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Dr. Johnson’s Criticism of Shakespeare Essay

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), a flamboyant and versatile scholar, expresses his view of Shakespeare in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays which are enriched by his prefaces. But like other critics he does not eulogize the poet; on the contrary, he dwells on the faults in his plays. He shows a very balanced and unbiased mind capable of judging the merits and demerits of his plays without being influenced by the hallow effect. He reads neither to admire everything, nor does he contradict his excellence; he performs the task of weighing and considering what he reads and offers his comments which have a moral bias. In “The Preface to Shakespeare”  he admires him as  “the poet of nature, not of learning; the creator of characters who spring to life; and a writer whose works express the full range of human passions” (Norton.1255)

 His judgment of Shakespeare has both the positive and the negative aspects and he does not indulge in “bardolatry” like other critics. He believes that dead writers are unnecessarily glorified and the living ones are neglected. He rightly says, “The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns and the beauties of the ancients.” (Norton.1256) He also advocates the critical theory that an author can be evaluated only by comparing his works with others, “so in the production of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind.” (Norton.1256) He  also upholds the view that a literary work can be called great only when it has stood the test of time.

He thinks, “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.” (Norton.1257) It is difficult to surpass this succinct summing up of Shakespeare’s genius. But Johnson disparages the uncritical acceptance of Shakespeare as perfect; he points out his faults as well, without undermining his genius.

Johnson praises Shakespeare’s art of characterization highlighting their variety, depth, credibility and the power of delighting his readers. Using his comparative method, he observes, “they are the genuine progeny of common humanity …In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual: in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.” (Norton.1257) The characters and the situations are so impressive because “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;”(Norton.1258) This culminates in his view, “his drama is the mirror of life.” (Norton.1258)

Being a believer in didactic function of literature, he appreciates how his plays are full of “practical axioms and domestic wisdom” (Norton.1257) but for the same reason he criticizes him when it is absent, “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.” (Norton.1259)  It is clear that he does not believe in “art for art’s sake” like Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater. Johnson vainly castigates Shakespeare for not being a moralist, “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…” (Norton.1259)

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