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
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.
- D. Nichol Smith, Shakespeare in the Eighteenth
Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928).
- Arthur M. Eastman, "Johnson's Shakespearean Labors in 1765,"
MLN, 63 (December 1948), 512-15. Dry, but contains important
- Arthur Sherbo, Samuel Johnson, Editor of Shakespeare
(Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1956). Dry, but essential
reading, and the foundation of most criticism that came
afterwards. Sherbo drew critical attention away from its
exclusive attention to the Preface and turned it toward the
notes to the plays.
- R. E. Scholes, "Dr. Johnson and the Bibliographical Criticism of
Shakespeare," Shakespeare Quarterly, 11 (Spring 1960), 225-28.
- R. D. Stock, Samuel Johnson and Neo-Classical Dramatic
Theory (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1973).
- Peter Seary, "The Early Editors of Shakespeare and the
Judgment of Johnson," in Johnson After Two Hundred Years,
ed. Paul J. Korshin (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press,
1986), pp. 175-86.
- G. F. Parker, Johnson's Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford
Univ. Press, 1989).
- Edward Tomarken, Johnson on Shakespeare: The Choice of
Criticism (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1991).
- Simon Jarvis, Scholars and Gentlemen: Shakespearian
Textual Criticism and Representations of Scholarly Labour, 1725-1765
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) does a good job of putting
Johnson's Shakespeare in its context.
- Margreta de Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim: The
Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790
Apparatus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991). De Grazia
focuses on Malone's edition, not Johnson's, and (I argue)
misrepresents much of Johnson's work. But it's a
thought-provoking book on late eighteenth-century Shakespearean
criticism and textual work.
This is part of a Guide to Samuel
Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.