Johnson: Preface to Shakespeare

April 23, 2016

Preface to Shakespeare
Samuel Johnsonshakespeare-234x300
[1765]

Johnson, together with George Steevens, edited and published an edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765, and included in it this prefatory essay, surely one of the most famous examples of literary criticism in English letters. I had previously read it, years ago, but, being a noted dullard, did not remember much about it, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to read it again.

johnsonThe first thing I’ll note is that Johnson’s views on Shakespeare are far from being boiler-plate. We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing Shakespeare spoken of in exclusively laudatory terms, as the greatest literary figure in history, as the Bard, that it can be a little shocking to read what Dr Johnson has to say:

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.

or, even more startling:

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.

That Shakespeare should be an author accused of writing “cold and weak” speeches seems almost comical, for is he not especially treasured for his famous speeches, and is there anyone to match him on that terrain? And Johnson makes other statements that are more or less the opposite of the received wisdom, such as that Shakespeare, the most eloquent man in England, was especially adept at capturing the texture and tones of common speech:

The dialogue of this authour is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is 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.

This is all intensely interesting, but I’m honestly not sure if it tells us something about Shakespeare or about Johnson, who goes on to argue that Shakespeare — the author of Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar — was a greater comedian than tragedian:

In his comick scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.

This, too, is a fascinating judgement, and let’s pause a moment to appreciate how elegantly it is expressed (“produce without labour, what no labour can improve”). But I’m not sure if its contradiction of the common view tells us more about Johnson or about ourselves. I rather like what Johnson says here, though, because I do feel that our appreciation of Shakespeare as a comedian falls short of what he deserves, and partly so because we, as a culture, lack something, some spiritual capacity, that would allow us to produce comedy of comparable stature. I can’t resist quoting Chesterton, who echoed this point:

No audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare’s comedy. No one has made any real attempt to recover the loves and the laughter of Elizabethan England. The low dark arches, the low strong pillars upon which Shakespeare’s temple rests we can all explore and handle. We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate to his coal-cellar; but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky. Perhaps it is right that this should be so; properly understood, comedy is an even grander thing than tragedy. (The Illustrated London News, 27 April 1907)

Shakespeare has often been praised in our day for his even-handed approach to moral issues: Shakespeare doesn’t moralize, and all but disappears into his characters so that we’re never quite sure what he thinks. This quality might account for some of his appeal to an age seduced by moral relativism. Johnson perceives much the same quality in Shakespeare, but he is clear that this is a fault:

He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.

Naturally it would be misleading to give the impression that Johnson makes none but critical remarks about his subject. Qualities which he selects for approbation are Shakespeare’s tonal range:

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

and his talent for creating memorable characters:

Perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other.

Indeed, what author author, save perhaps Dickens, has given us an array of characters to match Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago, Desdemona, Romeo, Juliet, Marc Antony, Bottom, Shylock, Miranda, King Lear, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Rosalind, Beatrice, and Benedict? Although in this connection Johnson also makes another judgment which I don’t quite know how to interpret:

In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

At first blush this seems to contradict his judgment immediately above, for are not individual characters more likely to be distinct from one another than are species? Well, perhaps not; species are, almost by definition, more different from one another than are individuals of the same species. I’ll hazard that the modern idiom of “he’s an individual” to denote his peculiar distinctiveness was not current in Johnson’s time.(Parenthetically, is it not wonderful to see “individual” used by Johnson with a slight perjorative sense. Let us raise a glass to old books.)

Moving on, we find another surprise: Johnson claims that the standard five-Act structure of Shakespearean drama is “void of authority,” and is merely a convenience introduced by editors. Can this really be so?

Not that we should speak disparagingly of the labours of editors, for Johnson reminds us how our possession of Shakespeare’s plays in anything like their current form and extent is largely due to the interventions of editors, the playwright himself having taken little interest in preserving his work:

It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he solicited no addition of honour from the reader…

So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little “declined into the vale of years,” before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.

Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in the late editions, the greater part were not published till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the authour, and therefore probably without his knowledge.

There’s a delicious irony here, of course, that the most eminent literary man we have didn’t particularly care for literary eminence, and that our most famous writer should have cared so little for fame. Certainly it makes a marked contrast with the giants writing in other languages. (This interesting essay on Goethe brings out the contrasts well.)

***

Apart from these remarks specifically about Shakespeare, the Preface includes a number of characteristically Johnsonian — that is, characteristically pugnacious and eloquent — pronouncements about literature more generally.

We find, for instance, his famous dictum that

The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.

Maybe. Or rather: yes, sometimes. I once knew someone who argued that the purpose of art was to provoke self-reflection and teach self-knowledge. Yes, sometimes. But art might also be for the sheer joy of it, or ad majorem Dei gloriam, and what goes for art in general goes for poetry in particular. I wonder what Johnson would have thought of T.S. Eliot?

Speaking of Eliot, if you’re sitting down with a gigantic scholarly edition of his poems and you’re wondering if you should just read the poetry or dig into the line-by-line commentary, Johnson has some advice:

Parts are not to be examined till the whole has been surveyed; there is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension of any great work in its full design and its true proportions; a close approach shews the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.

And as one labours toward “the comprehension of any great work,” one is naturally always engaged in forming a judgement about its merits. Johnson gives his view of how such judgement is developed and matured:

Judgement, like other faculties, is improved by practice, and its advancement is hindered by submission to dictatorial decisions, as the memory grows torpid by the use of a table book. Some initiation is however necessary; of all skill, part is infused by precept, and part is obtained by habit.

This seems of such general application for education in general that I think I’ll commit it to memory. Or maybe I’ll just write it here in this table book. What was I saying again?

Ah yes: the formation of judgement. I’ll close with Johnson’s views on how the collective judgement of readers through time gradually establishes particular literary works as masterpieces. Apparently he had never heard that it was all a conspiracy of white males to project their power. He writes:

…to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour…

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.

***

I hope it is clear from the length at which I have written that this Preface to Shakespeare is a very stimulating and enjoyable read. It is always a pleasure to spend time in the good Doctor’s company.

2 Responses to “Johnson: Preface to Shakespeare”


  1. I too am a fan of this essay and it was good to revisit it through your summary and observations! I used to own a book containing this essay as well as his notes from the various plays, and the back cover very sagely said: ‘”Once we know him we may be trusted to ask, when baffled by a difficult passage, “What does Johnson say?”‘

    If you want non-laudatory criticism of Shakespeare from another literary figure, with less discerning judgement, there is always Samuel Pepys. I once culled some of these comments from the diary. Of Twelfth Night he writes: `Acted well, though it be but a silly play’; of The Tempest: `The play no great wit’; of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: `It is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, and which was all my pleasure.’

    Finally, here’s a handy guide to help you decide which play you should see next.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that guide, Adam. Today I ended up on All’s Well That Ends Well!

    I’ve often thought of reading Pepys — well, dipping into Pepys, really, because I think truly reading him would be a substantial undertaking. Those comments you cite are hilarious. To have one’s diary preserved is certainly a mixed blessing.

    I thought of buying the book that contains Johnson’s commentaries on the plays, but I wasn’t convinced I would have the wherewithal to refer to it often. What was it he said above about taking in a whole work before making a close study of individual lines?


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