English Literature » Notes » How does Johnson defend Shakespeare’s mixing of comic and tragic elements?
William Shakespeare

How does Johnson defend Shakespeare’s mixing of comic and tragic elements?

According to the classical rules of criticism, the mingling of comic and tragic scenes in the same drama is an offensive practice. All the dramatists supported these rules, and they opposed the fusion of tragic elements with comic elements. Being an influential critic, Samuel Johnson fervently opposed the mingling of comic and tragic elements and regarded them as ‘mongrel’ dramas. During the time of Shakespeare, the learned dramatist Ben Jonson followed the classical rules of non-mingling in his dramas. But Shakespeare avoided this popular type and accepted his own created track.

In defending Shakespeare’s mixing of comic and tragic elements Johnson critically delicates the principle of non-mixing which was followed by the Greek and Roman dramatists. As human life is a chaos of mingled purposes, one group of ancient dramatists sorted out the crimes of men and wrote dramas with the absurdities of life to forget the serious aspects in laughter.

Thus, the two modes of dramatic art came into existence. Since, then the drama was divided into two groups: tragedy and comedy. No dramatists tried to write dramas mixing the two broad divisions of human life.

But Shakespeare refuses to follow thus principle of dramatic composition and create his own type in which joys and sorrows, laughter and pleasure, good and evil are mixed with an endless variety. Johnson supports Shakespeare for mingling tragic and comic scenes in the same drama because Shakespeare was a poet of nature and he represents life through his dramas.

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least, above all modern writers, the poet of nature, the poet who holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.

Johnson also supports Shakespeare for the variety of his writing. Because, variety is the source of pleasure and mingled drama, being a combination of diverse human passions, affords pleasure. None of these two passions are existed in the same composition conceals the other’s effect. It is also conceived that the interspersion of a comic scene may lessen the tension of a tragedy. But Johnson does not agree with that. He also justifies the practice on the score that the audience differ in their taste and if a play is a mingled product of tragedy and comedy, it may find more welcome from the majority of spectators. Lastly, Johnson says that variety is more pleasing than something stereotype or monotonous.

In conclusion, Johnson comes out entirely successful in justifying Shakespeare’s mixing of tragedy and comedy, and in sustaining that mingled drama is in fact inferior to genre. Going against the Neo-classical rules and properties, he has uttered the truth that Shakespeare represents life through his dramas.

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