Page images

sins-gluttony, sloth, and lust are manifest; | melting-pot. But I fear (at least let me fear the dejectedness of a slave is likewise given it for myself) that we who ape his sounding him, and the ignorance of one bred up in a words have nothing of his thought, but are desert island. His person is monstrous, as all outside; there is not so much as a dwarf he is the product of unnatural lust and within our giant's clothes. Therefore let not his language is as hobgoblin as his person: Shakespear suffer for our sakes; it is our fault, in all things he is distinguished from other who succeed him in an age which is more mortals. The characters of Fletcher are refined, if we imitate him so ill that we copy poor and narrow in comparison of Shake- his failings only, and make a virtue of that spear's I remember not one which is not in our writings which in his was an imperborrowed from him, unless you will except fection. that strange mixture of a man in the 'King and no King.' So that in this part Shakespear is generally worth our imitation; and to imitate Fletcher is but to copy after him who was a copier..


"If Shakespear be allowed, as I think he must, to have made his characters distinct, it will easily be inferred that he understood the nature of the passions; because it has been proved already that confused passions make undistinguishable characters. Yet I cannot deny that he has his failings; but they are not so much in the passions themselves as in his manner of expression: he often obscures his meaning by his words, and sometimes makes it unintelligible. I will not say of so great a poet, that he distinguished not the blown puffy style from true sublimity, but I may venture to maintain that the fury of his fancy often transported him beyond the bounds of judgment, either in coining of new words and phrases, or racking words which were in use into the violence of a catachresis.

"To speak justly of this whole matter, it is neither height of thought that is discommended, nor pathetic vehemence, nor any nobleness of expression in its proper place; but it is a false measure of all these, something which is like them and is not them: it is the Bristol stone which appears like a diamond; it is an extravagant thought instead of a sublime one; it is roaring madness instead of vehemence; and a sound of words instead of sense. If Shakespear were stripped of all the bombast in his passions, and drest in the most vulgar words, we should find the beauties of his thoughts remaining; if his embroideries were burnt down, there would still be silver at the bottom of the

"For what remains, the excellency of that poet was, as I have said, in the more manly passions; Fletcher's in the softer: Shakespear writ better betwixt man and man, Fletcher betwixt man and woman; consequently the one described friendship better, the other love; yet Shakespear taught Fletcher to write love; and Juliet and Desdemona are originals. It is true the scholar had the softer soul, but the master had the kinder. Friendship is both a virtue and a passion essentially: love is a passion only in its nature, and is not a virtue but by accident. Good nature makes friendship, but effeminacy love. Shakespear had an universal mind, which comprehended all characters and passions; Fletcher a more confined and limited: for, though he treated love in perfection, yet honour, ambition, revenge, and generally all the stronger passions, he either touched not, or not masterly. To conclude all, he was a limb of Shakespear."

'The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy' is held by Dr. Johnson to be an answer to 'The Tragedies of the last Age considered and examined,' by the celebrated THOMAS RYMER. Rymer's book was originally published in 1678; and Dryden's Preface to 'Troilus and Cressida,' in which the supposed answer is contained, appeared in the following year. Rymer is generally known as the learned editor of the vast collection of national documents, arranged and published by him in his official capacity of Historiographer Royal, under the name of Fodera.' But this publication was not commenced till 1703, and for many years previous he had been a miscellaneous writer in polite literature. In 1678, he produced a tragedy entitled Edgar.' It is almost painful to consider

[ocr errors]

that an author to whose gigantic labours
all students of English history are so deeply
indebted should have put forth the most lu-
dicrous criticisms upon Shakspere that exist
in the English language. In 'The Tragedies
considered,' he proposes to examine "the
choicest and most applauded English trage-
dies of this last age; as 'Rollo,' 'A King and
no King.' 'The Maid's Tragedy,' by Beaumont
and Fletcher; 'Othello,' and ‘Julius Cæsar,'
by Shakespear; and 'Catiline,' by worthy Ben."
But at this period he did not carry through
his design. The whole of this book is devoted
to the three plays of Beaumont and Fletcher.
It would be beside our purpose to show how
he disposes of them; but the following passage
will exhibit the nature of his judgment:-"I
have thought our poetry of the last age as
rude as our architecture. One cause thereof
might be, that Aristotle's "Treatise of Poetry'
has been so little studied amongst us." The
completion of Rymer's plan was deferred for
fifteen years. In 1693, appeared 'A Short
View of Tragedy; its original Excellency
and Corruption. With some Reflections on
Shakespear, and other Practitioners for the
Stage.' This second treatise thus begins:
"What reformation may not we expect now
that in France they see the necessity for
a chorus to their tragedies! ..
The chorus was the root and original, and is
certainly almost the most necessary part, of
tragedy." It would be exceedingly unjust to
Rymer to collect the disjecta membra of his
criticism upon, or rather abuse of, Shakspere,
without exhibiting what were his own no-
tions of dramatic excellence; and certainly
in the whole range of the ludicrous there
are few things more amusing than his so-
lemn scheme for a tragedy on the subject
of the Spanish Armada, in imitation of
"The Persians,' of Eschylus. We cannot re-
sist the temptation of presenting it to our

"The place, then, for the action may be at Madrid, by some tomb, or solemn place of resort; or, if we prefer a turn in it from good to bad fortune, then some drawingroom in the palace near the king's bedchamber.

"The time to begin, twelve at night.

"The scene opening presents fifteen grandees of Spain, with their most solemn beards and accoutrements, met there (suppose) after some ball, or other public occasion. They talk of the state of affairs, the greatness of their power, the vastness of their dominions, and prospect to be infallibly, ere long, lords of all. With this prosperity and goodly thoughts transported, they at last form themselves into the chorus, and walk such measures, with music, as may become the gravity of such a chorus.

"Then enter two or three of the cabinet council, who now have leave to tell the secret that the preparations and the invincible Armada was to conquer England. These, with part of the chorus, may communicate all the particulars-the provisions, and the strength by sea and land; the certainty of success, the advantages by that accession; and the many tun of tar-barrels for the heretics. These topics may afford matter enough, with the chorus, for the second act.

"In the third act, these gentlemen of the cabinet cannot agree about sharing the preferments of England, and a mighty broil there is amongst them. One will not be content unless he is King of Man; another will be Duke of Lancaster. One, that had seen a coronation in England, will by all means be Duke of Aquitaine, or else Duke of Normandy. And on this occasion two competitors have a juster occasion to work up and show the muscles of their passion than Shakespear's Cassius and Brutus. After, the chorus.

"The fourth act may, instead of Atossa, present some old dames of the court, used to dream dreams, and to see sprites, in their night-rails and forehead-cloths, to alarm our gentlemen with new apprehensions, which make distraction and disorders sufficient to furnish out this act.

"In the last act the king enters, and wisely discourses against dreams and hobgoblins, to quiet their minds: and, the more to satisfy them, and take off their fright, he lets them to know that St. Loyola had appeared to him, and assured him that all is well. This said, comes a messenger of the ill news; his account is lame, suspected, he sent to prison.

[ocr errors][merged small]

A second messenger, that came away long after, but had a speedier passage: his account is distinct, and all their loss credited. So, in fine, one of the chorus concludes with that of Euripides, Thus you see the gods bring things to pass often otherwise than was by man proposed."

After this, can we wonder that the art of Thomas Rymer is opposed to the art of William Shakspere? Let us hear what he says of Othello" of all the tragedies acted on our English stage, that which is said to bear the bell away." He first gives the fable, of which the points are, the marriage of Othello, the jealousy from the incident of the handkerchief, and the murder of Desdemona. The facetious critic then proceeds:

"Whatever rubs or difficulty may stick on the bark, the moral, sure, of this fable is very instructive.

"First, This may be a caution to all maidens of quality how, without their parents' consent, they run away with blackamoors.


Secondly, This may be a warning to all good wives, that they look well to their linen.

any play fraught, like this of Othello, with improbabilities."

We next are told, that "the characters of manners, which are the second part in a tragedy, are not less unnatural and improper than the fable was improbable and absurd.” From such characters we are not to expect thoughts "that are either true, or fine, or noble;" and further, "in the neighing of a horse, or in the growling of a mastiff, there is a meaning, there is as lively expression, and, may I say, more humanity, than many times in the tragical flights of Shakespear." The crowning glory of the treatise is the mode in which the critic disposes of the scene between Othello and Iago in the third act:

"Then comes the wonderful scene where Iago, by shrugs, half-words, and ambiguous reflections, works Othello up to be jealous. One might think, after what we have seen, that there needs no great cunning, no great poetry and address, to make the Moor jealous. Such impatience, such a rout for a handsome young fellow, the very morning after her marriage, must make him either to be jealous, or to take her for a changeling below his jealousy. After this scene it might strain the poet's skill to reconcile the couple,

"Thirdly, This may be a lesson to husbands, that, before their jealousy be tragical, the proofs may be mathematical." The whole story of Othello, we learn, is and allay the jealousy. Iago now can only founded upon 66

an improbable lie:”—

"The character of that state (Venice) is to employ strangers in their wars; but shall a poet thence fancy that they will set a negro to be their general, or trust a Moor to defend them against the Turk? With us, a blackamoor might rise to be a trumpeter; but Shakespear would not have him less than a lieutenant-general. With us, a Moor might marry some little drab, or small-coal wench: Shakespear would provide him the daughter and heir of some great lord or privy-councillor; and all the town should reckon it a very suitable match: yet the English are not bred up with that hatred and aversion to the Moors as are the Venetians, who suffer by a perpetual hostility from them,—

Littora littoribus contraria ... Nothing is more odious in nature than an improbable lie; and, certainly, never was

actum agere, and vex the audience with a nauseous repetition. Whence comes it, then, that this is the top scene-the scene that raises Othello above all other tragedies in our theatres? It is purely from the action, from the mops and the mows, the grimace, the grins and gesticulation. Such scenes as this have made all the world run after Harlequin and Scaramuccio."

The conclusion of this prodigious piece of criticism must conclude our extracts from Thomas Rymer:

"What can remain with the audience to carry home with them from this sort of poetry, for their use and edification? How can it work unless (instead of settling the mind, and purging our passions) to delude our senses, disorder our thoughts, addle our brain, pervert our affections, hair our imaginations, corrupt our appetite, and fill our head with vanity, confusion, tintamarre, and jingle

jangle beyond what all the parish-clerks of | two virtuous men, raised to the extremity of London, with their Old Testament farces and interludes, in Richard the Second's time, could ever pretend to? Our only hopes, for the good of their souls, can be, that these people go to the playhouse as they do to church, to sit still, look on one another, make no reflection, nor mind the play more than they would a sermon. There is in this play some burlesque, some humour and ramble of comical wit, some show, and some mimicry to divert the spectators: but the tragical part is plainly none other than a bloody farce, without salt or savour."

We cannot agree with the author of an able article in The Retrospective Review,' that "these attacks on Shakespear are very curious, as evincing how gradual has been the increase of his fame;" that "their whole tone shows that the author was not advancing what he thought the world would regard as paradoxical or strange ;" that "he speaks as one with authority to decide." So far from receiving Rymer's frenzied denunciations as an expression of public opinion, we regard them as the idiosyncrasies of a very singular individual, who is furious in the exact proportion that the public opinion differs from his own. He attacks 'Othello' and 'Julius Cæsar,' especially, because Betterton had for years been drawing crowds to his performance in those tragedies. He is one of those who glory in opposing the general opinion. In his first book, he says, "With the remaining tragedies I shall also send you some reflections on that 'Paradise Lost' of Milton's, which some are pleased to call a poem.' Dryden, the great critical authority of his day, before whose opinions all other men bowed, had in 1679 thus spoken of the origin of his great scene between Troilus and Hector: "The occasion of raising it was hinted to me by Mr. Betterton; the contrivance and working of it was my own. They who think to do me an injury by saying that it is an imitation of the scene betwixt Brutus and Cassius, do me an honour by supposing I could imitate the incomparable Shakespear." Dryden then goes on to contrast the modes in which Euripides, Fletcher, and Shakspere have managed the quarrel of

passion, and ending in the renewal of their friendship; and he says, "The particular groundwork which Shakespear has taken is incomparably the best." This decision of Dryden would in those days dispose of the matter as a question of criticism. But out comes Rymer, who, in opposition to Dryden's judgment, and Betterton's applause, tells us, that Brutus and Cassius here act the part of mimics; are bullies and buffoons; are to exhibit "a trial of skill in huffing and swaggering, like two drunken Hectors for a twopenny reckoning." It may be true that "the author was not advancing what he thought the world would regard as paradoxical and strange;" for it is the commonest of self-delusions, even to the delusions of insanity, to believe that the whole world agrees with the most extravagant mistakes and the strangest paradoxes; and when Rymer, upon his critical throne, "speaks as one with authority to decide," his authority is as powerless as that of the madmar in Hogarth, who sits in solitary nakedness upon his straw, with crown on head and sceptre in hand. Rymer is a remarkable example of an able man, in his own province, meddling with that of which he has not the slightest true conception. He is, perhaps, more denuded of the poetical sense than any man who ever attempted to be a critic in poetry: but he had real learning. Shakspere fell into worse hands after Rymer. The "Man Mountain" was fastened to the earth by the Lilliputians, and the strings are only just now broken by which he was bound.

In the quotations which we have given from Dryden, it may be seen how reverently criticism was based upon certain laws which, however false might be their application, were nevertheless held to be tests of the merit of the highest poetical productions. Dryden was always balancing between the rigid application of these laws, and his own hearty admiration of those whose art had rejected them. If he had been less of a real poet himself, he might have become as furious a stickler for the canons of the ancients as Rymer was. With all his occasional expressions of hatred towards the French school

[ocr errors]

of tragedy, he was unconsciously walking in the circle which the fashion of his age had drawn around all poetical invention. It was assuredly not yet the fashion of the people; for they clung to the school of poetry and passion with a love which no critical opinions could wholly subdue. It was not the fashion of those who had drunk their inspiration from the Elizabethan poets. It was not the fashion of Milton and his disciples. Hear how Edward Phillips speaks of Corneille in 1675:-" Corneille, the great dramatic writer of France, wonderfully applauded by the present age, both among his own countrymen and our Frenchly-affected English, for the amorous intrigues which, if not there before, he commonly thrusts into his tragedies and acted histories; the imitation whereof among us, and of the perpetual colloquy in rhyme, hath of late very much corrupted our English stage." It was the spread of this fashion amongst the courtly littérateurs of the day that gave some encouragement to the extravagance of Rymer. The solemn harangues about decorum in tragedy, the unities, moral fitness, did not always present the ludicrous side, as it did in this learned madman, who sublimated the whole affair into the most delicious absurdity. We love him for it. His application of a "rule" to Fletcher's 'Maid's Tragedy' is altogether such a beautiful exemplification of his mode of applying his critical knowledge, that we cannot forbear


more quotation from him:-"If I mistake not, in poetry, no woman is to kill a man, except her quality gives her the advantage above him; nor is a servant to kill the master, nor a private man, much less a subject, to kill a king; nor on the contrary. Poetical decency will not suffer death to be dealt to each other by such persons whom the laws of duel allow not to enter the lists together." Rymer never changes his opinions. The principles upon which he founded his first book were carried to a greater height of extravagance in his second. Dryden, on the contrary, depreciates Shakspere, though timidly and doubtfully, in his early criticisms, but warms into higher and higher admiration as he grows older. The ' 'Defence of the Epilogue to the Conquest of Grenada,'

written in 1672, presents a curious contrast
to The Grounds of Criticism.' He was
then a young poet, and wanted to thrust
aside those who stood in the way of his stage
popularity: "Let any man who understands
English, read diligently the works of Shake-
spear and Fletcher; and I dare undertake
that he will find in every page some solecism
of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense:
and yet these men are reverenced when we
are not forgiven.
But the
times were ignorant in which they lived.
Poetry was then, if not in its infancy among
us, at least not arrived to its vigour and
maturity; witness the lameness of their
plots." This was the self-complacency which
the maturer thoughts of a vigorous mind
corrected. But nothing could correct the
critical obstinacy of Rymer. Dryden's
poetical soul mounted above the growing
feebleness of his age's criticism, till at last,
when he attempted to deal with Shakspere
in the spirit of his age, he became a wor-
shipper instead of a mocker :-

Shakespeare, thy gift I place before my sight:
With awe, I ask his blessing ere I write.
With reverence look on his majestic face,
Proud to be less, but of his godlike race."*

The age laid its leaden sceptre upon the smaller minds, and especially upon those who approached Shakspere with a cold and creeping admiration. Of such was CHARLES GILDON. In 1694 he appeared in the world with 'Some Reflections on Mr. Rymer's Short View of Tragedy, and an Attempt at a Vindication of Shakespear.' It would be a waste of time to produce the antagonist of Rymer armed cap-à-pie, and set these two doughty combatants in mortal fight with their

sacks of sand. It will be sufficient for us to quote a few passages from Gildon's 'Essay on the Art, Rise, and Progress of the Stage,' 1710, by way of showing, what indeed may be inferred from Rymer's own book, that the people were against the critics :-""Tis my opinion that, if Shakespear had had those advantages of learning which the perfect knowledge of the ancients would have given him, so great a genius as his would have

*Epistle to Kneller.

« PreviousContinue »