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A FEW REMARKS, &c.
THERE are, perhaps, few subjects requiring greater caution in their consideration than conjectural criticisms on the texts of our early poets. The English language and its idioms have so imperceptibly altered during the last three centuries-that whilst the casual observer might imagine the language of Elizabeth's time was almost identical with that spoken at the present day even the student of our literature, unless he has paid special attention to that particular section of English philology which may be termed, for want of a more expressive term, the language of idiom, will be inclined to measure the phraseology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the standard of that now in common use, and so be involved in errors which, arising from a defective system, will of course be almost innumerable.
The first collective edition of Shakespeare's works appeared in 1623, seven years after the poet's death, and many of the plays contained in that work were undoubtedly printed from very authentic manuscripts,
probably, in many cases, from the author's own autograph. This noble collection was republished in nine years, the second edition appearing in 1632, with many corrections of the press, but with other variations in idiomatic passages, which, so far from being of any authority, prove that the editor of the second folio, whoever he was, altered the original text without the slightest reference to proper authority, in many cases adapting the idiom to the changes which had been made in English phraseology during even that brief period. Subsequent editors made further alterations, of course unauthorised by the original manuscripts, which probably perished soon after the production of the printed edition of 1623.
The nearer, therefore, we approach the fountainhead, in respect of antiquity, the more likely will be the probability of obtaining correct emendations of Shakespeare's text. A person living in 1623, with the first folio, just published, before him, even presuming him to have been only conversant with the colloquial phraseology of the age, and not having had the opportunity of witnessing the plays in representation, would certainly be more capable of correcting any palpable errors, than one who followed at a long interval, although the latter may have had superior advantages in other respects. And so on. As far, indeed, as one can judge on a question, where the means of comparison must necessarily be defective from the deficiency of material, it must be admitted
that a corrector of Shakespeare's text in 1623 would be of more authority than one commencing in 1632, and that the latter would, in his turn, be of more authority than Rowe or Theobald. This must nevertheless be stated with some reservation, and with special reference to the progress of the changes in English idiom; for I believe it to admit of proof that the English language underwent greater changes between 1600 and 1630 in that respect than have since taken place, even were we to include the two centuries and upwards which have now elapsed. In fact, for the last century and a half, however particular words may have varied in the degree of favour bestowed upon them, and although many new ones have been created, it may fairly be questioned whether the idiom of the language has undergone any sensible variation, certainly no important change, during that period.
We are in this position respecting our critical knowledge of the writings of Shakespeare. During the poet's lifetime, a portion of his plays and poems appeared in print, some being authentic copies, others palpably unauthorised by the author, and certainly forming a very inefficient collection of the works of the "greatest name in all literature." This deficiency was supplied, in some respects in a very admirable manner, by the collective edition to which we have just referred; but, to whatever cause we may attribute it, there undoubtedly remain many errors of importance
which must be corrected before we can possess a text of Shakespeare in the state in which it left the hands of the writer, unblotted in a single line, as we are informed by Ben Jonson, in his truly noble testimony to the intellectual and moral worth of our great dramatist. From what sources and by what authority shall these errors be rejected, and their places supplied by the pure words of Shakespeare? Alas! we have not even the resources accessible to the editors of the ancient writers of Greece and Rome. With one exception, which is more curious than valuable in a literary point of view, we have no contemporary manuscripts, no copies of the early quartos corrected by the author, and no observations on difficult passages by early critics, who would have been likely, from their knowledge of the language and literature of the period, to have cleared up many difficulties, and enlightened many obscurities.
At a late period in Shakespearian criticism, after nearly all the harvest had been supposed to have been garnered, Mr. Collier, to whom all students of our early poetry are under lasting obligations, produces a volume which, without partaking exactly of the character whence we might more reasonably have anticipated, if at all, a solution of some of these difficulties, cannot but be regarded as a truly important addition to the sources of information already accessible. Mr. Collier has discovered a copy of the edition of 1632, filled with early MS. corrections of the text by a person evidently well
acquainted with the author he attempts to correct, and worthy of the greatest consideration. We may safely accept these corrections as nearly contemporary with the work itself, for the great changes in the English idiom having been made before the year 1632, it is of little consequence whether we adopt 1632 or 1640 as the date at which they were written.
Presuming, then, for the sake of argument, these corrections were made in 1632, only sixteen years after the death of Shakespeare, we have at last something tangible, some early authority to which to refer when a passage in the text is inexplicable. Let us not, however, be too precipitate. It is well known to every student that in philology, as in science, there are systematic boundaries which, when confirmed by evidence and observation, must not be violated without the strongest proof of the cases being exceptional. Once let us satisfactorily ascertain the existence of a law, and cases of opposition to that law will have to be most seriously considered, and not admitted as true exceptions on slight testimony. Applying this canon to the corrections of Mr. Collier's folio, there are two circumstances under which no manuscript emendation of so late a date as 1632 will be admissible.
1. It will not be admissible in any case where good sense can be satisfactorily made of the passage as it stands in the original, even although the correction may appear to give greater force or harmony to the