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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 perifhed, and the reft are neglected. His imitations are therefore unnoted, his allufions are undiscovered, and many beauties, both of pleafantry and greatnefs, 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 inuft 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 embarrassed at once with dead and with foreign languages, with obfoleteness and innovation. In that age, as in all others, fashion produced phrafeology, which fuc. ceeding 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 combipations, and disturbed 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 phrases 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 seem re
"These are the principal caufes of the obfcurity of Shakspeare; to which may be added that fullness 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. Addison 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 praised 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 Shakspeare followed his author. Inftead of dila ting 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 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 oldest copies, by which it is hoped that many restorations may yet be made; at leaft 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 wifh 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 affiftance, then begins the tafk 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 ignorance. But nothing fhall be impofed, as in the
Oxford edition, without notice of the alteration; nor fhall 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 inany alterations may be propofed as eligible, very few will be obtruded as certain. In a language fo ungrammatical as the English, and fo licentious as that of Shakspeare, 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 fhould 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 the 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 beflowed 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 inquiry after his author's meaning, when once he had notes
fufficient to embellifh 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 Shakspeare with those 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 quoted. When the diction is entangled, it will be cleared by a paraphrafe or interpretation. When the fenfe is broken by the fuppreffion of part of the fentiment in pleafantry or paffion, the connection will be fupplied. When any forgotten cuftom is hinted, care will be taken to retrieve and explain it. The meaning affigned to doubtful words will be fupported by the authorities of other writers, or by parallel paffages of Shakspeare himfelf.
"The obfervation of faults and beauties is one of the duties of an annotator, which fome of Shakfpeare's editors have attempted, and fome have neglected. For this part of his talk, and for this only, was Mr. Pope eminently and indifputably qualified: nor has Dr. Warburton followed him with lefs diligence or lefs fuccefs. But I never obferved that mankind was much delighted or improved by their afterifks, commas, or double commas; of which the only effect is, that they preclude the pleasure of judging for ourselves;