JOHNSON ON ARTS RELATIONSHIP TO LIFE
What do you gather of Johnson’s attitude towards art and life from the Preface?
Or,For Johnson drama is to be judged by its, “power to move” men’s minds. How far do you agree with him? How does Johnson evaluate Shakespeare on the basis of this theory?
Ans. Drama’s effect. For Johnson drama is to be judged by its ‘power to move” men’s minds. In keeping with his being the poet of nature, Shakespeare breaks away from the classical tradition of separating tragedy and comedy and creates a new kind of drama which comes close to what we encounter in life. Shakespeare, Johnson adds, excites laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one composition”. It is a feature that later Critics were to applaud, calling the technique “comic relief, a celebrated example of this being the appearances of the drunken porter immediately after the murder of Duncan in Macbeth. But Johnson should be credited with having recognized the fact that though such a combination of the serious and the ludicrous is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism’, there is always an appeal open from “criticism to nature”. The French neo-classicists systematically refuted the mingling of the tragic and the comic, and though in England, during the early part of the Restoration, comic elements did invade heroic tragedy, this was not generally viewed with favour.
Fact and fiction in drama and its pleasures. When Johnson praises Shakespeare for having successfully combined these opposite elements in the same play on the grounds that the play thus comes close to the appearance of life, he is not suggesting that the sorrow we feel while watching tragedy on the stage is the same as the sorrow that might assail us in our life. He asserts: “The delight of tragedy proceeds from our consciousness of fiction; if we thought murders and treason’s real, they could please no more.” Johnson is here making a careful distinction between art and life in terms of the experience undergone by the reader or the spectator of the play. The pleasure we derive from art is an aesthetic pleasure, though it is related to our knowledge and understanding of what goes on in life. ‘Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the imagination is stirred up by a painted landscape, the trees are not supposed capable to give us shade, or the fountains coolness: but we consider how we should be pleased with such fountains playing beside us and such woods waving over us.” We enter the world imaginatively, we identify ourselves with its representation, but only up-to a point, not entirely. When talking of the actor identifying himself so wholly with his role that he considered himself to be the character he was representing, Johnson declared : “And if Garrick really believed himself to be that monster, Richard the third, he deserved to be hanged every time he performed.”
In Johnson’s view we derive a special kind of pleasure from art because it is an improvement upon life. “The greatest graces of a play are to copy nature and instruct life.” By the word “instruct” Johnson may not be implying the narrow, didactic sense of the word ‘to teach’, but rather in the sense of looking a new at the experience of life in terms of the dramatist’s own vision, for it is always a writer’s duty to ‘make the world better.’ Nature is the base, but the dramatist’s art improves upon it, the finished product is a remoulding of life nearer to the heart’s desire. Life is often ugly and shabby and chaotic, the dramatist in his art is to show what life might be.
How then, according to Johnson, is the dramatist to bring ‘pleasure’ to the reader? Unmitigated suffering and grief may well be true to life, but as we have seen, for Johnson art is not to be a tame copy of nature. Suffering must be relieved by laughter and mirth, and vice versa, in the play, for “all pleasure consists in variety—the variety of incidents and the quick succession of one passage to another, call the mind forward without intermission from the first act to the last (Note on Antony and Cleopatra); and Macbeth is “deservedly celebrated for the .. variety of its action” (Note on Macbeth). Johnson sees the dramatist as one who rearranges life so as to form a combination that can yield aesthetic pleasure. But at the same time he does not think its creation to be a mechanical one. There is no easy formula for it. A play developed in all its structural exactness may not move a reader. But in spite of weaknesses Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is profoundly interesting Shakespeare is for Johnson the author who can flout all the rules of dramatic construction with impurity and yet triumph.
Drama and Reality. Johnson defends Shakespeare’s violation of the unites. From the time of Corneille onwards eighteenth century dramatists in England had drawn their inspiration from the ancients through the medium of French classical dramatists. Johnson’s defence of Shakespeare is on the ground that drama is an imaginative experience, not. a slice of life. As we have seen, Johnson insists on ‘our consciousness of fiction’ being an essential ingredient in our enjoyment of drama.
A play for Johnson is an artifice, an arrangement of life, a pattern, and the behaviour of the characters is to be in conformity with its demands. Furthermore, their behaviour is to be psychologically consistent with the situations in which they find themselves. In the greatest art, the psychological plausibility of the character’s behaviour is a stroke of realism even though the situation might be one that is never encountered in life. Thus Johnson objects neither to the Ghost in Hamlet nor to the Ghost in Julius Caesar. Eighteenth century rationalism and twentieth century skepticism may, along with Horatio in Hamlet, dismiss ghosts as being improbable, but to Johnson’s this objection is irrelevant for “Shakespeare has not only shown human natures as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be in trails to which it cannot be exposed.” Art exists on the frontier that separates the real from the unreal, and it exploits this strategic location by raiding both territories.
Johnson’s objection. Dr. Johnson’s insistence on the artist being an artificer, a maker, find perhaps the most powerful expression in his objection to the death of Cordelia. Though he is conscious of the fact that drama is not life, he feels that Cordelia’s death oversteps the limits of artistic decorum,, and here we note that Johnson grants the probability of the death of Cordelia in real life but is against such a representation art.
The logical continuity of events. On one occasion Johnson has remarked that a character in a play is not simply a human being lifted from life and transplanted into a different environment, but rather, one who lives a new kind of life “in the construction of the play’. It is on the basis’ of this artistic principle that he treats all the plays of Shakespeare and evaluates their defects and merits. Thus, artistic necessity determines the slaying of Mercutio; he has fulfilled his function in the requirements that the play posits and may now be disposed of with our loss to the artistic beauty of the whole. On the other hand, for Johnson the slaying of Cordelia .and “the extrusion of Glaucester’s eyes” (King Lear), are acts that are not dictated by artistic necessity but are gratuitous and do not arise inevitably from the events preceding them.