What Makes Shakespeare So Good? (Hint: Mimesis Might Have Something To Do With It)

In the preface to his eight-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1765), the literary critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) had some opinions about what makes Shakespeare so good. Here they are (and notice how many of them are grounded in mimesis):

  • Shakespeare is supreme at mirroring what is essential in human nature. Mimesis—imitation through art of what is most true about the world—has long been a goal of artists, especially in the classical tradition (the idea goes back to the ancient Greeks), and it is Johnson’s first (and chief) criterion for evaluating Shakespeare. 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 and essential.
  • Shakespeare’s famous lines stick with us because they point to the universally human (the species, not the specimen). “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.” In other words, the instruction in Shakespeare is for us–for all of us–in our most fundamental (non-individual) natures as human beings. “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.” This is also true of the sayings; they are directed at topics with which the many, not just the few, can identify.
  • Shakespeare’s plays as a whole display a splendor even greater than the concentrated splendor of their memorable lines. 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.” In other words, if you like Shakespeare’s quotable bricks, check out the edifice as a whole—it’s even more impressive.
  • Shakespeare mirrors what is essential in human nature in a realistic and natural fashion. “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, […]” Johnson is offering here another classical criterion for praise of art that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks: does the art draw attention to itself as affected and self-conscious (bad) or does it seem natural and convincing in its representations of life (good)? Put another way, does it draw one’s attention to the act of imitation itself–the machinations and personality of the artist–or to what is being imitated?
  • Shakespeare knows how to present characters and their passions without sacrificing their complexity. This is another mimetic criterion: can an artist or poet present characters that are alive, not flat (one-dimensional)? 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.” Again, a mimetic observation.
  • Shakespeare is a master creator of unique and living personae. To create personae (masks; personalities; characters) at once “ample and general” (that is, vivid and fascinating in their particularities, and yet also true to human nature generally) is tricky, but Shakespeare accomplishes it repeatedly, and “perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other.” (And in case you didn’t notice, this too is a mimetic criterion: can you convincingly depict both the particular and the general in the same character; can you play the full range of a character’s notes as genus, species, and specimen?)
  • Shakespeare has no heroes, only humans. Still another mimetic criterion from Johnson!: “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. That is, the two genres are mingled into a hybrid: “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.” Rather than mimesis, this is more of a criterion of variety; a criterion of surprise (so as not to fatigue the audience with a too-predictable sequence of events). Part of Shakespeare’s strength, according to Johnson, is playing with the boundaries of traditional genres both in the plays as a whole and within individual characters, even in each moment. Contradictory emotions of heroic optimism and tragic pessimism, for example, violently stir at one and the same time in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be.” Shakespeare’s characters are manic with stormy, contending energies.
  • Shakespeare invented a sublunary (“beneath the moon”) dramatic genre for depicting our real, complex, and dream-like lives. Again, Johnson is back to another aspect of mimesis: “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.” To put this in contemporary terms: Shakespeare is good at representing the absurd, contingent, and ambiguous. The cosmos simply does not answer to your emotions or sensibilities (when you’re miserable, you may encounter, by sheer chance, someone quite happy; when you’re mourning, it may be the most delicious Spring day of the year). Such moments are absurd, where life does not yield to reason (or to what you think ought to be in accord with reason or good design in the cosmos). Shakespeare is masterful at capturing the ironies of such an existence–of our existence; of life “beneath the moon.”
  • Shakespeare’s sublunary dramas—because they are so true to life—are worthy of philosophical reflection. “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].” In other words, Shakespeare dramatizes the absurd nature of existence, its unpredictable blendings of design and chance, comedy and tragedy—and this brings us to a more accurate representation of life than the merely straight comedy or the straight tragedy. Part of Shakespeare’s power is in his “mingles.”
  • 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.” Translation: Shakespeare is the lightning; he hits his mark.
  • Shakespeare is an inventor; he did not attempt to imitate the classical writers or please critics. According to Johnson, ignorance can lead to bliss, and being an outsider makes for innovation: “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.” Little to argue about here.

If Johnson’s observations appear to verge 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.” Johnson’s critique is grounded in one of the ancient criteria for judging whether something is excellent, beautiful, or true: who is the audience for this presentation of art? It is a question of decorum; what’s right for one audience might not be right for another. In this case, most 18th century audiences would have expected at least some moral instruction in their drama, but Shakespeare doesn’t deliver this, and in general any writer mars the excellence, beauty, and truth of what he represents by not making a bridge between his sensibilities and that of his audience. Thus, ironically, people today might list Shakespeare’s lack of morality as among his strengths (he is not a didactic writer). He does not violate moral decorum with us (a generation raised on films that largely ignore, or even show hostility toward, traditional religion and morality). Shakespeare bridges to our sensibilities more readily than he may have to the 18th century audiences of Johnson’s time.

But certainly this is not true with regard to a different issue: mimesis. This is where the bridge may be broken for at least some contemporary readers of Shakespeare. They may not be convinced that humanity as a whole really has an essential nature that can be mirrored with understanding to one-and-all on stage. To some postmodernists–perhaps the majority–Shakespeare’s reputation for “universality” amounts to little more than a form of Western imperialism (such a critique would have been unlikely to have occurred to Johnson). If this critique is valid, it turns most of Johnson’s positive observations of Shakespeare on their head.

So the question becomes: are you a postmodern anti-essentialist or religious/nationalist Herderian (someone who thinks that cultures and peoples are hermetically sealed-off from one another in important respects)? If so, you’re not likely to be as enamored of Shakespeare as Samuel Johnson is in his preface.

On the other hand, 21st century readers (at least postmodern and secular ones) might be more forgiving than Johnson on the matter of Shakespeare’s (often lewd) verbal punning. Johnson thinks Shakespeare too often loses his dramatic focus in following his obscenities and innuendos: “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. But whether you think obscenity and innuendo are good things in art or not depends on your criteria for excellence, beauty, and truth (and what mars them).

So what are your criteria for evaluating whether Shakespeare’s writings are excellent, beautiful, true? Are Johnson’s mimesis-dominated criteria sufficient? Are there other good criteria to bring to Shakespeare–better ones?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to What Makes Shakespeare So Good? (Hint: Mimesis Might Have Something To Do With It)

  1. Pingback: Take the pleasing way out « How my heart speaks

  2. Peter Smith says:

    I agree with Johnson on all points except the matter of decorum. Shakespeare was popular precisely because he reflected a nitty-gritty reality that audiences of that time would recognise with a frison of shock. The power, eloquence and insights of his words were the cover that gave him acceptance and respectability.

    No, I don’t think obscenity and innuendo are in themselves a good thing in art. They become a good thing when they are necessary to good art. Of course that raises the old question of what is good art. My simple view, good art happens when someone possesses special insights denied to us and also possesses special skills to make those insights visible to us in a way that provokes strong intellectual and emotional responses that are gratifying and stimulating.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      In response to your observation about decorum, I changed this post a bit, writing the following:

      “[I]ronically, people today might list Shakespeare’s lack of morality as among his strengths (he is not a didactic writer). He does not violate moral decorum with us (a generation raised on films that largely ignore, or even show hostility toward, traditional religion and morality). Shakespeare bridges to our sensibilities more readily than he may have to the 18th century audiences of Johnson’s time.”

      And I like, in your definition of art, your emphasis on difficulty (on the artist’s side). So much of modern art feels like cheating, a postmodern con or inside joke by psuedo-artists who wouldn’t last a week under the tutelage of a Michelangelo. I’ve been to the Guggenheim museum at Bilbao in Spain, for example, and thought, “A wonderful building. Amazing. And so little art of lasting worth being housed in it.”

      Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful response/critique.

      –Santi

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  4. David Gontar says:

    Those interested in getting past the academic smokescreen surrounding Shakespeare may wish to read HAMLET MADE SIMPLE and UNREADING SHAKESPEARE from New English Review Press. Good luck!!

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