SHAKESPEARE SEEN IN THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
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 Sa.xo 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.