Tandem aperit vultum, et tectoria prima
Mr. Becket has favoured us, in the Preface, with a comparative estimate of the merits of his predecessors. He does not, as may easily be conjectured, rate any of them very highly; but he places Warburton at the top of the scale, and Steevens at the bottom: this, indeed, was to be expected. “Warburton,” he says, “is the best, and Steevens the worst of Shakespeare’s commentators”; (p. xvii) and he ascribes it solely to his forbearance that the latter is not absolutely crushed: it not being in his nature, as he magnanimously insinuates, “to break a butterfly upon a wheel!” Dr. Johnson is shoved aside with very little ceremony; Mr. Malone fares somewhat better; and the rest are dismissed with the gentle valediction of Pandarus to the Trojans—“asses, fools, dolts! chaff and bran! porridge after meat!” With respect to our author himself, it is but simple justice to declare, that he comes to the great work of “restoring Shakespeare”—not only with more negative advantages than the unfortunate tribe of critics so cavalierly dismissed, but than all who have aspired to illumine the page of a defunct writer since the days of Aristarchus. As far as we are enabled to judge, Mr. Becket never examined an old play in his life:—he does not seem to have the slightest knowledge of any writer, or any subject, or any language that ever occupied the attention of his contemporaries; and he possesses a mind as innocent of all requisite information as if he had dropped, with the last thunderstone, from the moon.
“Addison has well observed, that ’in works of criticism it is absolutely necessary to have a clear and logical head.’” (p.v.) In this position, Mr. Becket cheerfully agrees with him; and, indeed, it is sufficiently manifest, that without the internal conviction of enjoying that indispensable advantage, he would not have favoured the public with those matchless “restorations”; a few specimens of which we now proceed to lay before them. Where all are alike admirable, there is no call for selection; we shall therefore open the volumes at random, and trust to fortune.
“Hamlet. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time?”
This reading, Mr. Becket says, he cannot admit; and he says well: since it appears that Shakespeare wrote—
“For who would bear the scores of weapon’d time?”
using scores in the sense of stripes. Formerly, i.e., when Becket was in his sallad days, he augured, he says, that the true reading was—
—“the scores of whip-hand time.”
Time having always the whip-hand, the advantage; but he now reverts to the other emendation; though, as he modestly hints, the epithet whip-hand (which he still regards with parental fondness) will perhaps be thought to have much of the manner of Shakespeare.—Vol. i, p. 43.