Johnson and Shakespeare

A display at the Bodleian Library,
3 July – 6 September 2015

This exhibition is now closed.


Soon after publishing his famous Dictionary of the English Language (15 April 1755), Samuel Johnson decided that he would edit Shakespeare. On 2 June 1756, he signed an agreement with the bookseller Jacob Tonson for a new eight-volume edition of the plays, with Johnson’s revised text and notes. It was to be a subscription edition, with a down payment of one guinea, and the second guinea paid on collecting the books.

Publication was set for Christmas 1757, but, though Johnson made a prompt start, there were serious delays, and the edition did not appear until 10 October 1765.

The edition was to include the best notes of Johnson’s predecessors as well as his own. But after the sheets had been printed, he felt he had sometimes been too harsh on William Warburton, an earlier editor of Shakespeare, and he cancelled leaves that survive in a unique Bodleian copy.

Johnson’s former pupil, the actor and playwright David Garrick, had promoted the Shakespeare edition, and later in the decade he found a new and influential way of honouring Shakespeare. He mounted a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769 that marked the beginning of serious celebration of Shakespeare as a son of Stratford, even though some festivities had to be abandoned because of rain.

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