JOHNSON ON POETIC JUSTICE AND SHAKESPEARE’S MORALITY

JOHNSON ON POETIC JUSTICE AND SHAKESPEARE’S MORALITY

Joseph Wood Krutch : It should also be remembered that in one respect, at least, Johnson’s effort to discover the moral as well as the other qualities of Shakespeare carried him a definite step beyond his contemporaries; he saw, as most of them did not, that one must always contemplate the whole of a play rather than its constituent parts. In so far as his predecessors had attempted analytical appreciations, they had tended to discuss “the beauties of Shakespeare”—i.e., isolated poetic passages—or, at most, to analyse individual characters in the plays. If Johnson had really been as much merely a moralist in his attitude toward literature as he is sometimes said to have been, he would have followed in this tradition and added the weight of his influence to those who delight in selecting copy book maxims or proving Shakespeare’s greatness by the number of such sayings as “Unto thine own self be true” and “0 that men should put an enemy in their mouths” which he has to his credit. But Johnson does nothing of that sort. He may have had little conception of what later and more esoteric critics mean by the “unity of Shakespeare’, but if so, he at least made a step forward by ‘ recognizing that this unity is of the first importance. It would, then seem reasonable to say that Johnson the moralist seldom gets seriously in the way of Johnson the aesthetic critic of Shakespeare and that, at the cost of a certain amount of consistency, he treats what he proclaims a major deficiency as though it were, in reality, a very minor one.

W.K. Wimsatt : Johnson is a man of powerful and spontaneous responses to Shakespearean drama, but it is apparently not just these responses, or not these responses in their purest, simplest or most immediate shape, that give him his theoretical, his reasoned, his celebrated defence of Shakespeare’s adulteration’s. Johnson’s emotional responses are more like the standard ones of his time; they are fairly close to the theoretical neo-classic norm, to the ideal of rational orderliness, the contemporary spirit of idealism and benevolism. This might be taken to mean that Johnson’s defence of mingled drama was a mere abstract and thin cerebration which for some reason he undertook in opposition to this own genuine responses. But perhaps not. It is difficult to imagine any external reason which could have coerced him. The defence of mingled drama is indeed a testimony to Johnson’s theoretical intelligence, but at the same time it would seem to be tied into something very deep, though sometimes less articulate and clear, in Johnson’s nature — that is, his strongly religious sense of mystery in the universe, of the inscrutable — the supernatural. This sense, when it. is operating, induces in him a much less demanding attitude towards the terrestrial distribution of good and evil, rewards and punishments. It is this sense largely which moves the Johnson who wrote the pleasantly darkened fable of Rasselas, the Johnson who turned his withering scorn on the complacent rationalism of Soame Jenyn’s Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil.

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.