Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson


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Page 2

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 domestick wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that
every verse was a precept and it may be said of Shakespeare, that
from his works may be collected a system of civil and oeconomical
prudence. Yet his real power is not shown in the splendour
of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the
tenour 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.

It will not easily be imagined how much Shakespeare excells in
accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by comparing him
with other authours. It was observed of the ancient schools of
declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the
more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found
nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The
same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare.
The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by
such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which
was never heard, upon topicks which will never arise in the commerce
of mankind. But the dialogue of this authour is often so evidently
determined by the incident which produces it, and is 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.

Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whose
power all good and evil is distributed, and every action quickened
or retarded. To bring a lover, a lady and a rival into the fable;
to entangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex them with
oppositions of interest, and harrass them with violence of desires
inconsistent with each other; to make them meet in rapture and part
in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous
sorrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was distressed; to
deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered, is the business
of a modern dramatist. For this probability is violated, life is
misrepresented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of
many passions, and as it has no great influence upon the sum of
life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who caught
his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw
before him. He knew, that any other passion, as it was regular or
exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.

Characters thus ample and general were not easily discriminated
and preserved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more
distinct from each other. I will not say with Pope, that every
speech may be assigned to the proper speaker, because many speeches
there are which have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, though
some may be equally adapted to every person, it will be difficult
to find, any that can be properly transferred from the present
possessor to another claimant. The choice is right, when there is
reason for choice.

Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated
characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as
the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant
and a dwarf; and he that should form his expectations of human
affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived.
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: Even where the agency is
supernatural the dialogue is level with life. Other writers disguise
the most natural passions and most frequent incidents: so that he
who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world:
Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful;
the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were
possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned;
and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it
acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which
it cannot be exposed. This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare,
that his drama is the mirrour of life; that he who has mazed his
imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise
up before him, may here be cured of his delirious extasies, by
reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a
hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor
predict the progress of the passions.

His adherence to general nature has exposed him to the censure of
criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis
and Rhymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire
censures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that
Menenius, a senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire
perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish Usurper is represented
as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over
accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very
careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story
requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that
Rome, like every other city, had men of all dispositions; and
wanting a buffoon, he went into the senate-house for that which the
senate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to
shew an usurper and a murderer not only odious but despicable, he
therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that
kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural
power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty minds; a
poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as
a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Tue 15th Oct 2019, 21:30