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John Dryden’s Of Dramatic Poesie (also known as An Essay of Dramatic Poesy ) is an exposition of several of the major critical positions of the time, set out in a semidramatic form that gives life to the abstract theories. Of Dramatic Poesie not only offers a capsule summary of the status of literary criticism in the late seventeenth century; it also provides a succinct view of the tastes of cultured men and women of the period. Dryden synthesizes the best of both English and Continental (particularly French) criticism; hence, the essay is a single source for understanding neoclassical attitudes toward dramatic art. Moreover, in his discussion of the ancients versus the moderns, in his defense of the use of rhyme, and in his argument concerning Aristotelian prescripts for drama, Dryden depicts and reflects upon the tastes of literate Europeans who shaped the cultural climate in France and England for a century.
Although it is clear that Dryden uses Neander as a mouthpiece for his own views about drama, he is careful to allow his other characters to present cogent arguments for the literature of the classical period, of France, and of Renaissance England. More significantly, although he was a practitioner of the modern form of writing plays himself, Dryden does not insist that the dramatists of the past are to be faulted simply because they did not adhere to methods of composition that his own age venerated. For example, he does not adopt the views of the more strident critics whose insistence on slavish adherence to the rules derived from Aristotle had led to a narrow definition for greatness among playwrights. Instead, he pleads for commonsensical application of these prescriptions, appealing to a higher standard of judgment: the discriminating sensibility of the reader or playgoer who can recognize greatness even when the rules are not followed.
For this reason, Dryden can champion the works of William Shakespeare over those of many dramatists who were more careful in preserving the unities of time, place, and action. It may be difficult to imagine, after centuries of veneration, that at one time Shakespeare was not held in high esteem; in the late seventeenth century, critics reviled him for his disregard for decorum and his seemingly careless attitudes regarding the mixing of genres. Dryden, however, recognized the greatness of Shakespeare’s productions; his support for Shakespeare’s “natural genius” had a significant impact on the elevation of the Renaissance playwright to a place of preeminence among dramatists.
The period after the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne is notable in English literary history as an age in which criticism flourished, probably in no small part as a result of the emphasis on neoclassical rules of art in seventeenth century France, where many of King Charles II’s courtiers and literati had passed the years of Cromwell’s rule. Dryden sets his discussion in June, 1665, during a naval battle between England and the Netherlands. Four cultivated gentlemen, Eugenius, Lisideius, Crites, and Neander, have taken a barge down the River Thames to observe the combat and, as guns sound in the background, they comment on the sorry state of modern literature; this naval encounter will inspire hundreds of bad verses commending the victors or consoling the vanquished. Crites laments that his contemporaries will never equal the standard set by the Greeks and the Romans. Eugenius, more optimistic, disagrees and suggests that they pass the remainder of the day debating the relative merits of classical and modern literature. He proposes that Crites choose one literary genre for comparison and initiate the discussion.
As Crites begins his defense of the classical drama, he mentions one point that is accepted by all the others: Drama is, as Aristotle wrote, an imitation of life, and it is successful as it reflects human nature clearly. He also discusses the three unities, rules dear to both the classicist and the neoclassicist, requiring that a play take place in one locale during one day, and that it encompass one action or plot.
Crites contends that modern playwrights are but pale shadows of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Seneca, and Terence. The classical dramatists not only followed the unities successfully; they also used language more.
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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)
Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay. Dryden’s only major critical essay to be published independently of any other work, is technically a Socratic dialogue introducing four characters, each with a different view of drama. Crites, who allegorically represents Dryden’s brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard, defends the rules and practices of classical Greek and Roman dramatists. Lisideius, representing Sir Charles Sedley, defends the French neoclassic dramatists of the seventeenth century as most worthy of emulation. Eugenius, representing Charles Sackville, supports Elizabethan dramatists—William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson—as superior to all others. Neander, representing Dryden himself, suggests that the contemporary Restoration dramatists have in some ways surpassed the achievement of their predecessors. Each speaker in turn examines the qualities of plot, characterization, important themes, style, and diction in dramas of his chosen period. The word “essay” in the title suggests the tentative nature of Dryden’s discourse, and throughout the speakers maintain a rational tone.
The discourse introduces the dichotomous approach frequently found in Dryden’s poetry and prose, with terms juxtaposed and explored. This device is best demonstrated in Lisideius’s definition of a play: “A just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” Contrastive terms such as “passion” (emotion) and “humour” (wit and eccentricity), “delight and instruction,” and “just and lively” are hallmarks of neoclassic criticism. Dryden extends them to include contrastive authors such as Homer and Vergil, Shakespeare and Jonson.
Since Neander is the last to speak, the major emphasis of Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay falls to his portion, and Dryden intends his points of view to prevail. Neander pays eloquent tribute to the genius of Shakespeare and Jonson, praising them as the two English predecessors who bear comparison with the ancient dramatists. Yet he defends contemporary drama by arguing that it depicts better manners than those of Elizabethan drama and that it has the added beauty of rhyme. In a lengthy analysis, Neander explains why rhyme should be considered superior to blank verse. The position on rhyme exposes both the tentative nature of Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay and Dryden’s tendency toward inconsistency in his critical opinions, for within less than a decade he reversed this position.
Hammond, Paul, and David Hopkins, eds. John Dryden: Tercentenary Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This collection, published during the tercentenary of Dryden’s death, examines some of Dryden’s individual works, as well as more general characteristics of his writing. Some of the essays question whether Dryden is a classicist, explore Dryden and the “staging of popular politics,” and describe the dissolution evident in his later writing.
Hopkins, David. John Dryden. Tavistock, England: Northcote House/British Council, 2004. Concise overview of Dryden’s life and work. Hopkins demonstrates that Dryden not only was of his times but also continues to have significance for twenty-first century audiences.
Kramer, David Bruce. The Imperial Dryden: The Poetics of Appropriation in Seventeenth-Century England. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Examines the French influence on Dryden’s thinking; a section focuses on the connection between Dryden and the French critical tradition by way of some contemporary French writers.
Lewis, Jayne, and Maximillian E. Novak, eds. Enchanted Ground: Reimagining John Dryden. Buffalo, N.Y. University of Toronto Press, 2004. Collection of essays that apply twenty-first century critical perspectives to Dryden’s work. The first section focuses on Dryden’s role as a public poet and the voice of the Stuart court during Restoration; the second explores his relationship to drama and music.
Pechter, Edward. Dryden’s Classical Theory of Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A review of Dryden’s classical inheritance. In a chapter discussing Of Dramatic Poesie. Pechter is primarily concerned with the classical structure of the argument in that work.
Rawson, Claude, and Aaron Santesso, eds. John Dryden, 1631-1700: His Politics, His Plays, and His Poets. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004. Contains papers presented at a Yale University conference held in 2000 to commemorate the tercentenary of Dryden’s death. The essays focus on the politics of Dryden’s plays and how his poetry was poised between ancient and modern influences.
Zwicker, Steven N. ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Among these seventeen essays are discussions of Dryden and the theatrical imagination, the invention of Augustan culture and patronage, Dryden’s London, and the “passion of politics” in his theater.
Dryden is distinguished as not only an excellent poet, dramatist and author in his own right, but also as somebody whose great intellect and sound powers of argument enabled him to write excellent.