JOHNSON’S ATTITUDE TO MORALITY IN LITERATURE AND ART
Q.6 How far is Dr. Johnson’s Shakespearian criticism imbued with the ethical dogmas of the age of which he was one of the main spokesmen?
Johnson laments : “He sacrifices virtue to convenience.” How far is Johnson justified in commenting thus about Shakespeare’s plays in his Preface?
Does Johnson’s didacticism vitiate his opinions in the Preface ?
Ans. Introduction. Most of Johnson’s argument with regard to the defects of Shakespeare arise from the neo-classical standards of criticism. A sober tone of didacticism or morality hovers over all his works. He strictly adhered to the neo-classical point of view that a work of art should both please and instruct. It would do to remember that Johnson rendered his Lives of the Poets, “in such a manner as may tend to the promotion of piety’.
Objections to some aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. To Johnson, the most objectionable of all the faults of Shakespeare is his indifference to morality. Shakespeare “sacrifices virtue to convenience”, says Johnson. Shakespeare’s prime motive was to please and not to instruct. The moral precepts or axioms we may meet in his plays are none of them made deliberately, they are rather casual. Again Shakespeare’s virtuous characters are portrayed as easily gullible and none of them, Johnson says, shows any frank disapproval of wickedness. Another defect alleged by Johnson is that Shakespeare does not distribute rewards of good or evil in a just manner. He carries his characters indifferently through right or wrong. At the conclusion of the play he leaves them without any further attention, dismissing their examples to operate by chance. According to Johnson, this defect is to be marked because “it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent of time or place.”
The defect in Johnson’s viewpoint. How far is Johnson’s view acceptable Are we to expect a writer to be a spokesman of philosophy or morality? Is it inevitable that his works should be deliberately instructive or didactic? Is a writer to be accused of sacrificing virtue just because he does not profess to inculcate it? Perhaps, if we strictly follow the neo-classical creed, we may justify Johnson’s view. But Shakespeare’s age and the objectives of his plays were entirely different from the trends of the Augustan period and hence a more liberal approach is desirable. Besides, Johnson himself admits in the same context that ‘a system of social duty may be selected from Shakespeare’s writings”. If at all a work of art is to preach morality, it should do so unobtrusively, in passing, as it were. Furthermore more, Shakespeare was not conscious of any morality. Shakespeare was not conscious of any critical rule saying that a play should preach morality. Shakespeare was not a philosopher, he was a writer. He mingled tragedy and comedy; he left his characters to chance at the end of his plays; he carried them through right and wrong—all for the same reason. He was a poet of nature who held the mirror to life and manners. He was not concerned either about poetic justice or about formal rules because he was first and foremost a professional write, who wrote for the public and not for the elite or a group of chosen people.
Self-cancelling viewpoints. Now let us turn to Johnson’s argument that a writer’s duty is to make the world (or people) better. He demands a faithful depiction of human nature from the writer, but at the same time he demands that the poet should delineate the story in such a way that it affords moral instruction for the reader while delighting him. This is possible only if human nature in itself is essentially noble and edifying. Sir Philip Sidney had also held up the theory that poetry should be morally instructive. But he realized that, human nature being what it is, life does not provide any moral lesson to the observer; he, therefore, suggested that the poet should create a new and better world. Johnson wants to have it both ways, which would be fair enough if he believed that the real world was in fact morally edifying. But he was conscious that the real world was far from being inherently noble. He grapples with the dilemma in his note on King Lear where he points out how the wicked prosper and the virtuous suffer in real life. He admits it to be a just representation of general nature, but he adds that as all reasonable beings naturally prefer justice, a play shall lose almost nothing by showing the ultimate victory of persecuted virtue. Johnson demands fidelity to actual life on one hand; on the other hand, he suggests that a play should show the final triumph of harassed virtue. Johnson here expresses the basic conflict within the neo-classical ideal which wants realism in literature but also wants a basically unreal “Poetic justice”. The mutual contradiction that is involved here is obvious but seems to have been unnoticed by Dr. Johnson. It is unfortunate that in this context Johnson does not take recourse to his formula of “appeal from criticism to nature” which he had readily and aptly applied in the case of tragic-comedy.
Johnson and his age. Johnson held a pessimistic view of human nature. He believed that the fear of punishment was an essential stimulus to virtue and that man would forbear from evil only if justice was seen to be operating in the world. As a sturdy moralist, he also insisted that a work of art should exhibit the strict justice that he wanted to find, but did not find, in real life. It was owing to this fact that he was aghast at Shakespeare’s treatment of Cordelia in King Lear where he allows “the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause”. Johnson agrees with Dennis who maintains that the justice which a dramatist dispenses to his characters must be a sort of God’s final judgement. The death of Cordelia cannot therefore be appreciated by Johnson.
Johnson believed that “there are laws of a higher authority than those of criticism”. He had every right to do so as a devout Christian. But as a critic he was grievously mistaken in thinking that a poet had a duty to propogate specific didactic or moral lessons and virtues through his work. Shakespeare’s indifference that offended Johnson is now regarded as his objectivity—and decidedly one of Shakespeare’s merits. The neo-classical norms of unjudgement were different from those of the romantic writers of the Elizabethan age and the modern standards are still more different from those of the eighteenth century. Johnson’s objections are characteristic of his age, but we can only consider them unacceptable
The end of art. Aristotle, the Greek writer, had maintained that literature is only an imitation of real life and the duty of a writer is to depict it truthfully from the aesthetic angle. Aristotle acknowledged that the function of art or literature is to please. But we do not see him over-emphasizing the didactic aspect of literature. Horace held that the most prominent objective of poetry is to please or instruct or both. Horace exerted a great deal of influence upon the eighteenth century criticism. Longinus highlighted the viewpoint that the end of poetry was ecstasy, or transport or ‘lifting the reader out of himself’ In his defense of poetry, Philip Sidney wrote that “delightful teaching is the end of poesy.” Then Dryden came to assert that the aim of the artist is primarily to delight; if an artist instructs, he is to do so only through delight. He thus lay more emphasis on pleasing than on teaching or instructing. Johnson’s stress on the element of morality stemmed partially from his individual temperament and partly from the spirit of the time. It is this stress on morality that confounds his Shakespearean criticism.
Conclusion. To us Johnson’s over-insistence on the moral aspect of a work has little validity. We know that to teach or instruct is the function of a philosopher or a moralist or a preacher and the business of an artist is to show’. The difference between a moralist and an artist is that the former says that “life ought to be like that” whereas the latter says, “life looks like that”. To exhort or to advise is the function of a moralist, the function of an artist is to exhibit. One aims at influencing the behaviour or conduct and the other at awakening, stirring and deepening our sensibility, awareness, and consciousness. The artist gives us an insight into life and never ventures to give us counsel. If through gaining a better insight into life, we become better persons, that is not a matter of primary concern to the artist. Obviously, the Johnsonian idea of morality in art and literature is unacceptable to our modern sensibility.