John Dryden's Criticism of
'Remarks On The Tragedies Of The Last Age' by Rymer
Published in The Life Of Dryden by Samuel Johnson

MR. DRYDEN, having received from Rymer his 'Remarks on the Tragedies of the last Age,' wrote observations on the blank leaves; which, having been in the possession of Mr. Garrick, are by his favour communicated to the public, that no particle of Dryden may be lost.

'That we may the less wonder why pity and terror are not now the only springs on which our tragedies move, and that Shakspeare may be more excused, Rapin confesses that the French tragedies now all run on the tendre; and gives the reason, because love is the passion which most predominates in our souls, and that therefore the passions represented become insipid, unless they are conformable to the thoughts of the audience. But it is to be concluded that this passion works not now amongst the French so strongly as the other two did amongst the ancients. Amongst us, who have a stronger genius for writing, the operations from the writing are much stronger: for the raising of Shakspeare's passions is more from the excellency of the words and thoughts, than the justness of the occasion; and if he has been able to pick single occasions, he has never founded the whole reasonably; yet, by the genius of poetry in writing, he has succeeded.

'Rapin attributes more to the dictio, that is, to the words and discourse of a tragedy, than Aristotle has done, who places them in the last rank of beauties; perhaps only last in order, because they are the last product of the design of the disposition or connection of its parts; of the characters, of the manners of those characters, and of the thoughts proceeding from those manners. Rapin's words are remarkable: 'Tis not the admirable intrigue, the surprising events, and extraordinary incidents, that make the beauty of a tragedy; 'tis the discourses, when they are natural and passionate: so are Shakspeare's.

'The parts of a poem, tragic or heroic, are,
'1. The fable itself.
'2. The order or manner of its contrivance in relation of the parts to the whole.
'3. The manners, or decency of the characters, in speaking or acting what is proper for them, and proper to be shown by the poet.
'4. The thoughts which express the manners.
'5. The words which express those thoughts.
'In the last of these, Homer excels Virgil; Virgil all other ancient poets; and Shakspeare all modern poets.

For the second of these, the order: the meaning is, that a fable ought to have a beginning, middle, and an end, all just and natural; so that that part, e. g. which is the middle, could not naturally be the beginning or end, and so of the rest; all depend on one another, like the links of a curious chain. If terror and pity are only to be raised, certainly this author follows Aristotle's rules, and Sophocles' and Euripides' example; but joy may be raised too, and that doubly, either by seeing a wicked man punished, or a good man at last fortunate; or perhaps indignation, to see wickedness prosperous and goodness depressed: both these may be profitable to the end of tragedy, reformation of manners; but the last improperly, only as it begets pity in the audience; though Aristotle, I confess, places tragedies of this kind in the second form.

' He who undertakes to answer this excellent critique of Mr. Rymer, in behalf of our English poets against the Greek, ought to do it in this manner. Either by yielding to him the greatest part of what he contends for, which consists in this, that the Ancient Greek i. e. the design and conduct of it, is more conducing in the Greeks to those ends of tragedy which Aristotle and he propose, namely, to cause terror and pity; yet the granting this does not set the Greeks above the English poets.

'But the answerer ought to prove two things: first, that the fable is not the greatest masterpiece of a tragedy, though it be the foundation of it.

'Secondly, that other ends as suitable to the nature of tragedy may be found in the English, which were not in the Greek.

'Aristotle places the fable first; not quoad dignitatem, sed quoad fundamentum: for a fable, never so movingly contrived to those ends of his, pity and terror, will operate nothing on our affections, except the characters, manners, thoughts, and words are suitable.

'So that it remains for Mr. Rymer to prove, that in all those, or the greatest part of them, we are inferior to Sophocles and Euripides: and this he has offered at, in some measure; but, I think, a little partially to the ancients.

'For the fable itself; 'tis in the English more adorned with episodes, and larger than in the Greek poets: consequently more diverting. For, if the action be but one, and that plain, without any counter-turn of design or episode, i. e. under-plot, how can it be so pleasing as the English, which have both an under-plot and a turned design, which keeps the audience in expectation of the catastrophe? whereas in the Greek poets we see through the whole design at first.

'For the characters, they are neither so many nor so various in Sophocles and Euripides, as in Shakspeare and Fletcher; only they are more adapted to those ends of tragedy which Aristotle commends to us, pity and terror.

'The manners flow from the characters, and consequently must partake of their advantages and disadvantages.

'The thoughts and words, which are the fourth and fifth beauties of tragedy, are certainly more noble and more poetical in the English than in the Greek, which must be proved by comparing them, somewhat more equitably than Mr. Rymer has done.

'After all, we need not yield that the English way is less conducing to move pity and terror, because they often show virtue oppressed and vice punished: where they do not both, or either, they are not to be defended.

'And if we should grant that the Greeks performed this better, perhaps it may admit of dispute, whether pity and terror are either the prime, or at least the only ends of tragedy.

''Tis not enough that Aristotle has said so, for Aristotle drew his models of tragedy from Sophocles and Euripides; and, if he had seen ours, might have changed his mind. And chiefly we have to say (what I hinted on pity and terror, 30 in the last paragraph save one), that the punishment of vice and reward of virtue are the most adequate ends of tragedy, because most conducing to good example of life. Now pity is not so easily raised for a criminal, and the ancient tragedy always represents its chief person such, as it is for an innocent man; and the suffering of innocence and punishment of the offender is of the nature of English tragedy: contrarily, in the Greek, innocence is unhappy often, and the offender escapes. Then we are not touched with the sufferings of any sort of men so much as of lovers; and this was almost unknown to the ancients: so that they neither administered poetical justice, of which Mr. Rymer boasts, so well as we; neither knew they the best commonplace of pity, which is love.

'He therefore unjustly blames us for not building on what the ancients left us; for it seems, upon consideration of the premises, that we have wholly finished what they began.

'My judgment on this piece is this, that it is extremely learned; but that the author of it is better read in the Greek than in the English poets; that all writers ought to study this critique as the best account I have ever seen of the ancients; that the model of tragedy he has here given is excellent, and extreme correct; but that it is not the only model of all tragedy, because it is too much circumscribed in plot, characters, etc.; and, lastly, that we may be taught here justly to admire and imitate the ancients, without giving them the preference with this author, in prejudice to our own country.

'Want of method in this excellent treatise makes the thoughts of the author sometimes obscure.

'His meaning, that pity and terror are to be moved is, that they are to be moved as the means conducing to the ends of tragedy, which are pleasure and instruction.

' And these two ends may be thus distinguished. The chief end of the poet is to please, for his immediate reputation depends on it.

'The great end of the poem is to instruct, which is performed by making pleasure the vehicle of that instruction; for poesy is an art, and all arts are made to profit. Rapin.

'The pity, which the poet is to labour for, is for the criminal, not for those or him whom he has murdered, or who have been the occasion of the tragedy. The terror is likewise in the punishment of the same criminal, who, if he be represented too great an offender, will not be pitied; if altogether innocent, his punishment will be unjust.

'Another obscurity is, where he says Sophocles perfected tragedy by introducing the third actor; that is, he meant, three kinds of action; one company singing or another playing on the music; a third dancing.

'To make a true judgment in this competition betwixt the Greek poets and the English, in tragedy:

' Consider, first, how Aristotle has defined a tragedy. Secondly, what he assigns the end of it to be. Thirdly, what he thinks the beauties of it. Fourthly, the means to attain the end proposed.

'Compare the Greek and English tragic poets justly and without partiality, according to those rules.

'Then, secondly, consider whether Aristotle has made a just definition of tragedy; of its parts, of its ends, and of its beauties; and whether he, having not seen any others but those of Sophocles, Euripides, etc., had or truly could determine what all the excellencies of tragedy are, and wherein they consist.

'Next show in what ancient tragedy was deficient; for example, in the narrowness of its plots, and fewness of persons, and try whether that be not a fault in the Greek poets; and whether their excellency was so great, when the variety was visibly so little; or whether what they did was not very easy to do.

'Then make a judgment on what the English have added to their beauties; as, for example, not only more plot, but also new passions; as, namely, that of love, scarce touched on by the ancients, except in this one example of Phaedra, cited by Mr. Rymer; and in that how short they were of Fletcher!

'Prove also that love, being an heroic passion, is fit for tragedy, which cannot be denied, because of the example alleged of Phaedra; and how far Shakspeare has outdone them in friendship, etc.

'To return to the beginning of this enquiry; consider if pity and terror be enough for tragedy to move: and I believe, upon a true definition of tragedy, it will be found that its to work extends farther, and that it is to reform manners by a delightful representation of human life in great persons by way of dialogue. If this be true, then not only pity and terror are to be moved, as the only means to bring us to virtue, but generally love to virtue, and hatred to vice, by showing the rewards of one, and punishments of the other; at least, by rendering virtue always amiable, though it be shown unfortunate; and vice detestable, though it be shown triumphant.

'If, then, the encouragement of virtue and discouragement of vice be the proper ends of poetry in tragedy, pity and terror, though good means, are not the only. For all the passions, in their turns, are to be set in a ferment: as joy, anger, love, fear, are to be used as the poet's common-places; and a general concernment for the principal actors is to be raised, by making them appear such in their characters, their words, and actions, as will interest the audience in their fortunes.

'And if, after all, in a larger sense, pity comprehends this concernment for the good, and terror includes detestation for the bad, then let us consider whether the English have not answered this end of tragedy, as well as the ancients, or perhaps better.

'And here Mr. Rymer's objections against these plays are to be impartially weighed, that we may see whether they are of weight enough to turn the balance against our countrymen.

' 'Tis evident those plays which he arraigns have moved both those passions in a high degree upon the stage.

'To give the glory of this away from the poet, and to place it upon the actors, seems unjust.

'One reason is, because whatever actors they have found, the event has been the same, that is, the same passions have been always moved, which shows that there is something of force and merit in the plays themselves conducing to the design of raising these two passions: and suppose them ever to have been excellently acted, yet action only adds grace, vigour, and more life upon the stage, but cannot give it wholly where it is not first. But, secondly, I dare appeal to those who have never seen them acted, if they have not found these two passions moved within them; and if the general voice will carry it, Mr. Rymer's prejudice will take off his single testimony.

'This, being matter of fact, is reasonably to be established by this appeal; as if one man says 'tis night, the rest of the world conclude it to be day; there needs no farther argument against him, that it is so.

'If he urge that the general taste is depraved, his arguments to prove this can at best but evince that our poets took not the best way to raise those passions; but experience proves against him, that these means which they have used have been successful, and have produced them.

'And one reason of that success is, in my opinion, this, that Shakspeare and Fletcher have written to the genius of the age and nation in which they lived; for though nature, 30 as he objects, is the same in all places, and reason too the same; yet the climate, the age, the disposition of the people to whom a poet writes, may be so different, that what pleased the Greeks would not satisfy an English audience.

'And if they proceeded upon a foundation of truer reason to please the Athenians than Shakspeare and Fletcher to please the English, it only shows that the Athenians were a more judicious people; but the poet's business is certainly to please the audience.

'Whether our English audience have been pleased hitherto with acorns, as he calls it, or with bread, is the next question; that is, whether the means which Shakspeare and Fletcher have used in their plays to raise those passions to before named, be better applied to the ends by the Greek poets than by them. And perhaps we shall not grant him this wholly: let it be granted that a writer is not to run down with the stream, or to please the people by their own usual methods, but rather to reform their judgments, it still remains to prove that our theatre needs this total reformation.

'The faults, which he has found in their designs, are rather wittily aggravated in many places than reasonably urged; and as much may be returned on the Greeks, by one who were as witty as himself.

'2. They destroy not, if they are granted, the foundation of the fabric; only take away from the beauty of the symmetry: for example, the faults in the character of the King and No-king are not as he makes them, such as render him detestable, but only imperfections which accompany human nature, and are for the most part excused by the violence of his love; so that they destroy not our pity or concernment for him: this answer may be applied to most of his objections of that kind.

'And Rollo committing many murders, when he is answerable but for one, is too severely arraigned by him, for it adds to our horror and detestation of the criminal: and poetic justice is not neglected neither; for we stab him in our minds for every offence which he commits, and the point which the poet is to gain on the audience, is not so much in the death of an offender as the raising an horror of his crimes.

'That the criminal should neither be wholly guilty, nor wholly innocent, but so participating of both as to move both pity and terror, is certainly a good rule, but not perpetually to be observed; for that were to make all tragedies too much alike, which objection he foresaw, but has not fully answered.

'To conclude, therefore; if the plays of the ancients are more correctly plotted, ours are more beautifully written. And if we can raise passions as high on worse foundations, it shows our genius in tragedy is greater; for in all other parts of it, the English have manifestly excelled them.'

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