Merits and demerits of Shakespeare in Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare

Shakespeare is such a poet and dramatist of the world who has been edited and criticized by hundreds of editors and critics  Dr. Samuel Johnson is one of them. But among the literary criticisms about Shakespeare, ‘‘Johnsons edition was notable chiefly for its sensible interpretations and critical evaluations of Shakespeare as a literary artist.’’  As a true critic in his Preface to Shakespeare,  Johnson has pointed out Shakespeare’s merits or excellences as well as demerits. Let us now discuss Shakespeare’s merits as stated by Johnson.

Shakespeare’s greatness lies in the fact that he is ‘‘the poet of nature’’.  Jonson says,
‘‘Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature, the poet that holds up to the reader a  faithful mirror of human nature.’’
His writings represent the  general nature, because he knows ‘‘Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.’’ Therefore his characters are ‘‘the genuine progeny of common humanity.’’ ‘‘In the writing of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.’’ Thus Johnson indicates the universal aspects of  Shakespeare’s writings.

Shakespeare’s dialogue ‘‘is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation and common occurrences".

Shakespeare's treatment of love proves his following realism. Dramatists in general give an excessive importance to the theme of love. But to Shakespeare ‘‘love is only one of many passions, and as it has no great influence upon the sum of life.’’ In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, love interest hardly has any place.

Johnson further comments on Shakespeare's characterization.
He says,
‘‘Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion.’’
On the contrary, other dramatists portray their characters in such a hyperbolic or exaggerated  way that the reader can not suit them to their life.

Johnson defends Shakespeare for his mingling of the tragic and comic elements in his plays on grounds of realism exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature.’’ Because, Shakespeare's plays express ‘‘the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another, in which at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friends,(in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the floric of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.’’)

‘‘The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.’’ And the mingled drama can convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy, for it best represents the life.’’

Johnson regards Shakespeares mingling of tragedy and comedy as a merit, because he can not ‘‘recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted both.’’

‘‘Shakespeare always makes nature predominance over accident. His story requires Romans but he thinks only on men.’’

In his Preface to Shakespeare, Dr. Samuel Johnson brings out the excellences first, then he turns to his demerits. Johnson does not consider him a faultless dramatist- even he takes the faults ‘‘sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit.’’ That is Shakespeares faults are serious enough to overwhelm the merits if they had only belonged to other dramatists. Discussion of Shakespeares demerits will better show the merits of Shakespeare .

Shakespeares first defect is
‘‘He sacrifices virtue to convenience and is so much more careful to please then to instruct that he seems to write without any moral purpose.’’
Moreover, he lacks poetic justice-‘‘ he makes no just distribution of good or evil.’’

Here we can not agree with Johnson. He himself called Shakespeare a poet of nature. But now he can not come out of the tradition of his age- explicit moralizing or didacticism. Actually, Shakespeare gives us a picture of life as whatever he sees. Didacticism which is expected from a true artist can not be a basic condition of art. Thus here we see Johnsons dualism in evaluating Shakespeare.

Shakespeares plot construction has also faults. According to Johnson, the plots are often loosely formed and carelessly pursued. ‘‘He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the development of the plot provides to him." Moreover, ‘‘in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected.’’

This charge is, to some extent  true. The readers loose dramatic interest in the second half of Julius Caesar. But The Merchant of Venice shows a perfect sense of plot construction.

Johnsons another charge against Shakespeare is regarding distinction of time and place. He attributes to a certain nation or a certain period of history, the customs, practices and opinions of another. For example, we ‘‘find Hector quoting Aristotle’’ in Troilus and Cressida.

However, Johnson regards that it is not a fault of Shakespeare to violate laws of unities established by the joint authority of poets and critics. Rather this violation proves ‘‘the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare’’. Actually a drama indicates successive actions. Therefore, just as they man be represented at successive places, so also they may be represented at different periods, separated by several years. And so, Shakespeare violates the unities of time and place. And according to Johnson ‘‘the unities of time and place are not essential to a just drama’’, and ‘‘they are always to be sacrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction’’. On the other hand  the plays scrupulously following the unities are just ‘‘ the product of superfluous and ostentatious art.’’ However, Shakespeare observes the unity of action.

Shakespeares another faults in the eye of Johnson is his over fondness for quibbles. ‘‘A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it.’’ But to say Johnson here sacrifices his strong common sense for the sake of an eloquent metaphor.

Shakespeare's comic dialogue is often coarse.  The gentlemen and the ladies in comic scenes,. show  little delicacy or rafinement and are hardly to be  distinguised from the clowns.

His tragic plays become worse in proportion to the labour he spends on them.

His narration shows an undue pomp of diction and unnecessary verbiage and repetition.

His declamations of set speeces are generally cold and feeble.

What he does best, he soon ceases to do. He no sooner begins to arouse the readers sympathy than he counteracts himself.

Notes on Shakespeare by the same writer:


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