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Comedies

The balance of gift book illustrations devoted to Shakespeare was undoubtedly tipped towards his comedies. Paratext information provides clues as to why this is so. The most popular and frequently reproduced of Shakespeare’s works in America was accompanied by the Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) preface and notes. In this Preface, Johnston acquiesces not to Shakespeare’s tragedies, but his comedies:

“In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.”1

Indeed, throughout the nineteenth-century, Shakespeare’s comedies serve as fodder for some pretty significant occasions. For instance, in 1849 A Midsummer Night’s Dream was used as the theme and subject of the inauguration of the President of Harvard. Paintings of the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream were also displayed and well-traveled throughout the 1800s, exploding in number after the Civil War. Some titled “The Reconciliation of Titania and Oberton” by artists such as George Frederick Bensell, Thomas Read, Robert Tudor and James Harvey Young highlighted this theme of reunion in post-war America. 

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Notes:

1. p. xxvi. Johnson, Samuel. "Preface" Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1801.

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