“The Preface is the impartial estimate of Shakespeare’s virtues and defects by a powerful mind”. (Halliday). Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is a classic of literary criticism in which he is above his political personal, religious and literary prejudices: mentions both the merits and demerits of Shakespeare like a true critic; and become very honest and sincere in his estimate of Shakespeare. Johnson tests Shakespeare by the fact and experience, by the test of time, nature and universality, his defense to tragicomedy is superb and still unsurpassed; in which he has excelled his guru Dryden. He finds Shakespeare great because he holds a mirror to nature. In minimized the importance of love on the sum of life, Johnson anticipates Shaw.
Shakespeare was the originator of “the form, the character, the language and the shadows of English drama” and “opens a mine contains cold and diamonds”. “Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakespeare of men”, thus, Shakespeare is one of the great and the original masters of the language. There are few limitations of Preface too: Johnson could not fathom the depths of Shakespeare’s poetic genius. Nor could he think of the psychological subtleties of his characterization, he was equally deaf to “the overtones of Shakespeare’s poetry at its most sublime his criticism of his perceptive powers. In the mystery of Shakespeare tragedy was beyond the reach of his common sense. No wonder then if he feels that Shakespeare was at his best in comedy”. Nevertheless these shortcomings do not mar the basic merits of his Preface which is as immortal as the plays of Shakespeare and the tests of Shakespeare provided by him are valid even today.
The limitations of this critical sensibility are no where prominent than in his complaint that Shakespeare “seems to write without any moral purpose”. He fails to see the hidden morals of Shakespeare’s plays; to him only the explicitly stated morals are the morals, thus, some of the most conspicuous virtues of Shakespeare, for example, his objectivity and his highly individualized treatment of his characters, are treated by Johnson as his “defects”—these defects are certainly not Shakespeare’s, but Johnson’s. Shakespeare was the first playwright whose tragic as well as comic plays succeeded in providing the dramatic pleasure appropriate to them. He has given us excellent comedies “without labour which no labour can improve,” so the world prefers his comedies because they are profound and more true to nature. However, the language of his comic scenes is the language of the real life, neither gross nor refined and hence it has not gone obsolete.
Early in English drama “Neither the character nor dialogues were yet understood, Shakespeare may be truly said to have introduced them both amongst us, and in some of his happier scenes to have carried them both to the utmost height”. “In my opinion”, concludes Johnson, “very few in the lines were difficult to his audience, and that he uses such expressions as were them common, though the paucity if contemporary writers makes them now seem peculiar.”
His enumeration of Shakespeare in itself is a classic piece of criticism. These faults he finds are owing to two causes—(a) carelessness, (b) excess of conceit. “The details analysis of the faults”, says Raleigh, “is fine piece of criticism, and has never been seriously challenged”. Shakespeare’s obscurities arise from:
1. the careless manner of publication;
2. the shifting fashions and grammatical license of Elizabethan English;
3. the use of colloquial English;
4. the use of many allusions, the reference, etc., to topical events and personalities;
5. The rapid flow of ideas which often hurries him to a second thought before the first been fully explained.
Thus, many of Shakespeare’s obscurities belong either to the age or the necessities of stagecraft and to the man.