Merits of Shakespeare according to Samuel Johnson

‘Preface to Shakespeare’ is an overview by Samuel Johnson. Jonhson’s ‘Preface to Shakespeare ‘ basically a comment on the argument over the ancient and modern, published on 1765. In ‘Preface to Shakespeare’ , Johnson has shown the merits (and demerits) of Shakespeare based on the plays he has edited. Here he gives the readers some sound ideas about the virtues and faults of Shakespeare. That Shakespeare’s characters have an interaction with nature and that his works have a universal appeal are the major assertions of Johnson in favour of Shakespeare’s merits and what he says about the demerit of Shakespeare is that Shakespeare tries more to please his audience than to instruct them which is a serious fault because it is always a writer’s duty to make the world morally better. However, what Johnson has seen as the merits of Shakespeare are given below:

Representation of general nature: 

This is the first and most important Merits of Shakespeare according to “Preface to Shakespeare”. Samuel Johnson proceeds thence to elevate Shakespeare as the poet of nature. “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature”. According to him,  “Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life”. Shakespeare is, more than anyone else, a poet of nature. Through his works he reflects life.

His characters have a universal appeal:

Johnson says that Shakespeare’s characters “are the genuine progeny of common humanity” and it is the one of the Merits of Shakespeare according to him. In the writings of other writers , a character is too often an individual but a character of Shakespeare has a universal appeal, Shakespeare’s characters do not belong to the society of a particular place or time; they are universal, representing every man. His characters have an universal appeal. They act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles which are experienced by all mankind. This is one of the another merits of Shakespeare which make him so different and unique according to Samuel Johnson.

Shakespeare’s greatness does not rest upon individual passages: 

It is because of this universality in the portrayal of characters that Shakespeare’s plays are full of “practical axioms and domestic wisdom”.

The dialogue in his plays is based on the actual conversation of people: 

The Merits of Shakespeare is seen in his dialogues as well. Shakespeare’s dialogue is thoroughly realistic. His dialogue is pursued with much ease and simplicity. And it seems to have been taken from the common conversation of human beings.In his characterization and dialogue, Shakespeare “overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition,” striking at the center of humanity (15). The nature captured by Shakespeare’s characters is exhibited in the “ease and simplicity” of their dialogues. 
Moreover Shakespeare is a prophet figure and from his writings we find the ideas of worldly wisdom and the principles which are of value in society and at home. He says, “from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence.” 
Indeed, Johnson points out, the distinctions of character stressed by such critics as Voltaire and Rymer impose only artificial burdens on the natural genius of Shakespeare. He lays an enormous stress on Shakespeare’s adherence to general nature. He states: “Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men.”
Again he says that by writings Shakespeare brings out the whole sphere of life. Moreover his heroes are like common human beings. And the qualities that are found in Shakespearean heroes can be found in every human being. As he says , “Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion”. 


Johnson goes further in his defense of the Bard’s merit, extending his argument from the characters within his plays to the genre of the plays themselves.  In the strictest, classical sense of the terms, Johnson admits , Shakespeare’s works cannot be fairly called comedies or tragedies. For this too, his plays earned harsh criticism from Johnson’s contemporaries. Johnson, though, sees in the mixture of sorrow and joy a style which “approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life”. 

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