« PreviousContinue »
through the blind cloifters of monks and canons, ever came out in half fo maimed and mangled a condition. But for a full account of his diforders, I refer the reader to the excellent difcourfe which follows," and turn myself to confider the remedies that have been applied to them.
Shakspeare's works, when they escaped the players, did not fall into much better hands when they came amongst printers and bookfellers; who, to fay the truth, had at firft but fmall encouragement for putting them into a better condition. The ftubborn nonfenfe, with which he was incrufted, occafioned his lying long neglected amongst the common lumber of the ftage. And when that refiftlefs fplendor, which now fhoots all around him, had, by degrees, broke through the shell of those impurities, his dazzled admirers became as fuddenly infenfible to the extraneous fcurf that still ftuck upon him, as they had been before to the native beauties that lay under it. So that, as then he was thought not to deferve a cure, he was now fuppofed not to need any.
His growing eminence, however, required that he should be used with ceremony; and he foon had his appointment of an editor in form. But the bookfeller, whofe dealing was with wits, having learnt of them, I know not what filly maxim, that none but a poet fhould prefume to meddle with a poet, engaged the ingenious Mr. Rowe to undertake this employment. A wit indeed he was; but fo utterly unacquainted with the whole bufiness of criticism, that he did not even collate or confult the first editions of the work he undertook to publifh; but contented himself with giving us a
7 Mr. Pope's Preface. REED.
meagre account of the author's life, interlarded with fome common-place fcraps from his writings. The truth is, Shakspeare's condition was yet but ill underftood. The nonfenfe, now, by confent, received for his own, was held in a kind of reverence for its age and author; and thus it continued till another great poet broke the charm, by fhowing us, that the higher we went, the less of it was still to be found.
For the proprietors, not difcouraged by their first unfuccefsful effort, in due time, made a second; and, though they ftill ftuck to their poets, with infinitely more fuccefs in their choice of Mr. Pope, who, by the mere force of an uncommon genius, without any particular ftudy or profeffion of this art, difcharged the great parts of it fo well, as to make his edition the beft foundation for all further improvements. He feparated the genuine from the fpurious plays; and, with equal judgment, though not always with the fame fuccefs, attempted to clear the genuine plays from the interpolated fcenes: he then confulted the old editions; and, by a careful collation of them, rectified the faulty, and fupplied the imperfect reading, in a great number of places and laftly, in an admirable preface, hath drawn a general, but very lively sketch of Shakspeare's poetick character; and, in the corrected text, marked out thofe peculiar ftrokes of genius which were most proper to fupport and illuftrate that character. Thus far Mr. Pope. And And although much more was to be done before Shakspeare could be restored to himself (fuch as amending the corrupted text where the printed books afford no affiftance; explaining his licentious phrafeology and obfcure allufions; and illuftrating the beauties of his
poetry); yet, with great modefty and prudence, our illuftrious editor left this to the critick by profeffion.
But nothing will give the common reader a better idea of the value of Mr. Pope's edition, than the two attempts which have been fince made by Mr. Theobald and Sir Thomas Hanmer in oppofition to it; who, although they concerned themfelves only in the firft of these three parts of criticifm, the reftoring the text, (without any conception of the fecond, or venturing even to touch upon the third,) yet fucceeded fo very ill in it, that they left their author in ten times a worse condition than they found him. But, as it was my ill fortune to have fome accidental connections with these two gentlemen, it will be incumbent on me to be a little more particular concerning them.
The one was recommended to me as a poor man; the other as a poor critick: and to each of them, at different times, I communicated a great number of obfervations, which they managed, as they faw fit, to the relief of their feveral diftreffes. Mr. Theobald, who wanted money, I allowed him to print what I gave him for his own advantage; and he allowed himself in the liberty of taking one part for his own, and fequeftering another for the benefit, as I fuppofed, of fome future edition. But, as to the Oxford editor, who wanted nothing but what he might very well be without, the reputation of a critick, I could not fo eafily forgive him for trafficking with my papers, without my knowledge; and, when that project failed, for employing a number of my conjectures in his edition against my express defire not to have that honour done unto me.
Mr. Theobald was naturally turned to industry
and labour. What he read he could transcribe: but, as what he thought, if ever he did think, he could but ill exprefs, fo he read on: and by that means got a character of learning, without rifquing, to every observer, the imputation of wanting a better talent. By a punctilious collation of the old books, he corrected what was manifeftly wrong in the latter editions, by what was manifeftly right in the earlier. And this is his real merit; and the whole of it. For where the phrafe was very obfolete or licentious in the common books, or only flightly corrupted in the other, he wanted fufficient knowledge of the progress and various ftages of the English tongue, as well as acquaintance with the peculiarity of Shakspeare's language, to understand what was right; nor had he either common judgment to fee, or critical fagacity to amend, what was manifeftly faulty. Hence he generally exerts his conjectural talent in the wrong place: he tampers with what is found in the common books; and, in the old ones, omits all notice of variations, the fenfe of which he did not understand.
How the Oxford editor came to think himself qualified for this office, from which his whole courfe of life had been fo remote, is ftill more difficult to conceive. For whatever parts he might have either of genius or erudition, he was abfolutely ignorant of the art of criticism, as well as of the poetry of that time, and the language of his author. And fo far from a thought of examining the first editions, that he even neglected to compare Mr. Pope's, from which he printed his own, with Mr. Theobald's; whereby he loft the advantage of many fine lines, which the other had recovered from the old quartos. Where he trufts to his own fagacity, in what affects the fenfe, his
conjectures are generally abfurd and extravagant, and violating every rule of criticism. Though, in this rage of correcting, he was not abfolutely deftitute of all art. For, having a number of my conjectures before him, he took as many of them as he faw fit, to work upon; and by changing them to fomething, he thought, fynonymous or fimilar, he made them his own; and fo became a critick at a cheap expence. But how well he hath fucceeded in this, as likewise in his conjectures, which are properly his own, will be feen in the courfe of my remarks; though, as he hath declined to give the reasons for his interpolations, he hath not afforded me fo fair a hold of him as Mr. Theobald hath done, who was lefs cautious. But his principal object was to reform his author's numbers; and this, which he hath done, on every occafion, by the insertion or omiffion of a fet of harmlefs unconcerning expletives, makes up the grofs body of his innocent corrections. And fo, in fpite of that extreme negligence in numbers, which diftinguishes the first dramatick writers, he hath tricked up the old bard, from head to foot, in all the finical exactness of a modern measurer of fyllables.
For the reft, all the corrections, which these two editors have made on any reafonable foundation, are here admitted into the text; and carefully af figned to their respective authors: a piece of juftice which the Oxford editor never did; and which the other was not always fcrupulous in obferving towards me. To conclude with them in a word, they feparately poffeffed thofe two qualities which, more than any other, have contributed to bring the art of criticism into difrepute, dulnefs of apprehenfion, and extravagance of conjecture.
I am now to give fome account of the present