How does Dr. Samuel Johnson defend Shakespeare’s mixing of tragic and comic laments and how far do you agree with him?



“The censure which he has incurred by mixing comic and tragic scenes deserves more consideration.” Illustrate how Johnson reacts to Shakespeare’s practice in this regard. 

Or, How does Dr. Samuel Johnson defend Shakespeare’s mixing of tragic and comic laments and how far do you agree with him?






The neo-classical critics were very particular about the purity of genres. (implying that comic and tragic works are separate entities) and Jolson, as we know, (was a neo-classical critic? But quite surprisingly we see that in some instances Johnson leaves his traditional fold and its aesthetic laws and precepts. One of these .instances is when he approaches the. concept of ‘unities’ where he concludes that the only realized and recognizable unity is that of action; and the other instance is where he justifies, by means of manifold arguments, Shakespeare’s fusion of the comedy and tragedy and challenges the condemnations leveled against Shakespeare in this regard by other critics. (He, holds that the mingled dramas of Shakespeare are not only effective but also fulfill the proper function of drama much better than pure comedy or unalloyed tragedy.

Johnson deals with the views of those critics who object to Shakespeare’s practice and refutes them with well-justified arguments. Johnson’s contemporary neo-classicists maintained that Shakespeare’s plays were defective because they mingled tragedy and come Johnson agrees that Shakespeare’s plays are not in the real or strictest sense either comedies or tragedies but compositions of a distinct kind. Another allegation leveled against Shakespeare’s dramas is that the alternative suffusion or interpolation of tragic and comic scenes destroys the effect of both. Johnson probes into the validity of this argument and proves it baseless.



The editors of the first Folic. categorized all the plays of Shakespeare under incorrect criteria. They classified all the plays that ended happily into comedies and all those which ended in sorrow into tragedies. They seemed to be inattentive of the reigning mood or atmosphere of each play. Johnson says that this criterion of classification influenced the field of Shakespearean n criticism for a long time. Merely by a slight change in the catastrophe or denouement, a play could be changed from tragedy to .comedy or vice versa. Then, the only earmark of a tragedy was a sad conclusion. No dignity.’ or exaltation of theme and its treatment were considered as the yardstick for calling a play tragic. But merely to exert. our attention on the final incidents is not a sound way to classify the plays of Shakespeare because throughout his plays Shakespeare’s mode of composition is the same—an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which the mind is softened at one time and exhilarated at another.” But, “Whatever his purpose, whether gladden or depressed, or to conduct the story, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy’ and familiar dialogue. he never fails to attain his purpose; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or sit silently with quiet expectation, in tranquility without indifference”. The ancients considered tragedy and comedy as two entirely different modes of dramatic compositions and we do not have a single Greek or Roman dramatist who has tried his quill in both tragedy and comedy. But in Shakespeare, the excitements of laughter and sadness are blended together in the same composition.


Rules and reality.

Johnson admits frankly that what Shakespeare has done is against the rules of criticism. But Johnson does not go to the extent of condemning Shakespeare on this score. Rules of criticism are never final nor universally applicable to all works,; they are not meant for fettering literary productions either, there are facts more prominent than these. As he says; ‘There is always an appeal open from criticism to nature”. The speculation that blending tragedy and comedy is impossible has been already challenged and hence proved baseless by Shakespeare’s practice itself.


Further inspection of the feasibility of ‘rules’.

According to Dr. Johnson, the aim of all writing is to please and instruct, but the end of poetry or literature is to instruct by pleasing. Based on this viewpoint mingled drama is permissible for it fulfills this bilateral function of poetry. Since mingled drama reflects the true state of things on earth,” exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of” good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with an endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the. loss of one is the gain of another; in• which at the same time the reveler is hasting to his wine, the mourner burying his, friend and many benefits are done and hindered without design”, it is, not deplorable. Moreover, “that the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alternations of the exhibition and approaches nearer.’ than, either to the appearances of life.” Here we can deduce that (Johnson argues in favor of mingling tragedy and comedy because it is true to life.


Delight in diversity.

Variety is a source of pleasure and mingled drama, being a combination of diverse human passions, affords pleasure. None of these two passions existing in the same composition cancels the other’s effect. Any argument against their coexistence is held as deplorable by Johnson. It is relevant even in our daily life. “The interchanges of mingled drama seldom fail to produce the intended vicissitudes of passion. Fiction cannot move so much, but that the attention may be easily transferred, and though it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes interrupted’ by unwelcome levity, yet let it be considered likewise, that melancholy is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance of one man may be the relief of another, that different auditors have different habitues, and that, upon the whole, all pleasures consists. in variety.’ Johnson goes on to offer, further arguments on the subject. In brief, he says that though the rules of criticism are there, in practice we find that employing the tragic and comic elements alternatively is nonetheless effective.

Indeed, in, these cases the dramatist is all the more to be successful in hitting his target—in pleasing his audience. It is also conceived that the interspersion of a comic scene may lessen the tension of tragedy. But Johnson does not agree with this. He also justifies the practice on the score that the audience differs in their tastes and if a play is a mingled product of tragedy and comedy, it may find more welcome from the majority of spectators. Lastly, Johnson says that variety is more pleasing than something stereotyped .or monotonous. Johnson proves his wisdom in arguing so.


Johnson comes out entirely successful in justifying Shakespeare’s mixing of tragedy and comedy, and in substantiating that mingled drama is in fact inferior to no genre. Although it is not pointed out by Johnson, it is true that even in ancient classical works ‘it is by no means rare to see that there have been attempts to introduce comic characters and situations, even in such sober plays as Antigone. As far as Shakespeare’s plays are concerned, we feel that many of the comic scenes in his tragedies are, in many ways, an inevitable part contributing much to the entire effect of the play. As a single example we may quote the Fool in King Lear; deprived of him the tragedy would have lost its impact considerably.

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