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It is superfluous here to enlarge on this topic, for the merits and defects of Johnson, Steevens, and Malone, as commentators on Shakspeare, and the characters of those who preceded them, may be found sketched with a masterly pen in “The Life of William Shakspeare, with some Remarks upon his Dramatic Writings, by Charles Symmons, D. D. late of Jesus College Oxford," lately published. The vindication of Shakspeare from idle calumny and ill founded critical animadversion, could not have been placed in better hands than in those of the vindicator of Milton; and his eloquent Essay must afford pleasure to every lover of our immortal Bard.
Dr. Johnson's far famed Preface-which has so long hung as a dead weight upon the reputation of our great Poet, and which has been justly said to look like a laborious attempt to bury the characteristic merits of his author under a load of cumbrous phraseology, and to weigh his excellencies and defects in equal scales stuffed full of swelling figures and sonorous epithets, '—will, for obvious reasons, form no part of this publication. His brief strictures at the end of each play have been retained in compliance with custom, but not without an occasional note of dissent.
We may suppose that Johnson himself did not estimate these observations very highly, for he tells us that in the plays which are condemned there may be much to be praised, and in those which are praised much to be condemned! Far be it from us to undervalue or speak slightingly of our great moralist; but his most strenuous admirers must acknowledge that the construction of his mind incapacitated him from forming a true judgment of the creations of one who was 'of imagination all compact, no less than his physical defects prevented him from relishing the beautiful and harmonious in nature and art
Quid valet ad surdas si cantet Phemius aures ? Quid cæcum Thamyram picta tabella juvat ?? It has been the studious endeavour of the Editor to avoid those splenetic and insulting reflections upon the errors of the commentators, where it has been his good fortune to detect them, which have been sometimes too captiously indulged in by labourers in this field of verbal criticism. Indeed it would ill become him to speak contemptuously of those who, with all their defects, have deserved the gratitude of the age; for it is chiefly owing to the labours of Tyrwhitt, Warton, Percy, Steevens, Farmer, and their successors, that attention has been drawn to the mine of wealth which our early literature affords; and no one will affect to deny that a recurrence to it has not been attended with beneficial effects, if it has not raised us in the moral scale of nations.
The plan pursued in the selection, abridgment, and concentration of the notes of others, precluded the necessity of affixing the names of the commentators from whom the information was borrowed; and, excepting in a few cases of controversial discussion, and of some critical observations, authorities are not given. The very curious and valuable Illustrations of Shakspeare by Mr. Douce have been laid under frequent contribution; the obligation has not always been expressed; and it is therefore here acknowledged with thankfulness.
It will be seen that the Editor has not thought, with some of his predecessors, that the text of Shakspeare was ‘fixed in any particular edition 'beyond the hope or probability of future amendment.' He has rather coincided with the opinion of Mr. Gifford, 'that those would deserve well of the public who should bring back some readings which Steevens discarded, and reject others which he has adopted.'
The text of the present edition, is formed upon those of Steevens and Malone, occasionally compared with the early editions; and the satisfaction arising from a rejection of modern unwarranted deviaitons from the old copies has not unfrequently been the reward of this labour.
The preliminary remarks to each play are augmented with extracts from the more recent writers upon Shakspeare, and generally contain brief critical observations, which are in many instances opposed to the dictum of Dr. Johnson. Some of these are extracted from the Lectures on the Drama, by the distinguished German critic, A. W. Schlegel, a writer to whom the nation is deeply indebted, for having pointed out the characteristic excellencies of the great Poet of nature, in an eloquent and philosophical spirit of criticism; which, though it may sometimes be thought a little tinctured with mystical enthusiasm, has dealt out to Shakspeare his due meed of praise; and has, no doubt, tended to dissipate the prejudices of some neighbouring nations who have been too long wilfully blind to his merits.
Mr. Gifford, as it appears, once purposed to favour the public with an edition of Shakspeare: how admirably that excellent critic would have performed the task the world need not now be told. The Editor, who has been frequently indebted to the remarks on the language of our great Poet which occur in the notes to the works of Ben Jonson and Massinger, may be permitted to anticipate the public regret that these humble Jabours were not prevented by that more skilful hand. As it is, he must console himself with having used his best endeavour to accomplish the task which he was solicited to undertake; had his power equalled his desire to render it useful and acceptable, the work would have been more worthy of the public favour, and of the Poet whom he and all unite in idolizing
The bard of every age and clime,
JUVENAL, SAT. vii. Mr. Gifford's Translation. MICKLEHAM, Dec. 3, 1825.