Preface to Shakespeare
Preface to Shakespeare
By Dr. Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare (1765) stands as a timeless piece of literary criticism where he transcends his political, personal, religious, and literary biases to objectively assess both the strengths and weaknesses of Shakespeare, embodying the essence of a genuine critic. Johnson’s sincerity in evaluating Shakespeare is evident, as he candidly discusses the playwright’s merits and addresses potential limitations. Additionally, Johnson staunchly defends Shakespeare against allegations of disregarding classical unities and blending tragedy with comedy. Halliday praises The Preface in these words:
The preface is the impartial estimate of Shakespeare’s virtues and defects by a powerful mind”.
Johnson Defends Shakespeare
Samuel Johnson staunchly upholds Shakespeare against the accusation of disregarding classical unities. While acknowledging Shakespeare’s frequent censure (means “condemnation”) for interweaving comic and tragic elements, Johnson actively defends the playwright by asserting that Shakespeare’s tragic-comedies serve as a faithful reflection of human nature. Johnson contends that, similar to real life where good and evil, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles coexist, Shakespeare, by blending tragedy and comedy, effectively holds a mirror to nature. He argues that tragic-comedy, being a more genuine interpretation of life, is closer to reality than either pure tragedy or comedy. Furthermore, Johnson posits that the amalgamation of tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare’s works introduces a rich variety, asserting that such diversity enhances the appeal of tragic-comedy, as all pleasures, according to him, derive from this very diversity.
Shakespeare faced criticism from Neo-classical critics who faulted him for not adhering to the classical unities of time and place. However, Johnson defends Shakespeare by asserting that the unity of time and place lacks validity. He substantiates his argument by suggesting that if spectators can conceive the stage as Athens and the actors as Antony and Cleopatra, their imaginative capacities can extend further. Johnson contends that drama thrives on illusion, and since illusion knows no bounds, enforcing the unity of time and place becomes futile. According to him, what holds significance is the unity of action, a principle that Shakespeare adheres to in his plays.
Furthermore, Shakespeare faced criticism for the extravagance evident in his plays; however, Johnson provides a justification for these extravagances, asserting that they were necessitated by the preferences of the contemporary audience.
Johnson Praises Shakespeare
Johnson also illuminates Shakespeare’s commendable qualities, lauding (means “praising”) the playwright for his portrayal of realism, practical wisdom, insight into human psychology, meticulous characterization, as well as for being true to nature in his dramatic compositions. According to Dr. Johnson, Shakespeare’s greatness resides in his accurate representation of universal human nature. Shakespeare’s works resonate with the passions and principles common to humanity, and his characters, simultaneously universal and individual, possess a rare “universal appeal” not often found in the works of other dramatists. Dr. Johnson claims that Shakespeare’s plays embody these qualities due to their foundation in a truthful observation of genuine, general human nature. This authenticity is the basis for the universal validity and applicability of his plays.
Johnson’s Prejudice against Shakespeare
According to Dr. Johnson, Shakespeare’s comedies surpass his tragedies. Johnson contends that comedy flows effortlessly from Shakespeare, whereas his tragedies are the result of his toil and study. Johnson says:
His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy instinct”.
This is why his comic scenes are more natural and durable. The language of his comic scenes is the language of real life which is neither gross nor over-refined and hence it has not grown obsolete.
Faults of Shakespeare
In conjunction with acknowledging Shakespeare’s merits, Johnson also identifies significant shortcomings in the playwright’s work. He accuses Shakespeare for his narrative inconsistencies, prioritization of convenience over virtuous portrayals, disregard for poetic justice, lapses in chronological order, inclusion of licentious jokes, use of extravagant language, excessive circumlocution, and the employment of cold and weak speech.
In Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare, the playwright is portrayed as an authentic genius, yet not exempt (means “free”) from the common imperfections inherent in humanity. It is Johnson’s impartial and candid critique that elevates the Preface to a milestone, contributing significantly to both Shakespearean scholarship and the broader realm of English criticism.
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