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The present Selection comprises Hamlet, MacBETH, RICHARD III., King John, CORIOLANUS, and Julius CÆSAR.
In proposing to adapt certain Plays from Shakspeare, for the Use of Young Persons, I could not imagine, considering the importance now given to English Literature as an element of Education, that I was meditating a superfluous or uncalled-for performance. For, notwithstanding that there are several SHAKSPEARES' in existence, designed for Families and Young People, there is not one, I believe, conducted precisely upon the plan of the present Publication, or that is eligible, in an economical point of view, for the extended Use to which this Work adventures its claim.
To put forth a SHAKSPBARE,' with the view here professed, at once respectable and useful, two conditions seemed indispensably necessary. First, that I should guard the INVIOLABILITY of my Author in the utmost degree consistent with the nature of the work, so that it should be .SHAKSPEARE' that was submitted to the reader, and not a vague, and distorted image of him; and, secondly, that the Plays should be accompanied with Notes, explanatory of such points as might create difficulties in the minds of Young Persons.
The first of these conditions I have so scrupulously observed, that, with the reservation of a few passages forced upon me by the very nature of my work, and some trifling retrenchments,* I may claim to give SHAKSPEARE as he is.' To cut him up piece-meal, as has been done by some, under pretence of giving · BEAUTIES,' did not seem at all adapted to the taste of the present age, or in reason calculated to give a just notion of the genius of the Author. So little enticing was such a procedure, that I have considered it objectionable only in the second degree to make any alteration whatever not imperatively demanded, in a work designed for Youth.
Accordingly, I have adhered in the following Plays, with these deductions, to the Acts, Scenes, Characters, Phraseology, &c. &c. as exhibited in the Author's own works. I have thus disturbed in the least possible degree the historical notion of SHAKSPEARE-a point of the utmost importance to a just conception of Himself, and his Times, and not to be compromised by any one possessing the least pretensions to a genuine admiration of his Author.
How far the other condition, requiring that the Plays should be accompanied with Notes, explanatory of difficulties, has been fulfilled, may not perhaps admit of an equally definite answer.
* Chiefly in RICHARD III.
† His real power is not shown in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house for sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.-DR. JOHNSON. Preface to Shakspeare.
It will be seen that I have limited myself to the merest Elementary Criticism, and that the Notes serve very little other purpose than to indicate the meaning of the Author, where it was involved in any obscurity. This the labours of others have enabled me to do in most instances, and where these have come to no satisfactory conclusion, and the case seemed hopeless, I have chosen to leave the difficulty as I found it, rather than encumber the page with superfluous criticism. Many difficulties I believe do not remain unexplained, and—this object accomplished - I have considered my obligations fulfilled; as to descant upon all the beauties so profusely scattered over these pages would have been wholly unsuited to the plan and limits of this Work, if it would not also have been a presumptuous undertaking. These two conditions fulfilled—and the
simplicity of them precluded the chance of making many faults—I trust I may claim to have produced a Volume eminently calculated to answer the purpose of a ClassBook in the Higher Schools for either Sex, and, generally, to serve as an introduction to a more enlarged acquaintance with our immortal countryman. To eulogize SHAKSPEARE is not my design, but I may allow myself to imagine the feelings of delight with which these pages will be perused by those for whose use they are intended. I say, to imagine the feelings, for it would not be easy to describe them, so unlike are they to what we feel when perusing any other Author. The beauties of SHAKSPEARE are so compounded, so little of an elementary character, if I may use such expressions, that the feelings with which they are associated are not easily analyzed. Not designing an extended criticism on SHAKSPEARE, I can only refer for further illustration of my meaning to the different kinds of excellence of our AUTHOR and CHAUCER, a point which has been so beautifully illustrated by HAZLITT in his review of TROILUS and CRESSIDA.*
The great secret of SAAKSPEARE's power has been well conceived to consist in his marvellous insight into the human heart, and the natural and unforced language he has given it to express itself withal, in almost every situation in which the human imagination can conceive it to be placed. This is his characteristic and predominant excellence. The wit, the eloquence, the fancy, the thoughts that breathe and words that burn,' are supernumerary to this, although they help, in a prodigious degree, to give effect to the one great charm.
On this head DR. Johnson thus expresses himself: “ Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that should form his expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. SHAKSPEARE has no heroes ; his scenes are occupied only by men who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion : even where the agency is supernatural, the dialogue is level with life. Other writers disguise the most
* See Characters of Shakspeare's Plays, by HAZLITT.