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Shakespeare is such a poet and dramatist of the world who has been edited and

criticized by hundreds of editors and critics Dr. Samuel Johnson is one of them.
But among the literary criticisms about Shakespeare, Johnsons edition was
notable chiefly for its sensible interpretations and critical evaluations of
Shakespeare as a literary artist. As a true critic in his Preface to Shakespeare,
Johnson has pointed out Shakespeares merits or excellences as well as demerits.
He does not believe in conventional view of Shakespeares acclaim.
Preface to Shakespeare by Dr, Johnson represents a totally wholesome commentary
upon Shakespeare, in which, Shakespeare has been shown as a true genius, but that
genius is not emancipated from Faults, a very common characteristic of mankind.
Johnson comments, Shakespeare with his excellences has likewise faults, and
faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit.

Strengths of Shakespeares Plays According to Johnson:

Shakespeare was an established authority by the time of Johnson. According to

Johnson, By nature, Johnson means the observation of reality. Johnson says that
Shakespeare had the ability to provide a just representation of general nature. Here,
Johnson presents the idea of universality. David Daiches reports that Dr. Johnson
appreciates Shakespeare because he, according to Drydens requirement of a just and
lively image of human nature, fulfills it. He further explains that Shakespeare as a
dramatist is praised because he does what is expected from a dramatist. Shakespeares
writings have a main theme of good and evil, these are universal problems, and
everyone agrees to these problems. All humanity faces good as well as evil so the
author who uses these problems relates to peoples lives.

According to Johnson, art should be exact representation (imitation) of general nature

as Plato says that art is the imitation of nature. Also, dealing with the theme of
universality, Johnson seems to believe in modern thoughts that truth has to be
universal, accepted by all and common for all. Nature is represented by classicists so
copying them also means copying nature. Hamlet says, Hold up a mirror to nature,
which means imitation of nature according to Platonic theory. Shakespeare is also
categorized by Johnson as poet of nature.

Johnson, further describes about Shakespeares characters as, His persons act and
speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are
agitated... Shakespeares characters are individuals but represent universality.
Johnson elaborates about Shakespeares characters, Shakespeare has no heroes; his
scenes are occupied by men. It means that Shakespeares characters are of general
kind and are not restricted by customs and conventions of any one society.
David Daiches describes that by having no heroes does not mean that his characters
are not heroic or impressive but that they are not supernatural beings but men, whom
we recognize as fellow human beings acting according to the general laws of nature.
Also, if Shakespeare uses ghosts, he gives them humanly characteristics as they speak
like human beings such as Hamlets fathers ghost.

Johnson describes language of Shakespeare as comprehensible. He also describes that

Shakespeares characters differ from one another because of the usage of language.

Johnson praises Shakespeare and comments, His drama is the mirror of life.
According to Johnson, his plays are so realistic that we get practical knowledge from
them. He further says, Shakespeares plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense
either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind... According to
Johnson, divisions of Shakespeares plays into tragedies and comedies is wrong. Eliot
shares Johnsons idea of incorrect labeling of Shakespeares dramas as tragic, comic
and historic.

Johnson judges Shakespeares tragedy as a skill and his comedy as an instinct. He

thinks that the natural medium for Shakespeare is comedy not tragedy. According to
him, Shakespeare had to struggle for his tragedies but still they did not reach

He presents a mingled drama a tragicomedy, which provides instructions in both the

ways, as a tragedy as well as a comedy. He reinforces if tragedy and comedy are
mingled, the effect one wants to create on the audience is impaired. Mingling of
tragedy and comedy means to represent the reality of the world as it is.

Shakespeares merits as stated by Johnson:
The Unities:

In his criticism of Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson breaks entirely free from the
shackles of classical dogma and tradition. In an age of classicism, when everything
was judged by certain set rules derived from the ancients, he dismisses the claims
of the classical unities of Time and Place as being necessary to create dramatic
illusion on grounds of nearness to life and nature and this violation often resulted
in variety and instruction.
Shakespeares Histories do not come under the purview of the law of the unities
because of the very nature of change of time, place and events.

The observance of the unity of time and place is considered necessary in the
interest of the credibility of the drama. It is said that fiction should be as near to
reality as possible. But Johnson defends on the grounds of realism that it is wrong
to suppose that any dramatic performance is credited with reality, as the audience
never accepts the performance on a stage to be absolutely true, but as a picture of
reality. (When they see the actors on the stage in a miserable state, they imagine
themselves to be miserable for the moment. They knew well that they are
witnessing a fiction and the events on the stage produce pain or pleasure not
because the audience believes them to be true, but because they bring realities to

Drama moves us not because it is credited, but because it makes us feel that the
evils which are represented may happen to ourselves otherwise Imitations
produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because
they bring realities to mind.
A spectator who thinks that by entering a theatre he has moved from the London of
his times to Alexandria and imagine the actors to be Antony and Cleopatra can
surely imagine much more. A drama is a delusion and delusion has no limits. The
spectators do not count the clock or look at the calendar. They are all in their sense,
they know the stage is a stage and the actors are actors.
Therefore there is no absurdity in showing different actions at different places in
different periods as long as the represented events are connected with each other
with nothing but time intervening between them. He finds the unities of time and
place as sheer imposters for he writes, the truth is that the spectators are always in

their sense, and know, from the first Act to the last, that the stage is only a stage
and the players only players.

Shakespeare has wrote two plays- the comedy of errors and Tempest following the
three unities and in other plays unity of action with his plots having a beginning, a
middle and an end with one event logically connected with another moving
towards the denouncement.

Johnsons perception a model of logical demonstration is ahead of contemporary

criticism and is a fore-runner of romantic criticism with its advocacy of an artists
freedom from the tyranny of rules.

Justification of Tragi-Comedy:

Johnson defends Shakespeare for his mingling of the tragic and comic elements in
his plays on grounds of realism exhibiting the real state of sublunary
nature. Because, Shakespeare's plays express 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 friends,(in which the malignity of
one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another; and many mischiefs and many
benefits are done and hindered without design.)

The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. And
the mingled drama can convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy, for it best
represents the life.

Johnson regards Shakespeares mingling of tragedy and comedy as a merit,

because he cannot recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who
attempted both.

Shakespeare always makes nature predominance over accident. His story requires
Romans but he thinks only on men.

Johnson points out that Shakespeares plays are not in a rigorous sense, either
tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind, on contrary to the rules
of criticism, but Johnson appeals from books to nature and says there is always
an appeal open from criticism to nature as in real life also there is a mingling of
the good and evil, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles mingled in various degrees and
endless combinations and so in mixing tragedy and comedy Shakespeare merely
holds a mirror to nature he is true to nature.
Tragi-comedy is nearer to life than either tragedy or comedy, as it combines
within itself the pleasure as well as the instruction of both. These are Johnsonian
use of the escape clause.

The interchange of the serious and the gay does not interrupt the progress of the
passions i.e. it does not result in any weakening of effect and that tragedy becomes
all the more grim by a touch of the comic. Shakespeare can always move either to
tears or to laughter. Moreover, pleasure consists in variety and tragic-comedy
can satisfy a greater variety of tastes and melancholy is often not pleasing. There
are many people who welcome comic relief after a scene producing the feeling of
melancholy. Furthermore, variety on the whole contributes pleasure.

In the twentieth century T.S. Eliot also said that the desire for comic relief springs
from a lack of the capacity for concentration. If it is a question of concentration, an
audience may concentrate better on a crisis if it has relaxed before that. Natures
way is: strain-rest-strain-rest.
Once we understand Shakespeares plan, most of the criticisms of Rymer and
Voltaire lose their validity. Mercutio and Thersites, Pandarus and Polonius, the
Grave-diggers and the Porter and Cleopatras Clown are certainly not out of place
in the plays. Raleigh praising Johnson in this connection writes he passes over to
the side of the enemy and almost becomes a romantic.

Poet of Nature:

Shakespeares greatness lies in the fact that he is the poet of nature. Jonson says,

Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of
nature, the poet that holds up to the reader a faithful mirror of human nature.

His writings represent the general nature, because he knows Nothing can please
many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Therefore

his characters are the genuine progeny of common humanity. In the writing of
other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is
commonly a species. Thus Johnson indicates the universal aspects of
Shakespeares writings.

A just representation of general nature seems to be the only permanent source of

appreciation. Immortality cannot be conferred upon a work of art by representation
of particular manners or the irregular combinations of fanciful invention. Such
works can only give rise to a sense of pleasure or wonder which is soon satiated. It
is only truth which can provide a stable place for the mind to rest upon.
Shakespeare excels other writers in being the poet of nature. He shows an
encyclopedic knowledge of human nature not as it is observed in particular
countries and climes but as it is met all over the world. The excellences in his
works result not from a study of books, but from his keen observation of life and
nature, so much that his plays can increase our knowledge of human nature.
Maxims of much practical wisdom are scattered all over his works. Dr. Johnson
quotes Dryden with approval that he was naturally learned.

Johnson also has the discernment to know that all pleasure consists in variety,
and points out that the appeal of Shakespeare is so universal because his themes
and characters are so varied. Characters and dialogue were not known in the age;
he introduced them both and in some of his happiest scenes carried them to
perfection. In his age, the study of mankind was superficial. Only actions were
studied and causes were omitted. Shakespeare studies those causes.

Theme of Love:

Love Motif predominates in the works of other contemporary dramatists, but it

has little operation in the drama of a poet (Shakespeare) who caught his idea
from the living world. Love is not all in his plays. Love is only one of the many
passions and as his plays mirror life, they represent other passions as well. Undue
importance is not attached to any one passion, while others misrepresented life by
portraying love as a universal agent.

Shakespeare's treatment of love proves his following realism. Dramatists in

general give an excessive importance to the theme of love. But to Shakespeare
love is only one of many passions, and as it has no great influence upon the sum

of life. In Shakespeares Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, love interest hardly
has any place


Johnson further comments on Shakespeare's characterization.

He says,
Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and
speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the
same occasion.
On the contrary, other dramatists portray their characters in such a hyperbolic
or exaggerated way that the reader cannot suit them to their life.

In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of

Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

His characters are the faithful representations of humanity. His characters are
universal but they are individual also. They are also true to the age, sex or
profession to which they belong. They are also true to type. The speech of one
cannot be placed in the mouth of another, and they can easily be differentiated
from each other by their species.

He has no heroes but only human beings.

His characters are not exaggerated; they have the common feelings and virtues of
humanity. They all act and think in the way in which the reader himself would act
and think under the circumstances.
Shakespeare approximates the remote and familiarizes the wonderful.
His adherence to general nature has exposed him to some criticism, for his Romans
or kings are human beings first and kings and Romans afterwards. They are true to
human nature, though in petty matters they may not agree with our conception of
kings and Romans. In Hamlet he depicts the Danish Usurper as a drunkard for the
truth is kings are not immune to the temptation or influence of wine.

Dialogue and Diction:

Shakespeares dialogue is often so evidently determined by the incident which
produces it, and pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely
to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of
common conversation and common occurrences".

The diction of his dialogues are that of the conversation of the common people, as
Shakespeare adopts, it is above grossness and below refinement and so his
dialogues are always more pleasing to hear than other author who is equally remote
in terms of time. The familiar dialogue in Shakespeare has been acknowledged to
be smooth and clear, although it is sometimes rugged. This may be compared with
a country which is very fruitful on the whole, though it has spots which are barren.
He perfected the English verse, imparted to it diversity and flexibility and brought
it nearer to the language of prose or to that of everyday conversation.

Weaknesses in Shakespeares Plays According to


Johnson identifies, The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by
pleasing. Dr. Johnson, like utilitarian, seems to believe in the usefulness of art. He is
one of them who want to prove that art is profitable for society. He also agrees to
Sidneys idea of poet as a moral teacher. According to Johnson, poetry should make us
better and it should be didactic.

David Daiches criticizes Johnson for his two contradictory remarksjust

representation of human nature and poetry as a medium of moral instruction.
David Daiches emphasizes that human nature not only deals with good side of life but
also the evil aspects are there. However, for instructing morally, evil should be
omitted, which means that the writer is not depicting true human nature. Humanity
contains moral as well as immoral aspects so poetry cannot be a moral teacher and
true human nature representation both.

Johnson comments on Shakespeares style, He sacrifices virtue to convenience...
Johnsons argument is prejudice of the age. According to his opinion, rational thinking
leads to moral thinking. Anthony House depicts, Johnson exhibits emphatic distaste
for Shakespeares lack of moral purpose. Johnson reinforces on a writers duty to
make the world better, which means, he emphasizes on moral role of literature,
which is again contradictory to neo-classical ideas.

Another defect highlighted by Johnson is that Shakespeare does not give much
consideration to plot construction. Initially, in the preface, Johnson praises
Shakespeare for his universality, his not belonging to any one age, place or time but
then, he contradicts with himself as he identifies it a flaw of Shakespeares style.

For Johnson, clarity and diction are important. Johnson criticizes Shakespeares use of
language. According to him, Shakespeare is not of civilized kind and is also over-
punning. Sometimes, it seems that Shakespeare is involved in providing mere
dialogues not related to the plot.

Johnson vigorously defends Shakespeare against charges of failing to adhere to the

classical doctrine of the dramatic unities of time, place and action. According to
Aristotle, these unities are necessary for the praiseworthy work. As far as, unity of
action is concerned, Shakespeare is good at it but the other two unities of time and
place are subservient to the mind: since the audience does not confound stage action
with reality, it has no trouble with a shift of scene from Rome to Alexandria. Anthony
House claims, By reversing the entire paradigm through which the unities are used,
Johnson changes Shakespeares fault into a praiseworthy asset. According to
Johnson, the idea of unity of place and time is contradictory in terms of reason and
rationality. Johnson also elaborates, Such violations of rules mere positive become
the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare.

Anthony House depicts the importance of Johnsons work in terms of Shakespeares

study. By his preface, Johnson tries to highlight certain views about Shakespeares
genius. Whatever Johnson has contributed, it is precious.

Faults of Shakespeare:

Johnson gives us a long list of the faults of Shakespeare. This list exposes some of
the limitations of Johnsons criticism. Johnsons error here is two-fold. Firstly, he
attaches too much importance to the didactic element in literature by complaining
that Shakespeare sacrifices virtue to convenience, and that he seems to write
without any moral purpose. We cannot agree with Johnson that it is always a
writers duty to make the world better. The business of an artist is to represent or
exhibit life as he sees it and not to inculcate virtue. Secondly, he fails to recognize
Shakespeares greatness as a writer of tragedies.

In this connection, Johnson thinks that in tragedy, his performance seems

constantly to be worse as his labor is more In his tragic scenes there is always
something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His
tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct. It has been said that
Johnsons preference for Shakespeares comedies might have been a result of his
own temperament. But Johnson was a pessimist by nature, and his failure therefore
to appreciate the depth and profundity of Shakespeares tragic plays shows a
strange contradiction. Johnson shows an incapacity to appreciate the sublime
aspects of Shakespeares work. This is a serious deficiency in Johnsons criticism.

Shakespeare has serious faults, serious enough to obscure his many excellences:

Lack of Poetic Justice:

Shakespeares first defect is

He sacrifices virtue to convenience and is so much more careful to please then to
instruct that he seems to write without any moral purpose.
Moreover, he lacks poetic justice-he makes no just distribution of good or evil.

Here we cannot agree with Johnson. He himself called Shakespeare a poet of

nature. But now he cannot come out of the tradition of his age- explicit moralizing
or didacticism. Actually, Shakespeare gives us a picture of life as whatever he sees.
Didacticism which is expected from a true artist cannot be a basic condition of art.
Thus here we see Johnsons dualism in evaluating Shakespeare.

However, this fault may be considered by the barbarity of his age, for justice is a
virtue independent of time and place. There was a tradition in that era that it is the
duty of a writer to make the world better.

Loose Plots:

His plots are loosely formed. A very little thought would have improved them. He
follows the easiest path and neglects the opportunities of instruction which his
plots offer him.
The later parts of his plays are often neglected, as if he shortened the labor to
snatch the profits. His catastrophes often seem forced and improbable.
There are many faults of chronology and many anachronisms in his plays.
However, in this respect Shakespeare alone was not at fault, it was a fault common
to the age; Sidney in his Arcadia is also guilty of such faults.

Shakespeares plot construction has some faults. According to Johnson, the plots
are often loosely formed and carelessly pursued. He omits opportunities of
instructing or delighting which the development of the plot provides to him."
Moreover, in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected.

This charge is, to some extent true. The readers loose dramatic interest in the
second half of Julius Caesar. But The Merchant of Venice shows a perfect sense of
plot construction.

Distinction of time and place:

Johnsons another charge against Shakespeare is regarding distinction of time and

place. He attributes to a certain nation or a certain period of history, the customs,
practices and opinions of another. For example, we find Hector
quoting Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida.

Fondness for quibbles:

Shakespeares another faults in the eye of Johnson is his over. A quibble was to
him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it. But

to say Johnson here sacrifices his strong common sense for the sake of an eloquent

Shakespeares Comic Genius Faults of his tragedies:

Comedy came natural to him, and not tragedy. In tragedy he writes with great
appearance of toil and study what is written at last with little felicity; but in comic
scenes he seems to produce without labor what no labor can improve. In his tragic
scenes, there is something always wanting, but his comedy often surpasses
expectation or desire. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.
His comic scenes are natural and, therefore, durable; hence this popularity has not
suffered with the passing of time.

Shakespeares other faults are:

Often his jokes are gross and licentious. This might have been a fault of age, but
there must have been other forms of gaiety as well, and it is a writers duty to
represent the best.

In his narration there is much pomp of diction and circumlocution. Narration in

drama is always tedious, and so it should be brief, rapid and to the point. His set
speeches are cold and weak. They are often verbose, being too large for the
thought. Trivial ideas are clothed in sonorous epithets. There is disproportionate
pomp of diction and bombast.
What he does best, he soon ceases to do. The readers are disappointed to find him
falling down at moments of highest excellence. Some contemptible conceit spoils
the effect of his pathetic and tragic scenes.


Johnson, Samuel. (1917). The Preface to Shakespeare. The Harvard Classics. New
York: P. F. Collier & Son.

How Does Johnson Defend Shakespeare's Violation of the Three Unities in "Preface to
Shakespeare" and What Are the Major Points in the "Preface to Shakespeare? (Long Essay with
Major Points).", n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

"Merits and Demerits of Shakespeare in Johnson." Scribd. Scribd, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

Kumar, Dinesh. "Supplementary Study Material for Students of English." Supplementary Study
Material for Students of English. Google Docs, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.