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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 17. Jeremy Collier’s Short View

Relying upon Rymer, Collier went boldly to the attack. The playwrights, he asserted, were immodest, profane, and encouragers of immorality. He made an appeal to universal history, that he might prove the baser wickedness of Englishmen. As little a respecter of persons as Rymer, he lets his cudgel fall indiscriminately upon the backs of great and small. “Aristophanes his own plays,” says he, “are sufficient to ruin his authority. For he discovers himself a downright atheist.” He shares his master’s contempt of Shakespeare, who, says he, “is too guilty to make an evidence: but I think he gains not much by his misbehaviour; he has commonly Plautus’ fate, when there is most smut there is least sense.” His comment on Ophelia matches Rymer’s demolition of Desdemona. Having extolled Euripides for seeing to it that Phaedra’s “frenzy is not lewd,” he proceeds:

  • Had Shakespeare secur’d this point for his young virgin Ophelia, the play had been better contriv’d. Since he was resolved to drown the lady like a kitten, he should have set her swimming a little sooner.
  • There we have the key to his “criticism.” Again, he will not permit the smallest reference to the Bible in a comedy. When Sir Sampson in Love for Love says, “your Sampsons were strong dogs from the beginning,” Collier’s comment is characteristic: “Here you have the sacred history burlesqu’d, and Sampson once more brought into the House of Dagon to make sport for the Philistines.” He is indignant that lord Foppington should confess that “Sunday is a vile day,” though the statement is perfectly consonant with the part. That Valentine, in Love for Love, should murmur “I am truth,” fills the nonjuror with fury. “Now a poet,” says he, “that had not been smitten with blasphemy would never have furnished frenzy with inspiration.” The thought of The Relapse drives him to the verge of madness: “I almost wonder,” says he, “the smoke of it has not darkened the sun, and turned the air to plague and poison.”

    The worst offence of all committed by the dramatists is, in his eyes, the abuse of the clergy. “They play upon the character and endeavour not only the men but the business.” If he had his way, he would forbid the introduction of any priest, heathen or Christian, into literature. “The author of Don Sebastian,” says he, “strikes at the bishops through the sides of the Mufti, and borrows the name of the Turk to make the Christian ridiculous.” Then, with a tedious circumstance, he discusses the priesthood in all climes and ages, approves Racine, who brings a high priest into Athalie, but “does him justice in his station,” and awards the true palm to Corneille and Molière, who set no priest upon the stage. “This is certainly the right method, and best secures the outworks of piety.” And, after a priest, he best loves a man of quality. Plautus wins his approval because his boldest “sallies are generally made by slaves and pandars.” He asks indignantly what quarter the stage gives to quality, and finds it extremely free and familiar. That Manly in Wycherley’s play should call a duke a rascal he confesses is very much plain dealing. “What necessity is there,” he demands, “to kick the coronets about the stage, and to make a man a lord, only in order to make him a coxcomb?” Plainly there is no necessity; but the fact that Collier should put the question is the best measure of his irrelevance.