Samuel Johnson Preface To Shakespeare

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Samuel Johnson Preface To Shakespeare


Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18, 1709. His father was a provincial bookseller; it was through browsing in his shop that the boy acquired much of remarkable knowledge. Physically handicapped, with bad eyesight and facial disfigurements, he later developed a pronounced neurotic tic’. Showing early emotional instability, he was ever afterwards subject to long fits of lassitude and depression.

In the grammar schools of Lichfield and Stourbridge, and for some thirteen months at Oxford, he was well grounded in the classics, but because of financial difficulties left the university in 1729 without a degree. During the next few years all attempts to find a permanent post as a teacher failed. Then in 1735 he married a widow over twenty years his senior, with whose small fortune he set up his own school. When this, too, proved unsuccessful, he and his wife late in 1737 moved to London. There followed a decade of poverty and distress in the city, as Johnson eked out a meagre livelihood as translator and hack writer. He aided Edward Cave in editing the Gentleman’s Magazine providing fictionalized accounts of the proc eedings in parliament, and short biographies, essays and poems. Independently, he was involved in other large projects, and wrote a revealing life of his erratic friend in misery, Richard Savage. The Lfe of Richard Savage is now recognised as an important milestone in the development of the art of biography.

In 1746, he signed a contract with a group of booksellers to produce a dictionary of the English language, but it was not until 1755 that the work, in two large folio volumes, finally appeared. Meanwhile he had written two imitations of Juvenal in sonorous couplets, London in 1738 and The Vanity of Human Wishes in 1749, called by T.S. Eliot “among the greatest verse satires of the English or any other language.’ His blank verse tragedy Irene was produced at Drury Lane in February 1749, with meagre success. Early in the 1750’s he wrote some two hundred periodical essays entitle The Rambler.

With the publication of the Dictionary his reputation was established, but fame brought little immediate financial return. So in June 1756, he issued proposals for a new edition of Shakespeare, and in the same year was largely responsible for a new periodical, The Literary Magazine or Universal Review. For two years, from April 1758 to April 1760, he contributed a weekly essay under the title of The Idler to a newspaper, The Universal Chronicle. Depressed by the fatal illness of his mother, whom he had not seen for almost twenty years, and needing money for her funeral expenses, he dashed off in the evenings of a single week what is perhaps his most characteristic work, the philosophical tale now known as Rasselas.

After the death in 1752 of his beloved wife, Johnson more and more sought diversion and companionship in the coffee houses and taverns, gradually drawing around him a brilliant circle including some of the most eminent men of his age, among them Edmund Burke, Sr. Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, and David Garrick. As the years passed, his fame as a talker and sage equated that of Writer.

In 1762, his financial difficulties were alleviated by a royal pension of 300 pounds a year, and for the rest of his life he wrote only what he wished. There now began the period so brilliantly chronicled by the Young Scot, James Boswell, whom he met in May 1763. In January 1765, he met the brewer Henry Thrale and his talkative wife, in whose comfortable home he spent much time during the next eighteen years. Of his late published works the most notable were a series of political pamphlets hurriedly written in the early 1770’s, an account of his journey with Boswell to the western islands of Scotland, and a series of biographical and critical prefaces to p extensive edition of the English poets of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At last, a prey to asthma, dropsy, and other ailments, he died in pious resignation on December 13, 1784 at London.



Introduction. Dr. Samuel Johnson was one of the towering figures in English literature and he had a profound impact on the writers and the readers of the eighteenth century. His early life was miserable and wretched but it mounded him into a man of rich experience and strong character. Somewhat dictatorial and egoistic, he was a staunch Tory and a writer whose mind and judgement were strikingly independent. A deep humanity was another feature of his life which is evident also in his writings. Most often Johnson is cited as a typical Englishman, with virtues and prejudices which are characteristic of the English. In fact Dr. Johnson has become something of a national institution in England.

Given to melancholic moods. Although Dr. Johnson was a man of fun and jokes, he often seemed to be contemplative and melancholic. He had a morbid fear of insanity. His fear of death led him to turn his attention towards those lines of Shakespeare’s plays where the poet renders a terrible picture of the decomposition which overtakes the human body in the grave. His fear had a metaphysical aspect too, for he was, by nature, a devout Christian, and the excesses of his life pricked his mind very often. This aspect is more clear in his prayers and meditations. In the last few years of his life, when many of his friends were already dead, Dr. Johnson was frequently a prey to extreme melancholy. To make matters worse, he also suffered from ill-health. Boswell has recorded Johnson’s saying that he was never in possession of a free and easy use of his limbs and that he was compelled to walk as if he were wearing fetters like a prisoner. He had some nervous disease causing attacks of convulsions. But Johnson did not let ill-health deter his work. He utilized his energy to the maximum and never complained about his ill-health.

Religious and political beliefs. Johnson was stubborn conservative in his religious as well as political views. He distrusted theories. He did not believe inequality, but held that distinctions of rank were basic to English society. He firmly believed that the Church dignitaries were entitled to the deepest homage from true Christians. But he was not a Puritan. He followed austerities like fasting but was, in fact, opposed to an austere life. According to him, religion should not be based on hard and fast rules. In his life, Johnson, seemed to have experienced a palpable fear of divine wrath, but this was allied to a sincere desire in him to lead a better life. The whole of Christianity was an intense reality to him though it was more often a source of fear than of solace. Carlyle says that Johnson, living in the period of Voltaire, was yet able to purge and strengthen his soul and hold real communication with God, which, to Carlyle, was a wonderful achievement. Johnson hated dissenters and radicals. He used to refer to the Devil as a typical Whig because he believed that Whiggism stood for rebellion against established institutions, Johnson was severely critical of those whom he took to be the enemies of King and Church.
Johnson preferred life in town and lived in the Whig stronghold of London; so there is a considerable strength of character implied in his onslaughts on those political opponents. Johnson could provide a sort of theoretical basis for his intense Toryism. He is said to have been fond of producing utter consternation in the fold of the Whigs by ridiculing them most pitilessly. Once he told a staunch Whig that Whiggism was worse than Jacobitism, for it was a negation of all principles. His attacks on Presbyterians and Dissenters were equally fierce. Johnson had a bitter contempt for Scotland too, but his comments in this regard are humorous and amusing. Johnson’s witty statements and conversational genius are world-famous. Boswell relates many of comes to deal with Milton, Gray and Swift he denounces and finds Fault with them.

Miscellaneous works. Johnson’s miscellaneous works include Journey to the Western islands of Scotland and The False Alarm.Most of those are unpopular. Johnson was a powerful writer of letters.
One of his letters—the one in which he rejects Chesterfield’s delayed offer of patronage—is quite well known.



Introduction. It is a mistake to think that Johnson’s prose style is essentially pedantic and bombastic. Being a prolific writer, Johnson made use of a number of styles, and often he adopts a particular style in a particular context. The style he adopts depends upon the nature of the work and its seriousness. He could put his ideas in the simplest of styles as is evident from his conversations with Boswell. When the subject is of a sober nature, he makes use of a style which is unparalleled in its beauty and rhythm. In such a context his competence in balancing the ideas as well as the parts of a sentence is unquestioned.

Echo of his times. Johnson’s prose style has some historical affinities. It has an invariable echo of the style that was in vogue when Johnson entered the scene. Thus the oratorial style of Johnson’s prose is a reflection of the fashion of the century. He praised Dryden’s prose style but did not think it worth following. To him it was too unsettled. On the other hand, Johnson lauded the style of Addison as familiar, lucid and stately but not pompous.

Johnson’s diction. Johnson’s diction is of course not the same everywhere, but it has some striking characteristics. Johnson shows a tendency to use more words of Latin Derivation than of Anglo-Saxon origin. This imparts a learned quality to his style which is deliberate and in keeping with the tenor of the content. But the Latinised diction does not affect his style adversely because he is equally capable of using the simplest of words with remarkable effect. Johnson seems fond of using a noun construction where an adjectival construction would be sufficient to make the meaning explicit. Johnson was weary of metaphors but whenever he comes to employ one he does it vividly. He criticizes the diction of Shakespeare to be very mean and unsophisticated at many places. Elsewhere he writes “There was before the time of Dryden no poetical diction, no system of words at once refined from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts. Words too familiar or too remote defeat the purpose of a poet. From those sounds which we hear on small or on coarse occasions, we do not easily receive strong impressions or delightful images; and words to which we are nearly stranger whenever they occur, draw that attention on themselves which they transmit to things. This may help us to understand Johnson’s attitude towards poetic diction.

In the prose of Johnson we find many sentences which are simple and brief; but he seems to have had an inordinate preference for complex, balanced clauses arranged either in parallel or in contrast. But it is to be noted that his style never slips into monotony. On the other hand, many of his balanced clauses reveal a rare genius for apt and impressive expression.

Oratorial tone. Again, in keeping with the nature of the subject he deals with, Johnson expresses his ideas oratorially. In such contexts his prose becomes grandiloquent and extraordinarily exquisite. But it is a mistake to call these passages pompous and gaudy. Even where he uses learned words or expresses himself in a seemingly pompous manner, there is nothing in his sentences to which one may take exception as superfluous or insignificant. The manner and matter are harmoniously matched and interconnected.

Conclusion. The shortcomings of Johnson’s prose style are fewer than have been supposed. Perhaps the only really indefensible feature is his use of extremely uncommon words such as acidulous, absconded, indiscerptible, fugacity, lexicographical and oppugner, which are rarely, if ever, to be met any where else. But Johnson’s contribution in making the English language a stately, vigorous and powerful language is not to be overlooked.



Introduction. Among the most renowned critics Johnson’s position is second to none. It is true that we often find ourselves disagreeing with what he says, and some of his arguments may not be convincing, yet most of his view points are well argued and intelligible. He is generally regarded as a pillar of the new-classical school, although he sometimes seems to challenge some of its basic theories and turns quite amazingly imaginative and impressionistic. So far as his ways of expression are concerned he is a true new-classicist, but regarding his views we must not blindly stamp him as a neo-classicist. Johnson as a critic, is unmistakable a moralist, but he does not seem incapable of enjoying and valuing works of pure literary qualities. As a critic and prose-writer and also as an editor of Shakespeare’s plays his influence on the later critics was deep and enduring.

Johnson’s temperament as a critic. Johnson’s literary doctrines involve some salient features. First and foremost Johnson relied upon reason (opposed to imagination) and hence the rationality in his approach. He was, in a sense, experimental and logical rather than sticking to a particular point of view which is established and unquestioned for a long period. Secondly, his conservative tendencies played a crucial role in the making of his critical I perspective. The third point is that Johnson’s views are often tinged with his personal judgement. They are based on sturdy common sense’, his experience and wide knowledge acquired from reading literary works and the classics. The fourth important factor is his own moral and religious outlook developed from an austere philosophy of life. The nucleus of Johnson’s critical tenets is a combined product of all the above factors. Johnson is not, in the least, a romantic, yet a certain amount of emotion can be seen to have influenced his rationalism. But, at the same time, he was against sentimentalism. He was a man of dictatorial views, yet he showed no reluctance to accept all that was verified, basically sound and tested. Johnson’s approach an author is not as a critic who sets out fully armed and prepared to tear him down—but as a man of mature intellect, an open mind and sound standards of judgement. Thus, his approach towards Shakespeare is intimate and judicious. But his own code in turn attained a dogmatic character, and became hardened against all threat of a change. He showed an utter distrust of any innovation in literature. He looked upon the heroic couplet as the best form of verse. He thought that rhyme was indispensable to poetry. He discarded all the proposals of imitating the Spenserian stanza. Thus classicism now became a dogma kept alive through its connection with the moral and social needs of authority, orderliness, and tradition, rather than through the direct and simple demands of aesthetic tastes.

Definition and function of criticism. Johnson has, at more than one place, endeavoured to define criticism. The definition of a critic in his dictionary runs as ‘a man skilled in the art of judging in literature’. He also passes his approval on Dryden’s opinion that by criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle was meant a “standard of judging well.” Johnson calls Aristotle the father of criticism and Dryden the father of English criticism. He admires Dryden’s contribution to English criticism and maintains that it was he who first taught Englishmen “to determine upon principle the merits of composition”. Criticism, for Johnson, was both an art and a science. It can immortalize a work of art and illuminate it as well as unveil its hidden truths and values, he was much concerned about the perversion of criticism in the hands of ‘modern’ critics. “In practice, criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense he whom nature has made weak, and idleness kept ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic”. Johnson believed that the task of criticism is to establish principles and improve opinion into knowledge. It demands a disciplined approach because it is a vocation rather than a profession or even a career. According to Johnson criticism is not merely the art of appreciation, nor are its principles to be grounded in fancy or imagination; instead, it is to be built on the solid ground of reason and intelligence. He never goes about telling how a given work of art has been appealing to his heart unless it is equally appealing to the majority of readers. In this sense we see him opposed to the ‘impressionistic’ school of criticism.

Johnson relied much upon experience and experimental investigation and considered the faculty of memory crucial since it is the faculty in which experience is stored. This is convincingly put in the following passage that comes in the early part of his Preface to Shakespeare: “To works of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem what mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared and if they persist to value the possession it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinions in their favour….in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective in a long succession of endeavours.”

The aim of poetry. Although Johnson follows the classical concept that the chief objective of a work of art its to please and instruct, he gives it a new colouring. For him the main end of art is to instruct by pleasing. To put it in a different way, great art stirs an awareness, ushers in a process of enlightenment in those who experience it, which is inseparable from the action of providing delight. When Johnson maintains that literature instructs us by Pleasing, we may have a sense of emphasis being laid on the aspect of moral instruction. But Johnson clearly assents that pleasure should be the medium of instruction. There can be literature which merely pleases, but according to him, there can be no literature which merely instructs.

Johnson and the traditional creeds. Generally, Dr. Johnson is regarded as one of the advocates of neo-classicism. This is true in a certain sense, yet, from another perspective he seems to oppose the neo classical principles. However, he clearly believes in the neo classical concept of ‘generality’ or universality. He also conforms to the new-classical preference for ‘types’ in character, but he is not prepared to take this doctrine to the extreme; he firmly disregards the objection that Shakespeare’s Romans are not sufficiently Roman.It is enough for Johnson that they are sufficiently human. He also opposes the neo-classical insistence on purity of genres. He does not accept the view that the tragic and the comic must never be mixed. The exponents of this rule advance two justifications in support of their argument. Firstly, they maintain that a tragedy must never admit a comic scene because it may spoil the purity of lie genre and hinder the even flow. Secondly, they consider tragedy and comedy to be separate genres, distinct and exclusive in their effect and hence alternate comic and tragic scenes may prove to be mutually cancelling in effect. Johnson established how both these arguments are untenable. According to him the basic thing in art is truth, and the mingling of the comic elements with the tragic is acceptable because it is true to life. What is true can hardly be inartistic. Again, the mingled drama provides us with pleasure through its variety. If the basic function of art is to instruct by pleasing, mingled drama, due to its variety of pleasure, should be in a better position to discharge this function than pure drama (i.e., pure comedy or pure tragedy). Thus he proves that a mingling of the serious and light elements is not merely permissible but, in fact, effective in fulfilling the function of literature.

Johnson and the unities. The period of neo-classicism is a period of rules. There was a tendency to bring art inside the framework of orderliness and discipline. Thus, the champions of this literary movement insisted on sense and reason in art. They accepted the classics as their models. Proper word at proper place was the guideline for their style. In drama too they had certain pre-determined notions about structure, plot and characterization. One of these was their insistence on the three unites. Neo-classical critics criticized Shakespeare because of his disregard. of the unities. But Johnson is more open-minded and he appeals to reason and common sense rather than rigid rules in judging a play. He chides the blind followers of absolute realism in a play and points out that drama has aspects other than realism and these aspects are equally important in a critical evaluation of a dramatic piece. Change of scene and passage of time do not spoil the dramatic illusion. The proof of this argument lies in the fact that a spectator, who thinks that by. entering a theater he has moved from the London of his own times to the Rome of Antony, can equally take it for granted that in another act he has moved from Rome to Alexandria. In fact the spectators are thoroughly conscious that the theater is only a theater and the players are only players. It is the power of human imagination that leads them to compare the enacted incidents to real life and evaluate the worth and significance of the dramatic performance. The attempt of neo-classicism was to build, mainly on one side of experience, on order, arrangement, unity and uniformity. Its aim was to transform the purely subjective content of experience into a highly stylized, general product. Aristotle holds that art is an imitation of nature. Unity of impact is the ultimate ideal of classicism. But this unity of impact is not the least hurt by either the shifting of place or by the duration of the action being more than a day. Nor is it affected by the mingling of the tragic and the comic within the same work—if done artistically.

Johnson and poetic fidelity. The doctrine on which Johnson refutes poetic justice is quite antithetical to the one which he uses in criticizing the doctrine of unities. His inherent bias for a moral conclusion in a work of art might have made him sympathetic to the idea of rewarding the good and chastising the bad. Thus the death of innocent Cordelia in King Lear was unbearable to him. However, he does not approve of the validity of poetic justice as an artistic device or critical principle. Johnson rules out Dennis’s criticism of Addison’s Cato on the ground that it violates the principle of poetic justice. His contention is that dramatic poetry is nothing but an emulation of reality and so its rules are not broken by displaying the world in its true nature. Johnson might have been aware of the fact that the works of writers who rigidly observe Poetic justice are poor whereas Shakespeare’s plays are exceptionally powerful in spite of their violation of the so-called poetic justice. It may be on account of this inward awareness that he defends the plays by stating that they show the real state of sublunary things.

Johnson’s sound common sense. In the present age Johnson is remembered most of all for his critical studies and his novel Rasselas. As a critic Johnson has established his position and his two works, The Preface and the Lives of the Poets, are the most popular of all that he has written. The value of his opinions as a critic, especially in his Preface, rests on the massive strength and keen penetration into the heart of Shakespeare’s art. But this perception, admirably accurate on the whole, is not devoid of certain fallacies when it comes to details. Johnson’s critical analyses of Shakespeare’s plays are based on his preconceived opinions. That is why he is shocked at Shakespeare’s indifference to morality, anachronism and craze for word play and quibbles. Actually, Johnson’s emphasis is on the points in which Shakespeare’s aesthetics differed from his own. Even if most of his remarks are justified and even if his positive appreciation is wholly animated by a warm sympathy, it be said that his judgement remains essentially dogmatic.

Johnson_the renovator of ‘Rules’. Although Johnson is a follower neo-classical rules, he has done much to improve them and make them sensible and relevant in their application to all works. He renovates the classical doctrine with an appeal to inner observation and to the resources of literary psychology. He compares reality if life with that of art and defends the tragic-comedies of Shakespeare. A’ life is enriched by various experiences, he seems to argue, a work but this is, undoubtedly, enriched by various elements of sorrow and pleasure. Shakespeare was thus right in inserting comic scenes  among tragic ones. It may not be according to the rules, but it conforms to the realities of human life. Dryden had already advanced a similar argument but Johnson’s daring intellect broadened it further. He attacks the unities boldly and promotes, quite adventurously, the idea of experimentation in the field of drama. He acknowledges only the unity of action and holds the unites of place and time to have been the outcome of an abstract notion of theatrical illusion. The fictitious change from one place to another or from one period to another does not demand more credulity from the audience than that general goodwill without which no dramatic performance is possible. In this matter, again, Dryden’s wavering intuition is improved upon, and the Romantic theory of freedom is advocated. It has already been averred that in many instances Johnson rises above the limits of neo-classicism and shows his independent intellect with its mature insight and perception. We even feel a hint of irony in his praise of a ‘regular and correct’ writer. He admires Shakespeare in colourful words, speaks highly of the ages of youthful freshness and vigour when literature relied upon pure observation and natural intuition, borrowed nothing from books. It shows that in his subconscious mind he too shared the change which was in the process of asserting itself among his contemporaries.

Conclusion. Most often, Dr. Johnson is regarded merely as a judicial critic of the “indispensable eighteenth century” of English literature. But a curious student of literature may easily discover that he was an artist, a philosopher, a moralist and to an extent a man who based his judgement on instinct .and common sense. He cherished a fine sense of relationship between form and content, and in the majority of cases he judged form with felicity and sureness. He attached great significance tO construction, structure, harmony of tone and various other literary techniques. He was one who recognized the charm, the evocative force, the music, the sublime beauty and the superb rhythm of a verse or image. He was also a critic or a writer of creative intuition. But in spite of all these healthy virtues, he was a man of limitations and reservations. He was not prepared to accept new movements that were too new for him. He criticized Gray and Collins who were the fore-runners of the Romantic Revival and who differed from the traditional literary standards and notions. He was not able to foresee the advent of Romanticism: instead, his attempt was to consolidate classicism in the field of literature. Johnson’s wide scholarship, his reliance on psychological principles and his refusal to be cowed down by any prescriptive authority are the significant aspects of his literary criticism. But, after all, one cannot help admitting that his arguments are intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking.

His whole critical career is as notable for what it attacked as for what it attempted to. establish. From its beginning to its end, both in the earlier topical essays on such matters as the pastorals, versification, cordial verses, romances, and letter-writing and in the later consideration of specific literary works one by one, as they had appeared chronologically in the production of an author’s life-time, he waged relentless war upon authority, prescription, and outworn tradition. He attempted to cut away the overlaying and obscuring growth of pseudo-statement and to substitute only such determinations as were capable of verification by first hand experience. Johnson’s reader is never asked to believe that a general law has been operative from Homer to Black more or Virgil to Pom-fret. He is asked instead only to accept whatever general principle seems to arise from an inductive and empirical process of specific examination, sometimes line by line and stanza by stanza and sometimes work by work through the entire career of an author. Often the treatment is too brief and summary, and the steps of. the reasoning are lost in a sudden conclusion. But more often than not such evaluations are intended as vigorous challenge to the reader to make an examination himself. As Professor Tinker has said, the opinions of Johnson make us review the evidence, restate the case, and criticize the critic. The highest praise of his critical endeavors is that they are empirically lively in themselves and the cause of empirical liveliness in others.



Introduction. The two most outstanding contributions of Dr. Johnson are his Dictionary and his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. As far as the latter is concerned, Johnson was amply qualified for the task which required tremendous zeal and endless endeavor. Johnson, as an editor, had, a clear plan of what he had to do and his ways and approaches we almost unerring. It is true that his edition was delayed, but as his Proposals show, he had to accomplish a herculean task.

The duty of an editor : Johnson’s concept. Johnson possessed a clear idea of the responsibilities of an editor. He clearly stated that the duty of an editor was to establish as far as possible what an author had-written rather than what, in the opinion of the editor or his contemporaries, he ought to have written. The business of republishing an ancient book involves the correcting of what is corrupt and the explanation of what is obscure. But in correction one must avoid the method of conjecture as far as possible; conjecture is to be adopted only if all the other methods have proved futile.
An editor is not supposed to modernize the work he is editing or make it more regular. “If the phraseology is to be changed as words grow uncouth by disuse, or gross by vulgarity, the history of every language will be lost; we shall no longer have the words of any author, and as these alternations will be unskillfully made, we shall in time have very little of his meaning”. Johnson’s edition scrupulously avoids this pitfall.

Textual corruption : reasons. Johnson traces the reasons of textual corruption. One is careless printing. But in the case of Shakespeare the matter is quite different, Many of his allusions and references are obscure to later readers. Another fact is that Shakespeare wrote his plays at a time when the language was unified and so used words and phrases which are almost obsolete now. Yet rioter factor, which is a characteristic feature of Shakespeare himself, itarnely, “the fullness of idea, which might sometimes load his words with more sentiment than they could conveniently convey and that rapidity of imagination which might hurry him to a second liought before he had fully explained the first.” In such contexts Johnson is careful to leave the text Without emendation. He adopts all the other methods such as collating, examining the given text in the light of Elizabethan customs, habits and language. Conjectural ernendation is his last resort. Johnson can also be called the first ‘Variorum’ editor of Shakespeare’s plays.

Johnson’s notes. Wherever Johnson confronts a serious difficulty in a passage he offers a good selection of notes by previous editors. In his selection of these notes he is judicious and impartial. Besides giving his own notes in a particular context, he also seeks out other editors’ opinion and notes, and in this aspect of his performance as an editor he is wise and scholarly. It helped other later editors to a great extent and it is not rare to see that many modern editors have reproduced some part pf these notes in their annotations of Shakespeare’s plays.

Defects as an editor. As one critic says, “His knowledge (of Elizabethan language) was casual, unsystematic, fragmentary, and almost dilettante, not only by present day standards but by those which were to be introduced by his immediate successors his indolence often prevented him from doing what he knew perfectly well ought to be done”. For example Johnson is responsible for not collating all the editions prevailing then. He avoided, for instance, the copies in the possession of Garrick simply because of the fact that he was afraid of courting an actor.

Conclusion. Those editors who followed Johnson, especially those who accepted him as an ideal model, have paid him valuable tributes. We may assuredly say that Johnson is the best of the early school of Shakespearean editors. Good sense, knowledge and research were his strong points.



Introduction. Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare was twenty years in gestation before finally appearing in 1765. In 1745 he published a pamphlet entitled “Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth” along with a single sheet in the form of an advertisement, setting forth “Proposals for a New Edition of Shakespeare.” But due to various reasons, Johnson could not carry on the project: instead, in the following year he began work on his l)dictionary. Though this necessitated shelving his project on Shakespeare, his interest in the plays remained strong.

The delay in the publication. In 1756 Johnson returned to Shakespeare with the publication of his Proposals for Printing by Subscription, the Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, Corrected and Illustrated by Samuel. Johnson. Though he promised with reckless confidence to bring out the work the following year it was only after nine year that the set of eight volumes finally appeared.

Boswell felt that it was Johnson’s “indolence (that) prevented him from pursuing (this project) with that diligence which alone can collect those scattered facts that genius, however acute, penetrating, and luminous, cannot discover by its own force”.

Public reproach. The delay in bringing out the edition stirred public criticism. Johnson’s rivals took this opportunity to spread scandal against Johnson. Even his friends began to doubt the sincerity of Johnson’s promise and prospects. Boswell indicates that Johnson’s troubles in bringing out the edition of Shakespeare “had been severe and remit-tent”. At last on October 2, 1765 Johnson released his historic edition of Shakespeare. As can be seen, the title of Johnson’s edition gave no hint of his Preface , but to the contemporary writers and readers this was the most notable aspect of his edition.

The public reaction towards the edition. The public reaction towards Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare varied. Some writers (like William Kendrick) attacked it bitterly and this attack was duly answered by some student of Oxford. But the most important fact is that his Preface to the edition of Shakespeare’s plays was accepted as the best statement concerning the nature and scope of Shakespeare’s achievement.

Conclusion. It must be pointed out that Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare’s did not fulfill the expectations raised by his Proposals. There were only a few textual emendations; and Johnson confesses that he did not use many of the emendations which he at first made, for he learned to use conjecture less and less as he went along. He restored many readings of the First Folio and some of the Quartos as he had aimed to. He maintained that the First Folio was superior to the second. But his brief notes to the text are significant. A critic holds “Those who have waded through the notes in any of the great American Variorum editions know that three names are sure to arrest the mind; they are those of Johnson, Goethe, and Coleridge.”



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.


Detailed Critical Summary of Johnson’s ‘Preface’


Approach towards antiquity. Some people lament that the dead are praised unreasonably. They hold that the criteria of evaluating a writer should be the excellence of his work and not his antiquity. They are generally people, who have nothing to contribute to the universal truth and therefore try to win fame by offering controversial arguments or hope that posterity will be kind and sympathetic and will bestow them with the name that their contemporaries deny. Admittedly, antiquity has its blind votaries who indiscriminately praise everything merely because it dates back to the remote days. It is also true that spotlighting the merits of the ancients and the faults of contemporaries is more congenial to many critics. As long as an author is alive, the tendency is to judge him in the ‘light of his worst work, and after his death the practice is to regard his best work as his most characteristic and judge him from that view point.

Continuation of esteem: a criterion of merit. The criteria for judging works of art cannot be absolute as in case of works based on scientific principles. Johnson says that in the field of literature excellence is not absolute, but gradual and comparative. In weighing works of literature, the only test that can be aptly applied is length of duration and continuation of esteem. It is quite natural that mankind examines and compares works which they have possessed long, and in case they go on praising them, it shows that they have found them to be really valuable. No production of genius can be termed excellent until it has been impartially compared with other such works, just as no one can call a river deep unless he has seen and known several rivers and judges the particular one in comparison with the others. A literary work is primarily tentative and can be estimated only by its proportion to the general and collective of humanity, as this ability has been discovered in a long succession of endeavours. Scientific works can be adjudged perfect because of their objective base, whereas the greatness of Homers poems has not been given any specific explanation except that they have appealed to generation after generation. The reason why the works of antiquity are held in esteem is not blind adulation or superstitious brief in their superior wisdom but the fact that they have stood up to scrutiny of time.

The enduring eminence of Shakespeare. The works of Shakespeare have come to assume the status of a classic. They are credited with enduring fame and respect. As these works have outlived one whole century, which is the test normally laid down in such cases, they have attained the prestigious position of antiquity, the topical allusions to local customs and prevailing manners in Shakespeare’s works are no longer relevant and his works are read for the literary pleasure they provide. His works can hardly support any faction at present, nor can they satisfy the vanity or feelings of enmity, in people closely associated with him, since all such people have passed away. It is astonishing that they have withstood changes of manners and customs, and are read just for the pleasure they offer. They are thus praised disinterestedly by generation after generation. However, it would not do to blindly believe that human judgement is never infallible. Even though a few works have met with popular approval for a long period, it is possible that this approval may have been based on prejudice or fashion. It is indispensable therefore to probe into the facts which enable the works of Shakespeare to attain and retain the respect or esteem of his countrymen.


Just representation of general nature. It is the just representation of general nature that brings immorality and enduring approbation to literary works. A faithful portrayal of the prevailing manners of combinations of fanciful inventions is insufficient to confer immortality upon a work of art. Such pieces can only evoke pleasure or wonder which his soon exhausted. It is only truth that can afford a consistent place for the mind to rest upon. Shakespeare is, more than any one else, a poet of nature. Through his works he reflects life. Shakespeare’s characters do not belong to the society of a particular place or time; they are universal, representing every man. They are the genuine progeny of common humanity such as will always remain in this world and whom our eyes will always continue to .meet. What motivates his characters to speak and act are those general principles and emotions which stir all hearts; whereas in the works of other poets a character is often an individual, in Shakespeare it is commonly a species. The wide expanse of Shakespeare’s design is the main source of the wealth of instruction that his plays convey and owing to this fact they are filled with practical axioms and domestic wisdom. Critics used to say that even verse of Euripides is essentially a percept in itself and it may be said of Shakespeare’s plays that a whole pantheon of civil and economic prudence may be collected from them. Still it is not in the grandeur of particular passages but in the total progress of the fable and the tenor of the dialogue that Shakespeare’s spontaneity is unfolded. To reveal his genius through singled out passages is like describing the endurance and beauty of a house by showing a brick.

In order to know how and why Shakespeare excels other writers in depicting the sentiments that are true to life, we have to compare him with other renowned authors and their practices. A patient and laborious perusal of his plays does not disqualify the reader for the feasible world, whereas this may be the case of almost every other dramatist. In the dramas of these writers we meet characters who are never seeing the human world, their characters converse in a language which was never heard before; the topics upon which they speak are such as are not of any consequence in real life. In Shakespeare the dialogue is not accidental, it is occasioned by the incident which products it. It is so realistic and lucid that one does not come to think of it as belonging to a fanciful fiction. It seems rather than the dialogue has been gleaned out of common conversation through a wise selection.

Theme of love not over-emphasized. In a majority of the dramas of other dramatists love is the universal agent that causes all good and evil and hastens or retards every action. In their fables we meet stock characters such as a lover, a lady and a rival. These are involved in contrary obligations and haunted with violent but inconsistent desires. They are made to speak out in hyperbolic or exaggerated joy and outrageous sorrow. Actually, by doing so, these dramatists are violating probability and misrepresenting life. They deprave the language too. Love is not the only passion, it is just one among the many. Shakespeare never assigns any excessive role to this passion in his plays, for he catches his clues from the world of day to day life and exhibits in his plays what he finds in life. He knew that any passion would cause happiness or disaster depending on its being moderated or left uncontrolled.

Shakespeare’s methods of characterization; individualized but universal. Shakespeare’s characters are universally delineated but it is easy to distinguish one from another. Most of the speeches are so apt that they cannot be transplanted from the character to whom Shakespeare has given it. Shakespeare’s characters are not exaggerated. He does not give us purely virtuous or utterly depraved characters. We may even say he has no heroes as such in his play; on the contrary it is the common humanity that he depicts. The characters act and speak in a way which appears to the reader to be what he himself would have done in a similar situation. Even when the plot requires a supernatural agency, the tone of the dialogues of various characters are life-like and realistic, other writers draw the most natural passions and most common incidents in a way which makes them unrecognizable. Shakespeare “approximates the remote and familiarizes the wonderful’. Even when he describes an impossible incident, he makes it seem probable; we feel it would have been just the way in which Shakespeare has described it if it took place. He presents human nature not merely as it reacts to the common situations of real life but also as it may act in extraordinary situations.

Reflection of life. Other dramatists gain attention only by presenting fabulous, exaggerated characters which confuse our imagination, but those feverish experiences can be cured by reading Shakespeare’s- plays where we meet human sentiments in human language. His plays are informative and instructive, no matter who the reader is. A confessor as well as a sagacious hermit can draw lessons of practical wisdom from them.

Objection of some critics answered. Shakespeare’s emphasis on general human nature has invited censure and hostility from some critics. Dennis and Rymer complain that Shakespeare’s Romans are not sufficiently Roman. Voltaire’s protest is that his kings are not kingly in the strict sense; that one of them, Claudius in Hamlet, is depicted as a drunkard. In reality Shakespeare assigns nature a prominent role and gives less room to accidental features. lie is careful of preserving adventitious distinctions. His story or plot may demand Romans or kings but what Shakespeare thinks about is the human element in them. Romans and kings are essentially human beings, what befalls all human beings may befall them too. A usurper and murderer like Claudius can certainly be a lover of wine; buffoon may well be picked from among Roman senators. l’lie objections of the critics on this issue merely proves their petty mindedness.

Mixture of tragic and comic elements defended. Another allegation levelled against Shakespeare is that he was careless enough to mix tragedy and comedy in the same- play. Johnson take this point for a detailed consideration. Johnson agrees that in the strictest sense, Shakespeare’s plays are neither comedies or tragedies. They are compositions of a distinct kind which show the real state of nature. Life is an ebb and flow of sorrow and happiness, ,‘d and ill in various permutations and combinations. Hence a portrait of life should consist of both; such an intermingled expression life is unexceptionable ; the loss of one is the gain of another. In this world the treacherousness of one is sometimes beaten by the frolic of another, and at times people may contrive to help or harm others without in the least intending to do so. Ancient poets used select crimes and foolishness, vicissitudes and lighter incidents, kills of distress and joys of prosperity and modify them in several their plays. It must have been thus that tragedy comedy arose. But it comes to our particular attention that no single lurk or Roman author has attempted depicting both these aspects either in separate plays or in the same composition. Shakespeare’s genius is proved in his power to give rise to joy and sorrow through the same play. Almost all his plays have serious as well as absurd characters and thus sometimes cause seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

Nature a higher court of appeal than rules of criticism. From the point of view of the rules of dramatic writing, Shakespeare’s mingling of the tragic and the comic may be considered unfavourable but the rules are less important than the claims of realism; there is always room for appealing from criticism to nature. The aim of poetry is to please and instruct and we may justify the drama which mingles the comic and the tragic, because it achieves this aim better than pure drama; for it is closer to reality. Nor are critics justified in alleging that such mingling results in the suspension of passions and interruption in their progress so that the principle event loses the power of moving the hearts of the spectators. The mingling of tragic and comic scenes succeeds in enhancing the intensity of passions. In any case mingled drama can give greater pleasure because pleasure consists in variety.

Classification of Shakespeare’s plays artificial. Besides, any rigorous differentiation between tragedy and comedy hardly existed in the time of Shakespeare when any play which had a denouement providing happiness for its chief characters was regarded as a comedy, and any play which had a catastrophe depicting death or disaster of the chief character was labelled as a tragedy. A history play was believed to be one which depicted a series of actions in a chronological order. It was not always clearly distinguished from tragedy. In any of these modes Shakespeare can be seen to have interchanged scenes of seriousness and happiness. This soothes the mind on one hand and exalts it on the other. Shakespeare always succeeds in achieving his purpose, whether it is to gladden or to depress, to -carry on with the story without vehemence or emotion. He makes us laugh or mourn, to keep silent in quite expectation, tranquil but not indifferent. Once we come to grasp Shakespeare’s plan in a particular play much of the criticism of Rymer and Voltaire loses its validity. Hamlet opens, without any impropriety, with a dialogue between two sentinels. In Othello Iago’s shouting at Brabantio’s window in the first Act does not harm the scheme of the play, although his phraseology may be too, vulgar for, a modern spectator. There is no gross impropriety either in the character of Polonius or in the grave-diggers’ conversation.

Shakespeare’s natural affinity for comedy. Shakespeare wrote his plays in keeping with his natural disposition. He was unaware of the ‘rules’ of dramatic writing. Rymer’s argument that Shakespeare’s natural disposition lay in the direction of comedy is correct. In writing tragedy Shakespeare seems to have – toiled hard. His comic scenes, on the other hand, are spontaneous and successful. Comedy was congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes there is always something wanting but his comic scenes often surpass our expectations. His comedy pleases through the thoughts and language whereas his tragedy pleases mainly through incidents and action. His tragedy is a testimony of his skill; his comedy is the product of his instinct Though time has brought in many changes of customs and manners the force of his comic scenes has not abated. The intrigues and vexations of the characters in the comic scenes still continue to please us because of their originality or genuineness. The appeal of his comedies has stood the test of time. Shakespeare seems to have obtained his comic dialogues from the common intercourses of life, and not from the language of- ‘polite’ society or from that of the learned people who tend to depart from the established forms of speech. Shakespeare’s familiar dialogue is smooth and clear yet not wholly free of ruggedness or difficulty.



Virtue sacrificed to convenience. The excellences of Shakespeare must not blind us to the fact that his works have numerous defects too. Actually these defects are so serious that they would have sufficed to overwhelm the merit of any other writer. The first impropriety in Shakespeare is that he sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is more careful to please than to instruct. It is not incorrect to say that Shakespeare seems to write without any moral purpose. Although we can select a whole system of axioms his plays it is not – because he has paid any conscious thought to morality. These precepts seem to come from him in a casual manner. In Shakespeare’s plays there is no just distribution of evil and good. His virtuoues characters do not always show a disapproval of the wicked ones. His characters pass through right and wrong indifferently and at the end if they serve as examples, they do so by chance and not by the author’s efforts. The fact that the period in -which he lived was not too refined is not an excuse for this defect. Every writer has the duty of trying to make the world a better place to live in.

Carelessness about plot development. Shakespeare’s plots are often loosely knit and carelessly developed; in a majority of the cases, just a little more attention would have been enough to improve them. In fact in his plays there are plenty of opportunities to instruct or delight, but he makes use of those the ate easy and rejects those which demand more effort and labour. In many of his plays the later part appears to have been neglected. It seems that when he was approaching the end of his work and the reward seemed near at hand, he exerted less labour on the work in order to complete in quickly and derive the profits immediately. As a matter of fact, it is the conclusion at which he ought to have exerted his maximum labour; lack of attention has resulted in the catastrophe in several of his plays being improbably produced or imperfectly represented.   

Anachronism. Yet another fault in Shakespeare’s plays is anachronism—his violation of chronology, or his indifference to historical accuracy. Shakespeare is indifferent about the distinctions of time and place and gives to one age or nation the manners and opinions which pertain to another. This is detrimental to the effect of likelihood of the incidents. Alexander Pope opines that this defect is to be attributed not to Shakespeare himself but to those who interpolated unnecessary details of their own into his plays. But Johnson does not agree this. Shakespeare makes Hector quote Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida and mingles classical legend with Gothic mythology in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, it must be confessed that he was not the only violator of chronology; Sidney, a contemporary writer, who was also learned, in his Arcadia confounded the pastoral period with the feudal age, whereas the two ages were quite opposite to each other.  

Coarseness of dialogues. Shakespeare’s plays also have faults of dialogue and diction. The dialogues in the comedies are exposed to objection when the characters are made to engage in contests of wit and sarcasm. Many of their jests are generally indecent and gross and there is much licentiousness and indelicacy even where ladies join the conversation. Even the refined characters speak on the same level as the clowns and often all distinction between the two is lost. Whether this was the real conversation of ladies and gentlemen of his period is difficult to say. But the coarseness of this conversation in Shakespeare’s plays cannot be approved; it is the writer’s duty to make suitable selection even in the forms of gaiety.

Performance in tragedies worse when more labour is spent. In his tragedies, Shakespeare’s performance is the worse where he seems to have spent the most labour. When he works hard to be effective, the result is unimpressive, tedious and obscure,

Undue verbosity and prolixity of words. The narrative parts of Shakespeare’s plays show an undue pomp of diction and verbosity full of repetition. Instead of enlivening the narration by making it brief, Shakespeare endeavours to make it effective through dignity and splendour.

Flamboyant speeches, inflated vocabulary. The set speeches in some of his plays are dispiriting, cold and feeble. It appears that as Shakespeare’s powers were natural, he perform badly whenever he endeavours to create a particular effect deliberately. Often he seems to be involved in some unwieldy sentiment which he seems unable to express and unwilling to drop. Complexity or intricacy of language does not always accompany subtlety of thought. Quite often the quality of words does not correspond to that or the thought or image for which they were employed. Trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas are, at times, clothed in sonorous epithets and high-sounding images. He often loses the heights of poetic loftiness by the use of some idle conceit or dry equivocation. In such cases terror and pity are degraded into a sort of frigidity. Thus the intense feelings roused by him suddenly lose their intensity and
become weak.

Craze for puns word play. Lastly Shakespeare could never resist a quibble. Whatever be the occasion of the dialogue, whether the situation be amusing or tense, Shakespeare seizes the opportunity of employing a pun. Love of quibbling misleads Shakespeare just as the will-o-the wisp misleads the traveller in marshy places. A quibble is, after all, a trivial thing. But it had such a fascination for Shakespeare that he would sacrifice reason, propriety, and truth for its sake. It is to him like the golden apple for which he would always turn aside from his path; his fatal Cleopatra for which he would lose the world and be content to lose it. He was prepared to spoil his whole play for the sake of quibble.



Shakespeare’s disregard of the unites not a defect. One practice in Shakespeare’s writing of dramas, which is regarded by critics as a defect but which is not really a defect, is his neglect of the unities of time and place. It is held that these rules have been laid down by the joint authority of poets and critics and hence ought not to be violated. Johnson does not agree with this view, and defends Shakespeare. One is not required to look for the unities in the history plays, for all that. they need is consistency and spontaneity of characterization. The events in them are not subject to the writer’s control. In other plays, Shakespeare has observed the unity of action. His plays have beginning, a middle and an end as laid down by Aristotle. Here and there we may find an incident which could be easily spared, but, on the whole, there is nothing superfluous in. them. There is a logical sequence of incidents and the conclusion follows naturally. Shakespeare had no consideration for the unities of time and place. In case the issue is closely examine it will be found that unlike the unity of action, he other two unities are no essential. They have given more trouble to the dramatist than pleasure to the spectator

Unities of time and place: pros and cons. The argument given in favour of the unities of time and place is that if they are limit preserved, credibility of the play is affected. No one will believe that an action of months or years can take place within hours, that the scene can change from Greece to Rome in the span if mimic act. Our mind, it is averred, revolts against apparent falsehood, fiction loses its impact when it does not resemble reality. Johnson calls this argument stupid. It is a mistake to imagine that the change of scene from Alexandria to Rome strains credibility; to do so would imply that the spectator actually imagines himself at Alexandria in the first act while he himself is sitting at a theatre in London. On the same grounds, we can say, that no audience can actually believe in point of time that they are witnessing events that took place in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. But if the audience can believe that in the first act they are at Alexandria they can also believe that in the next act, they are in Rome, and similarly they can also believe the changes in respect of time. The spectators are fully aware, from the first act to the last, that the stage on which events are being presented is only a stage and that the players are only players. There is nothing wrong in representing the stage as Athens in the first act of the drama and as Sicily in the second act when the stage is only a stage, and neither Athens nor Sicily. If we accept that the unity of place is dispensable, it is easy to accept that an extension of time is also valid. Drama presents successive imitations of sequential actions, and there is no reason why lapse of time is not to be allowed between cause and effect, or in other words, between one act and the next. The belief of the audience is not adversely affected by lapse of time between acts.

The credulity of the audience: dramatic illusion. The fact that the spectators do not believe that they are witnessing actual events taking place at actual places does not mean hat they are totally incredulous of the various happenings on the stage. They take the dramatic performance not as reality itself but as a just representation of reality. The evils and vices that they see on the stage are not believed by the s spectators to be real evils, but they are accepted as evils to which they themselves may be exposed. If there is any illusion, it lies in the fact that the spectator fancies himself unhappy for a moment when he sees the actor represent unhappiness; it is not that the spectator believes the actor to be unhappy. The audience knows that they are witnessing only a fiction, and it is this consciousness of fiction that is a source of the pleasure of tragedy. If the audience took the murders in tragedy for reality it may no longer amuse them.

The stage brings life’s realities to mind. Events enacted on the stage cause pain or pleasure to the spectators not because they are seen as realities, but because they bring realities to the mind. For instance, when we view fountains or trees painted on a canvas, we do not, in fact, feel their refreshing coolness and comfort, but we do image the freshness we many derive if we were actually amidst the trees and fountains. We are agitated when we read Henry the Fifth but never do we take the pages of this play to be the battlefield of Again court. Witnessing a dramatic performance on the stage is similar to reading a book.

Comedy mere powerful on stage, and tragedy more effective when read. Comedy is really more effective when seen on the stage, but tragedy is often more stirring when read. Comic action enhances the pleasure conveyed by words in a comedy, but neither voice nor gesture can add dignity or force to the soliloquy of a tragic character like Cato.

About the spectators, acceptance of scenic change and the passage of time. A reader acknowledges the changes of location and the lapse of time in a narrative poem; similarly, one accepts these anomalies in the case of a drama enacted on the stage or read at home. It is a matter of indifference if the unities of time and place are disregarded by a dramatist and if a longer or shorter time is shown to have lapsed between the acts or if changes of scenes are implied.

Possible ignorance of Shakespeare in regard to the rules of he unities. It is not known whether Shakespeare was aware of the rules regarding the unities and deliberately rejected them or if he violated the rules in sheer ignorance of their existence. However, there must have been scholars enough to advise him on this matter when he gained repute. It is possible that he neglected the rules first in ignorance but later on deliberately. Either way, the neglect is not lamentable. Such violations of rules are in keeping with the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare, and only petty-minded critics would disapprove of such deviations from rules in his case.

Unities of time and place not essential. To keep the unities of time and place is not necessary although ‘authority’ is on the side of rules. True, the unities of time and place at time add much to the totality of the play; but there is no harm in sacrificing them for the sake of the nobler beauties of variety and instruction. A play that scrupulously observes the rules may be regarded as the product of superfluous and showy art. The greatest attributes of a play are to copy nature and instruct life. If a dramatist complies in this matter and can yet observe all the unities, he deserves honour for his accomplishment. Some of the critics who advocate these unities are men of renown and worthy of respect. But perhaps, says Johnson, the principles governing drama are in need of a fresh examination.


Shakespeare’s aim to please his audience. Shakespeare’s ignorance of rules, if it was ignorance at all, would require to be excused in view of the circumstances of the dramatist’s life. It is necessary to keep in mind the age in which Shakespeare lived, before we evaluate his achievement as a dramatist. It is quite useful to determine how much of a man’s performance is on account in his genuine powers and how much is due to casual and accessory assistance coming from circumstances. Like individuals, nationalism have their period of infancy. In the age of Shakespeare the English nation was still struggling to emerge from barbarity. French and Italian languages were affected by the English and in most of the schools Greek was being taught to children. But this awakening was as yet confined to professional scholars or to the aristocratic circles. The general public was still largely unenlightened. At the beginning of intellectual development, people are generally attracted by what is crude, fabulous, remote from reality; so, at this time, most of the English people were excited by imaginary fairy tales of giants, dragons and other supernatural wonders. One of their favourite readings was Sir Thomas Malory’s Mort d’ Arthur. People looking for delectable wonders of fiction cannot appreciate renderings that are characterized by truth and realism. It was, therefore, unavoidable for Shakespeare who never invented his won plots for his dramas, to borrow them for the most popular of the existing novels. His spectators could not have V made out the intricacies of his plays, if they had not known -the stories of- his plays beforehand. His plots, whether – imaginary or historical, are full of incidents. The spectators’ attention was more easily drawn by thrilling incidents than by sentiment or philosophical disputes. The people had always a penchant for the marvellous. Shakespeare selected his plots so as to excite the curiosity of his readers by representing such events as they liked the most. The people in the period of Shakespeare were less interested in the poetic beauty or the narrative elegance of a play. Shakespeare derived the material for his history plays from English chronicles and ballads. His Roman plays are based on Lord North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. His plots have plenty of incident in them because this helped him to keep the attention of his spectators who liked plenty of suspense and thrill in his plays. For the same reason we have much show and pomp in his plays.

Addison’s Cato and Shakespeare’s Othello. Voltaire has – expressed surprise that the English nation, which had witnessed a perfect tragedy like Cato could endure the barbarity in the plays of Shakespeare. Johnson has his explanation for this. He says that Addison speaks the language of poets, but Shakespeare speaks the language of men. There- are innumerable beauties in Cato which make us love its author, but there is nothing in it which acquaints us with human sentiments or actions. It affords us a splendid exhibition of artificial manner and contains just and noble sentiments expressed in a language which is easy, harmonious and elevated. However, its hopes and fears do not move us. Even when we speak of Cab, we really mean only Addison, for the drama refers only to the poet himself, not to humanity. Shakespeare is an irregular writer and irregular writing has its own beauties. it is beautiful like a natural forest whereas regular writing is like a cultivated garden. Other poets’ work are like a cabinet disclosing beautiful curiosities; the plays of Shakespeare are like mines containing inexhaustible treasures of gold and diamonds, even though, like the wealth of mines’ they are often mixed with impurities, crudities and coarseness.

Johnson’s opinion of Shakespeare’s learning. Were the talents of Shakespeare chiefly those bestowed by nature or human effort or did learning too have some part to play? There – is a traditional belief that Shakespeare was devoid of scholastic learning, lacked regular education, and knew little of Greek or Latin. On the other hand, there are also people who have discovered signs of deep learning in Shakespeare. There are passages in Shakespeare which have been cited as echoes of ancient writers. In Richard III, there is a sentence, “Go – before, I’ll follow” which is seen as a translation of a phrase in Terence; Caliban’s remark “I cried to sleep again” in The Tempest is considered as an echo of one of Anacreon’s remarks. But to claim that Shakespeare had much classical learning on this basis is by no means valid, because these examples could well have come from those classical books which had been translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. In fact the resemblances and similarities are so few that the only conclusion we can reach is that Shakespeare does not seem to have know any classical work which had not by then been translate into England.

The part played by Shakespeare’s genuine power in his dramatic achievement. It is uncertain whether Shakespeare knew the modern languages such as French and Italian, though there are French words in his plays, this by itself does not prove anything conclusive. It is also possible that the French scenes in his plays are written by some other hand. It is probable that Shakespeare knew enough Latin to be acquainted with its constructions but that he was not able to read Roman writers with ease in almost indisputable. It is beyond dispute that a good deal of knowledge covering wide areas of life is scattered over the pages of the plays of Shakespeare. He could have acquired this knowledge from books, or from life itself at first hand; the latter indeed seems to be a stronger possibility. In addition to this, Shakespeare seems to have been a voracious reader of original and translated works in English. However, the greater part of his dramatic excellence is attributable to his own genius. When he started his career the English stage was in a crude state. There were no examples of critical works on drama from which he could learn much. Neither character nor dialogue were understood at the time, but it is to Shakespeare’s credit that both character and dialogue, as we understand them, were introduced on the English stage and exploited to good effect in some of his scenes.

The course of Shakespeare’s dramatic development is hard to trace because the chronological order in which he produced his plays is not yet convincingly established. Rowe’s opinion that Shakespeare’s vigorous works were done by him in his youth because he worked on native genius alone is not quite acceptable. Natural genius cannot be an adequate substitute for actual experience of life and the world. However gifted by nature a man may be, he can always incorporate in his works what he has learned from life. Shakespeare too must have widened his knowledge and outlook gradually. Like everybody else, he must have grown wiser as he grew older. Therefore he could not have written his best plays when he was still young and comparatively inexperienced in the ways of life. He must surely have looked upon the world and mankind with greater curiosity, clarity and attentiveness with the passing of years; indeed, his plays reveal this. Shakespeare’s ingenuity is all the more striking in his portrayal of characters, considering that no writer in English except Chaucer before him had portrayed human character in such a realistic manner. Shakespeare having few literary models before him, had to create both matter and form.

Shakespeare’s deep knowledge of humanity despite his handicaps. The Science of psychology had not yet, in Shakespeare’s time, started its probes into the working of the human mind. Therefore, no writer could possibly have acquired any knowledge or information about human nature from books. Only a keen first-hand observation of life in its numerous manifestations could help any one form comprehensive ideas about human nature and human character. Shakespeare had none of the natural advantages of birth that Robert Boyle had for satisfying his eagerness to know about human behaviour. Shakespeare moved to London as a needy adventurer and earned living for a short period while by struggling hard at low employment. The poor circumstances of his life, however, did not adversely ‘affect his intellect and genius. Despite these drawbacks, he was able, to glean an exact knowledge of the ways and modes of life and, the many kinds of temperament. This knowledge enabled him to, portray the variety and diversity of characters and to reveal the subtlest of distinctions between man and man. What is more, he had none to emulate in this regard though he himself was imitated by all succeeding writers. More principles of theoretical knowledge and more rules of practical prudence are to be found in his drama than, in the works of all his successors.

Shakespeare’s originality : his valuable contribution to English drama. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the inanimate world was as wide as his knowledge of the animate world of human beings. Whatever his subject—life or nature—he presents it as if he had seen it with his own eyes; the images he describes are such as his own perceptions received directly. Nothing in his work is second-hand; nothing is derived or copied out from others because no writer of such ability existed before him. Apart from Homer, indeed, there is no other writer like Shakespeare, who has so much invention to his glory or who brought so much novelty to his age or nation. He was the architect of English Drama, its form, characters, language and other dramatic aspects. Dennis gives Shakespeare the credit of. being the originator of English tragical harmony, that is, the harmony, of blank verse, diversified by disyllable and trisyllable terminations. This statement, however, is not strictly true to the fact as Johnson says because the disyllabic termination is to be found in Kid’s Spanish Tragedy which does not owe anything to Shakespeare. But to Shakespeare goes the credit of being the first, with the exception Of Spenser, to discover the degree of smoothness and harmony which the English language was capable of attaining. He has blended in his plays the delicacy of Rowe, without Rowe’s effeminacy. His dialogues are vigorous and pointed but it is when he tries o soothe by softness that he cries out his purpose better.

Praise sometimes undeserved. However all the praise we confer upon Shakespeare is not wholly due to his own accomplishment; there is much that has been unduly bestowed upon him by custom and veneration which look on his merits and shut its eyes to his defects. John Upton in his Critical Observations on Shakespeare has unfortunately lavished praise on certain features of Shakespeare’s plays which merely reveals that Shakespeare has corrupted language by every mode of deprivation. In Shakespearean drama there are excellent scenes, but there is not a single play, which if it were performed now as the work of a present writer in Johnson’s age) would be heard till the end. This is because Shakespeare wrote his plays mainly to please. the spectators of his own age and he ceased writing the moment he knew that his audience was satisfied. In other words, he did not endeavour to rise much higher than the standards of his own age.

Shakespeare’s indifference to fame. In writing his dramas, it seems Shakespeare had no aim of achieving fame or future renown. Undoubtedly, his object was immediate popularity and profit. His expectations were fulfilled when he found his plays enacted on the stage. He looked for nothing further. That is why we find him repeating the same jests and jokes in several plays or entwining different plots by the same kind of complication; this repetition could, however, be excused on the ground that he was not the only one to adopt the procedure. This very indifference towards fame led him not to bother about making a collection of his plays or keeping them safe from harmful additions and alternations with which other corrupted them. Most of his plays were not published until about seven years after his death. As for the few which appeared in his life time, they went without the benefit of his scrutiny .


Shakespeare’s obscurities. Most of the publishers of Shakespeare have been rather careless in their work. They have not merely corrupted some passages irrevocably but have brought many more under suspicion. In some instances the reading may be genuine and it is the obscurity resulting from the obsolete phraseology or the dramatist’s own carelessness or conceits that makes us doubt the passage. Some editors have been tempted by the ease of altering as compared to the effort of explanation. Had Shakespeare himself taken care to get the works published, scholars could afterwards have worked to disentangle the obscurities; but in the absence of an authentic edition, alterations and omissions are made on pure conjecture. Many causes have combined to make some passages in his dramas difficult or obscure. To begin with, his style is ungrammatical and to a certain extent involved and obscure. Those who wrote down the parts for the players must have made some mistakes, since they did not understand what they were copying out. Those who produced further copies might have been still more incompetent and might have continued with the previous errors as well as multiplied them with their own additions. The text was sometimes mutilated by the actors who wanted to shorten the speeches. In addition to all these there must have been printing mistakes.

Rowe’s Edition. Shakespeare’s plays remained in this condition for quite some time because the art of editing literary works had not yet been applied to modem languages. It was Rowe who brought out the first, carefully prepared edition of the plays. Rowe’s objective was not to correct or explain but to publish the works with the addition of a biographical sketch and a re-commendatory Preface. It would not be right to blame Rowe for what he did not even attempt to carry out. Rowe’s aim was not primarily to amend Shakespeare’s text or to explain its difficulties and obscurities. The errors he corrected were those which had obviously taken place at the hands of the printers. But whatever emendations he made have been adopted by his successors without any acknowledgement. As in the case of other editors, Johnson has presented Rowe’s Preface as well as the biographical sketch.

Pope’s Edition. Alexander Pope made it explicit to his readers who seemed quite satisfied with Rowes edition that the text they had was thoroughly corrupt and gave them cause for hoping that in many cases it was possible to undo the mischief or obscurity. For the first time, Pope collated old copies, and was, in this manner, able to restore many correct readings. In fact, he rejected anything that he disliked, not carrying to assess if Shakespeare had indeed written like that or not. Thus he deleted many passages. Warburton wrongly credits Pope with having distinguished the genuine plays from the corrupt or spurious ones because this had already been accomplished by the editors of the First Folio. Alexander Pope does not appear to have considered the work of editing as quite worthy of his abilities. He complains at one place about “the dull duty of an editor’. This implies that Pope understood only half of the work which an editor has to do. The work of an editor is extremely taxing and responsible. Out of as many readings as possible, the editor has to select that which best accords with the state, opinions, and modes of language prevailing in;every age, and with his author’s particular way off thinking and mode of expression. Furthermore, conjectural emendation imposes great demands upon the editor. Pope himself was not quite satisfied with his •work. Johnson, however, is full of admiration for Pope’s Preface and notes and has retained them in his own edition.

Theobald’s Edition. Pope was followed by Theobald in editing Shakespeare’s plays. Theobald was a man of narrow comprehension and little talent. He hardly possessed any inherent genius nor had he the acquired wisdom of learning. However, he had a tremendous zeal of minor accuracies and he put this fully into practice. He rectified many errors by collating older copies. He was not aware of the fact that the First Folio is the best and the later ones differ from it mostly in printing mistakes. In the beginning Johnson himself collated all the folios but later came to know that collating only the first was quite enough. Johnson has retained most of the notes which Theobald kept in his second edition. While accepting Theobald’s emendations, Johnson has uniformly omitted the editor’s immodest self-praise. Theobald was more anxious to denigrate Pope than to improve Shakespeare. (paragraphs 109-112)

Hanmer’s Edition. Sir Hanmer was the next editor. Besides being a man of wide reading and learning, he had the necessary intuition to discover the writer’s intention. He seldom ignores what he does not understand, without an attempt to find or to make a meaning. He is anxious to reduce to grammar what he is not sure that Shakespeare intended to be grammatical. Shakespeare was more attentive to the chain of ideas than of words. It was enough for him if his language could communicate the meaning he intended to convey to the audience. Besides, he wrote for the stage, not for study or research. Homer has also attempted to reform Shakespeare’s meter in many passages, thus continuing the labour of certain other radiators and he has been quite successful in his efforts. But in incorporating his emendations, he makes no mention of the varying copies, and has, in fact, accepted the emendations of his predecessors without acknowledging the debt. He was also in error to have supposed that whatever Pope and Theobald had done was right Johnson admits that he has adopted all of Hanmer’s notes which were written with care and diligence.

Warburton’s Edition. The last significant edition before Johnson’s own was that of Warburton. Johnson does not think it apt to speak ill of Warburton, because he respects him for both his piety and his learning. However, since Warburton often took liberty with other editors, he should not be annoyed to find that now Johnson had taken liberty with him. Warburton was not properly equipped for the work of textual annotation. The most striking shortcoming in his edition is that he readily accepts the first thought that came to him, without proper judgement or investigation. He is over-confident of his own competence and this lead him to hasty conclusion. Some of his interpretations are perverse; some of his surmises are unconvincing. At times he looks for more significance and implications in a passage than the author seems to have assigned to it. Where everybody can sense the meaning clearly, Warburton has invented imaginary difficulties and absurdities. However, some of his emendations are apt, and his notes also explain some of the intricate passages in an intelligent manner. Johnson has incorporated a selection from Warburton’s notes in his own edition.

Critics prone to fault finding. Dr. Johnson remember the inevitable as well as pitiful fact that critics tend to waste a good deal of their labour in condemning and contradicting conclusions, judgements and interpretations of those who had written before them. Every commentator likes to point out the shortcomings and weaknesses in what the other commentators have said about an author. The opinions and arguments dominating one age as truths or realities and contradicted and rejected in another age and are accepted again at a still later date. All those who try to contribute to human knowledge are subject to such changes of outlook. Warburton’s notes invited many protests. The chief assailants on Warburton have shown sufficient acuteness in their criticism. But even they are over-confident in their own abilities.

Upton and Grey. John Upton had published his Critical Observations on Shakespeare. Many of his observations are curious and useful but his suggested emendations are not skillful. Zachary Grey’s Critical, Historical and Explanatory Notes on Shakespeare is a piece having some practical observations, but it is neither judicial nor emendatory. Grey has the virtue of modesty which should be an example for others.

Dr. Johnson’s debt to others. Johnson goes on to express the view that none of his predecessors has left Shakespeare without improvement. He also admits his sense of obligation to all of them for information and helpful hints. He has acknowledged this obligation in each case and where he leaves it unsaid, it is in the belief that what he is writing is his own. Johnson also says that if in any case he has expressed an opinion or view which, without his knowledge, had already been expressed by some other commentator, he is ready to impart the honour to the first claimant.

The envy and intolerance or commentators. In dealing with all other commentators and critics, Johnson admits to have shown a frankness which they themselves have not shown tç one another. Why these commentators should feel bitter against one another is not easy to understand. The various, readings of copies and manifold interpretations of a passage should exercise the wit and judgement of commentators but should not provoke their passion. But it seems that petty things make mean men proud and any opposition makes the proud angry. In the commentaries on Shakespeare there is often an unbecoming element of hatred and abuse for fellow commentators. One reason for this may be that they have little else to say and they wish to lend weight to their matter by pouring out invective. They make vehemence and rage compensate for the lack of substance and dignity in their essays.


Johnson’s methods. Johnson has prepared three kinds of notes for his edition of Shakespeare. The first is illustrative by which he means explanation of difficulties; the second is judicial which means pointing out the faults and beauties; and the third is emendatory by which he means the connection of corrupt lines and passages. A few of these notes, he says, are borrowed from others because he accepts them as accurate.

Unravelling the obscurities. After all the labour of various editors, Dr. Johnson discovered passages in Shakespeare’s plays likely to hinder the majority of readers from understanding the plays. He has attempted to explain such passages but he has taken care to see that his explanations are not unnecessarily elaborate or excessively economical. He believes that he has made Shakespeare’s implications clear to man who had earlier been frightened to read Shakespeare.

Johnson does not claim perfection. A complete or perfect explanation of an author like Shakespeare, who abounds in casual allusions, and light hints, is not possible for any single scholiast to achieve. Shakespeare’s dramas include references to persons, manners, and practices familiar to all in his own period but entirely forgotten afterwards. It is the duty of an editor to illuminate’ as many of these matters as he can explore. Dr. Johnson says that he has allowed some passage to remain unexplained, for he himself did not understand them. These may be explained by some future editor, Johnson has also explained some passages which were ‘neglected or misunderstood previously. While in same cases Johnson had supplied only brief remarks or instructions, at some other places he has given more laborious comments. To an editor there is nothing trivial if it obscures his author’s work.

 The readers left to make their own judgement of Shakespeare. Dr. Johnson says that he has not been very laborious about pointing but poetical beauties and defects. In the case of some plays he has given a few judicial observations and in the case of others more such observations, depending, not on the good aspects of the plays, but on his own, caprice. Though every reader ought to form his own judgements, some initiation is essential. In gaining any kind of skill some instruction is necessary. Dr. Johnson has, accordingly, provided the necessary guidance, leaving, the reader to make his own discoveries and from his won critical assessment of Shakespeare’s plays.

Adulation and censure. At the end of most plays, Dr. Johnson says, he has. added brief evaluation consisting a general praise of excellence or condemnation of faults. As his analysis of the plays has not been minute, the plays which he has condemned may contain much that is laudable and those which he has praised may contain much deserving to be condemned.

Collection and conjecture. Many editors have been engaged in the emendation of corrupted passages and lines, of Shakespeare. It was the violent and popular controversy between Pope and Theobald that first drew the attention of the public to this issue. The restoration of passages that are believed to have suffered deprivation could attempted only by collation of copies or’ by power of conjecture. Collating is. easy, whereas, conjecture is dangerous and difficult. As the greater part of the plays were available only in one copy, the risk of conjecture was unavoidable. Dr. Johnson informs us that he has made use of some of the emendations of every editor; he has rejected some without mentioning them; some he has mentioned in the notes without comment of approval disapproval; and some he has included along with his adverse comments.

 Neither presumptuous nor timid. Johnson has collated such copies as he could obtain and wished that he could have obtained more. His analysis of the old copies showed him that the later publishers permitted many passages to stand without authority, and were content with Rowe’s regulation of the text even where it was either arbitrary or wrong. Johnson removed such corruption’s because the history of the English language and the true force of words could be safeguarded only by preserving the text of authors from corruption. Other editors had improved upon the cadence and metre; but Dr. Johnson did not exercise much effort on such matters. The emendations which were supplied by a comparison of copies have been incorporated by Dr. Johnson in the text, sometimes with an explanation of the causes for change. He held that the reading of old books ought not to be disturbed just for the sake of elegance, lucidity or improvement of the sense. Those who had the copy before them were more likely to be right in their version than those who depended upon speculations later. But mistakes either through ignorance or through negligence have occurred. Hence criticism must play its part, although Dr. Johnson in attempting such criticism has followed the middle path “between presumption and timidity.” His first endeavour, however, was always to examine the old text from every perspective and to make changes only when an exhaustive scrutiny justified it. As a result, he has rescued’ many lines and scenes from corrections which were not required but that had been made by over-enthusiastic editors.

Division of plays into five acts. Dr. Johnson says that he has fallowed the customary division of the plays into acts, though he thinks that this distribution has little sanction behind it. The settled convention of the theatre demanded four intervals in a play, but few, if any, of Shakespeare’s plays could be properly distributed in that manner. A act is meant to represent that length of a drama as passes without any intervention of time ‘or alteration of place. So, a pause means the beginning of a new act. The limit of five acts was therefore arbitrary. Shakespeare might have been aware of this fact and may have been why he wrote his plays in an unbroken continuity. The right thing to do in this context is to perform the plays with short pauses occurring as many times as the scene is changed or as often as any considerable time is supposed to elapse.

An editor takes everything seriously. Dr. Johnson has not insisted on restoring Shakespeare’s original punctuation. Nor has he been particular about the particles and other words of trivial effect which he has often included or omitted without notice. Readers who blame editors for applying too much effort on mere trifles do not understand what the art of editing implies.

Johnson avoids conjectural emendations. Dr. Johnson for bears from inserting his won readings in the text because he does not think it sensible to rely on conjecture. Wherever he has been led by conjecture, the effect may have been freakish but harmless, in so far as the text on the whole has remained uninjured. Nor has he made any pompous display of his own readings. The notes written by him, for example, could have been much longer, for the skill of writing notes is not a difficult one. But Johnson believes that there is no need to change a text if the proposed improvement or change may require lengthy justification. His analysis of the work of his predecessors had unfolded many critical misadventures and errors. He had found that the editors of Shakespeare had struggled with their own sophistry and been confused by their own learning. This makes him feel that his own emendations and notes might be held erroneous or flippant by posterity. Since there is no system in’ his art, a conjectural critic will often be mistaken. He may fail, and fail ridiculously because of even a slight misunderstanding of a phrase or an oblique view of a passage. Thus the pleasure of conjecture hides a real danger.

Conjectural criticism ; Its merits and defects. In spite of defects, conjectural criticism has been of much use in the world of learning. Such criticism has left a deep impact on powerful minds, from Joannes Andreas to Richard Bentley. The editors of classical authors, however, get much assistance which an editor of Shakespeare does not get. The former have to deal with grammatical and settled languages whose construction contributes so much to clarity that there are fewer unintelligible passages in Homer than in Chaucer. Furthermore, there are generally more than one manuscript in the case of classical authors, and those manuscripts do not often make the same mistakes. Even then Scaliger confesses that his emendations of ancient authors gave him little satisfaction. He says; Our conjectures make us look silly, •we are shamed of them after we have come upon better manuscripts.” Lipsius laments that critics bring in faults by trying to remove them. And, in fact, where mere conjecture is to be used, the emendations of Scaliger and Lipsius with regard to ancient classical authors are often as vague and disputable as those of Theobald or Dr. Johnson himself in respect of. Shakespeare,

Dr. Johnson’s achievements and failures. Dr. Johnson maintains that he, in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays, may not have fulfilled expectations, either of the ignorant or of the learned. Nor is he himself satisfied with the work although he has performed it in all seriousness. He has endeavoured to restore all the passages in Shakespeare’s plays that seemed to be corrupt and he has attempted to explain every single passage that seemed to him obscure. In case of a few passages he has failed, like many others before him, and he confesses his incompetence. He acknowledges the fact wherever he himself cannot understand a passage. Wherever a passage does not call for comment, he has left it alone and were others have commented enough he has forborne from adding anything further.

How to read Shakespeare. Notes are necessary evils. However, one who wants to appreciate Shakespeare should first read his plays from beginning to end without any help from the annotators or commentators. Let him go through clear and obscure passages, the genuine, the corrupted or the interpolated ones. Only on having done so and enjoyed the pleasures of novelty, should he turn to the commentators and try to get exact meanings. A reader who concentrates on particular passages in the very first instance may not feel the full impact of the play. Parts of a work should not be analysed until the whole has been surveyed. Analysis of parts may reveal the smaller niceties, but the process will obscure the beauty of the whole.

Dryden’s contribution. The numerous editions of Shakespeare by countless editors have not enhanced the pleasure that Shakespeare gives to his readers. Even before these, and when the text of plays were corrupt, and before editors proclaimed their discoveries, Dryden had paid a valuable tribute to the excellence of Shakespeare. For Dryden, Shakespeare was naturally learned and did not require the spectacles of books to study nature. Many passages in Shakespeare are flat and insipid. Most of his comic wit is vulgar and much of his serious writing is bombastic. But the real test, where Shakespeare is proved to be great, is when he is presented with some great occasion. Dry den holds that whenever Shakespeare had a fit subject for his genius, he could rise to a level higher than other poets.  Shakespeare himself is responsible for his obscurity. It is regrettable, says Dr. Johnson, that a writer like Shakespeare should need a commentary and that his language should become obsolete or his sentiments obscure. But chance and time have brought about such a situation. Shakespeare has suffered much through his own indifference to fame or perhaps due to that superiority of mind which estimated its productions as unworthy to be preserved.

Modesty of Dr. Johnson. The Preface to Shakespeare is brought to a conclusion with the remark that Dr. Johnson is leaving his work for the judgement of the public. He acknowledges the encouragement he has got in the execution of his work and he hopes that his work will be satisfactory to the extent to which he has been encouraged. By its very nature a work of this kind falls short of all-round perfection, and he would not feel disappointed if his attempts are found to be unworthy by those qualified and competent to judge.

Select University Questions With Answers

Q. 1. Write a note on Johnson as an editor of Shakespeare.

Ans. Introduction. Bringing to his task as editor his own already vast prestige as lexicographer, poet and moral essayist, Johnson was in a position to edit the plays of Shakespeare in a scholarly as well as critically sound manner. Johnson with his edition initiated that phase of English literary history which is known today as “The Genesis of Shakespeare Idolatory” or “The Grass Roots of Bardolatry”, as some critics have pointed out.

Johnson’s concept of the role of an editor. Certain generally received opinions concerning Johnson’s achievement as Shakespeare editor would appear to be substantially correct. Johnson entertained sound views about the philological part of an editor’s duties. His performance in this respect was, by modern standards, uneven, capricious, often notably deficient. But by any standards existing in his own day, his performance was extraordinary. Johnson did only a sketchy job in the department of textual collation. At the same time, he restored many readings of the First Folio and was the first editor to realize its sole authority among the Folios. In the department of explication, or as it was then called, ‘elucidation,’ of the difficult passages in Shakespeare, Johnson relied for the most part on his own sturdy good sense and general awareness of human nature, but now and then he made good use of the historical perspective which he had learned in his ‘Dictionary’ labours and in which he had great confidence and took a justifiable pride. He wrote a number of notes which were repeated by Shakespearean editors until at least as recently as the Furriness ‘Variorum volumes and which perhaps still deserve to be repeated more often than they are. Perhaps the largest philological virtue which Johnson displayed was that of restraint in the department of emendation, and humility in the face of Ills author’s text. He was much less classically squeamish, he was less confident in or hopeful for, any kind if traditional purity, than most of his predecessors.

Johnson’s Critical estimate of Shakespeare. Let us now turn to Johnson’s critical estimate of Shakespeare, and especially to the Preface . Johnson rises to his occasion and succeeds not only in formulating a general praise, or encomium but in lifting this a few degrees above the level of the already eloquent tradition. Dryden in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy had demonstrated the idiom in prose. “Shakespeare, wrote Dryden, “was the man, who of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them. not laboriously but luckily. When he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too “ Johnson quotes this passages at the end of his Preface to Shakespeare. He has opened and conducted the discussion in his Preface , however not precisely in the manner of Dryden, but at his own pace, with his own series of majestic comments

“The poet of whose works I have undertaken the revision may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration”, “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.

“Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature, the poet that holds up to his readers faithful mirror of manners and of life.”

“In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species”.

Johnson a dissenter against the rules. Johnson’s critical estimate of Shakespeare is marked by views which express outright dissent with the neoclassical rules and proprieties. These views had for long inhibited and continued to inhibit, the full appreciation of Shakespeare, and thwarted the free response to his mystery. True, Johnson too makes comments on Shakespeare’s defects which are not seen as defects by the modern critic : Shakespeare “makes no just distribution of good or evil”; “He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting”, he “is guilty of anachronisms:”, his jests are commonly’ gross” and his “pleasantry licentious” , in his tragedies he runs into “tumor, meanness, tediousness and obscurity”, and so on. However, Johnson’s response to Shakespeare, in general, is not like that of the pedant in Hierocles who carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen of a house. Not “the splendor of particular passages” but the whole “progress of the fable and the tenor of the dialogue” was what he found irresistible in Shakespeare. Just how this division in Johnson’s appreciation was possible—how he got to the heart of Shakespeare—except through the aesthetic surface, the particulars of actions and words, may be difficult to understand. Doubtless we confront here an unresolved tension between the neo-classical conscience and the liberating impulse.

Johnson’s defence of Shakespeare’s irregularities, his Gothicism, takes place in respect to broad principles of dramatic structure—principles which neoclassic critics (Rymer to name one) had been just as much inclined to censure as the licentious diction. What is even more to the point, Johnson deserves credit for meeting this issue in a characteristic display of two of his most valuable powers. For one thing, he goes immediately to the heart of the matter, putting his finger on the false premise by which the exaggerated doctrine of the unities had so long been sustained—namely, the assumption that the aim of drama is literal verisimilitude,” the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. ‘For another thing, even if he is not, as some critics argue, raising any new points in defence of Shakespeare, he expresses his points with noteworthy energy and gusto. How succinctly but with telling effects he makes the observation:

“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 that players are only players.”

Conclusion. One difference between Johnson and most other literary critics, especially those of his own time, is the fullness and depth with which he responds to work of literature and to its author. Johnson’s personality can be seen in his Shakespeare editing in a number of ways — his numerous retorts and rebukes, his tart dismissals of the previous editors, his solemn astonishment at their vanity and their bungling. Johnson is a man of powerful and spontaneous responses to Shakespearean drama, but his emotional responses are more like the standard ones of his time; they are fairly close to the theoretical neoclassic norm, to the ideal of rational orderliness, the contemporary spirit of optimism and benevolism. In his Preface we have a response to Shakespeare in the most direct, the least theoretical fashion. Although Johnson has for long enjoyed a reputation as the last of the neoclassic giants, there is a trend among learned readers of Johnson today to see his classicism as very much altered from the Augustan norm. In his confrontation of Shakespeare, especially, we discover Johnson to be far from the perfect neoclassic critic, and, in a much deeper sense, far from the representative illuminator of that day.


Comment on Johnson’s approach to emendatory criticism:—

Or,Give a brief sketch of Dr. Johnson’s editorial method.

Or ,What is Johnson’s attitude towards the earlier Shakespeare editors? What does Johnson tell us about his principles in editing Shakespeare’s plays?

Ans. Introduction. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is chiefly a critical assessment of Shakespeare’s dramatic art; it is also an exquisite and elaborate embodiment of his ways and methods as an editor. Besides, it also assesses the works of previous editors with their merits and demerits. Johnson regrets the bitterness of controversy that he could sense among some of the editors. Although Johnson censures those who have taken emendatory liberties he makes a reasonable selection of their critical notes and comments and includes them in his own edition. He turns a bitter tongue towards the arrogant and haughty editors while he leaves his own edition for public Judgement. He modestly admits that he is by no means perfect and he even expects bitter and unfavorable comments from some judges who may read his work. His work, he says, may be improved and revised by greater scholars.

Shakespeare’s Texts. Johnson was entirely conscious of the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were in a corrupt and imperfect state. Pope also had held the same opinion. Now this could be absolved and restored or improved on the basis of collative or conjectural criticism, accomplished in the light of several factors. Those factors are nothing but the Elizabethan manners and customs, history of language, the style of Shakespeare which is revealed in his other plays and the necessities of the context and situation.

An editor and emendatory criticism. The basis of Johnson’s approach as an emendatory critic is unerring, more or less scientific, objective and conservative. There are several types of emendations and Johnson adopts different methods which he makes entirely explicit in course of his essay. One type of emendation is correcting the printing errors. As Johnson puts it much mistakes are there in the later Folios (which are only reprints of the First Folio edition) Rowe was one of the few who came forward to correct these errors. But all his emendations are not acceptable to Johnson. Some earlier editors share the credit of having made some emendation work on the grammar, the sense, or the versification with a view to improving them. Johnson does not accept these as valid criteria for emendation. Although he has not altered many of the changes made by Hanmer for the purpose of improving the metre, he himself has not made any emendation in this context. Shakespeare was interested in communicating his ideas to the spectator, and never did he regard his plays as meant for reading. Many of the grammatical niceties of which we become aware when we read Shakespeare’s plays are not noticed by us when we hear the lines recited during actual performance. Since Shakespeare’s plays were not intended to follow exact grammar and sentence structure, making emendations for improving the grammatical construction is unjustified. It is also undesirable to change a word because some other word gives a clearer or more explicit sense. Editing involves the principle of finding out what a writer has said and not to determine what he ought to have said. Johnson refutes many of the corrections made by Alexander Pope on this score because Pope has made them when the existing text does not give us any reason to suspect that is not what Shakespeare intended to say.

It is irrational to delete a word only because it seems inelegant to a particular editor. If this principle were to be adopted, in course of time the genuine text of every author would be lost. It will then also be difficult to trace the history of the development of the language. For Johnson, no phrase is, by its very nature, derogatory or inelegant; it is the usage of a particular age which turns it so. Wherever Johnson disagrees with a particular word or phrase, he attaches his censure with it, but leaves the expression entirely unhurt. Editing includes the work of collating all the existing and relevant copies of every play. Unlike Pope, Johnson feels this task to be exciting. Alterations which are based on collation may be substituted in the text itself, and a note may be attached to explain why a particular passage has been preferred.

Conjectural emendation, according to Johnson, is risky but cannot always be avoided. However, it is by no way excusable to substitute the existing reading in a text with the result of conjectural emendation. Such alterations emerging form conjectural emendation must be indicated only in the margin. The editor is also to explain why he has made a particular suggestion for emendation and further provide the emendations suggested by previous critics and editors, so that the reader may see for himself which of the reading is the best. Many of the emendations of Johnson himself are sound, while others are not so impressive. However, though he himself senses such a possibility, he feels no harm is done as his emendations are not included in the text. As an emendator, Johnson’s principle is that, if no proved otherwise, every word in the existent text must be regarded as a genuine citizen, and that wherever one is in doubt it is always better to save a person who might in reality be a citizen, than to destroy him on the assumption that he might be an enemy.

Attitude to other editors. Dr. Johnson has an unprejudiced regard for all the Shakespearean editors who had made their contribution before him. His rational assessment of their works clarify to us his won principles about criticism as well as his. individual likes and dislikes. Johnson’s modesty is all the more explicit where he states that every earlier editor of Shakespeare has improved the text to some measure, and that he is indebted to them in one way or other. He lauds one Shakespearean critic — Rowe — for not indulging in a haughty self praise but silently doing the work of emendation which, the following editors have adopted without even acknowledging their debt. He is not of the opinion that every editor is qualified and eligible for the task of emendatory criticism because it requires many qualities such as patience, reason and so on. Johnson ridicules Theobald who turned excessively arrogant just because he could suggest a simple change of a comma in Shakespeare and celebrated it as a great discovery. He is surprised at the quarrels and hot debates indulged in by critics on some unimportant subjects of Shakespeare’s plays. He thinks this may be because petty or paltry things make base people proud. A few of these critics such as Warburton were not qualified enough to edit Shakespeare, nor were they consistently methodical or reasonable in their work.

Necessary evils notes and annotations. Johnson frankly admits that the notes and comments on the works of a genius as comprehensive and coherent as Shakespeare can never be exhaustive and perfect, nor can they satisfy the needs of each and every reader. Some readers may .feel that a particular explanation may appear needless while others may insist on the inevitable presence of certain things which have been left unexplained by the ‘editor. Johnson is not bothered about the possibility of such adverse criticism, because this is a relative matter and every editor is guided by his own experience as to where notes are required. In brief, Johnson thinks that notes are necessary, but a necessary evil. Johnson’s suggestion to the reader who approaches a play for the first time is that he should let his imagination’ have free flight and resign itself to the pleasantries of Shakespeare’s text, completely disregarding notes and explanations. When he feels that the freshness’ or the play has worn out he may go in search of notes and guidance for the elucidation of particular points. Johnson himself has left no passage untouched which he has felt to be obscure, or which he has thought might bring difficulties to many readers. He admits that he is not capable of solving all the difficulties, but he is sure that he has explained certain passages which had been ignored by earlier critics. Johnson is humble enough to admit that he has not been able to make out some passages and that he has left them for later critics to elucidate.

Conclusion. With a thorough awareness of the. fate of the earlier critics’ works Johnson has adopted humbleness and modesty in judging the works of Shakespeare and offering his opinion to the readers. He is not arrogant, nor given to pedantic pretensions. Johnson knows that the comments or emendations that have seemed absolutely infallible to one critic or one age have been dethroned by another, while the same has been brought back later by some other critics. He is quite prepared for the same fate over taking the product of his own labour.



Q. 3. 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.



Q. 4. Bring out of most crucial points of Johnson’s evaluation of Shakespeare as stated in the Preface along with your own comments.

Or ,Write an essay on Johnson as a critic of Shakespeare.

Introduction. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is an everlasting contribution to English literary criticism. Though Johnson is a neo-classical critic, his assessment of Shakespeare is unprejudiced on the whole. Johnson praises as well as points out defects. For him the greatest judge is the public. Johnson’s duty was to expose Shakespeare under the light of neo-classical taste. Johnson does this satisfactorily though in some instances he is not fully justified. The Preface opens with a tribute to Shakespeare’s enduring appeal, which Johnson considers an acknowledged test of eminence. Later on he goes to the defects of Shakespeare too.

Just representation of general nature. “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature”.  According to Johnson the basic requirement of aesthetic grandeurs truthfulness to the facts of nature. He finds this plentiful in Shakespeare. ‘Just representation of general nature’ was also a slogan of the neo-classical critics. Johnson says, “Shakespeare is above all writers at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to this readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world; y t e peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.” In other words, Johnson, has praised the universal’ quality of Shakespeare’s writing.

Universality of Shakespeare’s characters. Johnson goes on to praise the characterization of Shakespeare. He says that his characters “act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion.’ The implication of the neo-classical creed—Just representation f general nature’—is that human nature, nature, at least the refined human nature, is perennial. It is because of this universality that the work of a great artist has an artistic appeal which continues through the ages. That is why Alexander Pope asserts that the Greek and Roman writers expressed the most exceptional way of emulating nature and that therefore to copy Homer or Virgil was to imitate nature realistically. Pope feels that the men of ancient period were not much different from the men of his own age, especially in terms of their poetic interest or aesthetic faculty. A poet’s universality depends upon his being general or particular with regard to his treatment of characters, ‘Shakespeare’s appeal has stood the severe test of time and its change of tastes because he does not accentuate only on the particular characteristic of •a particular age; instead, he focuses his attention on the common nature of men, their general traits, emotions, passions and manners of life which are to be found in men at all times in all countries.3 This indispensable ‘generality’ of a poet is further stressed on by Johnson in his novel Rasselas through the words of Imlac : “The business of poet is to examine, not the individual, but the species, to remark general properties and large appearances; he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features as recall the original to every mind, and must neglect the minuter discriminations ….‘There can be no quarrel with Johnson on this score, for Shakespeare does represent general human nature”.”

The Theme. The knowledge of general human nature enable Shakespeare to unveil the truths of life and enrich his plays “with practical axioms and domestic wisdom”. Shakespeare was none of those who attached too much of importance to the subjects of love with regard to their theme. Other dramatists who concentrate on the subject of love in their works become unjust, and violate the probability. Life is misrepresented by them and the language depraved. Love is only one of the many human emotions and to assign too large a significance to it is unjustifiable. It has no considerable impact upon the totality of life. Consequently it has little operation in the dramas of Shakespeare who “caught his ideas from the living world and exhibited only what he saw before him. He knew that any other as it was regular or exorbitant was a cause of happiness of calamity.” This is a shrewd observation. Johnson goes on to say that Shakespeare’s plays are rendered in such a way that even a person has enough material and information to draw from them. He says, that from these plays, “a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” Johnson was bold enough to differ from his characters. For instance, Dennis and Rymer did not approve of Shakespeare’s depiction of Menenius, a senator of Rome, as a buffoon, and voltaire did not approve of the Danish usurper (Claudius in Hamlet) being shown as a drunkard. Johnson defends Shakespeare and justifies his art by arguing that Shakespeare always makes nature predominant over accident. Shakespeare’s story may require a Roman senator or a king but he thinks only in terms of men and not particular individuals belonging to a particular time or place. And undoubtedly, there is no reason to suppose a man cannot be a buffoon because he is a Roman senator.

Johnson on mingled drama. Johnson also defends Shakespeare’s mingling of tragic and comic scenes in his plays. Any such mingling was objected to by the neo-classicists who were, more or less, obstinate about the purity of genres. The critical trend at the time was to consider tragedy as an unadulterated genre by itself and comedy as a wholly separate genre by itself. However, Johnson justifies the mingling of the two on the basis of the neo-classical theory itself. Art meant to the neo-classicists a truthful depiction of human life; on this basis, one can justify Shakespeare’s practice of combining comedy and tragedy, for such a mingling displays real human nature which “partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and in numerable modes of combination”. Shakespeare’s plays depict a world where all human actions have equal importance, where all types of human beings are equally represented and where we see without any objection, the reveller hastening to his wine and the mourner burying his friend. In this way Johnson meets the objections of the neo-classical critics on their own ground.

Johnson on rules and didaclicism. Johnson is not bound by the neo-classical rules of criticism in his approach to various other details of Shakespearean drama. His basic principle is that “there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature.” If neo-classical theory insists on some rules, those rules cannot outlive the basic requirement of the neo-classical theory namely, that literature should imitate nature. Thus Johnson, perhaps unwittingly, points out a possible contradiction in the critical theory of his time. If literary criticism is based on adequate principles with regard to the relationship between art and nature, an appeal from criticism to nature is nonsensical. If literature aims at a “just representation of general nature”, any rules concerning the apt mode of representation should flow that basic requirement and should not contradict it. But Johnson was particular about the didactic function along with the imitative one. The aim of a work is to please and instruct its reader.’, Johnson admits that Shakespeare has not only shown human nature as it acts in real exigencies but as it would be found in trials to which it cannot be said to be exposed. But, according to him, what Shakespeare lacks is the moral purpose which he should have abided by in his plays. Instead of keeping track of morality, Shakespeare “sacrifices virtue to convenience” and is “much more careful to please than to instruct.” Johnson feels that Shakespeare is careless about awarding his vicious characters with sorrow and the good characters with happiness; instead, he dismisses them to chance. He carries them all through wrong and right leaving them to operate by accidents. It is with regard to this aspect that Johnson is dissatisfied with Shakespeare’s drama

The Johnson dilemma. At this point we may find some inconsistencies in his argument. Johnson insists that a poet should ‘imitate’ human nature as closely and accurately as possible. At the same time he also insists that the poet ought to draw the story in such a way that it brings some moral instruction and delight to the reader. This is possible, we know, only if human nature were fundamentally noble and refined. Even Philip Sidney, who argued that poetry should be morally instructive, could not deny the fact that human nature, being what it essentially is, does not convey a moral lesson to the observer; therefore he averred that the poet should attempt to make the world better and new. Johnson must have been aware of the fact that the real world is far from always rewarding good or being basically moralistic. The two theories of neo classicism_that a poet should give a “just representation of general nature” and that he should be careful to make his poems instructive as well as pleasing (in the sense of poetic justice)—are mutually somewhat contradictory. It is very interesting to see Johnson grappling with his dilemma in a long note on King Lear. There he says that a play in which the wicked prosper and the virtuous are miserable is a just representation of the common incidents and occurrences of life but since all of us love justice, a play will not become worse by showing the final victory of persecuted virtue. Thus there arises a doubt in our mind and we come to as if Johnson is implying that representational adequacy and moral edification are two different qualities; and if the pleasure we derive from ‘poetic justice’ is a wholly separate kind of pleasure from that of being instructed about human nature. Johnson only repeats the old theory that literature should be both pleasing and instructive if it is to be everlasting; he fails to explore all its implications. However, the ramifications of his problem are so wide that no satisfactory resolution has been found even now.

Puns and quibbles. Another weakness that Johnson points out in Shakespeare’s plays is that Shakespeare is madly attracted to word-play and equivocations. Johnson says in this connection: “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it”. The source of this objection lies in Addison’s definitions of ‘Wit’ and ‘Judgement’. This approach towards poetic diction is important in both the theory and the practice of poetry from Dryden to Johnson; its critical implications are most clearly visible in Johnson’s Lives of the poets especially in his description of the metaphysical poets. However, we may not be quite as vehement as Johnson is our condemnation of the penchant for puns in Shakespeare. We are more willing to see it as an aberration of his times.

Johnson and the unites. Johnson defends Shakespeare’s disregard for the unities of time and place. The neo-classical insistence on the unities meant that a play on the stage should include only those events which cover a limited time of twelve or twenty four hours and occur in a single place. Thus the drama had to be cut short and brought under the prescribed framework and the actual experience is almost nullified. The propounders (those who introduced it) of this law held that any depiction differing from these rules is not acceptable. But Shakespeare was not a slave to the traditional ettiquettes. Justifying him Johnson says that the action of these plays is based on certain conventions which the audience accepts readily. For example if the spectators can take it for granted that a particular actor on the stage is Julius Caesar or Antony, the audience can also accept the convention of shifting scenes from one place to another or the passage of long periods of time. “The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making of the drama credible. But 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 that the players are only players (then) where is the absurdity of allowing that space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens, but a modern theatre?” True, this does not seen to be an absolutely original remark, but it could not have been expressed more effectively. Furthermore, its importance lies in the fact that it came in opposition to the prevalent critical views.

Conclusion : W.K. Wimsatt puts it well when he observes: “Here we have a response to Shakespeare in the most direct, the least theoretical fashion. No doubt we learn more about Johnson in such confrontations than about Shakespeare’. In his assessment of Shakespeare Johnson often rises to his occasion and succeeds not only in formulating a general praise, or encomium, but in lifting this a few degrees above the level of the already eloquent tradition. Johnson’s critical estimate of Shakespeare is also marked for its outright dissent with the petty neo-classical rules and proprieties — such as the unities and rigid separation of he genres — which had for long inhibited, and still did to some degree inhibit, the full appreciation of Shakespeare, the free response to his mystery. Johnson’s response to Shakespeare is based on appreciation of parts of his work. Johnson sees the work in its entirety and forms his judgement. Johnson’s defence of Shakespeare’s irregularities, his Gothicism, takes place in respect to broad principles of dramatic structure — principles which neo-classical critics had been just as much inclined to ensure as the licentious diction.


Q.5. “Never surely has the central praise of Shakespeare, as the master of truth and universality, been better set forth than by Johnson.” Illustrate the statement with regard to Johnson’s Preface.

The Preface to Shakespeare shows Johnson’s gifts at their best.

Discuss Dr. Johnson’s contribution to scholarship and criticism in the
Preface to Shakespeare.

Ans. Introduction. In his Preface to Shakespeare, Johnson’s abilities as an editor, critic, essayist and stylist are all evident. Preface is a critique of Shakespeare’s dramas and it also provides us with valuable principles on the editing of Shakespeare’s plays. At the same time, it is a noteworthy essay in literary criticism dealing with some important theoretical issues. The prose style of the Preface is as remarkable as its contents, finally, Johnson’s essay reveals its author’s personality in its treatment of the subject.

Johnson the critic and the stylist. Among the virtues of Johnson as a critic we may count his sturdy commonsense, clarity, intellectual independence, rationality in judging a literary work, swiftness and sharpness of retorts and wisdom and dexterity in analyzing a piece of work. Johnson as a stylist is unparalleled in his command over the period and antithesis, elevation of tone, use of proper Latinised diction, effective balancing of various parts of a sentence, and ultimately its use of Parentheses for the purpose of juxtaposition. All these qualities can be seen in his Preface to Shakespeare.

Intellectual independence and sturdy common sense. Johnson’s sturdy common sense and intellectual independence enabled him to avoid the pitfalls which engulfed many other critics before and after him. It also helped him to resist many of the pressures of contemporary critical dogmas. The most glaring example of this is his decisive refutation of the pseudo-classic insistence on the indispensability of the unity of place. Johnson with clear vision strikes at the roots of the neo-classical concept of dramatic delusion itself to justify Shakespeare’s violation of the unities of time and place. If it is not difficult for a spectator who witnesses Antony and Cleopatra to believe that in the first act he has travelled both in time and place and arrived at Alexandria at a time when Antony is staying there with Cleopatra, it should certainly not be impossible for him to set out on another mental flight and reach Rome. Delusion, Johnson points out, is not the basis of dramatic credibility. Probing the issue further, Johnson says that the fundamental point of dramatic credibility is that the spectator is always conscious of the illusion. The spectator knows that the stage is only a stage and the players are only players. It is only as a just “representation” of reality that drama becomes credible or otherwise. The truth of drama, says Johnson, is the truth of possibility of the events represented. A mere change of scene or passage of time is not detrimental to this basic reality. Furthermore, Johnson also rejects the stricter neo-classical demand regarding the portrayal of character. Thus he defends Shakespeare’s depiction of a Roman senator as a buffoon and a king as a drunkard.

The critic and the rules of criticism. In fact, Johnson is not a dogmatic critic laying down rules and laws and insisting on their being followed. On the contrary, he is a descriptive, investigative, historical or comparative critic, though he is certainly not free of neo classical influences. In his Preface we see him adopting an approach which has caught the favour and praise of many a modern critic. One of the most celebrated sayings of Johnson is that there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. He also differentiates between rules which have become established due to their validity and those whose validity depends on the sole fact of their being established as rules. It is on the basis of this point that Johnson justifies Shakespeare’s mixing of tragic and comic elements. But Johnson seems to lose this sensibility when he approaches the issues of poetic justice and the moral aspect of a literary composition. He reprehends Shakespeare for not making apt distribution of rewards and punishment with respect to the virtues and vices of his characters. He cannot stand the injustice of a portrayal that shows the virtuous suffering and the treacherous prospering. On the issue of morality in a play Johnson’s opinion is thoroughly imbued by the outlook of the day. Johnson deplores the fact that Shakespeare seems entirely indifferent to the moral aspect of literature. According to Johnson, Shakespeare cared only for providing pleasure or delight and let slip many opportunities where he could have conveyed moral instructions. One instance Johnson quotes to justify his argument is a scene from As You Like It where the usurping Duke, who has unlawfully possessed the Dukedom, relates his own conversion into a good man. In the matters of didacticism and poetic justice, Johnson is led into fallacious and inconsistent criticism.

Shakespeare the poet of Nature. Johnson’s most notable service to Shakespearean criticism is that his evaluation of Shakespeare establishes the bards reputation on a sound basis; Johnson exposes the central style of Shakespeare’s plays as its originality and universality. He passes the judgement that Shakespeare is one of the greatest poets of Nature, whose plays hold the mirror to the life and manners of all times. Johnson accepts it as a self- evident truth that nothing can please many, and that too for a long time, except a just and accurate representation of general nature. This leads Johnson to make some of his memorable statements about Shakespeare’s greatness, for example that Shakespeare’s characters are the “genuine progeny of common humanity” and that they converse in the language of common life and utter sentiments which find an echo in every heart. Johnson says that his characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, or by the peculiarities of the learned which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions. They are characters such as the world will always supply and observation will always find. “His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated and the whole system of life is continued in motion. “These principles are put into practice when Johnson compares Addison’s Cato with Shakespeare’s Othello.

Shakespearean criticism. Johnson’s Preface is a significant achievement in the realm of literary criticism in general as well as in the field of Shakespearean criticism. It is an important specimen of eighteenth century prose style too. Though he uses Latin diction and though the sentences are often involved, Johnson’s style as a whole is lucid. Johnson’s Shakespearean criticism is free form the kind of personal prejudices that mar his criticism of Milton. The Preface, unarguably, is a brilliant exercise in descriptive criticism with some sound observations in the field of theoretical criticism and a long appendix on editorial method. Brilliant perception and acute logical reasoning is to be seen in Johnson’s defence of Shakespeare’s mingling of the comic and the serious. In his exposition of editorial principles, Johnson shows a sound historical understanding. He appeals to the study of background as an antidote to the neo-classical rule of thumb. Indeed, in his support for artistic freedom and in his historical understanding, Johnson goes beyond his age and foreshadows the Romantic critical ideas. Johnson’s ‘Notes’ on the plays of Shakespeare—though not a part of the Preface—are remarkable for “they stand at the beginning of a whole new tradition of Shakespearean criticism, which after Johnson’s death was to proliferate into a substantial literature of its own: the criticism of character”. It is undeniable that the “central praise of Shakespeare, as the master of truth and universality” has been well set out by Johnson; Johnson’s greatest merit lies in his ability to stimulate the readers faculties.

Conclusion. Johnson’s criticism has its own shortcomings. The faults that he enumerates in his assessment of Shakespeare no longer all appear as faults to us. He is not much interested in the chronological order of Shakespeare’s plays. His emphasis on the moral purpose of literature and castigation of Shakespeare on lack of such purpose is not acceptable to the modern mind. His attitude towards Shakespeare’s tragedies is, to say the least, surprising. His denigration of the tragedies can be based only on personal preferences, for no standard critical principle can vindicate it. Nor is Johnson seen to be appreciative of the poetic sublimity of Shakespeare. In many ways, the Preface is at once one of the noblest monuments of neo-classical criticism and an exposure of some of the weaknesses and avoidable rigidities of neo-classical tenets. Johnson always sought to express balanced views, and in such a context, inconsistencies are bound to occur. Defects notwithstanding, the Preface shows all Johnson’s gifts at their best—the lucidity, the virile energy, the individuality of his style, the unique power of first placing himself on the level of the ordinary man and then lifting the ordinary man to his own level, and the firm insistence on life and reason, not learning and ingenuity, as the standard by which books are to be judged.



Q.6 How far is Dr. Johnson’s Shakespearean 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 propagate 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.


Q.7. What in Johnson’s view, is the role of art and morality in an aesthetic rendering?

How far is he influenced in this respect by the age in which he lived?
Or,How far, do you think have Johnson’s views on art and morality influenced his judgement of Shakespeare’s plays? Discuss with reference to Johnson’s Preface.

Ans. Art and Morality. Aesthetic pleasure for Johnson is closely related to morality. In Johnson’sage the tendency was to believe that the pleasure principle was subordinate to a moral purpose. Johnson holds that art can yield true pleasure only if it is built on a serious moral frame work. With Johnson, then, pleasure is not secondary to morality; the two coexist; they are not separate ingredients, but together they form a compound, a new product., an organic whole, Shakespeare and morality. Johnson regrets Shakespeare’s failing to give us, in the least act of As You Like It, the scene between Duke Frederick and the hermit that brought about the former’s repentance and transformation from sinner to saint. While it is possible for us to regard Johnson’s complaint against Shakespeare as being excessively conditioned by his moral preoccupations, on the other hand it is equally possible to argue that artistically Johnson is right. We are naturally anxious to know how exactly the marvellous advice the “old religious man” gave to Duke Frederick converted him in a few brief moments from sinner to saint. Duke Frederick’s transformation must be shown as an integral part of the play, not merely the convenient, “happy ending” that Shakespeare has turned it into. However, we can object to this drawback on grounds of artistic credibility but not, as Johnson does, on moral grounds. Johnson expects from Shakespeare something more substantial than what the sentimental dramas of his period could offer. Colley Cibber, Johnson’s contemporary and a popular dramatist whom Johnson heartily despised, had set the fashion for the sentimental comedy that flourished at the time. In Cibber’s play Love’s Last Shift the usual licentious characters and themes of the period are to be found, but in the last act of the play a ‘moral’ ending is superimposed— all the sinners repent and turn into saints. Perhaps it is due to Johnson’s distaste for this kind of an artificial morality that he resents Shakespeare having taken the same kind of a short cut in concluding As You Like It. But in fact, Johnson condemns Shakespeare for he “suppressed the dialogue between the usurper and the hermit and lost an opportunity of exhibiting a moral lesson in which he might have found matter worthy of his highest powers”. Himself well aware of the pressures under which an author often writes, Johnson is ready to excuse Shakespeare for his lapses occasioned by similar pressures. Johnson complains about Shakespeare having scarified, “virtue to convenience” as the result of such pressures giving rise to haste and carelessness. In Act V of All’s Well That Ends Well, “Shakespeare is now hastening to the end of the play” and so is not particularly concerned about retribution being meted out to the villain, Bertram. Despite his despicable behaviour, he is “dismissed to happiness” says Johnson in a Note. Johnson finds it impossible to reconcile himself to the manner in which Shakespeare concludes the play. Likewise Johnson notes of Angelo in Measure for Measure that “every reader feels some indignation when he finds him spared.” Before objecting to Dr. Johnson’s charge against Shakespeare for making “no just distribution of good or evil” we should ask ourselves if Othello would have been aesthetically satisfying without Emilia’s denunciation of Othello — and his subsequent death, and likewise, Macbeth, without our witnessing Macbeth’s receiving due retribution in the form of his head being brought on stage by a victorious Macduff. Clearly, in these cases moral judgement is an integral part of the aesthetic experience and Johnson’s unhappiness at this fundamental truth being at times ignored by Shakespeare is consistent with the approval with which we regard the endings of Othello and Macbeth.

The credibility of dramatic events. To Johnson Shakespeare often makes no just distribution of good or evil” because he is so much more careful to please than to instruct. Thus the marriage of Olivia to Sebastian in Twelfth Night fails to satisfy Johnson because it is simply a marriage of convenience. Shakespeare wanted to send his audience home happy, and since Olivia cannot marry viola, her twin brother will do equally well. Johnson concedes that such an ending is “well enough contrived to divert on the stage”, but it “wants credibility and fails to produce the proper instruction required in the drama” (Note on Twelfth Night). Is Johnson bringing to Shakespeare’s comedies too liberal a mind to catch the strains that poetic drama emits? Is his critical sensibility too sturdily allied to common sense to truly appreciate the subtleties of Shakespearean comedy? It would be easy to reply in the affirmative and dismiss Johnson for his apparent insistence on comedy being as consistent as life itself. But, perhaps, by so doing, we would overlook Johnson’s warm approval of Shakespeare’s comic scenes in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature”; his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire”; his comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language”; “his comedy (seems to be) instinct. For this side of Shakespeare Johnson’s appreciation knows no dilution, but when Shakespeare hurries towards his ending with little regard for plausibility or propriety, Johnson states his disapproval. He wishes that Shakespeare had brought to the writing of his plays, from start to finish, the same high seriousness that manifests itself so impressively in his best scenes.



Q.8. What do you gather of Johnson’s attitude towards art and life from the Preface?
For Johnson drama is to be judged by its, “power to move” men’s minds. How far do you agree with him? How does Johnson evaluate Shakespeare on the basis of this theory?

Ans. Drama’s effect. For Johnson drama is to be judged by its ‘power to move” men’s minds. In keeping with his being the poet of nature, Shakespeare breaks away from the classical tradition of separating tragedy and comedy and creates a new kind of drama which comes close to what we encounter in life. Shakespeare, Johnson adds, excites laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one composition”. It is a feature that later Critics were to applaud, calling the technique “comic relief, a celebrated example of this being the appearances of the drunken porter immediately after the murder of Duncan in Macbeth. But Johnson should be credited with having recognized the fact that though such a combination of the serious and the ludicrous is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism’, there is always an appeal open from “criticism to nature”. The French neo-classicists systematically refuted the mingling of the tragic and the comic, and though in England, during the early part of the Restoration, comic elements did invade heroic tragedy, this was not generally viewed with favour.

Fact and fiction in drama and its pleasures. When Johnson praises Shakespeare for having successfully combined these opposite elements in the same play on the grounds that the play thus comes close to the appearance of life, he is not suggesting that the sorrow we feel while watching tragedy on the stage is the same as the sorrow that might assail us in our life. He asserts: “The delight of tragedy proceeds from our consciousness of fiction; if we thought murders and treason’s real, they could please no more.” Johnson is here making a careful distinction between art and life in terms of the experience undergone by the reader or the spectator of the play. The pleasure we derive from art is an aesthetic pleasure, though it is related to our knowledge and understanding of what goes on in life. ‘Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the imagination is stirred up by a painted landscape, the trees are not supposed capable to give us shade, or the fountains coolness: but we consider how we should be pleased with such fountains playing beside us and such woods waving over us.” We enter the world imaginatively, we identify ourselves with its representation, but only up-to a point, not entirely. When talking of the actor identifying himself so wholly with his role that he considered himself to be the character he was representing, Johnson declared : “And if Garrick really believed himself to be that monster, Richard the third, he deserved to be hanged every time he performed.”

In Johnson’s view we derive a special kind of pleasure from art because it is an improvement upon life. “The greatest graces of a play are to copy nature and instruct life.” By the word “instruct” Johnson may not be implying the narrow, didactic sense of the word ‘to teach’, but rather in the sense of looking a new at the experience of life in terms of the dramatist’s own vision, for it is always a writer’s duty to ‘make the world better.’ Nature is the base, but the dramatist’s art improves upon it, the finished product is a remoulding of life nearer to the heart’s desire. Life is often ugly and shabby and chaotic, the dramatist in his art is to show what life might be.

How then, according to Johnson, is the dramatist to bring ‘pleasure’ to the reader? Unmitigated suffering and grief may well be true to life, but as we have seen, for Johnson art is not to be a tame copy of nature. Suffering must be relieved by laughter and mirth, and vice versa, in the play, for “all pleasure consists in variety—the variety of incidents and the quick succession of one passage to another, call the mind forward without intermission from the first act to the last (Note on Antony and Cleopatra); and Macbeth is “deservedly celebrated for the .. variety of its action” (Note on Macbeth). Johnson sees the dramatist as one who rearranges life so as to form a combination that can yield aesthetic pleasure. But at the same time he does not think its creation to be a mechanical one. There is no easy formula for it. A play developed in all its structural exactness may not move a reader. But in spite of weaknesses Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is profoundly interesting Shakespeare is for Johnson the author who can flout all the rules of dramatic construction with impurity and yet triumph.

Drama and Reality. Johnson defends Shakespeare’s violation of the unites. From the time of Corneille onwards eighteenth century dramatists in England had drawn their inspiration from the ancients through the medium of French classical dramatists. Johnson’s defence of Shakespeare is on the ground that drama is an imaginative experience, not. a slice of life. As we have seen, Johnson insists on ‘our consciousness of fiction’ being an essential ingredient in our enjoyment of drama.

A play for Johnson is an artifice, an arrangement of life, a pattern, and the behaviour of the characters is to be in conformity with its demands. Furthermore, their behaviour is to be psychologically consistent with the situations in which they find themselves. In the greatest art, the psychological plausibility of the character’s behaviour is a stroke of realism even though the situation might be one that is never encountered in life. Thus Johnson objects neither to the Ghost in Hamlet nor to the Ghost in Julius Caesar. Eighteenth century rationalism and twentieth century skepticism may, along with Horatio in Hamlet, dismiss ghosts as being improbable, but to Johnson’s this objection is irrelevant for “Shakespeare has not only shown human natures as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be in trails to which it cannot be exposed.” Art exists on the frontier that separates the real from the unreal, and it exploits this strategic location by raiding both territories.

Johnson’s objection. Dr. Johnson’s insistence on the artist being an artificer, a maker, find perhaps the most powerful expression in his objection to the death of Cordelia. Though he is conscious of the fact that drama is not life, he feels that Cordelia’s death oversteps the limits of artistic decorum,, and here we note that Johnson grants the probability of the death of Cordelia in real life but is against such a representation art.

The logical continuity of events. On one occasion Johnson has remarked that a character in a play is not simply a human being lifted from life and transplanted into a different environment, but rather, one who lives a new kind of life “in the construction of the play’. It is on the basis’ of this artistic principle that he treats all the plays of Shakespeare and evaluates their defects and merits. Thus, artistic necessity determines the slaying of Mercutio; he has fulfilled his function in the requirements that the play posits and may now be disposed of with our loss to the artistic beauty of the whole. On the other hand, for Johnson the slaying of Cordelia .and “the extrusion of Glaucester’s eyes” (King Lear), are acts that are not dictated by artistic necessity but are gratuitous and do not arise inevitably from the events preceding them.



Q.9. ‘It is proper to inquire by what peculiarities of excellences Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.” Substantiate the points Johnson cites in favour of Shakespeare’s dramatic art.
Or,What merits does Dr. Johnson find in Shakespeare ? How
far do you agree with him in this respect?

Ans. Introduction. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is mainly in the nature of an essay prefixed to the plays he has edited. Johnson’s views are coloured by the critical creed of his time, namely, the rules of neo-classicism; however, what he says is of everlasting significance. In his Preface we come across some points which are valid even now, especially the praise that the confers on Shakespeare and the sound principles on which he evaluates the bard’s greatness.

Truth to nature. A close examination of the neo-classical period reveals that the renowned literary advocates of the period attached a profound importance to generality and universality. Johnson’s intention in editing Shakespeare was to recommend the plays to his own contemporaries. He lays an enormous stress on Shakespeare’s adherence to general nature. He states: “Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men.” This is how Johnson defends Shakespeare against Dennis and Rymer’s charge that Shakespeare’s Romans are not sufficiently Roman. In the – same manner, he scorns at the criticism of Voltaire that Shakespeare’s’ kings and queens are not royal and dignified. According to Dr. Johnson, the most important thing is preserve the characters’ truth to human nature and this Shakespeare does amazingly well. Johnson aptly says that Shakespeare’s plays have no heroes, but merely men who act and speak as we ourselves would have done in the same circumstances. As for Voltaire’s censure of Shakespeare Johnson calls it the petty cavils of petty men. His own view is that a poet “overlooks the casual distinctions, of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.” However, when Johnson turns to the demerits of Shakespeare he seems to forget this observation and accuses Shakespeare of not following the distinctions of country and age and giving one age and country the manners of another.

Drama an imitation of real life. Although Johnson is all admiration for Shakespeare’s faithful mirroring of real life there is a trace of confusion when, on another instance, he denies that drama aims at literal verisimilitude. Perhaps Johnson may be accentuating the point that Shakespeare is representing life as it appears to him as dramatist. But in this case we feel that the word mirror’ used by him is not suitable. He employs it, probably because it occurs in Hamlet where, while directing the players. Hamlet maintains that the objective of drama is to hold the mirror to life and disclose to the age its own spirit. Johnson adds “this therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has massed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise before him, may here be. cured of his delirious ecstasies, by reading human sentiments in human language by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and confessor predict the progress of passions”. Elsewhere too Johnson heaps praise on Shakespeare’s handling of the supernatural and wonderful and even admits that had such creatures or beings existed this may be how they would have acted. In this connection he says: “Shakespeare approximate that remote, and familiarizes the wonderful, the event which he represents will not happen but if it were possible, its effects would probably be such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shown human nature as it acts in real exigencies but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.”

Characterization. Johnson is right on admitting that Shakespeare kept his characters distinct from one another. There is no blurring or confounding of characters. While stressing on their individuality Johnson pays due attention to their universality too. With regard to Shakespeare’s characters he says that they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply and observation will always find. Johnson’s keen observation as a critic is evidenced from his conclusion that no writer before Shakespeare, with the possible exception of Chaucer, had delineated human character in so realistic a manner Shakespeare emerges much greater when we know that no investigation into the study of psychology or human diaractor had been there to help him with date or theoretical hints for his character portrayal. Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of human nature and human character from his own personal observation. In this case he had none to follow except his own perception and senses. Yet none of his works or characterization be branded as second-rate. His plays are full of principles and axioms, true for all times.

Theme : diversity of passions. Johnson argues that Shakespeare’s play give no undue importance to a singular passion such as love which the vogue of the day with other authors. He deals with diverse passions. and human emotions and escapes the stereotype. Johnson holds that in developing the theme of love, a dramatist will, at times, violate probability and misrepresent life. Comparing Addison’s Cato and Shakespeare’s Othello Johnson says that Othello is the vigorous product of genius working upon factual observation of life, while Addition’s Cato fails to familiarize us with the human sentiments. Shakespeare was not, to be sure, a ‘correct’ or ‘regular’ writer in the neo-classical sense of the phrase, but his plays are profusely rich, though this richness is often woven with much of what is crude.. This crudeness is no fault of the playwright but the result of the age and its barbarity.

Shakespeare: the father of English drama. Johnson attributes to Shakespeare the credit of being the father of English drama. He was the giver of breath and life to “the form, the character, the language and the shows” of English drama. He was the first, except for Spenser, to discover and expose the degree or level of harmony and smoothness which the English language was capable of attaining.

Conclusion. Johnson’s admiration for Shakespeare was not merely passionate but instinctive too, though, as a neo-classicist he was naturally obliged to introduce Shakespeare to his contemporaries in particular critical idiom with which they were acquainted. As a neo-classical critic he had to approve look at Shakespeare’s plays in the light of ‘rules’ but the moment he comes to compare Cato and Othello he relies, not upon the man-made rules, but upon his own instincts. Thus we see that Johnson’s rules, as a professional critic, way hold Cato to be superior, but his instinctive liking admits that Cato is no match for Othello.


Q. 10. “Shakespeare with his excellences has likewise faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm many other merit”. Bring out the main criticism Johnson levels against Shakespeare and examine their validity in detail.
Or,What, according to Johnson, are the shortcomings of the plays of Shakespeare? To what measure do you agree with him in this regard?

Ans. Introduction. In his Preface , Johnson first considers the excellences of Shakespeare and then turns to his defects. He does not consider Shakespeare as a faultless or perfect dramatist. On the contrary, he is of the opinion that Shakespeare’s faults are profound enough to overwhelm the merits if they had only belonged to some other dramatist. Johnson sets down, these faults just as they appear to him, without prejudice or superstitious veneration. Here he values, truthfulness more than courtesy. It is said that once Johnson told one of his contemporaries that it was necessary to point out Shakespeare’s faults in order that his merits may – be better appreciated. However, in his ultimate assessment of Shakespeare he does not seem to bother much about the numerous faults which he himself has pointed out. This makes us feel that Johnson is paying lip service to neo-classicism and does not attach serious importance to the defects which his neo-classical affiliation obliges him to notice and criticize.

Virtue is not distributed wisely. According to Johnson, Shakespeare’s first and foremost defects is that ‘he sacrifices virtue to convenience’ and plays more attention to conveying pleasure than instruction. It seems to Johnson that Shakespeare writes without any moral purpose. There is much of moral wisdom in his plays but they are indirectly stated : “His precepts and axioms drop from him casually. Johnson also points out that Shakespeare does not make a just distribution of good and evil—that he does not observe poetic justice. Johnson laments that Shakespeare does not always unambiguously present his virtuous characters being victorious over the evil ones. Rather, he takes his characters through right and wrong indiscriminately and dismisses them carelessly at the end. The didactic message that may be derived from their situation is hardly made explicit; it is left to chance. One may attribute this defect to the barbarity of the age in which Shakespeare lived, but Johnson is not ready to condone the fault. He says : “It is a always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent of time or place”. We do not have any doubt that it is Johnson’s training and practice as a neo classical critic which leads him to lay such an emphasis on explicit moralizing or didacticism.

Defect in plot. Next, Johnson turns his attention towards the plots of Shakespeare’s plays. Here his objection that the plots are very loosely knit and that Shakespeare could have improved it had he paid just a little more attention. Likewise, they are unravelled so carelessly that one doubts if Shakespeare was really conscious of what he was aiming at as he developed plot. Johnson also complains that Shakespeare does not fully utilize the opportunities that could have been used to instruct. Similarly he often adopts a course which is more convenient and easy •and lets slip the more touching, but more difficult one. Another defect he detects in Shakespeare is that in his plays the latter part is hastily rounded of so that the plays do not appear to be as artistically ordered in their concluding sections as in their earlier part. Johnson deems that it may be because Shakespeare was desirous of cutting short the labour in order to gain the profits as early as possible. He says : “When he found himself near the end of his work, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. tie therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them and his catastrophe is improbably, produced or imperfectly represented.” Much of Dr. Johnson’s objections about Shakespeare’s plots are justified. Concerning Shakespeare’s neglect of opportunities for moralizing we may agree that they are, admittedly, missed. But it is debatable if this mars the effect of the plays as a whole. More than anything else we see Johnson as a mouthpiece of neo-classical sentiments in this piece of criticism.

Anachronism in Shakespeare. Another defect in Shakespeare’s plays is, that in them no distinction of time or place is observed but the customs, opinions and manners of one age or one country are freely attributed to another. This gives the plays a colour of improbability and often of impossibility.. For instance, in one instance Shakespeare makes Hector cite the words of Aristotle, which is absurd on historical grounds. Johnson does not accept Pope’s justification the such anachronisms, or historical fallacies, are to be traced to the interpolators and not to the author. Its frequent presence in his plays is enough to convince us that he himself was responsible for it. But Shakespeare is not the only writer who has let such mistakes• creep into his plays, Philip Sidney intermingles the feudal and pastoral ages in his Arcadia though there was a great difference between the atmospheres of these two periods. Modern critics agree with Johnson on this point.

Dialogues in comedy. Another objection raised by Dr. Johnson is with regard to “reciprocation’s of smartness and contests of sarcasm” which are frequently seen in Shakespeare’s comedies. Johnson asserts that the jests in which the comic characters indulge are often coarse and licentious. Since a majority of the characters are guilty ‘of this, the distinction between refined characters and low characters is lost. Johnson attributes this practice to the Elizabethan life: their usual conversation was stately, formal and reserved, but whenever these customary norms are relaxed the resultant effect is the licentious dialogues in Shakespeare’s comedies. Johnson feels that Shakespeare should have been more judicious in his selection of modes of gaiety.

Fault in style and expression. Next Johnson ‘ reprehends Shakespeare’s style and expression. According to him there are many passages in the tragedies over which Shakespeare seems to have laboured hard, only to ruin his own performance. The moment Shakespeare strains his faculties, or strains his inventive powers unnecessarily, the result is tediousness and obscurity. Johnson does not agree to the pompous and unreasonably stretched out passages of Shakespeare because, according to Johnson these defects detract from the splendour and dignity of the passage. He finds the stock speeches or declamations cold and weak. Elsewhere it seems to Johnson that Shakespeare has been led astray by some unwieldy sentiment, which he is not able to express well, but clings to and expresses anyhow the result is that the reader has to work hard over such passages to unwind their sense. Intricacy of language is not an index of subtlety of thought; nor is a line crowded with words and phrases always one that contains a great image. Shakespeare does not often maintain reasonable proportion between his words and the things they express. It is unwise to use sonorous epithets and swelling figures of speech for paltry things and ideas. However, most of this censure on Shakespeare’s style and expression is exaggerated.

Word-play and conceits. Johnson turns censorious about Shakespeare’s tendency to use conceits as well as ambiguous word play. Johnson says that Shakespeare’s craze for conceit and quibbles spoils many passages which are otherwise sad and tender, or could – have evoked pity or terror. Shakespeare’s uncurbed enthusiasm for quibbles leads him to utter senselessness just as the will-o-the-wisp misleads a wayfarer. Whenever he gets a chance to pay with words, he forgets everything else and chases it blindly. Johnson says : “A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it as, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice, of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble ‘was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.” It is true that Shakespeare indulges in puns and quibbles — at times too much of it. But it does seems to us as annoying as it was to Johnson.

Conclusion. Johnson points, out two supposed errors of Shakespeare which, in his opinion, are really merits. One of these is Shakespeare’s violation of unities of time and place, another is his fusion of tragedy and comedy. On both these points Johnson leaves the neo-classicist camp by defending Shakespeare’s practice. Johnson also defends Shakespeare by arguing that some of the shortcomings that we find in his plays are actually the faults of the age he lived in. He considers the charge that the Roman characters of Shakespeare are not sufficiently Roman, or that his kings and queens are wanting in royal dignity. He correctly calls these allegations ill conceived. In all such cases Shakespeare has adhered to the truth of generality and ignored particularly. It may be noted that this defence, although not unfounded, is in typically neo-classic terms. The faults listed by Johnson are not. serious faults to us today. But they certainly show Johnson as a neo-classical critic.



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

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

Ans. Introduction. 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 he 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 play 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 levelled 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.

Categorization. The editors of the first Foliq 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 depress, 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 silent 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 on 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 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 reveller 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 exhibition and approaches nearer.’ than ,either to the appearances of life.” Here we can deduce that (Johnson argues in favour 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 differ 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.

Conclusion. 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.



Q. 12. “Indeed, in his defence of Shakespeare’s neglect of the unities, he passes over to the side of the enemy, and almost becomes a romantic.” How far do you agree with this critical viewpoint on Johnson with regard to his approach towards Shakespeare’s disregard of the unities”? Illustrate.
Trace the source and implication of the ‘three unities with regard to the construction of a dramatic plot. Bring out the main arguments of Dr. Johnson on Shakespeare’s disregard of the unities as indicated in his Preface.
Flow far is the argument, that in defending the violation of the unities, Dr. Johnson departs from the fold of neo classicists and joins the fold of the Romantics justifiable.

Ans. Introduction. In order to have a clear idea of all that concerns the three unities, we have to see first what neo-classicism considered them to be. The neo-classicists held them as having the genuine sanction of the real classicists of ancient Greece and Rome. These unities are mentioned in Aristotle’s Poetics as practices of the Greek writers. Nowhere does he lay them down as rules which should be followed by every writer for the sake of making his work realistic or true to life. Aristotle emphasizes the unity of action and merely mentions that it was the general practice to confine the action to twenty-four hours period. Actually, it was the French neo-classicists who established the unifies as rules which an artist is obliged to follow. It was they who attached profound importance to the unity of place, which Aristotle himself seems to have ignored. Johnson is a neo-classical critic; but in the controversy of the unities he abides by a point of view which is thoroughly contrary to the critical attitude prevailing in his time. In this case he anticipates the Romantic critics. Moreover, his daring departure from his contemporaries shows his intellectual integrity and faculty of independent thinking. Perhaps, this is the most striking feature of the Preface. Johnson was so revolutionary enough to think that rather than rules, it is arts proximity to life that renders it magnificent and appealing.

The neo-classicist view. Johnson states the case of neo-classicists quite fairly, and marks that they are in favour of the unities. But he does not leave it at that. He examines each. view and refutes it with proper and sound reasons. Neo-classical critics held it impossible that the audience, could believe the action of a drama in which events that require months and years to happen in real life are presented as having taken place within three hours. They said that it was impossible that the spectator can suppose himself to sit in the theater, “while ambassadors go and return between distant kings, while armies are levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders, and returns or till he whom we saw courting his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son.” Johnson sums up the neo-classical contention: ‘The mind revolt from evident falsehood and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.

The unity of place. The neo-classicists also held it inevitable that if the time of presentation of an event is to be in proportion to the time of action; then changes of place must be such as can be reasonable thought to be possible within the span of action. If the span of the action is one day, no change of place which is impossible within that time would become credible. ‘The spectator who knows that he saw the first act at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he sees the next at Rome,’ a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have transported him; he knows with certainty that he has not ‘changed his place, and he knows that the place cannot change itself, that what was a house cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Persepolis.”

Johnson creed. While refuting the arguments of the neo-classicists Johnson puts forward his own sane and sensible point of view, and attacks the fundamental assumptions of the neo-classicists of which the view of the unities is only one manifestation. Johnson’s refutation of the rules is not merely based on his own critical dogmas;’ he has the authority of the success of Shakespeare. The question is chiefly one of diamatic credibility. The neo-classicists argued that the aim of a dramatist is to deceive the spectators into believing that they ‘are seeing reality. But, in fact. this is not the way in which dramatic.. representations acquire credibility. They are enjoyed and appreciated not because they are real but because, being emulations of realities, they bring realities to the minds of the spectators. Even if delusion were to be the basis of dramatic credibility, neo-classicist objections would have been invalid, for then there is no question of setting a limit to the operation of delusion. If the spectator really thinks that he is watching Antony and Cleopatra of history in Alexandria, then he can believe most anything in the following scenes without any difficulty: “Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation,, if the spectators can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance (the actors whom he knows personally) are Alexander and Caesar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalla, or the bank of Granicus, he is a state of elevation above the reach of reason, or of the truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may despise the circumspection’s of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind, thus wandering in ecstasy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field. “In this way Johnson refutes the neo-classicists and shows that their viewpoint is baseless. None of the spectators takes the action on the stage as true but they willingly participate in its illusion; “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 stage and that the players are only players. They came to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation. The lines relate to some action and an action must be in some place, but the different actions that complete a story may be in places -very remote’ from each other, and where is absurdity of allowing that, space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily, nor Athens, but a modern theater?”

Shakespeare and his disregard of unities. Johnson is not quite sure if Shakespeare’s violation of the unities of place and time was deliberate and conscious or if it emerged from his ignorance of them. According to Johnson, Shakespeare may have disregarded the unities in the beginning out of ignorance, but later, even when his fellow dramatists or critics censured this drawback he did not mind them because he would have thought the rules of unities immaterial and absurd. In any case, Johnson thinks that the one unity that is, important is. that of action and Shakespeare’s plays preserve this unity satisfactorily. Coming, therefore to the other two unities of time and place Johnson justifies the stand of Shakespeare: “As nothing is essential to the fable but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed. Nor if such another poet could arise, should I very vehemently reproach him, that his first act passed at Venice and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules, merely. positive, become the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare, and such censures are suitable to the minute and slender criticism of Voltaire.” What Johnson implies is that a comprehensive genius like Shakespeare ought to be permitted to violate them because the rules do not have any inevitable binding power. It is true that the unities provide pleasure and delight to the spectator, but to stick to them rigidly is to lose other chances to express many other beauties of variety and instruction. A play that observes the unities keenly may of course be a great play. Its scope may be profound and elaborate. There is no harm in preserving the unities if it does not disturb the other more salient aspects of the play. But we should not regard the unities as an end by themselves and hence give them no too high a status or position. “He that without diminution of any other excellence, shall preserve all the unities unbroken deserves the like applause with the architect, who shall display all the orders of architectures in a citadel, without any deduction from its strength, but the principal beauty of a citadel is to exclude the enemy; and the greatest graces of a play are to copy nature and instruct life.” Here we see that Johnson i taking dramatic representation into consideration rather than the path ordained by the blind adherence to established rules.

Enjoying the drama. “A dramatic exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that increase or diminish its effect.” Johnson finds no difference in the type of pleasure which the reading of a drama gives and that which is obtained from seeing a representation of it on the stage. He continues to say that though familiar comedy may seem more impressive on the stage, imperial tragedy is always more impressive in reading than in performance. In reading a play, we are seldom bothered about the unities and this should be the very attitude of the spectator too. Our imagination does not, in fact, revolt against the passage of shorter or longer time, nor does it find it unbelievable if the actions are carried out at two different, distant places. Hence it is erroneous to say that we cannot honour a playwright who thwarts the unities of place and time, We enjoy drama not as a realistic piece of life but as an imitation of the realities of life. “It is credited with all the credit due to a drama. It . is credited, whenever.g moves, as a just picture of a real original; as representing to the auditor what he would himself feel, if he were to do or suffer what is there feigned to be suffered or to be done. The reflection that strikes the heart is not that the evils before us are real evils, but they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment, but we rather lament the possibility than suppose the presence of misery, as a mother weeps over her babe, when she remembers that death may take it from her.”

Conclusion. Though the period in which he lived may label Johnson as a neo-classicist, he is, in many instances, proved to be no blind follower of the baseless rules of neo-classical criticism. At crucial junctures Johnson’s mature and keen perception disagrees with the established traditional views of his contemporaries and shows independence. This is true especially with regard to his assessment of Shakespeare’s adherence to the unities. He is close to the modern view when he declares that the only essential unity is that of action. His intellectual independence often leads him to be impressionistic and brings him to a stand which the Romantic critics of Shakespeare were to adopt. His attack on the unities is most rational and as one critic says: “Johnson deserves credit for meeting this issue of a characteristic display of two of his most valuable powers. For one thing, he goes immediately to the heart of the matter, putting his finger on the false premise by which the exaggerated doctrine of the unities had so long been sustained, namely, the assumption that the aim of drama is literal verisimilitude, ‘the supposed necessity of making the drama credible.’ For another thing, even if he is only kicking an open door, does this with such ample energy and gusto, such resonance, reverberation of splintering material, that it is doubtful if carpenters will be able very soon to mend this door.”



Q.13. Write a note on Johnson’s comparative Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies.

Or,“In his tragic scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. Comment on Johnson’s evaluation of Shakespeare.
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.



Q.14. Every man’s performance, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived’ with his own particular opportunities.” How far is Johnson’s view relevant to his judgement of Shakespeare’s achievement? Illustrate.
“Those whom my arguments cannot persuade to give their approbation to the judgement of Shakespeare will easily, if they consider, the condition of his life, make some allowance for his ignorance.” Explain what Johnson implies by this statement.
Or,Show that Johnson’s criticism is comparative, historic, judicial and impressionistic all at once as illustrated by his Preface to Shakespeare.

Ans. Introduction. Johnson concludes his discussion of Shakespeare’s disregard of the unities with the remark that the preservation of the unities does not carry much credit in itself. He says that his examination of this question may bring the principles of drama under a new examination. Then he goes on to argue that even if Shakespeare were at fault in violating two of the unities, a study of the situations of Shakespeare’s life may prompt his opponents to give some allowance for his ignorance. Later, he brings out the causes which, in his opinion, have been responsible for the present corrupt state of Shakespeare’s text.

The period and the writer. According to Johnson, a writer’s work is not an entirely independent entity in itself. So for a reasonable judgement of a work we have to examine the period in which the writer wrote and its characteristics as well as the particular situations which influenced him. It is not sufficient to say that for the common reader the circumstances of a writer are irrelevant and the book that is before him is enough. Johnson opines that there is always a silent reference of human works to human abilities. As the inquiry how far man may extend his designs, or how high he may rate his native force, is of greater dignity than in what rank we shall place any particular performance, curiosity is always busy to discover the instruments as well as to survey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers and how much to casual and adventitious help. The palaces of Peru or Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious habitations if compared to the houses of European monarchs; yet who could forbear to view them with astonishment who remembered that they were built without use of iron.” Johnson continues to explain that some of Shakespeare’s faults can be made out as well as rectified, if not altogether condoned, on the grounds of the crudity and barbarity of the age in which he wrote.

Elizabethan England. In the age of Shakespeare, England was still struggling to escapee the barbarity of the Middle Ages. In the times of Henry VIII the philology of Italy had been influencing the English. In this period scholars like Lily, Sir Thomas More, Smith and Ascham introduced the Greek and Latin languages to the schools of England. Thus the student came to learn Greek too. “Those who united elegance with learning read with great diligence the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to professed scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The public was gross and dark: and to be able to read and write was an accomplishment still valued for its rarity.” So we may aptly presume that all these factors influence Shakespeare’s writing too, and hence they ought to be assigned a prominent role in our assessment of Shakespeare.

Aesthetic aptitudes. The Elizabethan readers were of peculiar literary tastes. It was the infant stage in England’s intellectual growth and its aptitudes and faculties were of the same scale and sort. An undeveloped nation can not weigh its value, because a nation that has newly awakened to literary aptitudes is not yet fully familiar with all the finer aspects. The child and the base men are credulous and gullible in the sense that they take for granted whatever is remote from common appearance. When a nation is not refined by learning, the whole of the country is doomed to a state of gross barbarity. The learned among the common people then confined themselves mostly to adventures and stories of giants, dragons and magic. Their favourite book was Morte D’ Arthur. A mind which gets habituated to the delicious dishes of wonderful stories would feel the naked truth to be insipid. “A play which imitated only the common occurrences of the world, upon the admirers of Palmerine and Guy of Wararick, have made little impression, he that wrote for such an audience was under the necessity of looking round for strange events and fabulous transactions; and that incredibility by which mature knowledge is offended was the chief recommendation of writings to unskillful curiosity.” Perhaps it may be owing to these facts that Shakespeare borrowed his plots from novels and ballads. It is possible that he selected those novels which were popularly known and read, because, otherwise, the common spectator would have been unable to follow the various events of the plays. A present day reader may trace Shakespeare’s source in obscure books but in his days they might have been famous and widely popular. The story of As You Like It is supposed to be taken from Chaucer’s Gamelyn which was available in England in the form of a pamphlet. The story of Hamlet was, similarly, available in its English version although now it can be found only in Saxo Grammaticus. Shakespeare might have, presumably, depended upon Holinshed’s Chronicles, English ballads, and so on for the plots of his other dramas.

Plots of Shakespeare’s plays. The peculiarity of Shakespeare’s plays is that they are packed with various events and incidents. This may be because of the fact that incidents would have attracted his unrefined spectators more than sentiments and arguments. We may all agree on the point that Shakespeare’s tragedies are more powerful than those of any other writer. ‘Others please us by particular speeches; but he always makes us anxious for the event and has Perhaps excelled all but Homer in securing the first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiosity and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.” It is due to this that there is much pomp and show in Shakespeare’s dramas. Almost all writers who followed Shakespeare have taken him is there model dramatist especially in terms of his praiseworthy practice of filling and enriching his plays with activities rather than with set or stock speeches. It is known to all that Shakespeare has pilfered his plots from the works of other writers and invented none for himself; but, as Johnson maintains, there is no poet or writer except Homer who has invented as much as Shakespeare or contributed so much of novelty in terms of both linguistic and dramatic renovations to his age and nation. He has influenced the form, the language, the characters, and the presentation of English drama. Dennis even attributes to Shakespeare the credit of having discovered the harmony of English tragedy.

Textual corruptions. Shakespeare’s texts remained corrupt for a long time. There are many reasons for this. Shakespeare’s style is ungrammatical, involved and obscure. The prompters who copied his plays for the actors might have been unable to understand what they were copying. The editors who came later might have been equally incompetent and have multiplied the errors. The actors who wanted to shorten their part may also have truncated a considerable part of the text and neglected it later. Furthermore, this might have got printed without considerable attention being paid to the original or genuine text. The plays existed in this state for a long period. But the reason for this is not what Warburton supposes — that plays were disregarded — but it may be because the art of editing had not yet made its effect felt on works in the modern languages. Plenty of printing mistakes were there and often no body cared to correct them.

Rowe was the first editor whose end was to show Shakespeare’s plays as those of the poets along with a biography and recommendatory Preface. Rowe never intended to make any emendations, yet he has at many points made correction. He went through printing mistakes and corrected them; he made some emendations which have been readily copied by many latter critics without being thankful to him. Almost all editors after Rowe made their own corrections but yet there remain a few which await further scholarly consideration.

Conclusion. Johnson in his Preface considers Shakespeare, not only as timeless and universal, but as a product of the Elizabethan age. But though he considers the Elizabethan taste rare and unrefined, he goes on to see Shakespeare’s achievement in terms of a transcendence of what would otherwise have remained low and inferior. Perhaps in his consideration of the ‘barbarity’ of the Elizabethan age, Johnson is somewhat condescending in tone, but the service he has done in placing Shakespeare in historical perspective is valuable.



Q. 15. “There has always prevailed a tradition that Shakespeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead language”. What are Johnson’s conclusion in this regard?

“But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own genius.” How far do you agree with this viewpoint of Johnson?

Ans. Introduction. It has been a matter of controversy among the Shakespearean scholars whether Shakespeare had any formal scholastic education, and if so, to what extent. There is little evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was profoundly educated, yet his plays show a good deal of knowledge which may have been gained from various books. There are critics who think that Shakespeare was so thoroughly unlearned that the plays supposed to be written by him could not have been his own creations. Attempts have been carried on to find out the ‘real author’ of the plays and some have mentioned Bacon and Marlowe in this regard. In his Preface Johnson deals with this controversy and endorses the existing opinion that Shakespeare’s accomplishments rested on natural gifts and observation of life and that he owed very little to Books. Johnson also examines the development of Shakespeare’s genius.

Shakespeare’s knowledge in classics. Johnson examines the traditional belief that Shakespeare had no learning, that he did not have a regular education and had no knowledge of Greek and Latin. Johnson holds up the view of Ben Johnson who was a friend of Shakespeare, and must therefore have been well enough informed abut him to say that he had small Latin and less Greek. Johnson is of the view that Ben Johnson had no imaginable temptation to falsify facts and even if he had, he could not have falsified the position because there were then many other people who knew Shakespeare well. Johnson holds Ben Johnson’s view as conclusive and reliable, unless and until it is contradicted by some other evidence equally powerful and forceful.

Shakespeare’s learning. Some scholars opine that many instances may be quoted to prove that Shakespeare was learned in the classics; his passage for instance, are modeled on old writers. But Johnson finds that Shakespeare could have acquired his knowledge in classical literature from the stories or events that had been translated into English in his period. In some other cases, they seem to be just coincidences of thought which are quite likely when two writers think on the same subjects, and condensed statements embodying morality, such as are common in conversation, are transmitted from generation to generation in the form of proverbial saying. Johnson cites some examples in support of his argument. Some critics maintain that the sentence ‘Go before, I’ll follow’, is a translation of the Latin’ ‘I pare square’. Johnson’s view is that it is ludicrous to look for the source in the case of such a statement. Another example cited is that of Caliban, who, on waking from a pleasant dream, utters,” I cried to sleep again” (The Tempest). It is said that this is an imitation of the classical lyrical poet Anacreon, whereas, the fact is that any man who wakes up from a pleasing dream might say the same. There are a few passage, adds Johnson, which may be mistaken as imitated, but they are too few to be conclusive.

Shakespeare may have derived these from accidental quotations, or some one else who was acquainted with classical literature may have quoted the instances to him. Had Shakespeare been learned in the classics he would have made allusions to the classics more often. Therefore the issue whether he was learned in the classical languages and literature is decided by Johnson in the negative. However, Johnson says that Shakespeare could have been learned enough in Latin to understand its construction or structure, but most probably unable to read Roman writers comfortably About Shakespeare’s knowledge in modern languages also Johnson’s view is much the same. He believes it almost impossible that Shakespeare knew French or Latin authors at first hand.

Shakespeare’s wisdom. Johnson supports Pope’s view that there is much knowledge lying spread over the pages of Shakespeare, but he believes that it is knowledge unborrowed from books. Johnson says : “He that will understand Shakespeare must not be content to study him in the closet, he must look for his meaning sometimes among the manufactures of the shop, and sometimes the sports of the field.”

We may agree with Johnson that Shakespeare’s knowledge is not exclusively bookish, but mostly from a direct and first hand knowledge of life itself. Shakespeare might have come across a great many books in English including translations from alien languages. But the lion’s share of Shakespeare’s excellence belongs to his won spontaneous or natural genius. “He found the English stage in a state of utmost rudeness, no easy either in tragedy or comedy had appeared from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakespeare may be truly said to have introduced them both among-st us and in some of his happier scenes to have carried them both to the utmost height”.

Development of Shakespeare’s genius. Johnson argues that there is no certainty about the steps of growth or development through which Shakespeare’s genius passed. This was because the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays was unknown. Rowe is of the opinion that we• may see in Shakespeare’s plays a reverse of development. Johnson quotes Rowe who says, perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like those of other writers, in his least perfect works; art had so little and nature so large a share in what ‘he did that for aught I know. The performance’ adds Rowe, “of his young, as they were the most vigorous, were the best”. But Johnson refutes this view. According to Dr. Johnson, the power of nature is merely the power of making use of the materials which are supplied by labour or opportunity. “Nature gives no man knowledge, and when images are collected by study and experience, can only assist in combining or applying them. Shakespeare, however, favoured by nature, could impart only what he had learned, and as he must increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquisition, he like them, grew wiser as he grew older, could display life better, as he knew it more, and instruct with more efficacy as he was more amply instructed”. By and large, Johnson expresses his views with clarity and it seems plausible.

Shakespeare— an observer of life.  Johnson also admires Shakespeare’s keen and vigilant observation of life. This is one of his peculiar gifts, other than his natural genius. He combined this with a careful and profound accuracy of distinction. Johnson says:
“Shakespeare must have looked upon mankind with perspicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive. Other writers borrow their characters from preceding writers and diversify them only by the accidental appendages of present manners; the dress is a little varied, but the body is the same. Our author had both matter and form to provide, for except the characters of Chaucer, to whom I think he is not much indebted, there were no writers in English, and perhaps not many in other modern languages, which showed life in its native colours

Conclusion. Quite unlike other renowned writers, Shakespeare could hardly hope for any help from his circumstances and environment. Johnson believes that diligence and perseverance can dominate overall external agency and overcome all hindrances. The below of poverty could not beat his genius, nor could the ups and downs of his fortune leave his mind frozen or cold for he shook them off as a lion shakes off the dew drops that lie sprinkled on its mane. In spite of all the troubles he succeeded in deriving, ‘an exact knowledge of many modes of life and many casts of native disposition, to vary them with great multiplicity, to mark them by nice distinctions, and to show them in full view by proper combination. In this part of his performance he had none to imitate, but has himself been imitated by all succeeding writers, and it may be doubted whether from all his successors more maxims of theoretical knowledge or more rules of practical prudence can be collected than he alone has given to his country.” Shakespeare, was equally sensitive to the inanimate world as he was to the animate. In this respect he is a classic. As Johnson says, Shakespeare, whether life or nature be his subject, shows plainly what he has seen with his own eyes; he gives the image which he revives, not weakened or distorted by the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his representations to be just and the learned see that they are complete”. It is, in other words, immaterial whether Shakespeare was educated or not. The wisdom that his plays present is a wisdom of all ages, true as long as life exists.


Symposium of Critics on Johnson and his Preface to Shakespeare

W:K. Wimsatt. Johnson entertained very sound views about the philological part of an editor’s duties. His performance in this respect was, by modern standards, uneven, capricious, often notably deficient. But by any standards illustrated upon his own day, his performance was extraordinary. For reasons in part no doubt well known in the relation with Garrick which we have noticed, Johnson did only a spotty job in the department of textual collation. At the same time, he restored many readings of the First Folio and was the first editor to realize its sole authority among the other folios. In the department of explication, or, as it was then called, ‘elucidation, of the difficult passages in Shakespeare Johnson relied for the most part on his own sturdy good sense and general awareness of human nature, but now and then he made good use too of the historical perspectives which he had learned in his Dictionary labours and in which had great confidence and took a justifiable pride. Perhaps the largest philological virtue which Johtison displayed was that of restraint in the department of emendation, humility in the face of his author’s text, respect for what was given.

Jean H. Hagstrum. Samuel Johnson practiced most of the forms of literary criticism known to his day. He emended corrupt passages and explained obscure and difficult ones. He traced the development of an author’s genius — that ‘chemical process’, in the words of contemporary review of his criticism, by which the earliest yield is ‘transmuted into a substance of a more valuable kind” while “still preserving some analogy to its pristine form’. He occasionally studied “the gradual progress and improvement of our taste’, and he comprehended “as it were in one view the whole circle of the arts and sciences, to see their mutual connection and dependencies. But above all he sat on the judicial bench of criticism, inquiring into the beauties and faults of literary works and denouncing” with great accuracy on the merits of literary productions” His own learned labours resulted in an edition of Shakespeare which a contemporary scholar has characterized as “the best which had yet appeared’ and still one of the few editions which are indispensable. Johnson himself held the task of a scholarly editor in the highest possible regard. ‘Conjectural criticism demands more than humanity possesses Let us now he told no more” he said, glancing at Pope, “of the dull duty of an editor”.



Jean H. Hagstrum Thus literary research is often based upon a desire to determine the extent of an authors originality. If “the highest praise of genius is original invention’ — and no dictum of Johnson is more characteristic than this — it follows that criticism must be silent until it is determined just how original the author was; and that can be discovered only by means of scholarly tools. The apparatus criticus, which displays what the author knew, quoted, copied and echoed, has never been justified on better grounds than these. At least when he wrote his most important critical document, the Preface to Shakespeare Johnson considered historical investigation of literature to be of far greater dignity than determining the rank of any particular performance.


Johnson Wood Krutch : If, as may certainly be maintained, the final test of a critic is willingness and ability to recognize excellence even when he cannot account for it, to be able to put loyalty to greatness before loyalty to his own theories, then Johnson passes that test with flying colours like all critics of his century — perhaps like all critics of our own — he did not always know why the good was good or the bad was bad; but in the case of Shakespeare, at least, he not only seldom failed to acknowledge what was good but also seldom failed to realize just how good it was. No doubt it was because he thus recognized that a poet can be understood only if we open our minds to receive his impact, that he gave in the Preface that excellent advice which ought to be surprising to those to whom “Johnson’ and ‘pedant” seem equivalent terms. Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils. Let him that is yet unacquainted with the powers of Shakespeare, and who desires to feel the highest pleasure that drama can give, read every play from the first to the last, with utter negligence of all his commentators. When his fancy is once on the wing, let it not stoop at correction or explanation. When his attention is strongly engaged, let it disdain alike to turn aside to the name of Theobald and of Pope. Let him read on through brightness and obscurity, through integrity and corruption,; let him preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and his interest in the fable. And when the pleasures of novelty have ceased, let him attempt exactness, and read the commentators.


Joseph Wood krutch : It is also true that Johnson once remarked, when he was again praising Congreve: “Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault. But he was merely saying what every critic without exception from the days of Ben Johnson on, had said and what was perfectly obvious to any one familiar with what the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had come to mean by faultless or “correct” rhythm or diction and by “propriety”. Yet Johnson was as far as Dryden from supposing that this put Shakespeare below the “correct” poets. Out of this same sense that Shakespeare’s greatness is his greatness, he could humorously turn upon Mrs. Thrale, who tried to force him to agree that Edward Young’s description of night was better than Shakespeare’s or Dryden’s because it was more “general” and therefore, according to the poetic theory, which Johnson ostensibly accepted, more poetical, “Young froths, and foams and bubbles”, he retorted, “sometimes very vigorously; but we must not compare the noise made by our tea-kettle here with the roaring of the ocean”.


Joseph Wood Krutch It should also be remembered that in one respect, at least, Johnson’s effort to discover the moral as well as the other qualities of Shakespeare carried him a definite step beyond his contemporaries; he saw, as most of them did not, that one must always contemplate the whole of a play rather than its constituent parts. In so far as his predecessors had attempted analytical appreciations, they had tended to discuss “the beauties of Shakespeare”—i.e., isolated poetic passages—or, at most, to analyse individual characters in the plays. If Johnson had really been as much merely a moralist in his attitude toward literature as he is sometimes said to have been, he would have followed in this tradition and added the weight of his influence to those who delight in selecting copy book maxims or proving Shakespeare’s greatness by the number of such sayings as “Unto thine own self be true” and “0 that men should put an enemy in their mouths” which he has to his credit. But Johnson does nothing of that sort. He may have had little conception of what later and more esoteric critics mean by the “unity of Shakespeare’, but if so, he at least made a step forward by ‘ recognizing that this unity is of the first importance. It would, then seem reasonable to say that Johnson the moralist seldom gets seriously in the way of Johnson the aesthetic critic of Shakespeare and that, at the cost of a certain amount of consistency, he treats what he proclaims a major deficiency as though it were, in reality, a very minor one.

W.K. Wimsatt : Johnson is a man of powerful and spontaneous responses to Shakespearean drama, but it is apparently not just these responses, or not these responses in their purest, simplest or most immediate shape, that give him his theoretical, his reasoned, his celebrated defence of Shakespeare’s adulteration’s. Johnson’s emotional responses are more like the standard ones of his time; they are fairly close to the theoretical neo-classic norm, to the ideal of rational orderliness, the contemporary spirit of idealism and benevolism. This might be taken to mean that Johnson’s defence of mingled drama was a mere abstract and thin cerebration which for some reason he undertook in opposition to this own genuine responses. But perhaps not. It is difficult to imagine any external reason which could have coerced him. The defence of mingled drama is indeed a testimony to Johnson’s theoretical intelligence, but at the same time it would seem to be tied into something very deep, though sometimes less articulate and clear, in Johnson’s nature — that is, his strongly religious sense of mystery in the universe, of the inscrutable — the supernatural. This sense, when it. is operating, induces in him a much less demanding attitude towards the terrestrial distribution of good and evil, rewards and punishments. It is this sense largely which moves the Johnson who wrote the pleasantly darkened fable of Rasselas, the Johnson who turned his withering scorn on the complacent rationalism of Soame Jenyn’s Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil.


JOHNSON’S PREFERENCE FOR SHAKESPEARE’S COMEDIES T.S. Eliot. Why should Johnson have thought Shakespeare’s comic parts were spontaneous, and that his tragic parts were laboured? Here; it seems to me, Johnson, by his simple integrity, in being wrong has happened on some truth much deeper than he knew. For to those who have experienced the full horror of life, tragedy is still inadequate. Sophocles felt more of it than he could express, when he wrote Oedipus the King: Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet : and Shakespeare had the advantage of being able to employ his grave-diggers. In the end, horror and laughter may be one only when horror and laughter have become as horrible and laughable as they can be ; and—whatever the conscious intention of the authors—you may laugh or shudder over Oedipus or Hamlet or king Lear—or both at once then only do you perceive that the aim of the comic and the tragic dramatist is the same : they are equally serious. So do the meanings of words change, as we inspect them, that we may even come to see Moliere in some lights as a more serious dramatist than Corneille or Racine: Wycherley as equally serious (in this sense) with Marlowe. All this is suggested to me by the words of Samuel Johnson which I have quoted- What Plato perceived has not been noticed by subsequent dramatic critics; the dramatic poet uses the conventions of his day; there is potential comedy in Sophocles and potential tragedy in Aristophanes. and otherwise they would riot as such good tragedians or comedians as they are. It might he added that when you have comedy and tragedy united in the wrong Way. or separated in the wrong way, you get sentiment or amusciflelit.

The distinction between the tragic and the comic is an account of the way in which we try to live; when we get below it, as in King Lear, we have an accent of the way in which we do live.


Joseph Wood Krutch : In the first place, he (Johnson) is primarily concerned, not with convicting Shakespeare of vulgarity but of explaining how he has come to be charged with such a fault by persons who mistake custom for nature. In the second place Johnson is demonstrating not that time has served to render Shakespeare ridiculous but that his poetic force triumphs easily over apparent faults which changes of fashion have created.

Undoubtedly there are a few, though only a very few, occasions when Johnson’s judgement on a particular passages or event is led astray by his concern for formal moralizing. One striking example of such an occasion is a remark in the general comment on As You Like it. Most present-day readers would certainly agree that the opportunity was well lost and, if they are among those who find artistic reasons for what the vulgar take to be lapses, would certainly insist that the perfunctory treatment of the usurper’s reform is one of Shakespeare’s way of suggesting that no realism is intended in this particular play. In any event, if he had done what Johnson so unwisely wishes, we would only have had a passage more like Addison than like Shakespeare and hence open to the objection which Johnson had elsewhere made — that one is reminded of the author than of the play. Such occasional lapses from his own better judgement into the taste of his time might also be illustrated by an occasional emendation which not only weakens the text but violates Johnson’s own principle that emendation should never be made simply because one feels that an author ought to have written something different from what he did write.

George Waston : Three major inconsistencies emerge from the Preface as a whole. First, tragi-comedy is justified on conflicting grounds. This, the second section, is one of the most original parts of the Preface . Dryden too had occasionally defended mixed plays, but only as the occasion suited; he had condemned them too. And given that the neo-classic critics had abandoned, or forgotten, the Renaissance distinction between tragedy and comedy, it must indeed have seemed important to justify Shakespeare’s mixture of ‘crimes’ and absurdities’. But it will hardly do to justify tragicomedy on Dryden’s grounds that contraries set off each other, and then to excuse the rules of criticism” on the grounds that ‘there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature” and that ‘the mingled drama’ can be shown to have instructed as well as pleased “this is a characteristically Johnsonian use of the escape-clause. Second, the extravagant (or at least unqualified) praise of Shakespeare as supremely, “the poet of nature” in the first part of the Preface seems discredited in the light of some of his disparagements towards the end: “As we 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 or despise He has perhaps not one play which if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer would be heard to the conclusion’. This has the ring of sincerity but if sincere, it makes the veneration of the opening pages look prescriptive indeed. And finally, Johnson’s somewhat Coleridgean praise for Shakespeare as the poet of the “central” style, probably to be sought in the common intercourse of life, among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance”, seems out of tune with the attack that follows, in the list of Shakespeare’s defects, upon his tumour” his weak declamation, his “unwieldy sentiment”. More than once, the Preface seems torn apart by Johnson’s failure to qualify either his praise or his blame. But there are moments of scintillating perception. The refutation of the unities of time and place, and the assertion of the special status of dramatic illusion, is a model of logical demonstration, and rich in those effects of mock-simplicity which Johnson loved to affect.

Walter Jackson Bate: When the circumstances under which it was written are considered, the achievement of this work can only become a matter of conjecture for the moralist or the historian of human genius. For this triumph of sanity, of rounded understanding, was attained against an ominous background of personal experience. After the magnificent general opening occurs the famous paragraph which makes the transition to the basic premise on which the Preface is to build. In it we may sense the pull of “novelty’— of the ‘romance of chivalry” he had read as a boy and of the “irregular” agitation of his own unruly emotions. We may feel the weight of the “satiety of life” of which he speaks, the irritable and nervous “quest” for novelty which it incites, and Johnson’s own weary but constant realization that the vividness of “sudden wonder” that he craved is only too “soon exhausted’. And so hard-won is the weight of experience that the muscular laying aside of all that “novelty” signifies, in favour of the “repose”, the “stability” and ordering of experience through objective perception, is all the more final and genuine. ‘Nothing” he begins, “can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature’, of the broad, enduring aspects of external reality.

John Bailey: No man did more, perhaps, to call criticism back from paths that led to nowhere, or to suggest directions in which discoveries might be made. The most marked contrast between him and earlier critics is his caution about altering the received text. He first stemmed the tide of rash emendation, and the ebb which began with him has continued ever since. He neither overestimated the importance nor underestimated the difficulties of the critic of Shakespeare. With his usual sense of the true scale of things he treats the quarrels of commentators with contempt; “it is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed. The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they involve neither property not liberty”, and in another place he characteristically bids his angry colleagues to join with him in remembering amidst their triumphs over the “nonsensical’ opinions of dead rivals that we likewise are men and, as Swift observed to Burnet, “we shall soon be among the dead ourselves’. He knows too that “notes are necessary evils” add advises the young reader to begin by ignoring them and letting Shakespeare have his way alone.

Jean H. Hagstrum : It clear that Johnson has, though in complex and often underground ways, exerted considerable influence on twentieth century criticism. As Edward Emley has pointed out,
I. A. Richards and William Empson have, in their preoccupation with Coleridge and other critics, never fully realized their own affinity with the psychology and semantics of Johnson. But the so called New Critics have more than once had to test their strength against Johnson, especially in their rehabilitation of metaphysical, and have more than once come out of the fray admiring their adversary.

T.S. Eliot: The Preface to Shakespeare was published in 1765 and Voltaire, still writing ten years and more after this event, was maintaining an opposite point of view. Johnson saw deeper than Voltaire, in this as in most matters. Johnson perceived, though not explicitly, that the distinctions of tragic and comic are superficial for us — though he did not know how important they were for the Greeks; for he did not know that they sprang from a difference in ritual. As a poet and he was a fine poet — Johnson is at the end of a tether, but as a critic — and he was greater as critic than as poet — Johnson has a place comparable to that of Cowley as a poet in that we cannot say whether to classify him as the last of one kind of the first of another.

Joseph Wood Krutch : It is hardly necessary to repeat that Johnson was not “a literary dictator.” England has never known a man to whom that title could justly be applied, for not even Dryden, whose authority was probably more widely respected in the literary world than Johnson’s ever was, never exercised anything like undisputed sway. But Johnson did take all literature for his province, and did, before he had finished his career, manage to have his say concerning most of the English writers whom he thought of as first-rate.

George Watson: With Samuel Johnson (1709-84), English criticism achieves greatness on a scale that any reader can instantly recognize. Johnson certainly believed that the object of criticism was, in a very literal sense, to lay down the law, to ascertain and apply general principles of poetic excellence.

From his earliest years, Boswell tells us, he loved to read poetry, but hardly ever read any poem to an end, and he once asked an acquaintance incredulously : “Sir, do you read books through?” This is not the language of the close critical analyst. In suggest virtues of quite another kind: momentary but brilliant insights, a gift for perceiving relationships, certainty of judgement, breadth. And these are precisely the virtues of Johnson’s criticism. And finally, Johnson is an unambiguously historical critic and the true father of historical criticism in English.

George Saintsbury: The Shakespeare Preface is a specially interesting document, because of its illustration, not merely of Johnson’s native critical vigour, not merely of his imbibed eighteenth century prejudices, but of that peculiar position of compromise and reservation which, as we have said and shall say, is at once the condemnation and the salvation of the English critical position at this time. That Johnson might have been greater still at other times need not necessarily be denied; though it is at least open to doubt whether any other time would have suited his whole disposition better. But, as he is, he is great His critical calculus is perfectly sound on its postulates and axioms; and you have only to apply checks and correctives (which are easily ascertained, and kept ready) to adjust it to absolute critical truth. And, what is more, he has not merely flourished and vapoured critical abstraction, but has left us a solid reasoned body of critical judgement We may freely disagree with his judgement, but we can never justly disable his judgement; and this is the real criterion of a great critic.



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  1. Lachhmi May 30, 2021

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