Dr. Furness's Variorum Edition of Shakespeare

AFTER the regular lapses of time, The Winter’s Tale and Much Ado About Nothing have appeared in Dr. Furness’s New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare,1 exhibiting the same correctness and elegance of workmanship that have characterized their predecessors. These volumes are, respectively, the eleventh and twelfth of the series, which now includes eleven plays, — to wit, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet (occupying two whole books), King Lear, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the dramas which are the subject of this review. The touching legend “ In Memoriam ” is set upon the portals, as for many years it has been set, and there are no other words of dedication. At the close of the Preface to Much Ado About Nothing, Dr. Furness, in a gracefully humorous phrase, thanks his sister, Mrs. Annis Lee Wister, for translating the extracts from German critics, and thus reminds the public — though there was no such stuff in his thoughts — to congratulate itself that all of his father’s stock were born to the Shakespearean royal purple.

A careful perusal of these last two volumes again permits — or rather, compels — the strong word of admiration, appreciation, gratitude, to be uttered. To that large portion of the world of readers for whom Shakespeare is only the name of a dead classic ; to the smaller, yet very numerous portion of that world for whom he is one of many authors, to be read, seen, and enjoyed like the rest, Dr. Furness’s work makes no special appeal. But to the earnest students of the Master Poet, to the sincere amateurs, professional and lay, of the incomparable dramas, the great American editor is safe guide, wise counselor, intimate friend, and, in a high sense of the words of attribution, interpreter and illuminator. The reward of such work as that which has produced these books must be chiefly in the workman’s own delight, — in the gaudium certaminis which has sustained him during his extreme toil, and, after its surcease, has comforted him with the splendor of the achievement ; but not the less — perhaps all the more — are they who reap the harvest of such travail bound to pay their tribute to the man who has wrought for their joy and edification.

The labor involved in sorting and collecting the various texts — because of which the edition assumes in its title the genitive plural Variorum — is herculean in its severity, and in its minute delicacy is like that of the artist who reconstructed the Portland Vase out of the myriad fragments to which a madman had reduced it. When a half dozen variants upon a difficult passage are presented, — every difference, even in spelling and punctuation, to be plainly indicated, — the task, which would be hopeless for most of us, must sometimes seem, even to experienced fingers, like working in grains of dry sand. The eyesight of the editor needs to be of the quality of a lynx’s and of the quantity of an Argus’s. In handling Much Ado About Nothing, for example, the editor reproduces, as the body of the play, the print of the First Folio in every particular: he repeats the blunders of the original compositors, even when a single Italic type has erred in among its Roman relatives, or a workman, mind-weary perhaps at the close of the day, has twice gone wrong on a terminal and transsexed Leonato into Leonata. Below this chief text are lucidly exhibited and contrasted all the different readings, not only those which are found in the other three Folios, and in the famous Quarto of the comedy, that was published in Shakespeare’s lifetime and used as the basis of the First Folio, but all, conjectural or other, derived from every important edition printed from that day to this, — from Rowe in 1709 to W. A. Wright in the Cambridge series of 1891, — without the elimination, even, of all the demonstrated bêtises of Collier’s notorious manuscript.

In what will be regarded by most students as the more important matter of notes, the editor is required to clear up every difficulty in the understanding of the text, either by excerpts from approved commentators or by elucidations of his own ; being careful, also, not to miss any of the signally grotesque or inane reflections in which famous critics, such as Bishop Warburton and Dr. Johnson, occasionally indulged. No allusion to manners and customs, local, provincial, or national, is to be missed, in the interest of the student of history or archaeology ; the utmost erudition is to be used in the discussion of the forms of words and phrases, of whatsoever may throw light either upon the language of the time of Elizabeth and James I., or upon Shakespeare’s methods in the handling of our tongue, or, in general, upon the linguistic history of the English people as it is illustrated by the Shakespearean dialogue. At proper intervals the notes are to be enlivened with intuitive observations upon situations and speeches which demonstrate the nature of the dramatis personarum; and obscurities in this kind are to be explained away, if possible. In short, the light of the editor’s lanthorn is to shed its ray upon every dark nook and corner of the text; his hand is to be always ready to guide the footsteps of the reader, be the said reader “ general ” or be he very particular. And when some passage is reached the form or sense of which has been much in controversy, all the opinions of the chief critics must be cited, and the editor is expected to present his own verdict either by the confirmation of a predecessor or by the pronouncing of an original judgment. Finally, within the last quarter or third of the volume are to be included separate chapters upon the text, the date of composition of the play, the duration of the action, and the scenery and costumes appropriate to or formerly used in performance ; also, reprints of the original romances from which the plot was derived, of important “ versions ” through which Shakespeare has been misrepresented, of criticisms— English, German, and French — upon the literary and dramatic features of the drama, and of notices of the impersonations of leading parts by distinguished actors, past and contemporaneous.

In fulfilling these severe duties, Dr. Furness, here twice again, redemonstrates his extraordinary ability, and reconfirms our country in her honorable satisfaction with possessing the greatest living Shakespearean. An emphasis which Dr. Furness would appreciate must be laid upon the adjective “ living.” It can rarely be right to dogmatize on the comparative powers of late and early critics in the realm of the Shakespeare literature. It is the toil of the pioneer which is almost always the hardest; the share of obligation due to the pioneer from his successor can seldom be determined. Yet it would not be extravagant for an American to guess — packing into the good old verb all its Chaucerian meatiness — that if our editor had flourished with all his native mental equipment in the middle of the eighteenth century, he would have anticipated Theobald in inspired conjectural emendations of blundered texts, and Capell in shrewd unravelings of tangled phrases. At the close of the nineteenth century Dr. Furness gives to the world the word which will for a long time be the last, as to the form and substance of the plays, enriching his gift with the products of tireless industry, abundant learning, delicate taste, acute intuition, sound judgment, and, best of all, of a full and fervid sympathy with the Dramatist. Moreover, our editor often shows, in dealing with the text of Shakespeare, that clairvoyance which seems to be a separate, unanalyzable power of the spirit, a gift like that of divination. Great lawyers sometimes display a similar gift when, in the midst of a hopeless labyrinth of details, they suddenly see the clue of plain direction ; great physicians exhibit a like faculty when, out of a maze of ambiguous symptoms, their minds rush to a sure diagnosis. Over and over again in these volumes Dr. Furness, with a dozen pen strokes, quietly overthrows some old accepted blunder, and substitutes an explanation of his own which carries complete conviction. On the other hand, when, as occasionally happens, he finds a passage hopeless, he is neither afraid nor ashamed to say so, and to leave the student wandering in a bog, with eyes confused by twenty will-o’the-wisp lights from the pens of as many commentators. The readers of The Atlantic scarcely need to be reminded of Dr. Furness’s quaint humor, which not only cooperates charmingly with his fine faculty in the discussion of nice points of taste, but often serves as a watering cart when the editor is involved in the dust of textual and verbal criticism.

The Preface to The Winter’s Tale abounds in interesting matter. Very valuable is the comment upon the careful typing of the play in the First Folio, the frequent use of “ the suggestive apostrophe ” to indicate the absorption of sounds in pronunciation, and the help which the recent discovery of misprints dependent upon that “ absorption ” has been in clearing up obscure texts. It seems almost certain that compositors in Shakespeare’s day set up types solely by ear from sentences which were read aloud to them, and that, when two similar sounds came together at the end of one word and the beginning of the next, one of the two would often be lost to the ear of the artisan. The few additions in the Second Folio to the text of the First Folio are noted as invariably the result of attempts to improve the rhythm, some of them being so deliberate and authoritative as to have led Tieck to surmise that Milton edited the Second Folio.

Of course our old geographic bogy, the coast of Bohemia, looms up again here. It was a subject of joke for generations, Ben Jonson perpetrating the first recorded sneer at Shakespeare because of it, in a conversation with Drummond of Hawthornden, in 1619. But neither rare Ben nor any other critic for more than a century noted the fact that Shakespeare borrowed this detail, as he borrowed the substance of his plot, from the Dorastus and Fawnia of Robert Greene, who, with all his glaring faults, was accounted a learned man, and subscribed himself “ Maister of Arts.” And after all the attacks upon the Dramatist and all the ingenious apologies for the passage, it now appears — the suggestion having been made first in a little obscure corner of The Monthly Magazine, in 1811” — that Greene knew what he was writing about. At all events, there is much reason to believe, though some of the modern textbooks on Bohemia seem to be written for the purpose of concealing the truth, that about 1270 A. D., Ottakar II., as king of the country, claimed to hold all, except the Tyrol, of what is now Western Austria, including Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, the last of these districts reaching down to the Adriatic at the point where the town of Fiume is placed.

The reviewer is inclined to charge Dr. Furness with an excess of good nature when, in his Preface, he deprecates harsh criticism upon Garrick for a tasteless adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, and upon other stage managers for the production of like enormities. The citing of Dr. Johnson’s monstrous assertion that there was nothing in Shakespeare equal to certain lines in Congreve’s Mourning Bride does not help the deprecation. Let eveiy critic and every age be sharply brought to book for stupidities and vulgarities, by the application, as far as possible, of absolute standards of taste ! That is the best course to be pursued, and is open to no worthy objection, except when made the means of fostering self-conceit in the generation which comments upon its predecessors. Nor will it do to assume that Garrick or any other manager had or has an infallible knowledge, through the “ pocket nerve,” of the temper of the public. The vanity of managers and adapters and their desire for self-display constantly mislead them and confuse their judgments in such matters. For forty years the Viscount of Lansdowne’s inane version of The Merchant of Venice possessed the stage. Who doubts that there was a public waiting for the glorious original long before Macklin restored it to the stage, with himself as “ the Jew, that Shakespeare drew ” ?

In the Preface, and afterward in the Appendix, when “ the date of composition ” is considered, Dr. Furness, with much good nature and stringent self-control, tries, as in earlier volumes he has tried, to conceal his contempt for what he regards as a mere exercise of ingenuity, and with dry faithfulness catalogues the opinions of a score of leading critics. His mental attitude in the matter probably accounts for what many will regard as an important omission. Doubtless a majority of the attempts to affect the text of Shakespeare with historical references have been fantastic and misleading. But inasmuch as an almost unanimous consensus of the commentators makes the date of the production of The Winter’s Tale 1611, it seems necessary to note that the splendid words of Camillo (Act I. Sc. ii.), in which he refuses to assassinate the King of Bohemia,

“ If I could find example
Of thousand’s that had struck anoynted Kings,
And flourish’d after, I l’d not do ’t: But since
Nor Brasse, nor Stone, nor Parchment beares not one,
Let Villanie it selfe forswear ’t,”

may not improbably have been uttered within a few months after the assassination, May 14, 1610, of King Henry of Navarre, by Ravaillac, and the horrible death of the murderer a fortnight later. If this assumption be reasonable, it follows that Shakespeare’s audience, at least, would have found in the lines a stirring reminder of an event by which England had been deeply moved.

Among Shakespeare’s plays The Winter’s Tale stands first in the number of very obscure passages. The poet’s style is more abrupt and elliptical in this drama than it is even in Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra, and the display of his power of condensation surpasses that of any other writer who has used our tongue. Dr. Furness has commented upon the extraordinary solution of Leontes’ passion in his language. Much of the difficulty of his text springs from Ills maniacal rage, which at its highest points sometimes chokes, sometimes breaks, sometimes furiously propels his speech. Here Leontes tries to say three things at once; anon his words come with separated gasps and spasms. The effect of these different mental conditions appears even in the rhythm of some of the king’s diatribes, as Dr. Furness shows in interesting footnotes. Leontes’ fury utters itself in drawling, snarling sneers, and Shakespeare makes one syllable do for two syllables in the blank verse ; again, the king’s passion runs with breakneck speed, and words of six syllables are reduced to four. The poet’s opinion as to his right to subordinate language to the needs of emotion underwent an amazing change between 1594 and 1611. After printing three pages of opinions, Dr. Furness practically gives up, as impossible of clear solution, the famous passage (Act I. Sc. ii.) beginning,

“ Affection thy intention stabs the Center.”

Another noted crux of critics — the speech of Polixenes just before his flight (Act I. Sc. ii.) which begins,

“ Good Expedition be ray friend, and comfort
The Gracious Queene ” —

does not embarrass Dr. Furness; but his exposition much embarrasses the reviewer. The editor’s paraphrase of the lines is, “ May my hasty departure prove my best course and bring what comfort it may to the gracious queen, whose name cannot but be linked with mine in the king’s thoughts, but who is not yet the fatal object of his ill-founded suspicion.” Leontes has charged Polixenes and Hermione with adultery. Camillo’s phrase, “ touched his Queen forbiddenly,” can have no other supposable meaning. And inasmuch as it takes two persons to commit the crime, it is hard to conceive how the “ ill-founded suspicion ” even of a semi-lunatic could fall upon one without squarely hitting the other.

The rule, however, to which there are but few exceptions, is, as has been said, that Dr. Furness’s word is conclusive in all questions of poise and difficulty. Some brief examples may be cited. In Act I. Sc. ii. Polixenes says that he and Leontes were in their youthful innocence “ as twyn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the Sun,” and that if they had always lived as then they lived, they could have pleaded boldly “ not guilty ” to Heaven,

“ the Imposition clear’d
Hereditarie ours.”

Theobald’s accepted interpretation of the last lines was, “ Setting aside original sin, we might have boldly protested our innocence to Heaven.” Dr. Furness says, No ; the meaning is that the boys were so innocent that they were cleared even of hereditary sin. It is plain, on a moment’s reflection, that our editor is right. His use of “ cleared ” is precise, even to the point of theology; Theobald’s paraphrase of “ cleared ” by “ excepted ” is absolutely un-English. Again, it is pleasant to note Dr. Furness’s delicate appreciation of the verb, when Polixenes says he sees that his favor with Leontes begins to “ warpe.” Dr. Schmidt has employed the passage as an authority for a definition of “ warp,” which the Century Dictionary has followed, namely, “ to change for the worse.” The American editor says that “ warp ” means “to be shrunken or distorted by the coldness of Leontes,” and citing, “ Though thou the waters warp,” from As You Like It, has made out a perfect case via the freezing, “bitter sky ” of the song. Once again, when the boy Mamillius, speaking into his mother’s ear, says he will tell her his little story “ softly; yond crickets shall not hear it,” the “ yond,” as Dr. Furness shrewdly observes, fastens the reference to the “ tittering and chirping of the ladies in waiting.” The child is indeed precocious ; but this expression of irritation, it may be added, is peculiarly boyish, not girlish.

The mention of Mamillius recalls an excerpt from Swinburne, printed in the notes, in which that eccentric poet discusses the dear little fellow in a strain of touching eloquence. Finally, Mr. Swinburne is so carried away by his theme that, emphasizing the pathos of the boy’s death, he proceeds even to asperse Hermione as “ the mother who would seem to have forgotten the little brave sweet spirit ” that died for love of her. When one is handling Shakespeare, it is well to have the text under one’s nose as well as hypothetically before the eyes of one’s mind. Just fifty lines earlier, the queen’s moan had gone up in the court of justice (Act III. Sc. ii.) : —

“ My second Joy
And first fruits of ray body, from his presence
I am barred like one infectious.”

And, apropos of the clanger of inexact quotation, it may be mentioned, quite out of connection with the last theme, that no American editor, not even Dr. Furness, seems to have observed that in Greene’s romance the King of Bohemia, not of Sicilia, was said to have married the daughter of a Czar. It was quite characteristic of Shakespeare to preserve this detail, but to transfer it for high dramatic purposes to Herndone, who, at the darkest moment of her trial, cries out (Act III. Sc. ii.) : —

“ The Emperor of Russia was my father.
Oh that he were aliue and here beholding
His Daughter’s Tryall; that he did but see
The flatnesse of my miserie ; yet with eyes
Of Pitty, not Revenge.”

An exceedingly interesting trio of lines (Act IV. Sc. iii.) in a speech of the delicious Autolycus — who deserved to be brought as near to Ulysses as to be named for that much-contriving gentleman’s tricky, prevaricating maternal grandfather — requires particular mention here. In his opening soliloquy, wherein the fine rogue is autobiographic, occurs the passage upon which Coleridge made his celebrated stricture. “My revenue,” says Autolycus, “is the silly cheat; ” that is, thieving or picking pockets. “ Gallows and knock,” he goes on, “ are too powerful on the highway. Beating and hanging are terrors to me. For the life to come I sleep out the thought of it.” This last touch Coleridge declared to be a “ note out of tune,” “ too Macbeth-like in the ‘ snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.’ ” Coleridge has been attacked and defended. Dr. Furness says that Coleridge would be right if the received interpretation of the passage were not quite wrong. “ The life to come,” according to our editor, means the near future on earth : “ Autolycus will have no terrors of the gallows hanging over him,” and the question where his next day’s food and lodging are to come from shall be forgotten in sleep. It appears to the reviewer that Shakespeare was right, and not Coleridge ; Shakespeare right again, and not Dr. Furness, who misinterprets him. It seems to have escaped the attention of all the critics that Autolycus must have lived in constant apprehension of the gallows. The picking of pockets, or “ larceny from the person,” whenever the sum stolen exceeded twelve pence, was made a capital crime “without benefit of clergy ” in the eighth year of Elizabeth, and continued to he such until the forty-eighth year of George III., the penalty being constantly and publicly exacted. Neither Shakespeare nor the rudest yokel in his audience could have been ignorant that every professional pickpocket dwelt under the shade of the gallows-tree. There is no difficulty with what precedes, if the “and” be made emphatic; and with such an emphasis the passage will become very piquant. Autolycus was confessedly “ no fighter ; ” a coward, indeed, and, like Sir Andrew Aguecheek, “ religious in it.” “ Beating and hanging,” he says, “ are terrors to me; ” I do not care to chance “ gallows and knock ” on the highway. In other words: “ I prefer not to attempt highway robbery, in which I run the risk not only of the gallows, but of being soundly thrashed by a stout traveler. In practicing the gentle art of larceny from the person, I run only one of these risks.” If this explanation is correct, “the life to come” means what Coleridge and everybody else supposed it to mean, yet the psychic logic of the passage cannot be resisted : “I shall take care to keep a whole skin in the pursuit of my trade, though the gallows I must daily chance, and death by the noose is always near me ; as for ‘ the life to come, I sleep out the thought of it.’ ” Even a vagabond with a spirit as gay as that of Autolycus is not “ Macbeth-like ” if, with death ever staring him in the face, he deliberately schemes to suppress the thought of eternity.

In passing from The Winter’s Tale to Much Ado About Nothing the reader will find himself strongly reimpressed by Shakespeare’s marvelous variety, a sense of which is brought home to him through the sharp contrasts between the two dramas. They are both comedies : but the atmosphere of one is thick with thunderclouds and torn with lightning during more than a half of the progress of the action; the sky of the other is pure azure, checkered with light clouds, except for a single sudden tornado, of whose harmlessness the reader is comfortably assured in advance. The solemnity of The Winter’s Tale is unbroken, save by the gayety of Autolycus and a quarter of an hour of the shearing feast; Much Ado About Nothing takes its tone from Beatrice, and, when it has “ dreamt of unhappiness,” wakes itself “ with laughing.” The poetic elevation of the older play seldom sustains a cadence ; but the mirth of the merry drama — as near superficiality as Shakespeare permits any of his work to be, after he has passed from his first youth — is expressed in a dialogue more than three quarters of which is in prose, so that the proportion of verse to prose is smaller than is discoverable in any other of Shakespeare’s comedies except The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Upon two much-mooted questions, mentioned in the Preface to Much Ado About Nothing, Dr. Furness does not express a decided opinion. Whether the play is that referred to by Meres, in his often-quoted enumeration, in 1598, of Shakespeare’s dramas, as Love’s Labours Won, has been greatly debated; and though the difficulty about dates is very serious, Brae’s argument for the affirmative has some strength, especially because of the suggestion that the phrase “ Love’s Labour ” would be likely to be used in Shakespeare’s age in a mytliologic sense, Love meaning Cupid. But the general verdict of critics has identified All’s Well That Ends Well as the missing work ; Hunter thought he had found it in The Tempest; and Craik and Hertzberg urge the claims of The Taming of the Shrew. “ It is all guesswork, from which the guessers alone retire with intellectual benefit,” is our editor’s last word on the point. As to Richard Grant White’s contention that the “ Nothing ” of the title was pronounced indifferently “ noting ” or “ nothing,” and that the resulting pun was of prime significance because the comedy abounds in “ notings ” of sundry things by divers personages, Dr. Furness neither affirms nor denies, but, inclining on the whole against Mr. White’s judgment, assigns a moderate value to his orthoepic investigations.

Our editor favors the opinion that the comedy was built upon the substructure of an old lost play, of which there is a seemingly important trace in the appearance, with Leontes, of “ Innogen his wife,” in the list of characters who enter at the opening of the first scene, no line of dialogue being ever assigned to her. This hypothetic old play may have had the name “ Benedicte and Betteris,” or, perhaps, the quoted words may have been used at one time as a second or subtitle of Much Ado About Nothing. Also, in some of Beatrice’s speeches, wherein reference is made to former passages between her and Benedick, Dr. Furness thinks he sees possible fragments of the same old play.

Shakespeareans who are taken to task by their friends for supersentiment as to the poet himself may draw no little comfort from two succulent paragraphs of the Preface. In one of these, the editor, by logic of elimination and negation, arrives at the happy result that Shakespeare’s “ life was so gentle and clear in the sight of Heaven that no record of it has come down to us ; ” in the other, he says that the poet could not have been guilty of any unrighteous sale of his plays for publication, because “ not thus dishonestly would the sturdy English soul of Shakespeare act.” An Amen to that strong declaration will not stick in the throat of any honest lover of the poet.

Dr. Furness accepts the spelling “ Shakespeare,” for the simple reason that it was “ adopted by the poet himself, and so printed by his fellow townsman, Richard Field, in both Venus and Adonis and in Lucrece ; ” and, after noting that the reading of the old chirography is quite uncertain, reduces to powder one of the silly argumentlets of “ the Baconians,” founded upon the crabbed script of the Shakespeare signatures, with the remark that the most difficult writing to decipher is the “ Court-hand or Chancery-hand, which Shakespeare used when he subscribed to his will and to the Blackfriars deed, and in which like other laymen he was but little skilled.”

The reviewer takes exception to that half page of the Preface in which Dr. Furness groups together “the absurdities” of As You Like It, for the purpose of asserting that, “ in spite of them, the play has full power to charm.” Of course the proposition contained in the last seven words is not controverted. But the collocation of the alleged blunders of As You Like It seems not to have been made with the editor’s usual perfect felicity. These are the points : that two characters bear the same name, — Jaques ; “ that in one scene Celia is taller than Rosalind, and in another Rosalind is taller than Celia ; ” “ that, though Touchstone has been about the old court all his days, neither Jaques nor the exiled Duke knows about him; ” and that the instantaneous conversion of such a violent tyrant as the usurping Frederick by “ an old religious man” is preposterous. These “blunders ” seem to the reviewer either insignificant or no blunders at all. The double use of Jaques is of no consequence, especially in the early editions, which denominate Jaques de Bois “ Second Brother,” when he makes his one appearance. Rosalind is twice said to be above Celia in stature, and the comparative “ taller,” applied to Celia by Le Beau in Act I. Sc. ii., is, by an almost perfect consensus of the commentators, recognized either as a mere pen-slip, or, more probably, a misprint. What more likely than that a compositor, setting up his type by ear, as Dr. Furness has convinced us was the mode, should have misheard “ smaller ” and substituted “ taller ” ? As to Touchstone, the dramatist has indicated, with clearness sufficient for the play, that the Clown’s service had been wholly with the usurper, Frederick, and not in the “ old court ” of the elder Duke. Touchstone’s word about a certain courtier (Act I. Sc. ii.), — “ one that old Frederick your father loves ; ” the speech of the Second Lord (Act II. Sc. ii.), directed to Duke Frederick, describing the jester as “ the roynish Clown at whom your grace was wont to laugh ; ” and Celia’s remark (Act I. Sc. iii.) about the devotion of the Fool, who would “ go along o’er the wide world with” her, with no inclusion of Rosalind, are small scraps of testimony, yet serve well enough for an acquittal of Shakespeare, especially as there is no evidence to the contrary. But, surely, these trifling details ought not to be classed with Frederick’s change of heart and purpose, through which everything is brought out to be “ As You Like It.” The conversion of the usurper, like the conversion of the cruel Oliver, is exactly in line with that great scheme of poetical romance in which Shakespeare here and elsewhere deliberately disregards time as an element affecting motive.

Among the thousand and one matters of interest which appear in Dr. Furness’s Preface and Notes it is bewilderingly embarrassing to select such as best deserve comment. On two important points in the development of our language the plays give frequent and valid testimony. The English tongue has lost something both in precision and power by discarding particles and forms of declension ; it has gained much in precision by determining with accuracy the shades of meaning of words once used indifferently as synonyms, and in assigning definite values to the terminals of adjectives. It seems, for example, nearly certain that in the old grammar the comparative of “much” was “more,” and the comparative of “ many ” “ mo ; ” that “yea” and “nay” were answers to questions framed in the affirmative, and “yes” and “no” to questions framed in the negative. In practically banishing “ thou,” “ thy,” and “ thee ” from our speech we have eliminated an element of force and beauty, which the Germans still possess. On the other hand, many an Elizabethan word had a vast variety of meanings, the distinguishing of which by context must have kept the hearer on a constant strain. What tricks, for one instance among hundreds, Shakespeare plays, or seems to us to play, with the great noun “affection”! As for the adjective terminals, -ive, -ible, -able, -ous, and -less, the Elizabethans knew, and apparently wished to know, no law ; “ contemptuous ” appears, in 2 Henry VI., as a synonym for our contemptible ; and next week’s audiences in our theatres will ignorantly laugh when they hear Don Pedro charge Benedick with having a “contemptible” spirit, though the Prince means contemptuous.

In the discussion of the stories of Benedick and Beatrice and of Claudio and Hero, and in the analysis of their natures, the critics have contradicted one another with striking flatness, and have often made spectacles of themselves by their vehemence of partisanship, their passionateness of conviction, and their sentimentalism. With the tip of his magic staff Shakespeare touched clay and turned it into men and women ; with the butt of the staff he sometimes touches the critics and fills them with fantastic upside-down opinions of those men and women. “ Poor Claudio,” a gentle-mannered, rather silent, somewhat unsophisticated, brave young soldier, — whom Shakespeare has used as a chief implement of the brutal but not surprising mediævalism of the scene of the denunciation and rejection of Hero, — has been treated by Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Charles Cowden Clarke and Lady Martin as if he were a low-lived knave. Indeed, Mr. Clarke calls him “ a scoundrel in grain,” the particular text out of which that attribution grows being the meek and stammering question, “ Hath Leonato any son, my Lord ? ” with which Claudio opens a dialogue, in order to lead up to the subject of his desire to marry Hero! That is the sneaking inquiry of a base fortune-hunter, say Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Clarke. To which, saving their reverences, Pooh! is the only reply. Lady Martin discovers at the very close of the play that Benedick is “ cold and reserved ” to Claudio in order to testify that his “ disapproval ” of Claudio still abides. Once again, and with all possible gentleness to a gentle lady, Pooh ! Benedick’s “ disapproval ” of his friend — to whose “ bent of honor ” he had testified at the height of the climax of pain — was never anything but an echo of Beatrice ; and there is no place for any such coldness and reserve in a scene which concludes in a tempest of gayety and with the frivolity of a dance, after experiences which the dramatist chose to call Much Ado About Nothing.

With Benedick and Beatrice the queerest liberties are taken. That virtuous but lively girl of her own period, according to Lady Martin, was much moved and incensed by the sneer at her sex implied in the first speech put into Benedick’s mouth in the opening scene of the comedy. It would be interesting to see Beatrice’s expression, if Lady Martin should succeed in making the heroine understand her ladyship’s vicarious delicacy: amazement and amusement would have a lively contention in that glowing countenance. Even Dr. Furness goes far out of the record to discover that Beatrice “ deeply resented ” the imputation of indelicacy in Benedick’s gibe that she “ had ” her “ good wit out of the Hundred Merry Tales.” Not a fraction of a syllable indicates her resentment, deep or other; she is simply overflowing with vivacious malice at the moment; and if the taunt moved her at all, one may hazard a safe guess that it was because of the attack upon her originality. That the lively pair, despite their squabbling, were strongly drawn together by unseen cords was long ago observed. But that is not enough for some of the moderns. Dr. Hiram Corson will not stop short of the proposition that, before the trick was played on them, they were already in love with each other ; not merely willing to love or ready to love, but actually and completely ensnared and bound. And, in all the profusion of ingenious comment, there nowhere appears the obvious and important reflection that Beatrice’s excessively irritated consciousness of her false relation with Benedick is demonstrated by the wild extravagance of her sneers at him, which have no sort of relation to truth; a corollary of that proposition being that, before they came together, her interest in him was more profound and of the heart than his in her.

Dr. Furness does not pretend to find a way through the famous obscurity in the speech of Leonato, Act V. Sc. i., in which the crying “ hem ” and the bidding sorrow to “ wag ” are probably vagaries of an absent-minded typesetter, who was, perhaps, in love or in liquor ; the reader is furnished, however, with two pages and a half of critical opinions on the passage. But the editor, with characteristic good sense, brushes away anxieties which some fidgety commentators have afflicted themselves withal because old Antonio heard the confidential talk of Claudio and Don Pedro in the garden of Leonato’s palace, and Don John’s servant, Boracliio, overheard a continuation of the same talk in the palace, as the gentlemen walked to their rooms to dress for the “ great supper.” Again, in the same sensible fashion, Dr. Furness comprehends the kind of game which Borachio had taught Margaret to play, when, at her chamber window, the unhappy Claudio heard him “ call Margaret Hero,” heard “ Margaret term” him “ Claudio,” not Boracliio, the juggling with names being an element of peculiar offensiveness to Hero’s affianced husband.

It is pleasant to see how highly Dr. Furness honors Mrs. Jameson, both in phrases of direct approval and in his large and frequent citation of her essays. It is a fashion at this particular moment with the younger Shakespeareans to sneer at Mrs. Jameson, because her zeal sometimes overloads and overheats her style with ardent adjectives. But her excess in this kind is merely the overflow of an enthusiasm as genuine and deep as was ever found in any student of any master. Her essays on Shakespeare’s heroines abound in fine intuitions, in exact appreciations, in subtle justnesses of attribution, in close and delicate discriminations. The felicity of her diction is constantly remarkable, and her eloquence at its highest points is poetic in power and beauty. Strike her work out of the total comment made in the English language upon the women of Shakespeare, — her work, that is to say, and the enormous mass of critical matter which is little more than a repetition or extension of that work, — and the literature of the theme, which now blossoms as a rose garden, would be as barren as a sand-hill. If the catastrophe had occurred, it would be curiously interesting to see the men who disparage her — any or all of them — set themselves to the task of producing studies, worthy to be compared with hers, of Imogen, or Juliet, or Hermione, or Beatrice.

The last paragraph of this review can have no better subject than that portion of Dr. Furness’s Preface which discusses Dogberry and Verges and their relations to the action of Much Ado About Nothing. Coleridge, in one of his moments of expansive self-confidence, said, “ Dogberry and his comrades are forced into the service when any other less ingeniously absurd watchmen and night constables would have answered the mere necessities of the action.” Not so, replies our editor. And in a page of commentary, irresistibly convincing, admirable in lucidity and grace, he demonstrates that Shakespeare, “who never loses sight of the trending of his story,” was “ forced to have characters like these, and none other.” If they had been quick-witted enough at once to recognize the villainy of Don John’s plot, the play would have ended at once. Yet they must be faithful to hold their prisoners and make their return to the Governor of Messina, and to let the audience see that of which they themselves have no vision. “ These infinitely stupid watchmen appear at the very point of time to assure us that the play is a comedy.” “ Had Dogberry been one whit less conceited, one whit less pompous, one whit less tedious, he could not have failed to drop one syllable that would have arrested Leonato’s attention and have brought the drama to a conclusion then and there.” “ Dogberry had to be introduced just then, to give us assurance that Don John’s villainy would come to light eventually, and enable us to bear Hero’s sad fate with such equanimity that we can listen immediately after with delighted hearts to the wooing of Benedick and Beatrice.” In such commentary as this — a nugget of gold being taken for exhibition from the treasure-house where ingots are heaped — one recognizes the hand and the brain of a true guide in this greatest of all the realms of literature. Fortunate is the world to be blessed at this late day with a new Master Critic, worthy to be the Editor of the ever new Master Poet!

Henry Austin Clapp.

  1. 2 Philadelphia and London : J. B. Lippincott Company.