Preface to Shakespeare

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Shakespeare endures. Though four hundred-odd years and countless playwrights have come and gone, the works William Shakespeare continue to enthrall us. Every student studies him. Some love him; many hate him. Still, all know him. Outside the classroom, too, Shakespeare continues to shape the culture of the western world. His plays grace the stage each season, with such diverse company as Sophocles and Jeff Goode. They are produced in every imaginable context. Critics continue to analyze their facets. Indeed, critics dedicate tomes to critiquing their peers’ observations of his works. Each year, a new crop of his plays are, with a few intermittent exceptions, butchered by Hollywood. Surprisingly enough, however, those films continue to draw crowds. Surely, Shakespeare’s endurance attests to his literary merit. Even in the eighteenth century, the Bard’s votaries defended his worth by citing the longevity of his appeal. Dr. Samuel Johnson, however, warned against such short-sighted estimations of greatness by reminding his contemporaries that all too often "praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and…the honours do only to excellence are paid to antiquity" (Johnson 8). Still, Johnson proclaims Shakespeare’s merits. With his publication The Plays of William Shakespeare in 1765, Johnson made his contribution to the history of Shakespearean criticism. As with much of his work, Johnson left his own indelible mark on the field. His edition remains relevant today because it continues to affect the way critics approach Shakespeare. Johnson was not the first editor of Shakespeare; nor was he by any means the last. Though he defended the methodology of his edition itself quite well, its legacy in modern literature is, on the whole, indirect. The critical material that accompanies his edition continues to have a much more direct effect on Shakespeare as he is interpreted today. To use Johnson’s own criterion, his Preface and annotation can be called great because "frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favor" (.An understanding of the criticism itself is, of course, necessary to any understanding of its endurance. The notes with which Johnson sprinkled his edition, though indisputably important, are too diverse to be treated with any justice here. Johnson’s more comprehensive Preface has retained its influence to the present day. There are four easily distinguished sections in Johnson’s Preface; in the first, he explicates Shakespeare’s virtues after explaining what merit, if any, can be determined by the Shakespeare’s enduring popularity. Johnson walks the middle ground with his critique of antiquity. He neither fully embraces longevity as a litmus test of quality nor rejects it as meaningless. Rather, he points out that those works which have withstood the test of time stand out not because of their age alone, but because, with age, those works have "been compared with other works of the same kind" and can therefore be "stiled excellen . He proceeds thence to elevate Shakespeare as the poet of nature. "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature" . It is Shakespeare’s realism, Johnson argues, that distinguishes him from other playwrights. In his characterization and dialogue, Shakespeare "overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition," striking at the center of humanity (14). The nature captured by Shakespeare’s characters is exhibited in the "ease and simplicity" of their dialogues (12). Indeed, Johnson points out, the distinctions of character stressed by such critics as Voltaire and Rhymer impose only artificial burdens on the natural genius of Shakespeare. Johnson goes further in his defense of the Bard’s merit, extending his argument from the characters within his plays to the genre of the plays themselves. In the strictest, classical sense of the terms, Johnson admits, Shakespeare’s works cannot be fairly called comedies or tragedies. For this too, his...
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