Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson
Preface to Shakespeare:
It is regarded as the master piece of Johnson's literary criticism. It holds a mirror to Johnson gifts of individuality of style reflecting his ingenuity, common sense, discernment and extensive language and literature.
As a critic of Shakespeare, Johnson evidences some rare insights despite the influence of the limitations of the Neo-classical age on him. Johnson applies the test of time and comparative approach to decide the greatness of Shakespeare. Johnson says: " Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature." Shakespeare holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners of life. Shakespeare's characters are the products of common humanity.
The phrase connotes favorable moral and aesthetic implications, though Johnson goes on to deny individuality and moral purpose to Shakespeare's characters. The greatness of Shakespeare can be seen even in the speeches of Brutus and Antony in Juliet Caesar, the quality of mercy speech of Portia in "Merchant of Venice" or Hamlet's soliloquy: "To be or not to be".
Even where there is super natural agency, the dialogues accords with real life. Shakespeare has shown human nature not only as it is in real situations, but as it would be in situations "which may never arise". Shakespeare was most original in his portrayal of characters. Johnson says: " No writer before, with the possible exception of Chaucer, had portrayed human character in a realistic manner."
In developing the theme of love, Shakespeare believed that a dramatist will often violate probability and misrepresent life. We also find corroboration of his view in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that love " has little operation in the drama of a poet who caught his ideas from the living.Johnson defends Shakespeare's realism of characterization from the attacks of some critics.
Shakespeare is concerned with the essential character, but not with accidental distinctions. Johnson defends Shakespeare saying that Addison spoke of the language of poets, while Shakespeare spoke of the language of men. His characters and the sentiments expressed by them reflect real life.
Shakespeare's mingling of the tragic and the comic:
Johnson defends Shakespeare's mingling of the tragic and comic elements in his plays. Shakespeare's play is capable of conveying all the instruction that tragedy or comedy aims at, because such a play is closer to the reality of life than either pure tragedy or pure comedy.
Whatever be the label applied to Shakespeare's play, his mode of composition is the same with the mingling of the comic and the tragic. Shakespeare derives his comic dialogue from the common intercourse of life, and not from the language of "polite" society or from that of the learned people who tend to depart from the established forms of speech. Johnson defends Shakespeare's violation of unities of time. Despite of contemporary critics, he says that an audience in a theatre can accept the stage in the city of Rome.
Johnson says that Shakespeare's ignorance or violation of rules, if any, could be condoned in the light of the conditions of his times. According to audience's interest, Shakespeare fill his plays with actions full of incidents, as well as speeches. Shakespeare was the most original in his portrayal of characters. No writer before, with the possible exception of Chaucer, had portrayed human character in realistic manner.
Shakespeare says Johnson was the originator of "the form, the character, the language and the shows" of English drama.
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