Preface to his Edition of Shakespeare's Plays (1765)



To his EDITION of
Shakespear's Plays. 


Printed for J. and R. Tonson, H. Woodfall, J Rivington, 
R. Baldwin, L. Hawes, Clark and Collins, T. Longman, 
W. Johnston, T. Caslon, C. Corbet, T. Lownds, 
and the Executors on B. Dodd. 





1   THAT praises are without reason lavished on
2   the dead, and that the honours due only to
3   excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint
4   likely to be always continued by those, who, being
5   able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence
6   from the heresies of paradox ; or those, who,
7   being forced by disappointment upon consolatory
8   expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what
9   the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that
10 the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at
11 last bestowed by time.

12 Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts
13 the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries
14 that reverence it, not from reason, but from pre-
15 judice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately what-
16 ever has been long preserved, without considering
17 that time has sometimes co-operated with chance ;
18 all perhaps are more willing to honour past than 
19 present excellence ; and the mind contemplates ge-
20 nius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys
21 the sun through artificial opacity. The great con-
22 tention of criticism is to find the faults of the mo-
23 derns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an au-


24 thour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst
25 performance, and when he is dead we rate them by
26 his best.

27 To works, however, of which the excellence is 
28 not absolute and definite, but gradual and compara-
29 tive ; to works not raised upon principles demonstra-
30 tive and scientifick, but appealing wholly to obser-
31 vation and experience, no other test can be applied
32 than length of duration and continuance of esteem.
33 What mankind have long possessed they have often
34 examined and compared, and if they persist to va-
35 lue the possession, it is because frequent comparisons
36 have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among
37 the works of nature no man can properly call a river
38 deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of
39 many mountains and many rivers; so in the produc-
40 tions of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it
41 has been compared with other works of the same
42 kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power,
43 and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of
44 years ; but works tentative and experimental must be
45 estimated by their proportion to the general and col-
46 lective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long
47 succession of endeavours. Of the first building that
48 was raised, it might be with certainty determined
49 that it was round or square, but whether it was spa-
50 cious or lofty must have been referred to time. The 
51 Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered
52 to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet
53 know not to transcend the common limits of human


54 intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after na-
55 tion, and century after century, has been able to do
56 little more than transpose his incidents, new name
57 his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.

58 The reverence due to writings that have long sub-
59 sisted arises therefore not from any credulous confi-
60 dence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy
61 persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is
62 the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable
63 positions, that what has been longest known has been
64 most considered, and what is most considered is best
65 understood.

66 The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the 
67 revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an
68 ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame
69 and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived
70 his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of
71 literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once
72 derive from personal allusions, local customs, or tem-
73 porary opinions, have for many years been lost; and 
74 every topick of merriment or motive of sorrow, which
75 the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only ob-
76 scure the scenes which they once illuminated. The ef-
77 fects of favour and competition are at an end ; the
78 tradition of his friendships and his enmities has pe-
79 rished ; his works support no opinion with argu-
80 ments, nor supply any faction with invectives ; they
81 can neither indulge vanity nor gratify malignity, but
82 are read without any other reason than the desire of
83 pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure


84 is obtained; yet, thus unassisted by interest of pas-
85 sion, they have past through variations of taste and
86 changes of manners, and, as they devolved from
87 one generation to another, have received new honours
88 at every transmission.

89 But because human judgment, though it be gra-
90 dually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infal-
91 lible ; and approbation, though long continued, may
92 yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion;
93 it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of ex-
94 cellence Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour
95 of his countrymen.

96 Nothing can please many, and please long, but
97 just representations of general nature. Particular
98 manners can be known to few, and therefore few
99 only can judge how nearly they are copied. The ir-
100 regular combinations of fanciful invention may de-
101 light a-while, by that novelty of which the common
102 satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures
103 of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind
104 can only repose on the stability of truth.

105 Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all
106 modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that
107 holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners
108 and of life. His characters are not modified by the
109 customs of particular places, unpractised by the 
110 rest of the world ; by the peculiarities of studies 
111 or professions, which can operate but upon small 
112 numbers ; or by the accidents of transient fashions
113 or temporary opinions: they are the genuine pro-


114 geny of common humanity, such as the world will
115 always supply, and observation will always find. His
116 persons act and speak by the influence of those ge-
117 neral passions and principles by which all minds
118 are agitated, and whole system of life is con-
119 tinued in motion. In the writings of other poets
120 a character is too often an individual ; in those of
121 Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

122 It is from this wide extension of design that so
123 much instruction is derived. It is this which fills 
124 the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms and do-
125 mestick wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every
126 verse was a precept ; and it may be said of Shake-
127 speare, that from his works may be collected a sys-
128 {t}em of civil and {oe}conomical prudence. Yet his real
129 power is not in the splendour of particular
130 passages, but by the progress of his fable, and, the
131 tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to recom-
132 mend him by select quotations, will succeed like the 
133 pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house
134 to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen. 

135 It will not easily be imagined how much Shake-
136 speare excells in accommodating his sentiments to real
137 life, but by comparing him with other authours. It
138 was observed of the ancient schools of declamation,
139 that the more diligently they were frequented, the 
140 more was the student disquali{f}ed for the world, be-
141 cause he found nothing there which he should ever
142 meet in any other place. The same remark may be
143 applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare. The


144 theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peo-
145 pled by such characters as were never seen, conver-
146 sing in a language which was never heard, upon to-
147 picks which will never arise in the commerce of
148 mankind. But the dialogue of this authour is often
149 so evidently determined by the incident which pro-
150 duces it, and is pursued with so much ease and sim-
151 plicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of
152 fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selec-
153 tion out of common conversation, and common oc-
154 currences.

155 Upon every other stage the universal agent is love,
156 by whose power all good and evil is distributed, and
157 every action quickened or retarded. To bring a lover,
158 a lady and a rival into the fable; to entangle them
159 in contradictory obligations, perplex them with op-
160 positions of interest, and harass them with violence
161 of desires inconsistent with each other ; to make
162 them meet in rapture and part in agony ; to fill their
163 mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous sorrow;
164 to distress them as nothing human ever was distres-
165 sed ; to deliver them as nothing human ever was de-
166 livered, is the business of the modern dramati{st}. For
167 this probability is violated, life is misrepresented,
168 and language is depraved. But love is only one of
169 many passions, and as it has no great influence
170 upon the sum of life, it has little operation in the 
171 dramas of a poet, who caught his ideas from the
172 living world, and exhibited only what he saw before
173 him. He knew, that any other passion, as it was


174 regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or
175 calamity.

176 Characters thus ample and general were not easily
177 discriminated and preserved, yet perhaps no poet ever
178 kept his personages more distinct from each other.
179 I will not say with Pope, that every speech may
180 be assigned to the proper speaker, because many
181 speeches there are which have nothing characteristical;
182 but, perhaps, though some may be equally adapted to 
183 every person, it will be difficult to find, any that can
184 be properly transferred from the present possessor to
185 another claimant. The choice is right, when there
186 is reason for choice.

187 Other dramatists can only gain attention by hy-
188 perbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and
189 unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers
190 of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a
191 giant and a dwarf ; and he that should form his ex-
192 pectations of human affairs from the play, or from
193 the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has
194 no heroes ; his scenes are occupied only by men, who
195 act and speak as the reader thinks that he should
196 himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion:
197 Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue 
198 is level with life. Other writers disguise the most
199 natural passions and most frequent incidents ; so that
200 he who contemplates them in the book will not know 
201 them in the world : Shakespeare approximates the re-
202 mote, and familiarizes the wonderful ; the event
203 which he represents will not happen, but if it were


204 possible, its effects would be probably such as he has
205 assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only
206 shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but
207 as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be
208 exposed.

209 This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his
210 drama is the mirrour of life ; that he who has mazed
211 his imagination, in following the phantoms which
212 other writers raise up before him, may here be cured
213 of his delirious extasies, by reading human sentiments
214 in human language; by scenes from which a hermit
215 may estimate the transactions of the world, and a 
216 confessor predict the progress of the passions.

217 His adherence to general nature has exposed him
218 to the censure of criticks, who form their judgments
219 upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rhymer think
220 his Romans not sufficiently Roman ; and Voltaire cen-
221 sures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is
222 offended, that Menenius, a senator of Rome, should
223 play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks de-
224 cency violated when the Danish Usurper is represented 
225 as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature
226 predominent over accident ; and if he preserves the
227 essential character, is not very careful of distinctions
228 superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Ro-
229 mans and kings, but he thinks only on men. He 
230 knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of
231 all dispositions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into
232 the senate-house for that which the senate-house would
233 certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to shew


234 an usurper and a murderer not only odious but
235 despicable, he therefore added drunkenness to his 
236 other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like
237 other men, and that wine exerts its natural power
238 upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty
239 minds ; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of
240 country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the 
241 figure, neglects the drapery.

242 The censure which he has incurred by mixing comick
243 and tragick scenes, as it extends to all his works, de-
244 serves more consideration. Let the fact be first stated,
245 and then examined.

246 Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous or cri-
247 tical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compo-
248 sitions of a distinct kind ; exhibiting the real state of 
249 sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil,
250 joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of pro-
251 portion and innumerable modes of combination ; and
252 expressing the course of the world, in which the loss
253 of one is the gain of another ; in which, at the same
254 time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the 
255 mourner burying his friend ; in which the malignity
256 of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of ano-
257 ther ; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done
258 and hindered without design.

259 Out of this chaos of mingled porposes and casu-
260 alties the ancient poets, according to the laws which
261 custom had prescribed, selected some the crimes of
262 men, and some of their absurdities ; some the momen-
263 tous vicissitudes of life, and some the lighter occur-


264 rences ; some the terrours of distress, and some the
265 gayeties of prosperity. Thus rose the two modes of
266 imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy,
267 compositions intended to promote different ends by 
268 contrary means, and considered as so little allied, that
269 I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single
270 writer who attempted both.

271 Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting
272 laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one
273 composition. Almost all his plays are divided be-
274 tween serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the 
275 successive evolutions of the design, sometimes pro-
276 duce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity
277 and laughter.

278 That this is a practice contrary to the rules of cri-
279 ticism will be readily allowed ; but there is always
280 an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end
281 of writing is to instruct ; the end of poetry is to in-
282 struct by pleasiing. That the mingled drama may con-
283 vey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot
284 be denied, because it includes both in its alterations
285 of exhibition, an approaches nearer than either to
286 the appearance of life, by shewing how greate machi-
287 nations and slender designs may promote or obviate
288 one another, and the high and the low co-operate in 
289 the general system by unavoidable concatenation.

290 It is objected, that by this change of scenes the
291 passions are interrupted in their progression, and that
292 the principal event, being not advanced by a due
293 gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at last the


294 power to move, which constitutes the perfection of
295 dramatick poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that
296 it is received as true even by those in daily expe-
297 rience feel it to be false. The interchanges of mingled
298 scenes seldom fail to produce the intended vicissitudes
299 of passion. Fiction cannot move so much, but that
300 the attention may be easily transferred ; and though
301 it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be some-
302 times interrupted by unwelcome levity,yet let it be
303 considered likewise, that melancholy is often not
304 pleasing, and that the disturbance of one man may be
305 the relief of another ; that different auditors have dif-
306 ferent habitudes ; and that, upon the whole, all plea-
307 sure consists in variety.

308 The players, who in their edition divided our au-
309 thour's works into comedies, histories, and tragedies,
310 seem not to have distinguished the three kinds, by
311 any very exact or definite ideas.

312 An action which ended happily to the principal 
313 persons, however serious or distressful through its in-
314 termediate incidents, in their opinion constituted a
315 comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long 
316 amongst us, and plays were written, which, by chang-
317 ing the catastrophe, were tragedies to-day and come-
318 dies to-morrow.

319 Tragedy was not in those times a poem of more
320 general dignity or elevation than comedy ; it required
321 only a calamitous conclusion, with which the common
322 criticism of that age was satisfied, whatever lighter
323 pleasure it afforded in its progress.


324 History was a series of actions, with no other than
325 chronological succession, independent of each other,
326 and without any tendency to introduce or regulate the
327 conclusion. It is not always very nicely distinguished
328 from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach
329 to unity of action in the tragedy of Antony and Cleo-
330 patra, than in the history of Richard the Second. But
331 a history might be continued through many plays ; as
332 it had no plan, it had no limits.

333 Through all these denominations of the drama,
334 Shakespeare's mode of composition is the same ; an
335 interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which
336 the mind is softened at one time, and exhilarated at
337 another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to
338 gladden or depress, or to conduct the story, without
339 vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and fa-
340 miliar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpose ;
341 as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or sit silent
342 with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indif-
343 ference.

344 When Shakespeare's plan is understood, most of the 
345 criticisms of Rhymer and Voltaire vanish away. The
346 play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, by
347 two sentinels ; Iago bellows at Brabantio's window,
348 without injury to the scheme of the play, though in
349 terms which a modern audience would not easily en-
350 dure ; the character of Polonius is seasonable and use-
351 ful ; and the Grave-diggers themselves may be heard
352 with applause.


353 Shakespeare engaged in dramatick poetry with the
354 world open before him ; the rules of the ancients
355 were yet known to few ; the publick judgment was
356 unformed ; he had no example of such fame as might 
357 force him upon imitation, nor criticks of such autho-
358 rity as might restrain his extravagance : He therefore
359 indulged his natural disposition, and his disposition, 
360 as Rhymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In
361 tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil
362 and study, what is written as last with little felicity ;
363 but in his comick scenes, he seems to produce with-
364 out labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy
365 he is always struggling after some occasion to be
366 comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to
367 luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his
368 nature. In his tragick scenes there is always some-
369 thing wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expec-
370 tation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts
371 and the language, and his tragedy for the greater
372 part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to
373 be skill, his comedy seems to be instinct.

374 The force of his comick scenes has suffered little
375 diminution from the changes made by a century and
376 a half, in manners or in words. As his personages
377 act upon principles arising from genuine passion, very
378 little modified by particular forms, their pleasures
379 and vexations are communicable to all times and to
380 all places ; they are natural, and therefore durable ;
381 the adventitious peculiarities of personal habits, are
382 only superficial dies, bright and pleasing for a little


383 while, yet soon fading to a dim tinct, without any
384 remains of former lustre ; but the discriminations of
385 true passion are the colours of nature ; they pervade
386 the whole mass, and can only perish with the body
387 that exhibits them. The accidental compositions of
388 heterogeneous modes are dissolved by the chance
389 which combined them ; but the uniform simplicity of
390 primitive qualities neither admits increase, nor suffers
391 decay. The sand heaped by one flood is scattered by 
392 another, but the rock always continues in its place.
393 The stream of time, which is continually washing the
394 dissoluble fabricks of other poets, passes without in-
395 jury by the adamant of Shakespeare.

396 If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation,
397 a stile which never becomes obsolete, a certain mode
398 of phraseology so consonant and congenial to the ana-
399 logy and principles of its respective language as to
400 remain settled and unaltered ; this stile is probably to
401 be sought in the common intercourse of life, among
402 those who speak only to be understood, without am-
403 bition of elegance. The polite are always catching
404 modish innovations, and the learned depart from esta-
405 blished forms of speech, in hope of finding or making
406 better ; those who wish for distinction forsake the
407 vulgar, when the vulgar is right ; but there is a con-
408 versation above grossness and below refinement, where
409 propriety resides, and where this poet seems to have
410 gathered his comick dialogue. He is therefore more
411 agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other
412 authour equally remote, and among his other excel-


413 lencies deserves to be studied as one of the original
414 masters of our language.

415 These observations are to be considered not as un-
416 exceptionably constant, but as containing general and
417 predominant truth. Shakespeare's familiar dialogue is
418 affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly with-
419 out ruggedness or difficulty ; as a country may be
420 eminently fruitful, though it has spots unfit for cul-
421 tivation : His characters are praised as natural, though
422 their sentiments are sometimes forced, and their actions
423 improbable; as the earth upon the whole is spherical, 
424 though its surface is varied with protuberances and 
425 cavities.

426 Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults,
427 and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any
428 other merit. I shall shew them in the proportion in 
429 which they appear to me, without envious malignity
430 or superstitious veneration. No question can be more
431 innocently discussed than a dead poet's pretensions to
432 renown ; and little regard is due to that bigotry which
433 sets candour higher than truth.

434 His first defect is that to which may be imputed
435 most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices
436 virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful
437 to please than to instruct, that he seems to write
438 without any moral purpose. From his writings in-
439 deed a system of social duty may be selected, for he
440 that thinks reasonably must think morally ; but his
441 precepts and axioms drop casually from him ; he
442 makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is al-


443 ways careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation
444 of the wicked ; he carries his persons indifferently
445 through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses
446 them without further care, and leaves their examples 
447 to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his
448 age cannot extenuate ; for it is always a writer's duty
449 to make the world better, and justice is a virtue inde-
450 pendant on time or place.

451 The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very
452 slight consideration may improve them, and so care-
453 lessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to com-
454 prehend his own design. He omits opportunities of 
455 instructing or delighting which the train of his story
456 seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those
457 exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the
458 sake of those which are more easy.

459 It may be observed, that in many of his plays the
460 latter part is evidently neglected. When he found
461 himself near the end of his work, and, in view of his
462 reward, he shortened the labour, to snatch the profit.
463 He therefore remits his efforts where he should most
464 vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is impro-
465 bably produced or imperfectly represented.

466 He had no regard to distinction of time or place,
467 but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the
468 customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at
469 the expence not only of likelihood, but of possi-
470 bility. These faults Pope has endeavoured, with
471 more zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined
472 interpolators, We need not wonder to find Hector


473 quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of Theseus
474 and Hippolyta combined with the Gothick mytho-
475 logy of fairies. Shakespeare, indeed, was not the
476 only violator of chronology, for in the same age
477 Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning,
478 has, in his Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with
479 the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet and
480 security, with those of turbulence, violence and ad-
481 venture.

482 In his comick scenes he is seldom very successful,
483 when he engages his characters in reciprocations of
484 smartness and contest of sarcasm ; their jests are com-
485 monly gross, and their pleasantry licentious ; neither
486 his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor
487 are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any
488 appearance of refined manners. Whether he repre-
489 sented the real conversation of his time is not easy to
490 determine ; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly sup-
491 posed to have been a time of stateliness, formality
492 and reserve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that se-
493 verity were not very elegant. There must, however,
494 have been always some modes of gayety preferable to
495 others, and a writer ought to chuse the best.

496 In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be
497 worse, as his labour is more. The essusions of pas-
498 sion whic exigence forces out are for the most part
499 striking and energetic; but whenever he solicits his
500 invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his
501 throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and ob-
502 scurity.


503 In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp
504 of diction and wearisome train of circumlocution,
505 and tells the incident imperfectly in many words,
506 which might have been more plainly delivered in
507 few. Narration in dramatick poetry is naturally te-
508 dious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs
509 the progress of the action ; it should therefore always
510 be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. 
511 Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of 
512 lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend
513 it by dignity and splendour.

514 His declamations of set speeches are commonly
515 cold and weak, for his power was the power of na-
516 ture ; when he endeavoured, like other tragick wri-
517 ters, to catch opportunities of amplification, and in-
518 stead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to 
519 show how much his stores of knowledge could sup-
520 ply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment
521 of his reader.

522 It is incident to him to be now and then entangled
523 with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well
524 express, and will not reject ; he struggles with it a
525 while, and if it continues to be stubborn, comprises it in
526 words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled
527 and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow
528 upon it.

529 Not that always where the language is intricate the
530 thought is subtle, or the image always great where
531 the line is bulky ; the equality of words to things is
532 very often neglected, and trivia sentiments and


533 vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they 
534 are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling
535 figures.

536 But the admirers of this great poet have never less
537 reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence,
538 than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in 
539 dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by
540 the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or
541 the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathe-
542 tick without some idle conceit, or contemptible equi-
543 vocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he
544 counteracts himself ; and terrour and pity, as they
545 are rising in the mind, and are checked and blasted by
546 sudden frigidity.

547 A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours
548 are to the traveller ; he follows it at all adventures,
549 it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to
550 engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power
551 over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible.
552 Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his dis-
553 quisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or
554 exalting affection, whether he be amusing atten-
555 tion with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense,
556 let but a quibble spring up before him, and he
557 leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden
558 apple for which he will always turn aside from his
559 career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble poor
560 and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he
561 was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason,
562 propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal


563 Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was con-
564 tent to lose it.

565 It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating
566 the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned
567 his neglect of the unities ; his violation of those laws
568 which have been instituted and established by the
569 joint authority of poets and of criticks.

570 For his other deviations from the art of writing, I
571 resign him to critical justice, without making any
572 other demand in his favour, than that which must be
573 indulged to all human excellence ; that his virtues be
574 rated with his failings : But, from the censure which
575 this irregularity may bring upon him, I shall, with
576 due reverence to that learning which I must oppose,
577 adventure to try how I can defend him.

578 His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies,
579 are not subject to any of their laws ; nothing more is
580 necessary to all the praise which they expect, than that
581 the changes of action be so prepared as to be under-
582 stood, that the incidents be various and affecting,
583 and the characters consistent, natural and distinct. 
584 No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to 
585 be sought.

586 In his other works he has well enough preserved 
587 the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue
588 regularly perplexed and regularly unravelled ; he does
589 not endeavour to hide his design only to discover it,
590 for this is seldom the order of real events, and Shake-
591 speare is the poet of nature : But his plan has com-
592 monly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle,


593 and an end ; one event is concatenated with another,
594 and the conclusion follows by easy consequence.
595 There are perhaps some incidents that might be spared,
596 as in other poets there is much talk that only fills
597 up time upon the stage ; but the general system makes
598 gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end
599 of expectation.

600 To the unities of time and place he has shewn no
601 regard, and perhaps a nearer view of the principles
602 on which they stand will diminish their value, and
603 withdraw from them the veneration which, from the
604 time of Corneille, they have very generally received 
605 by discovering that they have given more trouble to
606 the poet, than pleasure to the auditor.

607 The necessity of observing the unities of time and
608 place arises from the supposed necessity of making the
609 drama credible. The criticks hold it impossible, that
610 an action of months or years can be possibly believed 
611 to pass in three hours ; or that the spectator can sup-
612 pose himself to sit in the theatre, while ambassadors 
613 go and return between distant kings, while armies are 
614 levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders
615 and returns, or till he whom they saw courting his
616 mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son.
617 The mind revolts from evident falsehood, and fiction
618 loses its force when it departs from the resemblance
619 of reality.

620 From the narrow limitation of time necessarily
621 arises the contraction of place. The spectator, who
622 knows that he saw the first act at Alexandria, cannot


623 suppose that he sees the next at Rome, at a distance
624 to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short
625 a time, have transported him ; he knows with cer-
626 tainty that he has not changed his place ; and he 
627 knows that place cannot change itself ; that what was
628 a house cannot become a plain ; that what was Thebes
629 can never be Persepolis.

630 Such is the triumphant language with which a cri-
631 tick exults over the misery of an irregular poet, and 
632 exults commonly without resistance of reply. It is
633 time therefore to tell him, by the authority of Shake-
634 speare, that he assumes, as an unquestionable princi-
635 ple, a position, which, while his breath is forming it
636 into words, his understanding pronounces to be false.
637 It is false, that any representation is mistaken for rea-
638 lity ; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was
639 every credible, or, for a single moment, was cre-
640 dited.

641 The objection arising from the impossibility of pas-
642 sing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome,
643 supposes, that when the play opens the spectator really
644 imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his
645 walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and
646 that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra.
647 Surely he that imagines this, may imagine more. He
648 that can take the stage at one time for the palace of 
649 the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the 
650 promontary of A{et}ium. Delusion, if delusion be
651 admitted, has no certain limitation ; if the spectator
652 can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance are


653 Alexander and Cæsar, that a room illuminated with
654 candles is the plain of Pharsalia, or the bank of Gra-
655 nicus, he is in a state of elevation above the reach of
656 reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean
657 poetry, may despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial 
658 nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wan-
659 dering in extasy should count the clock, or why an 
660 hour should not be a century in that calenture of the
661 brains that can make the stage a field.

662 The truth is, that the spectators are always in their
663 senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that 
664 the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only
665 players. They come to hear a certain number of lines
666 recited with just gesture and elegant modulation.
667 The lines relate to some action, and an action must
668 be in some place ; but the different actions that com-
669 pleat a story may be in places very remote from each
670 other ; and where is the absurdity of allowing that
671 space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily, which
672 was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens,
673 but a modern theatre.

674 By supposition, as place is introduced, time may
675 be extended ; the time required by the fable elapses
676 for the most part between the acts ; for, of so much
677 of the action as is represented, the real and poetical
678 duration is the same. If, in the first act, pre-
679 parations for war against Mithridates are represented
680 to be made in Rome, the event of the war may, with-
681 out absurdity, be represented, in the catastrophe, as
682 happening in Pontus ; we know that there is neither


683 war, nor preparation for war ; we know that we are
684 neither in Rome nor Pontus ; that neither Mithridates
685 nor Lucullus are before us. The drama exhibits suc-
686 cessive imitations of successive actions, and why may
687 not the second imitation represent an action that hap-
688 pened years after the first ; if it be so connected with
689 it, that nothing but time can be supposed to inter-
690 vene. Time is, of all modes of existence, most ob-
691 sequious to the imagination ; a lapse of years is as
692 easily conceived as a passage of hours. In contempla-
693 tion we easily contract the time of real actions, and
694 therefore willingly permit it to be contracted when
695 we only see their imitation.

696 It will be asked, how the drama moves, if it is not
697 credited. It is credited with all the credit due to a 
698 drama. It is credited, whenever it moves, as a just 
699 picture of a real original ; as representing to the au-
700 ditor what he himself would feel, if he were to do or
701 suffer what is there feigned to be suffered or to be
702 done. The reflection that strikes the heart is not,
703 that the evils before us are real evils, but that they
704 are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed. If
705 there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the play-
706 ers, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a mo-
707 ment ; but we rather lament the possibility than sup-
708 pose the presence of misery, as a mother weeps over
709 her babe, when she remembers that death may take 
710 it from her. The delight of tragedy proceeds from
711 our consciousness of fiction ; if we thought murders
712 and treasons real, they would please no more.


713 Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because
714 they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring
715 realities to mind. When the imagination is recreated
716 by a painted landscape, the trees are not supposed
717 capable to give us shade, or the fountains coolness;
718 but we consider, how we should be pleased with
719 such fountains playing beside us, and such woods
720 waving over us. We are agitated in reading the
721 history of Henry the Fifth, yet no man takes his book 
722 for the field of Agencourt. A dramatick exhibition is
723 a book recited with concomitants that encrease or di-
724 minish its effect. Familiar comedy is often more
725 powerful on the theatre, than in the page ; imperial
726 tragedy is always less. The humour of Petruchio may
727 be heightened by grimace ; but what voice or what
728 gesture can hope to add dignity or force to the soli-
729 loquy of Cato.

730 A play read, affects the mind like a play acted.
731 It is therefore evident, that the action is not sup-
732 posed to be real, and it follows that between the acts
733 a longer or shorter time may be allowed to pass, 
734 and that no more account of space or duration is to
735 be taken by the auditor of a drama, than by the reader
736 of a narrative, before whom may pass in an hour the
737 life of a hero, or the revolutions of an empire.

738 Whether Shakespeare knew the unities, and re-
739 jected them by design, or deviated from them by
740 happy ignorance, it is, I think, impossible to decide,
741 and useless to inquire. We may reasonably suppose,
742 that, when he rose to notice, he did not want the


743 counsels and admonitions of scholars and crticks,
744 and that he at last deliberately persisted in a prac-
745 tice, which he might have begun by chance. As
746 nothing is essential to the fable, but unity of action,
747 and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from
748 false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the extent
749 of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much
750 to be lamented, that they were not known by him,
751 or not observed : Nor, if such another poet could
752 arise, should I very vehemently reproach him, that
753 his first act passed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus.
754 Such violations of rules merely positive, become
755 the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare, and such
756 censures are suitable to the minute and sllender criticism
757 of Voltaire:

758 Non usque adea permiscuit imis
759 Longus summa dies, ut non, si voce Metelli
760 Serventur leges, malint a Cæsare tolli.


761 Yet when I speak thus slightly of dramatick rules,
762 I cannot but recollect how much wit and learn-
763 ing may be produced against me ; before such au-
764 thorities I am afraid to stand, not that I think the
765 present question one of those that are to be decided
766 by mere authority, but because it is to be suspected,
767 that these precepts have not been so easily received
768 but for better reasons than I have yet been able to
769 find. The result of my enquiries, in which it would
770 be ludicrous to boast of impartiality, is, that the uni-
771 ties of time and place are not essential to a just dra-


772 ma, that though they may sometimes conduce to plea-
773 sure, they are always to be sacrificed to the nobler
774 beauties of variety and instruction ; and that a play,
775 written with nice observation of critical rules, is to be 
776 contemplated as an elaborate curiosity, as the product
777 of superfluous and ostentatious art, by which is shewn,
778 rather what is possible, than what is necessary.

779 He that, without diminution of any other excel-
780 lence, shall preserve all the unities unbroken, deserves
781 the like applause with the architect, who shall dis-
782 play all the orders of architecture in a citadel, without
783 any deduction from its strength ; but the principal
784 beauty of a citadel is to exclude the enemy ; and the 
785 greatest graces of a play, are to copy nature and in-
786 struct life.

787 Perhaps, what I have here not dogmatically but
788 deliberately written, may recal the principles of the
789 drama to a new examination. I am almost fright-
790 ed at my own temerity ; and when I estimate the
791 fame and the strength of those that maintain the
792 contrary opinion, am ready to sink down in reveren-
793 tial silence; as æneas withdrew from the defence of
794 Troy, when he saw Neptune shaking the wall, and
795 Juno heading the besiegers.

796 Those whom my arguments cannot persuade to
797 give their approbation to the judgment of Shakespeare,
798 will easily, if they consider the condition of his life,
799 make some allowance for his ignorance.

800 Every man's performances, to be rightly estima-
801 ted, must be compared with the state of the age in 


802 which he lived, and with his own particular oppor-
803 tunities ; and though to the reader a book be not
804 worse or better for the circumstances of the authour,
805 yet as there is always a silent reference of human
806 works to human abilities, and as the enquiry, how
807 far man may extend his designs, or how high he may
808 rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in
809 what rank we shall place any particular performance,
810 curiosity is always busy to discover the instruments,
811 as well as to survey the workmanship, to know
812 how much is to be ascribed to original powers, and
813 how much to casual and adventitious help. The pa-
814 laces of Peru or Mexico were certainly mean and in-
815 commodious habitations, if compared to the houses
816 of European monarchs ; yet who could forbear to view
817 them with astonishment, who remembered that they 
818 were built without the use of iron?

819 The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was
820 yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. The phi-
821 lology of Italy had been transplanted hither in the 
822 reign of Henry the Eighth ; and the learned languages
823 had been successfully cultivated by LillyLinacer, and
824 More; by PoleCheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards
825 by SmithClerkHaddon, and Ascham. Greek was
826 now tought to boys in the principal schools ; and those
827 who united elegance with learning, read, with great
828 diligence, the Italian, and Spanish poets. But literature
829 was yet confined to professed scholars, or to men and
830 women of high rank. The publick was gross and
831 dark ; and to be able to read and write, was an ac-
832 complishment still valued for its rarity.


833 Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A
834 people newly awakened to literary curiosity, being yet
835 unacquainted with the true state of things, knows not
836 how to judge of that which is proposed as its resem-
837 blance. Whatever is remote from common appearances
838 is always welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity ;
839 and of a country unenlightened by learning, the whole
840 people is the vulgar. The study of those who then
841 aspired to plebian learning was laid out upon adven-
842 tures, giants, dragons, and enchantments. The Death
843 of Arthur was the favourite volume.

844 The mind, which has feasted on the luxurious won-
845 ders of fiction, has no taste of the insipidity of truth.
846 A play which imitated only the common occurrences 
847 of the world, would, upon the admirers of Palmerin
848 and Guy of Warwick, have made little impression ;
849 he that wrote for such an audience was under the ne-
850 cessity of looking round for strange events and fabu-
851 lous transactions, and that incredibility, by which
852 maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recom-
853 mendation of writings, to unskilful curiosity.

854 Our authour's plots are generally borrowed from no-
855 vels, and it is reasonable to suppose, that he chose
856 the most popular, such as were read by many, and
857 related by more ; for his audience could not have
858 followed him through the intricacies of the drama,
859 had they not held the thread of the story in their 
860 hands.

861 The stories, which we now find only remoter
862 authours, were in his time acessible and familliar.


863 The fable of As you like it, which is supposed to be
864 copied from Chaucer's Gamelyn, was a little pamphlet
865 of those times ; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the
866 tale of Hamlet in plain English prose, which the cri-
867 ticks have now to seek in Saxo Grammaticus.

868 His English histories he took from English chro-
869 nicles and English ballads ; and as the ancient writers
870 were made known to his countrymen by versions,
871 they supplied him with new subjects ; he dilated some
872 of Plutarch's lives into plays, when they had been 
873 translated by North.

874 His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are al-
875 ways crouded with incidents, by which the attention
876 of a rude people was more easily caught than by
877 sentiment or argumentation ; and such is the power
878 of the marvellous even over those who despise it,
879 that every man finds his mind more strongly seized
880 by the tragedies of Shakespeare than of any other wri-
881 ter ; others please us by particular speeches, but he
882 always makes us anxious for the event, and has
883 perhaps excelled all by Homer in securing the first
884 purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquench-
885 able curiosity, and compelling him that reads his
886 work to read it through.

887 The shows and bustle with which his plays abound
888 have the same original. As knowledge advances,
889 pleasure passes from the eye to the ear, but returns,
890 as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Those to
891 whom our authour's labours were exhibited had more
892 skill in pomps or processions than in poetical language,


893 and perhaps wanted some visible and discriminated
894 events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how
895 he should most please ; and whether his practice is
896 more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has
897 prejudiced the nation, we still find that on our stage
898 something must be done as well as said, and inac-
899 tive declamation is very coldly heard, however musi-
900 cal or elegant, passionate or sublime.

901 Voltaire expresses his wonder, that our authour's
902 extravagancies are endured by a nation, which has
903 seen the tragedy of Cato. Let him be answered,
904 that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shake-
905 speare, of men. We find Cato innumerable beau-
906 ties which enamour us of its authour, but we see no-
907 thing that acquaints us with human sentiments or
908 human actions ; we place it with the fairest and 
909 the noblest progeny which judgment propagates by
910 conjunction with learning, but Othello is the vigo-
911 rous and vivacious offspring of observation impreg-
912 nated by genius. Cato affords a splendid exhibition
913 of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers just
914 and noble sentiments, in diction easy, elevated and
915 harmonious, but its hopes and fears communicate
916 no vibration to the heart; the composition refers us
917 only to the writer ; we pronounce the name of Cato,
918 but we think on Addison.

919 The work of a correct and regular writer is a gar-
920 den accurately formed and diligently planted, varied
921 with shades, and scented with flowers ; the composi-
922 tion of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oaks extend 


923 their branches, and pines tower in the air, inter-
924 spersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and
925 sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses ; fill-
926 ing the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind
927 with endless diversity. Other poets display cabinets
928 of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into 
929 shape, and polished unto brightness. Shakespeare
930 opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in
931 unexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrusta-
932 tions, debased by impurities, and mingled with a 
933 mass of meaner minerals.

934 It has been much disputed, whether Shakespeare
935 owed his excellence to his own native force, or whe-
936 ther he had the common helps of scholastick educa-
937 tion, the precepts of critical science, and the examples
938 of ancient authours.

939 There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shake-
940 speare wanted learning, that he had no regular edu-
941 cation, nor much skill in the dead languages. John-
942 son, his friend, affirms, that he had small Latin, and no
943 Greek ; who, besides that he had no imaginable temp-
944 tation to falsehood, wrote at a time when the cha-
945 racter and acquisitions of Shakespeare were known
946 to multitudes. His evidence ought therefore to de-
947 cide the controversy, unless some testimony of equal
948 force could be opposed.

949 Some have imagined, that they have discovered
950 deep learning in many imitations of old writers ; but 
951 the examples which I have known urged, were
952 drawn from books translated in his time ; or were


953 such easy coincidencies of thought, as will happen to
954 all who consider the same subjects ; or such remarks
955 on life or axioms of morality as float in conver-
956 sation, and are transmitted through the world in 
957 proverbial sentences.

958 I have found it remarked, that, in this important
959 sentence, Go before, I'll follow, we read a translation
960 of, I prae, sequar. I have been told, that when Ca-
961 liban, after a pleasing dream, says, I cry'd to sleep again,
962 the authour imitates Anacreon, who had, like every
963 other man, the same wish on the same occsion.

964 There are a few passages which may pass for imita-
965 tions, but so few, that the exception only confirms the
966 rule ; he obtained them from accidental quotations, or
967 by oral communication, and as he used what he had,
968 would have used more if he had obtained it.

969 The Comedy of Errors is confessedly taken from the
970 Menæchmi of Plautus ; from the only play of Plautus
971 which was then in English. What can be more pro-
972 bable, than that he who copied that, would have co-
973 pied more ; but that those which were not translated
974 were inaccessible?

975 Whether he knew the modern languages is un-
976 certain. That his plays have some French scenes
977 proves but little ; he might easily procure them to be
978 written, and probably, even though he had known
979 the language in the common degree, he could not 
980 have written it without assistance. In the story of 
981 Romeo and Juliet he is observed to have followed the 
982 English translation, where it deviates from the Ita-


983 lain ; but this on the other part proves nothing against
984 his knowledge of the original. He was to copy, not
985 what he knew himself, but what was known to his
986 audience.

987 It is most likely that he had learned Latin sufficiently
988 to make him acquainted with construction, but that
989 he never advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman au-
990 thours. Concerning his skill in modern languages, I
991 can find no sufficient ground of determination ; but
992 as no imitations of French or Italian authours have
993 been discovered, though the Italian poetry was then
994 high in esteem, I am inclined to believe, that he read
995 little more than English, and chose for his fables only
996 such tales as he found translated.

997 That much knowledge is scattered over his works
998 is very justly observed by the Pope, but it is often such
999 knowledge as books did not supply. He that will
1000 understand Shakespeare, must not be content to study
1001 him in the closet, he must look for his meaning
1002 sometimes among the sports of the field, and some-
1003 times among the manufactures of the shop.

1004 There is however proof enough that he was a very
1005 diligent reader, nor was our language then so indi-
1006 gent of books, but that he might very liberally
1007 indulge his curiosity without excursion into foreign
1008 literature. Many of the Roman authours were trans-
1009 lated, and some of the Greek; the reformation had
1010 filled the kingdom with theological learning ; most
1011 of the topicks of human disquisition had found Eng-
1012 lish writers ; and poetry had been cultivated, not


1013 only with diligence, but success. This was a stock
1014 of knowledge sufficient for a mind so capable of ap-
1015 propriating and improving it.

1016 Bnt the greater part of his excellence was the pro-
1017 duct of his own genius. He founded the English stage
1018 in a state of the utmost rudeness ; no essays either in 
1019 tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it
1020 could be discovered to what degree of delight either
1021 one or other might be carried. Neither character
1022 nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakespeare may 
1023 be truly said to have introduced them both amongst
1024 us, and in some of his happier scenes to have carried
1025 them both to the utmost height.

1026 By what gradations of improvement he proceeded,
1027 is not easily known ; for the chronology of his works
1028 is yet unsettled. Rowe is of opinion, that perhaps
1029 we are not to look for his beginning, like those of other
1030 writers, in his least perfect works ; art had so little, and 
1031 nature so large a share in what he did, that for ought I 
1032 know, says he, the performances of his youth, as they
1033 were the most vigorous, were the best. But the power
1034 of nature is only the power of using to any certain
1035 purpose the materials which diligence procures, or
1036 opportunity supplies. Nature gives no man know-
1037 ledge, and when images are collected by study and
1038 experience, can only assist is combining or apply-
1039 in them. Shakespeare, however favoured by nature,
1040 could impart only what he had learned ; and as he
1041 must increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gra-
1042 dual acquisition, he, like them, grew wiser as he


1043 grew older, could display life better, as he knew 
1044 it more, and instruct with more efficacy, as he was
1045 himself more amply instructed.

1046 There is a vigilance of observation and accuracy
1047 of distinction which books and precepts cannot con-
1048 fer ; from this almost all original and native excel-
1049 lence proceeds. Shakespeare must have looked upon
1050 mankind with perspicacity, in the highest degree ?-
1051 rious and attentive. Other writers borrow their cha-
1052 racters from preceding writers, and diversify them
1053 only by the accidental appendages of present man-
1054 ners ; the dress is a little varied, but the body is the
1055 same. Our authour had both matter and form to
1056 provide ; for except the characters of Chaucer, to
1057 whom I think he is not much indebted, there were 
1058 no writers in English and perhaps not many in other 
1059 modern languages, which shewed life in its native
1060 colours.

1061 The contest about the original benevolence or ma-
1062 lignity of man had not yet commenced. Specula- 
1063 tion had not yet attempted to analyse the mind, to
1064 trace the passions to their sources, to unfold the se-
1065 minal principles of vice and virtue, or sound the
1066 depths of the heart for the motives of action. All
1067 those enquiries, which from that time that human
1068 nature became the unfashionable study, have been made
1069 sometimes with nice discernment, but often with idle
1070 subtilty, were yet unattempted. The tales, with
1071 which the infancy of learning was satisfied, exhibited
1072 only the superficial appearances of action, related


1073 the events but omitted the causes, and were formed
1074 for such as delighted in wonders rather than in truth.
1075 Mankind was not then to be studied in the closet ; he
1076 that would know the world, was under the necessity
1077 of gleaning his own remarks, by mingling as he could
1078 in its business and amusements.

¶89 1079 Boyle congratulated himself on his high birth,
1080 because it favoured his curiosity, by facilitating his
1081 access. Shakespeare had no such advantage ; he came
1082 to London a needy adventurer, and lived for a time
1083 by very mean employments. Many works of genius
1084 and learning have been performed in states of life,
1085 that appear very little favourable to thought or to 
1086 enquiry ; so many, that he who considers them is in-
1087 clined to think that he sees enterprise and perserverance
1088 predominating over all external agency, and bidding
1089 help and hindrance vanish before them. The genius 
1090 of Shakespeare was not to be depressed by the weight
1091 of poverty, nor limited by the narrow conversation to
1092 which men in want are inevitably condemned ; the 
1093 incumbrances of his fortune were shaken from his
1094 mind, as dewdrops from a lion's mane.

1095 Though he had so many difficulties to encounter,
1096 and so little assistance to surmount them, he has been
1097 able to obtain an exact knowledge of many modes of
1098 life, and many casts of native dispositions ; to vary
1099 them with great multiplicity ; to mark them by nice
1100 distinctions ; and to shew them in full view by proper
1101 combinations. In this part of his performances he
1102 had none to imitate, but has himself been imitated


1103 by all succeeding writers ; and it may be doubted,
1104 whether from all his successors more maxims of theo-
1105 retical knowledge, or more rules of practical pru-
1106 dence, can be collected, than he alone has given to
1107 his country.

1108 Nor was his attention confined to the actions of
1109 men ; he was an exact surveyor of the inanimate
1110 world ; his descriptions have always some peculiarities,
1111 gathered by contemplating things as they really exist.
1112 It may be observed, that the oldest poets of many
1113 nations preserve their reputation, and that the follow-
1114 ing generations of wit, after a short celebrity, sink
1115 into oblivion. The first, whoever they be, must take
1116 their sentiments and descriptions immediately from
1117 knowledge ; the resemblance is therefore just, their
1118 descriptions are verified by every eye, and their sen-
1119 timents acknowledged by every breast. Those whom
1120 their fame invites to the same studies, copy partly
1121 them, and partly nature, till the books of one age
1122 gain such authority, as to stand in the place of nature
1123 to another, and imitation, always deviating a little,
1124 becomes at last capricious and casual. Shakespeare,
1125 whether life or nature be his subject, shews plainly, 
1126 that he has seen with his own eyes ; he gives the 
1127 image which he receives, not weakened or distorted
1128 by the intervention of any other mind ; the ignorant
1129 feel his representations to be just, and the learned
1130 see that they are compleat.

1131 Perhaps it would not be easy to find any authour,
1132 except Homer, who invented so much as Shakespeare,


1133 who so much advanced the studies which he cultivated,
1134 or effused so much novelty upon his age or country.
1135 The form, the characters, the language, and the shows
1136 of the English drama are his. He seems, says Dennis,
1137 to have been the very original of our English tragical 
1138 harmony, that is, the harmony of blank verse, diversified 
1139 often by dissyllable and trissyllable terminations. For the 
1140 diversity distinguishes it from heroick harmony, and by 
1141 bringing it nearer to common use makes it more proper to 
1142 gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue. Such 
1143 verse we make when we are writing prose ; we make such 
1144 verse in common conversation.

1145 I know not whether this praise is rigorously just.
1146 The dissyllable termination, which the critick rightly
1147 appropriates to the drama, is to be found, though,
1148 I think, not in Gorboduc which is confessedly before
1149 our authour ; yet in Hieronnymo, of which the date is
1150 not certain, but which there is no reason to believe at
1151 least as old as his earliest plays. This however is cer-
1152 tain, that he is the first who taught either tragedy or
1153 comedy to please, there being no theatrical piece of 
1154 any older writer, of which the name is known, except
1155 to antiquaries and collectors of books, which are
1156 sought because they are scarce, and would not have
1157 been scarce, had they been much esteemed.

1158 To him we must ascribe the praise, unless Spenser
1159 may divide it with him, of having first discovered to
1160 how much smoothness and harmony the English lan-
1161 guage could be softened. He has speeches, perhaps
1162 sometimes scenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe,


1163 without his effeminacy. He endeavours indeed com-
1164 monly to strike by the force and vigour of his dia-
1165 logue, but he never executes his purpose better, than
1166 when he tries to sooth by softness.

1167 Yet it must be at last confessed, that as we owe
1168 every thing to him, he owes something to us ; that,
1169 if much of his praise is paid by perception and judge-
1170 ment, much is likewise given by custom and venera-
1171 tion. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn
1172 them from his deformities, and endure in him what
1173 we should in another loath or despise. If we endured
1174 without praising, respect for the father of our drama
1175 might excuse us ; but I have seen, in the book of
1176 some modern critick, a collection of anomalies which
1177 shew that he has corrupted language by every mode 
1178 of depravation, but which his admirer has accumu-
1179 lated as a monument of honour.

1180 He has scenes of undoubted and perpetual excel-
1181 lence, but perhaps not one play, which, if it were
1182 now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer,
1183 would be heard to the conclusion. I am indeed far
1184 from thinking, that his works were wrought to his 
1185 own ideas of perfection ; when they were such as would
1186 satisfy the audience, they satisfied the writer. It is
1187 seldom that authours, though more studious of fame
1188 than Shakespeare, rise much above the standard of their
1189 own age ; to add a little to what is best will always
1190 be sufficient for present praise, and those who find
1191 themselves exalted into fame, are willing to credit
1192 their encomiasts, and to spare the labour of contend-
1193 ing with themselves.


1194 It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his
1195 works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal
1196 tribute upon future times, or had any furthur pros-
1197 pect, than of present popularity and present profit.
1198 When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an 
1199 end ; he solicited no addition of honour from the 
1200 reader. He therefore made no scruple to repeat the 
1201 same jests in many dialogues, or to entangle differ-
1202 ent plots by the same knot of perplexity, which may
1203 be at least forgiven him, by those who recollect, that
1204 of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded by a
1205 marriage in a mask, by a deception, which perhaps
1206 never happened, and which, whether likely or not,
1207 he did not invent.

1208 So careless was this great poet of future fame,
1209 that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he
1210 was yet little declined into the vale of years, before he
1211 could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by in-
1212 firmity, he made no collection of his works, nor
1213 desired to rescue those that had been already published
1214 from the depravations that obscured them, or secure
1215 to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the 
1216 world in their genuine state.

1217 Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in
1218 the late editions, the greater part were not published
1219 till about seven years after his death, and the few
1220 which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into
1221 the world without the care of the authour, and there-
1222 fore probably without his knowledge.


1223 Of all the publishers, clandestine or professed, their
1224 negligence and unskillfulness has by the late revisers
1225 been sufficiently shown. The faults of all are indeed
1226 numerous and gross, and have not only corrupted
1227 many passages perhaps beyond recovery, but have
1228 brought others into suspicion, which are only obscured
1229 by obsolete phraseology, or by the writer's unskilful-
1230 ness and affectation. To alter is more easy than to
1231 explain, and temerity is a more common quality than 
1232 diligence. Those who saw that they must employ
1233 conjecture to a certain degree, were willing to indulge
1234 it a little furthur. Had the authour published his own
1235 works, we should have sat quietly down to disentangle
1236 his intricacies, and clear his obscurities ; but now we
1237 tear what we cannot loose, and eject what we happen
1238 not to understand.

1239 The faults are more than could have happened
1240 without the concurrence of may causes. The stile
1241 of Shakespeare was in itself ungrammatical, perplexed
1242 and obscure; his works were transcribed for the 
1243 players by those who may be supposed to have seldom 
1244 understood them; they were transmitted by copiers
1245 equally unskillful who still multiplied errours; they
1246 were perhaps sometimes mutilated by the actors, for
1247 the sake of shortening the speeches; and were at last
1248 printed without correction of the the press.

1249 In this state they remained, not as Dr. Warburton
1250 supposes, because they were unregarded, but because
1251 the editor's art was not yet applied to modern lan-
1252 guages, and our ancestors were accustomed to so


1253 much negligence of English printers, that they could
1254 very patiently endure it. At last an edition was un-
1255 dertaken by Rowe ; not because a poet was to be pub-
1256 lished by a poet, for Rowe seems to have thought
1257 very little on correction or explanation, but that our
1258 authour's works might appear like those of his fra-
1259 ternity, with the appendages of a life and recom-
1260 mendatory preface. Rowe has been clamorously blamed
1261 for not performing what he did not undertake, and
1262 it is time that justice be done him, by confessing,
1263 that though he seems to have had no thought of
1264 corruption beyond the printer's errours, yet he has
1265 made many emendations, if they were not made be-
1266 fore, which his successors have received without ac-
1267 knowledgment, and which, if they had produced
1268 them, would have filled pages and pages with cen-
1269 sures of the stupidity by which the faults were com-
1270 mitted, with displays of the absurdities which they
1271 involved, with ostentatious expositions of the new
1272 reading, and self congratulations on the happiness of
1273 discovering it.

1274 Of Rowe, as of all the editors, I have preserved
1275 the preface, and have likewise retained the authour's
1276 life, though not written with much elegance or spirit ;
1277 it relates however what is now to be known, and
1278 therefore deserves to pass through all succeeding pub-
1279 lications.

1280 The nation had been for many years content enough
1281 with Mr. Rowe's performance, when Mr. Pope made
1282 them acquainted with the true state of Shakespear's


1283 text, shewed that it was extremely corrupt, and gave
1284 reason to hope that there were means of reforming
1285 it. He collated the old copies, which none had
1286 thought to examine before, and restored many lines
1287 to their integrity ; but, by a very compendious cri-
1288 ticism, he rejected whatever he disliked, and thought
1289 more of amputation than of cure.

1290 I know not why he is commended by Dr. War-
1291 burton for distinguishing the genuine from the spuri-
1292 ous plays. In this choice he exerted no judgment
1293 of his own ; the plays which he received, were given
1294 by Hemings and Condel, the first editors ; and those
1295 which he rejected, though, according to the licen-
1296 tiousness of the press in those times, they were printed
1297 during Shakespear's life, with his name, had been
1298 omitted by his friends, and were never added to his
1299 works before the edition of 1664, from which they
1300 were copied by the later printers.

1301 This was a work which Pope seems to have thought 
1302 unworthy of his abilities, being not able to suppress
1303 his contempt of the dull duty of an editor. He under-
1304 stood but half his undertaking. The duty of a collator
1305 is indeed dull, yet, like other tedious tasks, is very
1306 necessary ; but an emendatory critick would ill dis-
1307 charge his duty, without qualities very different from
1308 dulness. In perusing a corrupted piece, he must have
1309 before him all possibilities of meaning, with all possibi-
1310 lities of expression. Such must be his comprehension
1311 of thought, and such his copiousness of language.
1312 Out of many readings possible, he must be able to 


1313 select that which best suits with the state, opinions,
1314 and modes of language prevailing in every age, and 
1315 with his authour's particular cast of thought, and 
1316 turn of expression. Such must be his knowledge,
1317 and such his taste. Conjectural criticism demands
1318 more than humanity possesses, and he that excercises it
1319 with most praise has very frequent need of indulgence.
1320 Let us now be told no more of the dull duty of an 
1321 editor.

1322 Confidence is the common consequence of success.
1323 They whose excellence of any kind has been loudly
1324 celebrated, are ready to conclude, that their powers
1325 are universal. Pope's edition fell below his own ex-
1326 pectations, and he was so much offended, when he
1327 was found to have left any thing for others to do,
1328 that he past the latter part of his life in a state of
1329 hostility with verbal criticism.

1330 I have retained all his notes, that no fragment of
1331 so great a writer may be lost ; his preface, valuable
1332 alike for elegance of composition and justness of re-
1333 mark, and containing a general criticism on his au-
1334 thour, so extensive that little can be added, and so
1335 exact, that little can be disputed, every editor has an
1336 interest to suppress, but that every reader would de-
1337 mand its insertion.

1338 Pope was succeeded by Theobald, a man of narrow
1339 comprehension and small acquisitions, with no native
1340 and intrinsick splendour of genius, with little of the 
1341 artificial light of learning, but zealous for minute
1342 accuracy, and not negligent in pursuing it. He col-


1343 lated the ancient copies, and rectified many errors.
1344 A man so anxiously scrupulous might have been ex-
1345 pected to do more, but what little he did was com-
1346 monly right.

1347 In his reports of copies and editions he is not to be
1348 trusted, without examination. He speaks sometimes
1349 indefinitely of copies, when he has only one. In his
1350 enumeration of editions, he mentions the two first
1351 folios as of high, and the third folio as of middle
1352 authority ; but the truth is, that the first is equivalent
1353 to all others, and that the rest only deviate from it
1354 by the printer's negligence. Whoever has any of 
1355 the folios has all, excepting those diversities which
1356 mere reiteration of editions will produce. I collated
1357 them all at the beginning, but afterwards used only
1358 the first.

1359 Of his notes I have generally retained those which
1360 he retained himself in his second edition, except when
1361 they were confuted by subsequent annotators, or were
1362 too minute to merit preservation. I have sometimes
1363 adopted his restoration of a comma, without inserting
1364 the panegyrick in which he celebrated himself for his
1365 atchievement. The exuberant excrescence of diction
1366 I have often lopped, his triumphant exultations over
1367 Pope and Rowe I have sometimes suppressed, and his
1368 comtemptible ostentation I have frequently concealed ;
1369 but I have in some places shewn him, as he would
1370 have shewn himself, for the reader's diversion, that the
1371 inflated emptiness of some notes may justify or excuse
1372 the contraction of the rest. 


1373 Theobald, thus weak and ignorant, thus mean and
1374 faithless, thus petulant and ostentatious, by the good
1375 luck of having Pope for his enemy, has escaped, and
1376 escaped alone, with reputation, from this undertaking.
1377 So willingly does the world support those who solicite
1378 favour, against those who command reverence ; and
1379 so easily is he praised, whom no man can envy.

1380 Our authour then fell into the hands of Sir Tho\
1381 mas Hanmer, the Oxford editor, a man, in my opi-
1382 nion, eminently qualified by nature for such studies.
1383 He had, what is the first requisite to emendatory cri-
1384 ticism, that intuition by which the poet's intention
1385 is immediately discovered, and that dexterity of in-
1386 tellect which dispatches its work by the easiest means.
1387 He had undoubtably read much ; his acquaintance
1388 with customs, opinions, and traditions, seems to have
1389 been large ; and he is often learned without shew.
1390 He seldom passes what he does not understand, with-
1391 out an attempt to find or to make a meeting, and 
1392 sometimes hastily makes what a little more attention
1393 would have found. He is solicitous to reduce to
1394 grammar, what he could not be sure that his authour
1395 intended to be grammatical. Shakespeare regarded
1396 more the series of ideas, than of words ; and his lan-
1397 guage, not being designed for the reader's desk, was
1398 all that he desired it to be, if it conveyed his meaning
1399 to the audience.

1400 Hanmer's care of the metre has been too violently
1401 censured. He found the measures reformed in so
1402 many passages, by the silent labours of some editors,


1403 with the silent acquiescence of the rest, that he
1404 thought himself allowed to extend a little furthur
1405 the license, which had already been carried so far
1406 without reprehension ; and of his corrections in ge-
1407 neral, it must be confessed, that they are often just,
1408 and made commonly with the least possible violation
1409 of the text.

1410 But, by inserting his emendations, whether invented
1411 or borrowed, into the page, without any notice of
1412 varying copies, he has appropriated the labour of 
1413 his predecessors, and made his own edition of little
1414 authority. His confidence indeed, both in himself
1415 and others, was too great ; he supposes all to be 
1416 right that was done by Pope and Theobald ; he seems
1417 not to suspect a critick of fallibility, and it was but
1418 reasonable that he should claim what he so liberally
1419 granted.

1420 As he never writes without careful enquiry and di-
1421 ligent consideration, I have received all his notes, and
1422 believe that every reader will wish for more.

1423 Of the last editor it is more difficult to speak. Re-
1424 spect is due to high place, tenderness to living repu-
1425 tation, and veneration to genius and learning ; but
1426 he cannot be justly offended at that liberty of which
1427 he has himself so frequently given an example, nor
1428 very solicitous what is thought of notes, which he
1429 ought never to have considered as part of his serious 
1430 employments, and which, I suppose, since the ardour 
1431 of composition is remitted, he no longer numbers 
1432 among his happy effusions.


1433 The original and predominant errour of his com-
1434 mentary, is acquiescence in his first thoughts ; that
1435 precipitation which is produced by consciousness of
1436 quick discernment ; and that confidence with pre-
1437 sumes to do, by surveying the surface, what labour
1438 only can perform, by penetrating the bottom. His
1439 notes exhibit sometimes perverse interpretations, and
1440 sometimes improbable conjectures ; he at one time
1441 gives the authour more profundity of meaning than
1442 the sentence admits, and at another discovers adsur-
1443 dities, where the sense is plain to every other reader.
1444 But his emendations are likewise often happy and just ; 
1445 and his interpretation of obscure passages learned and
1446 sagacious.

1447 Of his notes, I have commonly rejected those,
1448 against which the general voice of the publick has
1449 exclaimed, or which their own incongruity imme-
1450 diately condemns, and which, I suppose, the au-
1451 thour himself would desire to be forgotten. Of the
1452 rest, to part I have given the highest approbation,
1453 by inserting the offered reading in the text ; part I
1454 have left to the judgment of the reader, as doubtful,
1455 though specious ; and part I have censured without
1456 reserve, but I am sure without bitterness of malice,
1457 and, I hope, without wantonness of insult.

1458 It is no pleasure to me, in revising my volumes,
1459 to observe how much paper is wasted in confutation.
1460 Whoever considers the revolutions of learning, and
1461 the various questions of greater or less importance,
1462 upon which wit and reason have excercised their powers,


1463 must lament the unsuccessfulness of enquiry, and the
1464 slow advances of truth, when he reflects, that great
1465 part of the labour of every writer is only the destruc-
1466 tion of those that went before him. The first care
1467 of the builder of a new system, is to demolish the
1468 fabricks which are standing. The chief desire of him
1469 that comments an authour, is to shew how much
1470 other commentators have corrupted and obscured him.
1471 The opinions prevalent in one age, as truths above
1472 the reach of controversy, are confuted and rejected in
1473 another, and rise again to reception in remoter times.
1474 Thus the human mind is kept in motion without
1475 progress. Thus sometimes truth and errour, and
1476 sometimes contrarieties of errour, take each others
1477 place by reciprocal invasion. The tide of seeming
1478 knowledge which is poured over one generation, re-
1479 tires and leaves another naked and barren ; the sudden
1480 meteors of intelligence which for a while appear to 
1481 shoot their beams into the regions of obscurity, on a
1482 sudden withdraw their lustre, and leave mortals again
1483 to grope their way.

1484 These elevations and depressions of renown, and the
1485 contradictions to which all improvers of knowledge
1486 must for ever be exposed; since they are not escaped
1487 by the highest and brightest of mankind, may surely
1488 be endured with patience by criticks and annotators,
1489 who can rank themselves but as the satellites of their
1490 authours. How canst thou beg for life, says Achil-
1491 les to his captive, when thou knowest that thou art
1492 now to suffer only what must another day be suffered.
1493 by Achilles?


1494 Dr. Warburton had a name sufficient to confer
1495 celebrity on those who could exalt themselves into
1496 antagonists, and his notes have raised a clamour too
1497 loud to be distinct. His chief assailants are the au-
1498 thours of the Canons of criticism and of the Review
1499 of Shakespeare's text ; of whom one ridicules his
1500 errours with airy petulance, suitable enough to the
1501 levity of the controversy ; the other attacks them with
1502 gloomy malignity, as if he were dragging to justice an 
1503 assassin or incendiary. The one stings like a fly, sucks
1504 a little blood, takes a gay flutter, and returns for
1505 more ; the other bites like a viper, and would be
1506 glad to leave inflammations and gangrene behind him.
1507 When I think on one, with his confederates, I re-
1508 member the danger of Coriolanus, who was afraid that
1509 girls with spits, and boys with stones, should slay him in
1510 puny battle
 ; when the other crosses my imagination, I 
1511 remember the prodigy in Macbeth

1512 An eagle tow'ring in his pride of place,
1513 Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd. 


1514 Let me however do them justice. One is a wit,
1515 and one a scholar. They have both shewn acuteness
1516 sufficient in the discovery of faults, and have both
1517 advanced some probable interpretations of obscure
1518 passages ; but when they aspire to conjecture and
1519 emendation, it appears how falsely we all estimate our
1520 own abilities, and the little which they have been able
1521 to perform might have taught them more candour to
1522 the endeavours of others.


1523 Before Dr. Warburton's edition, Critical observations
1524 on Shakespeare had been published by Mr. Upton, a
1525 man skilled in languages, and acquainted with books,
1526 but who seems to have had no great vigour of genius
1527 or nicety of taste. Many of his explanations are curi-
1528 ous and useful, but he likewise, though he professed
1529 to oppose the licentious confidence of editors, and 
1530 adhere to the old copies, is unable to restrain the rage
1531 of emendation, though his ardour is ill seconded by
1532 his skill. Every cold empirick, when his heart is ex-
1533 panded by a successful experiment, swells into a theo-
1534 rist, and the laborious collator at some unlucky mo-
1535 ment frolicks in conjecture.

1536 Critical, historical and explanatory notes have been
1537 likewise published upon Shakespeare by Dr. Grey, whose
1538 diligent perusal of the old English writers has enabled
1539 him to make some useful observations. What he 
1540 undertook he has well enough performed, but as he
1541 neither attempts judicial nor emendatory criticism, he
1542 employs rather his memory than his sagacity. It
1543 were to be wished that all would endeavour to imi-
1544 tate his modesty who have not been able to surpass
1545 his knowledge.

1546 I can say with great sincerity of all my predeces-
1547 sors, what I hope will hereafter be said of me, that not
1548 one has left Shakespeare without improvement, nor
1549 is there one to whom I have not been indebted for
1550 assistance and information. Whatever I have taken
1551 from them it was my intention to refer to its origi-
1552 nal authour, and it is certain, that what I have not


1553 given to another, I believed when I wrote it to be
1554 my own. In some perhaps I have been anticipa-
1555 ted ; but if I am ever found to encroach upon the 
1556 remarks of any other commentator, I am willing that
1557 the honour, be it more or less, should be transferred
1558 to the first claimant, for his right, and his alone,
1559 stands above dispute ; the second can prove his pre-
1560 tensions only to himself, nor can himself always
1561 distinguish invention, with sufficient certainty, from
1562 recollection.

1563 They have all been treated by me with candour,
1564 which they have not been careful of observing to one
1565 another. It is not easy to discover from what cause
1566 the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed.
1567 The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small
1568 importance ; they involve neither property nor li-
1569 berty ; nor favour the interest of sect or party. The
1570 various readings of copies, and different interpreta-
1571 tions of a passage, seem to be questions that might
1572 excercise the wit, without engaging the passions. But,
1573 whether it be, that small things make mean men proud,
1574 and vanity catches small occasions ; or that all con-
1575 trariety of opinion, even in those that can defend
1576 it no longer, make proud men angry ; there is often
1577 found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of invec-
1578 tive and contempt, more eager and venomous than
1579 is vented by the most furious controvertust in poli-
1580 ticks against those whom he is hired to defame.

1581 Perhaps the lightness of the matter may conduce
1582 to the vehemence of the agency ; when the truth to


1583 be investigated is so near to inexistence, as to escape
1584 attention, its bulk is to be enlarged by rage and
1585 exclamation : That to which all would be indifferent
1586 in its original state, may attract notice when the fate
1587 of a name is appended to it. A commentator has
1588 indeed great temptations to supply by turbulence
1589 what he wants of dignity, to beat his little gold to a 
1590 spacious surface, to work that to foam which no art
1591 or diligence can exalt to spirit.

1592 The notes which I have borrowed or written are
1593 either illustrative, by which difficulties are explain-
1594 ed ; or judicial, by which faults and beauties are re-
1595 marked ; or emendatory, by which depravations are
1596 corrected.

1597 The explanations transcribed from others, if I
1598 do not subjoin any other interpretation, I suppose
1599 commonly to be right, at least I intend by ac- 
1600 quiescence to confess, that I have nothing better to
1601 propose.

1602 After the labours of all the editors, I found many
1603 passages which appeared to me likely to obstruct the
1604 greater number of readers, and thought it my duty to
1605 facilitate their passage. It is impossible for an expo-
1606 sitor not to write too little for some, and too much 
1607 for others. He can only judge what is necessary by
1608 his own experience ; and how long soever he may
1609 deliberate, will at last explain many lines which
1610 the learned will think impossible to be mistaken, and
1611 omit many for which the ignorant will want his help.
1612 These are censures merely relative, and must be quietly


1613 endured. I have endeavoured to be neither super-
1614 fluously copious, not scrupulously reserved, and hope
1615 that I have made my authour's meaning accessible to 
1616 many who before were frighted from perusing him,
1617 and contributed something to the publick, by dif-
1618 fusing innocent and rational pleasure.

1619 The compleat explanation of an authour not syste-
1620 matick and consequential, but desultory and vagrant,
1621 abounding in casual allusions and light hints, is not
1622 to be expected from any single scholiast. All personal
1623 reflections, when names are suppressed, must be in a 
1624 few years irrecoverable oblitterated ; and customs, too
1625 minute to attract the notice of law, such as modes of
1626 dress, formalities of conversation, rules of visits, dis-
1627 position of furniture, and practices of ceremony,
1628 which naturally find places in familiar dialogue, are
1629 so fugitive and unsubstantial, that they are not easily
1630 retained or recovered. What can be known, will be
1631 collected by chance, from the recesses of obscure and
1632 obsolete papers, perused commonly with some other 
1633 view. Of this knowledge every man has some, and 
1634 none has much ; but when an authour has engaged the
1635 publick attention, those who can add any thing to
1636 his illustration, communicate their discoveries, and
1637 time produces what had eluded diligence.

1638 To time I have been obliged to resign many pas-
1639 sages, which, though I did not understand them,
1640 will perhaps hereafter be explained, having, I hope,
1641 illustrated some, which others have neglected or mis-
1642 taken, sometimes by short remarks, or marginal di-


1643 rections, such as every editor has added at his will,
1644 and often by comments more laborious than the
1645 matter will seem to deserve ; but that which is
1646 most difficult is not always most important, and
1647 to an editor nothing is a trifle by which his authour
1648 is obscured.

1649 The poetical beauties or defects I have not been
1650 very diligent to observe. Some plays have more, and
1651 some fewer judicial observations, not in proportionto
1652 their difference of merit, but because I gave this 
1653 part of my design to chance and to caprice. The
1654 reader, I believe, is seldom pleased to find his opi-
1655 nion anticipated ; it is natural to delight more in
1656 what we find or make, than in what we receive.
1657 Judgement, like other faculties, is improved by prac-
1658 tice, and its advancement is hindered by submission
1659 to dictatorial decisions, as the memory grows torpid
1660 by the use of a table book. Some initiation is how-
1661 ever necessary ; of all skill, part is infused by pre-
1662 cept, and part is obtained by habit ; I have therefore
1663 shewn so much as may enable the candidate of criti-
1664 cism to discover the rest.

1665 To the end of most plays, I have added short
1666 strictures, containing a general censure of faults, or
1667 praise of excellence ; in which I know not how much
1668 I have concurred with the current opinion ; but I
1669 have not, by any affectation of singularity, deviated
1670 from it. Nothing is minutely and particularly ex-
1671 amined, and therefore it is to be supposed, that in
1672 the plays which are condemned there is much to be 


1673 praised, and in these which are praised much to be
1674 condemned.

1675 The part of criticism in which the whole succes-
1676 sion of editors has laboured with the greatest dili-
1677 gence, which has occasioned the most arrogant osten-
1678 tation, and excited the keenest acrimony, is the 
1679 emendation of corrupted passages, to which the pub-
1680 lick attention having been first drawn by the violence
1681 of the contention between Pope and Theobald, has
1682 been continued by the persecution, which, with a
1683 kind of conspiracy, has been since raised against all
1684 the publishers of Shakespeare.

1685 That many passages have passed in a state of de-
1686 pravation through all the editions is indubitably
1687 certain ; of these the restoration is only to be attemp-
1688 ted by collation of copies or sagacity of conjecture.
1689 The collator's province is safe and easy, the conjec-
1690 turer's perilous and difficult. Yet as the greater
1691 part of the plays are extant only in one copy, the
1692 peril must not be avoided, nor the difficulty refused.

1693 Of the readings which this emulation of amend-
1694 ment has hitherto produced, some from the labours
1695 of every publisher I have advanced into the text ; 
1696 those are to be considered as in my opinion suffi-
1697 ciently supported ; some I have rejected without men-
1698 tion, as evidently erroneous ; some I have left in the 
1699 notes without censure or approbation, as resting in
1700 equipoise between objection and defence ; and some,
1701 which seemed specious but not right, I have inserted
1702 with a subsequent animadversion.


1703 Having classed the observations of others, I was
1704 at last to try what I could substitute for their mis-
1705 takes, and how I could supply their omissions. I col-
1706 lated such copies as I could procure, and wished for 
1707 more, but have not found the collectors of these ra-
1708 rities very communicative. Of the editions which 
1709 chance or kindness put into my hands I have given 
1710 an enumeration, that I may not be blamed for ne-
1711 glecting what I had not the power to do.

1712 By examining the old copies, I soon found that
1713 the later publishers, with all their boasts of diligence,
1714 suffered many passages to stand unauthorised, and 
1715 contented themselves with Rowe's regulation of the 
1716 text, even where they knew it to be arbitrary, and
1717 with a little consideration might have found it to be
1718 wrong. Some of these alterations are only the ejection
1719 of a word for one that appeared to him more elegant
1720 or more intelligible. These corruptions I have often
1721 silently rectified ; for the history of our language,
1722 and the true force of our words, can only be pre-
1723 served, by keeping the text of authours free from
1724 adulteration. Others, and those very frequent, smooth-
1725 ed the cadence, or regulated the measure ; on these I
1726 have not exercised the same rigour ; if only a word
1727 was transposed, or a particle inserted or omitted, I have
1728 sometimes suffered the line to stand ; for the inconstancy
1729 of the copies is such, as that some liberties may be easily 
1730 permitted. But this practice I have not suffered to
1731 proceed far, having restored the primitive diction
1732 wherever it could for any reason be referred.


1733 The emendations, which comparison of copies
1734 supplied, I have inserted in the text ; sometimes
1735 where the improvement was slight, without notice,
1736 and sometimes with an account of the reasons of the 
1737 change.

1738 Conjecture, though it be sometimes unavoidable,
1739 I have not wantonly nor licentiously indulged. It
1740 has been my settled principle, that the reading of
1741 the ancient books is probably true, and therefore is
1742 not to be disturbed for the sake of elegance, per-
1743 spicuity, or mere improvement of the sense. For
1744 though much credit is not due to the fidelity, nor
1745 any to the judgment of the first publishers, yet
1746 they who had the copy before their eyes were more
1747 likely to read it right, than we who only read it by
1748 imagination. But it is evident that they have often
1749 made strange mistakes by ignorance or negligence,
1750 and that therefore something may be properly at-
1751 tempted by criticism, keeping the middle way be-
1752 tween presumption and timidity.

1753 Such criticism I have attempted to practise, and
1754 where any passage appeared inextricably perplexed,
1755 have endeavoured to discover how it may be recalled
1756 to sense, with least violence. But my first labour is,
1757 always to turn the old text on every side, and try
1758 if there be any interstice, through which light can
1759 find its way ; nor would Huetius himself condemn
1760 me, as refusing the trouble of research, for the am-
1761 bition of alteration. In this modest industry I have
1762 not been unsuccessful. I have rescued many lines


1763 from the violations of temerity, and secured many
1764 scenes from the inroads of correction. I have adop-
1765 ted the Roman sentiment, that it is more honourable
1766 to save a citizen, than to kill an enemy, and have
1767 been more careful to protect than to attack.

1768 I have preserved the common distribution of the
1769 plays into acts, though I believe it to be in almost
1770 all the plays void of authority. Some of those which 
1771 are divided in the later editions have no division in 
1772 the first folio, and some that are divided in the folio
1773 have no division in the preceding copies. The set-
1774 tled mode of the theatre requires four intervals in
1775 the play, but few, if any, of our authour's composi-
1776 tions can be properly distributed in that manner. An
1777 act is so much of the drama as passes without inter-
1778 vention of time or change of place. A pause makes
1779 a new act. In every real, and therefore in every
1780 imitative action, the intervals may be more or fewer,
1781 the restriction of five acts being accidental and arbi-
1782 trary. This Shakespeare knew, and this he practised ; his
1783 plays were written, and at first printed in one unbroken
1784 continuity, and ought now to be exhibited with short
1785 pauses, interposed as often as the scene is changed, or
1786 ay considerable time is required to pass. This me-
1787 thod would at once quell a thousand absurdities.

1788 In restoring the authour's works to their integrity,
1789 I have considered the punctuation as wholly in my 
1790 power ; for what could be their care of colons and
1791 commas, who corrupted words and sentences. What-
1792 ever could be done by adjusting points is therefore


1793 silently performed, in some plays with much diligence,
1794 in others with less ; it is hard to keep a busy eye
1795 steadily fixed upon evanescent atoms, or a discursive
1796 mind upon evanescent truth.

1797 The same liberty has been taken with a few par-
1798 ticles, or other words of slight effect. I have some-
1799 times inserted or omitted them without notice. I have
1800 done that sometimes, which the other editors have
1801 done always, and which indeed the state of the text
1802 may sufficiently justify.

1803 The greater part of readers, instead of of blaming us
1804 for passing trifles, will wonder that on mere trifles so 
1805 much labour is expended, with such importance of
1806 debate, and such solemnity of diction. To these I 
1807 answer with confidence, that they are judging of an
1808 art which they do not understand ; yet cannot much
1809 reproach them with their ignorance, nor promise that
1810 they would become in general, by learning criticism,
1811 more useful, happier or wiser.

1812 As I practised conjecture more, I learned to trust it
1813 less ; and after I had printed a few plays, resolved to
1814 insert none of my own readings in the text. Upon
1815 this caution I now congratulate myself, for every day
1816 encreases my doubt of my emendations.

1817 Since I have confined my imagination to the mar-
1818 gin, it must not be considered as very reprehensible,
1819 if I have suffered it to play some freaks in its own
1820 dominion. There is no danger in conjecture, if it
1821 be proposed as conjecture ; and while the text remains
1822 uninjured, those changes may be safely offered, which


1823 are not considered even by him that offers them as 
1824 necessary or safe.

1825 If my readings are of little value, they have not
1826 been ostentatiously displayed or importunately obtrud-
1827 ed. I could have written longer notes, for the art of
1828 writing notes is not of difficult attainment. The work
1829 is performed, first by railing at the stupidity, negli-
1830 gence, ignorance, and asinine tastlessness of the for-
1831 mer editors, and shewing, from all that goes before
1832 and all that follows, the inelegance and absurdity of
1833 the old reading ; then by proposing something, which
1834 to superficial readers would seem specious, but which
1835 the editor rejects with indignation ; then by producing
1836 the true reading, with a long paraphrase, and conclud-
1837 ing with loud acclamations on the discovery, and a
1838 sober wish for the advancement and prosperity of 
1839 genuine criticism.

1840 All this may be done, and perhaps done sometimes
1841 without impropriety, But I have always suspected
1842 that the reading is right, which requires many words
1843 to prove it is wrong ; and the emendation wrong, that
1844 cannot without so much labour appear to be right.
1845 The justness of a happy restoration strikes at once,
1846 and the moral precept may be well applied to criticism,
1847 quod dubitas ne feceris.

1848 To dread the shore which he sees spread with
1849 wrecks, is natural to the sailor. I had before my eye,
1850 so many critical adventures ended in miscarriage, that
1851 caution was forced pon me. I encountered in every
1852 page Wit struggling with its own sophistry, and


1853 Learning confused by the multiplicity of its views.
1854 I was forced to censure those whom I admired, and could
1855 not but reflect, while I was dispossessing their emen-
1856 dations, how soon the same fate might happen to
1857 my own, and how many of the readings which I 
1858 have corrected may be by some other editor defended
1859 and established.

1860 Criticks, I saw, that other's names efface, 
1861 And fix their own, with labour, in the place ; 
1862 Their own, like others, soon their place resign'd, 
1863 Or disappear'd, and left the first behind. POPE.


1864 That a conjectural critick should often be mistaken,
1865 cannot be wonderful, either to others of himself, if
1866 it be considered, that in his art there is no system,
1867 no principal and axiomatical truth that regulates
1868 subordinate positions. His chance of errour is re-
1869 newed at every attempt ; an oblique view of the 
1870 passage, a slight misapprehension of a phrase, a ca-
1871 sual inattention to the parts connected, is sufficient to
1872 make him not only fail, but fail ridiculously ; and when
1873 he succeeds best, he produces perhaps but one reading
1874 of many probable, and he that suggests another will
1875 always be able to dispute his claims.

1876 It is an unhappy state, in which danger is hid under
1877 pleasure. The allurements of emendation are scarcely
1878 resistible. Conjecture has all the joy and all the pride
1879 of invention, and he that has once started a happy
1880 change, is too much delighted to consider what ob-
1881 jections may rise against it.


1882 Yet conjectural criticism has been of great use in
1883 the learned world ; nor is it my intention to depre-
1884 ciate a study, that has exercised so many mighty
1885 minds, from the revival of learning to our own age,
1886 from the Bishop of Aleria to English Bentley. The 
1887 criticks on ancient authours have, in the exercise of 
1888 their sagacity, many assistances, which the editor of
1889 Shakespeare is condemned to want. They are em-
1890 ployed upon grammatical and settled languages,
1891 whose construction contributes so much to perspi-
1892 cuity, that Homer has fewer passages unintelligible 
1893 than Chaucer. The words have not only a known
1894 regimen, but invariable quantities, which direct and
1895 confine the choice. There are commonly more ma-
1896 nuscripts than one ; and yet they do not often conspire 
1897 in the same mistakes. Yet Scaliger could confess to
1898 Salmasius how little satisfaction his emendations gave
1899 him. Illudunt nobis conjecturæ nostræ, quarum nos pudet,
1900 posteaquam in meliores codices incidimus. And Lipsius
1901 could complain, that criticks were making faults,
1902 by trying to remove them, Ut olim vitiis, ita nunc
1903 remediis laboratur. And indeed, where mere conjec-
1904 ture is to be used, the emendations of Scaliger and
1905 Lipsius, notwithstanding their wonderful sagacity and
1906 erudition, are often vague and disputable, like mine
1907 of Theobald's.

1908 Perhaps I may not be more censured for doing
1909 wrong, than for doing little ; for raising in the pub-
1910 lick expectations, which at last I have not answered.
1911 The expectation of ignorance is indefinite, and that


1912 of knowledge is often tyrannical. It is hard to satisfy
1913 those who know not what to demand, or those who
1914 demand by design what they think impossbile to 
1915 be done. I have indeed disappointed no opinion
1916 more than my own ; yet I have endeavoured to per-
1917 form my task with no slight solicitude. Not a single
1918 passage in the whole work has appeared to me cor-
1919 rupt, which I have not attempted to restore ; or ob-
1920 scure, which I have not endeavoured to illustrate.
1921 In many I have failed like others ; and from many,
1922 after all my efforts, I have retreated, and confessed
1923 the repulse. I have not passed over, with affected
1924 superiority, what is equally difficult to the reader
1925 and to myself, but where I could not instruct him, 
1926 have owned my ignorance. I might easily have ac-
1927 cumulated a mass of seeming learning upon easy
1928 scenes ; but it ought not to be imputed to negli-
1929 gence, that, where nothing was necessary, nothing
1930 has been done, or that, where others have said
1931 enough, I have said no more.

1932 Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary
1933 evils. Let him, that is yet unacquainted with the 
1934 powers of Shakespeare, and who desires to feel the 
1935 highest pleasure that the drama can give, read every
1936 play from the first scene to the last, with utter negli-
1937 gence of all his commentators. When his fancy is
1938 once on the wing, let it not stoop at correction or
1939 explanation. When his attention is strongly engaged,
1940 let it disdain alike to turn aside to the name of Theo-
1941 bald and Pope. Let him read on through brightness


1942 and obscurity, through integrity and corruption ; let
1943 him preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and
1944 his interest in the fable. And when the pleasures of
1945 novelty have ceased, let him attempt exactness ; and
1946 read the commentators.

1947 Particular passages are cleared by notes, but the
1948 general effect of the work is weakened. The mind
1949 is refrigerated by interruption ; the thoughts are di-
1950 verted from the principal subject ; the reader is weary,
1951 he suspects not why ; and at last throws away the book,
1952 which he has too diligently studied.

1953 Parts are not to be examined till the whole has
1954 been surveyed ; there is a kind of intellectual re-
1955 moteness necessary for the comprehension of any
1956 great work in its full design and its true proportions ;
1957 a close approach shews the smaller niceties, but the 
1958 beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.

1959 It is not very grateful to consider how little the
1960 succession of editors has added to this authour's power
1961 of pleasing. He was read, admired, studied, and 
1962 imitated, while he was yet deformed with all the 
1963 improprieties which ignorance and neglect could ac-
1964 cumulate upon him ; while the reading was yet not
1965 rectified, nor his allusions understood ; yet then did
1966 Dryden pronounce " that Shakespeare was the man,
1967 " who, of all modern and perhaps ancient poets,
1968 " had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All
1969 " the images of nature were still present to him,
1970 " and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily :
1971 " When he describes any thing, you more than see


1972 " it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to
1973 " have wanted learning, give him the greater com-
1974 " mendation : he was naturally learned : he needed
1975 " not the spectacles of books to read nature ; he
1976 " looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot
1977 " say he is every where alike ; were he so, I should
1978 " do him injury to compare him with the greatest
1979 " of mankind. He is many times flat and insipid ;
1980 " his comick wit degenerating into clenches, his se-
1981 " rious swelling into bombast. But he is always
1982 " great, when some great occasion is presented to 
1983 " him : No man can say, he ever had a fit subject
1984 " for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high
1985 " above the rest of poets,

1986 " Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi."


1987 It is to be lamented, that such a writer should
1988 want a commentary ; that his language should be-
1989 come obsolete, or his sentiments obscure. But it is
1990 vain to carry wishes beyond the condition of human
1991 things ; that which must happen to all, has happen-
1992 to Shakespeare, by accident and time ; and more
1993 than has been suffered by any other writer since
1994 the use of types, has been suffered by him through
1995 his own negligence of fame, or perhaps by that su-
1996 periority of mind, which despised its own perform-
1997 ances, when it compared them with its powers, and
1998 judged those works unworthy to be preserved, which
1999 the criticks of following ages were to contend for
2000 the fame of restoring and explaining.


2001 Among these candidates of inferiour fame, I am
2002 not to stand the judgment of the publick ; and wish
2003 that I could confidently produce my commentary as
2004 equal to the encouragement which I have had the 
2005 honour of receiving. Every work of this kind is by
2006 its nature deficient, and I should feel little solicitude
2007 about the sentence, were it to be pronounced only 
2008 by the skilful and the learned.


Copytext: Johnson 1765
Source: Mr. Johnson's Preface To his Edition of Shakespear's Plays. London: J. and R. Tonson and others, 1765. British Library 11766.bbb.35
Ed. (text): Ian Lancashire, Rep. Criticism On-line (1996).

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