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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: January ::
Re: Johnson's Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0100  Thursday, 18 January 2001

[1]     From:   Don Bloom <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Jan 2001 13:00:51 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

[2]     From:   Chuck Costello <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Jan 2001 12:15:11 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

[3]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Jan 2001 19:30:32 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Bloom <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Jan 2001 13:00:51 -0600
Subject: 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

All right. I'll try this one more time and then the heck with it.
Remembering that I said in my initial effusion on SJ that I always found
plenty to disagree with, let me offer the following.

Terence Hawkes cites these as definitive:

>The notion that 'Johnson was not only remarkably learned but had
>tremendous insights' still strikes me as pious nonsense. How many of
>SHAKSPER's contributors would endorse the following?
>
>1. Shakespeare seems to write 'without any moral purpose  . . . he makes
>no just distribution of good or evil'. This is a very  serious fault
>(the source of 'most of the evil in books or in men') for which 'the
>barbarity of his age' is no excuse.

Who can argue with this point? It's not an opinion but a statement of
fact, isn't it? If you were looking for Aesopian morals, or sermons, you
wouldn't turn S, would you? We consider this an advantage not a failing,
one of the reasons why his plays live and plays like Addison's "Cato,"
once highly admired and having a clear-cut moral purpose, are dead. But
that does not make our view right. Terence may slam the whole 18th
Century, and not just Dr. J, if he likes, but the fact won't change a
bit.

>2. 'In his comic scenes he is seldom very successful when he engages his
>characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm.'
>Indeed, the jests made by these characters are 'commonly gross, and
>their pleasantry licentious' and neither his gentlemen nor his ladies
>'have much delicacy nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns
>by any appearance of refined manners'.

I recall that George Bernard Shaw made the same point about S's
"reciprocations" some years later. At the time when I read Shaw I grew
quite annoyed, especially at his picking on Much Ado, one of my favorite
plays. But when I went back to look at Benedick and Beatrice I was
forced to concede much of his point. Most of S's best wit *is* more or
less bawdy -- which doesn't bother me any, though clearly it was a of
concern to Dr J's time.

>3. His 'declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak'.

This statement has always puzzled me. Of all the faults that might be
attributed to S, this I'd find among the least likely. It may be that
Johnson thought they didn't follow the canons of oratory. Or it may be
that, being much subtler of insight and more true to character, they
came off weak in a bombastic performance.

>4. 'A dramatic exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that
>increase or diminish its effect'.
>
>5. 'A play read affects the mind like a play acted'.

Both of these seem to derive from his sense of the current theatre and
may or may not reflect it accurately.

>To excuse Johnson on the grounds that he was blinkered by his time
>obviously undercuts the claims made for his  scholarship and
>perception.  'Remarkable'-even 'tremendous'-capacities in these areas
>ought to enhance awareness rather than the reverse.  In fact, Johnson
>had a poor grasp of the nature of the society from which early modern
>plays derived and to which they spoke. As a result he was, and remains,
>a very limited critic of Shakespeare. My graduate students could do
>better.

Perhaps they could do better, but at what? Pleasing you with excellent
examples of late 20th Century literary analysis? Doubtless they can and
do please you, but why should we expect Samuel Johnson to do so? Or even
want to?

When you read Johnson on Prince Hal-"a young man of great abilities and
violent passions, whose sentiments are right, though his actions are
wrong; whose virtues are obscured by negligence, and whose understanding
is dissipated by levity"-you are encountering not only a powerful
personality (with a wonderful prose style) but, in essence, the 18th
Century, its ideals and judgments. I don't have to agree with everything
he says to learn much. On the contrary, the learning has come from
struggling with what I disagree with. But I have found it well worth the
effort.

Cheers,
Don

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chuck Costello <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Jan 2001 12:15:11 -0700
Subject: 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

>[1]     From:   Mari Bonomi <
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>I'd be curious to know from Mr. Costello what majestic drama he holds >to
>be so enormously superior to Shakespeare's drama that he'll never >have his
>boots spitshined?  Or am I misreading the analogy?

My point was that Shakespeare is not so superior as to be the only one
with shiny boots.  I don't buy the idea that he made significant
improvements in dialogue and character.  Yes, he was better than many
playwrights before him, but that is true of all exceptional playwrights;
it is not to my mind a simple matter of historical development.

One doesn't have to go far in the pre-Shakespearean age to find English
drama equal to his.  With "majestic", I was thinking specifically of the
York plays, which as a whole piece far surpasses any single play by
Shakespeare.  A totally invalid comparison of course.  But it works both
ways.  As I see it, to say Shakespeare made significant improvements in
certain areas misses the essential point that the cycle writers were
attempting someting very different.

Anyways, if I were to come, in a fit of fawning, across both pair of
boots, I could as easily drool over the older as the newer.

Sincerely,
Charles Costello

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Jan 2001 19:30:32 -0800
Subject: 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

Terence writes, contra Johnson:

>In fact, Johnson
>had a poor grasp of the nature of the society from which early modern
>plays derived and to which they spoke. As a result he was, and remains,
>a very limited critic of Shakespeare. My graduate students could do
>better.

That depends what you mean by 'better'.  If you think that a
historically engaged criticism is the only kind worthy of the name, then
of course someone with more historical background will look better.
But, as Falstaff would say, I deny your major.

Johnson was, after all, keenly aware of the horror of the ending of King
Lear, a subject than historical treatments are, I think, constitutively
weaker at treating.  If his avoidance of the ending of King Lear is
anything to go by, Johnson seems to have respected how art can be
dangerous and disturbing, whereas we have almost completely succeeded
treating the artwork as an object of our knowledge and mastery.

Cheers,
Se

 

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