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“ Commend me,” (says Bentley in his Dissertation on the Epistles of Euripides) “ to an argument that like a flail there's no defence against it.”
It will not be necessary to fatigue the reader by a distinct examination of all the anomalies to be found in Shakspeare's text, and which, as such, Mr. Steevens would have wished to exclude or alter. If some of the most prominent are selected, and shown to be supported by sufficient authority, the reader will be enabled, by analogy, to form the same conclusion as to the rest, which, if they were in every instance to be made the subject of a separate examination, would make it necessary to write-not an essay, but a book. A specimen will establish the necessity of a faithful adherence to the old copies, and will teach even an editor to be cautious, lest he himself should fall into those very errors which Mr. Steevens has observed would render it dangerous to employ substitutes in any part of his work; “ who, instead of pointing out real mistakes, would have supposed the existence of such as were merely founded on their own want of acquaintance with the peculiarities of ancient spelling and language*.” Before, however, I dismiss the subject, there are a few more of these peculiarities, of which I must take some notice. It has been remarked by Johnson, that Shakspeare is very uncertain in the use of his particles. He is so: but this uncertainty did not attach to him more than to any other writer of his age, or, indeed, for a long period after. A bare list of prepositions and conjunctions, which were used in a different manner in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, from that which would be deemed correct at the present day, would occupy a considerable space; but a specimen of them, compared with some instances of a later date, will be found at the end of this essay. The syntax of Shakspeare, if it had been
* Mr. Steevens's Advertisement, p. 276.
preserved throughout, as it appears in the old copies, would have appeared harsh to a modern reader; and one error has been corrected, wherever it occurs, by all the editors, even by Mr. Malone himself, except where the metre, and more especially the rhyme, demanded its preservation. I mean when a plural nominative case is followed by a verb in the singular number. The writings of our great poet have been so long in ore hominum with these alterations, that an editor who should restore his language to its pristine form, would have little chance of meeting with gratitude for his pains in restoring the old mumpsimus. But lest Shakspeare should be accused of an unwarrantable licence, where, in compliance with the versification, it has been retained, the reader should keep in mind that such was the usage not only of careless writers at that period, but that it is to be found in the compositions of learned men, even when they were employed on subjects which particularly called for a careful attention to their diction. Wilson, one of the best of our early criticks, has the following passage in his Art of Rhetorick, which will exemplify what I have here advanced :
• Though më kepe their goodes neuer so close, and locke them vp neuer so fast, yet often times, either by some mischaunce of fyre, or other thinge, they are lost, or els desperate Dickes borowes nowe and then againste the owners wille, all that euer he hathe.”
Mr. Malone, upon other occasions, has not thought it fit to deviate from the language of the ancient copies ; and perhaps, if he had been charged with inconsistency, it might not have been so easy to furnish an answer; but when it is contended by Mr. Steevens, that the inaccuracies which these passages contain are not imputable to the author, but are the blunders of Heminge and Condell, it can be satisfactorily shown that the observation is unfounded.
In Julius Cæsar, the following line occurs. See vol. xii.
“ The posture of your blows are yet unknown.” Mr. Malone, after noticing the grammatical inaccuracy, yet contends that it ought to be retained, because the error was certainly Shakspeare's. Mr. Steevens attributes it to the transcriber or printer, and therefore is of opinion that it ought to be corrected. In a note on Love's Labour's Lost, several instances of a similar inaccuracy are pointed out in our author, and one is cited from Marlow. But here again we shall find that Shakspeare has not more offended against propriety of speech, than writers of a later period. The following instances are collected by Dr. Lowth : “ It is requisite that the language of
“ an heroic poem, should be both perspicuous and sublime. In proportion as either of these qualities are wanting, the language is imperfect.” Addison's Spect. No. 285. “ 'Tis observable that every one of the Letters bear date after his banishment; and contain a complete narrative of all his story afterwards.” Bentley's Dissert. on Themistocles's Epistles, sect. ii.”
I do not mean, by what I have said, that I think any one to blame for taking due care of their health.” Addison's Spect. No. 25. But even after Dr. Lowth had called our attention to these instances of careless phrascology, we find Mr. Thomas Warton guilty of the same mistake. In a note on the Second Part of Henry IV. vol. xvii. p. 132, n. 6, he thus expresses himself: " But Beaumont and Fletcher's play, though founded upon it, contains many satirical strokes against Heywood's comedy, the force of which are entirely lost to those who have not seen that comedy.” In all these instances a plural idea has taken possession of the mind, and the recollection of the grammatical rule is effaced by its influence. Other violations of syntax, such as the use of a nominative case where it
should have been an accusative, and an accusative where it should have been a nominative, are of such perpetual occurrence in English writers throughout, as, for example, ‘Let you and I do such a thing,' that it is scarcely necessary to vindicate Shakspeare's practice in this respect, either by contemporary or later authority. Dr. Lowth has shown this error in many of our most distinguished modern authors, namely, Swift, Bolingbroke, Atterbury, Congreve, Prior, and Bentley. The strongest instance he has produced, is from Hobbes's History of Civil Wars : “ If the King give us leave, you or I may as lawfully preach as them that do.”
But after all that can be said with respect to the irregularities which are to be found in Shakspeare, we should recollect how small a proportion they bear to the great bulk of his works which are not only free from every objection on this score, but fully justify Dr. Johnson's remark, that among his other excellencies he deserves to be studied as one of the original masters of our language. The popularity which attends his name, far beyond that of any other poet which his country has produced, is to be attributed not only to the power of his sentiment, but to the vigour of his expression ; not only to “his thoughts that breathe,” but to his “ words that burn.”
In exhibiting his text, therefore, purified from modern innovation, no injury will be done to his fame: while a knowledge of our language, its progress, its merits, and its defects, will be promoted by its faithful display in the writings of one who will ever be its greatest boast.
The liberties which have been taken by Mr.Steevens in re-modelling the diction of Shakspeare, and reducing it to a modern standard, though sufficiently daring, are trivial, compared with those in which he has indulged on the subject of versification. Not a single play has escaped from being “ carved like an
apple tart,” with “snip and nip, and cut and slit, and slish and slash;” so that the poet of Elizabeth's reign, if he were to behold the new garb in which his editor has clothed him, might well exclaim with his own Petruchio,
Why, what o' devil's name call'st thou this?” It is impossible, by the utmost stretch of candour, to believe that one who was so thoroughly versed in old English literature, could have been unconscious how unfounded his positions were, or that he was misleading the reader. Mr. Gifford has justly, as well as humorously, designated him the Puck of Commentators. His own character he felt was so well established, that he might venture upon paradoxes which he would not have hazarded at the commencement of his critical career; and we may readily conceive how much his fondness for ridicule was gratified, while, with seeming complacency, he was adopting the most unwarrantable alterations of his author's text, “ advice of Mr. Ritson." Yet since his death his system has been completely burlesqued by a gentleman of the name of Seymour, who has thus described the employment of a critick on Shakspeare: “ In the twilight obscurity of this vast region, where vagrant opinion will often be allured by vanity, that ignis fatuus, to tread the perilous wilds of conjecture.” This ignis fatuus has misled Mr. Seymour into such fantastical attempts at emendation, that I question whether Mr. Steevens would have marched through Coventry with him. The change which the opinions of Mr. Steevens had undergone, is thus announced to us in a note on the Tempest, which it should be recollected stood first in the order of the plays in all the editions which preceded the present. See vol. xv.
Though I once expressed a different opinion, I am now well convinced that the metre of Shakspeare's plays had originally no other irregularity than was occasioned by an accidental use of hemistichs. When we find the smoothest series of lines among
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