Samuel Johnson

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How does Johnson defend Shakespeare's mixing of tragic and comic elements?

Johnson defends the mixing of tragic and comedic elements in Shakespeare's tragedies by putting them in the context of the playwright's overall aim. This aim was to present the human condition in a realistic way. Because life is full of tragedy and comedy, Shakespeare's plays are as well.

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Johnson described Shakespeare's plays, and his tragedies in particular, as a "mirror of life." Because life is full of tragedy and comedy, and is at times tragicomic, Shakespeare's plays do too. As Johnson put it, Shakespeare "thinks only on men." Shakespeare recognized that in such locations as Classical Rome, medieval Scotland, and the royal court of Denmark, there were not just heroes and villains, but "buffoons," "drunkards," liars, and other characters. Many of Shakespeare's characters contain a combination of these traits within their personas, because, in short, they are human. Johnson's claim is that Shakespeare sought to portray the human condition as a complex, textured, contradictory situation.

It is important to understand why some of Shakespeare's critics did not like this aspect of his work. While many playwrights of the period (Johnson wrote in the eighteenth century) had modified Aristotle's classic theory of unities, they still expected that plays would not deviate from them too much. A play should have unity of place, action, and time, and its characters should clearly reveal moral lessons to the audience. According to this theory, there was no room for comedic scenes like the gravediggers in Hamlet.

Johnson believed that Shakespeare transcended this classic form of drama, and sought an authenticity that classical forms could not deliver. Mixing comedic scenes in a tragedy like Othello or Hamlet portrays life as it is, "good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination." In other words, Shakespeare's deviation from classical forms (which Johnson does not really think he knew about anyway) does not disqualify him as a great poet and playwright. It is actually what makes him great.

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Samuel Johnson calls Shakespeare a poet of nature. By nature, he means human nature, which is messy and complicated.

Neoclassical critics of Johnson's time criticized Shakespeare for blending comic and tragic elements in his plays because they thought this was a flaw of genre. They viewed Shakespeare as lacking discipline in this way. For example, Romeo and Juliet, while a tragedy proper, starts out reminiscent of comedic stories with its bawdy jokes and mismatched lovers. By the end, this comedic atmosphere gives way to violence and tragedy.

Johnson believes that Shakespeare's blending comedy and tragedy in his work is not a stylistic flaw, but a better way of rendering humanity in all its fullness. Life is neither wholly sad or wholly happy, so why should fictional stories be any different?

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Johnson was informed by the wisdom of the writers of ancient Greece and Rome. He was also formed by and helped form the taste of the Augustan Age of British literature in the eighteenth century which so admired the classical authors. He very much had a taste and preference for the classically smooth, decorous, and harmonious in writing.

But Johnson could also think for himself, and he loved Shakespeare. Shakespeare broke the Neoclassic rules of drama as laid out by Aristotle in his Poetics , such as not keeping to...

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the unities of action, time, and place, which required a play to take place within a single day in a single setting. Shakespeare also broke the rules of decorum which insisted comedy and tragedy could not mix. (A play that was deliberately called a tragicomedy was a different story, but the classicists would insist that a play that is clearly a tragedy, likeRomeo and Juliet, should not have comic elements, as that would break the mood.)

In Shakespeare, however, Johnson argues, realism becomes the saving grace that unifies the plays into one harmonious whole. We don't feel jarred or jerked around because Shakespeare's writing is so seamlessly real and reflects the reality that humans are always changing their moods. Underlying these comments is the idea that if you are a great enough writer, as Shakespeare is, you can break the rules and still create works of genius.

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The Preface to Shakespeareis the opening to Samuel Johnson's highly influential work of literary criticism, The Plays of William Shakespeare. In the Preface, Johnson vaunts Shakespeare's willingness to blend tragedy and comedy in his plays—putting tragic elements in comedies and comedic parts into tragedies. For example, while As You Like It is a comedy, many of Touchstone the Clown's lines are cuttingly deep, while the minor character Osric in Hamlet is such a comic role that Robin Williams played the part in the 1996 film version of the play.

The chief defense that Johnson offers to this blend of comic and tragic elements in a play is that it is true to life. Our daily lives are not completely funny nor completely tragic, so Johnson agreed with Shakespeare's (then controversial) decision to write the plots of his plays to show it.

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Samuel Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare is a monumental work in the world of literary criticism, and his explanation for Shakespeare's tendency to include tragedy in his comedies and comedy in his tragedies demonstrates that Johnson understood and admired the bard's ability to depict human nature in a realistic fashion.  Johnson wrote that human nature

“partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination.”

Thus, Shakespeare's inclusion of comedic relief in his tragedies or tragic figures (Shylock in Merchant of Venice) is simply the playwright's accurate portrayal of life's true nature--it is a blend of hardship and happiness, which often exists in one's life at the same time.

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