DR. JOHNSON AS A CRITIC [PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE]: DR. HARESHWAR ROY
INTRODUCTION: Dr. Johnson is one of the greatest critics. As a literary critic he was an exponent of classicism. He condemned everything that did not conform to classical doctrines. He is almost always penetrating and stimulating. His 'Preface to Shakespeare' is considered as one of the noblest monuments of English neo-classical criticism. His judgment of Shakespeare marks the date in the history of criticism.
FIDELITY TO FACTS OF NATURE: 'The Preface to Shakespeare' deals with Johnson's judgment of Shakespeare as a dramatist. According to Johnson, the basic requirement of literary greatness is fidelity to facts of nature. This is clearly the neo-classical theory of art as imitation. Johnson praises Shakespeare for meeting this requirement fully and most satisfactorily. According to him, Shakespeare is, par excellence, the poet of nature. He holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters have a universal appeal. They act and speak like human beings. They are commonly a species.
SHAKESPEARE'S REALISM: Johnson has praised Shakespeare's realism. He says that his depiction of the truth of human nature and human psychology is praiseworthy. He portrayed human characters in a realistic manner. His plays are full of practical axioms and domestic wisdom. He does not depict love as the major human motive and emotion. He knew that love is only one of many passions. It has no great influence upon the totality of life. Thus it has little operation in the drama of Shakespeare. Johnson discusses the realistic quality of Shakespeare's dialogues too.
MINGLING OF TRAGIC AND COMIC ELEMENT: ‘In Preface to Shakespeare’ Dr. Johnson defends Shakespeare for his mingling of the tragic and comic elements in his plays on the grounds of realism and historical background. According to him such mingling only serves to show us the world in which the loss of one man is the gain of another. In other words, Shakespeare was equally at home in writing tragic and comic plays. He could combine comic and tragic elements in one and the same play. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters and they sometimes produce sorrow and sometimes laughter.
THREE UNITIES: Shakespeare has been charged for his neglect of the unitities of time and place. But Johnson defends him in this matter. According to him this neglect is not really a fault. He argues that if an audience in a theatre can accept the stage as a locality in the city of Rome, they will also accept the change from Rome to Alexandria. The unity of time may likewise be violated on the same principle. He concludes this discussion by saying that the unities of time and place are not essential to a good play.
FAULTS OF SHAKESPEARE: In his "Preface" Johnson defends Shakespeare in many matters, but he does not consider him to be a faultless dramatist. According to him, Shakespeare tries more to please his audience than to instruct them. It seems that he writes without any moral purpose. His plots are often very loosely formed and carelessly pursued. His comic scenes are seldom very successful. In such scenes the jests are generally indecent. Johnson does not take a favourable view of Shakespeare's tragic plays. He accuses him of employing a disproportionate pomp of diction. He condemns Shakespeare for inappropriate use of idle conceit and his over-fondness for quibbles.
CONCLUSION: Thus, Johnson is a great critic. His "Preface" is called as a balanced estimate. Here Johnson shows his penetrating power that probes to the very core of Shakespeare's art. It reveals its deep humanity and its sovereign realism. His praise of Shakespeare as the dramatist of realism par excellence is wholly justified and convincing.