« PreviousContinue »
THE PRESENT EDITION.
IF Mr. Malone had himself brought to a final completion the work upon which he had been for so many years assiduously employed, the name of that distinguished critick would have been a sufficient recommendation; and I should not have thought it necessary to attract the publick attention by any prefatory observations. But as this unfortunately was not the case, the reader may expect to be told, under what circumstances, and with what pretensions, the present editor appears before him, and what are the advantages which are supposed to be derived from the work he has undertaken to superintend. I will, as briefly as I can, supply this explanation.
The long and intimate friendship which subsisted between my father and Mr. Malone, introduced me to his acquaintance at a very early period of life; and in every succeeding portion of it I am bound to retain the most affectionate and grateful recollection of his uniform and uninterrupted kindness. When more advanced years had rendered me less unworthy of his society, I was permitted to enjoy it in the most unreserved and confidential manner, and was made a partaker of his literary views and
sentiments. It may well be imagined that in such an intercourse, the works of our immortal poet would be a topick of pretty frequent occurrence; and when he was finally preparing the result of his researches on that subject for the press, he availed himself of my assistance in the collection and arrangement of his scattered materials, which the gradual failure of his eyesight made every day more irksome and difficult to himself. From being in this way connected with his labours, he was accustomed sometimes, in a half-jocular tone, to say, that if any thing should prevent him from bringing them to a conclusion, that task must devolve upon me; but in his last illness he made this request to me in such terms, that I must have felt ashamed of myself for ever after, if I had hesitated for a moment in promising to execute his wishes to the utmost of my power. I am by no means disposed to deny that there are many who might have been more fitly selected for such a trust, from more extensive knowledge of the topicks which such a work must embrace, and a longer experience in antiquarian research; but in some respects I had opportunities which did not fall to any other person's share. From constant communication with him on the subject of his opinions, I was better able to ascertain his final judgment on many contested points which occur in the illustration of our author's text, which, without that guidance, might have been frequently doubtful. As truth was the only object which he ever had in view, he was accustomed to note down every passage which he met with in his reading, whether it tended to fortify his own opinion, or add strength to that of his opponents, reserving them for future selection. To have given them all, would have swelled these volumes to an immeasurable size; and to have drawn my own conclusion, would have been "making one man write by the judgment of another:" a liberty which Dr. Johnson has observed no pretence can justify. I may add, that it is not every one that could have deciphered his notes. When he was not hurried he wrote a
very clear and an elegant hand; but as his memory was far from tenacious, when any thing occurred which he thought might prove of use, he was in the habit of using the first scrap of paper which presented itself, and marking down his memoranda in a species of short hand, of which no one, who was not accustomed to his manner, could readily comprehend the meaning. I am far from pretending to say that, with all the advantages I enjoyed, I can hope to remedy the many imperfections which must unavoidably occur, when the mind which collected information can no longer superintend its disclosure; and in some of the most important parts of his investigations, a chasm must be left which I am unable to supply; yet still I can, with confidence, assert, that enough will remain to justify the publick expectation, and gratify the admirers of our greatest poet. Whatever may be the defects that shall be discovered in that portion of the work which has devolved upon me, which, I am aware, are many, and fear that more may be found, yet I trust to the candour of the reader, that he will keep in his recollection the circumstances which I have stated, and will not consider me as having thrust myself upon this employment from any over-weening confidence in my own abilities; but as having undertaken it as a task in compliance with the last wishes of an ever dear friend. While the merits of this edition are to be ascribed to Mr. Malone, I need scarcely add that I am not responsible for the erroneous opinions which it contains, if such there be. There were several points upon which I was so far from coinciding with my late friend, that they have frequently led us into friendly controversy. I have felt myself bound to exhibit his sentiments, whether I thought them right or wrong, and should not have deemed myself justified in imposing upon the reader, when I laid before him what purported to be the work of Mr. Malone, a critick of high and established fame, by substituting opinions of my own; nor have I, in general, added to these commentaries, too voluminous
already, by expressing my dissent; yet I confess that in the course of the long labours which I have had to undergo, I have not been able entirely to refrain from'occasionally appearing in my own person; but I trust that in this respect I shall not be found to have been'unreasonably or ostentatiously obtrusive. According to the plan laid down by Mr. Malone, I have inserted all the notes of his predecessors, although I am ready to admit that some of them might well have been spared. And here again I request it may be understood that my passing them over in silence, is not to be considered as acquiescing in their propriety. When, for instance, Mr. Ritson observes, that the reading of the quarto in Hamlet's celebrated soliloquy,
"And enterprizes of great pitch and moment,"
is better: I should not wish it to be thought that I adopt his explanation, "The allusion is to the pitching or throwing the bar a manly exercise used in country villages.” In a very few instances I have ventured to take the liberty of expunging a note where Shakspeare has, I think, most perversely and injuriously been charged with an irreverent allusion to Scripture. When Proteus, in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, says to Speed, among many quibbles upon the word sheep, " Nay, in that you are astray; 'twere best pound you!" what but the very cacoethes of commenting could lead any one to suppose, with Dr. Henley, that the poet had in view the general confession of sins in the liturgy? I am confident that it is from illustrations such as these that Shakspeare has laid under the heavy imputation of prophaneness, much more than from any offences of that kind of which he has really been guilty; but even if such had been his meaning, it is surely much better that it should be passed over than pointed out. There are some annotations reprehensible in another point of view, which I should gladly have omitted, but they have so long retained their places, that such an expurgatory liberty seemed to me to be going beyond the bounds
of my "limited service." I have, however, been scrupulous in not adding to their number.
But while I am ready to acknowledge with Mr. Steevens (who, by the way, at the very time when he made this remark, was adding more copiously to his notes, and indulging to a greater extent in collateral discussions, than any other critick), that among the defects of the later editions of Shakspeare, may be reckoned an exuberance of comment; yet I cannot but think that this charge has been advanced with too much exaggeration. We have been told by a distinguished contemporary, that passages are explained in which no man, woman, or child, could have found any difficulty. But if we look to the editions of Pope and Johnson, we shall frequently meet with mistakes which would be obvious to persons of the slightest acquirements in the present day. It will certainly not be maintained that the great mass of mankind are endowed with more natural perspicacity than the two illustrious individuals whom I have named; and hence their superior intelligence must be attributed to their having access to new sources of information in the collected labours of those who have since investigated the poet's works; and therefore, even if in a few instances, somewhat more information has been bestowed than was absolutely required, it is rather an ungrateful return, on the part of living readers, to speak with contempt of criticks, by whose assistance they have been elevated above those so much their superiors in natural size. It has also been objected, that illustrations of obsolete phrases and manners from Shakspeare's contemporaries, have been too lavishly brought forward; but it may admit of a question whether this has not been, in some degree, compensated by the effect which it has had no small share in producing on the general literature of the country, by drawing the attention of the publick, much more than was generally the case at any former period, to the neglected writers of an early age. The slightest reference which