Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) on the Success and Survival of Shakespeare

Literary critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), in the famous preface to his eight-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1765), attempts to address the question of Shakespeare’s genius: why have his plays been so captivating to so many for so long? Johnson offers numerous plausible reasons:

  • Shakespeare is supreme at mirroring what is essential in human nature. Echoing lines from Hamlet in which good acting is said “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature,” Johnson writes this: “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.” By this Johnson means that, rather than focusing on matters provincial, particular, and transient, Shakespeare reflects back to his audiences the dramas of life that are universal, general, and essential. Human nature is stripped of ornament: “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied.”
  • Shakespeare’s famous lines stick with us because they too are general and essential. “In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species. It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestic wisdom.”
  • Shakespeare’s plays—as a whole and in their dialogue—display a splendor even greater than the concentrated splendor of his memorable lines. In this, Johnson likens Shakepeare’s quotableness to bricks in a grander edifice: “[H]is real power is not shewn in the splendor of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.”
  • Shakespeare mirrors not just what is essential in human nature, but what is real. “Shakespeare excels in accommodating his sentiments to real life, . . . dialogue . . . is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, . . .”
  • Shakespeare knows how to present characters and their passions in complex and realistic ways. Johnson accuses the dramatists of his time as depicting lovers so single-minded and exaggerated in their emotions that “nothing human ever was distressed.” Not so, Shakespeare. He knows that “love is only one of many passions” and that the other passions, insofar as they are “regular or exorbitant,” also cause “happiness or calamity.” Shakespeare “caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw before him.”
  • Shakespeare is a master creator of unique and living personae. To create personae (masks; personalities; characters) at once “ample and general” (that is, large and true to nature) is tricky, but Shakespeare accomplishes it repeatedly, and “perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other.”
  • Shakespeare has no heroes, only humans. “Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity,” whereas “Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men,” and “Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life.”
  • Shakespeare’s plays transcend comedy and tragedy. “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.”
  • Shakespeare invented, as it were, a sublunary (“beneath the moon”) dramatic genre for depicting our real, complex, and dream-like lives. “Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature [life as lived not in heaven or in the ideal, nor in the sunlight of full explanation, but “beneath the moon”], which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.”
  • Shakespeare’s sublunary dramas instruct audiences in the roles that absurdity and contingency (chance; coincidences) play in life. “The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alternations of exhibition and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by shewing how great machinations and slender designs may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general system by unavoidable concatenation [linking].”
  • Shakespeare never fails in his dramatic purpose. “Shakespeare’s mode of composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which the mind is softened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to gladden or depress, or to conduct the story, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpose; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or sit silent with quiet expectation, in tranquility without indifference.”
  • Shakespeare is an inventor; he did not attempt to imitate or critic-please.
    “Shakespeare engaged in dramatick poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; the publick judgment was unformed; he had no example of such fame as might force him upon imitation, nor criticks of such authority as might restrain his extravagance . . .”
  • Shakespeare’s facility with the English language is among his excellencies. “He is . . . more agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other author equally remote, and among his other excellencies deserves to be studied as one of the original masters of our language.”

If Johnson’s observations appear to be verging on “Shakespeare worship,” it should be noted that, in his preface, he also criticizes Shakespeare. He counts, for example, Shakespeare’s amorality as a defect in his overall achievement: “[H]e seems to write without moral purpose.” People today might list this, of course, as one of Shakespeare’s strengths (not being didactic). Likewise, 21st century readers might be more forgiving than Johnson was of Shakespeare’s (often lewd) verbal punning. Johnson thinks Shakespeare too often loses his dramatic focus in following them: “A quibble [as used in the 18th century, a typically low or vulgar pun on words] is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveler; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible.”

Indeed, they are.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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