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OOD reasons only can justify the addition of a new
book to the enormous mass with which the world is cumbered. This is particularly true of a new edition of Shakespeare's works, which, in its main purpose, only professes to be a better presentation of that which has been presented tolerably well before. Therefore these words of preliminary explanation.
The first object sought in the preparation of this edition has been a text as nearly pure as possible, and the reduction of the field of doubt and conjecture in all directions to the narrowest attainable limits; the second, and last, to place the reader as nearly as possible in the position of those for whom these plays were written, and to give all accessible information concerning their origin, and the circumstances under which, and the manner in which, they were produced. The vicissitudes through which the text has passed, and the time which has elapsed since it was written, make the performance of these offices necessary.
The most perfect understanding and the most satisfactory enjoyment of any author's writings, especially of a poet's, are attained by direct communication with the author's mind. An unnecessary intermediary is always an intruder: a note thrust between a poet and his reader which is not required for the full comprehension of the poet's meaning is always an offence. At best, an editor, like a physician or a lawyer, is a necessary evil. Had Shakespeare superintended the publication of his own plays, it is clear that the office of their modern editor would have been lime ited to the explanation of a few obsolete words and phrases, the illustration of passages alluding to by-gone manners and customs, and perhaps an attempt at the literary history of each composition. But the text of these plays was published with such corruption in all the early copies that not one of them is continuously readable until it has undergone some emendation and regulation; and in the case of certain plays, such are the variations between those early copies, that the text of no one of them can be accepted as sound and satisfactory. In all the early texts, quarto and folio, some entire scenes are found in the utmost confusion,a confusion which has not yet in all cases been reduced to order. It is this deplorable condition of the authentic and quasi authentic texts of Shakespeare's plays that has made extended editorial labor upon them necessary, and has given opportunity for it when it is not necessary; so that a careful editor finds that it is his duty not only to restore, but — such temptation is there on the one hand, and such temerity on the other - to defend what has been restored, and to protect against the hand of sophisticating innovation that which needs no restoration.
Failing an authentic text of Shakespeare's playg from his own hand, the authority which goes with anthenticity pertains to the folio edition published in 1623 by the care and labor of his friends and fellow-theatrical proprietors John Heminge and Henry Condell. They were his literary executors selfappointed, it is true, and not so faithful and painstaking as it behooved them to be; but having some right to, and (as play-publishing went in those days) no little fitness for, the office which they assumed. Their edition is, indeed, so very far from being perfect, that the demand, which has been made in some quarters, that its text should be published without change for tho use of the general reader, could only have been made by persons entirely ignorant of its real condition. In very many passages it is absolutely unintelligible; and, beside, it lacks some of the finest passages of Shakespeare's poetry. But corruption, although it impairs authority, cannot defeat authenticity; and the incompleteness of the folio text, being often manifestly the result of adaptation to stage purposes, is evidence of some weight in favor of the genuineness of what is given. For sixteen of the thirtyseven plays in this collection, the folio of 1623 is the only authority. It is also important to state that every kind of corruption which is found in the folio is found in a greater degree in the quartos.
For the reasons above given, the text of the present edition is founded exclusively upon that of the first folio, and has been prepared, in the first instance, as if no other edition of authority had appeared since that was published, although afterward the readings of every edition, ancient and modern, and the suggestions of every commentator, have been carefully examined, adopted when they appeared admissible, and recorded when they were deemned worthy of preservation. The text of the first folio alone having the stamp of authenticity, some better reason than the editor's mere opinion or his preference has been deemed necessary to justify any essential deviation from that text in favor of the readings of editions of either an earlier or a later date. Evident corruption of that text, with at least highly probable restoration of what mere accident destroyed, and the recovery of what had been omitted, for stage purposes, from the copy furnished to the printer, are the only reasons which have been regarded as sufficient for such deviation. The superior antiquity of the quarto texts of some of these plays is not unfrequently brought to the attention of the critical reader of Shakespeare in support of a reading taken from some one of those texts :- as if the age of a surreptitiously printed edition could supply its lack of authenticity! But in many cases, at least, " the oldest authority” seems to rival 6 the oldest inhabitant” in foisting feeble nonsense upon credulity, and to rival in trustworthiness that much-vaunted oracle.
I am, however, no champion of the readings of the first folio, as such. It seems to me plain, indeed, that the circumstances of its publication require us to assume that its text is correct, except where it is manifestly corrupt or imperfect. But in those cases it is to be corrected boldly, and with none of the hesitation produced by that superstitious reverence of mere antiquity which is called conservatism.
It is not uncommon to hear true lovers of Shakespeare, men of intelligence and no little acquaintance with literature, remark with gravity that it is dangerous to disturb the text. The text! what text? That