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Demerits of Shakespeare according to Dr. Samuel Johnson


If Shakespeare has his excellence, he has his faults too, and his faults can by no means be lightly dismissed. Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784) in his book “Preface to Shakespeare”, firstly considers the excellence of Shakespeare, then turns to his defects, and then defends him from his violation of the three unities (time, place and action).

A literary party, 1781, of Johnson (second from left) and other members of "The Club".

A literary party, 1781, of Johnson (second from left) and other members of "The Club".

Demerits of Shakespeare according to Dr. Samuel Johnson

(1) Virtue sacrificed to convenience:

His first defect is that he sacrifices virtue to convenience. He carries his characters indifferently through right or wrong, and at the end dismisses them without further attention, leaving their examples to operate by chance. This fault is serious because of the fact that it is always a writer's duty to make the world morally better.

(2) Carelessness about plot development:

Secondly, Shakespeare's plots are often very loosely formed and carelessly developed. He neglects opportunities of giving instruction or pleasure which the development of the plot provides to him. In many of his plays the latter part does not receive much of his attention.

(3) Anachronism/ Violation of chronology:

Thirdly, fault in Shakespeare's plays is anachronism — his violation of chronology. Shakespeare shows no regard to distinction of time or place. Thus we find Hector quoting Aristotle in ‘Troilus and Cressida, and the love of Theseus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothic mythology of fairies in A Mid-Summer Night's Dream.

(4) Coarseness of comic dialogues:

Fourthly, Shakespeare's plays also have faults of dialogue and diction. His comic scenes are seldom very successful when representing witty exchanges between characters.

(5) Excessive labor produces undesired effects in the tragic plays:

Fifthly, his tragic plays become worse in proportion to the labor he spends on them. Whenever he strains himself to produce effects, the result is tediousness, and obscurity.

(6) Verbosity and prolixity of words:

Sixthly, his narration shows an undue pomp of diction and unnecessary repetition. He uses more words than are necessary to describe an incident.

(7) Flamboyant speeches and inflated vocabulary:

Seventhly, the set speeches in some of his plays are dispiriting, cold and feeble. Sometimes the language is intricate even when the thought is not subtle, or the line is bulky though the image is not great. Sometimes trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas are expressed through high-sounding and inflated vocabulary.

(8) Losing intensity to feebleness:

Eighthly, what he does best, he soon ceases to do. Shakespeare cuts short his own highest excellence in arousing tragic feelings by the spectacle of the fall of a great man, or the misfortune of an innocent character, or a disappointment in love. The result is that the intense feelings aroused by him suddenly lose their intensity and become feeble.

(9) Weakness for quibbles and craze for Puns:

Lastly, Shakespeare could never resist a quibble. Whatever be the occasion of the dialogue, whether the situation is amusing or tense, Shakespeare seizes the opportunity of employing a pun.

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(10) Shakespeare’s violation of three unities:

Shakespeare's violation of the unities is not a defect:

There is one practice in Shakespeare's writing of dramas which is regarded by critics as a defect but which is really not a defect. This practice is his neglect of the unities of time and place.

In neglecting these unities, Shakespeare violated a law which had been established and recognized jointly by dramatists and critics.

But it is possible to defend Shakespeare for this violation of the law. His history plays do not, of course, come under the purview of this law because of their very nature and because time and place must keep changing in plays of this kind.

In his other plays, Shakespeare has largely preserved what is known as the unity of action. Although, being the dramatist of nature, Shakespeare does not unfold any hidden design of the story in his plays; his story has generally a beginning, a middle, and an end, as required by Aristotle.

There is a logical connection between incident and incident, and the conclusion follows naturally. Some incidents may be superfluous, but the plot as a whole develops gradually and naturally, and the end of the play marks also the end of our expectation.

Shakespeare's neglect of the unities of time and place:

Shakespeare neglects the unities of time and place. These unities have been held in high esteem since the time of Corneille. But a close examination of the principles on which these unities stand will show that they are not of much use.


we can say after above discussion that Johnson's criticism on Shakespeare and his plays were not merely passionate but intuitive also.


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Kulvinder on May 19, 2018:

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Anshuman Boruah on October 31, 2017:

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Vinita on June 15, 2017:

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Kiran yadav on March 06, 2017:

Amazing practise for a literature student.

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