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O man of sound sense ever writes unintelligibly, and no true poet ever makes inharmonious verses. Shakespeare was
both; and yet in his plays we meet with passages which are devoid of meaning, and lines without any poetic melody. The natural inference then is, that these defects are due not to him, but to transcribers and printers, and it becomes the duty of the critic to endeavour to discover and bring back the real words of the poet.
A critic thus engaged may be compared to an architect who undertakes the restoration of a mediæval edifice. In both cases, the first object should be to discover the style, manner, and design of the original artist, and the material which he employed. In the case of the critic, the material, of course, is the language of the poet; and the best rule seems to be that which I have followed, of introducing no word or phrase not to be found in the poet's own works, or, at least, in those of his contemporaries. Another rule is, that of letting well alone, not meddling with any word which gives a fair and tolerable sense, though a conjectural emendation may be hinted in a note.
As to the verse, a study of between two and three
hundred plays has convinced me that our old dramatists never used a line of less than five feet, except at the beginning or end of a speech; and that when shorter lines occur, it is always owing to mal-arrangement, or to the omission of one or more words which should, if possible, be supplied. Shakespeare, I may observe, extended this principle to the paragraphs of a speech, and the end of one and the beginning of another form, at times, a single line.
Silent alteration should be avoided as much as possible; and in this I have rarely transgressed, except in the case of transposition, where it was nearly unavoidable from want of space. Additions should therefore be printed in a different character, and alterations be indicated.
To illustrate this, at page 19 of this volume we read,
"This is the fairy-land-oh, spite of spites!
For here we talk with goblins, elves,5 and sprites." Now, in the folio, the second line is, "We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites." The words in italics are therefore an addition for the sake of metre and sense; and elves is a substitution for owls, which makes no sense, but which will be found under the numeral at the end of the play. In this way the reader can always revert to the original text. I may here observe that the letter K, affixed to words at the end, indicates that the correction in the text is mine, though I may have been sometimes anticipated.
A simple reflection, which it is strange seems never to have occurred to any preceding critic, has been to me a great source of emendation. It is this. The MSS. of these plays, lying probably in the propertyroom of the theatre, some for more than twenty years, must naturally have suffered from damp, dust, fric
tion, &c., and as the parts most exposed were those near the edges, the beginnings and ends of the lines were the most likely to be injured. The reader of these volumes will therefore, I think, observe with surprise in what a number of places the sense or the metre has been restored, by the simple addition of a word or two at the beginning or end of a line; and he will hardly be able to refuse his assent to the truth of the hypothesis.
In this edition, then, I think I may venture to promise the reader, who is acquainted with the language of Shakespeare, that he will meet with no difficulty as to the sense, except what arises from the Poet's own want of perspicuity-his great defect; and with not a single unmetrical line, provided he knows how to read dramatic verse. For that purpose he should observe,
1. That some words were accented at that time differently from what they are now, as aspect, obdúrate, árchbishop.
2. That when accents came, as it were, in collision, the former was thrown back, as "O just but sévere law!"" précise villain," "the divine Desdemona."
3. Mistress, country, children, witness, &c., were sometimes pronounced as trisyllables.
4. When in a monosyllable or final syllable a long vowel or a diphthong was followed by r, it was frequently pronounced as a dissyllable, as fire, hour, here, hear, &c.; these I have in general given with a
diæresis, as fire, hour, here, heür.
The same was
the case with arm, worm, hurl, and some others. Terminations in ion, ient, and other double vowels, were frequently pronounced dissyllabically.
I have given the same attention to the punctuation as in my editions of Milton. Here also, as there, I use the (...) and the (-); the former to denote a break in the sense, caused by anacoluthon, aposiopesis, or interruption; the latter a pause in the sense, also a parenthesis, and an Aside, chiefly at the beginning of a speech.
Bracketed passages are those which are in the quartos, but not in the folio. Those in Love's Labour's Lost are such as the Poet seems to have cancelled.
I have also frequently restored the Poet's orthography of proper names. Surely it is absurd to give Bretagne, for instance, for Britaine, when our own word is Brittany. Errors in the names of places, &c., when they were certainly the Poet's own, I have generally left untouched.
The corrections I have made will be explained, and the principles by which I have been guided, shown in a volume named "The Shakespeare Expositor," on which I have been engaged for some years.