Preface to Shakespeare summary

Samuel Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare” was published in 1765 and it is an important contribution to English literary criticism. Although Johnson is a neo-classical critic and writer, he is completely unbiased when he assesses Shakespeare.

Johnson eulogizes as well as specifies Shakespeare’s flaws or weaknesses. According to Harold Bloom, Johnson invariably within Shakespeare’s plays to examine them as if he is examining human life without considering the fact that Shakespeare’s main purpose is to bring life to mind. 

Shakespeare’s Merits: 

Johnson on Shakespeare’s characters in the Preface to Shakespeare: 

“Nothing can please many and please long, but just the representation of general nature” ({7} Preface to Shakespeare by Johnson). For Johnson, the fundamental necessity of artistic greatness is truthfulness to the details of nature. This guides Johnson to make a number of unforgettable assertions about Shakespeare’s grandeur. For instance, the characters of Shakespeare are the “genuine progeny of common humanity” and they speak in the language of everyday life and convey feelings and emotions which resonate in every soul. Johnson states that Shakespeare’s characters are not affected by the practices of certain places or by the incidents of short-lived trends or transient beliefs. “His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated and the whole system of life is continued in motion.” ({8} Preface to Shakespeare by Johnson).

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Johnson was brave enough to vary from neo-classical critics’ assessments about Shakespeare’s delineation of his characters. For example, Dennis and Rhymer did not favor Shakespeare’s portrayal of Menenius, a representative of Rome, like a fool, and Voltaire did not favor Claudius as a drunkard. Johnson supports Shakespeare by stating that Shakespeare always gives more importance to nature than accident. Shakespeare’s plays may demand a Roman Senator or a monarch but he imagines completely as regards men and not specific characters living in a certain age or place. And no doubt, for no reason to presume that a man cannot be a fool since he is a king or a Senator. 

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Johnson on Mingled drama in the preface to Shakespeare:

 Shakespeare has blended tragedy and comedy in most of his plays and Johnson defends this blending of tragic and comic ingredients on the grounds of the neoclassical theory itself. For the neoclassicist, art is a realistic portrayal of mankind. On this ground, one can defend Shakespeare’s exercise of blending comic and tragic elements, for such a blending shows real human life which partakes good and bad, delight and sadness. Through his plays, Shakespeare presents a world where all human efforts and activities have similar significance. In Shakespeare’s plays, all types of men and women are fairly presented. 

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Johnson and the unities in the Preface to Shakespeare:

Johnson supports Shakespeare’s negligence of the unities of time, place, and action. The neo-classical persistence on the three unities denotes that a drama should consist of those episodes and incidents which cover a restricted time span of twelve or twenty-four hours and take place in a single area. Supporting Shakespeare Johnson states that the action of his dramas is dependent on some conventions which the spectator takes gladly. For example, if the audience can accept that the person standing on the stage is Julius Caesar or Antony, then the spectators can also approve of moving scenes from one place to another or the span of an extended time period. Johnson says that the unities of time and place are used to make the drama more credible. But the fact is that the audience already knows that it is a stage and not Athens or Sicily and the person who is performing on the stage is a performer and not Julies Caesar or Antonio or Hamlet.

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Johnson on Shakespeare’s Demerits in the Preface to Shakespeare:

Virtue is not distributed wisely

Johnson says that Shakespeare’s biggest defect is that he abandons virtue to pleasure. According to Johnson, Shakespeare didn’t write his plays because he wanted to convey any moral purpose. Instead, he wanted to convey delight and pleasure through his plays.  Johnson also states that Shakespeare did not pay much attention to ‘poetic justice’; he develops his characters regardless of their right and wrong actions and at the end expels them casually. Johnson states that it is the job of the writer to make the world peaceful and that is why he emphasizes poetic justice. 

A defect on Shakespeare’s plot:

The second defect that Johnson points out about Shakespeare’s plays is the plot. Johnson’s complaint is that Shakespeare’s plots are loosely knit and if he had paid a little more attention and time, he could have improved. Johnson also implies that the end part of Shakespeare’s plays is promptly rounded off. And for this reason, the end parts of his plays do not seem as artistically ordered as their earlier sections. Johnson explains the reason by saying that Shakespeare used to reduce his hard work at the end of the plays because he was in a hurry to take the profit.

Anachronism in Shakespeare’s plays:

Another defect that Johnson points out about Shakespeare’s plays is an anachronism. Johnson says that in Shakespeare’s plays the conventions, ideas, and manners of one age or country are used randomly for another age or country. This creates a sense of implausibility and impossibility within a play. For example, on one occasion in Shakespeare’s play, Hector quotes the words of Aristotle, which is unrealistic on a historical basis. 

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Dialogues in Shakespeare’s comedy:

Another defect that Johnson points out about Shakespeare’s plays is his dialogues. Johnson claims that the banter in which the comic characters indulge is generally gross and immoral. Because most of his characters are guilty of this, it often becomes hard to differentiate between refined characters and low characters. Johnson thinks that Shakespeare should have been judicious in his choice of modes of merriment. 

Shakespeare’s use of word-play and conceit:

Johnson turns critical about Shakespeare’s propensity to employ conceits as well as obscure word-play. Johnson states that Shakespeare’s love for conceit and puns ruins many paragraphs which are otherwise sorrowful and warm, or could have aroused pity or fear. Shakespeare’s unrestrained love for quibbles and puns guides him to produce meaningless just as will-o-the-ship deceive a traveler. 

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