Why was this not call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief?

These fragments come from the 17th century author and literary critic Thomas Rymer (1642-1713).  Rymer’s A Short View of Tragedy, published in 1692, casts a critical eye over several well-known plays, but his remarks on Othello, to which he devotes an entire chapter, are so entertaining I decided to share a few of them here.

From all the Tragedies acted on our English Stage, Othello is said to bear the Bell away.

What ever rubs or difficulty may stick on the Bark, the Moral, sure, of this Fable is very instructive.  First.  This may be a caution to all Maids 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 Linnen.  Thirdly.  This may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealousie be Tragical, their proofs may be Mathematical.

This Fable is drawn from a Novel, compos’d in Italian by Giraldi Cinthio, who also was a Writer of Tragedies.  And to that use employ’d such of his Tales, as he judged proper for the Stage.  But with this of the Moor, he meddl’d no farther.  Shakespear alters it from the Original in several particulars, but always, unfortunately, for the worse.  He bestows a name on his Moor; and styles him the Moor of Venice: a Note of pre-eminence, which neither History nor Heraldry can allow him.  Cinthio, who knew him best, and whose creature he was, calls him simply a Moor.  We say the Piper of Strasburgh; the Jew of Florence; And, if you please, the Pindar of Wakefield: all upon Record, and memorable in their Places.  But we see no such Cause for the Moors preferment to that dignity.  And it is an affront to all Chroniclers, and Antiquaries, to top upon ‘um a Moor, with that mark of renown, who yet had never faln within the Sphere of their Cognisance.

Then is the Moors Wife, from a simple Citizen, in Cinthio, dress’d up with her Top knots, and rais’d to be Desdemona, a Senators Daughter.  All this is very strange.  The Character of the Senate 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 Turk?  With us, a Black-amoor might rise to be a Trumpeter; but Shakespeare would not have him less than a Lieutenant-General.  With us, a Moor might marry some drab or small-coal wench: Shakespeare would provide him the Daughter of some great Lord or Privy Councellor.

Nothing is more odious in Nature than an improbable lye; And, certainly, never was any Play fraught, like this of Othello, with improbabilities.  The characters or Manners, which are the second part in a Tragedy, are not less unnatural and improper, than the Fable was improbable and absurd.

There is a long rabble of Jack pudden farce betwixt Iago and Desdemona, that runs on with all the little plays, jingle, and trash below the patience of any Country kitchin-maid with her Sweet-heart.  The Venetian Donna is hard put to’t for pastime!  And this is all, when they are newly got on shoar, from a dismal Tempest, and when every moment she might expect to hear her Lord (as she calls him) that she runs so mad after, is arriv’d or lost.

Never in the World had any Pagan Poet his Brains turn’d at this Monstrous rate.  But the ground of all this Bedlam-Buffoonry we saw in the case of the French Strollers, the Company for Acting Christs Passion,  or the Old Testament, were Carpenters, Coblers, and illiterate fellows; who found that the Drolls, and Fooleries interlarded by them, brought in the rabble, and lengthened their time, so they got Money by the bargain.  Our Shakespeare, doubtless, was a great Master in this craft.  These Carpenters and Coblers were the guides he followed.  And it is then no wonder that we find so much farce and Apocryphal Matter in his Tragedies.  Thereby un-hallowing the Theatre, profaning the name of Tragedy; And instead of representing Men and Manners, turning all Morality, good sence, and humanity into mockery and derision.

So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief!  Why was not this call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief?  What can be more absurd.  Desdemona dropt the Handkerchief, and missed it that very day after her Marriage.  It might have been rumpl’d up with her Wedding sheets: And this Night that she lay in her wedding sheets, the Fairey Napkin (whilst Othello was stifling her) might have started up to disarm his fury, and stop his ungracious mouth.  Then might she (in a Traunce for fear) have lain as dead.  Then might he, believing her dead, touch’d 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.

But from this Scene to the end of the Play we meet with nothing but blood and butchery, described much-what to the style of the last Speeches and Confessions of the persons executed at Tyburn: with this difference, that there we have the fact, and the due course of Justice, whereas our Poet against all Justice and Reason, against all Law, Humanity and Nature, in a barbarous arbitrary way, executes and makes havock of his subjects, Hab-nab, as they come to hand.  Desdemona dropt her Handkerchief; therefore she must be stifl’d.  Othello, by law to be broken on the Wheel, by the Poet cunning escapes with cutting his own throat.  Cassio, for I know not what, comes off with a broken shin.  Iago murders his Benefactor Roderigo, as this were poetical gratitude.  Iago is not yet kill’d, because there yet never was such a villain alive.

There is in this Play, some burlesk, some humour, and ramble of Comical Wit, some shew, and some Mimickry to divert the spectators: but the tragical part is plainly none other than a Bloody Farce, without salt or savour.

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