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copied for the actors, and multiplied by tranfcript after transcript, vitiated by the blunders of the penman, or changed by the affectation of the player; perhaps enlarged to introduce a jeft, or mutilated to fhorten the representation; and printed at last without the concurrence of the author, without the confent of the proprietor, from compilations made by chance or by ftealth out of the feparate parts written for the theatre: and thus thruft into the world furreptitiously and haftily, they fuffered another depravation from the ignorance and negligence of the printers, as every man who knows the ftate of the prefs in that age will readily con
"It is not eafy for invention to bring together fo many causes concurring to vitiate a text. No other author ever gave up his works to fortune and time with fo little care; no books could be left in hands fo likely to injure them, as plays frequently acted, yet continued in manufcript: no other transcribers were likely to be fo little qualified for their tafk, as thofe who copied for the ftage, at a time when the lower ranks of the people were univerfally illiterate: no other editions were made from fragments fo minutely broken, and fo fortuitoufly re-united; and in no other age was the art of printing in fuch unfkilful hands.
"With the causes of corruption that make the revifal of Shakspeare's dramatick pieces neceffary, may be enumerated the causes 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 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 perished, and the reft are neglected. His imitations are therefore unnoted, his allufions are undiscovered, and many beauties, both of pleasantry and greatnefs, are loft with the objects to which they were united, as the figures vanifh 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 must 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 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 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 combinations, and difturbed its uniformity.
"If Shakspeare has difficulties above other
writers, it is to be imputed to the nature of his work, which required the ufe of the common colloquial language, and confequently admitted many phrafes 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 feem re
"Thefe are the principal caufes of the obfcurity of Shakspeare; to which may be added that fullnefs 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 ufed 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 justice, by thofe who read few other books of the fame age. Addifon himfelf 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 laft that practifed.
"Another impediment, not the leaft vexatious to the commentator, is the exactnefs with which Shakspeare followed his author. 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 story 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 least 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 those 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 affistance, 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 many 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 criticifmn 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 miftaken for corruptions, and paffages rejected as unintelligible, which a narrow mind happens not to understand.
"All the former criticks have been so 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 bestowed 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 studies; and Mr. Theobald, if fame be juft 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