I beg leave to submit to your notice a plan, which I have long entertained, for the correction of the text of Shakespeare, and of the comments on his works; both of which are in a state, very unsatisfactory to the critical reader. This is evident to all who have examined the folios, and quartos, and have given much attention to the subject. Another remark will strike them, from the experience of the past, that the work is too vast for the powers of an individual, it follows, therefore, that it could only attempted with success by a society expressly formed for the purpose. It is my project that such a society should be formed, the nucleus of which, if not the whole, should consist of members of the Athenæum, <1> of a thousand members at an annual subscription of one sovereign each. The place of meeting should be a room, or rooms at the British Musæum, where all the editions of “The Poet” should be collected, and all the various works which come under the head of Shakespeariana, and where a committee should sit to determine the text, and notes, and to consider the communications which should be publicly invited. In this manner, and in this manner only, can a national edition be prepared, worthy of Shakespeare, and of the British Nation. It is wonderful that more than a century of criticism, by men of the greatest learning and genius, and with the most ample preparation, should have left the errors of the first folio uncorrected. I will take the liberty of subjoining two striking instances which have escaped the observation of succeeding editors. In the last editions, a passage at the end of Antony and Cleopatra is printed thus –
such as the aspic leaves
Upon the caves of Nile,<2>
There are probably no caves in lower Egypt, or if there were, “upon the caves” would mark out no locality distinct from that of the neighboring country. We should read “the canes of Nile” The words “canes” and “reeds,” are used as synonyms by Minsheu,<3> and by Gerard<4> in his herbal, who speaks indiscriminately of the “sugar cane” and the “sugar reed,” and what is more to the purpose, Jeremy Taylor<5> speaks expressly of “the canes of Nilus.” On turning to the first folio the cause of the error becomes very evident, namely the reversion of a letter by the compositor, an accident which often occurred. It is there printed “causes”, the “n” being inserted reversed. The alteration, when considered, is obvious, and the effect on the tone of the passage very striking. – The other instance is where a line has been suffered to retain a wrong place, tho thus situated, the nonsense it makes is irremediable. It occurs in the first scene of Troilus and Cressida. The passage in the modern editions stands thus, being an exact copy of the first folio –
Thou answer’st, She is fair;
Poursd in the open ulcer of my heart,
Her eyes, her hair, her checks, her gait, her voice
Handlest in thy discourse
Its proper place is at the end of the speech. It was probably originally left out in M.S., afterwards written in the margin, which caused it to be misplaced by the Compositor. It should be read as follows with a very slight alteration
But saying thus, instead of oil and balm,
Pour’d in the open ulcer of my heart,
Thou lay’st in every gash that love has given me,
The knife that made it–
There is a variety of consideration of different kinds which call loudly for a correct national edition of the greatest of modern poets, on principles to be discussed and settled, not by the caprice of individuals; but by the cool judgment of a board properly qualified. If a certain number of persons were to associate for the purpose, I apprehend that it would not be difficult to obtain from the government a locality either at the British Musæum, which for the purpose of consulting the library would be far preferable, or at Somerset House, or the New Record Office<6>
I am Sir With the greatest Respt Yr Obedt Servt
Decr 15th 1834
1. The Athenaeum Club, a social club for artistic, literary and scientific men and for patrons of the arts and sciences. Members (except for judges and Bishops) were required to have published some "literary or professional work". Michael Faraday was the first Secretary and the first Chairman was Sir Humphry Davy. WHFT was a very early member, inducted while the planning group was meeting at a member's home, but membership was soon limited to 1000. The club took on rented premises in May 1824 and moved into its present building on Pall Mall in 1830.
2. Anthony & Cleopatra, v.11. 349-350. In spite of Barry's arguments, 'caves' is still considered to be the standard reading.
3. John Minsheu (1560-1627), an English linguist and lexicographer of uncertain biography. His 1599 Spanish Grammar was highly influential but his major work was his 1617 Hegemon eis tas glossas = id est, Ductor in linguas = The guide into tongues : cum illarum harmonia & etymologijs, originationibus, rationibus, [et] deriuationibus in omnibus his vndecim linguis, viz : 1. Anglica, 2. Cambro-Britanica, 3. Belgica, 4. Germanica, 5. Gallica, 6. Italica, 7. Hispanica, 8. Lusitanica, seu Portugallica, 9. Latina, 10. Graeca, 11. Hebrea, &c.
4. John Gerard (1545-1612), The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes (London: John Norton, 1597).
5. Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), clergyman and prolific author.
6. The Public Record Office was not to be opened for another four years. It brought together previously scattered government and court records, from various departments, the Tower of London and the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. It was originally housed on the border of the City of London, on Chancery Lane, but the public was not permitted access until 1852.
7. Draycot House and Park, Draycot Cerne, near Chippenham, Wiltshire.