Ramble. Focus. Ramble.

A Preface to Shakespeare by Dr. Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson in his book about Shakespeare gives reasons for the strength of Shakespeare and also the weaknesses that Shakespeare’s literature brings. This is the strongest element of the book that it has given reasons to identify both parts of Shakespearean literature and is unbiased in his approach.

Samuel Johnson writes “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature”. The nature here is derived from the nature that Dryden talks about in his book. He explains how Shakespeare has a way of portraying nature as just and fulfilling and this is strength according to Johnson as well. Johnson carries on with his defence for Shakespeare and asserts that Shakespeare is a good dramatist. He does what a dramatists needs to do and that is to deal with the universal problem. The universal problem according to Johnson is the problem of good and evil and he does it best. He has a way of understanding people’s ways of life and portrays them well in evil and goodness.

Johnson, like Plato believes that art is imitation of the nature and he calls Shakespeare the poet of nature in his work.  Moreover, for Johnson what sets Shakespeare apart is that his characters are universal. They represent common people and the emotions one deals with; so he says “Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied by men.” Johnson praises Shakespeare’s characters because they don’t exhibit norms of a particular society but are relatable by the whole world. He creates no heroic personalities but the character is still always strong and common at the same time.

Furthermore, Johnson asserts that language of Shakespeare is comprehensible and what sets the characters apart is Shakespeare’s use of language. Johnson claims that “ His drama is the mirror of life” by which he means that the plays are so tragically near reality that it is hard to set them apart from reality. He believes that the division of Shakespearean plays into genre is wrong. According to Johnson Shakespearean comedy is ‘instinct’ and his tragedy is ‘a skill.’

Johnson points out Shakespeare’s weaknesses well. He says “The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing” by which he implies that art should be useful for society. He, like Sidney believes that art should be a moral teacher. He points out Shakespeare’s style critically and he says “He sacrifices virtue to convenience.” This means that Johnson is unhappy for the limited use of moral teachings in Shakespeare’s work.

Further contradictions that Johnson points out are that Shakespeare has a habit of using mere dialogues that have little relevance to the plot. And he thinks that Shakespeare did not work very well with plot construction.

Another important argument is given against and for Shakespeare. Johnson identifies how Shakespeare overlooks the unity of time, place and action that Aristotle thought were very necessary. However, Johnson puts his belief in Shakespeare’s work and tells how unity of time and place are contradictory in terms of reason and rationality. He believes Shakespeare is a genius to put his work neglecting them. He uses the words “Such violations of rules mere positive become the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare.”

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This entry was posted on April 30, 2011 by in Philosophy and tagged , .
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