Johnson as a critic of Shakespeare

Johnson as a critic of Shakespeare

Bring out of most crucial points of Johnson’s evaluation of Shakespeare as stated in the Preface along with your own comments.

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Introduction. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is an everlasting contribution to English literary criticism. Though Johnson is a neo-classical critic, his assessment of Shakespeare is unprejudiced on the whole. Johnson praises as well as points out defects. For him the greatest judge is the public. Johnson’s duty was to expose Shakespeare under the light of neo-classical taste. Johnson does this satisfactorily though in some instances he is not fully justified. The Preface opens with a tribute to Shakespeare’s enduring appeal, which Johnson considers an acknowledged test of eminence. Later on he goes to the defects of Shakespeare too.

Just representation of general nature. “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature”.  According to Johnson the basic requirement of aesthetic grandeurs truthfulness to the facts of nature. He finds this plentiful in Shakespeare. ‘Just representation of general nature’ was also a slogan of the neo-classical critics. Johnson says, “Shakespeare is above all writers at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to this readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world; y t e peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.” In other words, Johnson, has praised the universal’ quality of Shakespeare’s writing.

Universality of Shakespeare’s characters. Johnson goes on to praise the characterization of Shakespeare. He says that his characters “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.’ The implication of the neo-classical creed—Just representation f general nature’—is that human nature, nature, at least the refined human nature, is perennial. It is because of this universality that the work of a great artist has an artistic appeal which continues through the ages. That is why Alexander Pope asserts that the Greek and Roman writers expressed the most exceptional way of emulating nature and that therefore to copy Homer or Virgil was to imitate nature realistically. Pope feels that the men of ancient period were not much different from the men of his own age, especially in terms of their poetic interest or aesthetic faculty. A poet’s universality depends upon his being general or particular with regard to his treatment of characters, ‘Shakespeare’s appeal has stood the severe test of time and its change of tastes because he does not accentuate only on the particular characteristic of •a particular age; instead, he focuses his attention on the common nature of men, their general traits, emotions, passions and manners of life which are to be found in men at all times in all countries.3 This indispensable ‘generality’ of a poet is further stressed on by Johnson in his novel Rasselas through the words of Imlac : “The business of poet is to examine, not the individual, but the species, to remark general properties and large appearances; he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features as recall the original to every mind, and must neglect the minuter discriminations ….‘There can be no quarrel with Johnson on this score, for Shakespeare does represent general human nature”.”

The Theme. The knowledge of general human nature enable Shakespeare to unveil the truths of life and enrich his plays “with practical axioms and domestic wisdom”. Shakespeare was none of those who attached too much of importance to the subjects of love with regard to their theme. Other dramatists who concentrate on the subject of love in their works become unjust, and violate the probability. Life is misrepresented by them and the language depraved. Love is only one of the many human emotions and to assign too large a significance to it is unjustifiable. It has no considerable impact upon the totality of life. Consequently it has little operation in the dramas of Shakespeare who “caught his ideas from the living world and exhibited only what he saw before him. He knew that any other as it was regular or exorbitant was a cause of happiness of calamity.” This is a shrewd observation. Johnson goes on to say that Shakespeare’s plays are rendered in such a way that even a person has enough material and information to draw from them. He says, that from these plays, “a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” Johnson was bold enough to differ from his characters. For instance, Dennis and Rymer did not approve of Shakespeare’s depiction of Menenius, a senator of Rome, as a buffoon, and voltaire did not approve of the Danish usurper (Claudius in Hamlet) being shown as a drunkard. Johnson defends Shakespeare and justifies his art by arguing that Shakespeare always makes nature predominant over accident. Shakespeare’s story may require a Roman senator or a king but he thinks only in terms of men and not particular individuals belonging to a particular time or place. And undoubtedly, there is no reason to suppose a man cannot be a buffoon because he is a Roman senator.

Johnson on mingled drama. Johnson also defends Shakespeare’s mingling of tragic and comic scenes in his plays. Any such mingling was objected to by the neo-classicists who were, more or less, obstinate about the purity of genres. The critical trend at the time was to consider tragedy as an unadulterated genre by itself and comedy as a wholly separate genre by itself. However, Johnson justifies the mingling of the two on the basis of the neo-classical theory itself. Art meant to the neo-classicists a truthful depiction of human life; on this basis, one can justify Shakespeare’s practice of combining comedy and tragedy, for such a mingling displays real human nature which “partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and in numerable modes of combination”. Shakespeare’s plays depict a world where all human actions have equal importance, where all types of human beings are equally represented and where we see without any objection, the reveller hastening to his wine and the mourner burying his friend. In this way Johnson meets the objections of the neo-classical critics on their own ground.

Johnson on rules and didaclicism. Johnson is not bound by the neo-classical rules of criticism in his approach to various other details of Shakespearean drama. His basic principle is that “there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature.” If neo-classical theory insists on some rules, those rules cannot outlive the basic requirement of the neo-classical theory namely, that literature should imitate nature. Thus Johnson, perhaps unwittingly, points out a possible contradiction in the critical theory of his time. If literary criticism is based on adequate principles with regard to the relationship between art and nature, an appeal from criticism to nature is nonsensical. If literature aims at a “just representation of general nature”, any rules concerning the apt mode of representation should flow that basic requirement and should not contradict it. But Johnson was particular about the didactic function along with the imitative one. The aim of a work is to please and instruct its reader.’, Johnson admits that Shakespeare has not only shown human nature as it acts in real exigencies but as it would be found in trials to which it cannot be said to be exposed. But, according to him, what Shakespeare lacks is the moral purpose which he should have abided by in his plays. Instead of keeping track of morality, Shakespeare “sacrifices virtue to convenience” and is “much more careful to please than to instruct.” Johnson feels that Shakespeare is careless about awarding his vicious characters with sorrow and the good characters with happiness; instead, he dismisses them to chance. He carries them all through wrong and right leaving them to operate by accidents. It is with regard to this aspect that Johnson is dissatisfied with Shakespeare’s drama

The Johnson dilemma. At this point we may find some inconsistencies in his argument. Johnson insists that a poet should ‘imitate’ human nature as closely and accurately as possible. At the same time he also insists that the poet ought to draw the story in such a way that it brings some moral instruction and delight to the reader. This is possible, we know, only if human nature were fundamentally noble and refined. Even Philip Sidney, who argued that poetry should be morally instructive, could not deny the fact that human nature, being what it essentially is, does not convey a moral lesson to the observer; therefore he averred that the poet should attempt to make the world better and new. Johnson must have been aware of the fact that the real world is far from always rewarding good or being basically moralistic. The two theories of neo classicism_that a poet should give a “just representation of general nature” and that he should be careful to make his poems instructive as well as pleasing (in the sense of poetic justice)—are mutually somewhat contradictory. It is very interesting to see Johnson grappling with his dilemma in a long note on King Lear. There he says that a play in which the wicked prosper and the virtuous are miserable is a just representation of the common incidents and occurrences of life but since all of us love justice, a play will not become worse by showing the final victory of persecuted virtue. Thus there arises a doubt in our mind and we come to as if Johnson is implying that representational adequacy and moral edification are two different qualities; and if the pleasure we derive from ‘poetic justice’ is a wholly separate kind of pleasure from that of being instructed about human nature. Johnson only repeats the old theory that literature should be both pleasing and instructive if it is to be everlasting; he fails to explore all its implications. However, the ramifications of his problem are so wide that no satisfactory resolution has been found even now.

Puns and quibbles. Another weakness that Johnson points out in Shakespeare’s plays is that Shakespeare is madly attracted to word-play and equivocations. Johnson says in this connection: “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it”. The source of this objection lies in Addison’s definitions of ‘Wit’ and ‘Judgement’. This approach towards poetic diction is important in both the theory and the practice of poetry from Dryden to Johnson; its critical implications are most clearly visible in Johnson’s Lives of the poets especially in his description of the metaphysical poets. However, we may not be quite as vehement as Johnson is our condemnation of the penchant for puns in Shakespeare. We are more willing to see it as an aberration of his times.

Johnson and the unites. Johnson defends Shakespeare’s disregard for the unities of time and place. The neo-classical insistence on the unities meant that a play on the stage should include only those events which cover a limited time of twelve or twenty four hours and occur in a single place. Thus the drama had to be cut short and brought under the prescribed framework and the actual experience is almost nullified. The propounders (those who introduced it) of this law held that any depiction differing from these rules is not acceptable. But Shakespeare was not a slave to the traditional ettiquettes. Justifying him Johnson says that the action of these plays is based on certain conventions which the audience accepts readily. For example if the spectators can take it for granted that a particular actor on the stage is Julius Caesar or Antony, the audience can also accept the convention of shifting scenes from one place to another or the passage of long periods of time. “The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making of the drama credible. But the truth is . that the spectators 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 (then) where is the absurdity of allowing that space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens, but a modern theatre?” True, this does not seen to be an absolutely original remark, but it could not have been expressed more effectively. Furthermore, its importance lies in the fact that it came in opposition to the prevalent critical views.

Conclusion : W.K. Wimsatt puts it well when he observes: “Here we have a response to Shakespeare in the most direct, the least theoretical fashion. No doubt we learn more about Johnson in such confrontations than about Shakespeare’. In his assessment of Shakespeare Johnson often rises to his occasion and succeeds not only in formulating a general praise, or encomium, but in lifting this a few degrees above the level of the already eloquent tradition. Johnson’s critical estimate of Shakespeare is also marked for its outright dissent with the petty neo-classical rules and proprieties — such as the unities and rigid separation of he genres — which had for long inhibited, and still did to some degree inhibit, the full appreciation of Shakespeare, the free response to his mystery. Johnson’s response to Shakespeare is based on appreciation of parts of his work. Johnson sees the work in its entirety and forms his judgement. Johnson’s defence of Shakespeare’s irregularities, his Gothicism, takes place in respect to broad principles of dramatic structure — principles which neo-classical critics had been just as much inclined to ensure as the licentious diction.

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