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His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated and the whole system of life is continued in motion.
Dr. Samuel Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare highly praises Shakespeare’s art of characterization. Shakespeare’s characters, he argues, do not belong to the society of a particular place or time; they are universal whereas in the works of other writers a character is often an individual. Shakespeare’s characters are progeny of common humanity such as will always remain I this world and whom our eyes will continue to meet.
But though Shakespeare’s characters are universally delineated, says Johnson, it is easy to distinguish one from another. Most of the speeches are so apt that they cannot be transplanted from the character to which Shakespeare has given it. His characters are not exaggerated. He does not give us purely virtuous or utterly depraved characters. We may even say that he has no heroes in his plays; on the contrary, it is common humanity that he depicts. Even when the plot calls for a supernatural agent, the tone of the dialogues of various characters remains life-like and realistic. Shakespeare “approximates the remote and familiarities the wonderful.” He presents human nature not merely as it reacts to the common situations of life but also as it may act in extraordinary situations.
Another reason for which Johnson appreciates Shakespeare’s art of characterization is that his characters sometimes cause seriousness and sorrow and sometimes levity and laughter. The critic argues that life is an ebb and flow of sorrow and happiness; good and ill. Hence a portal of life should consist of both.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of characters has invited censure from some critics. Dennis and Rymer complain that his Romans are no sufficiently Roman. Voltaire’s protest is that his kings are not kings in the strict sense, that one of them – Claudius in Hamlet- is depicted as a drunk. In reality, argues Johnson, Shakespeare assigns nature a prominent role. His story or plot may demand Romans or Kings, but what he shows is the human nature in them. Romans and kings are essentially human beings- what befalls all human may befall them too.
Johnson’s appreciation of Shakespeare’s portrayal of characters is quite appropriate. The critic finds that no writer before Shakespeare, with the possible exception of Chaucer, has delineated human character in so realistic a manner. Johnson also shows that no knowledge of psychology had been there to help Shakespeare with theoretical hints for his character portrayal and that he acquired his knowledge of human nature from his personal observation.
Yet none of his characters is branded as second rate. His characters are full of principles and axioms, true for all time.