« ForrigeFortsæt »
THE ESSAY ON THE WRITINGS AND GENIUS OF SHAKSPEARE;
Sweetest Bard that ever sung,
THE FOURTH EDITION.
It has been observed by a learned writer in a preface to his second edition, that the feelings of an author at that time, are very different from those which he experiences, when he offers a new work at the tribunal of public opinion. The truth of this observation must of course be felt more strongly in the present instance, when a fourth edition is committed to the press. The reception which the FAMILY SHAKSPEARE has experienced from the Public has indeed been gratifying. It has been commended by all those who have examined it, and censured by those only who do not appear to have made any enquiry into the merits or demerits of the performance, but condemn every attempt at removing indecency from Shakspeare. It would, indeed, have given me real pleasure, if any judicious and intelligent reader had perused the work with the eye of rigid criticism, and had pointed out any improper words which were still to be found in it. All observations of that nature would have been candidly and maturely considered, and if well founded, would have been followed by the erasure of what was faulty. On the other hand, I cannot but be gratified, at perceiving that no person appears to have detected any indecent expression in these volumes: but this has not made me less solicitous to direct my own attention to that object, and to endeavour to render this work as unobjectionable as possible. I have, therefore, in preparing this Edition for the press, taken great pains to discover and correct any defects which might formerly have escaped my notice, but they have appeared in this last perusal of the work to be very few in number, and not of any great importance. Such, however, as I have been able to perceive, I have carefully removed, and I hope I may venture to assure the parents and guardians of youth, that they may read the FAMILY SHAKSPEARE aloud in the mixed society of young persons of both sexes, sans peur et sans reproche.
My next object was to observe, whether the sense and meaning of the author were in any degree perverted or impaired by the erasures which I had made. The final decision of this question must be left to the careful and intelligent critic; but to myself it appears, that very few instances will be found in which the reader will have any cause to regret the loss of the words that have been omitted. The great objection which has been urged against the FAMILY SHAKSPEARE, and it has been urged with vehemence by those who have not examined the work, is the apprehension, that, with the erasure of the indecent passages, the spirit and fire of the poet would often be much injured, and sometimes be entirely destroyed. This objection arises principally from those persons who have confined their study of Shakspeare to the closet, and have not learned in the theatre, with how much safety it is possible to make the necessary alterations. They have not learned, or they have forgot, that except in one, or at most in two instances, the plays of our author are never presented to the public without being corrected, and more or less cleared of indecency; yet Macbeth and Othello, Lear, Hamlet, and As you Like it, continue still to exhibit the superior genius of the first of dramatic poets. The same may be said of his other transcendent works; but those which I have named are selected as being five of the finest plays in the world, the most frequently acted, the most universally admired; but of which, there is not one that can be read aloud by a gentleman to a lady, without undergoing some correction. I have attempted to do for the library what the manager does for the stage, and I wish that the persons who urge this objection would examine the plays with attention. I venture to assert, that in the far greater part of them, they would find that it is not difficult to separate the indecent from the decent expressions; and they would soon be convinced, that, by removing the stains, they would view the picture not only uninjured, but possessed of additional beauty. The truth of this observation has been expressed with such elegance, and in terms so honourable to Shakspeare, by a very superior judge of poetic composition, that I cannot resist the temptation of inserting the whole passage.
After censuring the indecencies of Dryden and Congreve, as being the exponents of licentious principles, the reviewer observes, in language more expressive than any which I could have employed, "that it has in general been found easy to extirpate the offensive "expressions of our great poet, without any injury to the context, or any visible scar, or "blank in the composition. They turn out, not to be so much cankers in the flowers, 46 as weeds that have sprung up by their side: not flaws in the metal, but impurities that "have gathered on its surface, and that, so far from being missed on their removal, the "work generally appears more natural and harmonious without them."* I will not
* Edinburgh Review, No. lxxi. p. 53,
weaken the foregoing quotation by adding any less forcible language of my own, but I will endeavour to prove by examples the perfect justice of the observation. It is indeed a difficulty, and a very great one, under which I labour, that it is not possible for me to state the words which I have omitted; but I think that I may adduce one instance, which, without offending the eye or the ear of modesty, will sufficiently confirm the remarks of the judicious reviewer, and prove that a whole scene may be omitted, not only without injury, but with manifest advantage to the drama.
In the second scene of the third act of Henry V., the English monarch, after taking Harfleur, is preparing to march towards Calais. In the fourth scene of that act, we find the French king and his counsellors deliberating on the means of intercepting the English army. These scenes naturally follow each other-but what is the intermediate scene, the third of the third act? It is a dialogue between the French princess and her female attendant, of whom she is endeavouring to learn the English language. She asks her,
Kath. Comment appellez-vous la main en Anglois ?
Alice. La main?
Elle est appellée de hand.
Kath. De hand. Et les doigts?
Alice. Les doigts? Je pense qu'ils sont appellée de fingres, ouy de fingres.
I will not tire my readers with a longer extract from this uninteresting dialogue; it is continued through more than twenty questions and answers of the very same nature; and as there is not a single word on any subject but the foregoing, every person will be ready to ask, what could induce Shakspeare to insert so useless a scene? The answer, I believe, must be, that it was written in compliance with the bad taste of the age, for the express purpose of raising a laugh at the conclusion, by introducing, through the medium of imperfect pronunciation, the two most indecent words in the French language. At the mention of those words, the princess is shocked, as every virtuous woman would be, if she were either here or elsewhere, to see them written, or hear them repeated. Is it possible that any person will feel regret at perceiving that, in the FAMILY SHAKSPEARE, the beautiful play of Henry V. is not interrupted in a very interesting part of the narrative, by so improper a scene - by a scene so totally unconnected with every thing which precedes or which follows after it, that if it were taken by itself, no reader would be able to discover in what act it was meant to be inserted? Let it not be said as an excuse, that it introduces to our acquaintance the princess, who is afterwards to be the wife of Henry. The excuse is too trifling to be admitted.
I may next observe, that the scene which I have here quoted, is by no means a solitary instance. Examples of a similar nature are to be found in several of the plays, comedies as well as tragedies. In most of these cases, the objectionable parts are so completely unconnected with the play, that one might almost be inclined to suppose, that Shakspeare, in the first instance, composed one of his beautiful dramas, and after it was finished, was compelled, by the wretched taste of the age, to add something of a low and ludicrous nature. The passages thus inserted, have really, in many cases, the appearance of interpolations; and adopting the expressive language of the reviewer, they are weeds which have sprung up by the side of the flowers, and the former being removed, the latter appear with additional beauty. What has been said of whole scenes in some instances, may be applied in a great many, to speeches, to parts of speeches, and to single words. From Macbeth, the noblest effort of dramatic genius that ever was exhibited in any age or in any language (I do not except the Edipus of Sophocles), very little has been erased; but the description of the effects of drunkenness, which is given to Macduff by the porter at the gate of the castle, is of so gross a nature, that it is impossible that any person should be sorry for its omission. The same may be said of the indecent words which are addressed by Hamlet to Ophelia, before the representation of the play. These, like most other alterations, were made without difficulty, but I confess that there are three plays, which form exceptions to what I have advanced respecting the facility of the task that I have undertaken. To Measure for Measure, Henry IV., and Othello, I have annexed particular prefaces, stating the difficulties which existed, and the method by which I should endeavour to overcome them. In the first of the three, I hope I have succeeded; and I should not be sorry if the merit of this whole work were to be decided by a comparison of this very extraordinary play, in the original, and in the FAMILY SHAKSPEARE Of Falstaff and Othello, I shall only say, that I acknowledge the difficulty of my task. I have indeed endeavoured, as cautiously as possible, to remove the objectionable speeches, without injuring the characters; but wantonness of expression and action are very closely connected with Falstaff; and the infuriate passions of rage, jealousy, and revenge, which torture the breast of Othello, are like " Macbeth's distempered cause, incapable of being completely buckled within the belt of rule."