Shakespeare and the Three Unities by Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare‘s works is a landmark in the history of publications of the great Elizabethan master not merely for the way he made the texts, accessible eighteenth-century century audience, but also for his critical interventions and views that set this edition apart from the others that preceded it. In effect, his “Preface” to the edition of Shakespeare occupies a special place in the history of English criticism.
In his “Preface” Johnson looks at a variety of issues associated with Shakespeare: his life, his dramatic output, the nature of his plays, his contribution to the different genres, his departures from conventions, and his practice in the context of his time.
Johnson’s assessment of the critical reception of Shakespeare shows his great acumen, for which he was able to relate and contextualize the works of Shakespeare in terms of their stature as plays beyond the time in which they were produced.
In reading Shakespeare as the master playwright who had major lessons for the eighteenth-century audience, Johnson looks at the aesthetic inheritance to which the Elizabethan was indebted, and how he moved ahead of it to create that was unmistakably his.
This delineation of the unique Shakespearean stamp that is attested by his adoption of certain modes in writing involves the famous Johnsonian analysis of the ‘unities’ in Shakespeare. The debate on the signiﬁcance of the unities in drama dates back to Aristotle who referred to the ‘unity of action’ as the crucial component of a tragedy; in subsequent periods, other writers have expanded the ambit of the discussion on the unities and its relevance for the theatre.
One of the reasons behind the emphasis on the unities in drama concerns the credibility thesis, which Johnson presents quite clearly in the course of his discussion:’ “The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. The critics hold it impossible, that an action of months or years can be possibly believed to pass in three hours; or that the spectator can suppose himself to sit in the theatre, while ambassadors go and return between distant king‘s, While armies are levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders and returns, or till he whom they saw courting his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son. The mind revolts from evident falsehood and ﬁction lose its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.”
If the objective of the unities is to create the impression of credibility in the theatre, there are numerous examples that thwart its overriding pressure on the play. Johnson refers to the disadvantage of too strict an adherence to the unities of time, place and action, as it would render the play too formulaic to merit the sense of awe and wonder that is expected from a master’s work.
Johnson does not deny that Shakespeare failed to follow the dictum regarding the unities, but what was being seen as a drawback on Shakespeare’s part is transformed in the critical framing of Johnson into his major strength. Johnson argues that Shakespeare does not really concern himself with the three unities because the creative genius of Shakespeare is too multi-faceted and expansive to be conﬁned to such a limited frame.
The plays of Shakespeare strike the audience for the way the reality of life is. manifest therein, and this is done not because of his adherence to a given formula, but in spite of it, and because of his unique creative vision. Shakespeare, however, follows the rule of unity of action, which enables him to work on the subject through a thread that connects the different points in the plot in a meaningful way. Explaining this, Johnson writes: “As nothing is essential to the fable, but the unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed.”
Johnson’s analysis brings two fascinating points to light: the first is the greatness of Shakespeare who is beyond formulaic encapsulation, and the second is Johnson’s remarkable critical expertise through which he places the master playwright in a frame that does justice to his greatness.
At the same time, Johnson does not indulge in idolatry, nor does he ‘praise’ Shakespeare without seeing supportive reasons for doing so. In fact, Johnson is critical of Shakespeare on numerous fronts, but his assessment takes into account the nature of the writer as well as the works in a way that attests to the astute mind of the critic, unparalleled in the eighteenth-century world of letters.