Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson


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Page 1

Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice
of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from
reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately
whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time
has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing
to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates
genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through
artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism is to find the
faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an
authour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance,
and when he is dead we rate them by his best.

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and
definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon
principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly
to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than
length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have
long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they
persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons
have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature
no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without
the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so in the productions
of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared
with other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately
displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux
of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated
by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man,
as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours. Of the first
building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined
that it was round or square, but whether it was spacious or lofty
must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers
was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we
yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence,
but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century,
has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new
name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises
therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom
of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind,
but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions,
that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what
is most considered is best understood.

The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now
begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege
of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived
his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit.
Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions,
local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been
lost; and every topick of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the
modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes
which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition
are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has
perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply
any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity nor
gratify malignity, but are read without any other reason than the
desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is
obtained; yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they have
past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and, as
they devolved from one generation to another, have received new
honours at every transmission.

But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon
certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long
continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion;
it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence
Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.

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. The
irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while,
by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all
in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted,
and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.

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
mirrour of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by
the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the
world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can
operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient
fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of
common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation
will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those
general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated,
and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings
of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of
Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 13:34