Notes: Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson

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Teacher: Ms. Eman Alghamdi

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Notes: Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson

  1. 1. Literary Criticism Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson
  2. 2. 2 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. ❖ PART I 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 century. (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 changed. (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 confused. (256-272) the eighteenth century definitions of comedy, tragedy, and history. (278) Shakespeare’s attitude toward classification.
  3. 3. 3 PART II Shakespeare’s Faults 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 and dignity. (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.
  4. 4. 4 (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. PART III 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 connected. (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
  5. 5. 5 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 ignore. (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. Dramatic Genres 1. classical vision: a. the classical definition of tragedy: b. the classical definition of comedy: 2. 18th century definitions “the bad ones” a. tragedy: b. comedy: 3. Johnson’s definitions of: a. tragedy: b. comedy: c. history:

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