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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Samuel Johnson and Shakespeare (and Jane Austen)

Elissa Schiff wrote a marvelous reply to my last post over the weekend about Samuel Johnson's attitude toward Shakespeare, to which I reply as follows:

[Elissa] "Well it would seem that the best parallel in Johnson's Prologue to befound [and how ironic a parallel it is] is that of Johnson, the classical scholar, to Marc Antony in Shakespeare's great eulogy to Caesar when Antony proclaims he has come "to bury Caesar" but "not to praise him." Johnson, as you have noted, spends much ink doing quite the reverse for Shakespeare - praising him for 3/4 of the text, but then criticizing mightily."

Indeed, it is an extremely ironic parallel, well done, Elissa, for that sharp insight!

And what makes it even more ironic is that Johnson's capsule reaction to the play Julius Caesar was that it left him cold---but, apparently, not so cold as to prevent his imitating Antony, as you also point out. An interesting question is, did Johnson realize he was imitating Antony, or was it unconscious?

[Elissa] "With the perspective of over 250 years, we can see the absurdity of Johnson lecturing Shakespeare on the art of dramatic writing, the plays' lack of thematic morality, or of stagecraft in general."

Absurdity is the only word that fits Johnson's sneaky trashing of Shakespeare. And what's noteworthy is how, just as the Roman mob is totally taken in by Antony's casuistry, so too have generations of readers of Johnson's Preface been totally taken in by Johnson's casuistry. Or maybe they just skipped over that portion of the Preface. Somehow, they've managed to avoid registering the plain meaning of Johnson's plain words.

And take note again, neither Ellen, nor anyone else who disagrees with the way you and I read that harshly critical portion of Johnson's Preface, has come forward with _any_ quotation from the rest of his Preface which in any way undoes it--because no such passage exists in the rest of the Preface. And indeed it would have been bizarre if Johnson has trashed Shakespeare on one page, and then undid it on the next.

[Elissa] "With respect to prose writing, certainly Johnson was a great rhetorical stylist."

Which does tend to suggest that Johnson knew he was channeling Mark Antony.

[Elissa] "Certainly personally he was a great character - in that sense, we may even say the greatest personage of his age in London. Perhaps the probable Tourette syndrome from which he most likely suffered also affected the censorship regions of his brain, and this is what led to his often outrageous statements. Who can say. But he was definitely a poseur - a great performer."

No question, he was a major figure--and JA was a subtle enough psychologist to recognize Johnson's gifts, without being blinded to his severe faults, especially in his hypocrisies vis a vis women. That made him a very apt allusive source for her--as I said before, she was simultaneously fascinated and appalled by powerful men behaving badly.

[Elissa] "So in the end, it is probably just that he lies interred in Westminster Abbey next to Garrick."

Reviewing my files this past week reminded me of _another_ good reason for Johnson and Garrick to lie side by side--Johnson was Garrick's childhood tutor! Which almost turns Johnson's criticisms of Shakespeare into a very ironic sort of literary family feud, given that Garrick was the person who single handedly raised Shakespeare to the level of national icon.

Another irony that JA, who of course has Mr. Woodhouse quote Garrick's sexually-perverted Riddle, would have been well aware of.

Cheers, ARNIE

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