Preface to Shakespeare

by Samuel Johnson

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Discuss the merits and defects of Shakespeare as given in Johnson's "Preface to Shakespeare." 

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As far as defects, Johnson finds that Shakespeare offers little in the way of moral instruction in his plays, seeming to write, according to Johnson, "without any moral purpose." Johnson believed that literature ought to offer lessons for our own lives, and may of Shakespeare's works are morally ambiguous at best. Johnson also found Shakespeare's use of language crude and bawdy at times, and saw his use of puns as offensive. He criticizes his anachronisms, such as "Hector quoting Aristotle" and argued that many of the great speeches from his tragedies and histories were full of bombast and melodrama

On the other hand, Johnson is struck by Shakespeare's originality, praising, rather than finding fault with his departure from classical dramatic conventions. He notes that Shakespeare, for all of his indiscretions, unlocked the potential for lyricism in the English language. Above all, he finds many of the human emotions at work in Shakespeare to be very powerful and enduring, and relevant to the human condition, even though his stories are clearly fictional:

Other writers disguise the most natural passions and most frequent incidents; so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world: Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.

Above all, Johnson is insistent that his subject can only be understood in his context, by comparing his work to that of his contemporaries, and by considering what Johnson regards as the underdeveloped state of English literature before Shakespeare. 

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