Samuel Johnsonone of the editors.
The text comes from The Plays of William Shakespeareed. Samuel Johnson London, ; this abridged edition is roughly half the length of the whole. The notes and paragraph numbers are my own.
My conservative textual policy is spelled out in the Note on the Text at the end. Please send comments and corrections to Jack Lynch. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity.
The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an authour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we rate them by his best.
What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind.
Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours.
Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or square, but whether it was spacious or lofty must have been referred to time.
The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.
He has long outlived his centurythe term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost; and every topick of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated.
The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity nor gratify malignity, but are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they have past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.
Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.
His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion.
In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestick wisdom. It was said of Euripidesthat every verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shakespeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and oeconomical prudence.
Yet his real power is not shown in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fableand, the tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocleswho, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.
It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare.
The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arise in the commerce of mankind.
But the dialogue of this authour is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.
To bring a lover, a lady and a rival into the fable; to entangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex them with oppositions of interest, and harrass them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other; to make them meet in rapture and part in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous sorrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was distressed; to deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered, is the business of a modern dramatist.
For this probability is violated, life is misrepresented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of many passions, and as it has no great influence upon the sum of life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw before him.
He knew, that any other passion, as it was regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.Samuel Johnson (), oft-quoted biographer, poet and lexicographer wrote A Dictionary of the English Language (), published in two folio volumes.
In his time it was the most comprehensive English language dictionary ever compiled and remained the standard reference for over a century. Quotations about quotations, compiled by Terri Guillemets.
The largest and most well-researched collection of quotes about quotes on the Web! Preface to Shakespeare By Samuel Johnson Edited by Jack Lynch, He found the English stage in a state of the utmost rudeness; no essays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried.
Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. The Plays of William Shakespeare was an 18th-century edition of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, edited by Samuel Johnson and George grupobittia.comn announced his intention to edit Shakespeare's plays in his Miscellaneous Observations on Macbeth (), and a full Proposal for the edition was published in The edition was finally published in Free samuel johnson papers, essays, and research papers.
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