English Literature » Notes » Discuss Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare

Discuss Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare

Alternate question: Comment on Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare endures. Though four hundred-odd years and countless playwrights have come and gone, the works William Shakespeare continue to enthrall us. Every student studies him. Some love him; many hate him. Still, all know him. Outside the classroom, too, Shakespeare continues to shape the culture of the western world. His plays grace the stage each season, with such diverse company as Sophocles and Jeff Goode. They are produced in every imaginable context. Critics continue to analyze their facets. Indeed, critics dedicate tomes to critiquing their peers’ observations of his works.

Each year, a new crop of his plays are, with a few intermittent exceptions, butchered by Hollywood. Surprisingly enough, however, those films continue to draw crowds. Surely, Shakespeare’s endurance attests to his literary merit. Even in the eighteenth century, the Bard’s votaries defended his worth by citing the longevity of his appeal. Dr. Samuel Johnson, however, warned against such short-sighted estimations of greatness by reminding his contemporaries that all too often “praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and…the honours do only to excellence are paid to antiquity” (Johnson 8).

Still, Johnson proclaims Shakespeare’s merits. With his publication The Plays of William Shakespeare in 1765, Johnson made his contribution to the history of Shakespearean criticism. As with much of his work, Johnson left his own indelible mark on the field. His edition remains relevant today because it continues to affect the way critics approach Shakespeare. Johnson was not the first editor of Shakespeare; nor was he by any means the last. Though he defended the methodology of his edition itself quite well, its legacy in modern literature is, on the whole, indirect.

The critical material that accompanies his edition continues to have a much more direct effect on Shakespeare as he is interpreted today. To use Johnson’s own criterion, his Preface and annotation can be called great because “frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favor” (. An understanding of the criticism itself is, of course, necessary to any understanding of its endurance. The notes with which Johnson sprinkled his edition, though indisputably important, are too diverse to be treated with any justice here. Johnson’s more comprehensive Preface has retained its influence to the present day.

There are four easily distinguished sections in Johnson’s Preface; in the first, he explicates Shakespeare’s virtues after explaining what merit, if any, can be determined by the Shakespeare’s enduring popularity. Johnson walks the middle ground with his critique of antiquity. He neither fully embraces longevity as a litmus test of quality nor rejects it as meaningless. Rather, he points out that those works which have withstood the test of time stand out not because of their age alone, but because, with age, those works have “been compared with other works of the same kind” and can therefore be “stiled excellen”.

He proceeds thence to elevate Shakespeare as the poet of nature. “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature” . It is Shakespeare’s realism, Johnson argues, that distinguishes him from other playwrights. In his characterization and dialogue, Shakespeare “overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition,” striking at the center of humanity (14). The nature captured by Shakespeare’s characters is exhibited in the “ease and simplicity” of their dialogues (12).

Indeed, Johnson points out, the distinctions of character stressed by such critics as Voltaire and Rhymer impose only artificial burdens on the natural genius of Shakespeare. Johnson goes further in his defense of the Bard’s merit, extending his argument from the characters within his plays to the genre of the plays themselves. In the strictest, classical sense of the terms, Johnson admits, Shakespeare’s works cannot be fairly called comedies or tragedies. For this too, his plays earned harsh criticism from Johnson’s contemporaries.

Johnson, though, sees in the mixture of sorrow and joy a style which “approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life” (15). By acknowledging the basis of such criticism, Johnson frees himself to turn the argument on its head. He holds up the tragicomedies of Shakespeare as distinctly natural; in their “interchange of seriousness and merriment,” they hold up “a faithful mirrour of manners and of life” (15, 10). This, of course, is paramount to literary success to Johnson.

His praise for Shakespeare, which centers on the Bard’s sublunary approach to character, dialogue, and plot, does not blind him to the poet of nature’s weaknesses. Johnson airs Shakespeare’s imperfections without hesitance. In doing so, though, he does not weaken his arguments; he simply establishes his credentials as a critic. As Edward Tomarken points out, “for Johnson, criticism requires, not intrusive sententiae, but evaluative interpretations, decisions about how literature applies to the human dilemma” (Tomarken 2). Johnson is not esitant to admit Shakespeare’s faults: his earlier praise serves to keep those flaws in perspective. Even without that perspective, however, Johnson’s censure of Shakespeare is not particularly harsh. For the most part, Johnson highlights surface-level defects in the Bard’s works: his “loosely formed” plots, his “commonly gross” jests, and—most ironically—his “disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution” (Johnson 19, 20). The most egregious fault Johnson finds in Shakespeare, though, is thematic.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson exhibits emphatic distaste for Shakespeare’s lack of moral purpose. Johnson argues that he “sacrifices virtue to convenience” (19). In leading “his persons indifferently through right and wrong” and leaving “their examples to operate by chance,” Shakespeare has abandoned his duty as an author as the righteous Johnson would have that duty defined (19). This is, in his eyes, Shakespeare’s greatest flaw, though it does not supercede his other merits. In the third section of his Preface, Johnson ceases his attack on Shakespeare, and returns to his defense.

Johnson begins by refuting the reproach wrought by adherents to the unities, which had “elicited from French criticism a tiresome unanimity” (Stock 76). Though they have lost their prominence, Shakespeare’s deviation from the unities of action, time, and place earned him substantial censure. Johnson defends Shakespeare’s employment of unity of action, though he admits that Shakespeare deviates slightly in to allow his plots to concur with nature. He goes further, though, and summarily dismisses the value of the unities, whose importance, he contends, “arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible” (Johnson 23).

Such credibility is impossible, however, since the very nature of drama is beyond the reach of reason. “Spectators,” Johnson points out, “are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players” (24). The imagination of the audience, stretched by the play itself, is not incapable of further activity. By reversing the entire paradigm through which the unities are used, Johnson changes Shakespeare’s fault into a praiseworthy asset. Johnson also praises Shakespeare within his context.

Given the Bard’s unimpressive educational background, the quality of his work is astounding. Education alone, however, could not produce Shakespeare’s works, which have “a vigilance of distinction which books and precepts cannot offer” (35). It is that observation which makes him the poet of nature, and frees his works from many forms of criticism. Johnson extends his consideration of context to the national level. At a time in which the English had no model of literary excellence, Shakespeare produced just such a model. In his context, then, Johnson purports that Shakespeare’s achievement is phenomenal.

Johnson’s defends Shakespeare as having fulfilled the “first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiosity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through” (Johnson 30). His advocacy of Shakespeare in the first section, coupled with his rigorous defense in the third, all but insist that Shakespeare’s merits heavily outweigh his faults. In the final quarter of the Preface, Johnson reviews the work of previous editors of Shakespeare, and after critiquing his predecessors, Johnson explains his own editorial methodology.

Clearly, Johnson felt that no extant edition could be considered authoritative, for he undertook to create his own. He opens by lamenting Shakespeare’s complete disregard for the preservation of his plays. Had the Bard released an authorized edition of his works during his lifetime, Johnson points out, the “negligence and unskilfulness” of eighteenth century editors would not have “corrupted many passages perhaps beyond recovery” (Johnson 39, 40). Still, Johnson proves willing add praise to his condemnation as he comments on the particular approaches of Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Hanmer, and Warburton.

Rowe, whose edition appeared in 1709, focused little on “correction or explanation,” but whose emendations were used by successive editors (40). Johnson acknowledges that his approach to Shakespeare was suitable for his context. Johnson grants more praise to Pope, who he says illustrated to readers the “true state of Shakespeare’s text” (41). In doing so, Pope edited the plays heavily, even distinguishing between the legitimate and the forgeries. For Pope Johnson retained an editor’s notes in full, an indication of the high regard in which Johnson held him.

Not all of Johnson’s predecessors faired as well as Pope, though. Johnson is—not altogether surprisingly—harsh with Theobald, who attacked Pope’s edition. Johnson characterizes him as “a man of narrow comprehension…with no native and intrinsick splendour of genius” (Johnson 42-43). Still, Johnson acknowledges that “what little he did do was commonly right” (43). Of his notes, Johnson retains those from his second edition which were not corrected by successive editors. Johnson rigorously defends his fourth predecessor, Hanmer, whose attempts to add form to Shakespeare’s meter had been attacked.

Johnson, however, stresses Hanmer’s great care in annotation, and reaffirms his merit as an editor. Warburton, the most recent of the Bard’s editors, earns more sever censure from Johnson’s pen. Johnson criticizes, first and foremost, Warburton’s overconfidence, “which presumes to do, by surveying the surface, what labour only can perform, by penetrating the bottom” (45). Johnson also attacks him for his weak notes and his insight into the plays inconsistent. As to his own edition, Johnson acknowledges his debt to his five predecessors, saying “not one left Shakespeare without improvement” (49).

He also points out that he tended to look before even Rowe’s edition in an effort to find the most authoritative text possible. In an effort to maintain plays’ integrity, Johnson confines his “imagination to the margin,” commenting on the text with as little modification as possible. Still, with a plethora of available sources, Johnson’s work as an editor was still significant. In the end, he released the most comprehensive edition of Shakespeare’s works of the eighteenth century. Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare was greeted with mix of adulation and criticism.

Even from the beginning, however, the Preface “monopolized critical attention” (Sherbo 46). The misconception that the Preface itself constitutes Johnson’s edition persists even today. Between Johnson’s time and our own the Preface has been both exalted and condemned. Many of his contemporaries showered Johnson’s edition with great praise, singling out the Preface as “a fine piece of writing” containing “much truth, good sense, and just criticism” (Colman qtd. in Sherbo 47). Johnson’s “comprehensive views and comprehensive expression…made the essay a classic” (Elledge 1136).

Other critics subjected the Preface to further scrutiny, looking beyond the surface criticism at Johnson’s methods of approaching Shakespeare. Thus William Kenrick, for example, focused extensively on Johnson’s “treatment of the unities and the whole question of dramatic illusion” (Sherbo 48). Kenrick’s review was not altogether positive, however. In fact, he bitterly censures Johnson, accusing him of “having acted, in the outrage he hath committed on Shakespeare, just like other sinners, not only by doing those things he ought not to have done, but by leaving undone those things he ought to have done” (Kenrick xv).

In The Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell singles out the Preface, hailing it as a work “in which the excellencies and defects of that immortal bard are displayed with a masterly hand” (130-131). His dismissal of the rest of the work, however, betrays some hint of disappointment in the edition as a whole. Certainly, even in Johnson’s lifetime, there were vocal critics besides Kenrick. John Hawkins dismissed it as unimpressive: “Much had been expected from it, and little now appeared to have been performed” (qtd. in Sherbo 48). Still, Hawkins acknowledges that Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare formed the basis of subsequent editions.

Critics of the nineteenth century were generally harsh as well. Charles Knight, for example, granted in 1867 that Johnson’s work had “influenced the public opinion up to this day;” he immediately adds, though, that “the influence has been for the most part evil” (qtd. in Sherbo 49). By the end of the nineteenth century, the critical thought on the Preface tended toward the unimpressed. Johnson has regained some stature in the past hundred years, however. Slowly, critics began to see in his Preface a “conclusive summing up by a strong, wise, and impartial mind” (Smith qtd. in Sherbo 49).

Other critics found value in more specific aspects of Johnson’s work. T. S. Eliot praised his lucidity in identifying Shakespeare’s genre: “The distinction between the tragic and the comic is an account of the way in which we try to live; when we get below it, as in King Lear, we have an account of the way in which we do live” (Eliot 296). Eliot shared Johnson’s distaste for the superficial distinctions through which Shakespeare’s plays had been labeled tragic, comic, and historic. Rather, he saw that, in the interchange tragic and comic scenes, Shakespeare produces literature that is true to life.

Indeed, Charles Warren points out that “Eliot in his susceptibilities sounds a little like Dr. Johnson,” whom he praised in various ways (6). Arthur Sherbo, editor of Johnson on Shakespeare, saw that, despite its weaknesses, the Preface is still worthy of study: Where Johnson deviated from the traditional criticism of various aspects of Shakespeare’s art he was often wrong…But this does not detract from the merited fame of the Preface as a magnificent restatement of the eighteenth century’s thinking on Shakespeare. Sherbo 60) Such a view of Johnson is best described as qualified praise; he acknowledges its weaknesses without ignoring its strengths. Donald Green echoes Sherbo’s praises, stressing that Johnson gave the eighteenth century’s critics “their first really effective and memorable expression” (Greene, Samuel Johnson 185). More recently, also, Johnson has earned the recognition of modern critics. In his analysis of Shakespeare’s depictions of reality, for example, A. D. Nuttall commends Johnson’s approach to the Bard as poet of nature. Johnson, he says, “finds in Shakespeare’s adherence to nature a profound and ordered uniformity” (67).

Indeed, in many ways, the importance that Nuttall prescribes to realism is similar to that of Johnson. In his conclusion, he points out their mutual dislike for “the pastoral convention,” in favor of forms less “insulated from this varying world” (185, 193). Nuttall embraces Shakespeare’s version of reality, which he sees as an unconscious challenge to transcendentalism. Edward Tomarken, too, defends the Preface. Never denying that it is a “largely derivative work,” Tomarken argues that it directly links the criticism of the eighteenth century to that of today (3).

He points out that it “speaks directly to us, raising new questions and presenting new resolutions for modern Shakespereans, theoreticians, and literary critics in general” (3). Today’s critics have generally looked beyond the origins of the work to its original methodological contributions, where they have found much value. More than any other modern critic, however, Harold Bloom has fully embraced Johnson’s approach to Shakespeare. Arguably today’s preeminent scholar of Shakespeare, Bloom singles out Johnson as “the foremost of interpreters” and “first among all Western literary critics” (Bloom 2).

Such praise for Johnson, particularly in reference to his edition of Shakespeare, is almost unprecedented. He sees Johnson’s contribution to both literary criticism generally and Shakespearean criticism specifically as indispensable. He defines “Johnson’s vitality as a critic” by noting that he is “always sufficiently inside Shakespeare’s plays to judge them as he judges human life, without ever forgetting that Shakespeare’s function is to bring life to mind” (2). Bloom’s tribute to Johnsonian criticism is not mere lip service, however; he integrates Johnson’s principles into his own pproach to Shakespeare’s works. Bloom echoes Johnson’s focus on creativity, stressed not only in the Preface to Shakespeare, but also in the Lives of the Poets, where Johnson points out that Milton’s work “is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first” (Johnson qtd. in Greene, Critical Edition 716). For Bloom, Shakespeare’s ingenuity is of prime importance, and his invention was not only literary, but linguistic: “Early modern English was shaped by Shakespeare: the Oxford English Dictionary is made in his image” (Bloom 10).

Bloom also incorporates Johnson’s notion of Shakespeare as the poet of nature into his own work, calling Hamlet “art’s tribute to nature” (4). Bloom’s focus in examining Shakespeare is, in fact, his “originality in the representation of character” (17). On the whole, Bloom is simultaneously a distinctly modern and distinctly Johnsonian critic. Johnson was among the first of the Bard’s editors. His Preface, however, betrays his reliance on his few predecessors. Nevertheless, his edition has affected the study of Shakespeare since its publication in 1765.

Whether praised or censured, critics have garnished Johnson’s edition—its Preface, in particular—with much attention. Johnson did not begin the study of Shakespeare, nor did he set an unchallenged precedent in the field. Still, Johnson’s approach to the poet of nature has survived until the present. Certainly, Johnson’s Preface does not enjoy the same popular appeal as Shakespeare’s works. As long as scholars continue to examine Shakespeare, however, Johnson’s work will remain important. Truly, Shakespeare endures. So does Johnson.

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