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Mr. Rymer contends that Desdemona's solicitations for Cassio, were in themselves more than enough to rouse Othello's jealousy. "Iago can now, (he observes) only actum agere, and vex the audience with a nauseous repetition." This remark introduces the following criticism on the celebrated scene in the third act, between Othello and Iago, which is curious, not only as an instance of perverted reasoning, but as it shews, that in the performance, some great histrionic power must have been formerly exerted, not unlike the sublime energy of which, we, in witnessing this tragedy, have been spectators.
"Whence comes it then, that this is the top scene; the scene that raises Othello above all other tragedies at 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 ran after Harlequin and Scaramoucio.
'* The several degrees of action, were amongst the ancients distinguished by the cothumas, the soccus, and the planipes. Had this scene been represented at Old Rome, Othello and Iago must have quitted their buskins; they must have played barefoot: for the spectators would not have been content without seeing their podometry; and the jealousy work out at the very toes of them. Words, be they Spanish or Polish, or any inarticulate sound, have the same effect, they can only serve to distinguish, and, as it were, beat time to the notion. But here we see a known language does woefully encumber and clog the operation: as either forced, or heavy, or trifling, or incoherent, or improper, or most improbable. When no words interpose to spoil the conceit, every one interprets, as he likes best; so in that memorable dispute between Panurge and our English Philosopher in Rabelais, performed without a word speaking, the Theologians, Physicians, and Surgeons, made one inference; the Lawyers, Civilians, and Canonists, drew another conclusion more to their mind."
Mr. Rymer thus objects to the superlative villainy of Iago, on his advising Desdemona's murder.
"Iago had some pretence to be discontent with Othello and Cassio, and what passed hitherto was the operation of revenge. Desdemona had never done him any harm; always kind to him, and to his wife; was bis countrywoman, a dame of quality. For him to abet her murder, shews nothing of a soldier, nothing of a man, nothing of nature in it. The Ordinary of Newgate never had the like monster to pass under his examination. Can it be any diversion to see a rogue beyond what the Devil ever finished ? or would it be any instruction to an audience? Iago could desire no better than to set Cassio and Othello, his two enemies, by the ears together, so that he might have been revenged on them both at once; and chusing for his own share the murder of Desdemona, he had the opportunity to play booty, and save the poor harmless wretch. But the poet must do every thing by contraries; to surprise the audience still with something horrible and prodigious, beyond any human imagination. At this rate, he must outdo the Devil, to be a poet in the rank with Shakespear."
Mr. Rymer is decorously enraged to think that the tragedy should turn on a handkerchief. "Why," he asks in virtuous indignation, " was not this called the tragedy of the handkerchief? what can be more absurd than (as Quintilian expresses it) in parvibus Utibus has tragedias movere f We have heard of Fortunatus his purse, and of the invisible cloak long ago worn thread-beare, and stowed up in the wardrobe of obsolete romances; one might think that were a fitter place for this handkerchief than that it, at this time of day, be worn on the stage, to raise every-where all this clutter and turmoil." And again, " the handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no booby on this side Mauritania could make any consequence from it."
Our author suggests a felicitous alteration of the catastrophe of Othello. He proposes that the handkerchief, when lost, should have been folded in the bridal couch; and when Othello was stifling Desdemona,
"The fairy napkin might have started up to disarm his fury, and stop his ungracious moul.h. Then might she (in a trance for fear) have lain as dead. Then might he (believing her dead) touched with remorse, have honestly cut his own throat, by the good leave, and with the applause of all the spectators; who might thereupon have gone home with a quiet mind, admiring the beauty of providence, fairly and truly represented on the theatre."
The following is the summing up and catastrophe of this marvellous criticism:
"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 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 play-house 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 burlesk, some humour, and ramble of comical wit, some shew, and some miviicry to divert the spectators; but the tragical part is clearly none other than a bloody farce, without salt or savour."
Our author's criticism on Julius Ccesar is very scanty, compared with that on Othello, but it is not less decisive. Indeed, his classical zeal here sharpens his critical rage; and he is incensed against Shakespear, not only as offending the dignity of the tragic muse, but the memory of the noblest Romans. "He might," exclaims the indignant critic, " be familiar with Othello and Iago, as his own natural acquaintance, but Caesar and Brutus were above his conversation; to put them in fool's coats, and make them Jack Puddens in the Shakespear dress, is a sacrilege beyond any thing in Spelman. The truth is, this author's head was full of villainous, unnatural images—and history has furnished him with great names, thereby to recommend them to the world, by writing over them—This is Brutus, this is Cicero, this is Cresar." He affirms, " that the language Shakespear puts into the mouth of Brutus would not suit or be convenient, unless from some son of the shambles, or some natural offspring of the butchery." He abuses the poet for making the conspirators dispute about day-break—seriously chides him for not " allowing the noble Brutus a watch-candle in his chamber on this important night, rather than puzzling his man Lucius to grope in the dark for a flint and tinder box to get the taper lighted"—speaks of the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius, as that in which " they are to play a prize, a trial of skill in huffing and swaggering, like two drunken Hectors of a twopenny reckoning." And finally, alluding to the epilogue of Laberius, forced by the Emperor to become an actor, he thus sums up his charges:
"This may shew with what indigrnty our poet treats the noblest Romans. But there is no other cloth in his wardrobe. Every one must wear a fool's coat that comes to be dressed by him; nor is he more civil to the ladies—Portia, in good manners, might have challenged more respect; she that shines a glory of the first magnitude in the gallery of heroic dames, is with our poet scarce one remove from a natural; she is the own cousin-german of one piece, the very same impertinent silly flesh aud blood with Desdemona. Shakespear's genius lay for comedy and humour. In tragedy he appears quite out of his element; his brains are turned—he raves and rambles without any coherence, any spark of reason, or any rule to controul him, to set bounds to his phrenzy."
One truth, though the author did not understand it, is told in this critique on Julius Ccesar; that Shakespear's "senators and his orators had their learning and education at the same school, be they Venetians, Ottamites, or noble Romans." They drew, in'their golden urns, from the deep fountain of humanity, those living waters which lose not their sweetness or their inspiration in the changes of man's external condition.
These attacks on Shakespear are very curious, as evincing how gradual has been the increase of his fame. Their whole tone shews that the author was not advancing what he thought the world would regard as paradoxical or strange. He speaks as one with authority to decide. We look now on his work amazedly; and were it put forth by a writer of
VOL. I. PART i. D
our times, should regard it as " the very extacy of madness." Such is the lot of genius. However small the circle of cotemporary admirers, it must " gather fame" as time rolls on. It appeals to natural beauty and feeling, which cannot alter. The minds who once have deeply felt it, can never lose the impression it first made upon them—they transmit it to others of a kindred feeling, by whom it is extended to those who are worthy to treasure it within their souls. Its stability and duration at length awaken the attention of the world— it acknowledges the sanction of time, and professes an admiration for the author, which it only feels for his name. We should not, however, have thus dwelt on the attacks of Rymer, had we regarded them merely as objects of wonder, or as proofs of the partial influence of Shakespear's genius. They are far from deserving unmingled scorn. They display, at least, an honest, unsophisticated hatred, which is better than the maudlin admiration of Shakespear, expressed by those who were deluded by Ireland's forgeries. Their author has a heartiness, an earnestness almost romantic, which we cannot despise, though directed against our idol. With a singular obtuseness to poetry, he has a chivalric devotion to all that he regards as excellent, stately, and grand. He looks on the supposed errors of the poet as moral crimes. He confounds fiction with fact—grows warm in defence of shadows—feels a violation of poetical justice, as a wrong conviction by a jury—moves a Habeas Corpus for all damsels imprisoned in romance—and if the bard kills those of his characters who deserve to live, pronounces judgment on him as in case of felony, without benefit of clergy. He is the Don Quixote of criticism. Like the illustrious hero of Cervantes, he is roused to avenge fictitious injuries, and would demolish the scenic exhibition in his disinterested rage. He does more honour to the poet than any other writer, for he seems to regard him as an arbiter of life and death—responsible only to the critic for the administration of his powers.
Mr. Rymer has his own stately notions of what is proper for tragedy. He is zealous for poetical justice; and as he thinks that vice cannot be punished too severely, and that the poet ought to leave his victims objects of pity, he protests against the introduction of very wicked characters. "Therefore," says he, " among the ancients we find no malefactors of this kind; a wilful murderer is, with them, as strange and unknown as a parricide to the old Romans. Yet need we not fancy that they were squeamish, or unacquainted with any of those great lumping crimes in that age: when we remember their CEdipus, Orestes, or Medea. But they took care to Wash the viper, to cleanse away the venom, and with such art to prepare the morsel: they made it all junket to the taste, and all physic in the operation."
Our author understands exactly the balance of power in the affections. He would dispose of all the poet's characters to a hair, according to his own rules of fitness. He would marshal them in array as in a procession, and mark out exactly what each ought to do or suffer. According to him, so much of presage and no more should be given—such a degree of sorrow, and no more ought a character to endure; vengeance should rise precisely to a given height, and be executed by a certain appointed hand. He would regulate the conduct of fictitious heroes as accurately as of real beings, and often reasons very beautifully on his own poetic decalogue. "Amintor," says he, (speaking of a character in the Maid's Tragedy) " should have begged the king's pardon; should have suffered all the racks and tortures a tyrant could inflict; and from Perillus's bull should have still bellowed out that eternal truth, that his promise was to be kept—that he is true to Aspatia, that he dies for his mistress! Then would his memory have been precious and sweet to after ages; and the midsummer maidens would have offered their garlands all at his grave."
Mr. Rymer is an enthusiastic champion for the poetical prerogatives of kings. No courtier ever contended more strenuously for their divine right in real life, than he for their pre-eminence in tragedy. "We are to presume," observes he gravely, " the greatest virtues, where we find the highest rewards; and though it is not necessary that all heroes should be kings, yet undoubtedly all crowned heads, by poetical right, are heroes. This character is a flower, a prerogative, so certain, so indispensably annexed to the crown, as by no poet, or parliament of poets, ever to be invaded." Thus does he draw out the rules of life and death for his regal domain of tragedy: "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." He admits, however, that "there may be circumstances that alter the case: as where there is sufficient ground of partiality in an audience, either upon the account of religion (as Rinaldo or Riccardo in Tasso, might kill Soliman, or any other Turkish king or great Sultan) or else in favour of our country, for then a private English hero might overcome a king of some rival nation." How pleasant a master of the ceremonies is he in