Preface to Shakespeare

by Samuel Johnson

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Discuss Johnson's view on modern faults and ancient beauty in his Preface to Shakespeare.

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I think that Johnson's quote reflects much about the notion of literary criticism as well as the basic ideas that Johnson holds towards Shakespeare.  Johnson's quote, on its own merit, suggests that the establishment of a higher caliber of literature is something that must endure the passage of time.  The "great contention of criticism" is something that involves study, scholarship, discourse, and analysis of work both in its context and afterwards.  Interestingly enough, I think that Johson's quote speaks to how literature, and thus literary criticism, must represent a notion of transcendence in a world of contingency.  For Johnson, the idea of modern criticism is to examine and analyze works in the hopes of finding a higher caliber of literature. It is here where Johnson posits his analysis of Shakespeare.  For Johnson, part of Shakespeare's greatness is the "just representations of general nature."  In this, Shakespeare's work established themselves during the time period in which they were written and have withstood the challenges of time in that which has followed.  The ability to use Shakespeare as a metric in which "the faults of the moderns" can be assessed is part of the reason why Shakespeare's works are so compelling in terms of Johnson's assessment: "The pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth."  In Johnson's mind, the greatness of Shakespeare is evident as the "beauty of the ancients" when it can be examined both in its context and in the contexts that follow.  It is here where Shakespeare's work can be seen as a "stability of truth," an opportunity to find transcendence in a world of contingency.

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