« PreviousContinue »
made for Dr. Warburton on this subject, by some of his friends, is singular. "He well knew," it has been said, "that much the greater part of his notes do not throw any light on the poet of whose works he undertook the revision, and that he frequently imputed to Shakspeare a meaning of which he never thought; but the editor's great object was to display his own learning, not to illustrate his author, and this end he obtained; for in spite of all the clamour against him, his work added to his reputation as a scholar."-Be it so then; but let none of his admirers ever dare to unite his name with that of Shakspeare; and let us at least be allowed to wonder, that the learned editor should have had so little respect for the greatest poet that has appeared since the days of Homer, as to use a commentary on his works merely as 66 a stalking-horse, under the presentation of which he might shoot his wit."
At length the task of revising these plays was undertaken by one, whose extraordinary powers of mind, as they rendered him the admiration of his contemporaries, will transmit his name to posterity as the brightest ornament of the eighteenth century; and will transmit it without competition, if we except a great orator, philosopher, and statesman,* now living, whose talents and virtues are 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 composition in our language) his happy, and in general just, characters of these plays, his refutation of the false glosses of Theobald and Warburton, and his numerous explications of involved and difficult passages, are too well known, to be here enlarged upon; and therefore I shall only add, that his vigorous and comprehensive understanding threw more light on his author than all his predecessors had done.
In one observation, however, concerning our poet, I do not entirely concur with him. "It is not (he remarks) very grateful to consider how little the succession of editors has added to this author's power of pleasing. 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, studied, and imitated, at the period mentioned; but surely not in the same degree as at present. The succession of editors has effected this; it has made him understood; it has made him popular; it has shewn every one who is capable of reading, how much superior he is not only to Jonson and Fletcher, whom the bad taste of the last age from the time of the Restoration to the end of the century set above him, but to all the dramatick poets of antiquity:
Jam monte potitus,
"Ridet anhelantem dura ad vestigia turbam." Every author who pleases must surely please more as he is
*The Right Honourable Edmund Burke.
more understood, and there can be no doubt that Shakspeare is now infinitely better understood than he was in the last century. To say 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 necessary to our author's illustration, were of so little account in their time, that what now we can scarce procure at any price, was then the fur
*"The tongue in general is so much refined since Shakspeare's time, that many of his words, and more of his phrases, are scarce intelligible." Preface to Dryden's Troilus and Cressida. The various changes made by Dryden in particular passages in that play, and by him and D'Avenant in The Tempest, prove decisively that they frequently did not understand our poet's language.
In his defence of the Epilogue to The Conquest of Granada, Dryden arraigns Ben Jonson for using the personal, instead of the neutral, pronoun, and unfeard, for unafraid:
66 Though heaven should speak with all his wrath at once, "We should stand upright, and unfear'd.”
"His (says he) is ill syntax with heaven, and by unfear'd he means unafraid; words of a quite contrary signification.-He perpetually uses ports for gates, which is an affected error in him, to introduce Latin by the loss of the English idiom."
Now his for its, however ill the syntax may be, was the common language of the time; and to fear, in the sense of to terrify, is found not only in all the poets, but in every dictionary of that age. With respect to ports, Shakspeare, who will not be suspected of affecting Latinisms, frequently employs that word in the same sense as Jonson has done, and as probably the whole kingdom did; for the word is still so used in Scotland.
D'Avenant's alteration of Macbeth, and Measure for Measure, furnish many proofs of the same kind. In The Law against Lovers, which he formed on Much Ado about Nothing, and Measure · for Measure, are these lines:
nor do I think,
"The prince has true discretion who affects it." The passage imitated is in Measure for Measure ::
"Nor do I think the man of safe discretion,
If our poet's language had been well understood, the epithet
safe would not have been rejected. See Othello:
'My blood begins my safer guides to rule;
"And passion, having my best judgment collied," &c.
So also, Edgar, in King Lear:
"The safer sense will ne'er accommodate
niture of the nursery or stall.* In fifty years after our poet's death, Dryden mentions that he was then become "a little obsolete." In the beginning of the present century Lord Shaftesbury complains of his "rude unpolished stile, and his ANTIQUATED phrase and wit," and not long afterwards Gildon informs us that he had been rejected from some modern collections of poetry on account of his obsolete language. Whence could these representations 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, studied, and imitated," in the same degree as he is now, the enthusiasm of some one or other of his admirers in the last age would have induced him to make some enquiries concerning the history of his theatrical career, and the anecdotes of his private life. But no such person was found; no anxiety in the publick sought out any particulars concerning him after the Restoration, (if we except the few which were collected by Mr. Aubrey) though at that time the history of his life must have been known to many; for his sister Joan Hart, who must have known much of his early years, did not die till 1646: his favourite daughter, Mrs. Hall, lived till 1649; and his second 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 sword, survived our poet above forty years, having died at
The price of books at different periods may serve in some measure to ascertain the taste and particular study of the age. At the sale of Dr. Francis Bernard's library in 1698, the following books were sold at the annexed prices:
Gower de Confessione Amantis.
Now sold for two guineas.
Caxton's Recueyll of the Histories of Troy, 1502.
Holinshed's Chronicle, 1587.
This book is now frequently sold for ten guineas.
QUARTO. Turberville on hawking and hunting. Copley's Wits, Fits, and Fancies. Puttenham's Art of English Poesie.
This book is now usually sold for a guinea.
Powell's History of Wales.
The two volumes of Painter's Palace of Pleasure are now
0 2 6
030 040 0 6 4
0 6 10
1 10 6
0 1 5
0 0 4
0 0 4
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 son Sir William Bishop, who was born in 1626, died there in 1700. From all these persons without doubt many circumstances relative to Shakspeare might have been obtained; but that was an age as deficient in literary curiosity as in taste.
It is remarkable that in a century after our poet's death, five editions only of his plays were published; which probably consisted of not more than three thousand copies. During the same period three editions of the plays of Fletcher, and four of those of Jonson had appeared. On the other hand, from the year 1716 to the present time, that is, in seventy-four years, but two editions of the former writer, and one of the latter, have been issued from the press; while above thirty thousand copies of Shakspeare have been dispersed through England.* That nearly as many editions of the works of Jonson as of Shakspeare should have been demanded in the last century, will not appear surprising, when we recollect what Dryden has related soon after the Restoration: that "others were then generally preferred before him." By others Jonson and Fletcher were meant. To attempt
*Notwithstanding our high admiration of Shakspeare, we are yet without a splendid edition of his works, with the illustrations which the united efforts of various commentators have contributed; while in other countries the most brilliant decorations have been lavished on their distinguished poets. The editions of Pope and Hanmer, may, with almost as much propriety, be called their works, as those 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 some future, and no very distant, time, I mean to furnish the publick with an elegant edition in quarto, (without engravings) in which the text of the present edition shall be followed, with the illustrations subjoined in the same page.
In the year 1642, whether from some capricious vicissitude in the publick taste, or from a general inattention to the drama, we find Shirley complaining that few came to see our author's performances:
"What audience we have: what company
"To Shakspeare comes? whose mirth did once beguile
to shew to the readers of the present day the absurdity of such a preference, would be an insult to their understandings. When we endeavour to trace any thing like a ground for this preposterous taste, we are told of Fletcher's ease, and Jonson's learning. Of how little use his learning was to him, an ingenious writer of our own time has shewn with that vigour and animation for which he was distinguished. "Jonson, in the serious
"Old fashion'd wit, which walk'd from town to town,
Verses on Fletcher, by William Cartwright, 1647. After the Restoration, on the revival of the theatres, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were esteemed so much superior to those of our author, that we are told by Dryden, "two of their pieces were acted through the year, for one of Shakspeare's." If his testimony needed any corroboration, the following verses would afford it:
"In our old plays, the humour, love, and passion,
Prologue to Shirley's Love Tricks, 1667.
SATIRE, published in 1680.
against old as well as new to rage,
"Is the peculiar frenzy of this age.
"Shakspeare must down, and you must praise no more,
"Soft Desdemona, nor the jealous Moor:
Shakspeare, whose fruitful genius, happy wit,
"The pride of nature, and the shame of schools,
Prologue by Sir Charles Sedley, to the Wary Widow,
To the honour of Margaret Duchess of Newcastle be it remembered, that however fantastick in other respects, she had taste enough to be fully sensible of our poet's merit, and was one of the first who after the Restoration published a very high eulogy on him. See her Sociable Letters, folio, 1664, p. 244.