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works of their “ friend and fellow” as he wrote them, with the “height of their care.” They give their chief reason: "To the Great Variety of Readers
you were abused with diverse stolne and surreptitious copies, maim'd and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious imposters, that expos'd them: euen those are now offered to your view cur'd and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them.”
We may be certain that the 1602 Quarto of Merry Wives was largely in their minds when John Heminge and Henry Condell wrote those words. It is so “ maimed and deformed” that the Cambridge editors state truly that collation cannot be attempted between its text and that of the Folio. Halliwell called it a
Halliwell called it a “First Sketch," but he subsequently, in his Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, altered that view and pronounced it to be a
very defective copy, one made up by some poetaster, with the aid of shorthand notes." Daniel says his "conviction is in favour of one common original for both versions" (Folio and Quarto). I believe the Folio may be accepted as the text of the play in its entirety, with the usual amount of press errors assumed and allowed for; and with also the painful possibility, the almost certainty, of corruptions due to actors' innovations or alterations. But the Quarto has been so tinkered and battered that it can mainly be made use of as a check to the text in doubtful passages, and even then, as a clue, not as an authority. If we consider the Folio as derived from another "original,” it is not derived from it in the same unscrupulous fashion as the Quarto is, but is assuredly in the main identical with that original.
The earliest notice we have of Merry Wives is in the Stationers' Registers : "18 Jan. 1601-2, John Busby] An excellent and pleasant conceited commedie of Sir John Faulstof and the Merry Wyves of Windsor.” And “ Arth. Johnson) By assignment from John Busbye a book, An excellent and pleasant conceited comedie,” etc. (as before). This John Busbye was concerned, as Collier pointed out, two years before, in the publication of the undoubtedly surreptitious and corrupt Henry V.
The date of the first appearance of the play is, for a series of reasons, placed at 1598. There is an entry, Anno 1605, in Cunningham's Revells Booke (p. 203, Shaks. Soc.): “By his Matis plaiers. The Sunday ffollowinge (Hallowas Day) A Play of the Merry Wiues of Winsor.” But it is open to grave suspicion. See my Introduction to Othello.
Obviously the Quarto must be carefully studied, although it be corrupt. The question is, What value are we to attach to it as a text for the play? That can only be answered by such study, for there is no doubt, from the most cursory perusal, it is a spurious production. The fact that it is twenty years senior to the Folio must be remembered, and also that it appeared when Merry Wives was in the greatest popularity as a nearly new play. But how did such a variant from the true text arise ? and how was it possible for even the most dishonest publisher to be successful in offering to the public for sale a text of a favourite play, which is cut down to about half or twothirds of its correct dimensions ? My reply to this is somewhat similar to what Mr. Daniel gives as to the origin of the Quarto; it is, in fact, almost identical, but I arrive at it
in a somewhat different manner. Wright has nearly the same view of the Henry V. quarto.
I believe there was a recognised and authorised shortened representation of the play in use, reduced from our Folio version, for special purposes, whether to convenience a smaller company, or for private representation, as, for example, for compression into reduced time after court revels or banquets. In order to effect this, certain blocks of the play would be omitted, but lines or pieces of these blocks would be retained in order to preserve the continuity of narrative and action. Possibly the shortened play was the one the public were more familiar with, which rendered the task of the surreptitious note-taker and purloiner the easier, and removed the stumbling-block of a deficiency in size. When the full play was to be acted, with a full company's strength, these temporarily excerpted portions would be reinserted in their proper place in the actors' copies; who would not, however, be always careful to expunge those passages which were already retained to sustain the thread of the play in its continuity. In this way I imagine certain confusions arose, and it was the endeavour to explain these confusions in the Folio that suggested, after much pondering, this view to me.
The most obvious confusions are those concerning the hours of the morning, or of the afternoon, mentioned in connection with Falstaff's meetings with Mrs. Ford in the last Scene of the Third Act. These can only be set right by the alteration of words in the text. This is not, happily, the province of an editor, for it is a complicated and unpleasant investigation. Mr. Daniel, in his paper "On the Durations of the Action of Shakespeare's Plays”
(New Shaks. Soc. Trans., 1877–79), says it is impossible as the play now stands to arrange the times consistently. In the Irving Shakespeare the matter is thoroughly sifted also. For a stage representation, it is of imperative importance.
Since there has been undoubted garbling of our Folio text in these time-details, we are constrained to admit it may be possible elsewhere in it; but it is not to be supposed from this that the Folio text is in any degree open to suspicion ; except in a very few cases and kinds of cases that may be insisted upon. Such are: (1) details of scenic representation, tantamount to stage-directions in some cases; (2) trifling alterations, or possibly serious ones, due to personal matters; and (3) ordinary typographical or publishers' mistakes, through their own errors or from faulty MSS., and the changes made to satisfy the Act against profanity in players.
I imagine we can sort our difficulties in the Folio text under the above headings, none of which invalidate its authority. There is, indeed, one kind of apparent corruption which could not be so dealt with, i.e. where we conceive certain lines to be wholly unworthy of Shakespeare. That is, of course, very often a matter of opinion; and it is a sort of criticism that it is dangerous to handle even with the longest possible pole. I have noticed, especially in the Fifth Act, certain lines that are so wretched here and there, that they may be assumed to have been foisted in by one or other of the actors from time to time, and got mixed up with the text. They are mere trifles, and we may thank the Folio editors and congratulate ourselves they are not much more serious. When Middleton wrote The Mayor of Quinborough, he spoke in very violent language of "your new additions, they spoil all the plays that ever they come in.” Heywood has a tirade against such malpractices, and more serious ones, in his Rape of Lucrece—“Address to Reader.”
In the Fourth and Fifth Acts I think we can find evidences of the unexpunged bits of the shortened version. They amount to repetitions. It will be necessary here to refer occasionally to the Quarto text, but I am dealing entirely with that of the present edition, the Folio, which gave rise to these views quite independently.
In the last Scene of the Fourth Act, some thirty lines are devoted to prosaic details of the public shame to be inflicted upon Falstaff. This is Fenton's account to the Host, an official account, for he is at the bottom of the plot, and what he tells us is very nearly sufficient to enable us to understand all that takes place, including the mystification of Caius and Slender, by the colour device.
Previously to this, in the fourth Scene, about eighty lines (nearly the whole Scene) have been devoted, in proper dramatic and poetic fashion, to setting forth this plot, as it was first compounded, by the wives and their husbands, with an even more explicit account of the colour device. Here there is much repetition. A very few words would have sufficed to let audience or reader know, in the last Scene of this Act, that Fenton knew the plot, had taken the Host into his confidence, and was at the bottom of all the manipulation.
With these two movements the Quarto agrees, though the primary evolution of the plot takes up less than half the Folio's space; a grievous loss, and one of the many objectionable elisions in that text.