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

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sean475 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Preface to Shakespeare is 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.

scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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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