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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: January ::
Re: Johnson's Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0132  Sunday, 21 January 2001

[1]     From:   Jack Lynch <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 Jan 2001 18:36:54 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

[2]     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 Jan 2001 17:37:30 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0115 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

[3]     From:   John Velz <
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        Date:   Sunday, 21 Jan 2001 01:02:11 -0600
        Subj:   Johnson's Shakespeare


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jack Lynch <
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Date:           Friday, 19 Jan 2001 18:36:54 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0096 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

Terence Hawkes, discussing Johnson's criticism of Shakespeare, writes,
"My graduate students could do better."  I can only assume this is
because he prefers the mindless shibboleths of 2001 to the mindless
shibboleths of 1765.  By the same standards, my undergraduates are
smarter than Aristotle, because none would write "Tragedy is an
imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life."  (Well, okay, a
few would, but they would have stolen it from the Web.)

So the series of questions beginning "How many of SHAKSPER's
contributors would endorse the following?" strikes me as very wide of
the mark; it's a game I won't play.  And the comment that "To excuse
Johnson on the grounds that he was blinkered by his time obviously
undercuts the claims made for his scholarship and perception" seems to
me to imply that our own age (or is it just Hawkes himself?) is not
blinkered by our time.  Am I seriously misrepresenting the argument?

I'm quite sincere when I say Johnson has serious weaknesses: I remain
_well_ this side idolatry, and don't doff my cap in reverence to every
_obiter dictum_.  That would be, as Hawkes says, "pious nonsense."  But
I find the implicit Whiggishness in Hakes's verison of the history of
criticism -- 2001 is smarter than 2000, which was smarter than 1999,
which was smarter than . . . -- considerably more nonsensical.

I'll ask again, and hope for an answer this time.  Is there a critic who
wrote more than fifty years ago who'd measure up to your graduate
students?  Was Longinus a good critic? -- Sidney? -- Wordsworth? --
Lessing? -- Arnold? -- Pater? -- Quiller-Couch? -- Leavis? --
Granville-Barker?  I use them differently than I do Wells, Orgel, or
even Hawkes (whose work I admire).  But it seems positively perverse to
dismiss out of hand anyone we wouldn't "endorse."

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Friday, 19 Jan 2001 17:37:30 -0700
Subject: 12.0115 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0115 Re: Johnson's Shakespeare

I stumbled on the "Johnson's Shakespeare" thread more or less by
accident and was especially intrigued by Terence Hawkes's question: "How
many of SHAKSPER's contributors would endorse the following?"-after
which he listed several of what might be considered Johnson's blunders.
I sent him my own thoughts on these "blunders" along with my guesses as
to what the actual percentages might be among SHAKSPEReans if they were
to respond.  I won't burden everyone with those guesses.  But here are
my thoughts.

First, I should admit I love to read Johnson, for his prose style, his
blunt opinions, and his moments of crisp insight (I think there are
many) and deep feeling (I agree with Sean Lawrence that, in his comments
on Cordelia's death, Johnson shows more respect than many moderns do for
"how art can be dangerous and disturbing").

But I find much that is arguable in Johnson as well-as do others who
have commented-and some serious limitations, especially when Johnson is
most representative of attitudes of his time.  Doubtless the same will
be said of most of us-if any of us are still read in 300 years.  As C.
S. Lewis put it, "We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of
the twentieth [or twenty-first] century-the blindness about which
posterity will ask, 'But how COULD they have thought that?'-lies where
we have never suspected it"-in some the very assumptions we consider
most obviously true.

Here is Terence Hawkes's list along with my responses:

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.

My answer: Yes, sometimes he SEEMS to write "without any moral purpose"
(especially compared to certain other writers).  But, as Johnson
acknowledges elsewhere and as modern students of Renaissance rhetoric
are especially equipped to notice, moral judgments are constantly being
made in various ways in and by means of the plays (the characters,
actions, speeches, etc., etc.).  "No just distribution of good and
evil"?: well, not as just as Johnson apparently wanted, but much more
than a modern writer would probably want to try to get away with.  As to
whether such a "just distribution" is a good or bad thing, I'd say I
generally think it's too simplistic-yet more can be said for it than the
casual dismisser of poetic justice (who probably hasn't thought the
question through deeply) would grant.  Johnson's notorious comments on
Cordelia's death are helpfully troubling and thought provoking.  As for
Johnson's view of the seriousness of Shakespeare's fault, I think an
answer depends not only on whether you think the fault is present, but
also whether you think it a fault and, if so, how serious a fault.  Such
judgments involve much more than merely literary expertise but depend on
one's view of everything that matters.  In other words, the assumptions
you bring to the questions will likely determine your answers.

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'.

My answer: Well, yes, there's a good deal of "smartness," "sarcasm,"
grossness, and licentiousness in Shakespeare.  Are the gentlemen and
ladies "sufficiently distinguished from his clowns"?  I don't know.
I'll have to check.  The answer depends a good deal on what you mean by
"sufficiently."  I have a feeling, though, that you aren't so much
disagreeing with Johnson's description of Shakespeare's "pleasantries"
as you are with his assumption that "gentlemen and ladies" should be
distinguished from clowns by being more "refined."

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

My answer: I wouldn't say "commonly," but I would say sometimes.  My
students are sometimes wonderfully relieved to hear that you can
actually criticize Shakespeare's language-that when they find the
speeches long and boring, the problem isn't always with them (the
students), but sometimes with the speeches.

4. 'A dramatic exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that
increase or diminish its effect'.

My answer: I'll have to think about this one.  Of course, the image of
someone reciting a book with dramatic flourishes strikes us as awfully
stilted.  But let's suppose we did a bit of Derridean or other
theoretical redefinition of "exhibition" (or "dissemination"?), "book,"
"recited," and "effect"-I don't know; we might get something really
interesting out of this sentence.

5. 'A play read affects the mind like a play acted'.

My answer: Yes, if the word "like" is given a very wide berth.  Doesn't
mean "same as"; means "having some significant properties in common
with."  But obviously there are great differences too.  (But again if
you redefine "read" and "acted" and get semiotic about everything, I
think you'd find that all dramatic experiences involve "readings."  I
don't suppose you're going to tell me that's not what Johnson intended
by the sentence?)

My responses are, I admit, pretty rough and off the cuff.  What caught
my interest and prompted me to respond at all was the notion I thought I
saw being expressed that intelligent people, or at least intelligent
SHAKSPEReans, ought to find some of Johnson's opinions obviously
uninsightful.  My view is that the lack of insight is not so obvious
unless you've already decided quite firmly what views count as
insightful.

As with most writers, I find Johnson's work to be quite a mix of insight
and blindspots.  But what I most value when I read him is the sense of a
voice, a presence-someone other (powerfully and undigestibly other) than
myself-who calls on me to respond.  If everything I read in a writer
seemed obviously and immediately true, I would worry that I was just
listening to an echo of my own voice.  I believe that the
unpredictability of discourse with a plurality of others-whatever the
cost in comfortable reassurance-brings enough benefit to be worth the
cost.

Hence, I read Johnson, and Shakespeare-and postings on the SHAKSPER
list.

Bruce Young

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Velz <
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Date:           Sunday, 21 Jan 2001 01:02:11 -0600
Subject:        Johnson's Shakespeare

Simon Malloch says "at the end of the day [Johnson's] prose style is so
pleasing that it is an attraction in itself".  This is reminiscent of
what Johnson himself said to someone, probably Boswell, when asked about
Richardson's plots.  "Sir, if you were to read him for the story you
should certainly hang yourself.  But you do not read him for the story,
sir, but for the style and for the sentiment."  (Quoted from memory late
at night; apologies, if any are needed)

Right on, Simon.   Johnson would probably be pleased to read what you
say of him.

Cheers,
John
 

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