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Notes to Shakespeare, Volume III: The Tragedies by Johnson, Samuel, 1709-1784

Notes to Shakespeare, Volume III: The Tragedies by Johnson, Samuel, 1709-1784

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SAMUEL JOHNSON
SAMUEL JOHNSON
1
NOTES TO SHAKESPEARE
Vol. III
Tragedies
Edited, with an Introduction, by Arthur Sherbo

Los Angeles
William Andrews Clark Memorial Library
University of California

1958
GENERAL EDITORS
Richard C. Boys, University of Michigan
Ralph Cohen, University of California, Los Angeles
Vinton A. Dearing, University of California, Los Angeles
Lawrence Clark Powell, Clark Memorial Library
ASSISTANT EDITOR
W. Earl Britton, University of Michigan
ADVISORY EDITORS
Emmett L. Avery, State College of Washington
Benjamin Boyce, Duke University
Louis Bredvold, University of Michigan
John Butt, King's College, University of Durham
James L. Clifford, Columbia University
Arthur Friedman, University of Chicago
Louis A. Landa, Princeton University
Samuel H. Monk, University of Minnesota
Ernest C. Mossner, University of Texas
James Sutherland, University College, London

NOTES TO SHAKESPEARE
2

H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., University of California, Los Angeles
CORRESPONDING SECRETARY
Edna C. Davis, Clark Memorial Library

Introduction on Tragedies

Dr. Johnson's reaction to Shakespeare's tragedies is a curious one, compounded as it is of deep emotional
involvement in a few scenes in some plays and a strange dispassionateness toward most of the others. I
suspect that his emotional involvement took root when he read Shakespeare as a boy\u2014one remembers the
terror he experienced in reading of the Ghost inHamlet, and it was probably also as a boy that he suffered that
shock of horrified outrage and grief at the death of Cordelia that prevented him from rereading the scene until
be came to edit the play. Johnson's deepest feelings and convictions, Professor Clifford has recently reminded
us, can be traced back to his childhood and adolescence. But it is surprising to learn, as one does from his
commentary, that other scenes in these very plays (Hamlet and King Lear, and inMacbeth, too) leave him
unmoved, if one can so interpret the absence of any but an explanatory note on, say, Lear's speech beginning
"Pray, do not mock me;/I am a very foolish fond old man." Besides this negative evidence there is also the
positive evidence of many notes which display the dispassionate editorial mind at work where one might
expect from Johnson an outburst of personal feeling. There are enough of these outbursts to warrant our
expecting others, but we are too frequently disappointed. Perhaps Johnson thought of most of Shakespeare's
tragedies as "imperial tragedies" and that is why he could maintain a stance of aloofness; conversely, "the play
ofTimon is a domestick Tragedy, and therefore strongly fastens on the attention of the reader." But the
"tragedy" of Timon does not capture the attention of the modern reader, and perhaps all attempts to fix
Johnson's likes and dislikes, and the reasons for them, in the canon of Shakespeare's plays must circle
endlessly without ever getting to their destination.

TRAGEDIES
Vol. IV
MACBETH
(392) Most of the notes which the present editor has subjoined to this play were published by him in a small
pamphlet in 1745.

I.i (393,*) Enter three Witches] In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it it
always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet who should
now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the
assistance of supernatural agents, would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability, be banished
from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies; but a survey of the
notions that prevailed at the time when this play was written, will prove that Shakespeare was in no danger of
such censures, since he only turned the system that was then universally admitted, to his advantage, and was
far from overburthening the credulity of his audience.

The reality of witchcraft or enchantment, which, though not strictly the same, are confounded in this play, has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most, by the learned themselves. These phantoms have indeed appeared more frequently, in proportion as the darkness of ignorance has been more

Samuel Johnson: Notes to Shakespeare.
Edited, with an Introduction, by Arthur Sherbo
3

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