Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson
2. Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson
The essay is divided into three parts:
1. Shakespeare’s general nature: excellency.
2. Shakespeare’s faults.
3. The three unities.
❖ It’s publish in 1765.
❖ Why did they name that age ‘the Augustan’?
❖ Samuel Johnson was asked to write an introduction for a book about Shakespeare. Therefore, he
wrote this essay.
❖ Whenever Johnson mention “modern” he means his contemporaries.
Shakespeare’s general nature and excellency.
(First paragraph) modern practices were always about glorifying the old and degrading the modern.
(14) Johnson says critics of the 18th century take everything that’s old for granted while they doubt
everything that is modern.
(22) how to decide whether a piece of literature is good or not?
1. if it lasts for long time.
2. if it gradually gained recognition.
3. if it rises whenever we compare it to other works.
(27) thousands of books were written about Shakespeare’s plays.
(32) if modern experiments should prove themselves against time then their works are good.
However if they only lasted for a little while then they failed.
(45) P. Sydney, J. Dryden, and A. Pope said that we should model our work after the classical
works. However, modern writers who tried to so only transposed the incidents and new named the
characters. This is copying without creativity.
(48) we don’t believe that the modern works are rotten, but the classical lasted for a long time
therefore they’re the most considered. Any work of literature that can bear with analysis proves its
success. When a work of literature succeed in that it becomes more considered and best understood.
(55) “The Poet” is written with capital P because Johnson meant Shakespeare.
Johnson considered Shakespeare to be the English classical ﬁgure because he has long outlived his
(64) modern works are read only for pleasure, they’re not didactic.
(74) people’s taste could change because of time, fashion, or because people themselves have
(80) “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.”
(88) Johnson states that Shakespeare is above all modern writers, the poets of nature, and poets who
praise important people. His reason is that Shakespeare’s characters are always understood in
despite of their place and time.
(113) although he writes about his real life sentiments, we can never ﬁnd Shakespeare in his plays
nor know what his real opinions are.
(129) a modern dramatist would always present a lady, a lover. and a rival. However, this kind of
love is not affective in life, its absence doesn’t stop us from living.
(138) anyone can be a dramatist but a poet is someone who uses his language to teach and delight.
(220) the Greeks classiﬁed tragedy and comedy and their classiﬁcation lasted for centuries. People
who criticized Shakespeare did so because he didn’t follow the ancient classiﬁcation. Johnson,
however, is saying Shakespeare is better than everyone because although he mixed the genres
together, we still know that his tragedy is a tragedy and his comedy is a comedy and we’re not
(256-272) the eighteenth century deﬁnitions of comedy, tragedy, and history.
(278) Shakespeare’s attitude toward classiﬁcation.
Samuel Johnson was the ﬁrst to acknowledge Shakespeare’s faults.
Shakespeare’s faults are big, not minor.
❖ Johnson is subjective in this part of the essay.
(362) ﬁrst fault: the aim of poetry is to teach and delight. Shakespeare’s poetry, however,
sometimes delight without teaching. For example, when Portia dressed up as a man, attended trials,
and saved Antonio which wasn’t morally accepted for a woman to do so at that time. Shakespeare
didn’t write with a moral purpose.
(376) second fault: Bassanio was Portia’s lover and husband, which should mean that he know her
face. what would happen if her real identity was discovered at the trial? the story would fall apart
and this is a big Plot-hole.
Another example is the deal between Antonio and Shylock. Shakespeare left it for chance that
Antonio will lose all of his money. Although we know that Antonio’s ships went everywhere, all of
them sank at once! This is a very weak and coincidental plot device.
(389) third fault: Shakespeare wrote about Egypt, Italy, Denmark, etc. However, we don’t ﬁnd real
differences between characters. Earlier in the essay (line 88) Johnson said this is good, but it’s
considered a fault. Shakespeare wasn’t the only one who committed this fault, but he, unlike Sidney
for example, was uneducated. Therefore, we shouldn’t hold it against him because it was a fashion
in that age.
(402) fourth fault: in his comic scenes the characters speak the same language and they’re all smart
regardless of their class. For example, in King Lear we have a king and a fool. The fool is a clown
whose role is to make the audience laugh. However, sometimes we ﬁnd their language switch, the
king talks like a fool and the fool talks like a king.
(407) we don’t know why Shakespeare chose to make lower characters speak like nobler characters.
And we also don’t know how people spoke at the Elizabethan time. All we have are records that are
written by educated people whom usually will write in a good language.
(414) ﬁfth fault: in his tragedies, the more he tries to give us the story the weaker his plot becomes.
For example, in Hamlet, the more you get into the play you ﬁnd the story isn’t as strong as it was in
the beginning. Shakespeare used too much language, expressions, and soliloquies in Hamlet which
made it tiring.
(420) sixth fault: in his narration of all genres he used too many words to express simple ideas. For
example, in the Merchant of Venice it takes him many pages to say that Antonio hates Shylock and
Shylock is angry with Antonio.
(423) Johnson says that language in drama is naturally tedious and inactive. Therefore, it should
always be rapid and enlivened by frequent interruption. However, Shakespeare gave it more respect
(430) seventh fault: “the power of nature” nature here means education.
When we read a speech of any character, Shakespeare would normally give us many references to
the Greek and Italian cultures. He believed this made his speeches stronger. However, their
inﬂuence is the opposite because they’re confusing and sometimes not convincing. Not everyone is
familiar with the Greek god for instance.
For example, when Portia says to Shylock that he can take the pound of ﬂesh but he may not spend
blood. Although it’s a very important incident in the play, Shakespeare gives it a single line. It came
powerless, unsurprising, and cold.
(437) eighth fault: stretching the plot. Fore example, Hamlet kept hesitating about killing his uncle
for the entire play. It’d have been better if it was in one or two acts. Another example from The
Merchant of Venice, Portia had three suiters, although one would’ve been enough.
(443) ninth fault: For example, if you read the deal with Shylock was in seven pages with vulgar
words. Whereas Portia’s revelation about spilling blood in a single line. Both incidents are equally
important in the play but how Shakespeare dealt with them is not equal.
(449) tenth fault: Shakespeare’s tragic heroes always face a gross end. For example, when Hamlet
died everyone in the play died with him. A death like that is a vulgar and shocking kind of death.
Shakespeare is not content until he gives the audience this kind of shock. Whereas the Greeks didn’t
spill blood on stage to spare the audience witnessing the moment of death. Shakespeare’s death
scenes also have to be sentimental, the dying character has to say something important.
(458) eleventh fault: Shakespeare valued quibbles long dialogues which cause the audience to get
lost. Whenever he ﬁnd the opportunity to use language he does.
(468) it didn’t matter to Shakespeare if the chance to play with his language made his plot weak or
the audience bored.
(473) twelfth fault: technically Shakespeare’s twelfth fault is that he neglected the three unities.
Although his disregard of the three unities of time, place, and action is considered a ﬂaw, johnson is
himself falsiﬁed the classical idea of the unities of time and place.
Samuel Johnson’s opinion regarding the three unities.
Johnson is the ﬁrst English writer to express these ideas.
this is the most original idea that Johnson came up with.
Johnson agreed with the unity of action and objected to the unities of time and place.
Sidney was a big fan of the three unities.
Dryden agreed with Sidney.
Pope didn’t express his opinion about it as clearly, but he’s still a fan of the three unities.
(483) the only important unity in a history play is the unity of action, a history play has to have:
1. a change of action that is understandable.
2. it need to have several affecting incidents
3. consistent characteristics of the the characters. For example, if a character starts out
to be brave it needs to continue being brave until the end of the play.
4. its characters have to be distinct, not similar to one another.
The unities of time and place are not important in a history play. If it’s, for example, about a battle,
it’d start in a castle where the king is talking to his soldiers. Then it’d move to a battle ﬁeld, and
then it’d move to a hospital. By deﬁnition history is about time, therefore, it’s impossible to have a
one day history play.
(490) Shakespeare in his tragedies and comedies followed the unity of action.
(492) Shakespeare didn’t hide his design for the plot, the audience can predict what will happen
later. For example, we knew that Portia will go to the court and attend the trial.
(502) Shakespeare disregarded the two unities of time and place.
In real life, not many incidents occur in one day. It’s better to have the story taking place in months
or even years so it can have many incidents. Also, to have time to think and link the actions to each
other. So the unity of time troubled the poets and didn’t please the audience.
(508) discussion of the classic view of the necessity of the three unities.
The audience didn’t take plays that observed the unity of time seriously. Sidney said that it’s absurd
to me to watch a woman gets pregnant and gives birth in one day.
(516) art should imitate life. And in real life we don’t have a woman who gets pregnant and have a
child in one hour.
(519) Johnson says that the audience realizes that he hasn’t changed his place, and that the place
can’t change itself. The audience doesn’t confuse the play with reality and can use his imagination.
(536) objection against the unity of place: the spectator who can imagine from place to another
far away place, he sure can imagine other things. There’s no limits to imagination.
(566) objection against the unity of time: I’m not sure what did Ms. Eman say about this point.
(573) For example, in The merchant of Venice the actions happen in several months and they’re
(577) you, for example, can remember some incidents that happened to you in ﬁrst grade. but you
cannot remember the whole year. Because it’s easy for the mind to forget, and it’s also easy for the
mind to connect. If something happened to you in the ﬁrst grade that is connect to another thing
happened to you in the ﬁrst year in university; your mind will link them. Time is very easy to
(582) drama is credited whenever it moves, action is what we need.
(593) if I thought that Hamlet was actually dying on stage, it’d not be delightful. The action delight
the audience because he realize it’s not real.
(596) if I saw Hamlet die on stage I’d be affected because I’ll remember that death exists. Or maybe
I’ll remember a recent death of someone close.
(610) to read Shakespeare is the same as attending Shakespeare. If it’s okay to skip time in novel,
why it isn’t in drama? since watching ﬁction is the same as reading it.
(617) we don’t know why Shakespeare didn’t follow the three unities.
1. classical vision:
a. the classical deﬁnition of tragedy:
b. the classical deﬁnition of comedy:
2. 18th century deﬁnitions “the bad ones”
3. Johnson’s deﬁnitions of: