JOHNSON’S PREFERENCE FOR SHAKESPEARE’S COMEDIES
Q.13. Write a note on Johnson’s comparative Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies.
How far do you agree with Johnson’s argument that Shakespeare’s natural bent was toward comedy?
And. Introduction. On the occasion of examining Shakespeare’s mingling of tragedy and comedy (seriousness and laughter) Johnson compares Shakespeare’s tragedies with his comedies. In Johnson’s view Shakespeare’s comedies are superior to his tragedies and conform more to his genius and temperament. Johnson quotes several instances to support his view in this connection. The section of the Preface in which he deals with this issue is interesting.
Johnson’s argument. First, Johnson attacks the criteria on which the plays of-Shakespeare are classified into comedies, tragedies and histories. Johnson laments that this classification is not done carefully. The previous editors of Shakespeare did it in a random way which was blindly followed by many of the later critics. Now, these earlier publishers marked only the catastrophe or denouement of the plays and, basing their views on the principal mood of the concluding part, they called each play a tragedy or a’ comedy. Johnson believes that Shakespeare’s general idea of his over-all design of all his plays is the same, irrespective of their labels such as comedies and tragedies. The plays all involve scenes of merriment and seriousness and in each case this mode of composition is unfailingly appealing since it is more true to life. Shakespeare had none to imitate, nor was there any critic to criticize his dramatic defects or merits. So he could freely exercise his natural instincts and genius in his plays. Johnson says• that his natural instinct find a more suitable outlet in his comedies than in his tragedies. In this connection, Johnson cites Rymer whose views are almost similar to Johnson’s own views : “Shakespeare engaged in dramatic poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; therm public judgement was unformed, he had no example of such fame as might force him upon imitation, nor critics of such authority as might restrain,, his extravagance. He therefore indulged his natural disposition and his disposition, as Rymer has marked, led him to comedy.”
Comparative evaluation. Dr. Johnson goes to consider the comparative merits of Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies. In the first place, he holds the comedies of Shakespeare as superb and spontaneous and artistically superior to the tragedies. His tragedies are, according to Johnson, less genuine and artificial. “In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity but in his comic scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. Secondly, Johnson conceives that comedy was more suitable to Shakespeare’s genius than tragedy because, 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 mode of thinking congenial to his nature.” Thirdly, Johnson believes that his tragedies lack something we desire and look for. “In his tragic scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses-expectation or desire”. Johnson adds that Shakespeare’s tragedies provide pleasure because of the variety of incidents and action, whereas in the case of comedy we derive pleasure from its thought and language and the felicity of expression. To sum up, Johnson is of the opinion that Shakespeare’s tragedies are the product of his skill whereas the comedies are the result of his instinctive genius.
Johnson’s views : how far valid?We see that Johnson’s views concerning the merits and defects of Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies are not quite convincing. We may not agree with his argument that Shakespeare’s natural bent was towards comedy rather than tragedy. We cannot accept the view that Shakespeare added comic scenes in his great tragedies because he had an unnatural inclination towards comedy. Actually, what is true is that these comic scenes in the tragedies harmonize with the general mood of the play; they never hamper it, but mingle beautifully into the whole. Their justification is artistic rather than based on any bent of mind or genius. In fact both comedies and tragedies together constitute the stages of development of Shakespeare’s genius. It is the harmony between these two types of plays that reflect the true genius of the dramatist. Johnson’s view that the comedies are superior to tragedies cannot be supported wholeheartedly. As a matter of fact, the entire impression of the tragedies and comedies is in keeping with the nature of those plays. If comedies are spontaneous, tragedies are no less impressive; they are serious and appealing and equally genuine. Johnson’s strictures seem to rule out his own observation that the classification of Shakespeare’s plays does not rest upon any sound basis. Nothing can be farther from the truth than the argument that the tragedies of Shakespeare please us by their variety of incidents, events and action, whereas the comedies please us on account of their language and sentiment. The baselessness of such an argument is that we may argue just the opposite with equal vehemence and sense. And there are endless instances for us to quote that Shakespearean tragedies are deeply moving and impressive.
Conclusion. We may find no possible justification for the arguments of Johnson denigrating the comedies of Shakespeare. Perhaps it is a blind-spot in Johnson’s estimate of Shakespeare. Or it may be a reflection of his own temperament in which constitutional melancholy was the dominating element. Furthermore he was to a great extent, a typical representative of the neo-classical critical school and hence his views, which are primarily judicial. prescriptive and dogmatic, are characteristic of the age in which he lived. Most probably these can be the reasons why Johnson’s views on Shakespeare were fashioned after a peculiar mode and temper.