JOHNSON ON SHAKESPEARE’S DEFECTS
“Shakespeare with his excellences has likewise faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm many other merit”. Bring out the main criticism Johnson levels against Shakespeare and examine their validity in detail.
Or,What, according to Johnson, are the shortcomings of the plays of Shakespeare? To what measure do you agree with him in this regard?
Ans. Introduction. In his Preface , Johnson first considers the excellences of Shakespeare and then turns to his defects. He does not consider Shakespeare as a faultless or perfect dramatist. On the contrary, he is of the opinion that Shakespeare’s faults are profound enough to overwhelm the merits if they had only belonged to some other dramatist. Johnson sets down, these faults just as they appear to him, without prejudice or superstitious veneration. Here he values, truthfulness more than courtesy. It is said that once Johnson told one of his contemporaries that it was necessary to point out Shakespeare’s faults in order that his merits may – be better appreciated. However, in his ultimate assessment of Shakespeare he does not seem to bother much about the numerous faults which he himself has pointed out. This makes us feel that Johnson is paying lip service to neo-classicism and does not attach serious importance to the defects which his neo-classical affiliation obliges him to notice and criticize.
Virtue is not distributed wisely. According to Johnson, Shakespeare’s first and foremost defects is that ‘he sacrifices virtue to convenience’ and plays more attention to conveying pleasure than instruction. It seems to Johnson that Shakespeare writes without any moral purpose. There is much of moral wisdom in his plays but they are indirectly stated : “His precepts and axioms drop from him casually. Johnson also points out that Shakespeare does not make a just distribution of good and evil—that he does not observe poetic justice. Johnson laments that Shakespeare does not always unambiguously present his virtuous characters being victorious over the evil ones. Rather, he takes his characters through right and wrong indiscriminately and dismisses them carelessly at the end. The didactic message that may be derived from their situation is hardly made explicit; it is left to chance. One may attribute this defect to the barbarity of the age in which Shakespeare lived, but Johnson is not ready to condone the fault. He says : “It is a always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent of time or place”. We do not have any doubt that it is Johnson’s training and practice as a neo classical critic which leads him to lay such an emphasis on explicit moralizing or didacticism.
Defect in plot. Next, Johnson turns his attention towards the plots of Shakespeare’s plays. Here his objection that the plots are very loosely knit and that Shakespeare could have improved it had he paid just a little more attention. Likewise, they are unravelled so carelessly that one doubts if Shakespeare was really conscious of what he was aiming at as he developed plot. Johnson also complains that Shakespeare does not fully utilize the opportunities that could have been used to instruct. Similarly he often adopts a course which is more convenient and easy •and lets slip the more touching, but more difficult one. Another defect he detects in Shakespeare is that in his plays the latter part is hastily rounded of so that the plays do not appear to be as artistically ordered in their concluding sections as in their earlier part. Johnson deems that it may be because Shakespeare was desirous of cutting short the labour in order to gain the profits as early as possible. He says : “When he found himself near the end of his work, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. tie therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them and his catastrophe is improbably, produced or imperfectly represented.” Much of Dr. Johnson’s objections about Shakespeare’s plots are justified. Concerning Shakespeare’s neglect of opportunities for moralizing we may agree that they are, admittedly, missed. But it is debatable if this mars the effect of the plays as a whole. More than anything else we se Johnson as a mouthpiece of neo-classical sentiments in this piece of criticism.
Anachronism in Shakespeare. Another defect in Shakespeare’s plays is, that in them no distinction of time or place is observed but the customs, opinions and manners of one age or one country are freely attributed to another. This gives the plays a colour of improbability and often of impossibility.. For instance, in one instance Shakespeare makes Hector cite the words of Aristotle, which is absurd on historical grounds. Johnson does not accept Pope’s justification the such anachronisms, or historical fallacies, are to be traced to the interpolators and not to the author. Its frequent presence in his plays is enough to convince us that he himself was responsible for it. But Shakespeare is not the only writer who has let such mistakes• creep into his plays, Philip Sidney intermingles the feudal and pastoral ages in his Arcadia though there was a great difference between the atmospheres of these two periods. Modern critics agree with Johnson on this point.
Dialogues in comedy. Another objection raised by Dr. Johnson is with regard to “reciprocations of smartness and contests ‘of sarcasm” which are frequently seen in Shakespeare’s comedies. Johnson asserts ‘that the jests in which the comic characters indulge are often coarse and licentious. Since a majority of the characters are guilty ‘of this, the distinction between refined characters and low characters is. lost. ‘Johnson attributes this practice to the Elizabethan life: their usual conversation was ‘stately, formal and reserved, but whenever these customary norms are relaxed the resultant effect is the licentious dialogues in Shakespeare’s comedies. Johnson feels that Shakespeare should have been more judicious in his selection of modes of gaiety.
Fault in style and expression. Next Johnson ‘ reprehends Shakespeare’s style and expression. According to him there are many passages in the tragedies over which Shakespeare seems to have laboured hard, only to ruin his own performance. The moment Shakespeare strains his faculties, or strains his inventive powers unnecessarily, t’he result is tediousness and obscurity. Johnson does not agree to the pompous and unreasonably stretched out passages of Shakespeare because, according to Johnson these defects detract from the splendour and dignity of the passage. He finds the stock speeches or declamations cold and weak. Elsewhere it seems to Johnson that Shakespeare has been led astray by some unwieldy sentiment, which he is not able to express well, but clings to and expresses anyhow the result is that the reader has to work hard over such passages to unwind their sense. Intricacy of language is not an index of subtlety of thought; nor is a line crowded with words and phrases always one that contains a great image. Shakespeare does not often maintain reasonable proportion between his words and the things they express. It is unwise to use sonorous epithets and swelling figures of speech for paltry things and ideas. However, most of this censure on Shakespeare’s style and expression is exaggerated.
Word-play and conceits. Johnson turns censorious about Shakespeare’s tendency to use conceits as well as ambiguous word play. Johnson says that Shakespeare’s craze for conceit and quibbles spoils many passages which are otherwise sad and tender, or could – have evoked pity or terror. Shakespeare’s uncurbed enthusiasm for quibbles leads him to utter senselessness just as the will-o-the-wisp misleads a wayfarer. Whenever he gets a chance to pay with words, he forgets everything else and chases it blindly. Johnson says : “A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it as, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice, of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble ‘was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.” It is true that Shakespeare indulges in puns and quibbles — at times too much of it. But it does seems to us as annoying as it was to Johnson.
Conclusion. Johnson points, out two supposed errors of Shakespeare which, in his opinion, are really merits. One of these is Shakespeare’s violation of unities of time and place, another is his fusion of tragedy and comedy. On both these points Johnson leaves the neo-classicist camp by defending Shakespeare’s practice. Johnson also defends Shakespeare by arguing that some of the shortcomings that we find in his plays are actually the faults of the age he lived in. He considers the charge that the Roman characters of Shakespeare are not sufficiently Roman, or that his kings and queens are wanting in royal dignity. He correctly calls these allegations ill conceived. In all such cases Shakespeare has adhered to the truth of generality and ignored particularly. It may be noted that this defence, although not unfounded, is in typically neo-classic terms. The faults listed by Johnson are not. serious faults to us today. But they certainly show Johnson as a neo-classical critic.