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

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

“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.

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