Editors and Actors: Johnson

Reynolds’ 1769 portrait of Johnson, capturing the man’s odd gesticulations.

Of all the editors I am reading for my first chapter, Samuel Johnson both excites and terrifies me the most. There’s just something so distinctive about his way of writing: the preface to his edition, first published in 1765, is a far more remarkable document than anything Warburton, Hanmer, Theobald or even Pope could manage. Much of what I went on to think about as I followed Johnson out into his footnotes and emendations came from my reading of this text, and, as I’ve already said on this blog, I’m sure there’s more to discover with each rereading of its fifty or so pages.

As well as plenty of aspersions cast on the player, many of them familiar from my reading of Pope and Warburton (the player’s pride, his lack of concern for posterity, his vanity, his ignorance), there are two aspects of Johnson’s work on Shakespeare that really caught my attention, and about which I’ll briefly talk here. The first is the way Johnson reappropriates and inverts certain ways of talking about performance; the second is Johnson’s extremely complicated attitude towards theatrical illusion.

To start, here’s one moment where Johnson describes Shakespeare’s powers of imagination:

… he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or distorted by the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his representations to be just, and the learned see that they are complete.

Probably because I’ve been reading so much acting theory over the last month or so, this sentence made me think immediately of how Saint-Albine and John Hill both write about the actor as a medium, the best actors capable of relaying the authors thought not just decently but fully too. Whether Johnson knew these writings or not is open to debate, but they do allow us to see what the critic-editor is doing here: he’s talking about Shakespeare’s originality, his direct connection with and transmission of his subject (a point made also by Young), but in such a way that seems to offer grounds for the exclusion of actors. Shakespeare, like Hill’s actor, receives an image. Shakespeare, however, works without “the intervention of any other mind”, directly in contact with the quasi-platonic ideal, and it is because of this direct connection that he achieves just and complete representations. By borrowing bits of vocabulary that might apply to actors (just, complete, representations, receiving an image, etc.), Johnson describes Shakespeare in such a way that performance does not need to be mentioned.

There are more examples of this reappropriation and repurposing. One that I’ve already talked about is Johnson’s use of Hamlet’s line about holding “a mirror up to nature” (originally a description of the actor) as a way of describing Shakespeare. Another is Johnson’s observation that Shakespeare writes so well that “Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied by men” – on one level, this is just praise of Shakespeare’s realistic characterisation, but, on another, the way in which it is phrased (“scenes occupied by men”) is openly hostile to actors, whose natural habitat, the stage itself, is now occupied by Shakespeare’s men. Something similar occurs in the notes to Measure for Measure:

ISABELLA … is’t not a kind of incest, …] in Isabella’s declamation there is something harsh, and something forced and far-fetched. But her indignation cannot be thought violent when we consider her not only as a virgin but as a nun.

Once more, we have the language of performance – “declamation”, “force” – but no mention of the actor performing, and instead a reflection on the biography of Isabella, both virgin and nun. Reading this note over, it is almost as if the lines have a life of their own, are able to declaim themselves without need for an actor. All the experience of performance, the harsh declamation and so on, are found, by a process of inversion and appropriation in the text itself. No wonder Johnson wrote that “A play read affects the mind like a play acted.”

This brings us to illusion. And I must admit that my ideas are not as clear here. In my defence, Johnson’s argument is rather twisty too: he begins by saving Shakespeare from the need to follow the unities with the argument that an audience will just as readily accept many places and times as one because they are never totally enthralled by the theatrical illusion. The word Johnson uses in this passage is “delusion”, and he seems to leave the door deliberately open to the full range of the word’s meanings, including the pathological. Yet for all this bluntness, Johnson cannot get away from an interest in audience response: he makes much of the ignorance of Shakespeare’s original public and how their limitations in turn imposed limitations upon the playwright, but he also comments revealingly about spectacle with regard to Henry VIII‘s prologue.

As fool and fight is, ] This is not the only passage in which Shakepeare has discovered his conviction of the impropriety of battles represented on the stage. He knew that five or six men with swords give a very unsatisfactory idea of an army, and therefore, without much care to excuse his former practice, he allows that a theatrical fight would destroy all opinion of truth, and leave him never an understanding friend. … Yet I know not whether the coronation shown in this play may not be liable to all that can be objected against a battle.

The point here is that the stage cannot represent warfare accurately and so must appear (to quote a comment on the battles in Henry V) “absurd”. If warfare cannot be well presented, how then could the pomp of a coronation? Johnson cuts off the note here, but one can feel something of an unravelling of the entire theatrical experience beginning here, and, yet again, the nascent pressure towards the superior experience of reading Shakespeare rather than watching performances of him. At the same time as this suspicion that spectacle is an illusion too easily destroyed or ridiculed, however, there comes the awareness that such spectacle is what pleases in the theatre. Johnson concludes his notes on Henry VIII with the remark that the play “is one of those which still keeps possession of the stage, by the splendour of its pageantry”. The implication here, that there is only sensory titillation available in the theatre and that true appreciation takes place in the presence of the written word is of a piece with Johnson’s general antitheatricality, yet, I wonder: how can the stage both provide such mindless spectacle and at the same time be so frequently absurd?

The only answer, of course, is that it depends on whether the person watching is a Johnson or of the kind of theatregoer this editor calls “a rude people”.

Editors and Actors: Warburton

I’ve emerged from reading the (roughly) 2 395 footnotes Warburton affixes to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and once more have a few observations about how this editor uses the idea of that actor. Like Pope, whom he praises, and like Hanmer, whom he criticises, Warburton is very antitheatrical, and doesn’t mince his words. As well as reprinting Pope’s preface and its denigration of the influence of the stage on Shakespeare’s poetry, Warburton’s own short preface reiterates these points and even goes as far as to suggest that Shakespeare, as an actor, did not care for posterity, thus opening the door to the corruption of his texts at the hands of the player-editors and others.

William Warburton as engraved in 1784, from an earlier oil painting.
Because of his hostility, Warburton is not always speaking of actors, and seems to prefer glosses with reference to classical parallels or fine points of etymology to any description of theatrical practice. He has none, for instance, of Theobald’s imagining of how things would look on stage. The closest Warburton gets to this is a few explanations of certain errors as the result of playhouse cuts, or the mistaken inclusion of stage directions into the verse.

When Warburton does talk about “some player” (always nameless), however, he does so with gusto. On no less than nine occasions, they are accused of inserting “trash” or “nonsense” into the text, functioning as a kind of scapegoat for Shakespeare who couldn’t have possibly written such things as this, or – elsewhere – such “ribaldry” as “no barricado for a belly”. As well as being importers of nonsense and smut, actors are also “stupid”: they don’t know Roscius from Aesopus, misunderstand the nature of Richard III’s bravery, and have – this is my favourite – “a pitiful ambition to be witty”. Such stupidity also manifests itself in a penchant for favouring sound over sense, leading to yet more “foolish insertion” or emendation for such editors as Warburton to sort out. In such a portrait, the actor becomes a figure with very little agency, meant only to transmit the author’s work yet all too often responding as much to the demands of the audience for cheap thrills as to the needs of bardolatrous posterity.

This view of the actor as all too impressionable reoccurs in a strange long note appended to Hamlet in which Warburton argues that the text the First Player performs at the prince’s request actually represents Shakespeare’s conception of an ideal tragedy. Such a reading is supported, says Warburton, as the lines about Pyrrhus have such a powerful effect on the actor while silly Polonius takes it as bombast.

As Shakespear has shown the effects which a fine description of nature, heightened with all the ornaments of art, had upon an intelligent player, whose business habituates him to enter intimately and deeply into the characters of men and manners, and to give nature its free workings on all occasions; so he has artfully shown what effects the very same scene would have on a quite different man, Polonius

The miniature ‘art of acting’ encapsulatd here parallels ideas found in Aaron Hill and John Hill that will be explored in my second chapter, but the interest here lies in the conception of the player as someone who intelligently gives himself over to nature’s “free working”, as someone, in other words, who is more passive than active. From such an idea, even if Warburton calls the player intelligent here, there is only a small step to the stupid players lambasted in the footnotes, mindlessly repeating the text without a sufficiently sharp awareness of true nature that would allow them to spot the manifest errors in it.

Such sensitivity is the province of the editor, whose work, in Warburton’s view, should incorporate all the branches of criticism (to explain, to praise or denigrate, and to restore). If Hanmer’s edition of Shakespeare was the paper equivalent of a monument to Shakespeare, Warburton see his therefore as a monument to critical process. In such a work, the actor has a very small place indeed, so small that even Shakespeare, if deplorably influenced by the stage, is also described as both having “written off hand” and, like the scrupulous editor, “corrected”.


Warburton includes a league table of Shakespeare plays, splitting comedies and tragedies by class. Do you agree with him?

Class One: The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night
Class Two: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, All’s Well that Ends Well, The Winter’s Tale
Class Three: Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labour’s Lost
Class Four: The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors

Class One: Henry IV part I, Henry IV part II, King Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello
Class Two: King John, Henry V, Richard III, Henry VIII, Timon, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline
Class Three: Richard II, Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet
Class Four: Henry VI part I, Henry VI part II, Hanry VI part III, Titus Andronicus

I personally disagree with a lot of this, finding Romeo and Juliet a bit too low, and Timon (not to mention The Merry Wives) rather too high, &c.