Dr. Samuel Johnson's Evaluation Shakespeare in 'Preface to Shakespeare': Shakespeare as the Poet of Nature

“Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, and the poet of nature, the poet that holds up his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.”
“Preface to Shakespeare” Para 8

One of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s most notable services to Shakespearean criticism is that he exposes the central style of Shakespeare’s plays as its universality. He passes the judgment that Shakespeare is a “poet of nature” meaning that through his works he reflects life-the real life and manners.

Shakespeare is a poet of nature who faithfully represents human nature in his plays. He does not falsify reality. Shakespeare is a poet of nature also because his characters are natural; they act and behave think and speak like human beings. His characters are the faithful representations of humanity. He deals with passions and principles which are common to humanity. He does not merely depict the particular manner and customs of any one country or age. His characters are not merely kings and Romans. They are above all human beings. So, his characters have a universal appeal. But this does not mean that they do no have any individual qualities. The speech of one character can not be placed in the mouth of another, and they can easily be differentiated from each other by their speeches. The dialogue he uses “seems to have been gleamed by different selection of common conversation and common occurrences.” They are also true to the age, sex or profession to which they belong. They are also true to type.

In Shakespeare’s characterization we find a realistic and convincing portrayal of human nature. Shakespeare does not depict persons of either fabulous excellence or unexampled depravity. The characters in his plays are not heroes but only human beings who act and think in the way in which the reader himself would act and think under the circumstances. Even where the agency is supernatural, the dialogue accords with real life. In his plays Shakespeare has shown human nature not only as it acts in real solutions but as it would be found in situation which may never arise.

Shakespeare is most original in his portrayal of characters. Johnson says that no writer before him, with the possible exception of Chaucer, has portrayed human character in such a realistic manner. Shakespeare has gathered his knowledge of human nature from this personal observation. This knowledge has enabled him to portray a multiplicity and diversity of character and to reveal subtle distinctions between man and man. In this respect, he has none to intimate, though he himself has been imitated by all writers. Whether life or nature is his subject, he gives evidence of having seen things with his own eyes.

It is because of the universality of his characterization that Shakespeare’s plays are full of practical axioms and domestic wisdom. From them can be formulated a philosophy of life, of great practical value in real life. He is not great only in particular passages but the entire conduct of his action brings out his greatness as a poet of (human) nature.
Shakespeare’s realism, says Johnson is to be seen also in the fact that he does no give undue prominence to the passion of love in his plays. Dramatists in general give an excessive importance to the theme of love and often violate probability and misrepresent life. Shakespeare knows that- “Love is only one of many passions,” and that it has no great influence upon the sum of life.

Johnson defends Shakespeare for his mingling of the tragic and comic elements in his plays on the ground of realism. Such mingling only serves to show us the course of the world in which “the loss of one is the gain of another, at the same time” “the reveler hastening to his wine and the mourner burying his friend.”

Nor does Johnson disapprove of Shakespeare’s violation of the unities of place and time. He defends Shakespeare o the ground of dramatic illusion. Literature is to be appreciated not by the literal sense but by the imagination. The audience’s imagination is kept very active when he watches a play. The audience knows that he is going to watch a fictitious reality. If an audience in a theatre can accept the stage as a locality in the city of Rome, he will also accept the change from Rome to Alexandria. The unity of time may like wise be violated on the same principle.

Shakespeare, says Johnson, is the originator of “the form, the character, the language and the shows” of English drama. He is the first playwright whose tragic as well as the comic plays succeed in providing the dramatic pleasure appropriate to them.

Thus Johnson shows his penetrating power which probes to the very core of Shakespeare’s wit and reveals its deep humanity and its sovereign realism.