JOHNSON ON THE MERITS OF SHAKESPEARE
Q.9. ‘It is proper to inquire by what peculiarities of excellences Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.” Substantiate the points Johnson cites in favour of Shakespeare’s dramatic art.
Or,What merits does Dr. Johnson find in Shakespeare ? How
far do you agree with him in this respect?
Ans. Introduction. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is mainly in the nature of an essay prefixed to the plays he has edited. Johnson’s views are coloured by the critical creed of his time, namely, the rules of neo-classicism; however, what he says is of everlasting significance. In his Preface we come across some points which are valid even now, especially the praise that the confers on Shakespeare and the sound principles on which he evaluates the bard’s greatness.
Truth to nature. A close examination of the neo-classical period reveals that the renowned literary advocates of the period attached a profound importance to generality and universality. Johnson’s intention in editing Shakespeare was to recommend the plays to his own contemporaries. He lays an enormous stress on Shakespeare’s adherence to general nature. He states: “Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men.” This is how Johnson defends Shakespeare against Dennis and Rymer’s charge that Shakespeare’s Romans are not sufficiently Roman. In the – same manner, he scorns at the criticism of Voltaire that Shakespeare’s’ kings and queens are not royal and dignified. According to Dr. Johnson, the most important thing is preserve the characters’ truth to human nature and this Shakespeare does amazingly well. Johnson aptly says that Shakespeare’s plays have no heroes, but merely men who act and speak as we ourselves would have done in the same circumstances. As for Voltaire’s censure of Shakespeare Johnson calls it the petty cavils of petty men. His own view is that a poet “overlooks the casual distinctions, of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.” However, when Johnson turns to the demerits of Shakespeare he seems to forget this observation and accuses Shakespeare of not following the distinctions of country and age and giving one age and country the manners of another.
Drama an imitation of real life. Although Johnson is all admiration for Shakespeare’s faithful mirroring of real life there is a trace of confusion when, on another instance, he denies that drama aims at literal verisimilitude. Perhaps Johnson may be accentuating the point that Shakespeare is representing life as it appears to him as dramatist. But in this case we feel that the word mirror’ used by him is not suitable. He employs it, probably because it occurs in Hamlet where, while directing the players. Hamlet maintains that the objective of drama is to hold the mirror to life and disclose to the age its own spirit. Johnson adds “this therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has massed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise before him, may here be. cured of his delirious ecstasies, by reading human sentiments in human language by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and confessor predict the progress of passions”. Elsewhere too Johnson heaps praise on Shakespeare’s handling of the supernatural and wonderful and even admits that had such creatures or beings existed this may be how they would have acted. In this connection he says: “Shakespeare approximate that remote, and familiarizes the wonderful, the event which he represents will not happen but if it were possible, its effects would probably be such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he 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 exposed.”
Characterization. Johnson is right on admitting that Shakespeare kept his characters distinct from one another. There is no blurring or confounding of characters. While stressing on their individuality Johnson pays due attention to their universality too. With regard to Shakespeare’s characters he says that they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply and observation will always find. Johnson’s keen observation as a critic is evidenced from his conclusion that no writer before Shakespeare, with the possible exception of Chaucer, had delineated human character in so realistic a manner Shakespeare emerges much greater when we know that no investigation into the study of psychology or human diaractor had been there to help him with date or theoretical hints for his character portrayal. Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of human nature and human character from his own personal observation. In this case he had none to follow except his own perception and senses. Yet none of his works or characterization be branded as second-rate. His plays are full of principles and axioms, true for all times.
Theme : diversity of passions. Johnson argues that Shakespeare’s play give no undue importance to a singular passion such as love which the vogue of the day with other authors. He deals with diverse passions. and human emotions and escapes the stereotype. Johnson holds that in developing the theme of love, a dramatist will, at times, violate probability and misrepresent life. Comparing Addison’s Cato and Shakespeare’s Othello Johnson says that Othello is the vigorous product of genius working upon factual observation of life, while Addition’s Cato fails to familiarize us with the human sentiments. Shakespeare was not, to be sure, a ‘correct’ or ‘regular’ writer in the neo-classical sense of the phrase, but his plays are profusely rich, though this richness is often woven with much of what is crude.. This crudeness is no fault of the playwright but the result of the age and its barbarity.
Shakespeare: the father of English drama. Johnson attributes to Shakespeare the credit of being the father of English drama. He was the giver of breath and life to “the form, the character, the language and the shows” of English drama. He was the first, except for Spenser, to discover and expose the degree or level of harmony and smoothness which the English language was capable of attaining.
Conclusion. Johnson’s admiration for Shakespeare was not merely passionate but instinctive too, though, as a neo-classicist he was naturally obliged to introduce Shakespeare to his contemporaries in particular critical idiom with which they were acquainted. As a neo-classical critic he had to approve look at Shakespeare’s plays in the light of ‘rules’ but the moment he comes to compare Cato and Othello he relies, not upon the man-made rules, but upon his own instincts. Thus we see that Johnson’s rules, as a professional critic, way hold C’ato to be superior, but his instinctive liking admits that Cato is no match for Othello.