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  • Title: Julius Caesar: Critical Survey
  • Author: John D. Cox
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-366-3

    Copyright John D. Cox. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: John D. Cox
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    Julius Caesar: Critical Survey

    A Survey of Critical Responses

    1Reflecting on the decisive transition from neo-classical to Romantic criticism of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate cites T. S. Eliot's comment that while we can never be right about Shakespeare, "we should from time to time change our way of being wrong." Bate's point is that "the Romantics were especially good at driving out assorted errors of Voltaire and Dr Johnson with new errors of their own" (Romantics, 3). A corollary of Eliot's insight is that one benefit of recognizing how Shakespeare has been understood in the past is to recognize better how we understand him ourselves. Though more comfortable and seemingly more natural than anything else, our view is not the right view; it departs from what preceded it but only at the cost of introducing new distortions that will in turn need to be corrected. In the process old ideas will be rediscovered and sometimes even repeated, while genuinely new insights will be introduced. The following discussion of how Julius Caesar in particular has been interpreted bears out Eliot's observation and aims to assist understanding of the play by a critical summary of historical views.

    2Criticism of Shakespeare began with a strong bias in favor of Renaissance Italian neo-classicism whose assumptions continued to dominate commentary for almost 200 years. Julius Caesar was assessed in light of criteria supposedly derived from the ancient critics, Aristotle and Horace, and by those criteria the play was generally found wanting. A reaction against neo-classical poetry in the late eighteenth century, especially by Wordsworth and Coleridge, quickly led to a reaction against neo-classical criticism as well, and Shakespeare emerged as the model of an innovative style. Viewed in this way, Julius Caesar elicited much greater admiration, especially for its leading characters, and a debate ensued as to which was in fact the greatest character—Caesar or Brutus—and why. Character criticism extended into the early twentieth century with M. W. MacCallum's Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background, which marked the end of a critical movement, even as it anticipated some of the twentieth century's most important insights about Julius Caesar. These included providential imperialism, developed influentially as the "Tudor myth" by E. M. W. Tillyard, and self-deception, an informing assumption of postmodern criticism. G. Wilson Knight's The Imperial Theme moved criticism of Julius Caesar in another influential direction: the analysis of symbol and theme, which also continues into postmodern criticism of the play, especially in understanding imagery of blood and the body.

    1. Horace and Julius Caesar

    3By a curious and unforeseeable coincidence, the critic who most strongly influenced the first two centuries of response to Shakespeare's writing in general, and to Julius Caesar in particular, was a Roman, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, who turned twenty-one in the year Julius Caesar was assassinated. Though Shakespeare could hardly have known it, Horace (the Roman critic's more familiar English name) joined Brutus and Cassius as a young officer after Julius Caesar's assassination and commanded a legion at the battle of Philippi in 42 B.C—the concluding event in Shakespeare's play. Eventually pardoned by Octavian for his opposition, Horace nonetheless withdrew from political life and became an influential literary figure after the senate declared Octavian "Augustus" in 27. Thus sidelined from military and political action, Horace unwittingly set the standard for later interpretation through a verse epistle, Ars Poetica, which he wrote early in the long political calm—eventually known as the pax Romana—following Augustus' defeat of Antony. Centuries later, Italian Renaissance critics came to regard Ars Poetica as a direct Latin equivalent to Aristotle's Poetics (Weinberg, 1.111-55), and the prestige of Italian criticism brought Horace to prominence in early seventeenth-century England. Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson rendered Horace's poem in English (published in 1640), probably from a copy of the Ars Poetica he owned in Latin, bound together with the Italian commentary of Bernardino Parthenio (1560), with "much of the second part . . . underlined" (Jonson, ed. Herford and Simpson, 1.266). (On Parthenio, see Weinberg, 1.145-47.) Moreover, Jonson largely followed Ars Poetica in the brief comments he penned on his fellow actor and playwright—the first critical response to Shakespeare and the first of many to interpret Shakespeare through a Renaissance Horatian lens.

    4One of Jonson's most Horatian passages appears in his commendatory verses for the Folio of 1623, "To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare," where Jonson acknowledges both nature and art in Shakespeare's writing. After praising nature, Jonson turns to art with emphasis:

    5Yet must I not give nature all; thy art,
    My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
    For though the poet's matter nature be,
    His art doth give the fashion; and that he
    Who casts to write a living line must sweat
    (Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
    Upon the muse's anvil; turn the same,
    And himself with it, and that he thinks to frame,
    Or for the laurel he may gain a scorn;
    For a good poet's made as well as born. (55-64)

    6Horace's way of treating the topos of art vs. nature was especially influential in the Renaissance, and Jonson is indebted to Ars Poetica. The awkward parenthesis, "(Such as thine are)," in "To the Memory" (60) is deliberate. Referring back to "living line" (59), it inevitably refers to "sweat" as well, which it immediately follows—as if Jonson is saying that Shakespeare had to sweat out his lines. Indeed, that is precisely Jonson's claim, once the tangled syntax is straightened out: poetry did not come to Shakespeare merely by nature; he had to work for it, "For a good poet's made as well as born." Jonson's image of "the muse's anvil" is from Horace: "to the anvil bring / Those ill-turned verses to new hammering," in Jonson's translation (Herford and Simpson, 8.304-37, lines 627-8; 440-1 in the original Latin). That Shakespeare did not sweat or hammer out his verse on the anvil enough is a backhanded compliment in the commendatory poem, like the often-quoted qualifying clause, "though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek" (31). Horace's advice to Roman poets lies behind this clause: "Take you the Greek examples for your light / In hand, and turn them over, day and night" (396-7; 268-9). If Shakespeare had followed Horace's advice, Jonson implies, Shakespeare's poetry would have achieved a better balance between nature and art.

    7Horace's comments on nature and art underlie Jonson's other extended critical comment on Shakespeare, in which he mentions Julius Caesar in particular. According to William Drummond of Hawthornden, Jonson complained that "Shakespeare wanted [i.e., lacked] art" (Herford and Simpson, 1.133), and the complaint explains Jonson's reminiscence in Discoveries (1640):

    8His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too. Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter, as when he said in the person of Caesar (one speaking to him, "Caesar, thou dost me wrong"), he replied, "Caesar did never wrong but with just cause" and such like, which were ridiculous. (Herford and Simpson, 8.584)

    9Jonson uses "wit" in this passage with full awareness of its Latin counterpart, ingenium, meaning something like "imaginative intelligence," which places it in the domain of nature, rather than art, and his usage therefore anticipates the high neo-classical contrast between "wit" and "judgment" (Lewis, 90-96). His point about undisciplined wit in Julius Caesar refers to the moments before Caesar's assassination, when Caesar refuses Metellus Cimber's appeal on behalf of his brother, Publius Cimber. As printed in the Folio, Caesar concludes his refusal with a self-righteous assertion: "Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause / Will he be satisfied" (TLN 1254-5). Jonson remembered that Metellus had objected, "Caesar, thou dost me wrong," to which Caesar had replied, "Caesar did never wrong but with just cause." In the late eighteenth century, Thomas Tyrwhitt conjecturally reconstructed Caesar's lines as Jonson might have heard them: "Know Caesar doth not wrong, but with just cause, / Nor without cause will he be satisfied" (Steevens 2, 8.59n. 1). Tyrwhitt surmised that Jonson's criticism of the lines had reached Shakespeare, who undertook to rewrite them in response before publication of Julius Caesar in the Folio.

    10For present purposes, the point of Jonson's critique is its Horatian spirit, not the accuracy of Jonson's memory. (For further comments on that point, see the Textual Introduction). Jonson alludes to Horace again in his reminiscence to Drummond: "I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, 'Would he had blotted a thousand,'" citing the line from Julius Caesar as an instance. Jonson borrowed the metaphor of blotting from Horace, whose lines he had translated: "If you denied you had no better strain, / And twice or thrice had 'ssayed it, still in vain, / He'd bid, blot all" (625-27; 439-40). Jonson's whole critique of Shakespeare in Discoveries makes sense in light of the way Jonson had translated Horace's advice:

    11A wise and honest man will cry out shame
    On artless verse; the hard ones he will blame,
    Blot out the careless with his turnèd pen,
    Cut off superflouous ornaments, and when
    They're dark, bid "Clear this," all that's doubtful wrote
    Reprove, and what is to be changèd note,
    Become an Aristarchus, and not say,
    "Why should I grieve my friend this trifling way?"
    These trifles into mischiefs lead,
    The man once mocked and suffered wrong to tread. (633-42; 445-52)

    12Aristarchus, a second-century B.C.E. Alexandrian and scholar of Homer, was famous for his incisive criticism, and Jonson images himself as such a critic to Shakespeare, assuming the Horatian persona of the supportive but alert reader—one whose art was required to curb the other's prolific nature (Martindale). If the players had not actually commended Shakespeare in the way Jonson claims they did, he would have had to invent them to create for himself the Horatian role he loved to play.

    13Jonson was the first swallow in the spring of neo-classical criticism of Shakespeare on Horatian principles. For two centuries after Jonson, critics of Shakespeare positioned themselves on a Horatian continuum according to their preference for nature or art. Flatly contradicting Jonson's commendatory verses for the Folio that "a good poet's made as well as born," Leonard Digges asserts that "Poets are born, not made" in the opening line of his commendatory verses for Shakespeare's Poems (1640; Vickers 1.27-29), citing Shakespeare as proof that nature is more important than art. Digges thus originated in English an idea that was much later Latinized for the first time by Coleridge (Ringler 197n. 1). To make the point about Shakespeare, Digges compares him with Jonson, allusively contrasting Jonson's published Works (1616) with Shakespeare's book of poems, "where thou hast (I will not say, / Reader, his works—for to contrive a play / To him was none) the pattern of all wit, / Art without art unparalleled as yet" (7-10). Nature enabled Shakespeare to "play," not "work," Digges claims, and thereby to achieve the highest art—a commendation that has some similarities with Polixenes' evaluation of art and nature in The Winter's Tale (4.4.89-97), which is closer to Puttenham's Art of English Poesie (1589), as Harold Wilson argues, than to Horace. Digges subsequently contrasts Shakespeare and Jonson again with specific reference to Julius Caesar:

    14So have I seen, when Caesar would appear,
    And on the stage at half-sword parley were
    Brutus and Cassius, oh, how the audience
    Were ravished, with what wonder they went thence. (41-44)

    15This, in contrast to Jonson's classical tragedies:

    16When some new day they would not brook a line
    Of tedious (though well-labored) Catiline.
    Sejanus too was irksome; they prized more
    Honest Iago or the jealous Moor. (45-48)

    17"Well-labored" is a backhanded tribute to Jonson's art in his two classically correct and learnedly glossed tragedies. They are indeed "works," Digges implies, suggesting that Jonson had sweated at the anvil of the muses for too long.

    18Digges had been thinking about these issues for several years. His commendatory verses for Shakespeare's Poems in 1640 twice echo his earlier commendatory verses for the Folio of 1623: "half-sword parley" and "wit-fraught book." His praise of Shakespeare as "the pattern of all wit" uses "wit" in the same way Jonson uses it but draws the opposite conclusion—not that Shakespeare's wit needed curbing but that it was a model to every poet. Digges thus anticipates Milton's contrast in "L'Allegro" (1631) between "Jonson's learned sock" and "sweetest Shakespeare, fancy's child / Warbl[ing] his native woodnotes wild" (132-4). Milton uses "fancy" to mean much the same thing Jonson and Digges mean by "wit" and thereby attributes Shakespeare's skill, again, to nature rather than art.

    19Less combative than Digges, Margaret Cavendish drew on Horace to defend Shakespeare's characters in particular. "So well he hath expressed in his plays all sorts of persons," Cavendish writes, "as one would think he had been transformed into every one of those persons he hath described" (Vickers, 1.43). Taken alone, this praise might be misconstrued as an assertion of imaginative identification on a Romantic model, but Cavendish wrote in 1662, and what she has in mind is Horace's admonition concerning the decorum of character, in Jonson's somewhat opaque translation: "Or follow fame, thou that dost write, or feign / Things in themselves agreeing" (169-70; 119-20). Jonson aimed to capture Horace's point about self-consistency, as the translator's subsequent lines make clear:

    20If something strange that never yet was had
    Unto the scene thou bring'st, and dar'st create
    A mere new person, look he keep his state
    Unto the last, as when he first went forth,
    Still to be like himself, and hold his worth. (178-82; 125-7)

    21"Keep his state" and "hold his worth" accurately reflect Horace's concern with identity conceived in broadly stoic and social-class terms (Miles 31)—a point Cavendish makes in defending Shakespeare's "ingenious" and "witty" ability to create compelling clowns as well as kings (Vickers 1.42). The poet's aim should be to keep each character "like himself," in Jonson's translation—consistent, that is, with expectation as established by the classical three levels of style (high, middle, and low) in their presumed decorous correspondence to levels of society. Jonson himself construed this expectation differently, as his plays make clear, avoiding the mingling of social classes that is one of Shakespeare's hallmarks. Jonson, in short, would not have agreed with Cavendish, and later neo-classical critics agreed with Jonson.

    22Whereas Horace cites examples of self-consistent characters from classical epic and tragedy, Cavendish cites examples from Shakespeare, singling out those in Julius Caesar for particular admiration: "Certainly Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, and Antonius did never really act their parts better, if so well, as he hath described them, and I believe that Antonius and Brutus did not speak better to the people than he hath feigned them" (Vickers 1.43). Cavendish's praise of Shakespeare's characterization as "witty" and "ingenious" identifies it as the product of nature, rather than art, yet Cavendish argues that Shakespeare's characters meet Horace's requirements of artful self-consistency ("act their parts"). Her praise, in short, is very close to Digges's, without challenging Jonson as forthrightly as Digges had.

    23By the later seventeenth century, the Italian Renaissance conflation of Horace with Aristotle had become a widespread critical assumption in England: "Of that book which Aristotle hath left us," wrote John Dryden in 1668, "Horace his Art of Poetry is an excellent comment, and, I believe, restores to us that second book of his concerning comedy, which is wanting in him" (An Essay of Dramatic Poesie, Works 17.17). Horace was so familiar to Dryden that he seems to have quoted Ars Poetica from memory, judging from the slight alterations he sometimes introduces (Hammond). As a practicing dramatist himself, Dryden could not help admiring Shakespeare and others in "the giant race before the flood" (i.e., the dramatists before the civil war), as he writes in "To My Dear Friend, Mr. Congreve" (line 5; Works 4.432), but he was aware that the "giants" did not conform to neo-classical theory, and he was therefore inclined to defend them as inspired more by nature than by art. Indeed, Dryden's allusion to the "giant race" may actually be as arch as it is appreciative, judging from an allusion to the same giants thirty years earlier, in Astraea Redux, written to celebrate the coronation of Charles II. There Dryden had impugned anti-Royalists as antediluvian giants, who "own'd a lawless savage liberty / Like that our painted ancestors so priz'd / Ere empire's arts their breasts had civiliz'd" (lines 46-8, Works 1.23). The contrast between "savage liberty" and imperial "arts" is a political judgment informed by the esthetic contrast between nature and art, and given Dryden's consistent political conservatism, the same judgment still seems to cling to Dryden's much later allusion to giants, including Shakespeare.

    24As the best of seventeenth-century critics, it is unfortunate that Dryden had little to say about Julius Caesar. (Some editors ascribe the prologue to a Restoration revival of Julius Caesar to Dryden [Vickers 1.141], and the ascription has in its favor the poem's praise of "artless beauty" that "lies in Shakespeare's wit.") Writing about himself in the third person, as Jonson habitually does in his dramatic prologues, Dryden glances allusively at the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius (4.3) in the Prologue to Aureng-Zebe, acknowledging his awe at Shakespeare's "nature," which nonetheless lacks art:

    25But spite of all his pride, a secret shame
    Invades his breast at Shakespear's sacred name:
    Aw'd, when he hears his Godlike Romans rage,
    He, in a just despair, would quit the Stage;
    And to an Age less polish'd, more unskill'd,
    Does, with disdain, the foremost Honours yield. (Works 12.159)

    26If Dryden had written about Julius Caesar at greater length, he would likely have praised the plot, despite its failure to achieve the three "unities" of time, place, and action that were prized by Italian theorists and French dramatists, but Dryden would almost certainly have decried the mingling of plebeians with patricians, because it was perceived to violate Horatian decorum of character: "each subject should retain / The place allotted it, with decent thews" (124-25; 89). (Jonson uses "thews" to mean "traits" or "attributes," and he knew that "decent" and "decorous" have the same Latin root.) If Dryden had written a version of the play, it would almost certainly have had no commoners, i.e., no witty Cobbler, no rowdy plebeians, and no Lucius.

    27While trying to refine the rude manners of pre-Restoration drama in his own plays, i.e., to create more artful drama, Dryden was also trying to protect himself from the judgment of a strict neo-classical critic, Thomas Rymer, whose censure of Julius Caesar is included in his Short View of Tragedy (1693). Dryden clearly stated his disagreement with Rymer in his draft "Heads of an Answer to Rymer," including notes for replying to Rymer's earlier book, The Tragedies of the Last Age Considered and Examined (1678), but the notes remained unpublished (Works 17:185-93). Rymer was formidable not only for the narrow certitude of his theory but even more for his vituperative style. With Horace's decorum of character in mind, Rymer heaped scorn on the indignity with which Shakespeare "treats the noblest Romans. But there is no other cloth in his wardrobe. Everyone must be content to wear a fool's coat who comes to be dressed by him" (156). This reverses Margaret Cavendish's assessment and outflanks the objection that Shakespeare mingles patricians and plebeians by denying noble status even to his patricians. "For indeed that language which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Brutus would not suit or be convenient unless from some son of the shambles or some natural off-spring of the butchery" (151). So indignant is Rymer with Shakespeare on the question of character decorum that he does not even address Shakespeare's violation of the three unities. He reserves that censure for Jonson's Catiline, which he also savages: as a classically trained playwright, Jonson should have known better (161). Rymer's view of art was so extreme and so narrow that it denied any art to Shakespeare, asserting that he drew ignorantly on nothing but nature and his own commoner's imagination, which "was still running after his masters, the cobblers, and parish clerks, and Old Testament strollers" (156).

    28Rymer's critical indignation had a large moral component, which he derived (or at any rate justified) from Horace's admonition that the best fictions mix "doctrine" (utile) with "delight" (dulci) (Ars Poetica 516; 360). Rymer was the first to infer that "doctrine" specifically required "poetic justice," that is, a presumed vindication of divine providence in a tragic plot by allotting a benign fortune to moral characters and a malign outcome to immoral ones. Using Rymer's criterion, all of Shakespeare's tragedies are failures, as John Dennis argued vigorously, if narrowly, concerning the "irreligious" Julius Caesar in particular. The killing of Caesar must be either "a murder or a lawful action." If it is lawful, then the deaths of Brutus and Cassius "are downright murder." But if Caesar's death is murder, then Brutus and Cassius "are justly punished for it," and Shakespeare is wrong not to show the other conspirators being punished as well, "which proceeding gives an occasion to the people to draw a dangerous inference from it, which may be destructive to government and to human society" (Vickers 2.147). Charles Gildon combined a critique of poetic justice in Julius Caesar with a complaint about its plot. "Brutus is plainly the shining and darling character of the poet," so the play is faulty either in its title or in not ending with Caesar's death, which would have made it "much more regular, natural, and beautiful. But then the moral must naturally have been the punishment or ill success of tyranny" (Vickers 2.256).

    29No less Horatian (in the neo-classical view of Horace) are Dennis's comments about Shakespeare's classical learning, which also address the question of the play's length and focus. Jonson's slighting remark about Shakespeare's "small Latin and less Greek" was inspired by Horace's admonition to Latin poets to steep themselves in Greek models, and in turn it seems to have inspired Dennis to claim that the failures of Julius Caesar are attributable to deficiencies in Shakespeare's classical learning: "Had Shakespeare read either Sallust or Cicero how could he have made so very little of the first and greatest of men, as that Caesar should be but a fourth-rate actor in his own tragedy?" (Vickers 2.288). Dennis certainly knew that Shakespeare drew his inspiration from Plutarch, so Dennis's complaint has less to do with Shakespeare's lack of reading than with his not reading the sources Dennis thought he should have read in order to write the play that Dennis thought he should have written. Applying similar strictures, Gildon complained that Julius Caesar failed to conform to the "unity of action, which can never be broke without destroying the poem." The play should have ended with Caesar's death; otherwise, the ending is arbitrary, and having thus failed to observe one unity, the play fails to observe others: "Natural reason indeed showed to Shakespeare the absurdity of making the representation longer than the time and the place more extensive than the place of acting" (Vickers 2.222). Awed by Rymer's extreme neo-classicism, Dennis and Gildon show how critical reason became increasingly naturalized to the particular strictures that critics had learned to associate with Horace and Aristotle.

    30The topics of the Horatian debate concerning Julius Caesar were thus well established in England by the early eighteenth century, and high neo-classical criticism repeated those topics with variations. Critics who believed art should follow putatively Horatian and Aristotelian rules found Shakespeare's departure from the rules a problem in Julius Caesar, as Dennis and Gildon had. In this category are failures in the decorum of character (imagining plebeians in the same play with patricians; not making patricians speak and act like patricians) and violations of the three unities, especially the failure to unify action and time. If the play ended with the death of Caesar, it would be very nearly continuous in time over the course of not much more than twenty-four hours, and it would not entail "extraneous" action involving Brutus's defeat, as well as Caesar's. Shakespeare's failure to meet the requirements of art was due, moreover, to his ignorance of classical models—his failure to study Greek and Latin as assiduously as his critics had.

    31On the other side, neo-classical defenders of Julius Caesar also used Horace as their authority, arguing that nature was Shakespeare's inspiration, rather than art, and thereby following (whether they knew it or not) the example of Leonard Digges. "Nature" came increasingly to mean not only superior imaginative intelligence, described as "wit" or "genius," but also an ability to understand and convey the feelings of characters and even the advantage derived from Shakespeare's being a relatively unlearned countryman. Richard Steele conceded in 1709 that Shakespeare introduces Julius Caesar in his nightgown, but this shows that "genius was above . . . mechanic methods of showing greatness" (Vickers 2.205). Shakespeare depicts the "great soul" debating subjects of ultimate importance, "without endeavoring to prepossess his audience with empty show and pomp." What would have been a scandal to Rymer is a stroke of genius to Steele. One of Shakespeare's best early editors, Lewis Theobald, maintained that "particular irregularities" in Shakespeare do not matter, because "it is not to be expected that a genius like Shakespeare should be judged by the laws of Aristotle and the other prescribers to the stage" (Vickers 2.308). Theobald defends the quarrel of Brutus and Cassius by comparing it to aristocratic quarrels in Iphigenia by Euripides and in The Maid's Tragedy (1610) by John Fletcher, who had been generally regarded as more artful than Shakespeare since Dryden first said he was. Of the three, Theobald concludes, Shakespeare's treatment is "incomparably the best." Alexander Pope defended Shakespeare against the charge of being unlearned, observing that in Julius Caesar "not only the spirit but manners of the Romans are exactly drawn" (Vickers 2.407). Still, in his own edition of Julius Caesar Pope printed a dash for the word "hats" in the line, "their hats are plucked about their ears" (TLN 697), because Pope believed Roman patricians wore no hats. Theobald rejected the "hiatus" as "hypercritical": "Surely we make mad work with this or any other of our author's plays did we attempt to try them so strictly by the touchstone of antiquity" (Vickers 2.460).

    32The most thoughtful and incisive neo-classical defense of Shakespeare as "the poet of nature" was by Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his edition of Shakespeare (1765). Johnson used the phrase to mean that Shakespeare "holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life" (7.62). Developing an argument he had first tried almost fifteen years earlier (Vickers 3.434), Johnson wittily and cogently demolished arguments for the unities of time and place (7.76-80) and asserted that Shakespeare "has well enough preserved the unity of action," in that his plays have discernible beginnings and middles, "and the end of the play is the end of expectation" (7.75). To be sure, Johnson finds fault with Shakespeare, and in this he follows neo-classical precedent, starting with Dryden, though Johnson's most influential example was Henry Home, Lord Kames (Vickers 4.471-97). Indeed, Johnson enumerates faults in Shakespeare that are "sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit" (7.71-74). Among them is the violation of poetic justice: "he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carried his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance" (7.71).

    33This echo of Rymer repeats the familiar neo-classical complaint that Shakespeare lacked art, so it is hardly surprising that "nature" and "natural" recur throughout Johnson's preface as terms of guarded praise. Shakespeare's "adherence to general nature has exposed him to the censure of critics who form their judgments upon narrower principles" (7.65); Shakespeare "indulged his natural inclination"; comedy was "a mode of thinking congenial to his nature"; his characters "are natural, and therefore durable"; "his characters are praised as natural" (7.69-70); "his power was the power of nature" (7.73). Johnson is not far removed, in his assessment of Shakespeare and "nature," from Margaret Cavendish: both critics draw ultimately on Horace and on the decorum of character in particular. Closer in time to Johnson, a similar position had been staked out by Gildon in 1703: "But if [poets] would study nature as much as Shakespeare did, their errors would be less visible and more supportable. But there is nothing more familiar with the ignorant decriers of the rules than to instance Shakespeare's pleasing without them, as in his characters, passions, etc.—the rules being only nature methodized—for sure nobody (I mean of sense) ever admired his conduct, the rules of which not being known in his time is his best plea for his offenses against them" (Vickers 2.8-9).

    34Still, Johnson's Horatian thinking about Shakespeare and "nature" goes beyond character to include what might be called "untrained originality." "The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity" (7.81), Johnson believed, so for Shakespeare "the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own genius" (7.87), since he lacked the example of art. Johnson was easily persuaded by the conventional neo-classical argument that Shakespeare was "natural" in the same way as Homer: "Perhaps it would not be easy to find any author except Homer who invented as much as Shakespeare, who so much advanced the studies which he cultivated, or effused so much novelty upon his age or country" (7.90). With "genius" as the explanation of Shakespeare's accomplishment, Johnson's summary judgment about Julius Caesar in particular is easier to understand. Johnson was not moved by the play, and he therefore thought it exhibited less of Shakespeare's natural gifts than other tragedies did: "his adherence to the real story and to Roman manners seems to have impeded the natural vigor of his genius" (8.836). As the great poet of nature, in Johnson's estimation, Shakespeare did less well when it came to classical material, with its greater suitability to treatment as art, in which Shakespeare was deficient.