Johnson on Shakespeare: The Use and Value of Spectatorship


Abstract: Everywhere the value of liberal inquiry finds itself subject to the utilitarian question: ‘What’s the use of it?’ Some answers to this question are to be found in Johnson’s preface and commentary to his edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, long considered a classic legitimation of the canonical work by an appeal to ‘confirmed opinion.’ However, a more attentive reading of Johnson’s commentary shows that it grounds Shakespeare’s value in his theatrical artistry more seriously than any predecessor. As a playwright, Shakespeare’s attention is necessarily fixed on his spectators, and the value of his canonical work rests on the way he raised his concern for the spectator from entertainment and seduction to a much broader ethical and civic framework. The immediate context for Johnson’s work is a widespread discussion about the value spectatorship conducted in mid‐eighteenth century. But Johnson’s awareness and analysis of the value of spectatorship can, this essay submits, be useful to our own discussion of the value possessed by a canonical work and of liberal inquiry in general.

Keywords: value, cannon, theatrical performance, spectator, plays, performance