Shakespeare is arguably the most renowned playwright and poet ever to exist, his work has been praised for centuries, even to this day he is used and his influences are very common in modern literature with Hamlet being his most popular play. Although we can only speculate why earlier audiences were enamoured to the histories. England’s ruler of Shakespearean era was Queen Elizabeth who was also a big fan of Shakespeare and due to the nature of his plays, that being of issues such as sovereignty and power which would have been at the centre of society as well as affecting the view of the locals. However, alongside any famous writer, Shakespeare attracted a lot of criticism through the years to do with race, gender etc. In this essay I will be discussing two critical statements, one which focuses on the characters of Shakespeare’s play, including how relevant they will be in any given context and the other statement focussing on the lack of female characters with reference to other critical essays.
“His characters are not modified by the customs of a particular place…they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find…”1 Samuel Johnson makes this statement about Shakespeare in 1765 when his critical book Preface to Shakespeare was written. Johnson was addressing the speculation on Shakespeare’s character choices and if they are only relatable to the context they were written in. This particular preface is considered to be an important document of English Literary criticism as it was the stepping stones to criticism in the eighteenth century as well as providing a good insight to the character of criticism and literature of the time. Overall, Johnson main stance is that he praises Shakespeare’s work, putting his position in in literature above all modern writers and defends Shakespeare’s characters saying that they are a true representation of humanity, they are universal2. On the other hand, Lisa Jardine focuses more on the gender dynamics of Shakespearian plays stating that his plays “neither mirror the social scene, nor articulate explicitly any of the varied contemporary views on the ‘woman question'”3 which she wrote much later than Johnson in 1983, over two centuries later, in her book Still Harping on Daughters. Jardine’s main criticisms she raises are the lack of female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, and those that are mentioned are not a true representation of women in any society as his version of women “transcended the limits of his time and sex”4. There are many similarities in the style of writing between the essays due to the two critics aiming for one thing, to get across their point and try to persuade the readers, influencing their opinion to agree with them.
However the differences that do occur are mainly due to the times they were written in. Johnson uses archaic words due to the fact he was a writer during the eighteenth century; “the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life,” ‘mirrour’ is an old version of spelling mirror, the difference in language does affect the style, especially when reading the text in a different time to which it was written in, the persuasive techniques may not be easily portrayed and therefore may not work when people from modern day are reading. Overall Johnson has a mostly positive opinion, this in turn affects his style as he praises Shakespeare’s work which makes the atmosphere upbeat, almost making Johnson seem excitable and passionate. Jardine goes for a completely different approach, she on the other hand has a completely different view as I have discussed previously, unlike Johnson, she criticises Shakespeare’s portrayal of women. This negative opinion allows Jardine to create a complete different atmosphere, using more modern persuasive techniques such as informing the reader her strong views straight away; “Shakespeare takes no position on women, any more than on any other issue,” Here Jardine does not allow the reader to form their own opinion, she is using an imperative technique to influence the readers view in favour of hers. Comparing two critical texts that were written in different eras gives us an insight to the different ways of writing taking into consideration the context.
Furthermore, the political views and social structure of society is drastically dissimilar when comparing the context of the two books and the eras they were written in. Women before the twentieth century did not have many rights5 and were considered naturally weaker than men, mentally and physically, even more so during Shakespeare’s life. It was typical to see women in literature as a femme fatale, usually a damsel in distress in need of a strong male character to save her. In addiction Jessica Bomarito builds on this and argues women “were challenged with expressing themselves in a patriarchal system that refused to grant merit to women’s views,”6 when women were used in literature, they did not have a say in what was happening due to the lack of women writers during the seventeenth century7 what Bomarito and Jardine are addressing is that women were not able to stand up for themselves, they had to let stereotypes in literature appear and often conformed to them. Even during the eighteenth century, when Johnson wrote Preface to Shakespeare women did not see much in term of societal oppression towards them, it was only in the twentieth century that we saw a dramatic turn in women’s rights.
Still Harping on Daughters was written in the late twentieth century therefore has the privilege to be able to address the lack of women in Shakespeare’s because it is seen as unusual that women were not represented.Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare contributes to Shakespeare’s work as it builds from him, becoming one of the most well-known critical essay applying conventions of the time, comparing Shakespeare’s work with others and drawing on topics both historical and contemporary. Johnson seems to be addressing issues beyond Shakespeare’s plays, but using them as a foundation to make general statements about society and the nature of his time. The intended purpose was to explain how a person who wants to critic an author’s work must first have some knowledge on how to write themselves, in order to compare writers and discuss their style and authenticity they should do their own research to determine if the literature is original. In addition to this Johnson tries to explain the Elizabethan era8 and its societal dynamics that were portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays to his audience in the early years of the Georgian era. He argued he was able to understand the universality of Shakespeare’s works more so than those of the seventeenth century, this was because he was able to read the plays out of context and take them out of one century and put them in another seen as Johnson was two centuries after Shakespeare.
The characters of his plays are not limited to context and now can be applied to any society and are “the genuine progeny of common humanity”9.