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P R E F A C E.
The practice, and also the necessity of explaining the writings of Shakspeare, have already been so ably defended by former commentators, that no other apology on the part of those who may elect to persevere in this kind of labour seems to be necessary than with regard to the qualifications of the writer : but as no one in this case perhaps ever thought, or at least should think, himself incompetent to the task assumed of instructing or amusing others, it may be as well, on the present occasion, to waive altogether such a common-place intrusion on the reader's time. It is enough to state that accident had given birth to a considerable portion of the following pages, and that design supplied the rest. The late Mr. Steevens had already in a manner too careless for his own reputation, and abundantly too favourable to his friend, presented to public view such of the author's remarks as were solely put together for the private use and consideration of that able critic. The former wish of their compiler has, with the present opportunity, been accomplished; that is, some of them withdrawn, and others, it is hoped, rendered less exceptionable.
The readers of Shakspeare may be properly divided into three classes. The first, as they travel through the text, appeal to each explanation of a word or passage as it occurs. The second read a large portion of the text, or perhaps the whole, uninterruptedly, and then consult the notes ; and the third reject the illustrations altogether. Of these the second appear to be the most rational. The last, with all their affectation, are probably the least learned, but will undoubtedly remain so ; and it may be justly remarked on this occasion, in the language of the writer who has best illustrated the principles of taste, that “ the pride of science is always meek and humble compared with the pride of ignorance.” He, who at this day can entirely comprehend the writings of Shakspeare without the aid of a comment, and frequently of laborious illustration, may be said to possess a degree of inspiration almost commensurate with that of the great bard himself. Mr. Steevens has indeed summed up every necessary argument in his assertion that “if Shakspeare is worth reading, he is worth explaining; and the researches used for so valuable and elegant a purpose, merit the thanks of genius and candour, not the satire of prejudice and ignorance."
The indefatigable exertions of Messrs. Steevens, Malone, Tyrwhitt, and Mason, will ever be duly appreciated by the true and zealous admirers of Shakspeare's pages.
If the name of a celebrated critic and moralist be not included on this occasion, it is because he was certainly unskilled in the knowledge of obsolete customs and expressions. His explanatory notes therefore are, generally speaking, the most controvertible of any; but no future editor will discharge his duty to the public who shall omit a single sentence of this writer's masterly preface, or of his sound and tasteful characters of the plays of Shakspeare. Of all the commentators Dr. Warburton was surely the worst. His sentiments indeed have been seldom exhibited in modern editions but for the purpose of confuting them.
The wide dispersion of those materials which are essential to the illustration of inquiries like the present, will necessarily frustrate every endeavour at perfection; a circumstance that alone should teach every one discussing these difficult and obscure subjects, to speak of them with becoming diffidence. The present writer cannot flatter himself that he has uniformly paid a strict attention to this rule ; the ardour of conjecture may have sometimes led him, in common with others, to forget the precepts he had himself laid down.
It may be thought by some, and even with great justice, that several of the corrections are trifling and unimportant; but even these may perhaps be endured wherever it shall be manifest that their object, and it is hoped their effect, has been to remove error and establish truth ; a matter
matter undoubtedly of some consequence in the school of criticism.
One design of this volume has been to augment the knowledge of our popular customs and antiquities, in which respect alone the writings of Shakspeare have suggested better hints, and furnished ampler materials than those of any one besides. Other digressions too have been introduced, as it was conceived that they might ope