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REVIEW OF RYMER'S WORKS ON
These are very curious and edifying works. The author (who was the compiler of the Fcedera) appears to have been a man of considerable acuteness, maddened by a furious zeal for the honour of tragedy. He lays down the most fantastical rules for the composition which he chiefly reverses, and argues on them as " truths of holy writ." He criticizes Shakspeare as one invested with authority to sit in judgment on his powers, and passes on him as decisive a sentence of condemnation, as ever was awarded against a friendless poet by a Reviewer. We will select a few passages from his work, which may be consolatory to modern authors, and useful to modern critics.
The chief weight of Mr. Rymer's critical vengeance is wreaked on Othello. After a slight sketch of the plot, he proceeds at once to speak of the moral, which he seems to regard as of the first importance in tragedy.
"Whatever rubs or difficulty may stick on the bark, the moral use 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. Thirdly, this may be a lesson to husbands, that before their jealousy be tragical, the proofs may be mathematical."
Our author then proceeds happily to satirize Othello's
colour. He observes, that "Shakspeare was accountable both to the eyes and to the ears." On this point we think his objection is not without reason. We agree with an excellent modern critic in the opinion, that though a reader may sink Othello's colour in his mind, a spectator can scarcely avoid losing the mind in the colour. But Mr. Rymer proceeds thus to characterize Othello's noble account to the Senate of his whole course of love.
"This was the charm, this was the philtre, the love-powder that took the daughter of this noble Venetian. This was sufficient to make the Blackamoor white, and reconcile all, though there had been a cloven foot into the bargain. A meaner woman might as soon be taken by Aqua Tetrachymagogon."
The idea of Othello's elevation to the rank of a general, stings Mr. Rymer almost to madness. He regards the poet's offence as a kind of misprision of treason.
"The character of the state (of 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 Turk1 With us, a Blackamoor might rise to be a trumpeter, but Shakspeare would not have him less than a lieutenant-general.—With us, a Moor might marry some little drab or small-coal wench; Shakspeare would provide him the daughter and heir of some great lord, or privy counsellor; 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 the Venitians, who suffer by a perpetual hostility from them,
"Liltora littoribus contraria."
Our author is as severe on Othello's character, as on his exaltation and colour.
"Othello is made a Venetian general. We see nothing done by him, nor related concerning him, that comports with the condition of a general, or, indeed, of a man, unless the killing himself to avoid a death the law was about to inflict upon him. When his jealousy had wrought him up to a resolution of his taking revenge for the supposed injury, he sets Iago to the fighting part to kill Cassio, and chooses himself to murder the silly woman his wife, that was like to make no resistance."
Mr. Rymer next undertakes to resent the affront put on the army by the making Iago a soldier.
"But what is most intolerable is Iago. He is no Blackamoor soldier, so we may be sure he should be like other soldiers of our acquaintance; yet never in tragedy, nor in comedy, nor in nature, was a soldier with his character;— take it in the author's own words:
- some eternal villain,
Some busie and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office.
"Horace describes a soldier otherwise,—Impyger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer.
"Shakspeare knew his character of Iago was inconsistent . In this very play he pronounces,
"If thou deliver more or less than truth,
"This he knew, but to entertain the audience with something new and surprising against common sense and nature, he would pass upon us a close, dissembling, false, insinuating rascal, instead of an open hearted, frank, plain dealing soldier, a character constantly worn by them for some thousands of years in the world."
Against " the gentle lady married to the Moor," Mr. Rymer cherishes a most exemplary hatred. He seems to labour for terms strong enough to express the antipathy and scom he bears her. The following are some of the daintiest:
"There is nothing in the noble Desdemona, that is not below any country kitchen-maid with us."—"No woman bred out of a pig-stye could talk so meanly."
Yet Is Mr. Rymer no less enraged at her death than at her life.
"Here (he exclaims in an agony of passion) a noble Venetian lady is to be murdered by our poet, in sober sadness, purely for being a fool. No pagan poet but would have found some machine for her deliverance. Pegasus would have strained hard to have brought old Perseus on his back, time enough to rescue this Andromeda from so foul a monster. Has our Christian poetry no generosity, no bowels 1 Ha, ha, Sir Launcelot! Ha, Sir George! Will no ghost leave the shades for us in extremity, to save a distressed damsel1"
On the expression," that is, we presume, the poetry of the work, Mr. Rymer does not think it necessary to dwell; though he admits that "the verses rumbling in our ears, are of good use to help off the action." On those of Shakspeare he passes this summary judgment: "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 Shakspeare." Having settled this trivial point, he invites the reader "to step among the scenes, to observe the conduct on this tragedy."
In examining the first scene of Olhello, our critic weightily reprehends the sudden and startling manner in which Iago and Roderigo informs Brabantio of his daughter's elopement with the Moor. He regards their abruptness as an unpardonable violation of decorum, and by way of contrast to its rudeness, informs us, that
"In former days there wont to be kept at the courts of princes somebody in a fool's coat, that in pure simplicity might let slip something, which made way for the ill news, and blunted the shock, which otherwise might have come too violent on the party."
Mr. Rymer shows the council of Venice no quarter. He thus daringly scrutinizes their proceedings.
u By their conduct and manner of talk, a body must strain hard to fancy the scene at Venice, and not rather at some of our Cinque ports, where the Daily and his fishermen are knocking their heads together on account of some whale; or some terrible broil on the coast. But to show them true Venetians, the maritime affairs stick not on their hand; the public may sink or swim. They will sit up all night to hear a Doctors' Commons matrimonial cause; and have the merits of the cau.se laid open to 'em, that they may decide it before they stir. What can be pleaded to keep awake their attention so wonderfully."
Here the critic enters into a fitting abuse of Othello's defence to the senate; expresses his disgust at the " eloquence which kept them up all night," and his amaze at their apathy, notwithstanding the strangenc ,s of the marriage. He complains, that
"Instead of starting at the prodigy, every one is familiar with Desdemona, as if he were her own natural father; they rejoice in her good fortune, and wish their own daughters as hopefully married. Should the poet (he continues) have provided such a husband for an only daughter of any peer in England, the Blackamoor must have changed his skin to look our House of Lords in the face."
Our critic next complains, that, in the second Act, the poet shows the action, (he "knows not how many leagues off") in the island of Cyprus, without "our Bayes," (as he pleasantly denominates Shakspeare) having made any provision of transport ships for the audience. The first scene in Cyprus is then "cut up" in a way, which might make the most skilful of modern reviewers turn pale with envy. After noticing the preliminary dialogue, Mr. Rymer observes, "now follows a long rabble of Jack Pudden farce between Iago and Desdemona, that runs on with all the little plays, jingle, and trash, below the patience of any country kitchen maid with her sweet-heart. The Venetian Donna is hard put to it for pastime; and this is all when they are newly got on shore from a dismal tempest, and when every moment she might expect to hear her Lord, (as she calls him,) that she