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WHICH COULD NOT HAVE BEEN COMPLETED
WITHOUT THE AID
OF HIS GRACE'S MATCHLESS COLLECTION
OF THE ORIGINAL IMPRESSIONS OF SHAKESPEARE'S PLAYS,
IS, WITH PERMISSION, INSCRIBED,
BY HIS DEVOTED AND GRATEFUL SERVANT,
I SHOULD not have ventured to undertake the superintendence of a new edition of the Works of Shakespeare, had I not felt confidence, arising not only out of recent but long-continued experience, that I should enjoy some important and peculiar advantages. The Duke of Devonshire and Lord Francis Egerton, I was sure, would allow me to resort to their libraries, in cases where search in our public depositories must be unavailing, in consequence of their inevitable deficiencies: this of itself would have been a singular facility; but I did not anticipate that these two noblemen would at once have permitted me, as they have done, to take home, for the purpose of constant and careful collation, every early impression of Shakespeare's productions they possessed.
The collection of the Duke of Devonshire is notoriously the most complete in the world : his Grace has a perfect series, including, of course, every first edition, several of which are neither at Oxford, Cambridge, nor in the British Museum ; and Lord Francis Egerton has various impressions of the utmost rarity, besides plays, poems, and tracts of the time, illustrative of the works of our great dramatist. All these I have had in my hands during the preparation and printing of the ensuing volumes, so that I have had the opportunity of going over every line and letter of the text, not merely with one, but with several original copies (sometimes varying materially from each other) under my eyes. Wherever, therefore, the text of the present edition is faulty, I can offer no excuse founded upon want of most easy access to the best authorities.
With regard to the notes, I am bound to admit that the substance of them has been derived, in many if not in most instances, from those of preceding editors : I have given rather their results than their details; and the bibliographical and philological knowledge obtained of late has enabled me now and then to correct their mistakes, not unfrequently to confirm their conjectures, and sometimes to add to their information. Having devoted more than thirty years of my life to the study of our early popular literature, I have here and there found occasion to dissent from the opinions of my predecessors : I have expressed that dissent with as much brevity as possible, but, I hope, with due respect for the learning and labours of others. I have never thought it necessary to enter into the angry controversies of some previous editors, upon matters of trifling import, bearing in mind the prophetic words of Ben Jonson, when he exclaims in his “ Discoveries,' “ What a sight it is, to see writers committed together by the ears for ceremonies, syllables, points, colons, commas, hyphens, and the like; fighting, as it were, for their fires and altars, and angry that none are frighted at their noises !”
My main object has been to ascertain the true language of the poet, and my next to encumber his language with no more, in the shape of comment, than is necessary to render the text intelligible; and I may add, that I have the utmost confidence in the perspicuity of Shakespeare's mode of expressing his own meaning, when once his precise words have been established.
The Introductions to the separate dramas are intended to comprise all the existing information regarding the origin of the plot, the period when each play was written and printed, the sources of the most accurate readings, and any remarkable circumstances attending composition, production, or performance.
I have arranged the whole, for the first time, in the precise sequence observed by Heminge and Condell in the folio of 1623: they were fellow-actors with Shakespeare, and had played, perhaps, in every drama they published; and as they executed their task with intelligence and discretion in other respects, we may presume that they did not without reason settle the order of the plays in their noble monument to the author's memory.
For about half the whole number their volume affords the most ancient and authentic text; but with respect to the rest, printed in quarto before