Shakespeare and Voltaire

By Thomas R. Lounsbury | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
TWO NEW ENGLISH ADVERSARIES

BEFORE the correspondence described in the last chapter had taken place, a mightier antagonist than Voltaire had ever met loomed up for a moment. Had the preliminary skirmishes which occurred developed into a regular conflict, there would have been a battle-royal which would have been memorable in the history of literary controversy. In 1765, Dr. Johnson had brought out his edition of Shakespeare. In its celebrated preface he had said a good deal to irritate the admirers of his author; but he had said a great deal more to irritate the critics who for a century had been trying to measure the gigantic proportions of the great Elizabethan by the limited tape-lines of their rules. To many of the views then generally accepted he had run counter. He had treated the unities with disrespect. In his opinion they gave more trouble to the poet than pleasure to the auditor. He had further defended tragi-comedy. Not only had he spoken of the theories he combated as foolish, but he had strongly insinuated that those holding them were fools. He represented that the course adopted by Shakespeare had exposed him to the censures of critics who formed their judgments upon narrower principles than those which the dramatist himself had adopted.

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