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He knew what was a good acting play as well as what was good poetry ; and he knew better than any of his dramatic tinkers, not only what incidents, what action, and what dialogue and soliloquy, but what succession of events was necessary to the proper delineation of his characters. When shall we have Shakespeare edited and put upon the stage with a full recognition of his surpassing genius as a dramatist ?
This digression is but seeming; for it is essential to the purpose of these pages, to show how Shakespeare suffered for nearly a century and a half, more wrong from the incapacity, vitiated taste, and conceit of 'ingenious' commentators and adapters, than he had previously endured from the unexampled carelessness of the printers—grievously as they had abused him. But perhaps we should rather pity than contemn those misguided people ; for they erred in ignorance. Had there not gone with their ignorance so overweening a conceit, we might get through their fine-spun absurdities and pompous platitudes with an unruffled temper. But as it is, they try us sorely.
The appearance of George Steevens and Edmund Malone in the field of Shakesperian literature, produced greater and more permanent changes in the text than had been achieved by any of their predecessors, save Theobald. They were not co-workers, but opponents. Steevens reprinted the quartos, and published notes and comments upon the text, which, in 1773, were embodied in an edition in ten octavo volumes. Steevens is one of the most acute and accomplished of Shakespeare's commentators ; but rarely have abilities and acquirements been put to more unfruitful use. To show his ability to suggest 'ingenious' readings, he wantonly rejected the obvious significance of the text, and perverted the author's meaning, or destroyed the integrity of his work. He was witty, and not only launched his shafts at his fellow-commentators, but turned them against his author, and, most intolerable of all, attempted to substitute his own smartness for Shakespeare's humor. He had an accurate-mechanically accurate-ear, and ruthlessly mutilated, or patched up Shakespeare's lines to a uniform standard of ten syllables.
But, in Malone, he found an adversary entirely too powerful for him. Malone published in 1780, two volumes, containing notes and comments upon the text as it was left by Johnson and Steevens, and other miscellaneous Shakesperian matter; and in 1790 appeared his edition of Shakespeare, “ collated verbatim with the most authentic copies, and revised; with the corrections and illustrations of various commentators; to which are added, an essay on the chronological order of his plays; an essay relative to Shakespeare and Jonson ; a dissertation on the three parts of King Henry VI. ; an historical account of the English stage ; and notes.” This title gives a just idea of the wide field of Shakesperiau inquiry, covered by the labors of Malone. Though not highly accomplished, he was a scholar, a man of good judgment, and, for his day, of good poetical taste. tient, indefatigably laborious, and modest—that is, as modest as it was possible for a Shakesperian critic and editor of the last century to be. Above all, he was honestly devoted to his task ; he sought the glory of his author, not his own—except in so far as the latter was involved in the former. We of to-day can see that he committed many and great blunders ; but he saved the text of Shakespeare from wide and ruthless outrage, and by painful and well-directed investigation into the literature and manners contemporary with his author, cast new light upon his pages. To Edmund Malone the readers of Shakespeare during the last decade of the last century, and the first quarter of this, were indebted for the preservation of his works in a condition nearly approaching their
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original integrity. Malone's edition of Shakespeare, with Prolegomena, supplementary matter, and the principal notes of all the editors and commentators, published by Boswell -the son of Johnson's biographer—in twenty-one octavo volumes, in 1821, and known as the Variorum edition, is a monument to the industry and judgment of Malone ; whose labors appear to the greatest advantage when placed beside those of his predecessors and opponents. It is, besides, a rich storehouse of Shakesperian literature; though, like most storehouses, with its treasures it preserves heaps of dross and rubbish.
To add to the editions previously mentioned, that of Alexander Chalmers, published in 1823, the text of which does not materially differ from that of Malone ; that of the Rev. William Harness, published in 1825, which contained a few valuable corrections of the text; and that of Samuel Weller Singer, published at Chiswick, in 1826, the text of which was formed with great care, though not unexceptionable judgment, and with too little reverence for the authority of the first folio, and which contained some very plausible conjectural emendations, is to bring the history of the text, as far as editions of note are concerned, down to those which are strictly of the present day.
Among the commentators on Shakespeare, who did not become his editors, the most noteworthy for the purposes of the present sketch are-Benjamin Heath, who published in 1765, “A Revisal of Shakespear’s text; wherein the alterations introduced into it, by the more modern editors and critics, are particularly considered;" Thomas Tyrwhitt, the learned editor of Chaucer, whose “Observations and conjectures on some passages of Shakespeare ” were published in 1766 ; Joseph Ritson, the eccentric literary antiquary, whose book of verbal criticisms on the text appeared in
1783; John Monck Mason, who published comments on Steevens' edition in 1785; E. H. Seymour, whose two volumes of “Remarks, critical, conjectural, and explanatory (including also the notes of Lord Chedworth], upon the plays of Shakspeare," appeared in 1805 ; Francis Douce, who issued his “Illustrations of Shakspeare and of Ancient Manners, &c.” in 1809 ; Andrew Becket, who published two volumes, entitled “Shakspeare's himself again, or the language of the poet asserted ; and Zachary Jackson, whose “Shakspeare's Genius Justified ; being restorations and illustrations of seven hundred passages in Shakspeare,” was given to the world in 1819.*
Eminent among these for various learning, just discrimination, and a becoming deference to the author whose works he came to illustrate, is Mr. Douce. He is among the commentators what Malone is among the editors; save that his volumes exhibit a wider range of knowledge, and a more delicate and sympathetic apprehension of the peculiar beauties of Shakespeare than Malone possessed. The critical student of Shakespeare can place upon his shelves no book of comments more valuable than the two volumes of Francis Douce. He is, in fact, the only one of those who may be called the old commentators, whose works will bear reprinting. The original edition of his "Illustrations” having become very scarce, a reprint was issued in one volume, in 1839.
Heath, Tyrwhitt, Ritson, and Mason, all produced an appreciable and beneficial effect upon the text,--an effect which is permanent and undeniable. As was the case
This must not be considered as an intended catalogue of the commenlators of past generations. Those only have been singled from the throng whose merits or demerits make them fit illustrations for the present historical sketch. Some of the ablest Shakesperian scholars of the present day will also be hereafter passed over with but an incidental mention, for similar reasons
with the labors of the large majority of the commentators · and editors, the mass of their suggestions have been rejected by the good sense of their successors ; but they all treated their subject like scholars and men of sense, and each made a few conjectural emendations, which will always remain in the text. It is not because of an undervaluation of their abilities that we turn from them to Seymour, Becket, and Jackson.
Seymour was a pedagogue, not a critic. His book contains more systematic, narrow-minded carping at and quibbling with Shakespeare, and less sympathetic comprehension of his thought than can be found in all his other commentators, Becket and Jackson, perhaps, excepted The knowledge that a verb should agree with its nominative case, and that ten syllables make a heroic line, forms the staple of the qualifications which he brought to his task. Speaking of the labors of his predecessors,—not very scrupulous or conservative, as the reader has already seen,-he says, complainingly :
“ They have all been satisfied with delivering the text of each drama as they found it, with preference occasionally to the readings of different impressions; and if the choice they made be deemed judicious, so much of their undertaking has been performed : but with regard to those anomalies in which the measure, construction, and sense have been vitiated, they appear to have been strangely negligent; and sometimes strangely mistaken ; the want of meaning can never be excused; the disregard of syntax is no less reprehensible, and every poetic ear must be offended by metrical dissonance."— Vol. I., p. 2.
He practised what he preached. Thus, in the following lines from Hamlet
'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,