Why Did Johnson Write A Biography Of Shakespeare

A Statue of Shakespeare Johnson is known for his obsession with biography. In his Rambler No. 60, Johnson even claims “[he] often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful” (182). Curiously, Shakespeare seems to be one of the few exceptions. In his “Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare” (referred to as “Preface to Shakespeare" below), Johnson does not show any interest in Shakespeare’s life. Nor did Johnson write a biography of Shakespeare elsewhere. Johnson did not write about the life of Shakespeare maybe because he could not. In the same Rambler essay, Johnson writes that “the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such …show more content…
If Johnson writes about Shakespeare’s life, the narrative is only about one person. However, Johnson notes that a character in Shakespeare’s play “is commonly a species” rather than “an individual”, and “it is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction is derived” (301). For Johnson, characters of Shakespeare’s plays are more instructive than the personal character of Shakespeare, and hence the more important project is to edit Shakespeare’s plays rather than to write about his life. Yet, Johnson could still write about the life of Shakespeare elsewhere, even if it is far less instructive than Shakespeare’s plays. The absence of biographical narrative anywhere can only be attributed to Johnson’s lack of interest in Shakespeare’s life. The reason for Johnson’s unusual indifference I am going to propose pertains to Shakespeare’s identity and Johnson’s actual role in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays, that Johnson does not merely edit Shakespeare’s plays, but creates his own new …show more content…
What makes Johnson frightened is the actualization of what he proposes in his Rambler No. 156, that “instead of vindicating tragicomedy by the success of Shakespeare, we ought perhaps to pay new honors to that transcendent and unbounded genius” (208). Johnson uses the phrase “new honor” again in “Preface to Shakespeare”, but in a different context. At the beginning of the preface, Johnson informs readers that “as [Shakespeare’s plays] devolved from one generation to another, have received new honors at every transmission” (300). Between the time Johnson wrote Rambler No. 156 and the time he wrote “Preface to Shakespeare”, Johnson became convinced that new honors not only should be paid, but also have been paid to Shakespeare’s plays for generations. This similar change of thought happens elsewhere. While in his proposal, Johnson regards Shakespeare as the “father of our drama” in the context that in his edition he would include all that “[exhibits] whatever is hitherto known of the great father of the English drama” (119). Johnson refers to Shakespeare again in the preface, yet in the context that “if we endured without praising, respect for the father of our drama might excuse us” (321). After Johnson spent nine years editing Shakespeare’s plays, he realized that Shakespeare

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