Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson: An Overview

Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare published in 1765 is a comment on the argument over the ancients and moderns. Johnson forwards his criticism with moral consideration and prescribes imitation which is closer to truth, reality and to the right. Imitation has to be of general nature rather than particular. The business of a poet is to examine not the individual but the species. Johnson restrains the "wild strain of imagination", but his moral concerns are principally important.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

The essay deals with the qualities that Shakespeare possesses. Johnson praises Shakespeare and finds his position above all the modern writers: the greatness of his reputation has stood the test of time; his highest praise is that he holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life;” (321) his characters, unlike “the phantoms which other writers raise up before him” (322) are real men and women. That he mingled tragedy and comedy together is not account against him, for he “exhibits the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow…” (322).

In terms of characterization Johnson defends Shakespeare stating that characters in his plays are faithful representation of humanity. They are universal, as well as individual. His characters are not exaggerated. They have the common feelings and virtues of humanity. Iago, Hamlet, Desdemona, Macbeth etc. are the true human types found in all times in all places.

Shakespeare has been much criticized for mixing comic and tragic elements. But Johnson defends him in the following ways: he is true to nature. In real life also, there is the intermingle of good and evil, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles and so in mixing tragedy and comedy, Shakespeare holds a mirror to nature. In tragi-comedy, there is the combination of pleasure and instruction; serious and the gay. It can satisfy a great variety of tastes as all pleasure consists in variety.

Johnson defends Shakespeare on the ground of unities. According to him, Shakespeare has well maintained the unity of action. His plots have a beginning, middle and an end. One event is logically connected with other, and the plot makes gradual advances towards denouement. Since the spectators show no concern to time by looking at the clock or calendar there is no regard for the unities of time and place. Therefore there is no absurdity in showing different actions at different places. The unity of time also has no validity. A drama imitates successive actions and just as they may be represented at successive places. So they may be represented at different periods separated by the range of several years.

However, Shakespeare does not escape from the criticism. Johnson goes on listing Shakespeare’s faults- “faults sufficient of obscure and overwhelm any other merit” (324). No single system of morality can be detected in his plays; the plots are loose; he is thoroughly full of anachronisms; his jests are gross; language tedious and tumultuous; he never cares for realism and regards pun as the true dramatic qualities; he falls into pathos.

Related Topics

The Vanity of Human Wishes: Summary and Analysis

Mimetic Theory: Introduction

Samuel Johnson: Biography