Preface to Shakespeare

Samuel Johnson
Preface to Shakespeare

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Title: Preface to Shakespeare
Author: Samuel Johnson
Release Date: April, 2004 [EBook #5429] [Yes, we are more than one
year ahead of schedule] [This file was first posted on July 18, 2002]
Edition: 10

Language: English
Character set encoding: ASCII

Steve Harris, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading

Together with selected notes on some of the plays
By Samuel Johnson
[Johnson published his annotated edition of Shakespeare's Plays in

PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE Some of the notes to Measure for
Measure Henry IV Henry V King Lear Romeo and Juliet Hamlet

That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the
honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint
likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing
to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who,
being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are
willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter
themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last
bestowed by time.
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind,
has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from
prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been
long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes
co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past
than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the
shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity. The

great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the
beauties of the ancients. While an authour is yet living we estimate his
powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we rate them by
his best.
To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite,
but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles
demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and
experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and
continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have
often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the
possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion
in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a
river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many
mountains and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing
can be stiled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the
same kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has
nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and
experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and
collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of
endeavours. Of the first building that was raised, it might be with
certainty determined that it was round or square, but whether it was
spacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean
scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of
Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human
intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century
after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his
incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore
not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages,
or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the
consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has
been longest known has been most considered, and what is most
considered is
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