There has been a great variety of critical approach to Shakespeare's work since his death. During the 17th and 18th cent., Shakespeare was both admired and condemned. Since then, much of the adverse criticism has not been considered relevant, although certain issues have continued to interest critics throughout the years. For instance, charges against his moral propriety were made by Samuel Johnson in the 18th cent. and by George Bernard Shaw in the 20th.
Early criticism was directed primarily at questions of form. Shakespeare was criticized for mixing comedy and tragedy and failing to observe the unities of time and place prescribed by the rules of classical drama. Dryden and Johnson were among the critics claiming that he had corrupted the language with false wit, puns, and ambiguity. While some of his early plays might justly be charged with a frivolous use of such devices, 20th-century criticism has tended to praise their use in later plays as adding depth and resonance of meaning.
Generally critics of the 17th and 18th cent. accused Shakespeare of a want of artistic restraint while praising him for a fecund imagination. Samuel Johnson, while agreeing with many earlier criticisms, defended Shakespeare on the question of classical rules. On the issue of unity of time and place he argued that no one considers the stage play to be real life anyway. Johnson inaugurated the criticism of Shakespeare's characters that reached its culmination in the late 19th cent. with the work of A. C. Bradley. The German critics Gotthold Lessing and Augustus Wilhelm von Schlegel saw Shakespeare as a romantic, different in type from the classical poets, but on equal footing. Schlegel first elucidated the structural unity of Shakespeare's plays, a concept of unity that is developed much more completely by the English poet and critic Samuel Coleridge.
While Schlegel and Coleridge were establishing Shakespeare's plays as artistic, organic unities, such 19th-century critics as the German Georg Gervinus and the Irishman Edward Dowden were trying to see positive moral tendencies in the plays. The 19th-century English critic William Hazlitt, who continued the development of character analysis begun by Johnson, considered each Shakespearean character to be unique, but found a unity through analogy and gradation of characterization. While A. C. Bradley marks the culmination of romantic 19th-century character study, he also suggested that the plays had unifying imagistic atmospheres, an idea that was further developed in the 20th cent.
The tendency in 20th-century criticism was to abandon both the study of character as independent personality and the assumption that moral considerations can be separated from their dramatic and aesthetic context. The plays were increasingly viewed in terms of the unity of image, metaphor, and tone. Caroline Spurgeon began the careful classification of Shakespeare's imagery, and although her attempts were later felt to be somewhat naive and morally biased, her work is a landmark in Shakespearean criticism. Other important trends in 20th-century criticism included the Freudian approach, such as Ernest Jones's Oedipal interpretation of Hamlet ; the study of Shakespeare in terms of the Elizabethan world view and Elizabethan stage conventions; and the study of the plays in mythic terms.