Shakespeare’s obscurities. Most of the publishers of Shakespeare have been rather careless in their work. They have not merely corrupted some passages irrevocably but have brought many more under suspicion. In some instances the reading may be genuine and it is the obscurity resulting from the obsolete phraseology or the dramatist’s own carelessness or conceits that makes us doubt the passage. Some editors have been tempted by the ease of altering as compared to the effort of explanation. Had Shakespeare himself taken care to get the works published, scholars could afterwards have worked to disentangle the obscurities; but in the absence of an authentic edition, alterations and omissions are made on pure conjecture. Many causes have combined to make some passages in his dramas difficult or obscure. To begin with, his style is ungrammatical and to a certain extent involved and obscure. Those who wrote down the parts for the players must have made some mistakes, since they did not understand what they were copying out. Those who produced further copies might have been still more incompetent and might have continued with the previous errors as well as multiplied them with their own additions. The text was sometimes mutilated by the actors who wanted to shorten the speeches. In addition to all these there must have been printing mistakes.

Rowe’s Edition. Shakespeare’s plays remained in this condition for quite some time because the art of editing literary works had not yet been applied to modem languages. It was Rowe who brought out the first, carefully prepared edition of the plays. Rowe’s objective was not to correct or explain but to publish the works with the addition of a biographical sketch and a re-commendatory Preface. It would not be right to blame Rowe for what he did not even attempt to carry out. Rowe’s aim was not primarily to amend Shakespeare’s text or to explain its difficulties and obscurities. The errors he corrected were those which had obviously taken place at the hands of the printers. But whatever emendations he made have been adopted by his successors without any acknowledgement. As in the case of other editors, Johnson has presented Rowe’s Preface as well as the biographical sketch.

Pope’s Edition. Alexander Pope made it explicit to his readers who seemed quite satisfied with Rowes edition that the text they had was thoroughly corrupt and gave them cause for hoping that in many cases it was possible to undo the mischief or obscurity. For the first time, Pope collated old copies, and was, in this manner, able to restore many correct readings. In fact, he rejected anything that he disliked, not carrying to assess if Shakespeare had indeed written like that or not. Thus he deleted many passages. Warburton wrongly credits Pope with having distinguished the genuine plays from the corrupt or spurious ones because this had already been accomplished by the editors of the First Folio. Alexander Pope does not appear to have considered the work of editing as quite worthy of his abilities. He complains at one place about “the dull duty of an editor’. This implies that Pope understood only half of the work which an editor has to do. The work of an editor is extremely taxing and responsible. Out of as many readings as possible, the editor has to select that which best accords with the state, opinions, and modes of language prevailing in;every age, and with his author’s particular way off thinking and mode of expression. Furthermore, conjectural emendation imposes great demands upon the editor. Pope himself was not quite satisfied with his •work. Johnson, however, is full of admiration for Pope’s Preface and notes and has retained them in his own edition.

Theobald’s Edition. Pope was followed by Theobald in editing Shakespeare’s plays. Theobald was a man of narrow comprehension and little talent. He hardly possessed any inherent genius nor had he the acquired wisdom of learning. However, he had a tremendous zeal of minor accuracies and he put this fully into practice. He rectified many errors by collating older copies. He was not aware of the fact that the First Folio is the best and the later ones differ from it mostly in printing mistakes. In the beginning Johnson himself collated all the folios but later came to know that collating only the first was quite enough. Johnson has retained most of the notes which Theobald kept in his second edition. While accepting Theobald’s emendations, Johnson has uniformly omitted the editor’s immodest self-praise. Theobald was more anxious to denigrate Pope than to improve Shakespeare. (paragraphs 109-112)

Hanmer’s Edition. Sir Hanmer was the next editor. Besides being a man of wide reading and learning, he had the necessary intuition to discover the writer’s intention. He seldom ignores what he does not understand, without an attempt to find or to make a meaning. He is anxious to reduce to grammar what he is not sure that Shakespeare intended to be grammatical. Shakespeare was more attentive to the chain of ideas than of words. It was enough for him if his language could communicate the meaning he intended to convey to the audience. Besides, he wrote for the stage, not for study or research. Homer has also attempted to reform Shakespeare’s meter in many passages, thus continuing the labour of certain other radiators and he has been quite successful in his efforts. But in incorporating his emendations, he makes no mention of the varying copies, and has, in fact, accepted the emendations of his predecessors without acknowledging the debt. He was also in error to have supposed that whatever Pope and Theobald had done was right Johnson admits that he has adopted all of Hanmer’s notes which were written with care and diligence.

Warburton’s Edition. The last significant edition before Johnson’s own was that of Warburton. Johnson does not think it apt to speak ill of Warburton, because he respects him for both his piety and his learning. However, since Warburton often took liberty with other editors, he should not be annoyed to find that now Johnson had taken liberty with him. Warburton was not properly equipped for the work of textual annotation. The most striking shortcoming in his edition is that he readily accepts the first thought that came to him, without proper judgement or investigation. He is over-confident of his own competence and this lead him to hasty conclusion. Some of his interpretations are perverse; some of his surmises are unconvincing. At times he looks for more significance and implications in a passage than the author seems to have assigned to it. Where everybody can sense the meaning clearly, Warburton has invented imaginary difficulties and absurdities. However, some of his emendations are apt, and his notes also explain some of the intricate passages in an intelligent manner. Johnson has incorporated a selection from Warburton’s notes in his own edition.

Critics prone to fault finding. Dr. Johnson remember the inevitable as well as pitiful fact that critics tend to waste a good deal of their labour in condemning and contradicting conclusions, judgements and interpretations of those who had written before them. Every commentator likes to point out the shortcomings and weaknesses in what the other commentators have said about an author. The opinions and arguments dominating one age as truths or realities and contradicted and rejected in another age and are accepted again at a still later date. All those who try to contribute to human knowledge are subject to such changes of outlook. Warburton’s notes invited many protests. The chief assailants on Warburton have shown sufficient acuteness in their criticism. But even they are over-confident in their own abilities.

Upton and Grey. John Upton had published his Critical Observations on Shakespeare. Many of his observations are curious and useful but his suggested emendations are not skillful. Zachary Grey’s Critical, Historical and Explanatory Notes on Shakespeare is a piece having some practical observations, but it is neither judicial nor emendatory. Grey has the virtue of modesty which should be an example for others.

Dr. Johnson’s debt to others. Johnson goes on to express the view that none of his predecessors has left Shakespeare without improvement. He also admits his sense of obligation to all of them for information and helpful hints. He has acknowledged this obligation in each case and where he leaves it unsaid, it is in the belief that what he is writing is his own. Johnson also says that if in any case he has expressed an opinion or view which, without his knowledge, had already been expressed by some other commentator, he is ready to impart the honour to the first claimant.

The envy and intolerance or commentators. In dealing with all other commentators and critics, Johnson admits to have shown a frankness which they themselves have not shown tç one another. Why these commentators should feel bitter against one another is not easy to understand. The various, readings of copies and manifold interpretations of a passage should exercise the wit and judgement of commentators but should not provoke their passion. But it seems that petty things make mean men proud and any opposition makes the proud angry. In the commentaries on Shakespeare there is often an unbecoming element of hatred and abuse for fellow commentators. One reason for this may be that they have little else to say and they wish to lend weight to their matter by pouring out invective. They make vehemence and rage compensate for the lack of substance and dignity in their essays.


Johnson’s methods. Johnson has prepared three kinds of notes for his edition of Shakespeare. The first is illustrative by which he means explanation of difficulties; the second is judicial which means pointing out the faults and beauties; and the third is emendatory by which he means the connection of corrupt lines and passages. A few of these notes, he says, are borrowed from others because he accepts them as accurate.

Unravelling the obscurities. After all the labour of various editors, Dr. Johnson discovered passages in Shakespeare’s plays likely to hinder the majority of readers from understanding the plays. He has attempted to explain such passages but he has taken care to see that his explanations are not unnecessarily elaborate or excessively economical. He believes that he has made Shakespeare’s implications clear to man who had earlier been frightened to read Shakespeare.

Johnson does not claim perfection. A complete or perfect explanation of an author like Shakespeare, who abounds in casual allusions, and light hints, is not possible for any single scholiast to achieve. Shakespeare’s dramas include references to persons, manners, and practices familiar to all in his own period but entirely forgotten afterwards. It is the duty of an editor to illuminate’ as many of these matters as he can explore. Dr. Johnson says that he has allowed some passage to remain unexplained, for he himself did not understand them. These may be explained by some future editor, Johnson has also explained some passages which were ‘neglected or misunderstood previously. While in same cases Johnson had supplied only brief remarks or instructions, at some other places he has given more laborious comments. To an editor there is nothing trivial if it obscures his author’s work.

 The readers left to make their own judgement of Shakespeare. Dr. Johnson says that he has not been very laborious about pointing but poetical beauties and defects. In the case of some plays he has given a few judicial observations and in the case of others more such observations, depending, not on the good aspects of the plays, but on his own, caprice. Though every reader ought to form his own judgements, some initiation is essential. In gaining any kind of skill some instruction is necessary. Dr. Johnson has, accordingly, provided the necessary guidance, leaving, the reader to make his own discoveries and from his won critical assessment of Shakespeare’s plays.

Adulation and censure. At the end of most plays, Dr. Johnson says, he has. added brief evaluation consisting a general praise of excellence or condemnation of faults. As his analysis of the plays has not been minute, the plays which he has condemned may contain much that is laudable and those which he has praised may contain much deserving to be condemned.

Collection and conjecture. Many editors have been engaged in the emendation of corrupted passages and lines, of Shakespeare. It was the violent and popular controversy between Pope and Theobald that first drew the attention of the public to this issue. The restoration of passages that are believed to have suffered deprivation could attempted only by collation of copies or’ by power of conjecture. Collating is. easy, whereas, conjecture is dangerous and difficult. As the greater part of the plays were available only in one copy, the risk of conjecture was unavoidable. Dr. Johnson informs us that he has made use of some of the emendations of every editor; he has rejected some without mentioning them; some he has mentioned in the notes without comment of approval disapproval; and some he has included along with his adverse comments.

 Neither presumptuous nor timid. Johnson has collated such copies as he could obtain and wished that he could have obtained more. His analysis of the old copies showed him that the later publishers permitted many passages to stand without authority, and were content with Rowe’s regulation of the text even where it was either arbitrary or wrong. Johnson removed such corruption’s because the history of the English language and the true force of words could be safeguarded only by preserving the text of authors from corruption. Other editors had improved upon the cadence and metre; but Dr. Johnson did not exercise much effort on such matters. The emendations which were supplied by a comparison of copies have been incorporated by Dr. Johnson in the text, sometimes with an explanation of the causes for change. He held that the reading of old books ought not to be disturbed just for the sake of elegance, lucidity or improvement of the sense. Those who had the copy before them were more likely to be right in their version than those who depended upon speculations later. But mistakes either through ignorance or through negligence have occurred. Hence criticism must play its part, although Dr. Johnson in attempting such criticism has followed the middle path “between presumption and timidity.” His first endeavour, however, was always to examine the old text from every perspective and to make changes only when an exhaustive scrutiny justified it. As a result, he has rescued’ many lines and scenes from corrections which were not required but that had been made by over-enthusiastic editors.

Division of plays into five acts. Dr. Johnson says that he has fallowed the customary division of the plays into acts, though he thinks that this distribution has little sanction behind it. The settled convention of the theatre demanded four intervals in a play, but few, if any, of Shakespeare’s plays could be properly distributed in that manner. A act is meant to represent that length of a drama as passes without any intervention of time ‘or alteration of place. So, a pause means the beginning of a new act. The limit of five acts was therefore arbitrary. Shakespeare might have been aware of this fact and may have been why he wrote his plays in an unbroken continuity. The right thing to do in this context is to perform the plays with short pauses occurring as many times as the scene is changed or as often as any considerable time is supposed to elapse.

An editor takes everything seriously. Dr. Johnson has not insisted on restoring Shakespeare’s original punctuation. Nor has he been particular about the particles and other words of trivial effect which he has often included or omitted without notice. Readers who blame editors for applying too much effort on mere trifles do not understand what the art of editing implies.

Johnson avoids conjectural emendations. Dr. Johnson for bears from inserting his won readings in the text because he does not think it sensible to rely on conjecture. Wherever he has been led by conjecture, the effect may have been freakish but harmless, in so far as the text on the whole has remained uninjured. Nor has he made any pompous display of his own readings. The notes written by him, for example, could have been much longer, for the skill of writing notes is not a difficult one. But Johnson believes that there is no need to change a text if the proposed improvement or change may require lengthy justification. His analysis of the work of his predecessors had unfolded many critical misadventures and errors. He had found that the editors of Shakespeare had struggled with their own sophistry and been confused by their own learning. This makes him feel that his own emendations and notes might be held erroneous or flippant by posterity. Since there is no system in’ his art, a conjectural critic will often be mistaken. He may fail, and fail ridiculously because of even a slight misunderstanding of a phrase or an oblique view of a passage. Thus the pleasure of conjecture hides a real danger.

Conjectural criticism ; Its merits and defects. In spite of defects, conjectural criticism has been of much use in the world of learning. Such criticism has left a deep impact on powerful minds, from Joannes Andreas to Richard Bentley. The editors of classical authors, however, get much assistance which an editor of Shakespeare does not get. The former have to deal with grammatical and settled languages whose construction contributes so much to clarity that there are fewer unintelligible passages in Homer than in Chaucer. Furthermore, there are generally more than one manuscript in the case of classical authors, and those manuscripts do not often make the same mistakes. Even then Scaliger confesses that his emendations of ancient authors gave him little satisfaction. He says; Our conjectures make us look silly, •we are shamed of them after we have come upon better manuscripts.” Lipsius laments that critics bring in faults by trying to remove them. And, in fact, where mere conjecture is to be used, the emendations of Scaliger and Lipsius with regard to ancient classical authors are often as vague and disputable as those of Theobald or Dr. Johnson himself in respect of. Shakespeare,

Dr. Johnson’s achievements and failures. Dr. Johnson maintains that he, in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays, may not have fulfilled expectations, either of the ignorant or of the learned. Nor is he himself satisfied with the work although he has performed it in all seriousness. He has endeavoured to restore all the passages in Shakespeare’s plays that seemed to be corrupt and he has attempted to explain every single passage that seemed to him obscure. In case of a few passages he has failed, like many others before him, and he confesses his incompetence. He acknowledges the fact wherever he himself cannot understand a passage. Wherever a passage does not call for comment, he has left it alone and were others have commented enough he has forborne from adding anything further.

How to read Shakespeare. Notes are necessary evils. However, one who wants to appreciate Shakespeare should first read his plays from beginning to end without any help from the annotators or commentators. Let him go through clear and obscure passages, the genuine, the corrupted or the interpolated ones. Only on having done so and enjoyed the pleasures of novelty, should he turn to the commentators and try to get exact meanings. A reader who concentrates on particular passages in the very first instance may not feel the full impact of the play. Parts of a work should not be analysed until the whole has been surveyed. Analysis of parts may reveal the smaller niceties, but the process will obscure the beauty of the whole.

Dryden’s contribution. The numerous editions of Shakespeare by countless editors have not enhanced the pleasure that Shakespeare gives to his readers. Even before these, and when the text of plays were corrupt, and before editors proclaimed their discoveries, Dryden had paid a valuable tribute to the excellence of Shakespeare. For Dryden, Shakespeare was naturally learned and did not require the spectacles of books to study nature. Many passages in Shakespeare are flat and insipid. Most of his comic wit is vulgar and much of his serious writing is bombastic. But the real test, where Shakespeare is proved to be great, is when he is presented with some great occasion. Dry den holds that whenever Shakespeare had a fit subject for his genius, he could rise to a level higher than other poets.  Shakespeare himself is responsible for his obscurity. It is regrettable, says Dr. Johnson, that a writer like Shakespeare should need a commentary and that his language should become obsolete or his sentiments obscure. But chance and time have brought about such a situation. Shakespeare has suffered much through his own indifference to fame or perhaps due to that superiority of mind which estimated its productions as unworthy to be preserved.

Modesty of Dr. Johnson. The Preface to Shakespeare is brought to a conclusion with the remark that Dr. Johnson is leaving his work for the judgement of the public. He acknowledges the encouragement he has got in the execution of his work and he hopes that his work will be satisfactory to the extent to which he has been encouraged. By its very nature a work of this kind falls short of all-round perfection, and he would not feel disappointed if his attempts are found to be unworthy by those qualified and competent to judge.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.