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EXTRACT FROM A CRITIQUE BY LORD JEFFREY, IN THE
EDINBURGH REVIEW, No. LXXI.
“ It is quite undeniable, that there are many passages in Shakespeare which a father could not read aloud to his children-a brother to his sister-or a gentleman to a lady :--and every one almost must have felt or witnessed the extreme awkwardness, and even distress, that arises from suddenly stumbling upon such expressions, when it is almost too late to avoid them, and when the readiest wit cannot suggest any paraphrase which shall not betray, by its harshness, the embarrassment from which it has arisen, Those who recollect such scenes, must all rejoice that Mr. Bowdler has provided a security against their recurrence; and, as what cannot be pronounced in decent company cannot well afford much pleasure in the closet, we think it is better, every way, that what cannot be spoken, and ought not to have been written, should now cease to be printed.”
“Mr. Bowdler has not executed his task in anything of a precise or prudish spirit; and has only effaced those gross indecencies which every one must have felt as blemishes, and by the removal of which no imaginable excellence can be affected. It is comfortable to be able to add that this purification has been accomplished with surprisingly little loss either of weight or value; and that the base alloy in the pure metal of Shakespeare has been found to amount to an inconceivably small proportion. It is infinitely to his credit that, with the most luxuriant fancy which ever fell to the lot of a mortal, and with no great restraints from the training or habits of his early life, he is by far the purest of the dramatists of his own or the succeeding age; and has resisted, in a great degree, the corrupting example of his contemporaries. In them, as well as in him, it is indeed remarkable, that the obscenities which occur are rather offensive than corrupting, and seem suggested rather by the misdirected wantonness of too lively a fancy, than by a vicious taste, or partiality to profligate indulgence; while in Dryden and Congreve, the indecency belongs not to the jest, but to the character and action; and immodest speech is the cold and impudent exponent of licentious principles. In the one, it is the fantastic colouring of a coarse and grotesque buffoonery_in the other, the shameless speech of rakes, who make a boast of their profligacy. It is owing to this circumstance, perhaps, that it has in general been found easy to extirpate the offensive expressions of our great poet without any injury to the context, or any visible scar or blank in the composition. They turn out not to be so much cankers in the flowers, as weeds that have sprung up by their side—not flaws in the metal, but impurities that have gathered on its surface—and that, so far from being missed on their removal, the work generally appears more natural and harmonious without them. We do not pretend to have gone over the whole work with attention, or even to have actually collated any considerable part of it; but we have examined three plays of rather a ticklish description_Othello, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure-and feel quite assured, from these specimens, that the work has been executed in the spirit, and with the success which we have represented."
Ir a presumptuous artist should undertake to remove a supposed defect in the "Transfiguration" of Raphael, or in the " Belvidere Apollo,” and in making the attempt should injure one of those invaluable productions of art and genius, I should consider his name as deserving never to be mentioned, or mentioned only with him who set fire to the Temple of Diana. But the works of the poet may be considered in a very different light from those of the painter and the statuary. Shakespeare, inimitable Shakespeare, will remain the subject of admiration as long as taste and literature shall exist, and his writings will be handed down to posterity in their native beauty, although the present attempt to add to his fame should prove entirely abortive. Here, then, is the great difference. If the endeavour to improve the picture or the statue should be unsuccessful, the beauty of the original would be destroyed, and the injury be irreparable. In such a case let the artist refrain from using the chisel or the pencil : but with the works of the poet no such danger occurs, and the critic need not be afraid of employing his pen ; for the original will continue unimpaired, although his own labours should immediately be consigned to oblivion. That Shakespeare is the first of dramatic writers will be denied by few, and I doubt whether it will be denied by any who have really studied his works, and compared the beauties which they contain with the very finest productions either of our own or of former ages. It must, however, be acknowledged by his warmest admirers, that some defects are to be found in the writings of our immortal bard. The language is not always faultless. Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased. Of these, the greater part were evidently introduced to gratify the bad taste of the age in which he lived, and the rest may perhaps be ascribed to his own unbridled fancy. But neither the vicious taste of the age, nor the most brilliant effusions of wit, can afford an excuse for profaneness or obscenity; and if these could be obliterated, the transcendent genius of the poet wonld undoubtedly shine with more unclouded lustre. To banish everything of this nature from his writings is the object of the present undertaking. It is the wish of the editor to render the plays of Shakespeare unsullied by any scene, by any speech, or, if possible, by any word that can give pain to the most chaste, or offence to the most religious of his readers. Of the latter kind the examples are by no means numerous, for the writings of our author are for the most part favourable to religion and morality. There are, however, in some of his plays allusions to Scripture, which are introduced so unnecessarily, and on such trifling occasions, and are expressed with so much levity, as to call imperiously for their erasement. As an example of this kind, I may quote a scene in the fifth act of Love's Labour's Lost, respecting one of the most serious and awful passages in the New Testament. I flatter myself that every reader of the Family Shakespeare will be pleased at perceiving that what is so manifestly improper, is not permitted to be seen in it. The most Sacred Word in our language is omitted in a great number of instances, in which it appeared as a mere expletive; and it is changed into the word Heaven, in a still greater number, where the occasion of using it did not appear sufficiently serious to justify its employment.
“Nec Deus intersit nisi dignus vindice nodus." In the original folio of 1623, the same alteration from the old quartos is made in a great variety of places.
I wish it were in my power to say of indecency as I have said of profaneness, that the examples of it are not very numerous. Unfortunately, the reverse is the case. Those persons whose acquaintance with Shakespeare depends on theatrical representations, in which great alterations are made in the plays, can have little idea of the frequent recurrence, in the original text, of expressions which, however they might be tolerated in the sixteenth century, are by no means admissible in the nineteenth. Of these expressions no example can in this place be given. I feel it,
however, incumbent on me to observe, in behalf of my favourite author, that in comparison with most of the contemporary poets, and with the dramatists of the seventeenth century, the plays of Shakespeare are remarkably decent; but it is not sufficient that his defects are trifling in comparison with writers who are highly defective. It certainly is my wish, and it has been my study, to exclude from this publication whatever is unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies. I can hardly imagine a more pleasing occupation for a winter's evening in the country, than for a father to read one of Shakespeare's plays to his family circle. My object is to enable him to do so without incurring the danger of falling unawares among words and expressions which are of such a nature as to raise a blush on the cheek of modesty, or render it necessary for the reader to pause, and examine the sequel, before he proceeds further in the entertainment of the evening. But though niany erasures have for this purpose been made in the writings of Shakespeare in the present edition, the reader may be assured that not a single line, nor even the half of a line, has in any one instance been added to the original text. I know the force of Shakespeare, and the weakness of my own pen, too well, to think of attempting the smallest interpolation,
In a few, but in very few instances, one or two words (at the most three) have been inserted to connect the sense of what follows the passage that is expunged, with that which precedes it. The few words which are thus added, are connecting particles, words of little moment, and in no degree affecting the meaning of the author, or the story of the play. A word that is less objectionable is sometimes substituted for a synonymous word that is improper.
In the following work I have copied the text of the last edition of the late Mr. Steevens.* I do not presume to enter into any critical disputes as to certain readings of Judean, or Indian ; May, or Way of Life; or anything of that nature, respecting which many persons of superior abilities have entertained contrary opinions.
My great objects in this undertaking are to remove from the writings of Shakespeare some defects which diminish their value, and at the same time to present to the public an edition of his plays, which the parent, the guardian, and the instructor of youth may place without fear in the hands of the pupil; and from which the pupil may derive instruction as well as pleasure ; may improve his moral principles while he refines his taste; and without incurring the danger of being hurt with any indelicacy of expression, may learn in the fate of Macbeth, that even a kingdom is dearly purchased, if virtue be the price of the acquisition.
* The Glossarial Notes (as they are termed) are not written by the present editor, but are taken from the edition of 1803.