Preface to Shakespeare

by Samuel Johnson

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How does Johnson evaluate Shakespeare as an artist in A Preface to Shakespeare?

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I tend to think that part of where Johnson lies in his assessment of Shakespeare as an artist is in his ability to connect with both the audiences of his time period and those that followed.  For Johnson, this becomes the critical element in which Shakespeare's value as both works of literature and the artist who created them can be properly assigned:  “This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life.”  This mirror is one that has enabled Shakespeare's value as an artist to merit appreciation from Johnson.  I think that Johnson also makes an important statement about Shakespeare's value as an artist in suggesting that Shakespeare kept an eye on the maintenance of a moral order in his world, and thus in ours.  While he does offer criticism that Shakespeare does not demonstrate poetic justice, Johnson argues that Shakespeare's value is that moral issues are raised through "the common intercourse of life."  Shakespeare's value as an artist is assessed in the fact that he does not operate "in a closet," but rather is willing to show moral and ethical challenges in the real world with characters who live in the world of the real:

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.

It is in this display where Shakespeare's work is seen as the highest that "drama can give."  In this, one sees Shakespeare's value as an artist is evident in the display of this real world discussion of individual action and in how such a demonstration is not temporal or condition.  Through this, Johnson is able to evaluate Shakespeare in the highest of calibers.  His work is applicable to the contexts that follow Shakespeare in just as many as it was in the time period in which he wrote.

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