Johnson as a Critic of Shakespeare
Dr Samuel Johnson, the Neo-classical scholar, is one of the renowned critics of Shakespeare. His criticism of Shakespeare reveals obviously the neo-classical standards of evaluation. In other words, Johnson, in his approach to Shakespeare's works, adopts, on the whole, a new classical attitude which is perfectly in consonance with the spirit of the age in which he lived.
The neo-classical attitude is seen in his impersonality or objectivity of assessment, his emphasis on literature as a representation of human life and character, his search for the didactic elements in literature and his dealing with both the merits and faults of Shakespeare.
Samuel Johnson reads Shakespeare's plays a dramatic narrative, not as thematic poems. His estimate of Shakespeare is closely reasoning and his dispassion at objectivity is indeed peronasive. His work on Shakespeare is totally free from any personal prejudices. He did not concern himself with the inner, imaginative life of Shakespeare, rather he endeavoured to make an assessment of his literary achievement.
As a neo-classical critic, Johnson is impressed by the grandeur of generality in Shakespeare's plays. Johnson elevates Shakespeare on the ground that he is a poet of nature-human nature. According to Johnson.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.
He found this requirement in Shakespeare. Johnson says,
William Shakespeare is above all writers, the poet of nature, the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of life.
Johnson goes on to eulogize the characterisation of Shakespeare. According to Johnson, Shakespeare's characters are the products of common humanity such as the world will always supply. They are guided by universal passions and principles. A Shakespearean character is not just an individual, but a whole species. In fact, the universality of his characters made his plays more significant and more interesting.
Johnson speaks highly of the realistic quality of Shakespeare's plays and the universality of his characters. Though some of his plots are improbable and wild, the truth of human nature and human psychology are depicted in them.
Shakespeare appeals to every age because he does not emphasize the differentiating qualities of one time and one place, but concentrates on what man has in common. By virtue of his knowledge of general human nature, Shakespeare was able to fill his play with a practical axiom and domestic wisdom.
Shakespeare gives evidence of having seen things with his own eyes. The images which he gives are such as his own mind had directly received. Shakespeare does not deal with love as a major human motive and emotion. He knows that love is merely one of many human passions. It has, therefore, a confined role in the plays of Shakespeare. Johnson also says that Shakespeare does not follow any other writer, rather he has been imitated by the succeeding writers.
However, Johnson does not consider Shakespeare as a faultless dramatist. He analyzes also the demerits of Shakespeare's plays. He sets down these faults on the conflicting ground, though in some respects he is justified. In pointing out some faults of Shakespeare, Johnson shows his neo-classical bent of mind.
Dr Johnson accuses Shakespeare of lacking in morality According to Johnson, Shakespeare's first and foremost defect is that
he sacrifices virtue to convenience and he is much more careful to please than to instruct.
It seems that he writes without any moral purpose. Johnson also points out that Shakespeare does not make a just distribution of good and evil and does not always present his virtuous characters being victorious over the evil ones. Rather, he takes his characters through right and wrong.
Johnson complains that the plots of Shakespeare's plays are loosely formed and carelessly pursued. Even the catastrophe is imperfectly presented. He violates chronology and is guilty of anarchism. In his plays, no distinction of time and place is observed but the customs, opinions and manners of one age or one country are freely attributed to another.
Johnson's complaint is acceptable. The exchanges in his comic plays are also indecent. There is an undue poem of diction and unnecessary repetition in his plays. Even his language is intricate while his vocabulary is high sounding and inflated.
In many respects, Johnson's accusation of Shakespeare's plays is in proportionate. So, we cannot accept all the views of Johnson. Shakespeare had a great genius for writing witty dialogues and his presentation of a comic scene in Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It is splendid.
Johnson's comments about Shakespeare's tragic plays are almost outrageous. Shakespeare's greatness as a dramatist can be found in his tragic plays. Then the truth of nature for which Johnson praises him greatly should be found in his tragedies and not in his comedies, for his comedies contain highly improbable plots, but in his tragedies, we find a realistic representation of events and portrayal of characters.
It is said that Shakespeare would be world-famous dramatist if he wrote only four tragedies: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. By his condemnation of Shakespeare's tragic plays, Johnson has almost nullified the high praise that he offered him earlier.
In some respects, as we have noticed Johnson's acceptance of certain arbitrary conventions was as literal as that of his age. Yet in two important respects, he defended Shakespearean drama with such emphasis that he has been regarded as an opponent of the neoclassical rules.
He justifies Shakespeare's mingling of tragic and comic scenes. No less forcible is his defence of Shakespeare's violation of the unities of time and place. He rejects also the stricter neo-classical demand regarding the portrayal of the character, effectively refuting the arguments of Dennis, Rymer and of Voltaire.
In conclusion, we may say that Johnson is neo-classical in the judicial method that he adopts in his criticism of Shakespeare. He gives us two catalogues - one of the reasons for his veneration and admiration of Shakespeare, and the other of the charges and accusations which he brings against the poet.