Johnson’s approach to mandatory criticism
Comment on Johnson’s approach to mandatory criticism:—
Or,Give a brief sketch of Dr. Johnson’s editorial method.
Or ,What is Johnson’s attitude towards the earlier Shakespeare editors? What does Johnson tell us about his principles in editing Shakespeare’s plays?
Ans. Introduction. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is chiefly a critical assessment of Shakespeare’s dramatic art; it is also an exquisite and elaborate embodiment of his ways and methods as an editor. Besides, it also assesses the works of previous editors with their merits and demerits. Johnson regrets the bitterness of controversy that he could sense among some of the editors. Although Johnson censures those who have taken emendatory liberties he makes a reasonable selection of their critical notes and comments and includes them in his own edition. He turns a bitter tongue towards the arrogant and haughty editors while he leaves his own edition for public Judgement. He modestly admits that he is by no means perfect and he even expects bitter and unfavorable comments from some judges who may read his work. His work, he says, may be improved and revised by greater scholars.
Shakespeare’s Texts. Johnson was entirely conscious of the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were in a corrupt and imperfect state. Pope also had held the same opinion. Now this could be absolved and restored or improved on the basis of collative or conjectural criticism, accomplished in the light of several factors. Those factors are nothing but the Elizabethan manners and customs, history of language, the style of Shakespeare which is revealed in his other plays and the necessities of the context and situation.
An editor and emendatory criticism. The basis of Johnson’s approach as an emendatory critic is unerring, more or less scientific, objective and conservative. There are several types of emendations and Johnson adopts different methods which he makes entirely explicit in course of his essay. One type of emendation is correcting the printing errors. As Johnson puts it much mistakes are there in the later Folios (which are only reprints of the First Folio edition) Rowe was one of the few who came forward to correct these errors. But all his emendations are not acceptable to Johnson. Some earlier editors share the credit of having made some emendation work on the grammar, the sense, or the versification with a view to improving them. Johnson does not accept these as valid criteria for emendation. Although he has not altered many of the changes made by Hanmer for the purpose of improving the metre, he himself has not made any emendation in this context. Shakespeare was interested in communicating his ideas to the spectator, and never did he regard his plays as meant for reading. Many of the grammatical niceties of which we become aware when we read Shakespeare’s plays are not noticed by us when we hear the lines recited during actual performance. Since Shakespeare’s plays were not intended to follow exact grammar and sentence structure, making emendations for improving the grammatical construction is unjustified. It is also undesirable to change a word because some other word gives a clearer or more explicit sense. Editing involves the principle of finding out what a writer has said and not to determine what he ought to have said. Johnson refutes many of the corrections made by Alexander Pope on this score because Pope has made them when the existing text does not give us any reason to suspect that is not what Shakespeare intended to say.
It is irrational to delete a word only because it seems inelegant to a particular editor. If this principle were to be adopted, in course of time the genuine text of every author would be lost. It will then also be difficult to trace the history of the development of the language. For Johnson, no phrase is, by its very nature, derogatory or inelegant; it is the usage of a particular age which turns it so. Wherever Johnson disagrees with a particular word or phrase, he attaches his censure with it, but leaves the expression entirely unhurt. Editing includes the work of collating all the existing and relevant copies of every play. Unlike Pope, Johnson feels this task to be exciting. Alterations which are based on collation may be substituted in the text itself, and a note may be attached to explain why a particular passage has been preferred.
Conjectural emendation, according to Johnson, is risky but cannot always be avoided. However, it is by no way excusable to substitute the existing reading in a text with the result of conjectural emendation. Such alterations emerging form conjectural emendation must be indicated only in the margin. The editor is also to explain why he has made a particular suggestion for emendation and further provide the emendations suggested by previous critics and editors, so that the reader may see for himself which of the reading is the best. Many of the emendations of Johnson himself are sound, while others are not so impressive. However, though he himself senses such a possibility, he feels no harm is done as his emendations are not included in the text. As an emendator, Johnson’s principle is that, if no proved otherwise, every word in the existent text must be regarded as a genuine citizen, and that wherever one is in doubt it is always better to save a person who might in reality be a citizen, than to destroy him on the assumption that he might be an enemy.
Attitude to other editors. Dr. Johnson has an unprejudiced regard for all the Shakespearean editors who had made their contribution before him. His rational assessment of their works clarify to us his won principles about criticism as well as his. individual likes and dislikes. Johnson’s modesty is all the more explicit where he states that every earlier editor of Shakespeare has improved the text to some measure, and that he is indebted to them in one way or other. He lauds one Shakespearean critic — Rowe — for not indulging in a haughty self praise but silently doing the work of emendation which, the following editors have adopted without even acknowledging their debt. He is not of the opinion that every editor is qualified and eligible for the task of emendatory criticism because it requires many qualities such as patience, reason and so on. Johnson ridicules Theobald who turned excessively arrogant just because he could suggest a simple change of a comma in Shakespeare and celebrated it as a great discovery. He is surprised at the quarrels and hot debates indulged in by critics on some unimportant subjects of Shakespeare’s plays. He thinks this may be because petty or paltry things make base people proud. A few of these critics such as Warburton were not qualified enough to edit Shakespeare, nor were they consistently methodical or reasonable in their work.
Necessary evils notes and annotations. Johnson frankly admits that the notes and comments on the works of a genius as comprehensive and coherent as Shakespeare can never be exhaustive and perfect, nor can they satisfy the needs of each and every reader. Some readers may .feel that a particular explanation may appear needless while others may insist on the inevitable presence of certain things which have been left unexplained by the ‘editor. Johnson is not bothered about the possibility of such adverse criticism, because this is a relative matter and every editor is guided by his own experience as to where notes are required. In brief, Johnson thinks that notes are necessary, but a necessary evil. Johnson’s suggestion to the reader who approaches a play for the first time is that he should let his imagination’ have free flight and resign itself to the pleasantries of Shakespeare’s text, completely disregarding notes and explanations. When he feels that the freshness’ or the play has worn out he may go in search of notes and guidance for the elucidation of particular points. Johnson himself has left no passage untouched which he has felt to be obscure, or which he has thought might bring difficulties to many readers. He admits that he is not capable of solving all the difficulties, but he is sure that he has explained certain passages which had been ignored by earlier critics. Johnson is humble enough to admit that he has not been able to make out some passages and that he has left them for later critics to elucidate.
Conclusion. With a thorough awareness of the. fate of the earlier critics’ works Johnson has adopted humbleness and modesty in judging the works of Shakespeare and offering his opinion to the readers. He is not arrogant, nor given to pedantic pretensions. Johnson knows that the comments or emendations that have seemed absolutely infallible to one critic or one age have been dethroned by another, while the same has been brought back later by some other critics. He is quite prepared for the same fate over taking the product of his own labour.