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THE "POET OF NATURE" AND SELF-KNOWLEDGE: ONE ASPECT OF JOHNSON'S MORAL READING OF SHAKESPEARE JOHN HARDY Alluding in the Preface to his edition of Shakespeare to the effect of the plays on an audience, Johnson uncovers a striking picture of himself as one of its members. liAs he commands us," he writes, "we laugh or mourn, or sit silent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indifference .'" No simple explanation of this involvement is, of course, possible . Johnson once wrote that he went to the theatre only to escape from himself;' and surely every reader of fiction seeks to immerse himself in a more colourful, exciting, unusual or significant world than is normally present to his senses. Yet Johnson was also, by his own account, "perpetually" a moralist, who had therefore to be able to justify his appreciation of literature in moral terms. 'The end of poetry," he wrote, "is to instruct by pleasing." In his perceptive book on Johnson, Professor W. J. Bate has rightly pointed out that Johnson's appreciation of literature was "meshed with the larger context of his writing on human life and experience itself," that "the growth in awareness, the process of enlightenment" was inextricably bound up with the process of "pleasing.'" Yet we may still ask, remembering Johnson's definite reservations about Shakespeare's seeming lack of "moral purpose," in what was this process of enlightenment thought specifically to consist? The answer to this question has also important implications for the accepted history of eighteenth-century Shakespearian criticism, though this will be less our concern here than Johnson's Own position. Professor R. W. Babcock, for example, in his study of Shakespeare idolatry, quotes Johnson's stricture on Shakespeare's moral purpose and contrasts his attitude with that of the later eighteenth century, when critics "became increasingly interested in the spectacle of Shakespeare as a moral philosopher .'" Such a reading of the plays was, however, current by Johnson's time, who merely adds the weight of his own response to a developing tradition. Yet because of his intense preoccupation with moral questions, Johnson's remarks have a special validity. He scrutinized Volume XXXVI, Number 2, January, 1967 142 JOHN HARDY characters, scenes, and even whole plays in a way unattempted by less discerning cridcs; and he showed what relevance such a reading of Shakespeare had both for others and for himself personally. As everybody knows, there was good neoclassical precedent for insisting on "instruction" as well as "delight." In the words of William Richardson, a late eighteenth-century cridc of Shakespeare, "moralists of all ages have recommended Poetry as an art no less instructive than amusing; tending at once to improve the heart, and entertain the fancy.'" Yet while poetry generally was expected to result in the instruction of men by pleasure, it was to the drama espeCially that critics increasingly looked for instruction. Because of its vividness, its inherent moral conRicts , its incidental precepts for human conduct, and, above all, its portrait of the human heart, the drama was assumed to make a deep impression on the moral sensibility of its audience. As Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu wrote in her Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear (I769): It is as a moral philosopher, not as the mere connoisseur in a polite art, that Aristotle gives the preference, above all other modes of poetic imitation, to tragedy . .. An epic poem is too abstruse for the people; the moral is tOO much enveloped, the language too elevated for their apprehension; nor have they leisure, or application, to trace the consequences of ill governed passions, or erroneous principles, through the long series of a voluminous work. The drama is happily constituted for this purpose. Events are brought within the compass of a short period: precepts are delivered in the familiar way of discourse : the fiction is concealed, the allegory is realized: and representation and action take the place of cold unaffecdng narration. A tragedy is a fable exhibited to the view, and rendered palpable to the senses . . . It is addressed to the imagination, through which it opens to itself a communication to the heart, where it is to excite certain passions and affections. (28...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 141-160
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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