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During the
eighteenth century, England was shaken by a Shakespeare revival. Yet, this
strong interest in the Bard started to arise at the end of the seventeenth
century, in a period which had not yet been influenced by Voltaire’s stances on
the Bard. It all happened especially thanks to Dryden, whose Of Dramatick Poesie (1668) is usually
considered the text which started criticism on Shakespeare. Although Dryden’s
work “inaugurates a long series of rich engagements with Shakespeare’s
writings”, Rawson justly underlines how “he had inherited a tradition of
rivalry of reputations between Ben Jonson, identified with standards of
classical correctness, and Shakespeare, with English energy and freedom from
rule” (3). This latter statement highlights an important fact about Shakespeare
and the understanding his contemporaries had of his works. In fact, we are
informed of the nature of the comparison made between Jonson and Shakespeare,
which would lay in the different styles they incarnated. Thus, when drawing a
parallel between Shakespeare and other sixteenth-century playwrights, Dryden
mostly relies on the shared opinion which had always identified a powerful,
unruled dramatic spirit in the former, standing in strong contrast to the
classical tradition of the latter.

Notwithstanding the influence from previous writers, Dryden’s critical
comments on Shakespeare played a decisive role in establishing a “new” reading
of the dramatist, an interpretation which was soon to become a key feature of
English literary and cultural tradition. Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson and
Edmond Malone, just to name a few, were the scholars who followed Dryden’s
steps in recognising the new-found English genius, also driven by the patriotic
anti-French spirit which Voltaire had inaugurated after his comments.
Nonetheless, it was Johnson who “fostered a culture of treating Shakespeare as
an ancient writer” (Johnston 116), elevating him to the pantheon where Homer,
Virgil and Horace were resting untouched. Today, criticism recognises Johnson
to be Shakespeare’s best editor, a scholar who not only analysed thoroughly his
repertoire, but who also empathised with the author, impersonated himself in
his nature, and was not afraid of disagreeing with those former editors (such
Pope) who had modified the genius’s creations in an attempt to make them
suitable to the Aristotelian rules.

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            Johnson’s interest in Shakespeare
accompanied the critic for his entire literary production, starting from the
redaction of the Dictionary of the
English Language (1755) and culminating in the famous Preface to Shakespeare (1765). The Preface is certainly one of the most emblematic texts on the
playwright. The power of this literary piece resides in its ambivalence, deep
knowledge of the topic, and palpable familiarity Johnson shows when talking
about Shakespeare. Johnson’s opinions on the playwright were, like for
Voltaire, fluctuating: his Preface is
not, therefore, a captatio benevolentiae
aimed to embellish Shakespeare’s production to the eighteenth-century public.
Quite the opposite, Johnson is fully aware of the Bard’s faults and lack of
technicality. Yet, differently from Pope, “whose edition was far removed from
the scholarly ideal of explaining or recovering an author’s intention, or
indeed the original sense of what the author wrote”, and “whose primary
motivation was aesthetic emphasis
mine” (Johnston 120), Johnson’s work “hopes to map the contour of the
playwright’s thoughts, imagination and memory” (126).

The Preface is thus divided: a
first part is concerned with Johnson’s elevation of Shakespeare as a poet who
“may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of
established fame and prescriptive veneration” (3); the second part, instead,
lists his faults, especially in merit to the dramatic rules; the third and last
part focuses mainly on those editors previous to Johnson who, according to him,
had unjustly modified Shakespeare’s works. The whole text is based on the same
old belief uttered by Dryden, taken from Milton, used by Voltaire, and
supported by Pope: Shakespeare is nature. Nonetheless, Johnson’s originality
lays in the different approach to the plays after this realisation. Nature is
the common factor which runs through the Preface,
assuming the connotation of virtue or fault depending on the way it is applied
in theatre. When it comes to list it positively, Johnson is driven by
enthusiasm in claiming that

“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. His characters … are genuine progeny of
common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will
always find” (4).

In other
words, as well as in Johnson’s words, Shakespeare and his plays need to be
praised because they mirror life in a way which cannot be found in any other
playwright (7).

            Yet, an exposure to nature can
reveal itself to be negative too. In fact, “Shakespeare’s adherence to
general nature has exposed him to the censure of criticks, who form their
judgments upon narrower principles” (Johnson 8). It is easy to retrace in these
words a direct counterattack to Voltaire and all those scholars who, like him,
had criticised the Bard basing themselves on such “narrower principles”. As
said before, Johnson does not try to hide these faults. “Shakespeare with his
excellencies has likewise faults” (15), so begins the second part of the Preface. The accusations which Johnson
moves to Shakespeare are pretty relevant. Shakespeare is accused to
“sacrifice virtue to convenience” and to be “so much more careful to please
than to instruct” (15); his plots would be “often so loosely formed, that a
very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he
seems not always fully to comprehend his own design” (15); his narrations are
“a wearisome train of circumlocution” and his set speeches “cold and weak”

            Johnson does not forget to talk
about Shakespeare’s biggest fault, the real problem underlying the whole
discussion concerning his genius: the violation of Aristotle’s rules. Yet, the
editor’s highlighting of this major fault does not stem from his agreeing with
Voltaire, Pope or any other critic who had admired Shakespeare, but considered
him a barbarian for this kind of transgression. On the contrary, Johnson
undergoes the mission of defending him. In order to do so, he starts by
claiming that “in his works Shakespeare has well enough preserved the unity
of action”, perhaps in a simplistic way, still “his plan has commonly what
Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is
concatenated with another, and the conclusion follows by easy consequence”
(Johnson 20). By doing so, the editor partially confutes the established idea
of Shakespeare as a playwright completely unaware of rules. The discussion
concerning the other two laws, time and place, is definitely more interesting,
and it shows the originality of Johnson’s thought – an originality which has,
unfortunately, often been attacked by his contemporaries (Johnston 136).

            Johnson’s main focus is on the
reason why supporters of classical theatre think a play should respect said
unities: “the necessity of observing these rules arises from the supposed
necessity of making the drama credible. … The mind revolts from evident
falsehood, and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of
reality” (21). As agreeable as this statement can be, Johnson understands that
it is based on the false principle that believes the spectators to need unity to enjoy a play, which could therefore
only be appreciated if resembling reality. The editor insists that “it is
false, that any representation is mistaken for reality, that any dramatick
fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever
credited” (21-2). He is aware of the fact that “the spectators are always in
their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that he stage is only a
stage, and that the players are only players” (22), to argue the contrary would
mean to insinuate that the audience is mentally hill or not capable of
distinguishing reality from fiction.

            “Whether Shakespeare knew the
unities, and rejected them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignorance,
it is, I think, impossible to decide, and useless to enquire” (25), thus
concludes Johnson his defence of the Bard. What is in act here is extremely
fascinating: Shakespeare’s violations are not only justified, but also
attributed to his being the poet of nature, a quality linked to his Englishness. If breaking the dramatic
rules is seen as negative, it is only because of the French cultural tyranny
which has led British minds to read this spark of pure Englishness as wrong.
Suddenly, thanks to Johnson, Shakespeare becomes the national poet, “the form, the characters, the language, and the
shows of the English drama are his” (38). Being nature, following nature,
staging nature cannot be seen as faults, but as characteristics proper of the
British, and emulating Shakespeare is therefore a rebellion against a foreign
domination which has imprisoned freedom for too long. This is the first
important personality given to Shakespeare at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
In the meanwhile, his name and plays were spreading everywhere on the
Continent, especially in Germany, where scholars were fulgurated by the English
genius and started contributing to his revival.

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