Introduction: Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), a spokesman of the classical school, eminently represents the persistence of classical dogma. He is a pioneer in the field of biographical criticism. In his criticism of Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson entirely breaks the shackles of classical doctrine and tradition. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is chiefly a critical assessment of Shakespeare’s dramatic art. Johnson praises as well as points out some defects of Shakespeare. Truly speaking, Johnson’s duty was to expose Shakespeare under the light of neo-classical taste. Let us now turn to Johnson’s critical estimate of Shakespeare. The Preface opens with a tribute to Shakespeare’s enduring appeal and later on Johnson goes to the demerits of Shakespeare.
Universality of Shakespeare’s writing: Johnson has firmly praised the universal quality of Shakespeare’s writing. Shakespeare is not of a particular age but all ages, not one specific country but of all countries. His works not only did entertain and thrill the audiences of his own age or country, but they have entertained and thrilled the audiences in all ages and countries since they were composed. Though his plays were written more than four hundred years ago, they are still popular today as before. They enjoy such worldwide popularity, because these plays don’t reflect merely the tastes, customs and traditions of Shakespeare’s own age, but all ages. Here it also should be mentioned that Shakespeare’s plays have been translated in almost all the important languages of the world and most of them have been filmed.
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Mingling tragic and comic elements: Shakespeare’s plays are neither comedies nor tragedies. But in a real sense, the free use of tragedy and comedy in the same play is one of the most striking features in the work of Shakespeare and other romantic dramatists of his time. Though the neo-classical theory does not permit this mixture, yet Johnson vindicates such mingling. He says, the imitation of general human nature not only permits it, but also eagerly demands it.
A faithful representation of general nature: Shakespeare’s plays are just the representation of general nature that brings immortality to literary works. A faithful representation of nature is a source of pleasure to many people and such a representation continues to give pleasure. The wonderful or artificial thing does not give delight for a long time. But only the thing, which is based on truth, can be a source of permanent and perpetual pleasure. So Johnson rightly says,
“Nothing can please many and please long, but just representation of general nature.”
Here it is noted that, according to classical view, art imitates nature. To Johnson, Shakespeare is the poet of human nature more than any other modern writers. His plays offer a faithful picture of real life. In Johnson’s words,
“Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.”
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Art of characterization: In the delineation of character, Shakespeare stands unrivaled in English literature. The characters of Shakespeare are entirely true to life. They are neither devil in human form, nor gods and goddesses. But they are ordinary human beings, with common vices and virtues, joys and sorrows. Dr. Johnson also glorifies the characters of Shakespeare and finds out something new.
Undoubtedly, Shakespeare’s characters do not belong to the society of a definite place or time. They are enduring and universal, representing every man. In other words, Shakespeare’s characters have a universal appeal. They speak by the influence of those, which are experienced by all mankind.
Violation of classical unities: Johnson vindicates Shakespeare’s violation of two classical unities-unities of time and place. Johnson thinks that only the unity of action is important for a play and Shakespeare’s plays preserve this unity satisfactorily. His plays generally have a beginning, middle and an end, as required by Aristotle. The end of his play also marks the end of our expectations. So Johnson justifies that there is no essentiality of the other two unities- time and place.
Lacking of morality: Dr Johnson accuses that there is no poetic justice in Shakespeare’s plays. According to Samuel Johnson,
“He sacrifices virtue to convenience and is so much more careful to please than instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.”
Johnson has also condemned that,
“He makes no just distribution of good and evil”.
He does not always brightly present his virtuous characters being victorious over the evil ones. Rather he takes his characters through right and wrong and carelessly dismisses them at the end. Just as a neo-classical critic this is so serious to Johnson. Because according to him.
“It is always a writer’s duty to make the world morally better.”
Careless plot development: Another defect Johnson brings against Shakespeare is that, his plots are often loosely formed and carelessly developed. Shakespeare could have improved his plots if he paid just 1 little more attention. In fact in his plays, there are plenty of opportunities to instruct or delight. But Shakespeare often neglects these opportunities, which demands are more effective and impressive.
Nelected ending portion: In many of Shakespeare’s plays, the concluding part is not artistically furnished. So Johnson claims,
“It may be observed that in many of his plays, the latter part evidently neglected.”
Johnson deems that, when Shakespeare was approaching at the end of his work and the reward seemed near at hand, then Shakespeare shortened the labor in order to gain the profits as early as possible. That is why; the concluding part of Shakespeare’s plays is not strikingly fascinating like the earliest part. This charge is certainly true. For instance, the play of Julius Caesar clearly shows a decline of dramatic interest in its second half.
Violator of chronology: According to Johnson Shakespeare “had no regard to distinction of time or place.” No exaggeration to say that, his violation of chronology or indifference of historical accuracy is or obviously a serious fault. In his plays, the customs and manners of one age or one country are freely attributed to another. For instance, he mingles classical legend with Gothic mythology in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Such violations often give the plays a flavor of improbability and impossibility.
Defects in language: The narrative parts of Shakespeare’s plays show an excessive pomp of diction and unnecessary verbosity. Narration in drama should be rapid and brief. But Shakespeare easily uses more words than are necessary to describe an incident. That is why, instead of lightening the narration by briefness, Shakespeare attempts to enrich it through dignity and splendor.
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Conclusion: From the above discussion we may say that Dr. Johnson gives us two catalogs. One is the veneration and profound admiration for Shakespeare and another is the charges and accusations, which he brings against the poet. So undoubtedly it can be said that Johnson is a great scholar in Shakespeare’s criticism.