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A FELLOW OF THE SOCIETY OF ANTIQUARIES, AND AN ASSISTANT KEEPER
OF THE PUBLIC RECORDS.
IN TWO VOLUMES.
The West yet glimmers with some streaks of day.—MACBETH, Act in. Sc. 3.
VOLUME THE FIRST.
PRINTED AND PUBLISHED BY J. B. NICHOLS AND SON,
25, PARLIAMENT STREET.
THERE is no English author on whom so much editorial labour has been bestowed as on Shakespeare. The reason is plain. No author has deserved it better or requires it more. We may perhaps be a little extravagant in our admiration of him. It seems to many as if it were a duty they owed to their country to assert his unimpeachable excellence. This may be to form too high an estimate of him ; but, when every deduction is made on account of his unfiled expressions, his occasional offences against decorum, dramatic or moral, and other faults, which every one who would have his admiration sympathized in by the reflecting part of the community must allow to exist, he will still appear high in the first rank of those of all ages and nations who have instructed and delighted mankind, and whose high thoughts embodied in harmonious numbers are to go down to the latest posterity, a bright and beautiful inheritance which the Sons of Song have bequeathed to us.
As he eminently deserves that no pains shall be spared to make his sense and meaning fully apprehended, so does he also most eminently require that there should step in between the books in which his contemporaries exhibited to the world what he had written, and those who are to peruse them,
persons who under the name of Annotators, Commentators, Critics, Editors, make these books not their pleasurable companions only, but the subject of their close and devoted study. Strange as the assertion may appear, there is scarcely an ancient manuscript of any reputation of any ancient author which does not present a purer text than do the printed books, whether in quarto or in folio, which contain the only early and what may be called the authoritative texts of his writings. There never were books more carelessly superintended through the press; perhaps in the whole annals of English typography there is no record of any book of any extent and any reputation having been dismissed from the press with less care and attention than the first folio. But the typographer ought not perhaps to bear the whole blame. The manuscripts placed in the printer's hands must have been ill prepared for him. A second edition of the folio appeared nine years after the first, while still his contemporaries were alive. This contains some valuable corrections, but it has marks of haste and carelessness peculiar to itself.
The effect of this is that we have received nothing from his own time on which we can absolutely rely as being the words in their purity as they flowed from his pen. Not but that in the main what we have is what he wrote, but if concerning any particular passage a reasonable doubt is raised whether we have it as he left it, the doubt deserves to be considered, and though high deference is due to the early copies, and especially when we find quartos and both folios concurring in the same reading, yet so strong are the proofs of the care
lessness with which the impressions were made, that they can never be taken as evidence that is perfectly conclusive.
No very satisfactory account has ever been given of the mode in which the contemporary editions of the writings of Shakespeare were prepared, so as to explain why the text is so grossly corrupted, and why his folios are so much less to be trusted than the folios of Spenser and Jonson. One thing is pretty clear, that there are hardly any portions of the printed dramatic writings of Shakespeare which can be supposed to have been superintended through the press by himself. Indeed the folios were not printed till many years after his death.
Here then we see the principal and very sufficient cause of the demand for editorial labour which these writings make, rather than those of any other great English author.
For the first and most important duty of an editor is to secure a just text, which is only saying that he is to set before us that which the Poet wrote, and that only; to take care that there is not palmed upon us something as Shakespeare's which he would have disdained to write, or something which, though not absolutely unintelligible and bad, is yet not so good as that which he had actually written. An editor ought to regard himself as the protector of our poetical inheritance; the person to see that it is kept in the well-ordered state in which the founders left it; he is like the guardian of a large family of minors.
The judicious editor will found himself on the original copies, and when they vary he will, to the best of his judg