April 12th

Many years later, Dr. Samuel Johnson remains one of the preeminent critics of Shakespeare; his occasional censure of the plays and their language–puns received particular castigation–have the merit of being as memorable as his unfettered endorsements of them.

But Johnson’s influence on Shakespeare–and, as a consequence, Shakespeare’s influence on us–extends beyond the realm of criticism, censure, and praise. His meticulous work on an authoritative dictionary of the English language–the first modern version of its kind, replete with both definitions of words and prominent examples of their use–worked in a crucial way to make Shakespeare one of its central objects, even as the origins, meanings, and vagaries of the language took center stage.

For beneath so many of the definitions in Johnson’s dictionary, it is Shakespeare who is taken to be the most vivid example of the word’s definition and use–so that Shakespeare becomes a wellspring not just of English literature, but of the whole English language Johnson sought, in his way, to canonize.

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