Samuel Johnson’s preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare has long been considered a classic document of English literary criticism. In it Johnson sets forth his editorial principles and gives an appreciative analysis of the “excellences” and “defects” of the works of Shakespeare. Many of his points have become fundamental tenets of modern 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.
Johnson is a true classicist in his concern with the universal rather than with the particular; the highest praise he bestows upon Shakespeare is to say that his plays are “just representations of general nature.” The dramatist has relied upon his knowledge of human nature, rather than on bizarre effects, for his success. “The pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth,” Johnson concludes. It is for this reason that Shakespeare has outlived his century and reached the point at which his works can be judged solely on their own merits, without the interference of personal interests and prejudices that make criticism of one’s contemporaries difficult.
Johnson praises Shakespeare’s art of characterization highlighting their variety, depth, credibility and the power of delighting his audience. Using his comparative method he observes, “They are the genuine progeny of common humanity…In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual. In those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.” The characters and the situations are so impressive because “Shakespeare has no heroes, his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself has spoken or acted on the same occasion.” This culminates in his view, “his drama is the mirror of life.”
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. The characters in the plays are not limited by time or nationality; they are, rather, “the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.” Implicitly criticizing earlier editors of Shakespeare, who had dotted their pages with asterisks marking particularly fine passages, Johnson contends that the greatness of the plays lies primarily in their total effect, in the naturalness of the action, the dialogue, and the characterization.
Johnson’s enumeration of faults in Shakespeare in itself is a classic piece of criticism. These faults he finds are owing to two causes—(a) carelessness, (b) excess of conceit. Shakespeare's obscurities arise from
(a) the careless manner of publication;
(b) the shifting fashions and grammatical license of Elizabethan English;
(c) the use of colloquial English,
(d) the use of many allusions, references, etc., to topical events and personalities,
(e) the rapid flow of ideas which often hurries him to a second thought before the first has been fully explained.
Thus many of Shakespeare's obscurities belong either to the age or the necessities of stagecraft and not to the man.
Written after Johnson had spent nine years laboring to produce an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the Preface to Shakespeare is characterized by sweeping generalizations about the dramatist’s works and by stunning pronouncements about its merits, judgments that elevate Shakespeare to the top 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 demands for poetic justice in his plays; readers of subsequent generations have found these criticisms to reflect the inadequacies of the critic more than they do those of the dramatist. What sets Johnson’s work apart from that of his contemporaries, however, is the immense learning that lies beneath so many 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 the first among the great Shakespeare critics to stress the playwright’s sound understanding of human nature. Johnson’s focus on character analysis initiated a critical trend that would be dominant in Shakespeare criticism (in fact, all of dramatic criticism) for more than a century and would lead to the great work of critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and A. C. Bradley.