JOHNSON AS A SHAKESPEAREAN EDITOR
Q. 1. Write a note on Johnson as an editor of Shakespeare.
Ans. Introduction. Bringing to his task as editor his own already vast prestige as lexicographer, poet and moral essayist, Johnson was in a position to edit the plays of Shakespeare in a scholarly as well as critically sound manner. Johnson with his edition initiated that phase of English literary history which is known today as “The Genesis of Shakespeare Idolatory” or “The Grass Roots of Bardolatry”, as some critics have pointed out.
Johnson’s concept of the role of an editor. Certain generally received opinions concerning Johnson’s achievement as Shakespeare editor would appear to be substantially correct. Johnson entertained sound views about the philological part of an editor’s duties. His performance in this respect was, by modern standards, uneven, capricious, often notably deficient. But by any standards existing in his own day, his performance was extraordinary. Johnson did only a sketchy job in the department of textual collation. At the same time, he restored many readings of the First Folio and was the first editor to realize its sole authority among the Folios. In the department of explication, or as it was then called, ‘elucidation,’ of the difficult passages in Shakespeare, Johnson relied for the most part on his own sturdy good sense and general awareness of human nature, but now and then he made good use of the historical perspective which he had learned in his ‘Dictionary’ labours and in which he had great confidence and took a justifiable pride. He wrote a number of notes which were repeated by Shakespearean editors until at least as recently as the Furriness ‘Variorum volumes and which perhaps still deserve to be repeated more often than they are. Perhaps the largest philological virtue which Johnson displayed was that of restraint in the department of emendation, and humility in the face of Ills author’s text. He was much less classically squeamish, he was less confident in or hopeful for, any kind if traditional purity, than most of his predecessors.
Johnson’s Critical estimate of Shakespeare. Let us now turn to Johnson’s critical estimate of Shakespeare, and especially to the Preface . Johnson 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. Dryden in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy had demonstrated the idiom in prose. “Shakespeare, wrote Dryden, “was the man, who of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them. not laboriously but luckily. When he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too “ Johnson quotes this passages at the end of his Preface to Shakespeare. He has opened and conducted the discussion in his Preface , however not precisely in the manner of Dryden, but at his own pace, with his own series of majestic comments
“The poet of whose works I have undertaken the revision may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration”, “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.
“Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature, the poet that holds up to his readers faithful mirror of manners and of life.”
“In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species”.
Johnson a dissenter against the rules. Johnson’s critical estimate of Shakespeare is marked by views which express outright dissent with the neoclassical rules and proprieties. These views had for long inhibited and continued to inhibit, the full appreciation of Shakespeare, and thwarted the free response to his mystery. True, Johnson too makes comments on Shakespeare’s defects which are not seen as defects by the modern critic : Shakespeare “makes no just distribution of good or evil”; “He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting”, he “is guilty of anachronisms:”, his jests are commonly’ gross” and his “pleasantry licentious” , in his tragedies he runs into “tumor, meanness, tediousness and obscurity”, and so on. However, Johnson’s response to Shakespeare, in general, is not like that of the pedant in Hierocles who carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen of a house. Not “the splendor of particular passages” but the whole “progress of the fable and the tenor of the dialogue” was what he found irresistible in Shakespeare. Just how this division in Johnson’s appreciation was possible—how he got to the heart of Shakespeare—except through the aesthetic surface, the particulars of actions and words, may be difficult to understand. Doubtless we confront here an unresolved tension between the neo-classical conscience and the liberating impulse.
Johnson’s defence of Shakespeare’s irregularities, his Gothicism, takes place in respect to broad principles of dramatic structure—principles which neoclassic critics (Rymer to name one) had been just as much inclined to censure as the licentious diction. What is even more to the point, Johnson deserves credit for meeting this issue in a characteristic display of two of his most valuable powers. For one thing, he goes immediately to the heart of the matter, putting his finger on the false premise by which the exaggerated doctrine of the unities had so long been sustained—namely, the assumption that the aim of drama is literal verisimilitude,” the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. ‘For another thing, even if he is not, as some critics argue, raising any new points in defence of Shakespeare, he expresses his points with noteworthy energy and gusto. How succinctly but with telling effects he makes the observation:
“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 players are only players.”
Conclusion. One difference between Johnson and most other literary critics, especially those of his own time, is the fullness and depth with which he responds to work of literature and to its author. Johnson’s personality can be seen in his Shakespeare editing in a number of ways — his numerous retorts and rebukes, his tart dismissals of the previous editors, his solemn astonishment at their vanity and their bungling. Johnson is a man of powerful and spontaneous responses to Shakespearean drama, but his emotional responses are more like the standard ones of his time; they are fairly close to the theoretical neoclassic norm, to the ideal of rational orderliness, the contemporary spirit of optimism and benevolism. In his Preface we have a response to Shakespeare in the most direct, the least theoretical fashion. Although Johnson has for long enjoyed a reputation as the last of the neoclassic giants, there is a trend among learned readers of Johnson today to see his classicism as very much altered from the Augustan norm. In his confrontation of Shakespeare, especially, we discover Johnson to be far from the perfect neoclassic critic, and, in a much deeper sense, far from the representative illuminator of that day.