Preface to Shakespeare, by Samuel Johnson

Selected Notes from Some of the Plays

Measure for Measure

There is perhaps not one of Shakespeare’s plays more darkened than this by the peculiarities of its Authour, and the unskilfulness of its Editors, by distortions of phrase, or negligence of transcription.

ACT I. SCENE i. (I. i. 7–9.)

Then no more remains:
But that to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.

This is a passage which has exercised the sagacity of the Editors, and is now to employ mine.

Sir Tho. Hanmer having caught from Mr. Theobald a hint that a line was lost, endeavours to supply it thus.

— Then no more remains,
But that to your sufficiency you join
A will to serve us, as your worth is able.

He has by this bold conjecture undoubtedly obtained a meaning, but, perhaps not, even in his own opinion, the meaning of Shakespeare.

That the passage is more or less corrupt, I believe every reader will agree with the Editors. I am not convinced that a line is lost, as Mr. Theobald conjectures, nor that the change of “but” to “put”, which Dr. Warburton has admitted after some other Editor, will amend the fault. There was probably some original obscurity in the expression, which gave occasion to mistake in repetition or transcription. I therefore suspect that the Authour wrote thus,

— Then no more remains,
But that to your sufficiencies your worth is abled,
And let them work.

Then nothing remains more than to tell you that your virtue is now invested with power equal to your knowledge and wisdom. Let therefore your knowledge and your virtue now work together. It may easily be conceived how “sufficiencies” was, by an inarticulate speaker, or inattentive hearer, confounded with “sufficiency as”, and how “abled”, a word very unusual, was changed into “able”. For “abled”, however, an authority is not wanting. Lear uses it in the same sense, or nearly the same, with the Duke. As for “sufficiencies”, D. Hamilton, in his dying speech, prays that “Charles II. may exceed both the VIRTUES and SUFFICIENCIES of his father.”

ACT I. SCENE ii. (I. i. 51.)

We have with a leaven’d and prepared choice.

“Leaven’d” has no sense in this place: we should read “Level’d choice”. The allusion is to archery, when a man has fixed upon his object, after taking good aim. — Warburton.

No emendation is necessary. “leaven’d choice” is one of Shakespeare’s harsh metaphors. His train of ideas seems to be this. “I have proceeded to you with choice mature, concocted, fermented, leaven’d.” When Bread is “leaven’d”, it is left to ferment: a “leavn’d” choice is therefore a choice not hasty, but considerate, not declared as soon as it fell into the imagination, but suffered to work long in the mind. Thus explained, it suits better with “prepared” than “levelled”.

ACT II. SCENE ix. (II. iii. 11–12.)

Who falling in the flaws of her own youth,
Hath blister’d her report.

Who doth not see that the integrity of the metaphor requires we should read “flames of her own youth.”— Warburton.

Who does not see that upon such principles there is no end of correction.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 13–15.)

Thou art not noble:
For all th’ accommodations, that thou bear’st
Are nurs’d by baseness.

Dr. Warburton is undoubtedly mistaken in supposing that by “baseness” is meant “self-love” here assigned as the motive of all human actions. Shakespearemeant only to observe, that a minute analysis of life at once destroys that splendour which dazzles the imagination. Whatever grandeur can display, or luxury enjoy, is procured by “baseness”, by offices of which the mind shrinks from the contemplation. All the delicacies of the table may be traced back to the shambles and the dunghill, all magnificence of building was hewn from the quarry, and all the pomp of ornaments, dug from among the damps and darkness of the mine.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 16–17.)

The soft and tender fork
of a poor worm.

“Worm” is put for any creeping thing or “serpent”. Shakespeare supposes falsely, but according to the vulgar notion, that a serpent wounds with his tongue, and that his tongue is “forked”. He confounds reality and fiction, a serpent’s tongue is “soft” but not “forked” nor hurtful. If it could hurt, it could not be soft. In Midsummer-night’s Dream he has the same notion.

— With doubler tongue
Then thine, O serpent, never adder stung.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 32–4.)

Thou hast nor youth, nor age:
But as it were an after dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both.

This is exquisitely imagined. When we are young we busy ourselves in forming schemes for succeeding time, and miss the gratifications that are before us; when we are old we amuse the languour of age with the recollection of youthful pleasures or performances; so that our life, of which no part is filled with the business of the present time, resembles our dreams after dinner, when the events of the morning are mingled with the designs of the evening.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 36–8.)

When thou’rt old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty
To make thy riches pleasant.

But how does beauty make “riches pleasant”? We should read “bounty”, which compleats the sense, and is this; Thou hast neither the pleasure of enjoying riches thy self, for thou wantest vigour: nor of seeing it enjoyed by others, for thou wantest “bounty”. Where the making the want of “bounty” as inseparable from old age as the want of “health”, is extremely satyrical tho’ not altogether just. — Warburton.

I am inclined to believe that neither man nor woman will have much difficulty to tell how “beauty makes riches pleasant”. Surely this emendation, though it is elegant and ingenious, is not such as that an opportunity of inserting it should be purchased by declaring ignorance of what every one knows, by confessing insensibility of what every one feels.

ACT III. SCENE ii. (III. i. 137–8.)

Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister’s shame?

In Isabella’s declamation there is something harsh, and something forced and far-fetched. But her indignation cannot be thought violent when we consider her not only as a virgin but as a nun.

ACT IV. SCENE viii. (iv. iii. 4–5.)

First here’s young Mr. Rash, &c.

This enumeration of the inhabitants of the prison affords a very striking view of the practices predominant in Shakespeare’s age. Besides those whose follies are common to all times, we have four fighting men and a traveller. It is not unlikely that the originals of these pictures were then known.

ACT IV. SCENE xiii. (IV. V. 1.)

Duke. These letters at fit time deliver me.

Peter never delivers the letters, but tells his story without any credentials. The poet forgot the plot which he had formed.

ACT V. SCENE vii. (V. i. 448.)

‘Till he did look on me.

The Duke has justly observed that Isabel is importuned against all sense to solicit for Angelo, yet here against all sense she solicits for him. Her argument is extraordinary.

A due sincerity govern’d his deeds,
‘Till he did look on me; since it is so,
Let him not die. That Angelo had committed

all the crimes charged against him, as far as he could commit them, is evident. The only INTENT which his act did not overtake, was the defilement of Isabel. Of this Angelo was only intentionally guilty. Angelo’s crimes were such, as must sufficiently justify punishment, whether its end be to secure the innocent from wrong, or to deter guilt by example; and I believe every reader feels some indignation when he finds him spared. From what extenuation of his crime can Isabel, who yet supposes her brother dead, form any plea in his favour. Since he was good ‘till he looked in me, let him not die. I am afraid our Varlet Poet intended to inculcate, that women think ill of nothing that raises the credit of their beauty, and are ready, however virtuous, to pardon any act which they think incited by their own charms.

ACT V. SCENE viii. (v. i. 479 foll.)

It is somewhat strange, that Isabel is not made to express either gratitude, wonder or joy at the sight of her brother.

After the pardon of two murderers Lucio might be treated by the good Duke with less harshness; but perhaps the Poet intended to show, what is too often seen, that men easily forgive wrongs which are not committed against themselves.

The novel of Cynthio Giraldi, from which Shakespeare is supposed to have borrowed this fable, may be read in Shakespeare illustrated, elegantly translated, with remarks which will assist the enquirer to discover how much absurdity Shakespeare has admitted or avoided.

I cannot but suspect that some other had new modelled the novel of Cynthio, or written a story which in some particulars resembled it, and that Cinthio was not the authour whom Shakespeare immediately followed. The Emperour in Cinthio is named Maximine, the Duke, in Shakespeare’s enumeration of the persons of the drama, is called Vincentio. This appears a very slight remark; but since the Duke has no name in the play, nor is ever mentioned but by his title, why should he be called Vincentio among the “Persons”, but because the name was copied from the story, and placed superfluously at the head of the list by the mere habit of transcription? It is therefore likely that there was then a story of Vincentio Duke of Vienna, different from that of Maximine Emperour of the Romans.

Of this play the light or comick part is very natural and pleasing, but the grave scenes, if a few passages be excepted, have more labour than elegance. The plot is rather intricate than artful. The time of the action is indefinite; some time, we know not how much, must have elapsed between the recess of the Duke and the imprisonment of Claudio; for he must have learned the story of Mariana in his disguise, or he delegated his power to a man already known to be corrupted. The unities of action and place are sufficiently preserved.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38