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...
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