Samuel Johnson’s preface to The Plays of Shakespeare has long been considered a classic document of English literary criticism. In it Johnson sets forth his editorial principles and provides an appreciative analysis of the “excellences” and “defects” of the work of the good Elizabethan dramatist. Many of his points became fundamental tenets of recent criticism; others give greater insight into Johnson’s prejudices than into Shakespeare’s genius. The resonant prose of the preface adds authority to the views of its author.
Perhaps no other document exhibits the character of eighteenth-century literary criticism better than what’s commonly referred to as Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare. Written after Johnson had spent nine years laboring to supply an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the Preface to Shakespeare is characterized by sweeping generalizations about the dramatist’s work and by stunning pronouncements about its merits, judgments that elevated Shakespeare to the highest spot among European writers of any century. At times, Johnson displays the tendency of his contemporaries to fault Shakespeare for his propensity for wordplay and for ignoring the stress for just deserts in his plays; readers of subsequent generations have found these criticisms to reflect the inadequacies of the critic quite they are doing those of the dramatist.
What sets Johnson’s work aside from that of his contemporaries, however, is that the immense learning that lies beneath numerous of his judgments; he consistently displays his familiarity with the texts, and his generalizations are rooted in specific passages from the dramas. Further, Johnson is that the first among the good Shakespeare critics to worry the playwright’s sound understanding of attribute. Johnson’s specialize in character analysis initiated a critical trend that might be dominant in Shakespeare’s criticism (in fact, all of dramatic criticism) for quite a century and would cause the good work of critics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lamb, and A. C. Bradley.
The significance of the Preface to Shakespeare, however, goes beyond its contributions to Shakespeare scholarship. First, it’s the foremost significant application of a critical principle that Johnson espoused consistently which has become a staple of the practice since a comparison. His systematic plan to measure Shakespeare against others, both classical and contemporary, became the model. Second, the Preface to Shakespeare exemplifies Johnson’s belief that good criticism is often produced only after a good scholarship has been practiced. The critic who wishes to gauge an author’s originality or an author’s contributions to the tradition must first practice sound literary reading and research to know what has been borrowed and what has been invented.
Characteristically, Johnson makes his Shakespeare criticism the inspiration for general statements about people, nature, and literature. he’s a real classicist in his concern with the universal instead of with the particular; the very best praise he can bestow upon Shakespeare is to mention that his plays are “just representations of general nature.” The dramatist has relied upon his knowledge of attribute, instead of on bizarre effects, for his success. “The pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and therefore the mind can only rest on the steadiness of truth,” Johnson concludes. it’s for this reason that Shakespeare has outlived his century and reached the purpose at which his works are often judged solely on their own merits, without the interference of private interests and prejudices that make criticism of one’s contemporaries difficult.
Johnson feels that the readers of his time can often understand the universality of Shakespeare’s vision better than the audiences of Elizabethan England could, for the intervening centuries have freed the plays of their topicality.