Preface to Shakespeare, by Samuel Johnson

Romeo and Juliet

ACT I. SCENE ii. (I. i. 181 foll.)

Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate! &c.

Of these lines neither the sense nor occasion is very evident. He is not yet in love with an enemy, and to love one and hate another is no such uncommon state, as can deserve all this toil of antithesis.

ACT I. SCENE iii. (I. ii. 25.)

Earth-treading stars that make dark HEAVEN’s light.

This nonsense should be reformed thus,

Earth-treading stars that make dark EVEN light.
— Warburton.

But why nonsense? Is anything more commonly said, than that beauties eclipse the sun? Has not Pope the thought and the word?

Sol through white curtains shot a tim’rous ray,
And ope’d those eyes that must eclipse the day.

Both the old and the new reading are philosophical nonsense, but they are both, and both equally poetical sense.

ACT I. SCENE iii. (I. ii. 26–8.)

Such comfort as do lusty young men feel,
When well-apparel’d April on the heel
Of limping winter treads.

To say, and to say in pompous words, that a “young man shall feel” as much in an assembly of beauties, “as young men feel in the month of April,” is surely to waste sound upon a very poor sentiment. I read, Such comfort as do lusty YEOMEN feel. You shall feel from the sight and conversation of these ladies such hopes of happiness and such pleasure, as the farmer receives from the spring, when the plenty of the year begins, and the prospect of the harvest fills him with delight.

ACT I. SCENE iv. (l. iii. 92.)

That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.

The “golden story” is perhaps the “golden legend”, a book in the darker ages of popery much read, and doubtless often exquisitely embellished, but of which Canus, one of the popish doctors, proclaims the author to have been homo ferrei oris, plumbei cordis.

ACT I. SCENE vi. (1. v. 34.)

Good cousin Capulet.

This cousin Capulet is “unkle” in the paper of invitation, but as Capulet is described as old, “cousin” is probably the right word in both places. I know not how Capulet and his lady might agree, their ages were very disproportionate; he has been past masking for thirty years, and her age, as she tells Juliet is but eight and twenty.

ACT I. CHORUS. (II. PROLOGUE.)

The use of this chorus is not easily discovered, it conduces nothing to the progress of the play, but relates what is already known or what the next scenes will shew; and relates it without adding the improvement of any moral sentiment.

ACT II. SCENE vi. (ii. vi. 15.)

Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

He that travels too fast is as long before he comes to the end of his journey, as he that travels slow.

Precipitation produces mishap.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 2.)

The day is hot.

It is observed that in Italy almost all assassinations are committed during the heat of summer.

ACT III. SCENE iii. (III. i. 183.)

Affection makes him false.

The charge of falshood on Bentivolio, though produced at hazard, is very just. The authour, who seems to intend the character of Bentiolio as good, meant perhaps to shew, how the best minds, in a state of faction and discord, are detorted to criminal partiality.

ACT III. SCENE viii. (III. v. 84.)

And, yet, no Man like he doth grieve my heart.

Juliet’s equivocations are rather too artful for a mind disturbed by the loss of a new lover.

ACT IV. SCENE iii. (IV. iii. 2–3.)

Leave me to myself to-night;
For I have need of many orisons.

Juliet plays most of her pranks under the appearance of religion: perhaps Shakespeare meant to punish her hypocrisy.

ACT V. SCENE i. (V. i. 3.)

My bosom’s Lord sits lightly on this throne, &c.

These three lines are very gay and pleasing. But why does Shakespeare give Romeo this involuntary cheerfulness just before the extremity of unhappiness? Perhaps to shew the vanity of trusting to those uncertain and casual exaltations or depressions, which many consider as certain foretokens of good and evil.

ACT V. SCENE v. (v. iii. 229.)

FRIAR. I will be brief.

It is much to be lamented that the Poet did not conclude the dialogue with the action, and avoid a narrative of events which the audience already knew. This play is one of the most pleasing of our Author’s performances. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents numerous and important, the catastrophe irresistably affecting and the process of the action carried on with such probability at least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires.

Here is one of the few attempts of Shakespeare to exhibit the conversation of gentlemen, to represent the airy sprightliness of juvenile elegance. Mr. Dryden mentions a tradition which might easily reach his time, of a declaration made by Shakespeare, that he was obliged to kill Mercutio in the third act, lest he should have been killed by him. Yet he thinks him no such formidable person, but that he might have lived through the play, and died in his bed, without danger to a poet. Dryden well knew, had he been in quest of truth, that, in a pointed sentence, more regard is commonly had to the word than the thought, and that it is very seldom to be rigorously understood. Mercutio’s wit, gaiety and courage, will always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his death is not precipitated, he has lived out the time allotted him in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of Shakespeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are perhaps out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime.

The Nurse is one of the characters in which the Authour delighted: he has, with great subtility of distinction, drawn her at once loquacious and secret, obsequious and insolent, trusty and dishonest.

His comick scenes are happily wrought, but his pathetick strains are always polluted with some unexpected depravations. His persons, however distressed, HAVE A CONCEIT LEFT THEM IN THEIR MISERY, A MISERABLE CONCEIT.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38