JOHNSON A SHAKESPEAREAN EDITOR
Introduction. The two most outstanding contributions of Dr. Johnson are his Dictionary and his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. As far as the latter is concerned, Johnson was amply qualified for the task which required tremendous zeal and endless endeavor. Johnson, as an editor, had, a clear plan of what he had to do and his ways and approaches we almost unerring. It is true that his edition was delayed, but as his Proposals show, he had to accomplish a herculean task.
The duty of an editor : Johnson’s concept. Johnson possessed a clear idea of the responsibilities of an editor. He clearly stated that the duty of an editor was to establish as far as possible what an author had-written rather than what, in the opinion of the editor or his contemporaries, he ought to have written. The business of republishing an ancient book involves the correcting of what is corrupt and the explanation of what is obscure. But in correction one must avoid the method of conjecture as far as possible; conjecture is to be adopted only if all the other methods have proved futile.
An editor is not supposed to modernize the work he is editing or make it more regular. “If the phraseology is to be changed as words grow uncouth by disuse, or gross by vulgarity, the history of every language will be lost; we shall no longer have the words of any author, and as these alternations will be unskillfully made, we shall in time have very little of his meaning”. Johnson’s edition scrupulously avoids this pitfall.
Textual corruption : reasons. Johnson traces the reasons of textual corruption. One is careless printing. But in the case of Shakespeare the matter is quite different, Many of his allusions and references are obscure to later readers. Another fact is that Shakespeare wrote his plays at a time when the language was unified and so used words and phrases which are almost obsolete now. Yet rioter factor, which is a characteristic feature of Shakespeare himself, itarnely, “the fullness of idea, which might sometimes load his words with more sentiment than they could conveniently convey and that rapidity of imagination which might hurry him to a second liought before he had fully explained the first.” In such contexts Johnson is careful to leave the text Without emendation. He adopts all the other methods such as collating, examining the given text in the light of Elizabethan customs, habits and language. Conjectural ernendation is his last resort. Johnson can also be called the first ‘Variorum’ editor of Shakespeare’s plays.
Johnson’s notes. Wherever Johnson confronts a serious difficulty in a passage he offers a good selection of notes by previous editors. In his selection of these notes he is judicious and impartial. Besides giving his own notes in a particular context, he also seeks out other editors’ opinion and notes, and in this aspect of his performance as an editor he is wise and scholarly. It helped other later editors to a great extent and it is not rare to see that many modern editors have reproduced some part pf these notes in their annotations of Shakespeare’s plays.
Defects as an editor. As one critic says, “His knowledge (of Elizabethan language) was casual, unsystematic, fragmentary, and almost dilettante, not only by present day standards but by those which were to be introduced by his immediate successors his indolence often prevented him from doing what he knew perfectly well ought to be done”. For example Johnson is responsible for not collating all the editions prevailing then. He avoided, for instance, the copies in the possession of Garrick simply because of the fact that he was afraid of courting an actor.
Conclusion. Those editors who followed Johnson, especially those who accepted him as an ideal model, have paid him valuable tributes. We may assuredly say that Johnson is the best of the early school of Shakespearean editors. Good sense, knowledge and research were his strong points.
THE PUBLICATION OF JOHNSONS EDITION OF SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS
Introduction. Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare was twenty years in gestation before finally appearing in 1765. In 1745 he published a pamphlet entitled “Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth” along with a single sheet in the form of an advertisement, setting forth “Proposals for a New Edition of Shakespeare.” But due to various reasons, Johnson could not carry on the project: instead, in the following year he began work on his l)dictionary. Though this necessitated shelving his project on Shakespeare, his interest in the plays remained strong.
The delay in the publication. In 1756 Johnson returned to Shakespeare with the publication of his Proposals for Printing by Subscription, the Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, Corrected and Illustrated by Samuel. Johnson. Though he promised with reckless confidence to bring out the work the following year it was only after nine year that the set of eight volumes finally appeared.
Boswell felt that it was Johnson’s “indolence (that) prevented him from pursuing (this project) with that diligence which alone can collect those scattered facts that genius, however acute, penetrating, and luminous, cannot discover by its own force”.
Public reproach. The delay in bringing out the edition stirred public criticism. Johnson’s rivals took this opportunity to spread scandal against Johnson. Even his friends began to doubt the sincerity of Johnson’s promise and prospects. Boswell indicates that Johnson’s troubles in bringing out the edition of Shakespeare “had been severe and remit-tent”. At last on October 2, 1765 Johnson released his historic edition of Shakespeare. As can be seen, the title of Johnson’s edition gave no hint of his Preface , but to the contemporary writers and readers this was the most notable aspect of his edition.
The public reaction towards the edition. The public reaction towards Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare varied. Some writers (like William Kendrick) attacked it bitterly and this attack was duly answered by some student of Oxford. But the most important fact is that his Preface to the edition of Shakespeare’s plays was accepted as the best statement concerning the nature and scope of Shakespeare’s achievement.
Conclusion. It must be pointed out that Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare’s did not fulfill the expectations raised by his Proposals. There were only a few textual emendations; and Johnson confesses that he did not use many of the emendations which he at first made, for he learned to use conjecture less and less as he went along. He restored many readings of the First Folio and some of the Quartos as he had aimed to. He maintained that the First Folio was superior to the second. But his brief notes to the text are significant. A critic holds “Those who have waded through the notes in any of the great American Variorum editions know that three names are sure to arrest the mind; they are those of Johnson, Goethe, and Coleridge.”