« PreviousContinue »
an honour to human nature. In 1765, Dr. Johnson's edition, which had long been impatiently expected, was given to the publick. His admirable preface, (perhaps the finest compofition in our language,) his happy, and in general juft, characters of thefe plays, his refutation of the falfe gloffes of Theobald and Warburton, and his numerous explications of involved and difficult paffages, are too well known, to be here enlarged upon; and therefore I fhall only add, that his vigorous and comprehenfive understanding threw more light on his author than all his predeceffors had done.
In one obfervation, however, concerning our poet, I do not entirely concur with him. "It is not (he remarks) very grateful to confider how little the fucceffion of editors has added to this author's power of pleafing. He was read, admired, studied and imitated, while he was yet deformed with all the improprieties which ignorance and neglect could accumulate upon him."
He certainly was read, admired, ftudied, and imitated, at the period mentioned; but furely not in the fame degree as at prefent. The fucceffion of editors has effected this; it has made him underftood; it has made him popular; it has fhown every one who is capable of reading, how much fuperior he is not only to Jonfon and Fletcher, whom the bad tafte of the last age from the time of the Restoration to the end of the century fet above him, but to all the dramatick poets of antiquity:
Jam monte potitus,
"Ridet anhelantem dura ad veftigia turbam."
Every author who pleases must surely please
more as he is more understood, and there can be no doubt that Shakspeare is now infinitely better understood than he was in the laft century. To fay nothing of the people at large, it is clear that Dryden himself, though a great admirer of our poet, and D'Avenant, though he wrote for the stage in the year 1627, did not always understand him.' The very books which are neceffary to our
"The tongue in general is fo much refined fince Shakspeare's time, that many of his words, and more of his phrafes, are Scarce intelligible." Preface to Dryden's Troilus and Creffida. The various changes made by Dryden in particular paffages in that play, and by him and D'Avenant in The Tempest, prove decifively that they frequently did not understand our poet's language.
In his defence of the Epilogue to The Conquest of Granada, Dryden arraigns Ben Jonfon for ufing the perfonal, instead of the neutral, pronoun, and unfeard for unafraid:
Though heaven should speak with all his wrath at once, "We should stand upright, and unfear'd."
"His (fays he) is ill fyntax with heaven, and by unfear'd he means unafraid; words of a quite contrary fignification.-He perpetually uses ports for gates, which is an affected error in him, to introduce Latin by the lofs of the English idiom."
Now his for its, however ill the fyntax may be, was the common language of the time; and to fear, in the fenfe of to terrify, is found not only in all the poets, but in every dictionary of that age. With refpect to ports, Shakspeare, who will not be fufpected of affecting Latinifms, frequently employs that word in the fame fenfe as Jonson has done, and as probably the whole kingdom did; for the word is ftill fo ufed in Scotland.
D'Avenant's alteration of Macbeth, and Meafure for Measure, furnish many proofs of the fame kind. In The Law againft Lovers, which he formed on Much Ado about Nothing, and Meafure for Measure, are these lines:
nor do I think,
"The prince has true difcretion who affects it."
The paffage imitated is in Measure for Measure:
"Nor do I think the man of fafe discretion,
If our poet's language had been well understood, the epithet fafe would not have been rejected. See Othello:
author's illuftration, were of fo little account in their time, that what now we can fcarce procure at any price, was then the furniture of the nursery or stall.2 In fifty years after our poet's death, Dryden mentions that he was then become "a
My blood begins my fafer guides to rule;
"And paffion, having my beft judgment collied," &c. So alfo, Edgar, in King Lear :
The fafer fenfe will ne'er accommodate
"His mafter thus."
2 The price of books at different periods may ferve in fome measure to ascertain the taste and particular study of the age. At the fale of Dr. Francis Bernard's library in 1698, the following books were fold at the annexed prices :
Gower de Confeffione Amantis.
Now fold for two guineas.
Caxton's Recueyll of the Hiftories of Troy, 1502.
Chronicle of England.
Holinfhed's Chronicle, 1587.
This book is now frequently fold for ten guineas.
Puttenham's Art of English Poefie.
This book is now usually fold for a guinea.
Powell's Hiftory of Wales.
Painter's fecond tome of the Palace of Pleasure.
The two volumes of Painter's Palace of Pleasure are now
ufually fold for three guineas.
Metamorphofis of Ajax, by Sir John Harrington. 0 0 4
little obfolete." In the beginning of the prefent century Lord Shaftesbury complains of his " rude unpolished file, and his ANTIQUATED phrafe and wit;" and not long afterwards Gildon informs us that he had been rejected from fome modern collections of poetry on account of his obfolete language. Whence could thefe reprefentations have proceeded, but because our poet, not being diligently studied, not being compared with the contemporary writers, was not understood? If he had been "read, admired, ftudied, and imitated," in the fame degree as he is now, the enthufiafm of fome one or other of his admirers in the laft age would have induced him to make fome enquiries concerning the history of his theatrical career, and the anecdotes of his private life. But no fuch perfon was found; no anxiety in the publick fought out any particulars concerning him after the Restoration, (if we except the few which were collected by Mr. Aubrey,) though at that time the hiftory of his life muft have been known to many; for his fifter Joan Hart, who muft have known much of his early years, did not die till 1646 his favourite daughter, Mrs. Hall, lived till 1649; and his fecond daughter, Judith, was living at Stratford-upon-Avon in the beginning of the year 1662. His grand-daughter, Lady Barnard, did not die till 1670. Mr. Thomas Combe, to whom Shakspeare bequeathed his fword, furvived our poet above forty years, having died at Stratford in 1657. His elder brother, William Combe, lived till 1667. Sir Richard Bishop, who was born in 1585, lived at Bridgetown near Stratford till 1672; and his fon, Sir William Bifhop, who was born in 1626, died there in 1700. From all thefe perfons without doubt many circumstances relative to
Shakspeare might have been obtained; but that was an age as deficient in literary curiofity as in taste.
It is remarkable that in a century after our poet's death, five editions only of his plays were publifhed; which probably confifted of not more than three thousand copies. During the fame period three editions of the plays of Fletcher, and four of thofe of Jonfon had appeared. On the other hand, from the year 1716 to the present time, that is, in feventy-four years, but two editions of the former writer, and one of the latter, have been iffued from the prefs; while above thirty thousand copies of Shakspeare have been dispersed through England. That nearly as many editions of the works of Jonfon as of Shakspeare fhould have been demanded in the last century, will not appear furprifing, when we recollect what Dryden has related foon after the Reftoration: that "others were then generally preferred before him."4 By others Jonfon
3 Notwithstanding our high admiration of Shakspeare, we are yet without a splendid edition of his works, with the illuftrations which the united efforts of various commentators have contributed; while in other countries the most brilliant decorations have been lavished on their diftinguished poets. The editions of Pope and Hanmer, may, with almoft as much propriety, be called their works, as thofe of Shakspeare; and therefore can have no claim to be admitted into any elegant library. Nor will the promised edition, with engravings, undertaken by Mr. Alderman Boydell, remedy this defect, for it is not to be accompanied with notes. At fome future, and no very diftant time, I mean to furnish the publick with an elegant edition in quarto, (without engravings,) in which the text of the prefent edition shall be followed, with the illuftrations fubjoined in the fame page.
* In the year 1642, whether from fome capricious viciffitude in the publick tafte, or from a general inattention to the drama, we find Shirley complaining that few came to fee our author's performances: