Samuel Johnson is the best known literary figure of the Eighteenth Century, having made himself so in his own lifetime. He arose from poor origins, enduring years of grinding poverty, and by the strength of his literary efforts, unbelievable to us now considering his many handicaps, he became recognized as the literary lion of London in his later life. He is best known today for his Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, not the first dictionary of the English language, but the standard dictionary for many decades after its publication. In his own day he was best known as an essayist, particularly for his essays in magazines such as The Rambler, which he authored single-handedly for two years, The Adventurer, and The Idler. He was also famous for his two-volume Lives of the Poets, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, and his poetry. More than any of his works, he was famous for his conversation, particularly his bon mots, as they were known. He is one of the best known men of literary history, thanks to the greatest--and most engrossing--biography ever written in English, The Life of Samuel Johnson by his friend James Boswell (the elder).
Johnson first proposed to bring forth an edition of Shakespeare as early as 1745. He published Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, with Remarks on Sir T[homas] H[anmer]' s Edition of Shakespear, with a Specimen. There was no interest in a new edition at the time, Sir Thomas Hanmer's having been published in 1743-44, and Warburton's about to be published, as it was in 1747. Certainly Johnson had not acquired the celebrity or literary gravitas in 1745 that he was to achieve after The Rambler and his Dictionary, so nothing came of the 1745 proposal. It was not until after the publication of the Dictionary that Johnson once again turned his attention to a possible edition of Shakespeare. A subscription was advertised for it, and was purchased by many. Johnson's indolence, however, prevailed and he made little progress for years. In fact, it is said that he was shamed into carrying forth the project eventually by the poet Churchill, who published the following verses on the subject;
Johnson did receive an enormous amount in subscriptions personally, and when asked by Tonson to account for it said he could not, for two reasons: "I have lost all the names and spent all the money. It came in small portions, and departed in the same manner" he is reported to have said.
Johnson is famous among editors for recognizing the primacy of the First Folio as being nearest to authorial intent, but unfortunately he did not base his edition on it. According to Murphy, "...he based his text on an eclectic combination of Warburton's edition and the 1757 fourth edition of Theobald...[he] invested heavily in regularising the plays for his contemporary audience, providing, for instance, numerous additional stage directions to clarify the action...It was, as was no Shakespeare before it, a Shakespeare for the laity" (Shakespeare in Print, p. 83). Johnson, as high literary priest of the 18th Century, was the great explicator of the text.
Samuel Johnson, LL.D., was born in Lichfield, England, on September 18, 1709. His father was Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and Johnson's education was begun in the free school of that town. He displayed such evidences of a good mind that his father determined to send him to Pembroke College, Oxford. Here he went in October, 1728, and had a hard struggle to maintain himself, as his parents were poor and not able to help him much. His father died insolvent in 1731, and Johnson was compelled to leave college without taking his degree. He endeavored to support himself by accepting the position of usher in a school at Bosworth. He soon became dissatisfied with this, and went to Birmingham, where he occupied himself with the translation of The Travels of Lobo. In 1734 he issued proposals for a translation of the works of Politian, but met with no success. In 1736 he married Mrs. Porter, a widow, residing in Birmingham. She was older than Johnson, but had some money. With her help he opened a school at Edial, near Lichfield. He only obtained three pupils, two of whom were David Garrick and his brother. Being compelled to abandon this project, he determined to move to London, whither he went with David Garrick in March, 1731. Here he became acquainted with Mr. Cave, the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine. The same year he finished his tragedy of Irene, which he offered to the manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, but it was rejected. His main source of support was reporting the parliamentary debates. He also contributed to the Gentleman's Magazine a series of articles on the lives of eminent personages. In 1744 he published his Life of Richard Savage, and in 1747 issued his plan for his English Dictionary. He accepted proposals from certain booksellers who agreed to pay him £1575 for his work, and rented a house in Gough Square, London, where he employed six amanuenses. The Dictionary, which occupied him for eight years, appeared in 1755. In 1750 he commenced The Rambler, and about this time his tragedy of Irene, which had been produced under Garrick's protection proved a failure. The Idler appeared in the columns of the Universal Chronicle, a weekly newspaper, from April, 1758 to April, 1760. Rasselas, which was written to pay for his mother's funeral, brought him £100. In 1762 he was granted an annual pension of 300 by King George III. The University of Dublin conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws in 1765; and in 1775 the University of Oxford gave him a like degree. In 1773 he went to Scotland, and wrote A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland. His last work of importance, The Lives of the English Poets, was commenced in 1777, and completed in 1781. He died December 13, 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, near David Garrick's grave.
Johnson intended to publish an edition of Shakespeare as far back as 1745, and in that year issued Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, with Remarks on Sir T[homas] H[anmer]' s Edition of Shakespear, with a Specimen. Not meeting with any encouragement he abandoned the project, but in 1756 he again took it up. In that year he issued Proposals for printing, by subscription, the Dramatick Works of W. Shakspear, corrected and illustrated by Sam. Johnson. Of these Proposals Boswell says : " He showed that he perfectly well knew what variety of research such an undertaking required, but his indolence prevented him from pursuing it with that diligence which alone can collect those scattered facts that genius, however acute, penetrating, and luminous, cannot discover by its own force." Johnson got a number of subscribers, and appears to have received money from them, but the book was unreasonably delayed in its publication, and was not issued until 1765. In the meanwhile Churchill had written his keen satire, which probably caused Johnson to hasten the publication of his work :
The progress of the preparation and printing of the work was very slow, and yet Johnson had expected, when he commenced in 1756, that he would have it finished during the next year. Boswell tells us that some of the volumes were printed in 1758, but time rolled on and still the book did not appear. Johnson's bad eye-sight may have had much to do with this delay, but his indolence was probably more chargeable with it.
He had announced that his edition would be founded on a collation of the old copies, and he made use of Garrick's library, which contained many of these rarities. When his edition finally appeared, instead of acknowledging his indebtedness to Garrick in this particular, he makes the following remark in his preface : "I collated such copies as I could procure, and wished for more, but have not found the collectors of these rarities very communicative." Johnson was very careless in his treatment of books, and this unenviable reputation which he had acquired probably had much to do with the matter of which he complains.
The work was however finally finished, and was published in eight volumes octavo. The first title-page of Volume I, reads thus :
The paper on which it is printed is of poor quality, and the printing not at all good. The notes are arranged in double columns at the bottom of the page. Prefixed to the first volume is an engraving by G. Vertue, from the Chandos portrait.
Johnson printed his edition from Warburton's. A preface of seventy-two pages follows the second title-page in the first volume, and is undoubtedly the best part of the work. It is exceedingly well written, and few writers on Shakespeare have produced a better essay than Johnson's preface. His criticisms on the editors who preceded him in editing the poet are, on the whole, very just, and he clearly points out the merits and faults of each. He is however unfair in what he says about Theobald, and somewhat too laudatory in his remarks concerning Warburton. Posterity has not agreed with the learned Doctor in his estimate of these two editors.
Of his notes he says:
Of conjectural criticism he very truly says:
Never have the dangers of conjectural criticism been more forcibly or better set forth. And what he says about notes in general is also very true:
This is certainly wise advice. The whole of his preface is, however, admirable, and is by far the most valuable part of his edition. After the preface comes the dedication and preface of Heminge and Condell from the First Folio ; then the prefaces of Pope, Theobald and Warburton, and Rowe's life of Shakespeare. Following these are the grant of arms to John Shakespeare, the poet's will, a short account of a story concerning Shakespeare's life furnished to Pope by Rowe, and Ben Jonson's lines commencing
Then come the plays, which are not printed in the order that they occupy in the First Folio, nor do they seem to be arranged in any chronological order either, for first is printed The Tempest, then A Midsummer Night's Dream, followed by The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Measure for Measure. The comedies, histories and tragedies, are, however, grouped together.
The Sonnets and Poems are not given. In this Johnson followed the example set by Rowe, Pope, Theobald, and Warburton, in their edition of the poet's works.
Johnson printed many of the notes of Pope, Theobald and Warburton entire, and gave the names of their writers, thus making his edition practically the first which partook of a variorum character. This plan seems to have been a very popular one for it was followed by many succeeding editors, and finally developed into the regular variorum edition wherein one line of text often suffices for many pages of notes.
His text is better than Warbuton's, because he relegated many of the latter's emendations to the notes, and gave more readings from the old copies; but still it is not a good text, and some of his proposed emendations are ludicrous. In As You Like It, III, v, 7, Silvius says to Phebe,
Johnson proposes to read:
Certainly this was not worthy of Samuel Johnson.
At the end of many of the plays Johnson has a short note giving his opinion of the merits of the drama he is discussing. Concerning Cymbeline he says :
No word of praise for Imogen, one of Shakespeare's loveliest creations!
At the end of the eighth volume there is printed an appendix, giving additional notes by Warton, Hawkins, Gray, Holt, Steevens, Heath, Goldsmith, and others; and there is also given a list of editions of the plays.
Johnson received £480 for his editorial work on his Shakespeare. It is fortunate that his literary reputation does not depend upon his edition of the poet. It is not worthy of so great a man as Samuel Johnson undoubtedly was.
In 1765 W. Kenrick published A Review of Doctor Johnson's New Edition of Shakespeare, in which great bitterness is shown in discussing the work under consideration.
In 1768 a second edition of Johnson's Shakespeare appeared. It is better printed than the first edition, and the paper is better, but it is a mere reprint of the latter. Even the appendix, containing additional notes, which appeared in the first edition is reprinted verbatim in this second one, without taking the trouble to insert them in their proper places.