Johnson’s critical position as revealed in his Preface to Shakespeare
Write an essay o Johnson’s of critical analysis in the light of his Preface.
Critically estimate Johnson’s critical position as revealed in his Preface to Shakespeare.
From reading Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare, would you designate Johnson as an adherent of neo-classicism or a rebel against it?
Introduction. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is one of the most significant achievements in the field of English literary criticism. It is significant not merely as a sound and well reasoned critique of Shakespeare’s dramas, but also as a valuable embodiment of critical theory. There are three different critical approaches in the Preface . The first is that of a disciple of neo-classic critical tenets. Johnson seems to adopt this approach merely because of the insistence of the age in which he lived; in some matters, as that of the role of moralizing in drama, Johnson becomes a sturdy neoclassic. But in the matter of mixing the genres and violating the unities of time and place, Johnson is a rebel against neo-classicism. The second approach consists of Johnson’s personal whims and odds. The third approach is that of a free attitude which is based either on Johnson’s own impressions and instincts or on aesthetic and psychological principles which are perennial and have a universal validity.
Johnson the disciple of Neo-classicism. Assuming to be the most faithful followers of the real classicism, the ‘classicists’ of Johnson’s period held that a literary work should, necessarily, deal with the universal aspects of life and not its particular or singular aspects. They brought this ‘universality’ of a work under the head namely, nature’. Following this principle, Johnson casts his attention primarily on the universality of Shakespeare’s plays. At the outset, he lauds Shakespeare as the greatest poet of nature; at least among modern writers and perhaps also among the ancient ones. He approves of Shakespeare’s characters for being true to the essential aspects of life, though they might violate particular conditions which belong to the accidents of age and country. Shakespeare is praised for depicting men, not as heroes, but as men—as the genuine progeny of common humanity, speaking and acting as all of us do. Johnson is particularly fascinated by Shakespeare’s discrimination of one character from another and he also remarks that in the plays of other dramatist a character is often an individual, in Shakespeare it is commonly a species. “To Johnson, as to the whole century, just representations of general nature was the essential characteristic of the classical ideal, and Shakespeare appealed to all as a great poet of nature, who held upto his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. Neither his greatness as a poet nor his delightful situations came first to the minds of the critics who regarded Dryden and Pope the supreme expression of the poetic spirit. They turned rather by preference to what they deemed his interpretation of human nature in terms of universal experience. Johnson whose mind was stocked with principles depending on nature and truth as formulated by classical critics, and whose temper was essentially reasonable, found these sentiments too congenial for him to adopt any other approach to this poet.”
Departure from Neo-classicism. Johnson defends and establishes Shakespeare’s supremacy on the ground of neo-classical principle of nature and universality, but where he finds these very neoclassical maxims standing in the way of a just and proper appreciation of Shakespeare, he attacks them relentlessly. Here, however, Johnson sounds rational and sensible. The fundamental fallacy of the neo-classical adherence to the unities of time and place is clearly argued out and the mingling of tragedy and comedy is defended as being not only permissible but in fact an advantage over pure drama. The supposedly everlasting validity of rules of criticism is denied and it is held that from criticism there is always an appeal to nature. The narrow and pedantic objections of Voltaire are branded as insignificant or paltry. Johnson does not find anything awkward in Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Roman senator as a buffoon, or the king as a drunkard because what matters is the human element in them and not superficial designations or positions.
Dr. Johnson’s eccentric views. Some of the views expressed by Dr. Johnson can not find our full-hearted support; they are baseless, and up-to a measure, eccentric. One such view emerges from his evaluation of Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies. Johnson seems to have an excessive personal preference for the comedies but we find no justification in his derogation of Shakespeare’s tragedies: Johnson labels the tragedies as wanting in spontaneity, as the •work of labour which often makes the final product less impressive, and as something that does not show the real genius of Shakespeare. According to Johnson Shakespeare’s natural inclination was towards comedy. From this he gathers that the presence of comic elements in Shakespeare’s tragedies is due to the fact that he does not feel at home in tragedy, and is always in search of an occasions to break into comedy. But this view is inconsistent with his justification of Shakespeare’s mixing of tragedy and comedy in which case he realizes that Shakespeare’s practice in all his plays is to alternate serious scenes with scenes of merriment.
Another instance of whimsical criticism is where Johnson attacks Shakespeare’s craze for word play. Modern critics view these puns and quibbles as a general or characteristic feature of Elizabethan drama. Though these may be boring and monotonous, they do not stir in us the violent reaction which it evoked in Johnson, who maintains that the irresistible pull of an equivocation, however base and tedious it may be, draws Shakespeare away from his path just as a will-o’-the wisp misleads a traveller.
Literature’s function. With regard to his views on the functions of literature, including drama, he is almost a Horatian. He holds that the end of all writing is to give pleasure, and, especially, that of literature is to instruct and please. At one point Johnson argues that Shakespeare is more interested in pleasing than instructing and hence his plays want moral purpose at its end. But on another occasion he praises Shakespeare as having embodied in his plays a whole system of civil and domestic wisdom. We may frankly support his view that one who thinks rationally thinks morally.
Conclusion. Johnson is not merely a renowned editor of Shakespeare, he is also scholar in Shakespearean criticism. Johnson’s work is all the more memorable for its liberal approach towards its subject. Another creditworthy aspect of Johnson’s Preface is that he preserved the famous Prefaces of the previous editors and included much their notes and Prefaces in his own editions. His approach as an emendator is purely objective, cautious and reasonable. He deplores the eagerness of some critics to indulge in conjectural criticism even when where is no justification for doing so. He considers the older copies as more reliable and worthy of being followed except at some points where the reading is doubtful. For Johnson, editing Shakespeare is serious task, but not, as it was to Pope, a ‘dull duty’. Johnson’s approach towards Shakespeare has found a good deal of appreciation from the modern Shakespearean critics. Indeed, the historical or comparative method of criticism which he makes use of is part of modern critical approach, as is the systematic analysis of a body of work.