Page images
PDF
EPUB

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 “For what remains, the excellency of that and no King.' So that in this part Shake- poet was, as I have said, in the more manly spear is generally worth our imitation; and passions; Fletcher's in the softer: Shakespear to imitate Fletcher is but to copy after him writ better betwixt man and man, Fletcher who was a copier. ...

betwixt man and woman; consequently the “ If Shakespear be allowed, as I think he one described friendship better, the other love; must, to have made his characters distinct, yet Shakespear taught Fletcher to write love; it will easily be inferred that he understood and Juliet and Desdemona are originals. It the nature of the passions ; because it has is true the scholar had the softer soul, but been proved already that confused passions the master had the kinder. Friendship is make undistinguishable characters. Yet I both a virtue and a passion essentially: love cannot deny that he has his failings; but is a passion only in its nature, and is not a they are not so much in the passions them- virtue but by accident. Good nature makes selves as in his manner of expression : he friendship, but effeminacy love. Shakespear often obscures his meaning by his words, and had an universal mind, which comprehended sometimes makes it unintelligible. I will not all characters and passions; Fletcher a more say of so great a poet, that he distinguished confined and limited: for, though he treated not the blown puffy style from true sublimity, love in perfection, yet bonour, ambition, rebut I may venture to maintain that the fury | venge, and generally all the stronger pasof his fancy often transported him beyond sions, he either touched not, or not masterly. the bounds of judgment, either in coining To conclude all, he was a limb of Shakeof new words and phrases, or racking words spear.” which were in use into the violence of a "The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy' is catachresis.

held by Dr. Johnson to be an answer to “The “ To speak justly of this whole matter, it Tragedies of the last Age considered and exis neither height of thought that is discom- amined,' by the celebrated Thomas RYMER. mended, nor pathetic vehemence, nor any Rymer's book was originally published in nobleness of expression in its proper place; 1678; and Dryden's Preface to “Troilus and but it is a false measure of all these, some- Cressida,' in which the supposed answer is thing which is like them and is not them: contained, appeared in the following year. it is the Bristol stone which appears like a Rymer is generally known as the learned diamond; it is an extravagant thought in- editor of the vast collection of national dostead of a sublime one; it is roaring mad- cuments, arranged and published by him in ness instead of vehemence; and a sound of his official capacity of Historiographer Royal, words instead of sense. If Shakespear were under the name of Fædera.' But this stripped of all the bombast in his passions, publication was not commenced till 1703, and drest in the most vulgar words, we should and for many years previous he had been find the beauties of his thoughts remaining; a miscellaneous writer in polite literature. if his embroideries were burnt down, there In 1678, he produced a tragedy entitled would still be silver at the bottom of the l ' Edgar.' It is almost painful to consider

« The

that an author to whose gigantic labours

scene opening presents fifteen all students of English history are so deeply grandees of Spain, with their most solemn indebted should have put forth the most lu- beards and accoutrements, met there (supdicrous criticisms upon Shakspere that exist pose) after some ball, or other public ocin the English language. In “The Tragedies casion. They talk of the state of affairs, considered,' he proposes to examine “ the the greatness of their power, the vastness choicest and most applauded English trage- of their dominions, and prospect to be indies of this last age; as “Rollo,''A King and fallibly, ere long, lords of all. With this no King.' The Maid's Tragedy,' by Beaumont prosperity and goodly thoughts transported, and Fletcher ; ‘Othello,' and 'Julius Cæsar,' they at last form themselves into the chorus, by Shakespear; and “Catiline,' by worthy Ben.” and walk such measures, with music, as may But at this period he did not carry through become the gravity of such a chorus. his design. The whole of this book is devoted “ Then enter two or three of the cabinet to the three plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. council, who now have leave to tell the seIt would be beside our purpose to show how cret that the preparations and the invincible he disposes of them; but the following passage Armada was to conquer England. These, will exhibit the nature of his judgment:—“I with part of the chorus, may communicate have thought our poetry of the last age as all the particulars—the provisions, and the rude as our architecture. One cause thereof strength by sea and land; the certainty of might be, that Aristotle's Treatise of Poetry' | success, the advantages by that accession ; has been so little studied amongst us.” The and the many tun of tar-barrels for the completion of Rymer's plan was deferred for heretics. These topics may afford matter fifteen years. In 1693, appeared “A Short enough, with the chorus, for the second act. View of Tragedy; its original Excellency “In the third act, these gentlemen of the and Corruption. With some Reflections on cabinet cannot agree about sharing the preShakespear, and other Practitioners for the ferments of England, and a mighty broil Stage. This second treatise thus begins : | there is amongst them. One will not be “What reformation may not we expect now content unless he is King of Man; another that in France they see the necessity for will be Duke of Lancaster. One, that had a chorus to their tragedies ! ..

seen a coronation in England, will by all The chorus was the root and original, and is means be Duke of Aquitaine, or else Duke certainly almost the most necessary part, of of Normandy. And on this occasion two tragedy.” It would be exceedingly unjust to competitors have a juster occasion to work Rymer to collect the disjecta membra of his up and show the muscles of their passion criticism upon, or rather abuse of, Shakspere, than Shakespear's Cassius and Brutus. without exhibiting what were his own no- After, the chorus. tions of dramatic excellence; and certainly “ The fourth act may, instead of Atossa, in the whole range of the ludicrous there present some old dames of the court, used to are few things more amusing than his so- dream dreams, and to see sprites, in their lemn scheme for a tragedy on the subject night-rails and forehead-cloths, to alarm our of the Spanish Armada, in imitation of gentlemen with new apprehensions, which "The Persians,' of Æschylus. We cannot re- make distraction and disorders sufficient to sist the temptation of presenting it to our furnish out this act. readers :

“In the last act the king enters, and wisely “The place, then, for the action may be discourses against dreams and hobgoblins, to at Madrid, by some tomb, or solemn place quiet their minds; and, the more to satisfy of resort; or, if we prefer a turn in it from them, and take off their fright, he lets them good to bad fortune, then some drawing- to know that St. Loyola had appeared to him, room in the palace near the king's bed- and assured him that all is well. This said, chamber.

comes a messenger of the ill news; his ac“ The time to begin, twelve at night. count is lame, suspected, he sent to prison.

[ocr errors]

A second messenger, that came away long | any play fraught, like this of Othello, with
after, but had a speedier passage : his ac- improbabilities.”
count is distinct, and all their loss credited. We next are told, that "the characters
So, in fine, one of the chorus concludes with of manners, which are the second part in a
that of Euripides, Thus you see the gods tragedy, are not less unnatural and improper
bring things to pass often otherwise than than the fable was improbable and absurd.”
was by man proposed.”

From such characters we are not to expect After this, can we wonder that the art thoughts “ that are either true, or fine, or of Thomas Rymer is opposed to the art of noble;" and further, “in the neighing of a William Shakspere? Let us hear what he horse, or in the growling of a mastiff, there says of Othello—" of all the tragedies acted is a meaning, there is as lively expression, on our English stage, that which is said to and, may I say, more humanity, than many bear the bell away." He first gives the fable, times in the tragical flights of Shakespear.” of which the points are, the marriage of The crowning glory of the treatise is the Othello, the jealousy from the incident of the mode in which the critic disposes of the handkerchief, and the murder of Desdemona. scene between Othello and Iago in the third The facetious critic then proceeds :

act: “Whatever rubs or difficulty may stick on “ Then comes the wonderful scene where the bark, the moral, sure, of this fable is very Iago, by shrugs, half-words, and ambiguous instructive.

reflections, works Othello up to be jealous. “First, This may be a caution to all maidens One might think, after what we have seen, of quality how, without their parents' consent, that there needs no great cunning, no great they run away with blackamoors.

poetry and address, to make the Moor jealous. “Secondly, This may be a warning to all Such impatience, such a rout for a handgood wives, that they look well to their some young fellow, the .very morning after linen,

her marriage, must make him either to be “ Thirdly, This may be a lesson to hus- jealous, or to take her for a changeling bebands, that, before their jealousy be tragical, low his jealousy. After this scene it might the proofs may be mathematical.”

strain the poet's skill to reconcile the couple, The whole story of Othello, we learn, is and allay the jealousy. Iago now can only founded upon “an improbable lie:"

actum agere, and vex the audience with a “The character of that state (Venice) is nauseous repetition. Whence comes it, then, to employ strangers in their wars; but shall that this is the top scene—the scene that a poet thence fancy that they will set a raises Othello above all other tragedies in negro to be their general, or trust a Moor our theatres ? It is purely from the action, to defend them against the Turk? With us, from the mops and the mows, the grimace, a blackamoor might rise to be a trumpeter; the grins and gesticulation.

Such scenes but Shakespear would not have him less than as this have made all the world run after a lieutenant-general. With us, a Moor might Harlequin and Scaramuccio." marry some little drab, or small-coal wench: The conclusion of this prodigious piece of Shakespear would provide him the daughter criticism must conclude our extracts from and heir of some great lord or privy-coun- Thomas Rymer:cillor; and all the town should reckon it a “ What can remain with the audience to very suitable match: yet the English are not carry home with them from this sort of bred up with that hatred and aversion to the poetry, for their use and edification ? How Moors as are the Venetians, who suffer by a can it work unless (instead of settling the perpetual hostility from them,

mind, and purging our passions) to delude Littora littoribus contraria

our senses, disorder our thoughts, addle our

brain, pervert our affections, hair our imaginaNothing is more odious in nature than an tions, corrupt our appetite, and fill our head improbable lie ; and, certainly, never was with vanity, confusion, tintamarre, and jingle

[ocr errors]

jangle beyond what all the parish-clerks of two virtuous men, raised to the extremity of London, with their Old Testament farces and passion, and ending in the renewal of their interludes, in Richard the Second's time, friendship; and he says, “ The particular could ever pretend to ? Our only hopes, for groundwork which Shakespear has taken is the good of their souls, can be, that these incomparably the best.” This decision of people go to the playhouse as they do to Dryden would in those days dispose of the church, to sit still, look on one another, make matter as a question of criticism. But out no reflection, nor mind the play more than comes Rymer, who, in opposition to Dryden's they would a sermon. There is in this play judgment, and Betterton's applause, tells us, some burlesque, some humour and ramble of that Brutus and Cassius here act the part of comical wit, some show, and some mimicry mimics ; are bullies and buffoons ; are to to divert the spectators : but the tragical exhibit “a trial of skill in huffing and part is plainly none other than a bloody swaggering, like two drunken Hectors for a farce, without salt or savour."

twopenny reckoning." It may be true that We cannot agree with the author of an “ the author was not advancing what he able article in • The Retrospective Review,' | thought the world would regard as paradoxical that "these attacks on Shakespear are very and strange;" for it is the commonest of curious, as evincing how gradual has been self-delusions, even to the delusions of inthe increase of his fame ;” that “their whole sanity, to believe that the whole world agrees tone shows that the author was not advancing with the most extravagant mistakes and the what he thought the world would regard as strangest paradoxes ; and when Rymer, upon paradoxical or strange ;” that “he speaks as his critical throne, “speaks as one with one with authority to decide.” So far from authority to decide,” his authority is as receiving Rymer's frenzied denunciations as powerless as that of the madmar in Hogarth, an expression of public opinion, we regard who sits in solitary nakedness upon his straw, them as the idiosyncrasies of a very singular with crown on head and sceptre in hand. individual, who is furious in the exact pro- Rymer is a remarkable example of an able portion that the public opinion differs from man, in his own province, meddling with that

He attacks Othello' and · Julius of which he has not the slightest true conCæsar,' especially, because Betterton had for ception. He is, perhaps, more denuded of years been drawing crowds to his performance the poetical sense than any man who ever in those tragedies. He is one of those who attempted to be a critic in poetry : but he glory in opposing the general opinion. In had real learning. Shakspere fell into worse his first book, he says, “With the remaining hands after Rymer. The “Man Mountain tragedies I shall also send you some reflec- was fastened to the earth by the Lillitions on that “Paradise Lost' of Milton's, putians, and the strings are only just now which some are pleased to call a poem.” | broken by which he was bound. Dryden, the great critical authority of his In the quotations which we have given day, before whose opinions all other men from Dryden, it may be seen how reverently bowed, had in 1679 thus spoken of the origin criticism was based upon certain laws which, of his great scene between Troilus and however false might be their application, Hector : “ The occasion of raising it was were nevertheless held to be tests of the hinted to me by Mr. Betterton; the con- merit of the highest poetical productions. trivance and working of it was my own. Dryden was always balancing between the They who think to do me an injury by saying rigid application of these laws, and his own that it is an imitation of the scene betwixt hearty admiration of those whose art had Brutus and Cassius, do me an honour by rejected them. If he had been less of a real supposing I could imitate the incomparable poet himself, he might have become as furious Shakespear.” Dryden then goes on to con- a stickler for the canons of the ancients as trast the modes in which Euripides, Fletcher, Rymer was. With all his occasional exand Shakspere have managed the quarrel of pressions of hatred towards the French school

his own.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

of tragedy, he was uncor

consciously walking in written in 1672, presents a curious contrast the circle which the fashion of his age had to The Grounds of Criticism.'

He was drawn around all poetical invention. It was then a young poet, and wanted to thrust assuredly not yet "the fashion of the people; aside those who stood in the way of his stage for they clung to the school of poetry and popularity : “Let any man who understands passion with a love which no critical opinions English, re diligently the works of Shakecould wholly subdue. It was not the fashion spear and Fletcher; and I dare undertake of those who had drunk their inspiration that he will find in every page some solecism from the Elizabethan poets. It was not the of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense : fashion of Milton and his disciples. Hear and yet these men are reverenced when we how Edward Phillips speaks of Corneille in are not forgiven.

But the 1675:-“ Corneille, the great dramatic writer times were ignorant in which they lived. of France, wonderfully applauded by the Poetry was then, if not in its infancy among present age, both among his own countrymen us, at least not arrived to its vigour and and our Frenchly-affected English, for the maturity ; witness the lameness of their amorous intrigues which, if not there before, plots.” This was the self-complacency which he commonly thrusts into his tragedies and the maturer thoughts of a vigorous mind acted histories ; the imitation whereof among corrected. But nothing could correct the us, and of the perpetual colloquy in rhyme, critical obstinacy of Rymer. Dryden's hath of late very much corrupted our English poetical soul mounted above the growing stage." It was the spread of this fashion feebleness of his age's criticism, till at last, amongst the courtly littérateurs of the day when he attempted to deal with Shakspere that gave some encouragement to the ex- in the spirit of his age, he became a wortravagance of Rymer. The solemn harangues shipper instead of a mocker :about decorum in tragedy, the unities, moral

“Shakespeare, thy gift I place before my sight: fitness, did not always present the ludicrous

With awe, I ask his blessing ere I write. side, as it did in this learned madman, who

With reverence look on his majestic face, sublimated the whole affair into the most

Proud to be less, but of his godlike race.' delicious absurdity. We love him for it. His application of a “rule” to Fletcher's 'Maid's

The age laid its leaden sceptre upon the Tragedy' is altogether such a beautiful

smaller minds, and especially upon those who exemplification of his mode of applying his approached Shakspere with a cold and critical knowledge, that we cannot forbear creeping admiration. Of such was CHARLES more quotation from him :- -“If I

Gildon. In 1694 he appeared in the world mistake not, in poetry, no woman is to kill a

with 'Some Reflections on Mr. Rymer's Short man, except her quality gives her the ad

View of Tragedy, and an Attempt at a vantage above him; nor is a servant to kill Vindication of Shakespear.' It would be a the master, nor a private man, much less

waste of time to produce the antagonist of a subject, to kill a king; nor on the contrary.

Rymer armed cap-à-pie, and set these two Poetical decency will not suffer death to be doughty combatants in mortal fight with their

sacks of sand. It will be sufficient for us to dealt to each other by such persons whom the laws of duel allow not to enter the lists quote a few passages from Gildon’s ‘Essay together.” Rymer never changes bis opinions.

on the Art, Rise, and Progress of the Stage,' The principles upon which he founded his 1710, by way of showing, what indeed may first book were carried to a greater height of be inferred from Rymer's own book, that the extravagance in his second. Dryden, on

people were against the critics :-“'Tis my the contrary, depreciates Shakspere

, though opinion that, if Shakespear had had those timidly and doubtfully, in his early criti- advantages of learning which the perfect cisms, but warms into higher and higher knowledge of the ancients would have given admiration as he grows older. The ‘Defence

him, so great a genius as his would have of the Epilogue to the Conquest of Grenada,

* Epistle to Kneller.

1

[ocr errors]

one

« PreviousContinue »