Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) – Preface to Shakespeare


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Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds 2
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) – Preface to Shakespeare
Samuel Johnson, the son of Michael, a bookseller, was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18, 1709. At an early age, he contracted a tubercular infection from his nurse that left him physically handicapped with bad eyesight and partial deafness. Later, a bout of smallpoxleft him with facial scars. In spite of his handicaps, he was determined to be independent and did not accept help from others. He was unable to play regular sports but made up by learning other skills: boxing, swimming, leaping and sliding on frozen lakes and ponds. He first went to Lichfield grammar schools and later to Sturbridge. At both schools, he was acknowledged as a leader, both by his teachers and his fellow-students. After a gap of two years, he went to Pembroke College, Oxford University, and studied there for thirteen months but had to leave in 1729 because of financial difficulties. He was fiercely independent and refused any kind of charity. While at Oxford, he had only one pair of torn shoes with his toes coming through, and one night, a man placed a pair of new shoes in front of his room and when Johnson found them the next morning, he threw them away in anger and wounded pride. Once out of Oxford, he went into depression for nearly two years and fearing that he might become insane, even contemplated suicide. At this time, he also developed a compulsive tic that remained with him for the rest of his life.
In 1732, Johnson went to Birmingham. Here the Porters helped him get out of his depression and regain his self-confidence. Elizabeth Porter appreciated and cared for Johnson and in 1735, after the death of her husband, she married Johnson, and twenty years his senior. In the same year, Johnson published his first book, a translation. With the financial support of his wife, Johnson opened a private school and David Garrick, who later became a famous actor of the day, was one of his pupils here. However, the school venture was not a success and he and Elizabeth moved to London in 1737. In London, he earned a meager livelihood, working as a translator and writer. While at Litchfield and London, he wrote his tragedy Irene. He wrote regularly for the Gentleman’s Magazine and contributed prefaces, short biographies, essays, reviews, and poems. His poem, London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, published in May 1738, made his reputation. Pope pronounced that the author of this poem would become famous. In 1744, Johnson wrote An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers, a revealing life account of his mysterious friend, Richard Savage. Today this is recognized as a significant milestone in the art of writing “critical biography”.
The year, 1745 proved a literary turning point in Johnson’s life. He published a pamphlet on Macbeth that won him Warburton’s praise, which he valued highly because it came at a time when he most needed it. At this time, he also began thinking about publishing an English Dictionary. In 1746, he signed an agreement with a group of publishers, accepting payment of 1575 pounds. The Italians published a dictionary in 1612, which took them 20 years to prepare. The French dictionary published in 1694, engaged 40 scholars, who took 55years to prepare it and then another 18 years to revise it. The Oxford English Dictionary, which was a collaborative work of more than 70 scholars, took nearly 70 years to complete. Johnson planned to complete his ambitious project in three years but it took him nearly eight years to complete. This in itself was a remarkable achievement. The dictionary was published in 1755. His financial condition improved once Johnson received 1,575 pounds for the project.
In 1749, Johnson published his much-acclaimed poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal”. In the following years, he wrote a large number of essays for his journal The Rambler. In 1759, Johnson published his brilliant work Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. In October 1765, Johnson’s last great work, The Plays of William Shakespeare, which had been delayed for so long, was published. The last period of Johnson’s life was spent in the company of his friends, especially the Thrales and James Boswell. On 17 June 1783, Johnson suffered a stroke. He made great efforts to overcome it, but was also plagued by various other ailments. He died quietly on 13 December 1784. On his death, his friend William Gerard Hamilton, Member of Parliament, paid a great tribute to him saying that Johnson had left a chasm that no man could fill. His friend and admirer Boswell later went on to write The Life of Samuel Johnson, which presents Johnson as an extraordinary man.

Preface to Shakespeare* (1765)

In 1756, Johnson published his Proposal for printing by subscription, The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, corrected and illustrated by Samuel Johnson. Once the subscription was advertised, he received a large sum of money personally. He foolhardily promised to bring out the work in a year’s time but unable to bring it out at the promised time, he came under scathing attacks, especially by the poet Charles Churchill. The upbraiding in verse by Churchill made him restart work on his edition of Shakespeare. It was finally published in eight volumes, octavo size in 1765, and nine years after the publication of the Proposal.
The collection has a Preface (72 pages in Johnson’s first edition), which is acknowledged as the best part of the edition and considered a great piece of neo-classical literary criticism. The Prefaceenumerates Shakespeare’s “excellencies” as well as his “defects. His biographer and friend Boswell states: “A blind indiscriminate admiration of Shakespeare had exposed the British nation to the ridicule of foreigners. Johnson, by candidly admitting the faults of his poet, had the more credit in bestowing on him deserved and indisputable praise”(Boswell 491).
The Prefacehas two sections: one dealing with Johnson’s critical analysis of Shakespeare as a dramatist, and the other part dealing with an explication of the editorial methods used by Johnson in his Edition of Shakespeare. Johnson begins the Preface by asserting that people cherish the works of writers who are dead and neglect the modern. Johnson partly agrees with the 18th-century critics that antiquity is honored, especially in the arts, as opposed to the sciences because the only test that can be applied to them is that of “length of duration and continuance of esteem”(3). He states that if a writer is venerated by posterity, it is proof of his excellence and he cites the example of Homer. He says the ancients are to be honored not merely because they are ancient but because the truths that they present have stood the test of time. He then applies this criterion to Shakespeare: Shakespeare “may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit” (5).
In his analysis of Shakespeare, Johnson adopts a multidimensional approach. He examines the bard’s works from different angles and presents him as timeless and universal, but he also presents him as a product of his age and time. As a neo-classicist, he tries to maintain a structural balance of praise and blame for Shakespeare. He adopts an “ahistoricaland a historicalapproach to our understanding of Shakespeare (Desai 5). He tries to make a distinction between the appeal of Shakespeare to his contemporaries and to future generations. He says that since times and customs have changed, the depiction of the particular manners of Shakespeare’s age, are no longer of interest to contemporary audiences. In his opinion, Shakespeare continues to be admired not for depicting the customs and manners of his own age but for the representation of universal truths: “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature” (7).
Shakespeare “a poet of Nature”
In the first part of the PrefaceJohnson praises Shakespeare as “a poet of Nature”, who “holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life”: all his characters be they Romans, Danes, or kings represent general human passions and principles common to all humans (8). In Johnson’s view, Shakespeare’s scenes are populated “only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion” (13). Another merit he finds in Shakespeare is that though Shakespeare’s characters depict universal human passions, yet they are distinctly individualized. He also appreciates Shakespeare for not focusing only on the passion of love but dealing with different kinds of passion exhibited by humankind. He refutes the charge leveled against Shakespeare by critics that Shakespeare represents noble characters of different nations as buffoons and drunkards. He considers these charges ‘petty cavils of petty minds”. He says Shakespeare “always makes nature predominate over accident; and that if he preserves the essential character, he is not very careful about the accidental distinctions” (15). He clinches his argument by saying: “a poet overlooks the casual distinctions of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with a figure, neglects the tapestry” (15). He concludes with a metaphorical tribute to Shakespeare: “The stream of time, which is continually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other poets; passes by the adamant of Shakespeare” (29).
He views Shakespeare’s plays as neither tragedies nor comedies but as just representations “exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joyand sorrow”(17). While the ancients concentrated on producing either comedy or tragedy and no Greek or Roman author attempted to do both, Shakespeare possessed the genius to do both in the same composition. His mingled drama violated the rules of dramatic writing but for Johnson realism supersedes the claim of rules: “there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature….The end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing” (20). He further states that “mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied because it includes both in its alterations of an exhibition and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life” (20). Johnson considers this mingling justified as Shakespeare’s plays both “instruct and delight”. Nor does he feel that the mixing of tragic and comic scenes in any way diminishes or weakens the passions the dramatist aims at representing on the other hand he feels that variety contributes to pleasure.
Shakespeare – A Genius in Writing Comedy
Johnson considers Shakespeare a genius in writing comedy. He agrees with Rhymer that Shakespeare possessed a natural flair for comedy. He thinks Shakespeare had to toil hard for the tragic scenes but the comic scenes appear to be written with great spontaneity: “His tragedy seems to be a skill. His comedy to be instinct” (28). He asserts that Shakespeare obtained his comic dialogues from the common intercourse of life and therefore their appeal has not diminished over time.
Shakespeare’s Faults
After his praise of Shakespeare, Johnson goes on to point out the faults of Shakespeare. Johnson distinguishes between art and life. He says the audience is always aware that they are watching a fictionalized representation and can enjoy tragedy only for this reason, although the enjoyment is directly proportional to the realism with which the characters are depicted.
As a true neo-classicist, Johnson is extremely didactic in his approach to Shakespeare. He believes that however true to life an artist proposes to be, the creative artist may not sacrifice “virtue to convenience”. Johnson thinks Shakespeare is more concerned about pleasing than instructing. In the eyes of Johnson, Shakespeare lacks a clear and distinct moral purpose and sometimes seems to write without any moral purpose at all. He disapproves of Shakespeare on moral grounds: “he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his person’s indifferently through right and wrong and at the close dismisses them without further care and leaves their examples to operate by chance” (33). This “barbarity” Johnson cannot pardon for he believes that it is always the duty of the writer “to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place” (33). In this connection, in his notes on King Lear, he condemns Shakespeare for sacrificing the virtue of Cordelier: “Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles” (Johnson in Desai 155). He goes on to say:
A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry may doubtless be good because it is a just representation of the common events of human life; but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue. (155)
Johnson also finds faults with Shakespeare’s plots and thinks they are loosely formed and not pursued with diligence. He finds this reflected in Shakespeare’s neglect to utilize the opportunities that come his way to instruct and delight. Additionally, he adds that Shakespeare seems not to labor enough towards the ending of his plays such that “his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented” (35). He also finds Shakespeare guilty of violating chronology and verisimilitude relating to time and place for “ he gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of another”(36). He criticizes Shakespeare for making Hector quote Aristotle in Troilus and Cressidaand also critiques him for combining the love of Theseus and Hippolyta with that of the Gothic mythology of Fairies.
Although Johnson lauds Shakespeare’s skill in writing comic scenes, yet he does not gloss over the faults. He finds Shakespeare’s language coarse and the jests gross in many comic dialogues. He comments that the gentlemen and ladies indulging in these coarse exchanges appear to be no different than the clowns. Johnson cannot excuse Shakespeare even if this coarseness was prevalent in Shakespeare’s time, for he thinks that as a poet he should have known better. The meanness, tediousness, and obscurity in Shakespeare’s tragedies Johnson consider the undesirable effect of excessive labor. He finds Shakespeare’s narration often verbose and prolix, full of verbiage and unnecessary repetition. He also accuses Shakespeare of not matching his words to the occasion. His set speeches he finds “cold and weak” and designed by Shakespeare to show his knowledge but resented by the reader. At times, he finds Shakespeare’s language high sounding and not appropriate to the sentiment or the thought he wishes to express.
“Repeatedly Johnson finds Shakespeare’s tragic scenes marred by a sudden drop in emotional temperature caused by some infelicity of language – a pun, a conceit, a hyperbole” (Desai 77). Johnson directs a scathing attack on Shakespeare’s fondness for a quibble. He describes Shakespeare’s love for a quibble through various amusing analogies. He says a quibble was to him “the golden apple for which he will stoop from his elevation” or “the fatal Cleopatra for which he was willing to lose the world and was content to lose it” (44). Desai remarks: “had Shakespeare has been a lesser poet, Johnson’s expectations would have been proportionately modest. But with Shakespeare the potential is always so great; the fulfillment sometimes inadequate. In short, Johnson’s criticism of Shakespeare’s tragic scenes is born out of his admiration for him” (Desai 77).

Shakespeare’s Violation of The Unities

Shakespeare violated the law of the unities of time and place established and recognized by both dramatists and critics. 18th-century critics considered this violation a defect in Shakespeare. Johnson disagrees and thinks it is possible to defend Shakespeare on this account. He argues that the Histories by virtue of their very nature need to keep changing time and place and additionally since they are neither comedies nor tragedies, they remain outside the purview of a violation. He believes that Shakespeare, apart from the Histories, maintains the unity of action and follows the Aristotelian rules. His plots have a beginning, middle and an end and the plot also moves slowly but surely towards an end that meets the expectations of the reader. Johnson acknowledges that Shakespeare does neglect to follow the unities of time and place that have been held in high esteem since the time of Corneille, but according to him, the rules are not founded on tenable principles. His critical analysis reveals their irrelevance. He says that the critics insist on the observance of the unities of time and place, as they believe it contributes to dramatic credibility. They hold that the audience would find it difficult to believe in an action spread over many months and years when the actual stage performance lasts only three hours. In addition, since the audience is seated in the same place for the duration of the play, their belief would be strained if one action takes place in Alexandria and the other in Rome. To refute these arguments Johnson states that all art is artifice and that the audience too is aware of this. His argument is that if the audience sitting in a theatre in London can believe in the reality of the first act taking place in Alexandria, then they can very well imagine the second act taking place in another country. By the same logic, the spectators can imagine the lapse of months or years between acts. However, he argues the audience is not totally incredulous; rather, the audience is, as would be stated later by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in a “willing suspension of disbelief”. Johnson states that tragic actions would not give pleasure if the audience thought that it was all happening in reality on stage. The real source of pleasure lies in the fact that the enactment brings realities to mind.
Shakespeare and Elizabethan England
In Johnson’s analysis of Elizabethan England, England emerges as a nation “just emerging from barbarity” where “literature was yet confined to professed scholars, or to men and women of high rank” and the general public was raised on popular romances (65). Johnson states that very often Shakespeare uses these familiar and popular romance sources as the building blocks for his plays so that the not-so-learned spectators could easily follow the story.
In the absence of any established facts about Shakespeare’s learning, Johnson believes that Shakespeare did not know French and Italian and that what he borrowed from foreign sources was borrowed from English translations of foreign works. Johnson asserts that since English literature was yet in its infancy in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare had no English models of drama or poetry to follow – neither character nor dialogue was yet understood. Therefore, Johnson considers Shakespeare a pioneer who introduced character and dialogueinto drama. He attributes Shakespeare’s excellence not so much to learning but to his own genius. Repeatedly, Johnson stresses the fact that Shakespeare’s natural genius was aided by his close personal observation and experience of life. Johnson states that Shakespeare’s extraordinary presentation of human nature and character could not have come from reading psychology because no psychology books were available at this time, but emerged from his talent of observing life, as Shakespeare’s knowledge of the inanimate world was as wide and exact as that of human beings. Johnson considers Shakespeare, a pioneer. He says:
Shakespeare is always original; nothing is derived from the works of other writers. He is comparable only to Homer in his invention.
Shakespeare is the pioneer of English drama – the originator of the form, the characters, the language and performances.
Shakespeare was the first playwright to establish the harmony of blank verse and to discover the qualities of the English language for smoothness and harmony. Shakespeare was the first successful playwright whose tragedies as well as comedies was successful and gave appropriate pleasure.
Shakespeare’s Texts
The rest of the Preface concentrates on the lack of availability of authentic texts, Shakespeare’s carelessness in not getting his plays published, the various emendations made by critics since the time of Shakespeare until Johnson’s own time, and his own editorial methods.
Background to the publication of Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare
Most of Shakespeare’s plays were published almost seven years after his death. Johnson is critical about Shakespeare’s indifference to getting his plays published and for writing for immediate profit and pleasure. He says that not only did Shakespeare not care to leave authentic versions of his plays for posterity; rather, even the few that were published in his lifetime did not get his attention and scrutiny. As a result, corrupted texts with alterations and additions based on conjecture survived and created confusion and obscurity. He feels other causes too contributed to the corruption of the texts: (a) the printing method (b) the use of copiers(c) the mutilation of speeches by actors who wished to shorten them and (d) Shakespeare’s own ungrammatical style of writing.
The fourth Folio of Shakespeare’s plays were published in 1685. A number of editions of Shakespeare were published between1709, Johnson’s year of birth and 1765, the year of publication of Johnson’s edition. The following editions were printed between 1709 and 1765:
Nicholas Rowe, First Edition, 1709: “ Rowe divided the play into acts and scenes, modernized the spellings, marked the entrances and exits of characters, and prefixed a list of dramatis personae to each play; in short, he made the text of Shakespeare more intelligible and attractive to eighteenth-century readers than it was before”(Desai 27). He also added a formal biography of Shakespeare that Johnson retained for his edition although he was unhappy with its style.
Alexander Pope’s Edition, 1725: Further mutilation of the text as Pope made copious arbitrary emendations.
Lewis Theobald’s Edition, 1734: Unlike his predecessors, did not use the unreliable fourth Folio as his text. He based his texts on the Quartos and the First Folio.
Sir Thomas Hamner’s Edition, 1744: Was of little value.
Warburton’s Edition, 1747: Was not of much significance.
Johnson’s Editorial Method
Johnson had access to all the above-given editions while writing his own edition. In the Preface, he acknowledges his debt to his predecessors and includes all their Prefaces. In a way, Johnson is to be credited with bringing out a variorum edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Johnson not only commented on the merits and faults of the earlier emendatory critics but also included the different versions of lines and passages of the available texts and the subsequent emendations along with his own notes and emendations. Johnson states that his edition of Shakespeare’s plays carries three kinds of notes (a) illustrative: to explain difficulties (b) judicial: to comment on “faults and beauties” (c) emendatory: to correct corruptions in the text. He acknowledges that he exercised restraint in making the emendations and was “neither superfluously copious nor scrupulously reserved” (131). Johnson states that he has been successful in shedding light on some obscure passages and made them more understandable to the readers. However, with great humility, he accepts that there are many other passages that he himself was unable to understand and leaves their interpretation of posterity. Johnson also states that he treads the middle ground between “presumption and timidity” by trusting in those publishers “who had a copy before their eyes” and also avoids too much conjectural criticism (142).
Johnson’s Advice to the Readers
Johnson advises the readers to enjoy the complete play first without interruption and without thinking about the obscurities. Only when the pleasure of novelty ceases should the reader turn to his notes to understand and appreciate individual lines and passages and get more enjoyment. Johnson exhorts the readers to form their own judgmentabout Shakespeare’s plays. He thinks notes are “necessary evils” and proclaims that he wishes to serve only as a guide and instructor. He cautions the readers not to go by his judgment of praise or condemnation, as his judgment might be flawed. He also humbly acknowledges that his work is not perfect.
Johnson ends his Prefaceby once again acknowledging Shakespeare’s greatness and dismissing the views of those who did not find him learned by stating that “he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature” and that he possessed the “largest and most comprehensive soul”(160).
Johnson’s Achievement
Johnson’s Prefaceto Shakespeare, even by modern standards is an exemplary piece of literary criticism although it does have its limitations. Johnson boldly went against the grain of his time in defending Shakespeare for not following the unities of time and place and for mingling tragic and comic elements. He considered the text superior to any rules and his judgment depended on how the text affected him and not on whether it followed the rules or not. Johnsoncan also be credited with giving critics the comparative and historical basis of criticism. Many of his judgments of Shakespeare are so insightful that modern generations can only repeat his judgments on Shakespeare’s universality and in-depth understanding of human nature. Johnson’s editorial method though deficient by modern standards was yet way above that of the earlier editors and editors of his own time. The restraint he exercised in making emendations is indeed creditable. Many of Johnson’s pronouncements on Shakespeare reflect neo-classical beliefs, with which many today do not agree, especially the insistence on moral rectitude. Johnson has also come under criticism for preferring Shakespeare’s comedies to his tragedies. However, his achievements outdo his shortcomings and the greatest proof of his greatness is that his age is often called The Age of Johnson.

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