Page images
PDF
EPUB

heretofore, and have prosecuted both them and their author, living, with so much favour; we hope that they, outliving him, and he not having the fate, common with some, to be executor to his own writings, you will use the like indulgence toward them, you have done unto their parent.' And in their notice to the reader :

• It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings. But since it hath been ordained otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envy his friends the office of their care and pain to have collected and published them : and so to have published them, as where before you were abused with divers stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors that exposed (sold) them; even those are now offered to your view cured, and perfect of their limbs, and all the rest,* absolute in their numbers, † as he conceived them: who, as he was a happy imitator of nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together; and what he thought he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.' I

Now these expressions certainly imply that Shakspeare had the right, common with others, of being the executor to his own writings.' They imply also that he had not parted with that right until he was surprised by an untimely death. Ben Jonson, like Shakspeare, wrote for the stage; like Shakspeare, he received money from the theatre for his dramatic writings; but this did not deprive Jonson of the copyright of his works, or prevent him from publishing his plays with dedications to various friends. is then equally consonant with analogy, as with the expressions of Heminge and Condell, to infer that Shakspeare possessed the same right, and was as much at liberty to use it as Jonson; and careful consideration of the extracts already quoted will lead us to conclude that Shakspeare did intend not only to claim but to exercise that right. It were to have been wished that the author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings.' Would this expression have been employed had Shakspeare been so wholly indifferent to the fate of his works as is sometimes assumed? Would his friends have merely expressed a wish that he should have lived to superintend the publication of his own

It

* That is, those which had never appeared in print before.

I.e. complete and perfect. We might have suspected this Latinism had they not been actors accustomed to such phraseology.

It is to this expression that Ben Jonson refers: 'I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakspeare, that in his writing, whatsoever be penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been,' &c. From the censure conveyed in Jonson's remark, it is obvious that he was not the author of this address, as some have surmised.

works,

works, when upon the ordinary hypothesis such a wish would have been equally fruitless had his life been longer or shorter? Then again their expression, we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers,' seems to be incompatible with the notion that Heminge and Condell were speaking in the names of the Company, or were referring to their engagement with Shakspeare many years since when he commenced dramatist, and not to more recent and personal events.

This plain and obvious interpretation of their words is the most probable and the most consistent. Their meaning surely is, that Shakspeare had intended to collect and publish his own works, and to rescue them not only from oblivion but from the inaccuracies and deformities of careless and surreptitious copyists ; that he had by him at the time of his death manuscripts of those plays which had never been printed, and some of the printed quartos; that he was employed in altering and enlarging or recasting the latter when death surprised him at his unfinished task; and on his death-bed, by his own directions, his papers were transferred to Heminge and Condell, to prepare for the press. That their statement is true in the main is undeniable ; for from nobody except from Shakspeare could these editors have obtained the manuscripts of twenty original plays, of which no other copies are supposed to exist except in their edition, and those augmentations of the quarto copies which are found for the first time in their folio. Their credibility has been disputed, because whilst they inveigh against spurious copies of Shakspeare's plays, it has been asserted that their text is in many instances derived from the quartos. The statement incautiously made by Malone has been repeated from critic to critic. But all they really say is, that whereas people had been abused with divers stolen and surreptitious copies’-an assertion for which there was abundant evidence, without supposing that they intended to condemn all the printed copies. Considering the total wreck and devastation of many early dramatic works, their statement might be literally true, and yet not be aimed at any one of the quartos which have come down to us.*

If the explanation of Heminge and Condell's words, as here suggested, be the true one, sufficient reason will appear why the text of the quartos should sometimes be reproduced exactly in the folio and sometimes be widely departed from. That great inaccuracies should be found in the type—that words and lines should have been transposed and make nonsense of that which

Thus, of the “Hamlet' of 1603, only two incomplete copies are supposed to exist; of the edition of 1604 only three ; of the 'Lear of 1605 one only; of “The Taming of the Shrew,' one only.

was

was sense before—will not show that the editors' account of their labours is untrue or fraudulent, but that either they did not superintend the press or were unskilful in the mysteries of typal corrections. Probably both: they were plain men who had their own occupations to attend to, and when they had consigned their precious deposit to the printer's hands, they might naturally think that their task was ended, and they had fulfilled their debt of ‘gratitude both to the living and the dead.'* Such, we fear not, will be the verdict of those who judge their labours impartially,

This folio was ushered into the world, according to the prevailing fashion, by commendatory verses from the pens of Ben Jonson † and others. It is divided into three parts, with distinct pagination. The first contains the twelve Comedies, beginning with • The Tempest' and ending with “The Winter's Tale'; the second the Histories (as they are here called), commencing with ‘King John' and ending with Henry VIII.'; the third the twelve Tragedies, beginning with “Troilus and Cressida,' which is not paged, as if its insertion were an afterthought, and ending with

Cymbeline.' What authority the editors had for this arrangement, or by what principles they were guided in their selection,

* If Shakspeare's handwriting was at all like his signature, it was by no means easy to decipher. If we may speak dogmatically upon such slender proofs as we now possess, he learnt to write after the old German text-band then in use at the grammar school of Stratford. It was in this respect fifty years behindhand, as any one may see by comparing Shakspeare's signature with that of Sir Thomas Lucy, Lord Bacon, or John Lilly. The wonder is how with such a hand he could have written so much.

† The fact is important; for it at once disposes of an hypothesis started of late, that Jonson, and not Shakspeare, was the author of Henry VIII.' Is it at all likely that Jonson would have allowed one of his own plays to be inserted in this volume as Shakspeare's without any remonstrance? Or supposing that it was composed in a sort of literary partnership by the two dramatists, would Jonson have failed to notice a fact so agreeable to his vanity ? Leonard Digges, a poet who composed two copies of verses, one prefixed to the first and the other to the second folio, explicitly refutes the notion that Shakspeare either joined in such strange partnerships, or borrowed scenes from his predecessors or contemporaries :

look thorough
This whole book, thou shalt find he doth not borrow
One phrase from Greeks, nor Latins imitate,
Nor once from vulgar languages translate :
Nor plagiary-like from others glean;
Nor begs he from each witty friend ancese

To piece his acts with.' The same writer insists on the great superiority of Shakspeare in popular attraction to Jonson :

Let but Falstaff come,
Hal, Poins, the rest, you scarce shall have a room
All is so pestered (crowded). Let but Beatrice
And Benedick be seen ;-lo, in a trice
The cockpit, galleries, boxes, all are full.'

it is not now possible to discover. It is clear that the order of the plays was not determined by the dates of publication. Had Messrs. Heminge and Condell thought of ascertaining the strict chronological order of the plays, they would have furnished us with a clue to the solution of many difficulties, and contributed a most important chapter to the literary history of the poet. For this we have unhappily no sufficient evidence. No two critics can agree precisely on this perplexing question. The arrangement which commends itself to the historical research or critical taste of one inquirer is unceremoniously set aside by his successors as preposterous or untenable. It might have been supposed that as Shakspeare wrote for a livelihood, as soon as one drama was composed he would dispose of the copyright to some theatrical company, and the publication of the play or its entry at Stationers' Hall would have assisted the inquirer in determining the date of its composition, especially as the poet's productions were eagerly sought after. But even this evidence is not wholly reliable. Meres mentions the Sonnets in 1598, though they did not appear in print until 1609. Of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,' also alluded to by Meres, no copy is known to exist prior to that of the folio in 1623. The earliest editions of • The Midsummer Night's Dream’and The Merchant of Venice' are of 1600.* But although the editors of the folio did not trouble themselves with adopting any strict chronological arrangement, it may be asserted as a general truth that the Comedies belong to the earlier period of Shakspeare's life, the Histories to his maturer years, and the Tragedies, especially the Roman plays, to the succeeding epoch. In other words, whilst • Hamlet' (as we now have it), Lear,'· Macbeth,'Othello,' Timon of Athens, and the Roman plays, belong to the reign of James I., the Histories and most of the Comedies, with the exception of 'The Teinpest,' were composed in the reign of Elizabeth. Born and disciplined in the vigorous, passionate, but practical age of the Tudors, the genius of the poet took a wider range and sublimer flight when the accession of the Stuarts brought the nation into more familiar contact with the great problems of nature and the inscrutable destiny of man. Until the close of the sixteenth century he had failed to put forth all his strength; it was perhaps scarcely known to himself. Flashing with wit and liveliness, inventive, prolific, and versatile, the quaint, the dry, the humorous, the exceptional, were irresistibly attractive to a temperament as yet

As they are entered the same year at Stationers' Hall it is unlikely that they should have been printed before.

† 'Titus Andronicus' is Roman only in name, the treatment and colouring are Italian.

unsteeped unsteeped in affliction, that doffed the world aside and let it pass. For the world had upon the whole used the poet kindly -laughed at the sallies of his wit, lent itself with childlike docility to the practical jokes and endless humour of Falstaff, or shed happy and complacent tears over the sorrows of Romeo and his Juliet. Rarely, with the exception of Richard II.,'had the genius of Shakspeare travelled into the regions of the sublime and mysterious. In no instance, until the appearance of “Hamlet' in 1603, had he attempted to show how closely this world of sight 'merges on the confines of the spiritual, or how there is more than the measured philosophy of mere motives to determine the fate and actions of mankind. Gradually the veil was uplifted; the narrow sphere of the visible-sufficing at one time for all the poet's sympathies; at one time an inexhaustible fund for his keen perception of human passions and eccentricities—was gradually enlarged; and nature presented itself to his eyes in the fulness of its strength and the extremity of its weakness. Sadder and more solemn grows the poet's vision; the humorous and the comical seldom find a place in his maturer productions; but instead of them the omnipresence, the omnipotence (as it were) of evil. Latent infirmity within, dogged, encouraged, and lured to its destruction by invisible wickedness without; momentary weakness trammelling up in its never-ending train gigantic consequences; Heaven holding out no relief, no sign, to oppressed innocence; virtue dragged from its height; valour in Macbeth stooping to crime; honour and fidelity in Othello ignoble victims to bat-like suspicion; generosity betrayed in Timon to selfishness; grand resolutions the fool of accident in Hamlet :—these are the themes of his maturer powers. If the poet still deals with the exceptional and uncommon—and that in the mind of Shakspeare is of the essence of tragedy-it is no longer the exceptional or eccentric in humours, manners, diction, taste, but of intellect, imagination, and passion. The subtlest forms of insanity striking its thin and poisonous fibres into the strongest reason, sapping by unseen and unconscious degrees the noblest intellectual faculties, warping the purest affections to its own masterless bias; the broad clear daylight of the mind, now overcast, now yielding to darkness, until it succumbs to total eclipse; the light alternating with the shade; the thin edge separating sanity from insanity; the various shapes and tricks of moodiness, from the dreaminess of unnatural calm, to the frantic rage of Lear and his heartbroken sorrow: these are the scenes on which Shakspeare dwells in the latter epoch of his life, and has described with inimitable power, insight, and fidelity. Morning and night meet, as in Nature, in the poet's writings

-the

« PreviousContinue »