Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was said by Bishop Percy to have been ‘immoderately fond of reading Romances of Chivalry’, and, added Percy, ‘he retained this fondness through Life’ (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, cf. Everyman’s Library edition, London, 1906, I, 20). Johnson also defended the reading of romances by students of history and literature. However, he refers directly to the Morte Darthur rarely in his works.
The first passage below, from the preface to Johnson’s Shakespeare, explains why Shakespeare was obliged to include fabulous or fantastic events in his plots. The second is a note to the line in Henry IV, Part 2, where Shallow refers to taking the part of Sir Dagonet in ‘Arthur’s Show’. Extracts are from the Yale edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, VII, Johnson on Shakespeare (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), pp. 81-2 and 506-7.
The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted hither in the reign of Henry the Eighth; and the learned languages had been successfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacer, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Ascham. Greek was now taught to boys in the principal schools; and those who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to professed scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The publick was gross and dark; and to be able to read and write, was an accomplishment still valued for its rarity.
Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened to literary curiosity, being yet unacquainted with the true state of things, knows not how to judge of that which is proposed as its resemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity;