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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1836

Samuel Johnson’s preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare has long been considered a classic document of English literary criticism. In it Johnson sets forth his editorial principles and gives an appreciative analysis of the “excellences” and “defects” of the work of the great Elizabethan dramatist. Many of his points...

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Samuel Johnson’s preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare has long been considered a classic document of English literary criticism. In it Johnson sets forth his editorial principles and gives an appreciative analysis of the “excellences” and “defects” of the work of the great Elizabethan dramatist. Many of his points have become fundamental tenets of modern criticism; others give greater insight into Johnson’s prejudices than into Shakespeare’s genius. The resonant prose of the preface adds authority to the views of its author.

Perhaps no other document exhibits the character of eighteenth century literary criticism better than what is commonly known as Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare. Written after Johnson had spent nine years laboring to produce an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the Preface to Shakespeare is characterized by sweeping generalizations about the dramatist’s work and by stunning pronouncements about its merits, judgments that elevated Shakespeare to the top spot among European writers of any century. At times, Johnson displays the tendency of his contemporaries to fault Shakespeare for his propensity for wordplay and for ignoring the demands for poetic justice in his plays; readers of subsequent generations have found these criticisms to reflect the inadequacies of the critic more than they do those of the dramatist. What sets Johnson’s work apart from that of his contemporaries, however, is the immense learning that lies beneath so many of his judgments; he consistently displays his familiarity with the texts, and his generalizations are rooted in specific passages from the dramas. Further, Johnson is the first among the great Shakespeare critics to stress the playwright’s sound understanding of human nature. Johnson’s focus on character analysis initiated a critical trend that would be dominant in Shakespeare criticism (in fact, all of dramatic criticism) for more than a century and would lead to the great work of critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and A. C. Bradley.

The significance of the Preface to Shakespeare, however, goes beyond its contributions to Shakespeare scholarship. First, it is the most significant practical application of a critical principle that Johnson espoused consistently and that has become a staple of the practice since: comparison. His systematic attempt to measure Shakespeare against others, both classical and contemporary, became the model. Second, the Preface to Shakespeare exemplifies Johnson’s belief that good criticism can be produced only after good scholarship has been practiced. The critic who wishes to judge an author’s originality or an author’s contributions to the tradition must first practice sound literary reading and research in order to understand what has been borrowed and what has been invented.

Characteristically, Johnson makes his Shakespeare criticism the foundation for general statements about people, nature, and literature. He is a true classicist in his concern with the universal rather than with the particular; the highest praise he can bestow upon Shakespeare is to say that his plays are “just representations of general nature.” The dramatist has relied upon his knowledge of human nature, rather than on bizarre effects, for his success. “The pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth,” Johnson concludes. It is for this reason that Shakespeare has outlived his century and reached the point at which his works can be judged solely on their own merits, without the interference of personal interests and prejudices that make criticism of one’s contemporaries difficult.

Johnson feels that the readers of his time can often understand the universality of Shakespeare’s vision better than the audiences of Elizabethan England could, for the intervening centuries have freed the plays of their topicality. The characters in the plays are not limited by time or nationality; they are, rather, “the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.”

Implicitly criticizing earlier editors of Shakespeare, who had dotted their pages with asterisks marking particularly fine passages, Johnson contends that the greatness of the plays lies primarily in their total effect, in the naturalness of the action, the dialogue, and the characterization. Again and again Johnson stresses the same point: “This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life.” The playwright’s personages are drawn from the world familiar to everyone: “Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion.”

That Shakespeare wrote “contrary to the rules of criticism” is, for Johnson, not a problem. Aside from the fact that Aristotle’s rules were not widely known during Shakespeare’s time, Johnson notes, “There is always an appeal open from criticism to nature.” Life itself justifies the mingling of comedy and tragedy on the stage; together they exhibit “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.”

While Johnson is aware of Shakespeare’s skills in both comedy and tragedy, he suggests that the playwright’s natural forte was the former: “In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comick; but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature.” Johnson later criticizes some of the plays’ tragic speeches as bombast, forced, unnatural emotion, and he complains that all too often scenes of pathos are marred by “idle conceits,” those inspiring terror and pity by “sudden frigidity.” The critic later confesses, however, that in spite of these flaws one finds one’s mind seized more strongly by Shakespeare’s tragedies than by those of any other writer.

Johnson praises Shakespeare’s language as that of the “common intercourse of life,” used among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition or elegance. One of Johnson’s most stringent objections to Shakespeare’s work arises from Johnson’s strong conviction that literature is, or should be, essentially didactic. He is disturbed by Shakespeare’s disregard of poetic justice. Johnson, convinced that a writer should show the virtuous rewarded and the evil punished, asserts that Shakespeare, by ignoring this premise, “sacrifices virtue to convenience.” In Johnson’s eyes, the fact that in life evil often triumphs over good is no excuse: “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better.”

Shakespeare’s careless plotting and his “disregard for distinctions of time and place” are also noted as flaws: “We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of Theseus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothick mythology of fairies.” Although Johnson dislikes Shakespeare’s often coarse language, he is willing to concede that that fault, at least, might have rested with the indelicacy of the ladies and gentlemen at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I rather than with the playwright. These minor “errors” are far less irritating to Johnson than Shakespeare’s use of puns: “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.” Puns, being language’s form of disorderly conduct, disturbed Johnson’s neoclassical understanding.

Johnson’s contemporaries often condemned Shakespeare for his lack of attention to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, which were assiduously observed by the French classical dramatists and their English imitators. Johnson notes that Shakespeare observed the principle of unity of action in giving each of his plays a beginning, a middle, and an end, and in developing his plots by cause and effect. Moreover, Johnson sees no harm in Shakespeare’s failure in most cases to limit his action to one place and one day. Most strict neoclassical critics maintained that such limitations of time and space are necessary for dramatic credibility, but Johnson finds this assertion ridiculous, for every member of the audience knows that all drama is illusion: “He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation.” Real dramatic credibility comes from the validity of the emotions presented: “The reflection that strikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed.”

Anticipating the historical critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Johnson assesses some of the aspects of Elizabethan England that probably influenced Shakespeare. He stresses the fact that the dramatist was in many ways a pioneer, for he had few truly outstanding English works of drama or poetry on which to build. Shakespeare’s complicated plots can be traced to the popularity of the elaborate pastoral romances read by his audiences and occasionally used as sources for the plays.

Johnson does not emphasize Shakespeare’s learning, noting that the playwright could have read in translation the classical works he mentions. Shakespeare’s greatest knowledge came not from books, but from life: “Mankind was not then to be studied in the closet; he that would know the world, was under the necessity of gleaning his own remarks, by mingling as he could in its business and amusements.”

Concluding his general commentary, Johnson summarizes Shakespeare’s gifts to English literature: The form, the characters, the language, and the shows of the English drama are his. . . . To him we must ascribe the praise, unless Spenser may divide it with him, of having first discovered to how much smoothness and harmony the English language could be softened.

In the remainder of the Preface to Shakespeare, Johnson delineates his editorial standards, rejecting the temptation to follow the practices of his predecessors, who had emended—essentially rewritten—the plays where they could not understand or did not like what they found in the earliest texts of Shakespeare’s works. Johnson followed Alexander Pope in basing his edition on the original quarto versions of the plays and on the first folio, and he states that he attempted to leave them as nearly as possible as he found them. His explanatory notes offer not only his own ideas but also the views of earlier critics. He quotes others to refute them more often than to praise them, believing that “the first care of the builder of a new system, is to demolish the fabricks which are standing.”

In a final exhortation to the reader, Johnson places his efforts in perspective; notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils. The reader who has not yet experienced Shakespeare’s genius must first ignore the editor’s aids and simply read for “the highest pleasure that the drama can give.” Johnson’s modesty is in itself a tribute to Shakespeare; his whole task as editor and critic was to make the great plays more accessible to the public, and his criticism still gives valuable insights to the modern lover of Shakespeare.

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