The most remarkable passage in the Preface, according to Wimsatt, is surely the one concerning Johnson’s defence of tragi-comedy. His defence is marked by his realistic approach. By the rules of critics (and also by the practices of ancient Greek and Roman dramatists), the mixture of tragedy and comedy in a play stands condemned but ‘there is always,’ says Johnson, ‘an appeal open from criticism to nature.’ There are two natural grounds to justify it: that the alternation of pleasure and pain in a play pleases by its variety; and that life itself is a mingled yarn, pleasure and pain together. Secondly, the tragi-comedy by partaking of both tragedy and comedy ‘approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life.’
As practised by Shakespeare, tragi-comedy is even a distinct species of the dramatic art ‘exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hastening to his wine, and the mourner burying his dead; (and) in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another….’
Though Shakespeare has been much criticized by critics and writers for mixing comic and tragic scenes, yet Johnson defends him very intelligently, logically and realistically. His defence is based on the following arguments:—
(1) In his mixing of the tragic and the comic, Shakespeare is true to nature. In real life also there is a mingling of the good and evil, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles, and so in mixing tragedy and comedy, Shakespeare merely holds a mirror to nature. This may be against rules, but ‘there is always appeal open from rules in criticism to nature.’
(2) Tragi-comedy is nearer to life than either tragedy or comedy, and so it combines within itself the pleasure as well as the instruction of both. In tragi-comedy the high and the low combine, both for instruction and pleasure.
(3) The interchange of the serious and the gay, of the comic and tragic, does not interrupt the progress of the passions, i.e., it does not result in any weakening of effect.
(4) Moreover, it should be remembered that all pleasure consists in variety. Tragi-comedy can satisfy a greater variety of tastes, “and continued melancholy is often not pleasing.” Shakespeare can always move whether to tears or to laughter.
Critics have pointed out that Dr. Johnson’s defence of tragi-comedy is not very convincing. P. A. W. Collins writes : “Johnson’s defence of tragi-comedy is inadequate.” “When Shakespeare’s plan is understood, most of the criticisms of Rymer and Voltaire vanish away, but an understanding of Shakespeare’s plan is not much furthered by suggestions that these plays exhibit ‘the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow’, that they are doubly instructive because they may ‘convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy’, and that anyway ‘all pleasure consists in variety’—and least of all by the assertion
that Shakespeare’s disposition led him to comedy….In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comic’. Shakespeare’s ‘variety’, both in his whole canon and within each play. Johnson appreciated; but neither he, nor any of his contemporaries, understood the unity-in-complexity of either his plotting or his poetry, let alone the interrelation between his plotting, his poetry and his characterization.
George Watson also thinks that Johnson’s justification of tragi-comedy is based on conflicting grounds. He says : “It will hardly do to justify tragi-comedy on Dryden’s grounds that contraries set off each other, and then to excuse ‘the rules of criticism’ on the grounds that ‘there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature’, and ‘the mingled drama’ can be shown to have instructed as well as pleased : this is a characteristically Johnsonian use of the escape-clause.”
It is, however, to be remembered that Johnson’s main forte was his robust common sense. He could not indulge in the niceties of the modern Shakespeare scholars and critics. His approach was highly pragmatic and his defence of Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy is the natural product of that approach. It is therefore at once the strength and the weakness of Johnson’s critical sensibility.
As Johnson’s criticism is closely allied with his deep intuitions, his defence of tragi-comedy assumes a new dimension. It is not ‘a mere abstract and thin cerebration which for some reason he undertook in opposition to his own genuine response’. As W. K. Wimsatt says, “It is difficult to imagine any external reason which could have coerced him. The defence of mingled drama is indeed a testimony to Johnson’s theoretical intelligence, but at the same time it would seem to be tied into something very deep, though sometimes less articulate and clear, in Johnson’s nature—that is, his strongly religious sense of mystery in the universe of the inscrutable—the supernatural. This sense, when it is operating, induces in him a much less demanding attitude towards the terrestrial distribution of good and evil, rewards and punishments. It is this sense largely which moves the Johnson who wrote the pleasantly darkened fable of Rasselas, the Johnson who turned his withering scorn or he complacent rationalism of Soame Jenyns’s Free Inquiry Into the Na ‘are and Origin of Evil. “