Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Thomas Rymer (16411713)
[Thomas Rymer (16411713), of Grays Inn, Esquire, was appointed Historiographer in 1692, and began almost immediately afterwards to work at his great collection of State papers, the Fdera, of which the first volume was published in 1704. His interest in history had been shown in his short essay (1681), A General Draught and Prospect of Government in Europe and Civil Policy, showing the Antiquity, Power, and Decay of Parliaments. His original writings are, however, chiefly poetical and critical; a heroic play, in couplets, Edgar (1677), some miscellaneous poems, and two short critical essays: The Tragedies of the Last Age Considered and Examined by the Practice of the Ancients (1678); and A Short View of Tragedy: its Original Excellency and Corruption, with some Reflections on Shakespeare and other Practitioners for the Stage (1693).]
RYMERS essays on tragedy are uncompromising assaults on Fletcher and Shakespeare in the interests of commonsense and the rules of good poetry. The constancy and perseverance of the critic are plainly manifest in the relation of the Short View to the essay on the Tragedies of the Last Age published fifteen years earlier. The Short View takes up and analyses the two plays of ShakespeareOthello and Julius Cæsarwhich the earlier tract had promised to deal with, and there is no change or relenting in the mode of treatment. In the Short View there is a little more of modern and medieval history, drawn from the antiquarian studies in which Rymer was to make his name. But though he shows some appreciation of medieval poetry, and touches on the Provencial poets, and gives a version from Jeffry Rudel, and praises Chaucer, he is not led away by any medieval or romantic taste to relax his hatred of extravagance or his adhesion to commonsense. A phrase in the Contents of his Short View explains his poetical standard with great conciseness:Chaucer refined our English. Which in perfection by Waller. A sentence or two in the same work, later, may exemplify the force of which in perfection by Waller:
Shakespeares 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 or set bounds to his phrenzy. His imagination was still running after his masters, the coblers, and parish clerks, and Old Testament stroulers.
Yet it would be unfair to Rymer to make of him nothing but a shocking example. A little grain of imagination leavens all his criticism. His admiration for the Greeks is not pretence; he knows the difference between Euripides and Seneca, and his description of the character of Phædra, as represented by the Greek and by the Latin tragic poet, is sensible. None of his critical writing is hard to read. His plan of a tragedy of The Invincible Armado, on the classical model, to compete with the Persians of Æschylus, will hold its own, though nothing but an outline, against the more romantic tragedy of Tilburina. The plan of the fourth actthe old dames of the Court alarming our gentlemen with new apprehensionsis not less pleasant to meditate upon than the inventions of Sheridans Tragedy Rehearsed. Dennis, in his remarks on Rymer, took this seriously, but Rymer is not quite free from malice in his commendation of his classical play.