Summary of Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare

Table of Contents

 Summary of Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare


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 excellence 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.


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