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"David Garrick as Richard III" (1745) by William Hogarth

Samuel Johnson knew why Shakespeare's plays were so popular. The guiding principle was clear: "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature." For Johnson, Shakespeare's popularity rested on the fact that his writings embodied that principle more richly and more fully than did those of any other author:

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. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply and observation will always find.

For more than 200 years after Johnson wrote those words in 1765 that view of the foundation of Shakespeare's greatness as a writer more or less prevailed. Of course, Shakespearean criticism did not remain static during those centuries. Romantic critics reacted against Johnson, and were reacted against in their turn by the Victorians. The character-based criticism associated with A. C. Bradley was challenged by the rise in the mid-20th century of a criticism that put poetic coherence above psychological realism. But all these successive critical phases had in common the assumption that Shakespeare's plays addressed human questions of perennial importance, and that it was the task of the critic to explain how they did so by revealing what the plays seemed to say about those questions. So when Derek Traversi wrote in the conclusion to his influential An Approach to Shakespeare that "Shakespeare's ‘problem' (if we may use so self-conscious a word) is that of imparting order and poetic significance to the keenly felt but separate elements of human experience", it is easy to see how that formulation reached back to Johnson, by way perhaps of the Arnoldian notion of poetry as a "criticism of life".

However, the advent of theory in the last decades of the 20th century drove from the field that way of thinking about how and why great literature holds our attention. Suddenly all the commonsensical ideas about language and literature which had seemed so unproblematic that one could safely treat them as axioms — that works of literature had discoverable (albeit often complex) meanings, that language was a system of signification which referred to things outside itself — were derided as mere prejudices. In fact, both sides of Johnson's memorable phrase — "just representations of general nature" — were put under devastating pressure by theory. These theoretical critiques sought to unmask the idea of a "just representation" as a delusion. According to the theorists, literature (and indeed language) could do nothing more than point mournfully to its own impotence as representation. Delusional, too, was the concept of a "general nature". Politically-minded critics took pleasure in showing how what we had been offered as the "natural' tended to be socially-constructed in deference to dominant, oppressive, usually male and white, social interests. And since those interests were themselves not timeless, no more timeless were the fictions of the natural that they created.

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ulric thiede
March 3rd, 2015
4:03 PM
when a theatre producer thinks to be smarter than Shakespeare, he will follow hos own queer ideas and not the lines of the author. That's why most Shakespeare productions in Germany show rather more the limited mind of the producers than the spirit from the words of Shakespeare. The last to master Shakespeare was the legendary Gustaf Gründgens in his time.

January 21st, 2015
3:01 PM
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre productions at Stratford used to be the best productions but now they are the worst as most of the producers want to show off their smartness and ignore Shakespeare. My wife and I gritted our teeth at the film shown on stage in the production of JULIUS CAESAR; we tried to ignore the fairies in THE DREAM made to look like tarts; but we finally gave in at the production of MUCH ADO that featured mobile phones. If you want to see good Shakespeare productions in England my tip is to go to a school production. This is also a way of finding a good school: if a secondary age school never does a Shakespearean producer you know you have found a bad school.

Eric Brinkman
January 19th, 2015
8:01 PM
I was really interested to read this article, both for its historical scope and focus on Shakespeare. I'm studying Shakespeare and Theatre right now in a masters program at the Shakespeare Institute, so the popularity of Shakespeare is particularly relevant. I have noticed that there is a cadre of academics who seem intent on pulling Shakespeare down, based on the specious idea that if one thing is not true then the opposite must be true. For example, if Shakespeare's fame is due in part to his being force fed to thousands of students of the British commonwealth, then if we (English departments) forced fed, say for example, Middleton to students then Middleton would be as popular and as loved as Shakespeare. I've read Middleton, and he's written some nice things, but he's no Shakespeare. I just finished reading an interesting book, if people want to follow up, called "Shakespeare's Thinking" by Phillip Davis. It's bit on the erudite side, but if you think all academics think Shakespeare doesn't speak to any age, then you might try reading his book. From my side, I do think part of Shakespeare's appeal is his universal humanity. Of course, that has caveats, and it's not true of all people in all circumstances. But that doesn't conversely mean that it can't be true of most people in many circumstances. "Shakespeare is a Black Woman" --Maya Angelou

January 13th, 2015
10:01 PM
'Modern scholarship is not returning to a Johnsonian model...'. So much the worse for modern scholarship. That's why it lacks both the common sense and the common touch that binds Shakespeare to common people in all ages.

January 4th, 2015
6:01 PM
Perhaps Shakespeare's popularity is due to his ability to tell terrific stories using the greatest prose ever written.

Fred White
January 4th, 2015
2:01 PM
Samuel Johnson was dead right, and the validity of his matchless take on Shakespeare is just as clear in the response of "the common reader [or viewer]" uninfected by "theory" today as it has been for four hundred years. As for "theory," a book called "After Theory" was already out twenty years ago. For as Johnson said, "the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can repose only on the stability of truth." "Theory" was "stuff and nonsense" which will be as fashionable in fifty years as Victorian sentimentality and moralism are today.

January 2nd, 2015
5:01 PM
Johnson was a true genius so I'll just reinforce his sentiments. Here we are in the 21st Century and no writer can even approach the influence and resonance of Shakespeare. Clearly, he'd be one of my 5 dinner guests, along with Teddy Roosevelt (said to be hilarious), Oscar Wilde, Churchill and Brando. Note, English speakers only for my limitation and characters that were reputed to be interesting and dynamic in person, not just impressively talented.

January 1st, 2015
4:01 PM
By quoting Johnson's praise of Shakespeare's generalizing and his notion of a "common humanity", this paean to the Bard takes an immediate pratfall. I am in According to Blake, "To generalize is to be an Idiot", and one needn't be a PoMo theorist in order to agree with him. Also, it's funny to see "pyrronhism" used a sneer term.

Ramesh RaghuvanshiAnonymous
December 30th, 2014
11:12 AM
We still loves Shakespeare because we intimated with his characters passionately.We see our emotions expressed in his plays We experiences our life replayed in his dramas.

Shalom Freedman
December 30th, 2014
6:12 AM
The incredible beauty and originality of the language, the presentation of characters of such great variety and human interest, the play of meaning endlessly rich, the touching of every emotion of the human heart- greatness in literature that makes life itself greater than any reader or spectator could hae known without him.

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