In Preface to Shakespeare, Johnson has shown the merits and demerits of Shakespeare based on the plays he has edited. Here he gives the readers some sound ideas about the virtues and faults of Shakespeare. That Shakespeare's characters have am interaction with nature and that his works have a universal appeal are the major assertions of Johnson in favour of Shakespeare's merits and what he says about the demerit of Shakespeare is that Shakespeare tries more to please his audience than to instruct them which is a serious fault because it is always a writer's duty to make the world morally better. However, what Johnson has seen as the merits and demerits of Shakespeare are given below:
Merits of Shakespeare:
At first Johnson explicates Shakespeare's virtues after explaining what merit can be determined by the Shakespeare's enduring popularity.
He proceeds thence to elevate Shakespeare as the poet of nature. "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature" (7). He says, "Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life".( 8). Again he says that Shakespeare's characters "are the genuine progeny of common humanity " In the writings of other writers , a character is too often an individual but a character of Shakespeare has a universal appeal, and his characters are the representatives of the common people.
Moreover Shakespeare is a prophet figure and from his writings we find the ideas of worldly wisdom and the principles which are of value in society and at home. He says, "from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence." (9)
Again he says that by writings Shakespeare brings out the whole sphere of life. Moreover his heroes are like common human beings. And the qualities that are found in Shakespearean heroes can be found in every human being. As he says , "Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion" (13)
In his characterization and dialogue, Shakespeare "overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition," striking at the center of humanity (15). The nature captured by Shakespeare's characters is exhibited in the "ease and simplicity" of their dialogues (10)
Indeed, Johnson points out, the distinctions of character stressed by such critics as Voltaire and Rymer impose only artificial burdens on the natural genius of Shakespeare. He lays an enormous stress on Shakespeare's adherence to general nature. He states: "Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men."(15)
Johnson goes further in his defense of the Bard's merit, extending his argument from the characters within his plays to the genre of the plays themselves. In the strictest, classical sense of the terms, Johnson admits, Shakespeare's works cannot be fairly called comedies or tragedies. For this too, his plays earned harsh criticism from Johnson's contemporaries. Johnson, though, sees in the mixture of sorrow and joy a style which "approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life" (20).
Demerits of Shakespeare:
His praise for Shakespeare, which centers on the Bard's sublunary approach to character, dialogue, and plot, does not blind him to the poet of nature's weaknesses. Johnson airs Shakespeare's imperfections without hesitance. In doing so, though, he does not weaken his arguments; he simply establishes his credentials as a critic. As Edward Tomarken points out, "for Johnson, criticism requires, not intrusive sententiae, but evaluative interpretations, decisions about how literature applies to the human dilemma" (Tomarken 2).
Johnson is not hesitant to admit Shakespeare's faults: his earlier praise serves to keep those flaws in perspective. Even without that perspective, however, Johnson's censure of Shakespeare is not particularly harsh. For the most part, Johnson highlights surface- level defects in the Bard's works: his "loosely formed" plots, his "commonly gross" jests, and- most ironically-his "disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution" (Johnson 34, 35).
The most egregious fault Johnson finds in Shakespeare, though, is thematic. Unsurprisingly, Johnson exhibits emphatic distaste for Shakespeare's lack of moral purpose. Johnson argues that he " He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose " (33). In leading "his persons indifferently through right and wrong" and leaving "their examples to operate by chance," Shakespeare has abandoned his duty as an author as the righteous Johnson would have that duty defined (33). This is, in his eyes, Shakespeare's greatest flaw, though it does not supercede his other merits.
Shakespeare's plots, he says, are often very loosely formed and carelessly pursued. He neglects opportunities of giving instruction or pleasure which the development of the plot provides to him. He says, "The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design." (34). Again he says that in many of his plays, the latter part does not receive much of his attention. This charge is certainly true. The play of Julius Caesar clearly shows a decline of dramatic interest in its second half. He says, "It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and, in view of his reward, he shortened the labour, to snatch the profit."(35)
Next, Johnson considers Shakespeare's style and expression. According to him there are many passages in the tragedies over which Shakespeare seems to have laboured hard, only to ruin his own performance. The moment Shakespeare strains his faculties, or strains his inventive powers unnecessarily, the result is tediousness and obscurity.
However, Johnson adopts purely a neo-classical point of view which emphasizes the didactic purpose of literature as much as its pleasing quality. In this respect we can't agree with Johnson's condemnation of Shakespeare. Because all that we can expect from an artist is that he should give us a picture of life as he sees it.