The Works of William Shakespeare

Johnson first planned to edit the plays of Shakespeare in 1745, when he published his Observations on Macbeth as a specimen of the edition he hoped to produce. For a number of reasons, mostly legal, the edition was abandoned shortly thereafter. But with the Dictionary complete in 1755, Johnson once again turned his attention to Shakespeare. His work was irregular, but finally appeared in an eight-volume edition in 1765.

Johnson's Preface to the Shakespeare edition is one of his most famous pieces of writing, and has long dominated discussions of the entire edition. It is indeed one of his most interesting works, but a number of critics (most notably Arthur Sherbo) have reminded readers that much of what appears in the Preface is thoroughly conventional, and have insisted that Johnson's really interesting work appears in his notes.


The standard edition is Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, vols. VII and VIII of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968). Sherbo reproduces only Johnson's original notes, not the text of the plays. You can get the original eight-volume Works of William Shakespeare in a facsimile from AMS Press, and that can be handy; but be sure to consult Sherbo's edition, since he carefully identifies which notes are Johnson's and which are simply borrowed from earlier critics.

The Preface appears in nearly every anthology of Johnson's critical writing, either whole or in part.


See the general works on Johnson's criticism — Hagstrum, Keast, Hinnant — in the bibliography to the Lives of the Poets. More specific works are listed below: Sherbo's is the most authoritative, if not always the most engaging.

This is part of a Guide to Samuel Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.