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conceived them. Who, as he was a happy imitator of nature, was a most gentle expresser of it: his mind and hand went together; and what he thought he uttered with that asiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.”
Here we have certainly, along with an emphatic and undiscriminating condemnation of all the preceding impressions, a distinct declaration by the publishers of the present volume that they had the use of the author's manuscripts. It is the only mention to be found anywhere of any of the Plays being in existence in his own handwriting. No doubt can reasonably be entertained that such of his papers as were in possession of the Blackfriars Theatre, to which Heminge and Condell, like himself, belonged, were placed at their disposal. And we may assume that from these the edition of 1623 was set up, so far as they went and could be made available.
But it would be a great straining of such premises to conclude that the First Folio is to be accepted throughout as anything like an infallible authority in all cases for what Shakespeare actually wrote. That would, for one thing, be to suppose an accuracy and correctness of printing and editing of which there is no example in the published popular literature of that age, least of all in the drama, which was hardly looked upon as belonging to literature, and in regard to which the Press, when it was resorted to, was always felt to be at best but an imperfect and unnatural substitute for the proper mode of publication by means of the Stage. The writer, it would seem to
in the Preface to his “ Historiæ Anglicanæ Scriptores Decem" (1652), speaking of the pains that had been taken to insure the accuracy of the text, says, “ Nihil unquam apud nos, tanti saltem conaminis, .. adeo omnibus numeris absolutum prodiisse memini.”
have been thought, could not well claim as a work what called itself only a play. Nor do the publishers in the present instance make profession of having bestowed any special care upon the editing of their volume; what they say (or more probably what some regular author of the day, Ben Jonson, as it has been conjectured, or another, had been got to write in their names) is nothing more than the sort of recommendation with which it was customary for enlarged and improved editions to be introduced to the world, and the only positive assertion which it can be held to involve is, that the new impression of the Plays had been set up, at least in part, from the author's own manuscript. They lay claim, and we may therefore be sure could lay claim, to nothing further. They even admit, as we have seen, that it would have been better if the author himself had superintended the publication. Of correction of the press there is not one word. That, we may be pretty certain, was left merely to the printer. It is not likely that the two players, who, with the exception of this Dedication and Preface, to which their names are attached, are quite unknown in connection with literature, were at all qualified for such a function, which is not one to be satisfactorily discharged even by persons accustomed to writing for the press without some practice.
But this is not all. The materials which Heminge and Condell, or whoever may have taken charge of the printing of the First Folio, had at their command, were very possibly insufficient to enable them to produce a perfect text, although both their care and their competency had been greater than they probably were. In the first place, there is nothing in what they say to entitle us to assume that they
had the author's own manuscript for more than some of the Plays. But, further, we do not know what may have been the state of such of his papers as were in their hands. We are told, indeed, that they were without a blot, and the fact is an interesting one in reference to Shakespeare's habits of compro sition ; but it has no bearing upon the claims of the text of this First Folio to be accounted a correct representation of what he had written. He had been in his grave for seven years; the latest of the original copies of the Plays were of that antiquity at the least; most of them must have been much older. If, as is probable, they had been ever since they were written in use at the theatres, it can hardly have been that such of them as were not quite worn out should not have suffered more or less of injury, and have become illegible, or legible only with great difficulty, in various passages. Nor may the handwriting, even when not partially obliterated, have been very easy to decipher. The very rapidity with which the poet's “thick-coming fancies” had been committed to the paper may have made the record of them, free from blots as it was, still one not to be read running, or unlikely to trip a reader to whom it was not familiar.
When we take up and examine the volume itself, we find it to present the very characteristics which these considerations would lead us to expect. As a typographical production it is better executed than the common run of the English popular printing of that date. It is rather superior, for instance, in point of appearance, and very decidedly in correctness, to the Second Folio, produced nine years later. Nevertheless it is obviously, to the most cursory inspection, very far from what would now be called even a tol
erably well printed book. There is probably not a page in it which is not disfigured by many minute inaccuracies and irregularities, such as never appear in modern printing. The punctuation is throughout rude and negligent, even where it is not palpably blundering. The most elementary proprieties of the metrical arrangement are violated in innumerable passages. In some places the verse is printed as plain prose; elsewhere, prose is ignorantly and ludicrously exhibited in the guise of verse. Indis. putable and undisputed errors are of frequent occur rence, so gross that it is impossible they could have been passed over, at any rate in such numbers, if the proof-sheets had undergone any systematic revision by a qualified person, however rapid. They were probably read in the printing-office, with more or less attention, when there was time, and often, when there was any hurry or pressure, sent to press with little or no examination. Everything betokens that editor or editing of the volume, in any proper or distinctive sense, there could have been none. The only editor was manifestly the head workman in the printing-office.
On closer inspection, we detect other indications. In one instance, at least, we have actually the names of the actors by whom the Play was performed prefixed to their portions of the dialogue instead of those of the dramatis persone. Mr. Knight, in noticing this circumstance, observes that it shows very clearly the text of the Play in which it occurs (Much Ado About Nothing) to have been taken from the playhouse copy, or what is called the prompter's book.* But the fact is, that the scene in question is given in
* Library Shakspere, II. 366.
the same way in the previous Quarto edition of the Play, published in 1600 ; so that here the printers of the Folio had evidently no manuscript of any kind in their hands, any more than they had any one over them to prevent them from blindly following their printed copy into the most transparent absurdities. The Quarto, to the guidance of which they were left, had evidently been set up from the prompter's book, and the proof-sheets could not have been read either by the author or by any other competent per:
In the case of how many more of the Plays the Folio in like manner may have been printed only from the previously published separate editions we cannot be sure. But other errors, with which the volume abounds, are evidence of something more than this. In addition to a large number of doubtful or disputed passages, there are many readings in it which are either absolutely unintelligible, and therefore certainly corrupt, or, although not purely nonsensical, yet clearly wrong, and at the same time such as are hardly to be sufficiently accounted for as the natural mistakes of the compositor. Sometimes what is evidently the true word or expression has given place to another having possibly more or less resemblance to it in form, but none in signification; in other cases, what is indispensable to the sense, or to the continuity and completeness of the dramatic narrative, is altogether omitted. Such errors and deficiencies can only be explained on the supposition that the compositor had been left to depend upon a manuscript which was imperfect, or which could not be read. It is remarkable that deformities of this kind are apt to be found accumulated at one place; there are as it were nests or eruptions of them; they run into constellations; showing that the