Samuel Johnson

Of all the writings that Samuel Johnson has done, his preface to the edition of Shakespeare’s plays, his Dictionary of English Language, his Lives of English Poets, his explanation of what is metaphysical, etc. remain the significant ones till today. The History of Rasselas is the fictional work in the form of drama written by him. 

Johnson in his Lives of English Poets writes that the yoking of two heterogeneous ideas together is the characteristic of metaphysical poetry. So, in the poems of John Donne and others one witness the fusion of two contradictory ideas.

For instance, in the poem “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge, an instance where the poet writes: ‘A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!’. Coming together of ‘sunny pleasure dome’ and ‘caves of ice’ is what makes it the metaphysical poem. 

The metaphysical poetry was not accepted and praised but when T.S. Eliot calls it the superior kind of poetry by building on the explanation given by Jonson, poets like John Donne became the canonical poets. 

In his preface to Shakespeare’s plays, Johnson picks three major issues: the question of establishing poet’s status, the relationship between a poet and nature, and the question of nature and experience against criticism and set conventions. 

He appreciates Shakespeare that he (Shakespeare) “the poet of nature: the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life”. In other Johnson argues that Shakespeare reflects the truth of his times to society.

According to Johnson, a poet that constructs a mirror in the form of art to reflect the social conditions of that times is a poet of superior status. Johnson thinks that other poets write the character as individual beings but Shakespeare’s characters are ‘commonly a species’.

In other words, Shakespeare is a writer who concerns himself with universal issues than individual ones; hence, he holds higher status. The other point he makes in favour of Shakespeare is that his characters are not superheroes but common men and Shakespeare writes in common language about common events and people. So, literary artists who depict common life, people and events are, in Johnson’s opinion, better artists than others.

Some critics like John Dennis have criticized Shakespeare for not being sufficiently able to write a character who accurately reflect their age; for instance, if a character is a moor, he is not written appropriately to reflect a moor.

In his defence of Shakespeare and as a reply to this criticism, Johnson argues that he (Shakespeare) has “always makes nature predominate over accident; and . . . he preserves the essential character.”

So, according to Johnson, reflection in a true sense of the word is not necessary till the point keeps the essence of that culture, character or times and it should be nature of the character that guides the story, not a mere accident.