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What are the Major Faults of Shakespeare According to Dr. Johnson?


Preface to Shakespeare by Dr, Johnson represents a totally wholesome commentary upon Shakespeare, in which, Shakespeare has been shown as a true genius, but that genius is not emancipated from Faults, a very common characteristic of mankind. Johnson comments, “Shakespeare with his excellences has likewise faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit.”\

1) Sacrificed Virtue to Convenience

According to Johnson, Shakespeare’s first and foremost defect is that “he sacrifices virtue to convenience.” It seems that Shakespeare writes without any moral purpose. Johnson also points out that Shakespeare does not observe poetic justice. He did not distribute good and evil justly and even his virtuous characters do not express any moral disapproval of the wicked. He carried his characters indiscriminately through right or wrong, and left their fortune in the hands of Chance.

2) Defective Plot

Next Johnson turns his attention towards the plots of Shakespeare’s plays. His plots usually too loosely constructed and very carelessly pursued that it seems he himself did not always apprehend his own design. He always opted for the easy situations rejecting the grand exhibitions.

3) Latter part is neglected

Another defect Johnson finds in Shakespeare is that in his plays the latter part is hastily rounded off so that the plays do not appear to be as artistically ordered in their concluding sections as in their earlier part. Reaching near the end, Shakespeare is found to shorten his oil: and as a result, he is found to slacken his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them. So,

“His catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.”

4) Violator of Chronology, Like hood and Possibility

Another defect in Shakespeare’s plays is that in them no distinction of time or place is observed but the customs, opinions and manners of one age or one country are freely attributed to another. As a result, the criteria of like hood and possibility have been shattered.

5) Unsuccessful both in Tragedy and comedy

Another objection raised by Dr. Johnson is with regard to “reciprocation’s of smartness and contests of sarcasm” which are frequently seen in Shakespeare’s comedies. Johnson asserts that the jests in which the comic characters indulge are often coarse and licentious. Except for effusions of passion, his inventions are tumid, mean, tedious and obscure.

6) Shakespeare’s Language

It is very difficult to determine whether Shakespeare represents the real conversation of his age. His jests are usually gross, his pleasantry licentious, and even his gentlemen and ladies have not much delicacy. But, the reign of Elizabeth is commonly supposed to have been a time of stateliness, formality and reserve.

7) Style and expression

Next Johnson reprehends Shakespeare’s style and expression. According to him, there are many passages in the tragedies over which Shakespeare seems to have labored hard, only to ruin his own performance. Narration in dramatic poetry is unanimated and inactive. So, it is tedious and obstructs the progress of the action. Consequently, this narration must be brief and rapid. But, Shakespeare, for his narration preferred a disproportionate pomp of diction.

8) Unequal words to things

Shakespeare does not often maintain reasonable proportion between his words and the things they express. Most of this censure on Shakespeare’s style and expression is exaggerated. He seems cold, weak, and rather frigid when the highest amount of emotional expression was needed.

9) Shakespeare’s fatal expression for a quibble

Johnson turns censorious about Shakespeare’s tendency to use conceits as well as ambiguous word play. Johnson says that Shakespeare’s craze for conceit and quibbles spoils many passages which are otherwise sad and tender, or could have evoked pity and terror. His uncurbed enthusiasm for quibbles leads him to utter senselessness.
A beautiful analogy has been set by Johnson to insinuate at the intensity of this weak passion in Shakespeare’s mind:

“A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.”

10) A Faulty Composition

Shakespeare’s works, except the histories, do not preserve the unity of action. But his histories being neither tragedy nor comedies do not conform to any unity.

11) Johnson also defends Shakespeare by arguing that some of the shortcoming that we find in his plays is actually the faults of the age he lived in. He considers the charge that the Roman characters of Shakespeare are not sufficiently Roman, or that the kings and queens are wanting in royal dignity.

Yet these faults in Johnson’s views do not lessen Shakespeare’s greatness as a unique dramatic genius, his universal appeal, his understanding and portrayal of human nature, his capacity and ability to delight.

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