What Shakespeare Would Have Said

In a few days’ time, a wreath will be placed at the the monument to Samuel Johnson in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, to mark the anniversary of his death on 13 December 1783256px-samuel_johnson_by_joseph_nollekens_1777. It’s a little ceremony that occurs every year, acknowledging Dr Johnson’s continuing authoritative presence in English literary culture. The bust used for the monument was made by Joseph Nollekens when Johnson was sixty eight. It expresses very clearly his great moral and intellectual force.

Outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square, there’s another and more recent monument, this one imaging his cat Hodge. Johnson was very fond of Hodge. James Boswell recalls, in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), watching the cat “scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend, smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying “Why, yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then, as if Hodge.JPGperceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “But he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

Boswell writes the Life as a friend, but also as a self-consciously cosmopolitan Scot, and he calls Johnson “much of a John Bull; much of a true-born Englishman”. That Englishness has been a lasting element in Johnson’s reputation: he appears, for instance, as one of the images of Englishness in Julian Barnes’s satirical novel England, England (1998). And I suppose that the monument to Hodge might be thought to record another aspect of Englishness: the love of animals. But of course the idea that England, or for that matter Britain, is or ever has been a nation of animal-lovers (it’s a cliché much-loved by journalists and politicians) is humbug – useful, I suppose, as a myth tending to obscure our actual pitiless subjugation of most of them. Nor did Boswell himself (though he had an aversion to cats) relate this fondness to Johnson’s nationality. He recounts it as evidence, along with Johnson’s considerateness to children and to his household servants, of “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”. In this respect, therefore, he modifies his biographical portrait of an otherwise extraordinarily downright and dogmatic mind, a man pugnacious in argument with his peers and impatient of anything sentimental.

So Johnson’s care for Hodge, although it must certainly have involved pure affection, was of a piece with the rooted concern he felt for all who were especially liable to maltreatment, injustice, or disregard – whether animals or people. “Upon one occasion,” says Boswell, “when in the company of some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies!’” Neither on that occasion at Oxford (his own university, from which he had his honorary doctorate), nor when he spoke playfully to Boswell over Hodge’s head, were “humanity and gentleness” strictly required of him; it was in his nature to feel them and to express them gratuitously.

And that’s why also, in his edition of the plays of Shakespeare, he suddenly breaks off from making learned notes in order to voice his disgust at vivisection. He has reached Act I, scene v, line 23 of Cymbeline. The Queen, stepmother to King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, is just making plans to … but why retail this elaborate plot, which Johnson himself found tiresome? The point is that the Queen has commissioned a selection of “most poisonous compounds” from the physician Cornelius. He somewhat diffidently asks her what she wants them for. Basic research, is her reply:

                        I will try the forces
Of these thy compounds on such creatures as
We count not worth the hanging – but none human –
To try the vigour of them and apply
Allayments to their act, and by them gather
Their several virtues and effects.

To see what happens, in short, using (so Cornelius guesses) cats and dogs for the purpose. In this, the Queen speaks for a long line of future scientists. I wish that Cornelius could be said to be doing the same for his profession, when he tells her

         Your highness
Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.

“Shall … but ..”: he means that the only certain result of the Queen’s studies will be to diminish her humanity (‘shall’ being used in the common Shakespearean sense of ‘must’ or ‘will necessarily’, and ‘but’ in the sense ‘only’). So Cornelius, like Boswell, puts animals into the same moral space as humans, where indeed they belong: as we treat the one, so may we be expected to treat the other. The Queen impatiently dismisses his scruples: “O, content thee!” – in other words, ‘Dry up!’ And although such a research project would be characteristic of her (she’s of the wicked step-mother class), the Queen is not really engaged in it at all. Rather than knowledge, her mind is on her career, or her son’s career. (How far she’s in this way anticipating that long line of scientists again here, I can’t say.) Her intention is to clear his path to the throne with poison.

Samuel Johnson’s notes to Shakespeare are in general aimed at clarifying obscurities in the text, or suggesting emendations, but what Cornelius says moves him so much that he puts aside the textual critic and speaks as a moralist or simply as a man:

There is in this passage nothing that much requires a note, yet I cannot forbear to push it forward into observation. The thought would probably have been more amplified, had our author lived to be shocked with such experiments as have been published in later times, by a race of men that have practised tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.

It’s a case which he had argued more discursively in one of his weekly Idler essays (5 August, 1758), but now, in the little space proper to a textual note, he puts it with extraordinary conciseness and anger. So strongly does he believe these men to have compromised their humanity by what they do, that in his last few words he separates them from the class “human beings” altogether. It’s a strange and sinister image: the men standing upright, as amoral aliens, among gatherings of ordinarily decent people.

This, Johnson implies, is what “our author” himself would have felt, had he lived into the science-crazed eighteenth century. He brings the huge moral authority of Shakespeare as a testimonial to his case, as I do that of Samuel Johnson. Meanwhile, Cornelius spoils the Queen’s supposed researches by substituting harmless soporifics for the wished-for poisons. In this way he sets an early example of peaceable sabotage, and ensures that the story has a happy ending. All four of us can be content with that.

 

References:

The quotations from Boswell’s Life of Johnson come from the years 1783 and 1777: in the Oxford University Press edition of 1953, they’re at pp.1217 and 876.

For Dr Johnson in England, England (Vintage Books 2012), see p.142: in the ghastly simulacrum of England which Sir Jack Pitman (a vainglorious businessman of the Donald Trump variety) creates on the Isle of Wight, Dr Johnson is seen introducing visitors to “the Dining Experience at the Cheshire Cheese”.

The bust by Nollekens as shown is from the Yale Center for British Art. The statue of Hodge was made by Jon Bickley, and placed in Gough Square in 1997.

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