11 FEBRUARY 1888, Page 18

TWO BOOKS ON SHAKESPEARE.* AN edition of Shakespeare bearing Mr.

Irving's name as editor may justly claim attention. It is useless to say—as one may sometimes feel inclined to do—that Shakespeare has been abundantly edited already. No poet, not even Homer or Dante, is more burdened with commentators, or has had his text examined with greater minuteness. Much of the criticism is doubtless of some service to the student, but a far larger portion has wearied the world to no purpose. Learned folly, indeed, could not well go further than it has gone during the last century in Germany and England, in its attempts to elucidate the world's greatest poet. If Dr. Johnson's advice to the reader as yet unacquainted with Shakespeare, to read every play from the first scene to the last" with utter negligence of all his commentators," was sound advice in 1768, it is a hundredfold more worthy of attention in days when every line, nay, every ending of a line, is brought under serious discussion. None the less is it certain that sound editorial work by competent scholars is never labour lost, and the reader, after his first fresh enjoyment of the thirty- seven plays, may be glad, upon carrying his studies further, to have so competent a guide as the editor of the "Irving Shakespeare."

This handsomely printed edition aims at being popular and practical. In the preface it is stated that the guiding principle kept in view throughout "is the treatment of Shakespeare's work as that of a dramatist whose plays were intended not to be read as poetical exercises, but to be represented by living men and women before a general audience." With this object, the stage directions are more explicit than in other modern editions of the poet ; and, in order to assist those who read Shakespeare aloud, "the passages which may be omitted in the recitation or the representation of the plays, as suggested by Mr. Irving, have been marked in a clear and simple manner." It is added that these omissions are not merely such as would be made in a so-called "Bowdlerised" edition, but the passages placed between brackets are those which may be omitted without detriment to the story or action of the play. The text, though not a mere reprint, is founded on Dyce; and the critical remarks in the very copious notes are entirely original. "I venture to presume," says Mr. Marshall, "that an editor who has been studying a play closely, and living, as it were, with the various characters, ought to have something worth saying on his own account, without giving the opinion of others." Mr. Marshall has much that is worth saying, and yet it may be questioned whether the best of the German critics can be safely ignored by a commentator, and whether Coleridge's marvellous insight

• (1.) The Works of William Shakespeare. Edited by Henry Irving and Frank A.. Balaban. With numerous Illustrations by Gordon Browne. Vol. I. London : Blaokie and Son. 1828.—(2.) Noctes Shakspertang. Edited by Rev. Charles Raiford Haskins, M.A. Winchester Warren and Son, as a Shakespearian critic might not be sometimes made use of

with advantage.

Among the characteristics of this edition, it may be men- tioned that to the notes of many of the plays maps are prefixed, and that at the end of each play a list is given of the words in it which Shakespeare does not use elsewhere. Add to these advantages Mr. Gordon Browne's illustrations, which are not merely good as drawings, but enter to some extent into the poet's spirit, and enough has been said to recommend an edition which will win public recognition by its unique and serviceable qualities.

The reader will naturally turn with eagerness to Mr. Irving's preliminary paper, upon "Shakespeare as a Playwright." It is to be feared, however, that he will be in some degree disappointed, for the essay is short and slight of texture. Still, what our most popular actor has to say on a subject which he understands as well as any man living, has an authori- tative value which every Shakespearian student will appreciate. Mr. Irving regards Shakespeare as one of the most practical dramatists the world has ever seen, and he considers that if his plays had not been successful in the "staging," if they had not been frequently represented in action, only a very few of them would have come down to us. Yet with all his skill, it is certain that some of Shakespeare's contemporaries were more popular for years after his death, and it is also true, as Mr. Irving acknowledges, that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries his power as a playwright was not recognised even by the actors and dramatists who are supposed to have best understood the art :—

" Of the stage traditions of Shakespeare," be writes, "we know nothing, though we are told they descended from Burbage, Taylor, and Lowin to Davenant, and were given by him to Betterton. For fifty years Betterton held the position of the greatest actor of his day, and during that half-century, although the prejudices and predilec- tions of the literary taste of the day were alike hostile to Shake- speare's works, Betterton had only to appear in Mercutio, Macbeth, or, above all, in Hamlet, to draw the town. It was not till after the Restoration that the idea seems generally to have prevailed that Shakespeare wanted improving, that in order to be acted his plays must be adapted by some literary genius of that day. Even Dryden, great poet as he was, and sincere admirer of Shakespeare, did his best to spoil The Tempest; while such inferior men as Davenant, Crowne, and, later on, Cibber, found a congenial task in degrading as much as possible the poetry of Shakespeare to the level of common-

place Even in Garrick's day the public which eagerly applauded his acting and welcomed his purer and wholesomer style of dramatic art, continued to tolerate mutilated versions of the works of our greatest dramatist, Garrick himself supplying a version of Romeo and Juliet."

The "improvers" of Shakespeare mentioned by Mr. Irving were not the only offenders. Durfey transmogrified Cymbeline, Dennis altered The Merry Wii:es of Windsor, Tate exercised his feeble art upon King Lear, and Lord Lansdowne, with more ambition than brains, produced a comic Shylock, an imperti- nence which Mrs. Inchbald mildly rebukes by observing that it "wholly destroyed the moral designed by the original author." Do not these facts prove that neither Shakespeare's "staging," nor his genius as a poet, was properly appreciated until the revival of imaginative literature at the beginning of

this century ? Mr. Irving, indeed, reminds us that even Betterton, who flourished in the later years of the seventeenth century, and was the best representative of Hamlet, used the

greatest liberties with the author's language ; and we venture to ask, with a layman's diffidence, whether the statement that in acting many of his plays, it is not only necessary to omit passages, but to transpose scenes, is altogether in harmony with the assertion that Shakespeare was one of the ablest playwrights the world has known ? Again, Mr. Irving says that it is no use discussing the question how far stage scenery and music are essential in the representation of dramatic art. They are dictated, he observes, by the public taste of the day, and their value has therefore ceased to be a matter of opinion. Well, no doubt they "that live to please, must please to live ;" yet, if a great actor like Mr. Irving is bound to watch the vicissitudes of taste, he is surely free, when writing of his art, to forget for the time what is expedient, and to discuss what is best for the highest interests of his profession. The stage, he observes, has become not only a mirror of the passions, but also a nursery of the arts, and so long as the resources of the picturesque are wholly subordinate to the play, "there is no occasion to apologise for the system of decoration." So far, Mr. Irving gives us his mind upon the subject ; but lovers of the drama would like to have heard more on a topic so fruitful of discussion in the present condition of the English stage.

Comparatively few of Shakespeare's dramas have been repro- seated before the present generation of playgoers. Of the five plays contained in this volume, two—Love's Labour Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona—have not been acted for many years, and there is, we believe, no record of King Henry VI., Part I, having been acted within living memory. The end of all plays, says Mr. Irving, is to be acted, and not to be simply read in the study ; but we think, with Charles Lamb, that some of Shakespeare's most poetical plays gain nothing from the actor. The illusion and the charm of the Midsummer Night's Dream and of The Tempest, for example, are lost in the mechanical appliances of the stage-carpenter ; but having seen Macready in Lear, the present writer cannot agree with Lamb's judgment that the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies "is essen- tially impossible to be represented on a stage." In the age of Shakespeare, the exercise of the imaginative faculty was con- stantly demanded of the playgoer ; in the present day, far less intellectual effort is required, and if eye and ear are gratified by beautiful scenes and good music, the pit and boxes are content.

We have coupled with the first volume of "The Henry Irving Shakespeare," the essays sent forth by the Winchester College Shakspere Society, under the title Noctes Shaksperianse. The volume consists of thirteen papers, the work of late and present members. That they should be unequal in quality is inevitable, but there is not one of the series which does not do credit to Wykehamists. In some of them there are indications of con- siderable research ; in others, of a buoyancy and freshness of thought all the more to be valued considering the familiarity of the subject. No one, indeed, can read this able selection of papers and doubt that the Winchester Society, now in its twenty-fifth session, is full of youthful life. The vague enthusiasm and superficial knowledge of so many amateur writers are not to be found here. An elaborate essay on "The Stage-Craft of Shakspere," by the President, deals at some length with the subject touched on by Mr. Irving. Mr. Hawkins is of opinion, and we entirely agree with him, that "the growth of scenic realism and extravagance beyond certain limits (difficult pre- cisely to define) has a prejudicial influence on the ethic and poetic drama, which should and must rely mainly on the ability of the actors and the spontaneous imagination of the audience ;" and he holds to Mr. Irving's judgment that Shakespeare's popularity was due in his lifetime solely to the stage, and that he neither contemplated nor conceived another kind of reputation. Yet that Shakespeare perfectly understood the value of literary as apart from stage reputation, is abundantly evident by the bold assurance in the sonnets of a deathless fame. Mr. Hawkins, by-the-way, points out that between 1737-39, to oblige ladies of quality, twenty-six of Shakespeare's dramas were acted on the London stage. They were not indeed, put upon the boards with the reverence due to the text shown by Mr. Irving ; but the mere fact of the repre- sentation displays an interest in Shakespeare unknown to play- goers in these days of comic opera and burlesque. At the time of writing this article, we believe that, apart from the Lyceum, there is not a single theatre in London in which Shakespeare is being acted. It is curious to note that Mr. Hawkins began his essay with a conviction that Shakespeare is a poet for the closet, and ended it with a belief that he is a dramatist for the stage. We think it is more accurate to say that while some of his plays are admirably fitted for representation, others, and not always the least worthy, charm us most when read in solitude, or aloud in the family circle.

"Shakspere as an Historian" is a subject well treated, but perhaps with too much brevity. Every one who takes up the volume should read also "Shakespeare and Goethe," a masterly essay, "Endings of Shakespeare's Plays," and "Shakespeare's Library." Indeed, the student will find in all the papers facts and suggestions that will well repay him for his labour.