Johnson’s Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare| Summary & Analysis

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), a neoclassical critic whose fame as an outstanding literary figure rests on his thought provoking works:
1. Dictionary of English Language famous as Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)
2. His critical papers in Rambler, a periodical he started and edited from 1750-1752.
3. Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare (1765)
4. Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets or in brief, Lives of the Poets (1779), an account of 52 English poets.
Johnson’s account of Shakespeare is one of the most credible and authentic literary documents in estimation of Shakespeare as a great poet. It has established a norm and further way for Shakespearean criticism. His Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare is the most authoritative critical works on Shakespeare for the efforts of Johnson—it took full nine years to complete. He studied Shakespeare in deep, all the facets of Shakespearean criticism, his biography, age, all his works, everything needed to compose a finer piece of criticism on Shakespeare. The first edition of 1765 has 72 pages, (British Library, later published by The Scolar Press, Menston, England in 1969). Now we have so many editions with varying pages and edited commentaries. It is divided into two broad sections, as many scholars did it, Shakespeare as a timeless and universal figure and Shakespeare as a dramatist. But here we are going to divide it into five parts to analyse it. Here, Johnson holistically comments on Shakespeare, as a great genius and also shows his faults. Why Johnson felt the need to revisit Shakespeare? Here are his own words:
“Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature, the poet that holds up to the readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world….they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.” (Desai, quoted, p. 98).
Shakespeare is above all writers and held as one of the supreme exponents in literature. Let’s dissect Johnson’s Preface in five parts:
1. Shakespeare: A Timeless & Universal Poet: roughly this section consisted of 1-30 paragraphs out of 162. In this part, Johnson revealed how Shakespeare became more popular and giant literary figure after his death with the slipping passage of time. He also states that mere antiquity does not impart greatness. It is the task of criticism to find out the truth. He says: “The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance and when he is dead, we rate them by his best.” (Ibid, 96).
Mere antiquity is not the only factor in deciding the greatness of an author. It should be tested on other grounds too. In this division, Johnson describes Shakespeare as a ‘poet of nature’ and how he is a great genius. Shakespeare’s plays show us the ‘mirror of life’ and his characters are the ‘progeny of common humanity’. We find all types of characters in his plays—kings, queens, prince, princess, knights, senators, Romans, (so called high profile characters), drunkards, fools, buffoons, usurpers, clowns, etc. (so called low profile characters). This makes it a live performance on the stage. People can relate themselves to such characters as they are taken from all strata of the society—high and low. Shakespeare combines both pleasure and instruction in his plays. We find instinctive human passions and emotions too close to common people. He very ardently shows it on the stage. His plays are deeply rooted in human psychology and has greater impact on the mind. He does not look artificial but natural in his composition. When we look at his characters, we find they are people among us and not remote, we also have been behaved like them in that particular situation and hence Johnson said:
“Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion: even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is levelled with life. Other writers disguise the most natural passions and most frequent incidents; so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world.” (Ibid, 100).
Such is the power of Shakespeare that he fused most natural passions of human beings which in other writers lacked highly. Johnson condemns Milton’s Lycidas for its artificiality, for him the mourning for a dead friend seems artificial. Shakespeare has the power to combine laughter and sorrow i.e. comic and tragic elements in one work. For him life does not have only joy or only sorrow, it is the mixture of both. He formulated tragi-comedy to show the real life experiences of the human beings. Many critics blamed Shakespeare for mixing the tragedy and comedy in one work but Johnson defends him:
“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.” (Ibid, 101).
Thus Johnson, in the section, shows how Shakespeare is a genius and timeless figure and he also refutes the charges against Shakespeare put by critics like Rymer and Voltaire.  
2. Shakespeare: His Faults/ Demerits: this part approximately ranges from para 31 to 62. In this part, Johnson stated the faults or demerits of Shakespeare’s writing. But he again, in this section, supports or upheld Shakespeare by saying “these faults are not peculiar to the Elizabethan age but are of a universal nature”. The first fault of Shakespeare, he listed is sacrifice of virtues or morality. He did not pronounce morality clearly, there may be a little scope for virtues but not to instruct. In the words of Johnson: “His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. 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.” (Ibid, 105).
Shakespeare has given importance to entertainment or pleasing than to instruct or teaching morality. The second defect is his plots are not compact. There are plots and sub-plots intermingling and resulting into a chaotic arrangement. There is no space or opportunity to include some elements of instruction. He formed them in a loose manner but having a powerful impact on the mind of audience: “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.” (Ibid). The end of his plays is imperfect or improbable because he did not lay emphasis on the end, it is loosely presented or produced.
The third charge against Shakespeare is he did not follow the historical chronology or accuracy. There are many events shown outside of the historical setting or timeline. He did not care about the time and place of the events happened. But Johnson sustains that he was not the only violator of such chronology, there was Sidney who also crossed the line. Next thing is his narration is disproportionate having inefficient and proper diction to state the incident. Sometimes he used a lot of words where there needed a few and to this, the opposite phenomenon also is observed: “In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few.” (Ibid, 106).
He is weak at using conceits and quibbles. His language does not demonstrate the proper use of conceits and quibbles (ornamental language) as his characters does. He was very poor to use the language most suited in his characters in specific circumstances. We find a very scathing remark of Johnson over it: “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.” (Ibid, 107).
The fatalest charge against Shakespeare is the violation of unities. He did never care about the unity of time and place. He used time and place as he wished for the merriment of audience. He includes a vast span of time of months and years into mere three hours. His scenes also are rapidly shifting from one place to another, say first scene in Alexandria, the second in Rome. It is imperfect for audience & characters as well. Here are the remarks of Johnson:
“To the unities of time and place he has shown no regard, and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they stand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of Corneille, they have very generally received by discovering that they have given more trouble to the poet than pleasure to the auditor.” (Ibid, 108).
These unities are seen as trouble for the poet or dramatist. Here Johnson, in a way, supports Shakespeare, or at least don’t want to blame him on this basis.
3. Shakespeare: the Product of Elizabethan Age: in this section (para 64-94), Johnson presents Shakespeare as a product of contemporary Elizabethan period. A vivid picture of the contemporary behaviour, manners and systems can be seen in varied scenes of the plays. So Shakespeare cannot be very straightforwardly held as ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ figure but has to be placed in the time he lived. No author can be studied out of time frame. There are scenes and acts presenting the contemporary life. Sometimes he consciously included some scenes to please the contemporary audience. He is lucky to have the flourishing opportunities of the age to compose and work out the plays which later became great plays. Let’s put it into Johnson’s words:
“Every man’s performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own particular opportunities; and though to the reader a book be not worse or better for the circumstances of the author, yet as there is always a silent reference of human works to human abilities….” (Ibid, 113).
Thus Shakespeare also has certain abilities to grow higher than others in the same age. There was a question regarding his works whether he used the ancient authors to build his empire. Some say, he was not well educated to have or read the knowledge of ancients. Even he did not know the classical languages—Greek and Latin. He could get the ancient texts which were translated or routinely common among people in the form of stories. He used English chronicles and ancient authors like Plutarch as a source of his histories. His histories are filled with events of digressions for he might not be fully aware of such events. He took care of what was famous in Elizabethan age and what his audience wanted—the popular content, entertainment. Johnson discovers his sources:
“His English histories he took from English chronicles and English Ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by versions, they supplied him with new subjects; he dilated some of Plutarch’s lives into plays, when they has been translated by North.” (Ibid, 114).
Shakespeare exploited English histories and some ancient poets, knowingly or unknowingly. Now Johnson turns to the biographical information of Shakespeare. He also did not discover much, as others, about the biography or the reliable sources or information on his life. He described him as ‘a needy adventurer’ who travelled (some say, he ran) to London, persuaded some odd jobs before entering into an artist’s life, or coming in the direct contact of theatre. Shakespeare had to face a lot of difficulties, his life filled with adventures for living. As Johnson had to suffer the blow of poverty, Shakespeare also was the victim of same for a longer time in his life. Both became prosperous after a long struggle. For this situation of difficulties and poverty and coming to London (Johnson came in 1734), Johnson compares himself with Shakespeare. Further he extends in the Preface, though Shakespeare is the child of his age, his achievements cannot be limited to the age. He crossed the boundaries of place and time and could reach the wider audience. Shakespeare combines the power of zealous life but in a mysterious way which can be revealed beyond the age. Johnson uses metaphors to shed light on the qualities of Shakespeare:
“The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with shades, and scented with flowers; the composition of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oak extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity.” (Ibid, 115).
For Johnson, Shakespeare is a towering figure like forest and also mysterious like the branches of trees intermingled with weeds but certainly showing the immense diversity. It is more to a colourful and scented garden. Then he compares him with Homer for he invented so much and cultivated the mind of people beyond that age. So he must not be fixed in an age he lived. His performance must be judged beyond the parameters of age. He also refined the English language of the age and imparted it so much softness that Sidney compared him with Rowe for his use of language. Thus, this is an elaborate section on the qualities of Shakespeare compared through an age.
4. Johnson’s Balanced Critic of Shakespeare: this section ranges from para 95 to 102. The very first thing, Johnson observed of Shakespeare is that he did not care about publishing his works or plays in his lifetime. He was satisfied with his position as a famous contemporary writer and enjoyed the status. Johnson call his text and language corrupt for no publisher or the owner of printers were not ready to publish the ungrammatical and ill-organized plays. There were many reasons his plays were rejected for publication: “The faults are more than could have happened without the occurrence of many causes. The style of Shakespeare was in itself ungrammatical, perplexed and obscure; his works were transcribed for the players by those who may be supposed to have seldom understood them.” (Ibid, 122).
Then Johnson takes the side of Shakespeare that he spoke the language of men and amused the masses. Shakespeare was held by the public but not intellectuals at that time. Intellectuals of the age did not take Shakespeare seriously for his literary achievements. Here Johnson’s criticism and praise of Shakespeare shows a balancing act in the evaluation of Shakespeare. Moreover, it revealed the general attitude of intellectuals and of the public in Johnson’s age. This dualistic stand on Shakespeare is an important turn in Shakespearean criticism and in understanding him.
5. On the Text of Shakespeare: this comprises of the last part of Preface from para 103 till end. Here we have Johnson’s exclusive commentary on the state of Shakespearean text, history of different editions of his plays, chronology, etc. He made prolific survey of all major editions of Shakespeare up to his own edition which published in 1765. Thus the whole document of Johnson has a great significance in understanding Shakespeare with both the sides, merits and demerits. Now we know the place of Shakespeare in the transaction of literature. Here the words from last para of Preface are worth to quote:
“Among these candidates of inferior fame, I am now to stand the judgment of the public; and wish that I could confidently produce my commentary as equal to the encouragement which I have had the humour of receiving. Every work of this kind is by its nature deficient, and I should feel little solicitude about the sentence, were it to be pronounced only by the skilful and the learned.” (Ibid, 137).
It is clear that Johnson wanted it is up to public that they can build their views based on this commentary and he does not claim it as supreme but essential.

Download Pdf

Watch videos Preface to Shakespeare Part 1
Preface to Shakespeare Part 2
Preface to Shakespeare Part 3