‘To alter is more easy than to explain’: Dr Johnson and the editing of Shakespeare’s Works

‘A new edition of the plays of William Shakespeare, with notes critical and explanatory, in which the text will be corrected, the various readings remarked, the conjectures of former editors examined, and their omissions supplied.’

(Johnson, Proposals for printing Shakespeare’s Plays, 1745)

In 1765, Samuel Johnson’s edited edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare was finally published. The Shakespeare Institute Library’s current exhibition celebrates the 250th anniversary of it’s publication. It comprised eight volumes containing the full canon of Shakespeare’s plays (excluding Pericles), but none of the poems. The volumes contain critical judgements of each play and are famous for both their detailed and pithy textual commentary as well as critical analysis of earlier editions.

Samuel Johnson's edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1768

Samuel Johnson’s edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1768

The work had taken twenty years to come to fruition: Johnson first announced his intention to edit Shakespeare’s plays in 1745 in his Miscellaneous Observations on ‘Macbeth’ and its accompanying Proposal. He issued a full Proposal for Printing, by Subscription, The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, corrected and illustrated by Samuel Johnson in 1756, which promised, among other things, that the book would be published the following year, by Christmas 1757. However, the years went by, and Johnson, who by this time had gained a reputation for being a slow worker, finally completed the promised volumes in 1765. At the same time, he published his Preface to this edition, which was described by Shakespeare scholar and contemporary of Johnson’s, Edmond Malone as ‘the finest composition in our language’.

Johnson was the sixth in line to produce a new edited edition of Shakespeare’s plays, following Rowe in 1709, Pope in 1726, Theobald in 1734, Hanmer in 1744 and Warburton in 1747. According to one of his biographers, Johnson was the best qualified so far to undertake this task and that as an editor, his prime virtue was a reluctance to meddle with the text in front of him (the 1623 folio), emending the text only as a last resort. Johnson believed that the versions of Shakespeare’s plays that were available in his lifetime lacked authority, because, as he explained in his Preface:

Johnson_Preface‘His [Shakespeare’s] works were transcribed for the players by those who may be supposed to have seldom understood them; they were transmitted by copiers equally unskilful, who still multiplied errors; they were perhaps sometimes mutilated by the actors, for the sake of shortening speeches; and were at last printed without correction of the press.’

Thus Johnson sums up the problems that face an editor!

He criticizes his predecessors for compounding these faults, observing that ‘to alter is more easy than to explain, and temerity is a more common quality than diligence’. It was this that Johnson set out to remedy in his own edition, clearly setting out his intentions in his 1745 Proposal. How successful he was in fulfilling the task with which he set himself is for others to judge, but it is a fact that as the pace of Shakespearian scholarship accelerated in the later eighteenth century, a succession of other works soon displaced Johnson’s edition.

Johnson did not just reserve his scathing comments for previous editors – he is not particularly complimentary about Shakespeare either, describing his style as ‘ungrammatical, perplexed and obscure’. As well as discussing Shakespeare’s greatness – he admires him as ‘the poet of nature’, or human nature – Johnson also discusses what he sees as his weaknesses. Amongst other things, these include, for instance, Johnson’s sense of dismay and shock that Shakespeare (at variance to original sources) chooses to end King Lear with the death of Cordelia, which Johnson not only found so painful that he could hardly bear to read it, but also because he saw it as contrary to any idea of natural justice. In the same way, and for the same reason, he describes the death of Desdemona as a ‘dreadful scene’ which is ‘not to be endured’.

It is interesting too that Johnson wrote nothing about Shakespeare the man, nothing about his non-dramatic poetry and did not feel the need to explore the inner workings of the imagination and mind of the playwright who produced the plays. Johnson’s primary interest appears to be the text and he approaches the plays one by one, as they appear in the Folio, scrutinizing each play line by line, glossing hundreds of obsolete and dialect words and providing information and parallels in his copious footnotes: ’the heartbeat’ of his new edition.

johnson-dictionaryHis main editorial tool for his Shakespeare edition was Johnson’s own Dictionary of the English Language which, as well as supplying hundreds of definitions of words Shakespeare used, also allowed him to examine Shakespeare’s parallel uses of the same word in different places. Conversely, Johnson also relied heavily on Shakespeare in the compilation of his Dictionary, which was published 1755, ten years before the Shakespeare edition. The Dictionary contained about 116,000 quotations illustrating some 40,000 words; of the poetical quotations, it has been estimated that approximately one third of those come from Shakespeare. The result was an edition of Shakespeare which Edmond Malone declared ‘threw more light on his author than all his predecessors had done’ and one which Walter Raleigh claimed in 1908 went ‘straight to Shakespeare’s meaning’.

Dr. Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant

If you have a chance to visit Dr Johnson’s House (Gough Square, London) they are also celebrating the publication of this edition in an exhibition entitled Shakespeare in the 18th century:Johnson, Garrick and friends

For further information on Samuel Johnson and Shakespeare check out the Shakespeare Blog


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