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MR. COLLIER'S FOLIO OF 1632.
Demens! qui nimbos et non imitabile fulmen,
VIRGIL Æneid, Lib. vi. 590.
N the month of January, 1852, the attention of the lite
rary world was excited by the announcement that a copy of the second folio impression of the plays of Shakespeare, filled with marginal corrections in manuscript, which appeared to be nearly as old as the volume, had fallen into the hands of Mr. J. P. Collier. When it was known that Mr. Collier declared that a great number of these manuscript corrections were of inestimable value, and that there was reason to believe that they had been made by some person who had access to better authorities than those possessed by the player-editors of the first folio, or by any
of their successors, the interest in the matter became very
and, amid some utterance of doubt and wonder, much satisfaction was universally expressed that so valuable a waif had fallen into the hands of one, the antecedents in whose editorial career gave warrant that he would put it to such careful and judicious use. Verbal criticism, even upon the works of Shakespeare, has generally not much interest for the mass of readers; and most especially would this seem to be true of the American people; but the republication in this country of Mr. Collier's “ Notes and Emendations to the Text of Shakespeare's Plays, from Early Manuscript Corrections, &c.," has been a successful undertaking ; and the subsequent issue, in numbers, of “ The Plays of Shakespeare,” with a text formed by the same editor, upon the same manuscript corrections, although not equally remunerative, has not failed to attract an undue share of public attention.
But, although it is not surprising that, under the circumstances, these publications should have been received with a certain favor among general readers, it is even less surprising that the thoughtful and devoted students of Shakespeare, those familiar with the language of his time, as well as his own peculiar inflections of thought and expression, and who regard his works with a reverence equal to their admiration,-it is less surprising that these should have been much disappointed at the appearance of the first volume, and justly troubled and offended upon the issue of the second. Let me not be misunderstood. The discovery of this corrected folio will prove to be of material service to the text of Shakespeare. Some of its emendations of that text, as it was given to the world by the printer of the first folio, are very plausible. But these are few indeed in comparison with those which are an outrage upon the great dramatist and his devotees, the resultants of united stolidity and presumption, and not to be received into the text on any pretence, or even worthy to be perpetuated in notes. It was bad enough for Mr. Collier to publish and support more than a thousand readings of this latter kind ; but for him to embody them boldly in the text, and publish a volume containing them, as “The Plays of Shakespeare," seems, indeed, as if he wished to furnish an example of the truth of the Shakesperian apothegm, that “bad begins, and worse remains behind.”
Mr. Collier's folio either has authority or it has not. If it have authority, we must submit implicitly to all its dicta ; if it have not, we must examine closely every correction, and judge it by its reasonableness and probability. Let us make the changes, if there be undeniable authority for them : and if they are exactly such as the text unquestionably demands, let us make them without authority.
The deference due to Mr. Collier's folio, is easily to be determined. Probably, most of my readers are already familiar with its recent history. At all events, it is only necessary to consider, at this time, the fact, that it was found four years ago, by Mr. Collier, in the shop of the late Mr. Rodd, Bookseller, of London. There are no means of discovering by whom the corrections were made ; and Mr. Collier has not been able to trace the possession of the volume beyond the latter part of the last century. The corrections appear in various colored inks, as Mr. Collier admits, and are, as we shall presently see, in the writing of various hands. There is, then, not even a traditional authority attaching to those corrections. They are made, not on a copy of the first folio, but on one of the second impression, which, as we have seen, corrects but few of the typographical errors of the first, and adds many to the remainder which it perpetuates. The corrections were certainly made long after the original actors of the plays had passed away, and some, if not all of the changes quite as surely not until after the Restoration, when the theatres had been closed for years, and the traditions of the stage had perished. Of this last fact they themselves furnish indisputable proof. There is no testimony whatever, then, to show that they are of any more value than if they were made yesterday by Mr. Smith.
But Mr. Collier, failing any testimony as to the authority of his folio, bases its claim to deference on the character of its emendations, and the ancient handwriting in which those emendations are made. Let us examine this claim. Suppose this case. In the first act of Macbeth occurs the following well-known passage, which, though pages of explanatory and emendatory comment have been written upon it, needs no exegesis, and has been made confusing only by the labors of the note-mongers. Its vivid but disjointed imagery, its profound but broken reflections, are apprehended at once by the sympathetic reader of Shakespeare ;-who, be it remembered, completely apprehends much in his author, of which he cannot give a detailed analysis :
"If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
Suppose Mr. Collier's corrected folio had given this passage as follows ;—the variations from the present received reading being printed in italic letter :
"If it were done l—'Twere well it were done quickly.
But then when 'tis done ! – If the assassinator
[Read the intervening lines without alteration.]
And new-born pity, naked like a babe
If for such an emendation Mr. Collier had claimed “a higher authority” than that used by the editors of the first folio, what a shout of scorn and derision would have gone up from the whole world of letters ! And yet this preposterous reading of the passage is seriously proposed, and sustained through four octavo pages, by a commentator, Becket, who also proposes some of the very corrections found in Mr. Collier's folio of 1632. Had this reading of the passage in Macbeth been found in that folio, the weight of no name, the plausibility of no reasoning could have persuaded two sane men that the MS. corrections were of the least authority. The admissibility, then, of those corrections, in the utter absence of any evidence which gives