Page images
[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]



"WILL it do to say anything more about Chaucer?" was wit this query that one of the most brilliant of modern essayists began an article upon that poet. If such a man as he could feel hesitation about adding further comment to the comparatively little which has been made upon the earliest of our great authors, how much more ought one far inferior to feel it, when purposing to bring out not merely a single volume but a series of volumes about the greatest of them all.

For if there is any belief held by the common consent of critics as thoroughly established, it is that Shakespeare is a writer about whom can no longer anything new be said, — that is, anything which, while being new, has also a right to be termed rational. Of new things which are irrational, we are warranted in asserting that the supply will never fail. Probably no other author in any speech has indirectly contributed so many illustrations as he to the vast variety of ways in which human idiocy manifests itself, whether it take the shape of emendation of his language, or of interpretation of his meaning, or of the exploiting of every sort of fanciful view about his life and writings which perverse ingenuity can concoct or addled brain evolve. It seems,

therefore, almost like a renewed assault upon his reputation and the interest inspired by his works to seek, at this late day, to contribute anything more to the accumulation of matter which has been heaped up by generations of scholars, or to repeat in inadequate phrase what has already been better said by scores of men possessed of keenest insight, of profoundest intellect, and of exquisite taste.

Yet the subject, however worn, continues to retain its freshness. In numerous ways Shakespeare has broken all literary records; but it is to be doubted if among his many triumphs there is one more striking than the fact that, in spite of the best or the worst that men have done to make him uninteresting by writing about him, his hold upon us has deepened instead of decreasing with the course of the centuries. He remains not merely an object of reverence to the few, but of intelligent curiosity to the many; and that too in a world in which the lamentable state of affairs exists, that the things we ought to want to know are as a rule very apt to be distinct from the things we actually want to know. Nor does this general desire to learn all that can or cannot be learned about him show the slightest sign of abatement. In truth, it is this very interest in the dramatist which gives whatever vitality it possesses to the theory which denies his existence as a dramatist at all.

But has everything been said about Shakespeare which can properly be said? That there are points connected with his life and writings which have been exhaustively examined and discussed, few will be found

to deny. Is this statement, however, true of all of them? It may be ignorance, it may be folly, it may be presumption, it may be all these combined, but it seems to me that there is a field of Shakespearean research which, though frequently entered, has never been thoroughly explored. At all events, its story has never been fully told. There are controversies affecting the name and work of the dramatist which have never been made the subject of detailed recital. Some of them were going on at the very beginning of his career; certain of them have gone on from that day to this, nor do they yet show signs of ultimate subsidence. Even echoes of those which may be considered as finally settled still continue to fall upon our ears. To all of them there have been or are frequent allusions. Scattered episodes in the history of some have been given in full. But, so far as I am aware, no attempt has been made to record in continuous narrative the whole story of these discussions; to bring to view and to contrast the different opinions held about Shakespeare as a dramatist and a poet, which at times have come into collision, and to trace their varying fortunes; to give a description of the disputes which have been carried on in regard to the proper method of settling the text of his works; and furthermore, to furnish some slight portrayal of the men, whether well or little known, who were concerned in these various conflicts, and to relate the precise part they took. It is these controversies which it is the aim of the present series to chronicle.

They naturally fall into two distinct and sharply defined classes. One of them is limited to the consider

ation of the art displayed by the dramatist, the other to the methods taken to establish the text of his works in its original purity. There are matters of dispute in regard to Shakespeare which do not range themselves under either of these heads; but, comparatively speaking, they are of minor importance. It is the controversies about the text of the poet which suggested originally the general title which has been given to the series, and formed the real occasion of its being. It soon became apparent, however, that the two classes, slight as seemed the relation between them, were after all inextricably bound together; and that in order to understand the one completely some knowledge must be possessed of the other. The attitude taken towards Shakespeare as a writer for the stage affected in the past not only the alterations made in his plays, but to some extent also the manipulations to which his text was subjected, and even the character of the corrections proposed or adopted. The consideration, therefore, of the controversies of this first class, though in a sense entirely independent of those of the second, rose naturally out of the latter. Accordingly in this series the history of the views entertained about Shakespeare as a dramatic artist, including as it does the varying estimates taken of him at different periods, assumes precedence of controversies on all other topics.

The discussion of Shakespeare's position as a dramatic artist necessarily involves reference to, or rather discussion of, various questions at issue between what we now call the classical and romantic dramas. Strictly speaking, this should imply a consideration of

« PreviousContinue »