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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

Shakspere's Text.--Suetonius Unravelled

Title:     Shakspere's Text.--Suetonius Unravelled
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

_To the Editor of 'Titan'._

Dear Sir,--A year or two ago,[1] I received as a present from a distinguished and literary family in Boston (United States), a small pamphlet (twin sister of that published by Mr Payne Collier) on the text of Shakspere. Somewhere in the United States, as here in England, some unknown critic, at some unknown time, had, from some unknown source, collected and recorded on the margin of one amongst the Folio reprints of Shakspere by Heminge & Condell, such new readings as either his own sagacity had summarily prompted, or calm reflection had recommended, or possibly local tradition in some instances, and histrionic tradition in others, might have preserved amongst the _habitues_ of a particular theatre. In Mr P. Collier's case, if I recollect rightly, it was the _First_ Folio (_i. e._, by much the best); in this American case, I think it is the _Third_ Folio (about the worst) which had received the corrections. But, however this may be, there are two literary _collaborateurs_ concerned in each of these parallel cases--namely, first, the original collector (possibly author) of the various readings, who lived and died probably within the seventeenth century; and, secondly, the modern editor, who stations himself as a repeating frigate that he may report and pass onwards these marginal variations to us of the nineteenth century.

[Footnote 1: Written in 1856. H.]

COR. for _Corrector_, is the shorthand designation by which I have distinguished the _first_; REP. for _Reporter_ designates the other. My wish and purpose is to extract all such variations of the text as seem to have any claim to preservation, or even, to a momentary consideration. But in justice to myself, and in apology for the hurried way in which the several parts of this little memorandum are brought into any mimicry of order and succession, I think it right to say that my documents are all dispersed into alien and distant quarters; so that I am reduced into dependence upon my own unassisted memory.

[THE TEMPEST. _Act I. Scene 1._

'Not a soul
But felt a fever of the mad, and play'd
Some tricks of desperation.'

COR. here substitutes, 'But felt a fever of the _mind_:' which substitution strikes me as entirely for the worse; 'a fever of the mad' is such a fever as customarily attacks the delirious, and all who have lost the control of their reasoning faculties.


'O dear father,
Make not too rash a trial of him; for
He's gentle, and not fearful.'

Upon this the _Reporter's_ remark is, that 'If we take _fearful_ in its common acceptation of _timorous_, the proposed change renders the passage clearer;' but that, if we take the word _fearful_ in its rarer signification of _that which excites terror_, 'no alteration is needed.' Certainly: none _is_ needed; for the mistake (as _I_ regard it) of REP. lies simply in supposing the passive sense of _fearful_--namely, that which _suffers_ fear--to be the ordinary sense; which now, in the nineteenth century, it is; but was _not_ in the age of Shakspere.

[MACBETH. _Scene 7._

'Thus even-handed justice
_Commends_ the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.'

COR. proposes, _Returns_ the ingredients of, &c.; and, after the word _returns_ is placed a comma; which, however, I suppose to be a press oversight, and no element in the correction. Meantime, I see no call for any change whatever. The ordinary use of the word _commend_, in any advantageous introduction of a stranger by letters, seems here to maintain itself--namely, placing him in such a train towards winning favour as may give a favourable bias to his opportunities. The opportunities are not left to their own casual or neutral action, but are armed and pointed towards a special result by the influence of the recommender. So, also, it is here supposed that amongst several chalices, which might else all have an equal power to conciliate notice, one specially--namely, that which contains the poison--is armed by Providence with a power to bias the choice, and commend itself to the poisoner's favour.


'His two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so _convince_.'

COR. is not happy at this point in his suggestion: tinkers are accused (often calumniously, for tinkers have enemies as well as other people) of insidiously enlarging holes, making simple into compound fractures, and sometimes of planting two holes where they find one. But I have it on the best authority--namely, the authority of three tinkers who were unanimous--that, if sometimes there is a little treachery of this kind amongst the profession, it is no more than would be pronounced 'in reason' by all candid men. And certainly, said one of the three, you wouldn't look for perfection in a tinker? Undoubtedly a seraphic tinker would be an unreasonable postulate; though, perhaps, the man in all England that came nearest to the seraphic character in one century _was_ a tinker--namely, John Bunyan. But, as my triad of tinkers urged, men of all professions _do_ cheat at uncertain times, _are_ traitors in a small proportion, _must be_ perfidious, unless they make an odious hypocritical pretension to the character of angels. That tinkers are not alone in their practice of multiplying the blemishes on which their healing art is invoked, seems broadly illustrated by the practice of verbal critics. Those who have applied themselves to the ancient classics, are notorious for their corrupt dealings in this way. And Coleridge founded an argument against the whole body upon the confessedly dreadful failure of Bentley, prince of all the order, when applied to a case where most of us could appreciate the result--namely, to the _Paradise Lost_. If, said Coleridge, this Bentley could err so extravagantly in a case of mother-English, what must we presume him often to have done in Greek? Here we may see to this day that practice carried to a ruinous extent, which, when charged upon tinkers, I have seen cause to restrict. In the present case from _Macbeth_, I fear that COR. is slightly indulging in this tinkering practice. As I view the case, there really is no hole to mend. The old meaning of the word _convince_ is well brought out in the celebrated couplet--

'He, that's convinc'd against his will,
Is of the same opinion still.

How can _that_ be? I have often heard objectors say. Being convinced by his opponent--_i. e._, convinced that his opponent's view is the right one--how can he retain his own original opinion, which by the supposition is in polar opposition. But this argument rests on a false notion of the sense attached originally to the word _convinced_. That word was used in the sense of _refuted; redargued_, the alternative word, was felt to be pedantic. The case supposed was that of a man who is reduced to an absurdity; he cannot deny that, from his own view, an absurdity _seems_ to follow; and, until he has shown that this absurdity is only apparent, he is bound to hold himself _provisionally_ answered. Yet that does not reconcile him to his adversary's opinion; he retains his own, and is satisfied that somewhere an answer to it exists, if only he could discover it.

Here the meaning is, 'I will convince his chamberlains with wine'--_i. e._, will refute by means of the confusion belonging to the tragedy itself, when aided by intoxication, all the arguments (otherwise plausible) which they might urge in self-defence.

['_Thrice_ and once the hedge-pig whined:'--

This our friend COR. alters to _twice_; but for the very reason which should have checked him--namely, on Theobald's suggestion that '_odd_ numbers are used in enchantments and magical operations;' and here he fancies himself to obtain an odd number by the arithmetical summation--_twice_ added to _once_ makes thrice. Meantime the odd number is already secured by viewing the _whines_ separately, and not as a sum. The hedge-pig whined thrice--that was an odd number. Again he whined, and this time only once--this also was an odd number. Otherwise COR. is perfectly right in his general doctrine, that

'Numero Deus _impare_ gaudet.'

Nobody ever heard of _even_ numbers in any case of divination. A dog, for instance, howling under a sick person's window, is traditionally ominous of evil--but not if he howls twice, or four times.

['I _pull_ in resolution.'--_Act V. Scene 5._

COR. had very probably not seen Dr Johnson's edition of _Shakspere_, but in common with the Doctor, under the simple coercion of good sense, he proposes 'I _pall_;' a restitution which is so self-attested, that it ought fearlessly to be introduced into the text of all editions whatever, let them be as superstitiously scrupulous as in all reason they ought to be.

[HAMLET. _Act II. Scene in the Speech of Polonius._

'Good sir, or so, or friend, or gentleman,'

is altered by COR., and in this case with an effect of solemn humour which justifies itself, into

'Good sir, or sir, or friend, or gentleman;'

meaning good sir, or sir simply without the epithet _good_, which implies something of familiarity. Polonius, in his superstitious respect for ranks and degrees, provides four forms of address applying to four separate cases: such is the ponderous casuistry which the solemn courtier brings to bear upon the most trivial of cases.

* * * * *

At this point, all at once, we find our sheaf of arrows exhausted: trivial as are the new resources offered for deciphering the hidden meanings of Shakspere, their quality is even less a ground of complaint than their limitation in quantity. In an able paper published by this journal, during the autumn of 1855, upon the new readings offered by Mr Collier's work, I find the writer expressing generally a satisfaction with the condition of Shakspere's text. I feel sorry that I cannot agree with him. To me the text, though improved, and gradually moving round to a higher and more hopeful state of promise, is yet far indeed from the settled state which is desirable. I wish, therefore, as bearing upon all such hopes and prospects, to mention a singular and interesting case of sudden conquest over a difficulty that once had seemed insuperable. For a period of three centuries there had existed an enigma, dark and insoluble as that of the Sphinx, in the text of Suetonius. Isaac Casaubon had vainly besieged it; then, in a mood of revolting arrogance, Joseph Scaliger; Ernesti; Gronovius; many others; and all without a gleam of success.

The passage in Suetonius which so excruciatingly (but so unprofitably) has tormented the wits of such scholars as have sat in judgment upon it through a period of three hundred and fifty years, arises in the tenth section of his Domitian. That prince, it seems, had displayed in his outset considerable promise of moral excellence: in particular, neither rapacity nor cruelty was apparently any feature in his character. Both qualities, however, found a pretty early development in his advancing career, but cruelty the earliest. By way of illustration, Suetonius rehearses a list of distinguished men, clothed with senatorian or even consular rank, whom he had put to death upon allegations the most frivolous: amongst them Aelius Lamia, a nobleman whose wife he had torn from him by open and insulting violence. It may be as well to cite the exact words of Suetonius: 'Aelium Lamiam (interemit) ob suspiciosos quidem, verum et veteres et innoxios jocos; quod post abductam uxorem laudanti vocem suam--dixerat, _Heu taceo_; quodque Tito hortanti se ad alterum matrimonium, responderat [Greek: me kai su gamesai theleis];'--that is, Aelius Lamia he put to death on account of certain jests; jests liable to some jealousy, but, on the other hand, of old standing, and that had in fact proved harmless as regarded practical consequences--namely, that to one who praised his voice as a singer he had replied, _Heu taceo_; and that on another occasion, in reply to the Emperor Titus, when urging him to a second marriage, he had said, 'What now, I suppose _you_ are looking out for a wife?'

The latter jest is intelligible enough, stinging, and witty. As if the young men of the Flavian family could fancy no wives but such as they had won by violence from other men, he affects in a bitter sarcasm to take for granted that Titus, as the first step towards marrying, counselled his friends to marry as the natural means for creating a fund of eligible wives. The primal qualification of any lady as a consort being, in _their_ eyes, that she had been torn away violently from a friend, it became evident that the preliminary step towards a Flavian wedding was, to persuade some incautious friend into marrying, and thus putting himself into a capacity of being robbed. How many ladies that it was infamous for this family to appropriate as wives, so many ladies that in their estimate were eligible in that character. Such, at least in the stinging jest of Lamia, was the Flavian rule of conduct. And his friend Titus, therefore, simply as the brother of Domitian, simply as a Flavian, he affected to regard as indirectly providing a wife, when he urged his friend by marrying to enrol himself as a _pillagee_ elect.

The latter jest, therefore, when once apprehended, speaks broadly and bitingly for itself. But the other--what can it possibly mean? For centuries has that question been reiterated; and hitherto without advancing by one step nearer to solution. Isaac Casaubon, who about 230 years since was the leading oracle in this field of literature, writing an elaborate and continuous commentary upon Suetonius, found himself unable to suggest any real aids for dispersing the thick darkness overhanging the passage. What he says is this:--'Parum satisfaciunt mihi interpretes in explicatione hujus Lamiae dicti. Nam quod putant _Heu taceo_ suspirium esse ejus--indicem doloris ob abductam uxorem magni sed latentis, nobis non ita videtur; sed notatam potius fuisse tyrannidem principis, qui omnia in suo genere pulchra et excellentia possessoribus eriperet, unde necessitas incumbebat sua bona dissimulandi celandique.' Not at all satisfactory to me are the commentators in the explanation of the _dictum_ (which is here equivalent to _dicterium_) of Lamia. For, whereas they imagine _Heu taceo_ to be a sigh of his--the record and indication of a sorrow, great though concealed, on behalf of the wife that had been violently torn away from him--me, I confess, that the case does not strike in that light; but rather that a satiric blow was aimed at the despotism of the sovereign prince, who tore away from their possessors all objects whatsoever marked by beauty or distinguished merit in their own peculiar class: whence arose a pressure of necessity for dissembling and hiding their own advantages. '_Sic esse exponendum_,' that such is the true interpretation (continues Casaubon), '_docent illa verba_ [LAUDANTI VOCEM SUAM],' (we are instructed by those words), [to one who praised his singing voice, &c.;].

This commentary was obscure enough, and did no honour to the native good sense of Isaac Casaubon, usually so conspicuous. For, whilst proclaiming a settlement, in reality it settled nothing. Naturally, it made but a feeble impression upon the scholars of the day; and not long after the publication of the book, Casaubon received from Joseph Scaliger a friendly but gasconading letter, in which that great scholar brought forward a new reading--namely, [Greek: entakto], to which he assigned a profound technical value as a musical term. No person even affected to understand Scaliger. Casaubon himself, while treating so celebrated a man with kind and considerate deference, yet frankly owned that, in all his vast reading, he had never met with this strange Greek word. But, without entering into any dispute upon that verbal question, and conceding to Scaliger the word and his own interpretation of the word, no man could understand in what way this new resource was meant to affect the ultimate question at issue--namely, the extrication of the passage from that thick darkness which overshadowed it.

'_As you were_' (to speak in the phraseology of military drill), was in effect the word of command. All things reverted to their original condition. And two centuries of darkness again enveloped this famous perplexity of Roman literature. The darkness had for a few moments seemed to be unsettling itself in preparation for flight: but immediately it rolled back again; and through seven generations of men this darkness was heavier, because less hopeful than before.

Now then, I believe, all things are ready for the explosion of the catastrophe; 'which catastrophe,' I hear some malicious reader whispering, 'is doubtless destined to glorify himself' (meaning the unworthy writer of this little paper). I cannot deny it. A truth _is_ a truth. And, since no medal, nor riband, nor cross, of any known order, is disposable for the most brilliant successes in dealing with desperate (or what may be called _condemned_) passages in Pagan literature, mere sloughs of despond that yawn across the pages of many a heathen dog, poet and orator, that I could mention, the more reasonable it is that a large allowance should be served out of boasting and self-glorification to all those whose merits upon this field national governments have neglected to proclaim. The Scaligers, both father and son, I believe, acted upon this doctrine; and drew largely by anticipation upon that reversionary bank which they conceived to be answerable for such drafts. Joseph Scaliger, it strikes me, was drunk when he wrote his letter on the present occasion, and in that way failed to see (what Casaubon saw clearly enough) that he had commenced shouting before he was out of the wood. For my own part, if I go so far as to say that the result promises, in the Frenchman's phrase, to 'cover me with glory,' I beg the reader to remember that the idea of 'covering' is of most variable extent: the glory may envelope one in a voluminous robe--a princely mantle that may require a long suite of train-bearers, or may pinch and vice one's arms into that succinct garment (now superannuated) which some eighty years ago drew its name from the distinguished Whig family in England of Spencer. Anticipating, therefore, that I _shall_--nay, insisting, and mutinously, if needful, that I _will_--be covered with glory by the approaching result, I do not contemplate anything beyond that truncated tunic, once known as a 'spencer,' and which is understood to cover only the shoulders and the chest.

Now, then, all being ready, and the arena being cleared of competitors (for I suppose it is fully understood that everybody but myself has retired from the contest), thrice, in fact, has the trumpet sounded, 'Do you give it up?' Some preparations there are to be made in all cases of contest. Meantime, let it be clearly understood what it is that the contest turns upon. Supposing that one had been called, like OEdipus of old, to a turn-up with that venerable girl the Sphinx, most essential it would have been that the clerk of the course (or however you designate the judge, the umpire, &c.;) should have read the riddle propounded to Greece: how else judge of the solution? At present the elements of the case to be decided stand thus:--

A Roman noble, a man, in fact, of senatorial rank, has been robbed, robbed with violence, and with cruel scorn, of a lovely young wife, to whom he was most tenderly attached. But by whom? the indignant reader demands. By a younger son[2] of the Roman emperor Vespasian.

[Footnote 2: But holding what rank, and what precise station, at the time of the outrage? At this point I acknowledge a difficulty. The criminal was in this case Domitian, the younger son of Vespasian, the tenth Caesar, younger Brother of Titus, the eleventh Caesar, and himself, under the name of Domitian, the twelfth of the Caesars, consequently the closing prince in that series of the initial twelve Caesars whom Suetonius had undertaken to record. Now the difficulty lies here, which yet I have never seen noticed in any book: was this violence perpetrated before or after Domitian's assumption of the purple? If _after_, how, then, could the injured husband have received that advice from Titus (as to repairing his loss by a second marriage), which forms part of an anecdote and a _bon-mot_ between Titus and Lamia? Yet again, if not after but before, how was it Lamia had not invoked the protection of Vespasian, or of Titus--the latter of whom enjoyed a theatrically fine reputation for equity and moderation?]

For some years the wrong has been borne in silence: the sufferer knew himself to be powerless as against such an oppressor; and that to show symptoms of impotent hatred was but to call down thunderbolts upon his own head. Generally, therefore, prudence had guided him. _Patience_ had been the word; _silence_, and below all the deep, deep word--_wait_; and if by accident he were a Christian, not only that same word _wait_ would have been heard, but this beside, look under the altars for others that also wait. But poor suffering patience, sense of indignity that is hopeless, must (in order to endure) have saintly resources. Infinite might be the endurance, if sustained only by a finite hope. But the black despairing darkness that revealed a tossing sea self-tormented and fighting with chaos, showing neither torch that glimmered in the foreground, nor star that kept alive a promise in the distance, violently refused to be comforted. It is beside an awful aggravation of such afflictions, that the lady herself might have co-operated in the later stages of the tragedy with the purposes of the imperial ruffian. Lamia had been suffered to live, because as a living man he yielded up into the hands of his tormentor his whole capacity of suffering; no part of it escaped the hellish range of his enemy's eye. But this advantage for the torturer had also its weak and doubtful side. Use and monotony might secretly be wearing away the edge of the organs on and through which the corrosion of the inner heart proceeded. On the whole, therefore, putting together the facts of the case, it seems to have been resolved that he should die. But previously that he should drink off a final cup of anguish, the bitterest that had yet been offered. The lady herself, again--that wife so known historically, so notorious, yet so total a stranger to man and his generations--had she also suffered in sympathy with her martyred husband? That must have been known to a certainty in the outset of the case, by him that knew too profoundly on what terms of love they had lived. But at length, seeking for crowning torments, it may have been that the dreadful Caesar might have found the 'raw' in his poor victim, that offered its fellowship in exalting the furnace of misery. The lady herself--may we not suppose her at the last to have given way before the strengthening storm. Possibly to resist indefinitely might have menaced herself with ruin, whilst offering no benefit to her husband. And, again, though killing to the natural interests which accompany such a case, might not the lady herself be worn out, if no otherwise, by the killing nature of the contest? There is besides this dreadful fact, placed ten thousand times on record, that the very goodness of the human heart in such a case ministers fuel to the moral degradation of a female combatant. Any woman, and exactly in proportion to the moral sensibility of her nature, finds it painful to live in the same house with a man not odiously repulsive in manners or in person on terms of eternal hostility. In a community so nobly released as was Rome from all base Oriental bondage of women, this followed--that compliances of a nature oftentimes to belie the native nobility of woman become painfully liable to misinterpretation. Possibly under the blinding delusion of secret promises, unknown, nay, inaccessible, to those outside (all contemporaries being as ridiculously impotent to penetrate within the curtain as all posterity), the wife of Lamia, once so pure, may have been over-persuaded to make such _public_ manifestations of affection for Domitian as had hitherto, upon one motive or another, been loftily withheld. Things, that to a lover carry along with them irreversible ruin, carry with them final desolation of heart, are to the vast current of ordinary men, who regard society exclusively from a political centre, less than nothing. Do they deny the existence of other and nobler agencies in human affairs? Not at all. Readily they confess these agencies: but, as movements obeying laws not known, or imperfectly known to _them_, these they ignore. What it was circumstantially that passed, long since has been overtaken and swallowed up by the vast oblivions of time. This only survives--namely, that what he said gave signal offence in the highest quarter, and that his death followed. But what was it that he _did_ say? That is precisely the question, and the whole question which we have to answer. At present we know, and we do _not_ know, what it was that he said. We have bequeathed to us by history two words--involving eight letters--which in their present form, with submission to certain grandees of classic literature, mean exactly nothing. These two words must be regarded as the raw material upon which we have to work: and out of these we are required to turn out a rational saying for Aelius Lamia, under the following five conditions:--First, it must allude to his wife, as one that is lost to him irrecoverably; secondly, it must glance at a gloomy tyrant who bars him from rejoining her; thirdly, it must reply to the compliment which had been paid to the sweetness of his own voice; fourthly, it should in strictness contain some allusion calculated not only to irritate, but even to alarm or threaten his jealous and vigilant enemy; fifthly, doing all these things, it ought also to absorb, as its own main elements, the eight letters contained in the present senseless words--'_Heu taceo._'

Here is a monstrous quantity of work to throw upon any two words in any possible language. Even Shakspere's clown,[A] when challenged to furnish a catholic answer applicable to all conceivable occasions, cannot do it in less than nine letters--namely, _Oh lord, sir_. I, for my part, satisfied that the existing form of _Heu taceo_ was mere indictable and punishable nonsense, but yet that this nonsense must enter as chief element into the stinging sense of Lamia, gazed for I cannot tell how many weeks at these impregnable letters, viewing them sometimes as a fortress that I was called upon to escalade, sometimes as an anagram that I was called upon to re-organise into the life which it had lost through some dislocation of arrangement. Finally the result in which I landed, and which fulfilled all the conditions laid down was this:--Let me premise, however, what _at any rate_ the existing darkness attests, that some disturbance of the text must in some way have arisen; whether from the gnawing of a rat, or the spilling of some obliterating fluid at this point of some critical or unique MS. It is sufficient for us that the vital word has survived. I suppose, therefore, that Lamia had replied to the friend who praised the sweetness of his voice, 'Sweet is it? Ah, would to Heaven it might prove Orpheutic.' Ominous in this case would be the word Orpheutic to the ears of Domitian: for every school-boy knows that this means a _wife-revoking voice_. But first let me remark that there is such a legitimate word as _Orpheutaceam_: and in that case the Latin repartee of Lamia would stand thus--_Suavem dixisti? Quam vellem et Orpheutaceam_. But, perhaps, reader, you fail to recognise in this form our old friend _Heu taceo_. But here he is to a certainty, in spite of the rat: and in a different form of letters the compositor will show him, up to you as--_vellem et Orp_. [HEU TACEAM]. Possibly, being in good humour, you will be disposed to wink at the seemingly surreptitious AM, though believing the real word to be _taceo_. Let me say, therefore, that one reading, I believe, gives _taceam_. Here, then, shines out at once--(1) Eurydice the lovely wife; (2) detained by the gloomy tyrant Pluto; (3) who, however, is forced into surrendering her to her husband, whose voice (the sweetest ever known) drew stocks and stones to follow him, and finally his wife; (4) the word Orpheutic involves an alarming threat, showing that the hope of recovering the lady still survived; (5) we have involved in the restoration all the eight, or perhaps nine, letters of the erroneous form.

[Footnote A: In _All's Well that Ends Well_.]

[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: Shakspere's Text.--Suetonius Unravelled