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Johnson on Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson

Johnson on Shakespeare

by Samuel Johnson

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    Characters of Shakespeare's Plays by William Hazlitt (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Hazlitt's preface contains one of the most devastating attacks on Johnson; his whole book, as readily admitted by the author, was partly written as a response to the Johnsonian type of Shakespearean criticism. Hazlitt's impassioned Bardolatry and Johnson's cooler, more down-to-earth approach make for a fascinating contrast, a fine illustration of the gulf between the nineteenth-century Romantics and the "Age of Reason".… (more)

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Johnson on Shakespeare

Essays and Notes Selected
and Set Forth with an Introduction
by Walter Raleigh

London: Henry Frowde, 1908.

xxxi+206 pp. Introduction by Walter Raleigh, May 1908 [vii-xxxi]. PDF copy from Internet Archive. Courtesy of the Library of the University of St. Michael's College.

First published, 1908.



Proposals for Printing the Dramatick Works of William Shakespeare (1756)
Preface to Shakespeare (1765)

Notes on the Plays
- The Tempest
- A Midsummer-Night’s Dream
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona
- Measure for Measure
- The Merchant of Venice
- As You Like It
- Love’s Labour’s Lost
- The Winter’s Tale
- Twelfth Night
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- The Taming of the Shrew
- The Comedy of Errors
- Much Ado about Nothing
- All’s Well that Ends Well
- King John
- Richard II
- The First Part of King Henry IV
- The Second Part of King Henry IV
- The Life of King Henry V
- The First Part of King Henry VI
- The Second Part of King Henry VI
- The Third Part of King Henry VI
- The Life and Death of King Richard III
- The Life of King Henry VIII
- King Lear
- Timon of Athens
- Titus Andronicus
- Macbeth
- Coriolanus
- Julius Caesar
- Antony and Cleopatra
- Cymbeline
- Troilus and Cressida
- Romeo and Juliet
- Hamlet
- Othello
- Macbeth

Poetry debased by mean expressions: An example from Shakespeare (The Rambler No. 168)


I am not an implicit believer in progress. In other words, I have no natural inclination to assume that “newer” means “better”. My slight venture into the vast field of Shakespearean criticism has so far only confirmed my notion that the claims of modern scholars how much the field has changed in recent years, therefore implying how revolutionary their present work is, should be given the benefit of doubt. I was not a little surprised, to give but one example, to find all major precepts of the so-called “modern scholarship” outlined by Dr Johnson in his Proposals. Back in 1756! It is hard to disagree with Walter Raleigh that “the history of Shakespeare criticism would be shorter than it is if Johnson's views on the emendation of the text had been more extensively adopted.”[1]

Mr Raleigh’s learned, informative and beautifully written introduction is a valuable addition. He is particularly good on the historical background. Dr Johnson was The Great Procrastinator. “Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure”, he once wrote (of Pope, but doubtless of himself too), “all take their turns of retardation”.[2] He apparently considered an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works as early as 1745, when his pamphlet Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth appeared, but eleven years more were to pass before Proposals, and still nine more until the edition itself, was published. Meanwhile the competition steadily grew. In the beginning, Johnson had “only Rowe and Pope and Theobald to content with and supersede.” While his notes on Macbeth were in press, Hanmer’s edition appeared and “it became known to him that the great Warburton was engaged on the same task.”[3] So much for the so-called Romantic Revival which is supposed to have inflated, if not created, Shakespeare’s mythical status. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Bard’s mind-numbing fame had already been established (in his home country anyway), editions of his more or less complete works were legion (Johnson’s was the sixth in less than 60 years since Rowe’s pioneering attempt in 1709), and Bardolatry had claimed its first victims (which is why Johnson’s even-handed Preface came in for a good deal of criticism from the beginning).

Some of Mr Raleigh’s claims, however, must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is hardly accurate, for example, to say that “Johnson’s treatment of his predecessors and rivals is uniformly generous”.[4] In his Proposals, “to declare the truth” as the author modestly puts it, Rowe and Pope are deemed “very ignorant of ancient the English literature”, Warburton was “detained by more important studies”, and Theobald, most grievously, “considered learning only as an instrument of gain, and made no further inquiry after his author's meaning, when once he had notes sufficient to embellish his page with the expected decorations.”[5]

Worse than that, Mr Raleigh is inclined to adulation. He does mention some of Johnson’s shortcomings, for instance his far from expert knowledge of Elizabethan literature, but it feels like a brief and lame excuse for the indiscriminate praise that follows. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the Romantics apparently fell out of fashion and Shakespearean criticism returned to the Age of Reason. It is fascinating to see if the pendulum would swing back in our time. Perhaps the phenomenal success of Harold Bloom’s The Invention of the Human (1998) signifies a widespread craving for the Romantic attitude to Shakespeare? If so, it is a pity that Mr Bloom is a cold fish compared to Coleridge and Hazlitt. As for Mr Raleigh, who by the way was a highly respected scholar in the field of Bardology, his complex reaction was largely a product of his times. And he knew it:

He has been neglected and depreciated ever since the nineteenth century brought in the new aesthetic and philosophical criticism. The twentieth century, it seems likely, will treat him more respectfully. The romantic attitude begins to be fatiguing. The great romantic critics, when they are writing at their best, do succeed in communicating to the reader those thrills of wonder and exaltation which they have felt in contact with Shakespeare's imaginative work. This is not a little thing to do; but it cannot be done continuously, and it has furnished the work-a-day critic with a vicious model. There is a taint of insincerity about romantic criticism, from which not even the great romantics are free. […] From the most worthless material they will fashion a new hasty altar to the unknown God. When they are inspired by their divinity they say wonderful things; when the inspiration fails them their language is maintained at the same height, and they say more than they feel. You can never be sure of them.

Those who approach the study of Shakespeare under the sober and vigorous guidance of Johnson will meet with fewer exciting adventures, but they will not see less of the subject. They will hear the greatness of Shakespeare discussed in language so quiet and modest as to sound tame in ears accustomed to hyperbole, but they will not, unless they are very dull or very careless, fall into the error of supposing that Johnson's admiration for Shakespeare was cold or partial.

I can’t say that I share this opinion. If not Coleridge, for my money Hazlitt has certainly superseded Dr Johnson. Mr Raleigh has a fine point about the inconsistency and the wanton excess of the Romantics; any future reader of Hazlitt and Coleridge would do well to remember it. But he does them no justice; “taint of insincerity” is nothing if not scurrilous. And he refuses to grant equally great faults, if not greater indeed, to his subject. You can never be sure of Dr Johnson, either. Cold, no; but partial his admiration for Shakespeare most certainly is! I may, of course, be “very dull or very careless” and ultimately incapable of appreciating him; but so may Mr Raleigh as regards the Romantics.

It is strange to find so warped a view in a fairly eminent for his time scholar. I should think trying to separate both sides of the same coin is a foolish thing to do. Surely, whatever one’s personal preferences, it is best to combine them. One can always profit from both sides. Anyway, before dealing in detail with Dr Johnson’s Shakespearean criticism, I must address his peculiar style.

I can read every word that Dr Johnson wrote with delight, for he had good sense, charm, and wit. No one could have written better if he had not wilfully set himself to write in the grand style. […] He mistook the orotund for the dignified. He had not the good breeding to see that simplicity and naturalness are the truest mark of distinction.

So Somerset Maugham once wrote.[7] There is no doubt about the “good sense, charm, and wit.” I am not sure I agree about the rest. I don’t think Dr Johnson wrote in “the grand style”. I think Gibbon did, no less in his memoirs than in The Decline and Fall. Maugham was a little careless to put both in the same basket and a little unkind, though not entirely off the mark, when he called them “victims of bad theories” and accused them of “turgidity” and “pomposity”.[8] I don’t know about Rasselas, but these graves vices are little present in Dr Johnson’s Shakespearean criticism.

Now, Dr Johnson’s style in this book is not the easiest thing to read. It is verbose, long-winded, and convoluted. It is often difficult to follow the train of his thought or to appreciate the point of his argument. Dr Johnson fires his clauses as machine gun fires bullets and sentences usually swell to epic proportions. The punctuation is exuberant, with wanton excess of commas and semicolons; one longs for a full stop but none is to be seen on the horizon. The rhythm is awkward, now smooth and elegant, then broken and confusing. Quite apart from the author’s own idiosyncrasies, the language has changed a good deal since the middle of the eighteenth century; many words and phrases now have quaint, old-fashioned air, and their meanings are not always immediately clear. One is justified to say, I think, that Dr Johnson’s endearing personality comes through in spite of his writing, not because of it.

Having said all that, there is much to say to the opposite. Dr Johnson has neither the grace nor the grandeur of Edward Gibbon, but he does have a conversational ease that the great historian does not possess; his vocabulary is more accessible, his rhetoric less exhausting, his prose on the whole more readable. Otherwise Gibbon and Johnson are not much unlike each other. Both are witty and skilful satirists. Both also share, if they are read carefully at leisure, an almost unfailing lucidity. Finally, both have fascinating personalities worth exploring.

Unlike Gibbon, who was only 28 years his junior, Dr Johnson’s closest Shakespearean relative was born 72 years after his death. I mean, of course, Bernard Shaw. Dr Johnson could not have dreamed of writing the brilliant, vigorous and incandescent prose of the notorious Irishman, but both men had in common an extremely ambiguous attitude to the Bard. They appreciated certain things with great sensitivity, but denounced the rest with gusto. This ambivalence cannot but affect the reader, in this case myself. As an antidote to Bardolatry, a very serious and still widespread disease, Johnson and Shaw can be refreshing and illuminating. But as an inspirational force, they often amount to no more than a malignantly stultifying influence. The balance is delicate.

There is much to disagree with and not a little outright nonsense in Dr Johnson's (and Shaw’s) writings on Shakespeare. But they don’t deserve the complete oblivion they currently enjoy; few bits are duly quoted to acknowledge the historical significance and that’s all (Shaw is still in print but doesn’t seem to fair better[9]). Sometimes Johnson’s (and Shaw’s) remarks are uncommonly perceptive and strikingly modern.

When I said in the beginning that in his Proposals Dr Johnson anticipated modern Shakespearean scholarship by some two centuries I wasn’t joking. Modern scholarship is easily reduced to several simple maxims. First, admitting the authority of the First Folio (1623) and the early quartos. Second, collating the best version from these sources, meanwhile noting variant readings and making judicious emendations when the “originals” seem corrupted. Third, clarification of obscure words, phrases and passages. Fourth, seldom heeded then and not always the case even today, studying Elizabethan and Jacobean England in the greatest possible detail. Fifth, tracing and examining, so far as possible, the sources that Shakespeare might have used. Dr Johnson was very well aware of all this.

The corruptions of the text will be corrected by a careful collation of the oldest copies, by which it is hoped that many restorations may yet be made: at least it will be necessary to collect and note the variation as materials for future criticks; for it very often happens that a wrong reading has affinity to the right.


Where all the books are evidently vitiated, and collation can give no assistance, then begins the task of critical sagacity: and some changes may well be admitted in a text never settled by the author, and so long exposed to caprice and ignorance. But nothing shall be imposed, as in the Oxford edition, without notice of the alteration; nor shall conjecture be wantonly or unnecessarily indulged.


In a language so ungrammatical as the English, and so licentious as that of Shakespeare, emendatory criticism is always hazardous; nor can it be allowed to any man who is not particularly versed in the writings of that age, and particularly studious of his author's diction. There is a danger lest peculiarities should be mistaken for corruptions, and passages rejected as unintelligible, which a narrow mind happens not to understand.

All the former criticks have been so much employed on the correction of the text, that they have not sufficiently attended to the elucidation of passages obscured by accident or time. The editor will endeavour to read the books which the author read, to trace his knowledge to its source, and compare his copies with their originals. If in this part of his design he hopes to attain any degree of superiority to his predecessors, it must be considered, that he has the advantage of their labours…


The editor, though he may less delight his own vanity will probably please his reader more, by supposing him equally able with himself to judge of beauties and faults, which require no previous acquisition of remote knowledge. A description of the obvious scenes of nature, a representation of general life, a sentiment of reflection or experience, a deduction of conclusive arguments, a forcible eruption of effervescent passion, are to be considered as proportionate to common apprehension, unassisted by critical officiousness; since, to convince them, nothing more is requisite than acquaintance with the general state of the world, and those faculties which he must almost bring with him who would read Shakespeare.[10]

This is only a brief sample of what Dr Johnson discusses in much greater detail. Other highlights include masterful explanation of “the causes of corruption” and “the causes of obscurity”[11]; it is the editor’s duty to rectify both. It is strange to learn, and it says something about the swift evolution of language, that even in the mid-eighteenth century, when Shakespeare’s plays were just about century and a half old, some passages had already become incomprehensible. It is sad to think how many topical references, instantly grasped by the first audience, might have been lost forever back in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Note also Johnson’s admirable modesty. He acknowledges his debt to previous editors and he even grants the reader equal ability “to judge of beauties and faults, which require no previous acquisition of remote knowledge.” This is seldom the case nowadays. If the general reading public today is less well-educated, or simply dumber, than in Johnson’s time, this may explain why critical commentary, especially in Shakespeare’s plays, is usually detailed enough as to become oppressive.

It is doing no injustice to Dr Johnson to suggest that he hardly practiced what he preached. As Mr Raleigh points out, “it is plain that he had not been able to do as much as he had hoped by way of restoration and illustration”.[12] But it’s fair to say that the fault was not altogether his. He seems to have had a very limited access to early texts. Today we are terribly spoiled in this respect. Most of the quartos that appeared during Will’s life are easily available online in many forms (reprints, facsimiles, modern spelling), photograph reproductions of the First Folio in decent quality are numerous, multi-volume studies that reprint many of Shakespeare’s sources exist, not to mention the staggering amount of criticism on virtually every aspect of his works. It’s easy to be a Shakespearean scholar today; no wonder this is why many academics with no qualifications whatsoever join the lines. Things must have been very, very different in the mid-eighteenth century. Johnson evidently owned a copy of the First Folio. But the earliest quarto of Hamlet he consulted was the fifth from 1637! (In fact, the first quarto from 1603, an obviously corrupt text but not without interest, was not discovered until 1823.) That said, “indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure” are probably the truer reasons for Johnson’s failure to fulfil his initial hopes.

When you have just read Dr Johnson’s justly famous Preface to Shakespeare, it is difficult to quarrel with Hazlitt’s perceptive observation that he is “more bent on maintaining the equilibrium of his style than the consistency or truth of his opinions.”[13] For the first twenty pages, he praises Shakespeare lavishly. For the next ten, he shoots him down with vengeance. He does all that in his distinguished and dignified way, never raising his voice; very stylish; very classy; very charming. Yet the final effect, for me at any rate, is disconcerting and even disturbing. How could that be?

I believe the main reason is that Johnson, like Shaw, was a didactic moralist; which is a polite way to say that he was unfit by temperament to appreciate Shakespeare. “The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing”, he bluntly says.[14] His first and most serious criticism, “to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men”, is that the Bard is “so much more careful to please than to instruct, and he seems to write without any moral purpose”.[15] To my mind, this is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse, if not indeed a complete misrepresentation of Shakespeare. Hazlitt, again, showed greater wisdom:

Shakespear was in one sense the least moral of all writers; for morality (commonly so called) is made up of antipathies; and his talent consisted in sympathy with human nature, in all its shapes, degrees, depressions, and elevations. The object of the pedantic moralist is to find out the bad in everything: his was to shew that “there is some soul of goodness in things evil”.[16]

Dr Johnson is one such “pedantic moralist”. He is more concerned with Shakespeare’s defects than with his merits. He worked with a set of rigid moral principles to which he tried to adapt the Bard. No wonder he failed. If there is one and only one thing to which Shakespeare’s greatness must be reduced, I think this is his deep empathy – not sympathy, “that too often results in sentimentality”[17] – with the whole of humanity. This is not as trite as it may seem. And it is this, incidentally, which makes nonsense of all those hypotheses that try to infer Shakespeare’s character from his plays.

In his fine introduction, Mr Raleigh says that Johnson’s analysis of Shakespeare’s faults “has never been seriously challenged.”[18] Well, let’s change that and see where it takes us. The first and gravest of Shakespeare’s offences against the Doctor’s moral sense was already mentioned. Here it is quoted in full:

His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer's duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.[19]

It would be difficult to imagine a more spectacular example of misunderstanding indeed! The passage is rife with absurdity. Never, to begin with, did it occur to Dr Johnson that a writer, especially a professional writer, might write for pleasure or, as he famously pointed out, for money. Of course, the writer is never that disinterested or that avaricious. Whether or not he wants it, whether or not he realises it, he is a “natural propagandist”, as Somerset Maugham once remarked. He offers you his own view of the universe and you can take it or leave it. In any case, I don’t see how you can blame him for not having the same outlook as yours.

If Dr Johnson had studied at least a little history, he would have known that justice, though it may be a virtue, is certainly not “independant on time or place”. Quite the opposite. Different places and different times have often had unbelievably different notions of justice. Last but not least, if Shakespeare really had carried “his persons indifferently through right and wrong”, all of his tragedies would not have existed.

Then the Doctor spends – correction: wastes – an awful amount of space on trivialities. He complains that Shakespeare’s “plots are often so loosely formed”, he laments that the Bard had “no regard to distinction of time and place”, he is exasperated by the countless anachronisms. “To the unities of time and place he has shewn no regard”, the Good Doctor mournfully chants.[21] All these faults are easily excused by history: they were common at the time of writing. Elizabethan audiences apparently weren’t bothered at all by improbable plots, rapid changes of place, compressed time spans, or Hector’s quoting Aristotle. Dr Johnson seems to be aware of this, yet he shamelessly lapses into such asinine accusations. He only demonstrates that he has little idea what drama, especially verse drama, tries to do. Its aim is not realistic narrative of events but the vivid presentation of character. Its highest purpose is not realism but a realistic presentation of truth; a very different animal, and one verse drama is supremely well equipped to explore.

To add insult to the injury, Johnson is quite fond of sweeping generalisations. This is transcendental silliness worth quoting. This is but one among numerous examples:

In his comick scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners.[22]

This is relevant to some of the banter between Beatrice and Benedick. It’s a “contest of sarcasm” indeed, and the incessant punning is tedious. But it’s a dangerous business to extend it to other plays and other characters, or even to the whole parts of Beatrice and Benedick.

One of Dr Johnson’s most often quoted and most controversial claims, mentioned among the “praise” but developed in the “faults”, is his marked preference for Shakespeare’s comedies. This warped view effectively negates his sensible remarks on the artificial nature of these genres. “His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct” is Johnson’s epigrammatic summary, slightly and dubiously supported by the fact that early in his career Shakespeare wrote predominantly comedies. The sentence is quite out of the context, though. The whole passage is this:

In tragedy he often writes, with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his comick scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comick; but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.[23]

Popular acclaim has not confirmed this verdict. Those who prefer the Bard’s comedies to his tragedies are firmly in the minority. Later, Dr Johnson mounts a vicious attack on the tragedies. Reading these scathing paragraphs one wonders how on earth these plays have survived the test of time:

In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.

In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction, and wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few.

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.[24]

For my part, this is a farrago of nonsense. All these “faults” are, of course, true. But they are the exception. Certainly, they are not the rule – unless one is woefully insensitive to Shakespeare. To some degree, Dr Johnson was. It is beyond me how he can praise Shakespeare as “mirrour of life” and then expect his characters to have the precision of mathematical theorems. This is fundamentally wrong. One of the best reasons about the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s characters is that they are creatures of impulse. They are full of contradictions; glaring but imaginatively conceived and supremely well conveyed contradictions. Alas, that’s something Dr Johnson’s exclusively logical brain could never comprehend. It is entirely characteristic that he wrote derisively about this part of Shakespeare’s genius and then illustrated it, not with a single example, but with a chunk of lame rhetoric about the evils of “quibble”.

But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetick without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terrour and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.

A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.[25]

Compared to this Bardolashing, Johnson’s praise of Shakespeare’s merits looks timid. The Bard is “above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature”. What this means is a little elusive. I suppose Dr Johnson refers to Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to create lifelike characters that speak and behave in a perfectly natural manner – even when they do presumably unnatural things. “Shakespeare has no heroes”, he boldly declares, for “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”. In other words, “Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful”.[26] One important consequence of this naturalness is a marked absence of sentimentality. “Upon every other stage the universal agent is love”, Dr Johnson observes, but since “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.”[27] He concludes in this beautifully allusive way:

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.[28]

Yet, it is startling how misguided Dr Johnson’s praise often is. From the beginning he talks about Shakespeare’s “wide extension of design” from which “so much instruction is derived”. This would be fine if we accept “instruction” in the widest possible sense, as a synonym to “development of your personality” or something like that. But the author talks of “practical axioms and domestic wisdom”, of “a system of civil and oeconomical prudence.”[29] Is this the greatest thing in Shakespeare, I wonder? Sometimes Johnson clearly contradicts himself. At one place he claims that character in Shakespeare “is commonly a species”, but on the next page he asserts that “no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other.”[30] When I read things like these I can only raise my eyebrows and scratch my head, hopelessly trying to comprehend what on earth the author meant.

Having done with the praise and the censure, in the rest of Preface Dr Johnson is occupied with different aspects of the historical background. These range from Shakespeare’s sources and learning during his lifetime to posthumous textual and editorial matters. Some of this is dated or dubious, but most of it is still relevant and thought-provoking. Johnson’s harsh opinion of the Elizabethan audience as an illiterate mob swayed by action-packed melodramas is hard to reconcile with the nature of Shakespeare’s plays and the stupendous popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime; G. B. Harrison has done a much better job in this department. On the other hand, the thorny subject of Shakespeare’s learning, over which Stratfordians and the Lunatic Fringe still argue vehemently, is wonderfully shown to be the insignificant detail which in fact it is. On the whole, this is the better part of the essay. Though not devoid of barbed remarks, there is a genuine admiration for Shakespeare that shines through. This is what the rest of Preface conspicuously lacks.

Johnson’s long discourse on his esteemed colleagues (Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Hanmer and Warburton) and the decisions he adopted for his own edition are of special interest. By no means is he all praise – far from it – but he treats the foibles and virtues of his fellow editors with kindliness and humour, though in his notes he often disagrees with them. He is surprisingly modest about his own achievements – “Perhaps I may not be more censured for doing wrong, than for doing little […] I have indeed disappointed no opinion more than my own”[31] – but it is evident that he took a great deal of trouble (and pleasure) to collate all previous editions which were available to him. It must have taken a fearful amount of toil and time, reportedly most of the decade between 1756 and 1765. At one place towards the end, Dr Johnson gives the most amazing piece of advice I have ever heard from critic to reader:

Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils. Let him, that is yet unacquainted with the powers of Shakespeare, and who desires to feel the highest pleasure that the drama can give, read every play from the first scene to the last, with utter negligence of all his commentators. When his fancy is once on the wing, let it not stoop at correction or explanation. When his attention is strongly engaged, let it disdain alike to turn aside to the name of Theobald and of Pope. Let him read on through brightness and obscurity, through integrity and corruption; let him preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and his interest in the fable. And when the pleasures of novelty have ceased, let him attempt exactness, and read the commentators.[32]

The notes to specific plays are only a small selection of the whole; much more extensive excerpts about the comedies and the tragedies are available online. Browsing idly through Dr Johnson’s notes, one must agree that Macauley’s condemnation that “it would be difficult to name a more slovenly, a more worthless, edition of any great classic”[33] is unjust. On the other hand, though they occupy two thirds of the book, it is idle to pretend that the notes are more interesting than Proposals and Preface. Most of them are boring explanations of obscure passages with line references that make no sense unless you have Johnson’s edition at hand or know the plays by heart; there are few general observations about certain plays or common themes that appear in several of them, but nothing terribly stimulating here, either. Mr Raleigh correctly notes that Johnson’s notes tell more of himself than of Shakespeare, but when he rhapsodises how the Doctor’s “sound sense, and his wide knowledge of humanity, enable him, in a hundred passages, to go straight to Shakespeare's meaning,”[34] he is going completely overboard.

Johnson’s notes have been superseded rather devastatingly by modern scholarship, much more so than the rest of this book. But it’s good to have them for at least three reasons, in that order of importance: 1) to see how Johnson applied his own principles in practice; 2) to gain additional insight into the his ever-fascinating personality; 3) to understand better some of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, or at least how they were “translated” in the eighteenth century.

All in all, Dr Johnson’s Shakespearean reflections make for a baffling experience. My overall impression is of a witty, amiable and charming man, no master of the English prose but a fine writer nonetheless, who tries really hard to overcome great natural prejudices and deficiencies, but ultimately fails. Whatever your opinion of Dr Johnson’s style or outlook, if you are interested in Shakespearean criticism, Proposals and Preface are an obligatory reading. (Adam Smith famously called the latter “the most manly piece of criticism that was ever published in any country”.[35] I know nothing of Mr Smith; but “manly”? Was he being ironical?) Both are classics, and rightly so; their historical significance alone is enough for that. Besides, they might just prove somewhat enlightening.

PS And remember: the book is available online for free. It’s an old copy, with underlined passages and notes in the margins, but the scanning is well-done, perfectly readable and even searchable. Isn’t Internet wonderful?


[1] Walter Raleigh, Introduction to Johnson on Shakespeare, Henry Frowde, 1908, p. xxiv.
[2] Ibid., p. ix.
[3] Ibid., p. vii.
[4] Ibid, p. xxvi.
[5] Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Walter Raleigh, Henry Frowde, 1908, p. 6.
[6] Raleigh, ibid., p. xviii-xix.
[7] W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), chapter XII.
[8] Ibid.
[9] The definitive collection is Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (1961).
[10] Johnson, ibid., pp. 5-7.
[11] Ibid., p. 2.
[12] Raleigh, ibid., p. xiv.
[13] William Hazlitt, Characters in Shakespear’s Plays (1818, 2nd ed.), p. xxiii in the J.M. Dent/E.P. Dutton edition, first published in March 1906 and reprinted six times until July 1921.
[14] Johnson, ibid., p. 16.
[15] Ibid., pp. 20-21.
[16] Hazlitt, ibid., the chapter on Measure for Measure, pp. 246-47.
[17] Maugham, ibid., chapter LXI.
[18] Raleigh, ibid., p. xxi.
[19] Johnson, ibid., pp. 20-21.
[20] Maugham,
[21] Johnson, ibid., p. 25.
[22] Ibid., p. 22
[23] Ibid., pp. 18-19.
[24] Ibid., pp. 22-23. I really would have liked some examples of “cold and weak” “declamations and set speeches”. What are these? Hamlet’s soliloquies? Iago’s? Edmund’s? Richard’s “Now is the winter of our discontent”? Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen”? Othello’s “Farewell the tranquil mind”? Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes”? Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”? Lear’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”? Prospero’s farewell, Claudio’s discourse on life and death, Mercutio’s fantasies about Queen Mab, Juliet’s address to the night? What?
[25] Ibid., pp. 23-24.
[26] Ibid., p. 14.
[27] Ibid., p. 13.
[28] Ibid., p. 14.
[29] Ibid., p. 12.
[30] Ibid., pp. 12-13.
[31] Ibid., p. 61.
[32] Ibid., p. 62.
[33] Quoted by Raleigh, ibid., p. xiv.
[34] Ibid., p. xvi.
[35] Ibid., p. x. ( )
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