Samuel Johnson’s 1765 Preface to Shakespeare fits into a tradition of presenting Shakespeare’s plays in modernized form.
Johnson’s Preface contains echoes of neo-classical sentiments, especially in his application of mimetic values, and in his axiom that “nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of human nature.” Johnson also states that “it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place.” The key points of Johnson’s treatise are:
Shakespeare is the foremost of English writers. He is “the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.”
Shakespeare’s characters are universal. “They are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.”
Shakespeare’s work transcends genre. His “plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination. . . .”
Shakespeare’s plays follow miscuit utile dulce: “The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.”
Shakespeare polished a crude form. “He found the English stage in a state of the utmost rudeness,” but his talent in developing character and dialogue brought the drama forward so that “in some of his happier scenes” we are carried “to the utmost height.”
Shakespeare does have several faults. “He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.” “To the unities of time and place he has shown no regard.”