the First Quartos, which has seldom or never been frankly admitted, even by editors who have seen the necessity of relying on them rather than on that of the First Folio as the basis of their own. If a document has once been interpreted in a particular sense and that interpretation has survived unchallenged sufficiently long for men to be educated in it, it is no small task to win acceptance for any other view. From an imperfect knowledge of the facts the reference to “stolne and surreptitious copies” in the preface to the First Folio was taken to refer to all the quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays, though such an interpretation can only be maintained on the supposition that the publishers of the Folio were bent on damaging their own credit and property, and that Shakespeare and his fellow sharers in the Globe were more conspicuously helpless in defending their rights than any other set of Englishmen since the world began. The address “To the great Variety of Readers” in the First Folio gives no hint as to the number of the “stolne” copies to which it refers. It merely says that whereas, or wherever (“where” may have either meaning) readers had been abused by pirated editions with bad texts, even in these plays they would now find the texts sound and perfect. As the reference is to “copies” in the plural, it must relate to at least two plays, but if only two plays could be found in which the Folio editors had replaced the text of the First Quarto by a conspicuously better one, only two plays could on any reasonable interpretation be brought under the accusation of piracy. Two such plays exist in Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor, for neither of which was any good text in quarto ever printed. In the case of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, possibly also in that of Love’s Labors Lost, an original bad text in quarto was replaced by a better one in the same form. In other plays there are divergences between the Folio and the Quartos which may be susceptible of different interpretations, but which did not prevent Malone from declaring roundly, in the Introduction to his Shakespeare of 1790, as regards the text of the plays, that “the editors of the folio, to save labour, or from some other motive, printed the greater part of them from the very copies which [according to the stereotyped interpretation accepted, alas, even by Malone himself] they represented as maimed and imperfect.” Common sense would suggest that if a passage is susceptible of two interpretations, in one of which it is accurate and helpful, and in the other inaccurate and confusing, and raises difficulties of many kinds, the accurate and helpful should be preferred. But in the present case this interpretation does not seem even to have occurred to any of the bold gentlemen who have undertaken to expound so difficult a text as that of Shakespeare and yet, from an idle indulgence in the humour which delights to make out that everything is as bad as possible, have thus mischievously misrendered a simple passage in the “Address to the Readers.” Malone knew from his collations what use the Folio editors had made of the Quartos, but the
- “We pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to have collected & publish’d them; and so to have publish’d them, as where (before) you were abus’d with diverse stolne and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious impostors, that expos’d them: even those are now offer’d to your view cur’d, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest absolute in their numbers as he conceived them,” &c.