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rate in diminishing that tedium which usually results from an attention to matters purely critical ; and that whilst there was almost a certainty of supplying some amusement, there might even be a chance of conveying instruction. Sometimes there has been a necessity for stepping in between two contending critics ; and for showing, as in the case of many other disputes, that both parties are in the wrong.
Some excuse may seem necessary for obtruding on the reader so many passages from what Mr. Steevens has somewhere called “ books too mean to be formally quoted.” And yet the wisest among us may be often benefited by the meanest productions of human intellect, if, like medicinal poisons, they be administered with skill. It had escaped the recollection of the learned and accomplished commentator that he had himself condescended to examine a multitude of volumes of the above class, and even to use them with advantage to his readers in the course of his notes.
With respect to what is often absurdly denominated black letter learning, the taste which prevails in the present times for this sort of reading, wherever true scholarship and a laudable curiosity are found united, will afford the best reply to the hyper-criticisms and impotent sarcasms of those who, having from indolence or ignorance neglected to cultivate so rich a field of knowledge, exert the whole of their endeavours to depreciate its value. Are the earlier labours of our countrymen, and especially the copious stores of information that enriched the long and flourishing reign of Elizabeth, to be rejected because they are recorded in a particular typography ?
Others again have complained of the redundancy of the commentators, and of an affected display of learning to explain terms and illustrate matters of obvious and easy comprehension. This may sometimes have been the case ; but it were easier to show that too little, and not too much, has been attempted on many of these occasions. An eminent critic has declared that “if every line of Shakspeare's plays were accompanied with a comment, every intelligent reader would be indebted to the industry of him who produced it.” Shakspeare indeed is not more obscure than contemporary writers ; but he is certainly much better worth illustrating. The above objectors, affectedly zealous to detect the errors of other men, but more frequently betraying their own self-sufficiency and over-weening importance, seem to forget that comments and illustrations are designed for the more ignorant class of readers, who are always the most numerous ; and that very few possess the happiness and advantage of being wise or learned.
It might be thought that in the following pages exemplifications of the senses of words have been sometimes unnecessarily introduced where others had already been given ; but this has only been done where the new ones were deemed of greater force or utility than the others, or where they were supposed to be really and intrinsically curious. Some of the notes will require that the whole of others which they advert to, should be examined in Mr. Steevens's edition ; but these were not reprinted, as they would have occupied a space much too unreasonable.
At the end of every play in which a fool or elown is introduced there will be found particular and discriminative notice of a character which some may regard as by no means unworthy of such attention.
The Dissertations which accompany this work will, it is hoped, not be found misplaced nor altogether
uninteresting. The subject of the first of them, though often introduced into former notes on the plays of Shakspeare and other dramatic writers, had been but partially and imperfectly illustrated. The Gesta Romanorum, to which The Merchant of Venice has been so much indebted for the construction of its story, had, it is true, been already disserted on by Mr. Warton with his accustomed elegance; but it will be found that he had by no means exhausted the subject. The morris dance, so frequently alluded to in our old plays, seemed to require and deserve additional researches.
This preface shall not be concluded without embracing the opportunity of submitting a very few hints to the consideration of all future editors of Shak
It were much to be wished that the text of an author, and more especially that of our greatest dramatic writer, could be altered as seldom as possible by conjectural emendation, or only where it is manifestly erroneous from typographical causes. The readers of Dr. Bentley's notes on Milton will soon be convinced of the inexpediency of the former of these practices, and of what little importance are the conjectures of the mere scholar, when unaccompanied by skill and judgement to direct them.
As the information on a particular subject has been hitherto frequently dispersed in separate notes, and consequently remains imperfect in each of them, would it not be more desirable to concentrate this scattered intelligence, or even to reduce it to a new form, to be referred to whenever necessary ?
Although the strict restitution of the old orthography is not meant to be insisted on, nor would indeed accommodate the generality of readers, there are many instances in which it should be stated in the notes ; and such will occur to every skilful editor.
Every word or passage that may be substituted in the text in the room of others to be found in
of the old editions should be printed in Italics, and assigned to its proper owner, with a reason for its
preference to the originals. The mention of variations in the old copies must of course be left to an editor's discretion. No disparagement is meant to the memory or talents of one of the greatest of men, when a protest is bere entered against " the text of Dr. Johnson."