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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell.

§ 22. Johnson’s Edition of Shakespeare: value of its Text and Notes.


There was nothing new in Johnson’s methods as an editor. He aimed only at doing better what had been done already, and produced an edition of the old fashion at a time when the science of Shakespearean editing was about to make a distinct advance. 23  But he had qualifications sometimes wanting in editors with more painful habits or more ostentatious equipment—a good knowledge of Elizabethan English, and imperturbable common sense. Like almost every text of Shakespeare that had yet appeared, or was to appear till our own day, it was based on the text of the most recent edition. What he sent to the printer was Warburton’s text revised. But he worked on the “settled principle that the reading of the ancient books is probably true,” and learned to distrust conjecture. His collation was never methodical; his weak eyesight was a serious hindrance to an exacting task. But he restored many of the readings of the first folio, and, carrying on the system of combination that had been started by Pope, was the first to detect and admit many of the readings of the quartos. He produced a text which, with all its shortcomings, was nearer the originals than any that had yet appeared. Some of his emendations, which are always modest and occasionally minute, find an unsuspected place in our modern editions. Though his text has long been superseded, the advance of scholarship will never impair the value of his notes. It was a proud boast that not a single passage in the whole work had appeared to him corrupt which he had not endeavoured to restore, or obscure which he had not endeavoured to illustrate; and it did not go beyond the truth. No edition, within its limits, is a safer guide to Shakespeare’s meaning. The student who searches the commentators for help in difficulties, soon learns to go straight to Johnson’s note as the firm land of common sense in a sea of ingenious fancies. The same robust honesty gives the preface a place by itself among critical pronouncements on Shakespeare. He did not hesitate to state what he believed to be Shakespeare’s faults. Yet Shakespeare remained to him the greatest of English authors, and the only author worthy to be ranked with Homer. He, also, vindicated the liberties of the English stage. After conforming to the “unities” in his own Irene, and then suggesting his doubts of them in The Rambler, he now proved that they are “not essential to a just drama.” The guiding rule in his criticism was that “there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature.” A generation later, the French “romantics” found their case stated in his preface, and they did not better what they borrowed. 24    36

Note 23. Cf. ante, Vol. V, pp. 305 ff. [ back ]
Note 24. Johnson’s examination of the “unities” is translated word for word in Beyle, Henri, Racine et Shakespeare (1822). See Johnson on Shakespeare by Raleigh, Sir Walter (1908), and Stendhal et l’Angleterre, by Gunnell, Doris (1909). [ back ]

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