JOHNSON’S ‘PREFACE’ TO SHAKESPEARE
Dr. Johnson’s evaluation. Johnson’s Preface and his notes on Shakespeare’s plays contributed greatly to the body of English criticism. Johnson sets out in a traditional way to interpret the ‘beauties’ and ‘dejects’ of Shakespeare. But quite unlike his predecessors the credit of conveying his own individual response goes to him. Due to this fact his assessment is more complex and sophisticated, and also more interesting.
Shakespeare seen as the poet of nature. Shakespeare is ‘above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature, the poet that holds up to his readers the mirror of manners and of life.” By the term ‘poet of nature’ Johnson implies both aesthetic and moral values. Yet this praise at first looks paradoxical, for Johnson apparently goes on to deny individuality in Shakespeare’s characters and because he states later in the Preface that Shakespeare seems to write without any moral purpose. When Johnson says that in the writings of other poets the character is too often an individual and in those of Shakespeare a character is commonly a species, he is not frankly saying that the Shakespearean character is left individualized. Elsewhere Johnson maintains that perhaps no poet has ever kept his personages more distinct from each other. But Pope, in his work said, “every single character in Shakespeare is as much individual as those in life itself.” Perhaps it may be the life-like sketching of Shakespeare’s characters that tended Johnson to call him as ‘the poet of nature.’ Johnson laments that Shakespeare lacked in moral purpose but by saying that he held up to his readers a ‘faithful mirror of manners and of life’ Johnson means to praise him. It was attested also by some of the eighteenth century writers that Shakespearean drama conveyed a favourable view of human nature. Johnson’s outlook was tinged with traditional morality and that is why he cannot ignore the lack of it in Shakespeare. Many of Johnson’s annotations on individual characters like Othello were meant primarily to emphasize aspects of human behaviour.
Lack of moral purpose. Johnson remarks that Shakespeare lacks moral purpose at the end of his plays. Johnson’s view of human nature itself was essentially pessimistic. He believed that the feat of punishment was a necessary stimulus to virtue, and that men would desist from evil only if justice was seen to be operating in the world. As a strongly moralistic critic he hoped for a work of art to demonstrate the same kind of rigid justice that he wanted to find in real life. For this reason he was particularly offended when he saw that Shakespeare had allowed “the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause.” In fact the catastrophe appears to have disturbed him profoundly. Johnson was in accord with Dennis who says that the justice a dramatist meted out to his characters, should be a type of God’s final judgement. Therefore, the death of innocent Cordelia was not acceptable to Johnson.
Johnson favourable to the comedies. Many of the remarks and notes in the Preface are rendered from the perspective of eighteenth century literary and dramatic conventions. The eighteenth century critics regarded a play as an emulation of real events and real people. Therefore they were particular that the soliloquies be properly motivated and not just addressed to the spectators. Hence they also thought in undesirable that a character feeling the throbs of strong emotion should employ highly wrought imagery or word play in his speeches. It is this view-point which explains to a great extent Johnson’s surprising stricture on Shakespeare’s tragedies while praising his comedies : “In tragedy Shakespeare often writes with great appearance of toil and study what is written at last with little felicity; but in this comic scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comic, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mood of thinking congenial to his nature. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and. the language, and his tragedy for greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill his comedy to be instinct.”
Johnson’s disregard for rules. Though Samuel Johnson abided by the literary rules and regulations of the eighteenth century, there are two crucial instants in which he defended Shakespearean drama with such an emphasis that he has been hailed as an outright dissenter against the neoclassic rules and proprieties. In justifying Shakespeare’s intermingling of tragic and comic scenes, Johnson asserts emphatically that “there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature.’ No less emphatic is his shielding of Shakespeare’s violation of the unities of time and place. He considers these unities to be spurious and maintains that those who back them fail to distinguish between the real world and the imaginary world of the play. As an editor, Johnson has brought about sound adjustments designed to accommodate lapses of time and changes of place by more convenient distribution of acts and scenes. “Johnson read Shakespeare’s plays as dramatic narratives, not as thematic poems, and displayed a lively and discriminating, if not decidedly poetic, intelligence grappling with plot and character. His reasoned estimate of Shakespeare is in no sense grudging, indeed, his cool and dispassionate objectivity is ultimately compelling and persuasive”.
Johnson as an editor of Shakespeare’s plays. Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays, planned over many years, was ultimately published in 1765. In his, ‘Proposals for Printing by Subscription, the Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare’ Johnson had set down his intention of bringing out a text, explaining obscure passages and endorsing a “more rational approbation” of Shakespeare. He showed sound sense in overlooking all Folios save the First, but his edition is defective largely because he failed to take the texts of several Quartos into consideration. Nor did the existing approach towards the poetic language and dramatic dialogue encourage him to produce, by modern norms, a good text. The majority of the eighteenth century editors felt it justifiable to suggest emendation wherever a text seemed corrupt to them. In this regard, Johnson is far less guilty than many of his predecessors. His wide knowledge of the language prompted some discerning explanations of particular passages, but his intrinsic skepticism persuaded him to limit the number of proposed changes within reasonable bounds.
Johnson’s Shakespeare was the seventh edition after the earlier editions by Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Hammer, an unknown (anonymous) editor and Warburton. In substance and form Johnson follows the earlier six fairly closely. All of them had written a Preface of their won which Johnson got reprinted in his own edition. Johnson follows them, in his own ‘Preface ‘, by elaborating on his own labours in collating texts, and in praising Shakespeare’s genius for adherence to nature.
The structure of the ‘Preface Johnson’s ‘Preface ‘ is in essence an amazing exercise in descriptive criticism, with an excellent essay on theoretical criticism, the argument against the unities of time and place incorporated in it, and with a long narration on editorial techniques and methods. We may divide the ‘Preface’ into seven parts: (1) Shakespeare treated as a poet of nature; (2) Johnson’s shielding of Shakespeare’s mixing comedy and tragedy;
(3) The style of Shakespeare; (4) Shortcomings of Shakespeare;
(5) Johnson’s defence of Shakespeare’s violation of the unities of time and place; (6) History and Shakespeare; (7) Johnson’s opinion of his own as well as others’ editorial methods.
Historical view. In depicting editorial maxims and principles Johnson shows an excellent historical understanding. He makes repeated appeals to the study of background as an antidote to the neo-classical rule of thumb. We may substantiate this point from the following passages of his Preface:
works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours
“Every man’s performances, to be righting estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own particular opportunities
Though Johnson’s particular historical judgement may not seem sophisticated, his views on poetry as an evolution, or “a long succession” is undoubtedly wise, popular and intelligible.
‘Preface’ a splendid work. The excellence of the Preface lies in its lasting appeal and its enviable position in the bulk of Shakespearean criticism. It shows Johnson’s talents at their best. It also reflects his logical reasoning and wisdom as a critic. Perhaps the most striking feature of his writing is his style, his firm insistence on the elements of life and reason as the standards by which books are to be judged. Shakespeare’s originality, especially when he depicts things as truthfully as one sees them in nature, caught the brain of Dr. Johnson too. His manner of argument is as systematic as that of Sidney besides being convincing and comprehensive.
Johnson a rebel. Johnson’s criticism is not to be considered merely as an application of mechanical rules or regulations because one can see in his sensible approach towards a great dramatist, a break from the traditional rules that governed criticism. Read, for example, the famous passage in the Preface where he dismisses the claim that the ‘unities of place and time are necessary for the proper presentation of drama. Johnson gives much more prominence to a truthful imitation of nature and truthful representation of human experience. Johnson is no critic to support illusions; his convictions are concrete. He explains that unity is required not for the sake of deceiving the audience, but for bringing order into chaos, art into nature, and the vast ocean of life to be compressed into an effective and realistic system by the power of human mind. Johnson knows that the unities of time and place are meant to mislead the mind and destroy the aesthetic edifice of the plays; and the truth is that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage and the players are only players. ‘To insist on too much of reality is foolish’. Johnson was aware of this fact, for he says: “the delight proceeds from our consciousness of fiction: if we thought murders and treasons real, they will please no more.’
Johnson and comparative criticism. Johnson is not much concerned about the poetic excellence of Shakespeare’s plays, nor is his piece of criticism as modern as those of Geothe or Coleridge. Johnson’s period was far removed from theirs and it had its own limitations. However, though Dryden may be regarded as the father of comparative criticism, Johnson is the greatest practitioner of both the historical and comparative methods of criticism. Johnson says: “Every man’s performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived and with his own particular opportunities”. Johnson leaves his piece for the public judgement and modestly admits his obligation towards other critics whom he had followed and quoted from.
Unconvincing arguments of Dr. Johnson. When we take Johnson’s Preface as a whole, we may come across some of the inconsistencies of his arguments. Johnson’s justification of Shakespeare’s mingling of tragic and comic elements are not quite convincing. Considering that the neo-classic critics had become unmindful of the Renaissance distinction between tragedy and comedy, it must have seemed important to justify Shakespeare’s mingling of sober and ridiculous scenes. But in endorsing Dryden’s arguments — that contraries set off each other and that there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature and that mingled drama delights and instructs us profoundly—Dr. Johnson makes use of the escape-clause in a characteristic manner.
Again, Johnson praises Shakespeare in the first a few paragraphs and later on goes to say : “As we owe everything to him, he owes something to us. We fix our eyes upon his graces and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loathe and despise he has perhaps not one play which, if it were exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclusion.” These remarks dilute the admiration and veneration of the opening passages and moderate the earlier eulogy. Johnson lauds Shakespeare’s style exuberantly, but also points out (in the list of Shakespeare’s faults Shakespeare’s ‘tumour’ his ‘weak’ declamation, and unwieldy sentiment’. After saying that Shakespeare draws his dialogues and medium or style of expression from the common intercourse of life, he goes on to contradict himself by pointing out what he deems to be a stylistic defect.
Johnson’s enduring contribution. The defect of his criticism, however, cannot blind us to the significance of Johnson as a critic. Johnson was not a critic dwelling upon and harping on what other earlier critics had done. He gave a fresh vigour and a new turn to English criticism. The most striking contrast between the earlier critics and Johnson is that he is very cautions about altering the received text. He checked the tide of rash emendation. He states: “It has been my settled principle that the reading of the ancient books is probably true, and therefore, is not to be disturbed for the sake of elegance, perspicuity or more improvement of the sense. For though much credit is not due to the fidelity, nor any to the judgement of the first publishers, yet they who had the copy before their eyes were more likely to read it right than we who read it only by imagination.” Shakespeare, says Johnson, “has more allusions than other poets to the traditions and superstitions of the vulgar, which must therefore be traced before he can be understood”. Johnson neither over-estimates nor overlooks the difficulties of a Shakespearian critic. But he hates the quarrels of the commentators and even ventures to request them to join him in remembering, amidst their triumphs over the ‘nonsensical’ opinions of dead rivals, that “we likewise are men and shall soon be among the dead ourselves.” Johnson also realizes that, “notes are necessary evils” but advises the young reader to start by neglecting them and reading Shakespeare unassisted. It is evidenced from his edition that Johnson is a master at paraphrasing poetry into prose. There is lucidity and intelligibility in his notes.
Conclusion. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare shows his best powers in epitome, the vigour with which he represents the sane and unidolatrous tradition of Augustan criticism, his conclusive and happy boldness of phrase, and his broad and intimate humanity. His criticisms are prompted by his sense of truth. He may have been short-sighted, at times, in his appreciation. But his Preface remains one of historical and intrinsic interest, by virtue of his unerring skill in indicating essentials, his reasoned judicial methods and the sound foundations he laid for future textual and aesthetic developments. Not least significant are the fundamental principles and observations he throws out from time to time. Here are some sentences which are characteristically Johnsonian and quotably significant:
Upon the whole all pleasure consists in variety
Love has no great influence upon the sum of life.
Shakespeare always makes nature predominant over accident. History requires Romans but he thinks only on men.
His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply and observation will always find.