Dr. Furness's Shakespeare

THE tenth volume of Dr. Horace Howard Furness’s New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare 1 is devoted to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or, as the title always appears upon the pages of the book, A Midsominer Nights Dreame. The tenth volume treats of the ninth play; for, in the noble series, which now covers Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, The Tempest, and finally this comedy of fairydom, two full octavos are given to the tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Between the small world of specialists who greedily appropriate what is printed upon their subjects, as if the matter concerned themselves alone, and the great world of men to whom both the subject and the treatment are alike unimportant, there is sometimes a sort of friction, when a rare textbook appears, — a tone of exclusive satisfaction in the one jarring upon a sense of frank indifference in the other. There should be no such dissonance because of the publication of these volumes. Like the poet himself, this edition of his plays is not for the few, but for the many ; it is “ not of an age, but for all time,” —if one in our speedy day may reckon as endless that long century or two within which no other Variorum of Shakespeare will be needed or desired. The last Variorum of the great dramatist was fifty years old when Dr. Furness began to print; and his work garners all that has the permanence of worth in the edition of 1821 and in preceding texts and comments, as well as all the best that the fruitful half-century between Malone and our own day has brought forth. The indications are plain that there is now to be a suspension in the productiveness of the commentators and editors, and that the twentieth century will have leisure for the consumption and digestion of the vast mass of accumulated Shakespearean lore. The sonnets will, perhaps, still furnish a good field for labor, since it may well be that Mr. Tyler’s remarkable volume has not exhausted the possibilities of investigation among those poems where, with the “ key” of the sonnet form, “ Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” But it is not credible that many very important additions will for a long time be made to the present emendations and explanations of the text of the plays ; and it also seems unlikely that criticisms and comments characterized by both value and novelty will be nearly as numerous in the future as they have been in the past.

Dr. Furness’s Variorum offers Shakespeare’s plays in a shape which appeals not only to the scholar and the specialist, but to every man and every woman who has any feeling for the beauty and humanness of the dramatist’s text, any sense of the distinction and might of his genius. The reader may, if he have the heart so to do, skip the brilliant illuminating preface wherein Dr. Furness has considered text and text-writers, and presented his own playfully poetical theory of the movement of the action ; proceeding to the comedy itself, he shall, if he chooses, make no account of the varied texts which may be substituted for the chief one before him ; he may absorb as much or as little as he likes of the notes, which at the bottom of every page discuss, and as a rule elucidate, the obscurities of every obscure line ; and when he has finished Puck’s epilogue, he may stop short and refuse to glance at the sequent hundred pages of Appendix, which treat of “ the text,” “ the date of composition ” of the play, “ the source of the plot,” then present the best criticisms, English, American, and German, upon the drama and its personages, and finally deal with “notable performances ” and questions of “costume.”Even the man who has contrived thus to refrain from sharing the treasure-trove of the editor may exult in the thought that he has read the most fanciful play ever written in any language, and that through the clear and eye-sustaining typography of this edition he has made himself acquainted with the text of the great First Folio, and, consciously or not, has bumped his mind against the haphazard proof-reader and the ear-informed type-setter of the year of our Lord 1623.

The value of the edition to all those who care to study the plays of Shakespeare with any deliberation is incalculable. The patience and cunning of the most patient and skillful of hands, the acuteness of the keenest of eyes, the sensibility of the most delicate and highly cultivated of ears, the judgment of a mind exceptionally strong and apt and sympathetic to deal with the thousand difficulties and subtilties of the language and the thought, — all these Dr. Furness has employed for many strenuous months, that for the student the varied crookednesses of the text may be made straight, the many rough places plain ; that the taste of the careful reader may be refined and delighted; that the scholar may be qualified to deal with the drama in every particular of its letter, and yet taught to grow in the higher knowledge and appreciation of its spirit. And only they who have in their own persons made the experiment have any adequate conception of the difference which the existence or non-existence of a Furness Variorum makes to the ordinary student of Shakespeare in the comfort, celerity, and certainty with which his questions may be answered and his doubts resolved.

In this volume, as in the four immediately preceding it, Dr. Furness has adopted the text of the First Folio, “ reproducing it,” as he says, “ with all the exactitude in his power.” This text was printed from Roberts’s unregistered quarto, published in 1600, which itself followed Fisher’s first or registered quarto, correcting some of the errors and improving the stage directions of that first edition, which had “ the better text,” but “ inferior typography.” The editor’s comment, in his admirable preface upon these “ theoretically three texts, but virtually one text,” is as entertaining as it is shrewd and instructive. He shows our very eyes how and why the compositors of the First Folio blundered. For instance, the artisan who set up Act III. Scene I. of the comedy blindly and deafly turned the close of one of Titania’s speeches into a stage direction, and then displayed his superior intelligence by altering the sequent lines in order to meet the difficulty which he himself had created. The result in the First Folio’s text was this : —

Titania. And I will purge thy mortall grossenesse so,

That thou shalt like an aerie spirit go.


Fairies. Ready: and I, and I, and I, Where shall we go ?

“ Had the Folio been our only text,” says Dr. Furness, “there would have been much shedding of Christian, and I fear it must be added unchristian ink ; ” for who and where are the eight fairies who have now been evolved out of Shakespeare’s original four ? But by the help of the rough little quartos we are enabled to defy the super-ingenious compositor of the Folio, and to make up our text into the piquant fragments with which all Shakespeareans are now familiar, to wit: —

Titania. And I will purge thy mortal grossness so

That thou shalt like an airy spirit go. Peas-blossom ! Cobweb! Moth! Mustard Seed!

Enter Four Fairies.

Fair. Ready; and I, and I, and I, Where shall we go ?

From this form of the last line there is but a step to its subdivision, and the distribution of its several bits each to one of Titania’s little henchmen in the modes adopted by Rowe and White and modern editors generally.

The matter of misprints is very interestingly treated by Dr. Furness, and especially noteworthy are his illustrations of the errors made by compositors who set up “ by the ear from direction instead of by the eye from manuscript.” We have it upon the authority of Conrad Zeltner, a learned printer of the seventeenth century, that it was customary to employ a reader to read aloud to the compositors, who set the types from dictation, not seeing the copy. When the workmen were ignorant, this method was sure to produce many errors. Dr. Furness cites from the quarto text of this comedy several examples of such blundering through the ear. Thus “ Dian’s bud o’er Cupid’s flower ” is changed to “ Dian’s bud or Cupid’s flower ; ” and “ When the Wolf behowds the Moon ” is shorn of its peculiar picturesqueness, and weakened into “ When the Wolf beholds the moon.” “ The absorption of consonants ” through careless reading or hearing is discussed with great ability, and many undoubted examples are given. An original suggestion of Dr. Furness with regard to a difficult passage in another play may well be quoted in full: "The same absorption occurs, I think, in a line in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock’s meaning has greatly puzzled editors and critics where he says to the Duke at the beginning of the trial: ’I ’ll not answer that: But say it is my humour, Is it answered ? ’ Thus read, the reply is little short of self-contradiction. Shylock says he will not answer, and yet asks the Duke if he is answered. Grant that the conjunction to was heard by the compositor in the final t of ’But,’ and we have the full phrase ‘ I ’ll not answer that but to say it is my humour ; ’ that is,

’I ’ll answer that no further than to say it is my humour. Is it answered?’ ”

Wisely does Dr. Furness lay down as the editor’s surest guide in the criticism of texts, "Durior lectio preferenda est.” In lucid and eloquent phrase he remarks of the matter of emendations that most readers of Shakespeare have but a faint conception of "the exquisite nicety demanded at the present day in emending Shakespeare’s text, — a nicety of judgment, a nicety of knowledge of Elizabethan literature, a nicety of ear, which alone bars all foreigners from the task, and, beyond all, a thorough mastery of Shakespeare’s style and ways of thinking, which alone should bar all the rest of us.” And after this utterance of a real scholar’s modesty, he goes on to say that the great harvests of valuable suggestion have already been reaped, and "the gleaning in this kind must now be of the very scantiest; at the present day those who know the most venture the least.”All of which is true and finely put. But the grateful follower of the Furness Variorum, in this volume as in its predecessors, will not allow himself to forget with what lucidity, simplicity, and force Dr. Furness habitually sums up the case, after a long citation of the conflicting opinions of divers emenders, and gives his own quiet adhesions to one or another, often making some valuable addition thereto or variation thereof out of his own wit and learning.

The passage from the preface just now quoted in part cites the names of the masters of the textual criticism of Shakespeare. And it is worth while to pause for a moment, and see who they are whose judgments have best endured the hard sifting of the years. It is worth while, and it is also not very difficult. Nearly all Shakespeareans are now aware of the sharp-eyed shrewdness and ingenuity of Capell, whose edition is a hundred and thirty years old ; of Alexander Pope’s frequent, ignorant recklessness and occasional brilliancy in guessing; of Richard Grant White’s audacities, inaccuracies, and startling felicities; of Dyce’s scholarly indecisions and fine delicacies ; of W. A. Wright’s ripe scholarship and judicial temper. But even at the risk of emphasizing what perhaps needs no new emphasis, the writer ventures to add his small note to the full chorus of praise with which all Shakespeareans now greet the name of Lewis Theobald, whose first edition of Shakespeare was printed in 1733; of Theobald, — clarum et venerabile nomen ! — that most subtile, sensitive, sympathetic, and intuitive commentator, with the help of whose finely attuned ears and dexterous but reverent hands the corrupted texts of the dramas were often cleansed, and Shakespeare’s own phrase discovered and reinstated. To Mr. John Churton Collins and his article The Porson of Shakesperean Criticism, printed in the Quarterly Review, the world owes the ringing and triumphant vindication of this man, whose fame was long obscured by Pope’s dark and envious malevolence. His supreme achievement, the most brilliant conjectural emendation ever suggested of the text of an English writer, ought always to be associated with his name. For it was Theobald who proposed to substitute, in Mrs. Quickly’s description of the death of Falstaff, for the unmeaning blindness of the folio line, "and a table of greenfield,” the memorable words, “ and a’ babbled of green fields,” which has long been accepted as the true and most characteristically Shakespearean phrase. This was his greatest single achievement ; but it was only one of scores which testify to his extraordinary ability. The text of the comedy before us repeatedly bears witness to his fruitful skill, as for instance in the substitution of “ counsels sweet ” for the two final words of Hermia’s line in the quartos and folios,

Emptying our bosoms of their counsel
swelled ; ”

and a little later in the same speech, the change of the old text,

“ To seeke new friends and strange companions,”into
“ To seek new friends and stranger companies.”

Dr. Furness was always intolerant of the Dryasdusts ; and he is even more impatient with them when they awkwardly gambol or brawl within the elf-haunted dales and forests of this comedy than he was in his first volume with their clumsy intrusions into "Juliet’s moonlit bower.” The writer ventures to utter a meek regret that our master in Shakespearean criticism is quite indifferent to questions about the dates of the compositions of the dramas and many such matters, which may be of some if not of prime importance, and that he pitches together the various speculations upon several of these minor subjects with frankly impartial contemptuousness, as who should say, ” An you will have any of them, choose.” But it is conceded that the point is not of great value. When anything is in hand which Dr. Furness regards as bearing directly or indirectly upon "some necessary question of the play,” he is all alertness and devotion. Indeed, it is the exceptional largeness of his mind which, with his profound sensibility to the poetical value of the text, has given him his peculiar power as a commentator. His sense of proportion never forsakes him, and his wit often makes a quick cut of some foolish little knot which was “ too intrinse ” for the peeking criticasters to unloose. His humor, also, constantly waters the pages of the volume and refreshes the more arid wastes of notes, as for example in his delicious discussion of Halpin’s laborious explanation of Oberon’s most famous speech. And, apropos, it is interesting to observe that poor, lumbering, blundering, earnest, prosaic Bishop Warburton seems in a fair way to come out triumphant as to the "mermaid on a dolphin’s back.” The twenty-five lines of Oberon beginning, “ My gentle Puck, come hither,” have caused "more voluminous speculation than any other twenty-five lines of Shakespeare,” says Dr. Furness. He humorously discredits Halpin’s stuff, which Gerald Massey soiemnly accepts, and rejects in sum and detail, except as to Queen Elizabeth, the historic allegory which makes the following assignment of dramatis personarum in the passage : —

“ The fair Vestal ” or “ cold Moon,” Queen Elizabeth ; "Cupid all armed,” the Earl of Leicester ; “ The Earth,” the Countess of Sheffield; “ A little Western flower,” Lettice Knollys, wife of the Earl of Essex.

“ Possibly,” says the editor, the eminent writers who do not even allude to Mr. Halpin "were repelled by the cruel conclusion that it was not a flower, but Lettice Knollys, that was to be squeezed in Titania’s eyes.” But the allusion to the queen in the “ fair Vestal ” is not to be questioned ; and, with all the numerous critics’ elaborated contempt of Warburton before his eyes, Dr. Furness perhaps implies his hesitating acceptance of the judicious Hunter’s hearty acceptance of the bishop’s much-sniffed-at theory. Mary, Queen of Scots, her fascinations and the disasters she wrought among the high nobility, might well be symbolized by a mermaid or siren, uttering "such dulcet and harmonious breath ” that “ the rude sea grew civil at her song,” and “ certain stars shot madly from their spheres to hear the sea-maid’s music.” Shakespeare might with prudence have chanced the passage when the play was performed. The allusion is veiled, and, in the general loyal clamor and excitement of the audience which presently greeted the mention of the “ fair Vestal thronèd by the West,” the introductory lines would have been forgotten. Six years later, only two or three years before Elizabeth’s death, namely in 1600, the comedy might safely have been printed as an old story.

The point is not new, but Dr. Furness’s demonstration is complete that Shakespeare created out of his own fancy the fairy folk whose charms and witcheries fill the moonlit spaces of this dream of a midsummer night. All of them, that is to say, but Puck. There were elves and ouphes, to be sure, before the day of the master poet, “ who danced ful oft in many a grene mede,” as says Chaucer, until the friars and pardoners exorcised them out of England. Progeny were they of the elves of Germany and Scandinavia, queer, fantastic, eccentric creatures of the tribe of Pouck, the devilkin. But the delicate, dainty, gracious company of little atomies, who are of the court of Oberon and Titania, “ spirits of another sort,” "finely touched to ” finer “ issues,” are the children of Shakespeare’s own pure brain. Even Puck is exalted by Shakespeare out of his old nature, and, merry Hob-goblin at the opening of the play, is almost ethereal by the close of the fifth act.

Three pages of his preface Dr. Furness devotes to working out a gay, ingenious, and gracefully fanciful theory of the duration of the action of the comedy. The excellent Mr. P. A. Daniell, supposed to be the final authority in such matters, finds only three days and nights in the text, and thinks Shakespeare has come short of Theseus’s promise by a day, or even more. Dr. Furness says that there are four days in the play, and that they “ have but one night; ” that “ the lovers have quarreled and slept, not through one night, but three nights, and these three nights have been one night.” It would be scarcely worth while to antagonize this opinion, except in the arena of a fairy ring, with weapons made of moonbeams or cricket bone. But we must enter an impassioned protest against Dr. Furness’s suggestion that Titania wooed Nick Bottom at high noon, humble-bees or no humble-bees. The fairies are all of the night: “ with the morning’s love ” the chief of them may “ sport,” but only until the day is ready to dawn ; they run ever “ by the triple Hecate’s team, from the presence of the sun, following darkness as a dream ; ” the garish day knows neither their works nor their loves. Again, with all sobriety, though the passage of the time of the bewildering comedy may be obscure, its moonlight should be luminous. In the first four lines of the play, and in a half line a little later, the magnificent Theseus has wrought all of us much trouble by proclaiming, as the commentators have thought, that it will be four days before “ the next new moon.” Yet the play is flooded with moonshine ; one can "find ” it “out” in nearly every scene, as Quince discovered it in his “ calender.”May not the explanation be simply this : that Theseus, a soldier and man of affairs, though also unquestionably a person with views about poets, uses “ moon “ always as equivalent to “ month,” while his bride, with her sex’s natural penchant toward moonlight, employs the word in the usual modern fashion ? It is four days before the month of May, which is the next month, or “ moon.” Even Tennyson, in one of his late poems, calls March the “ roaring moon of daffodil and crocus.” This explanation accepted, all goes well and shiningly. And in that view, Hippolyta’s much-queried lines need no change of any sort, and may stand as they stood in both the quartos and all the folios : —

“ Foure nights will quickly dreame away the time:
And then the Moone, like to a silver bowe
Now bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.”

No occasion then exists to turn “ now ” into “ new,” after the fashion of nearly all the critics. The moon is young, says Hippolyta, “ now bent in heaven ” like to a silver bow ; ” ninety-six hours hence it will shine through nearly all our wedding night.

We take our leave of this great book with a renewed feeling of gratitude to the wise and gentle student, of whose scholarship it is the latest, fairest, and ripest fruit. Two words, "In Memoriam,” printed upon the third page of every volume of the Furness Variorum since the sixth was issued, are full of pathetic significance. Alas that art should be so long, and life so brief ! For Dr. Furness himself all good Shakespeareans will breathe the fervent prayer that, if he shall need so long a time to finish his magnum opus, his years may be as those of him who led Israel out of Egypt, and that he may come to their close, "his eye not dimmed,” “ nor his natural force abated.”

  1. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare. Edited by HORACE HOWARD FURNESS:. Vol, X. A Midsominer Nights Dreame. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippineott Company. 1895.