English printers, that they could very patiently endure it. At last an edition was undertaken by Rowe ; not because a poet was to be published by a poet, for Rowe seems to have thought very little on correction or explanation ; but that our author’s works might appear like those of his fraternity, with the appendages of a life and recommendatory preface. Rowe has been clamorously blamed for not performing what he did not under

PREFACE TO SHAKSPEARE. 167

take ; and it is time that justice bedone him, by confessing, 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 successors have received without acknowledgment, and which, if they had produced them, would have filled pages and pages with censures of the stupidity by which the faults were committed, with displays of the absurdities which they involved, with ostentatious exposition of the new reading, and self congratulations on the happiness of discovering. As of the other editors I have preserved the prefaces, I have likewise borrowed the author’s life from Rowe, though not written with much elegance or spirit ; it relates however what is now to be known, and therefore deserves to pass through all succeeding publications. The nation had been for many years content enough with Mr. Rowe's performance, when Mr. Posie made them acquainted with the true state of Shaksheare's text, shewed that it was extremely corrupt, and gave reason to hope that there were means of reforming it. He collated the old copies, which none had thought to examine before, and restored many lines to their integrity; but, by a very compendious criticism, he rejected whatever he disliked, and thought more of amputation than of cure. I know not why he is commended by Dr. Warburton for distinguishing the genuine from the spurious plays. In this choice he exerted no judgment of his own; the plays which he received, were given by Hemings and Condel, the first editors; and those which he rejected,

i 68 PREFACE TO SHAKSPEARE.

though, according to the licentiousness of the press in those times, they were printed during Shaksheare'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 later printers, This is a work which Posie seems to have thought unworthy of his abilities, being not able to suppress 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 necessary; but an emendatory critic would ill discharge his duty, without qualities very different from dulness. In perusing a corrupted piece, he must have before him all possibilities of meaning, with all possibilities of expression. Such must be his comprehension of thought, and such his copiousness of language. Out of many readings possible, he must be able to select that which best suits with the state, opinions, and modes of language prevailing in every age, and with his author’s particular cast of thought, and turn of expression. Such must be his knowledge, and such his taste. Conjectural criticism demands more than humanity possesses, and he that exercises it with most praise, has very frequent need of indulgence. Let us now be told no more of the dull duty of an editor. Confidence is the common consequence of success. They whose excellence of any kind has been loudly celebrated, are ready to conclude, that their powers are universal. Pohe’s edition fell below his own expectations, and he was so much offended when he was found to have left anything for others to do, that he passed

« AnteriorContinuar »