Samuel Johnson Questions for English 256 Intro to Theory and Criticism, Chapman University Fall 2012



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Assigned: Samuel Johnson. The Rambler, #4 (367-71). Rasselas (371-72). "Preface to Shakespeare" (Okay to read only 379-86, starting with "Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults..."). Optional: "On Metaphysical Wit" (386-88).

"On Fiction" (Rambler, #4)

1. On 368-69, how does Johnson sum up the "task of our present writers" (368 middle) as opposed to yesteryear's purveyors of romance epic and other such genres? In what sense has the gap between author and readership narrowed, and with what results to the status of the new texts? In addition, what sort of people does Johnson suggest are the main readers of the new kinds of fiction?

2. On 369, why, according to Johnson, do "familiar histories" (realistic fiction, popular novels) prove more useful than "the solemnities of professed morality"? In what sense are they useful? What moral responsibility does Johnson suggest ought to be kept in mind by authors of realistic fiction, and why?

3. On 369-70, what "chief advantage" (369 middle) does modern fiction have in comparison with the real-life objects it imitates or represents (ordinary people, events, and things)? How does Johnson turn this advantage into a moral imperative, and how does he refute those who insist that it's acceptable to represent morally ambivalent or composite characters?

4. General question: Johnson is obviously concerned about the moral welfare of the C18 novel-reading audience, and some politicians, social critics, and religious folk show a similar concern today, even to the point of urging legal censorship (which Johnson isn't advocating). Plato, of course, is the father of all such moral arguments about the pragmatic effects of art. To what extent, if at all, do you think such arguments or concerns are valid? Discuss.

From Rasselas

5. On 371-72, what most surprises Imlac about people's judgment of ancient poets? What comparison does Imlac make between the earliest authors and those who come after them? We have examined Johnson's insistence on a writer's duty to choose subjects judiciously. What new thoughts about the conjunction between morality and representation ("imitation") does Imlac offer on these pages?

6. On 372, Imlac claims that poets who know their trade do not "number the streaks of the tulip." Most readers today, as inheritors of the romantics' love for individuality and particularity, will disagree. But what is the basis of Imlac's argument -- in what vital way do "tulip-streakers," in his view, fail as artists and with respect to the potential of their audience? Furthermore, in what sense might Imlac actually embrace the notion that artists should observe human nature and the environment closely?

7. On 372, what does Imlac apparently mean when he says that the poet must write "as a being superior to time and place"? What is he suggesting about human nature and about the function of art? Can you recall echoes of this statement in later works of literary criticism? If so, which works and authors?

From "Preface to Shakespeare"

8. On 373-74, what test does Johnson suggest should be applied to literary works "of which the excellence is not absolute and definite"? How does Johnson reason in support of this test – what alone can please the majority of people over long periods of time? How does Shakespeare's drama exemplify the kind of art that passes this test of excellence?

9. On 373-79, what praise does Johnson bestow on Shakespeare's handling of human nature, and how does he defend the playwright from charges leveled against him over his handling of traditional heroic characters, historical periods, and generic expectations about tragedy and comedy? Why, in particular, is Shakespeare right to include comic elements in his tragedies, and tragic potential in his comedies?

10. On 379-82, beginning with the paragraph, "Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults …" (379 middle), Johnson meets the censurers of Shakespeare half-way: what criticisms of his own does he level against the Bard? Which is the worst and least excusable fault, and why? Which faults seem less important to Johnson, and partly or entirely understandable?

11. On 382-86, how does Johnson refute critics who say dramatic illusion requires strict adherence to the "unities of time and place"? What is the exact nature of dramatic illusion, according to Johnson -- if we aren't "taken in" by what we see on stage, why, then, do we respond to it, and in what manner do we respond? Another way to ask this question is, "in what sense is the audience's experience at a drama genuine or authentic {my terms} in its own right, even though we don't believe we are witnessing a real-life event?"

12. In Ch. 14 of Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge observes that his contribution to the Lyrical Ballads involved concentrating on supernatural or eccentric characters, "yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith" (Leitch, 2nd ed. 586). Compare Coleridge's notion of "poetic faith" with Johnson's ideas about dramatic illusion and the manner in which an audience grants a drama with "all the credit due to a drama" (384).

13. General question: on 378 and 380, Johnson shows a decided preference for Shakespeare's comedies over his tragedies. What are his reasons for preferring the comedies? Which kind of Shakespeare do you prefer, and why? Does your response have to do mainly with your own personality (i.e. "brooders" usually go in for tragedy, while those with a sunny disposition may prefer comedy and romance), or with what you can point to as "objective" features of Shakespeare's language, plots, and stagecraft? Explain.

14. General question: Johnson writes on 384, "if we thought murders and treasons real, they would please no more." He's probably right at least in the sense that direct viewing of such things in real life would horrify most people, at least in modern times. (Many Romans, after all, considered it "strength and honor" to enjoy watching gladiators die.) But what about cinema? To what extent might it be argued that we come very close to taking the powerful images on a movie screen as real, at least during the time we are watching the film? And do we necessarily find the sight of them unpleasant? Does your response affect your view of Johnson's argument against extreme proponents of "dramatic illusion"? If so, how?

15. General question: how many of Sir Philip Sidney's ideas can you find in Johnson's "On Fiction"? In what ways do you think Johnson differs from Sidney's expressly religious moral framework, or has transformed some of his ideas? Alternately, how much of Plato or Aristotle do you find in Johnson? For example, how close does Johnson come to Plato's brand of moralism? How might Johnson's explanation of how we can take pleasure in watching a tragic play be compared with Aristotle's remarks on our response to representations of painful or otherwise troubling things?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.