John Dryden in Defence of English Dramatists And Ingenious Plan for Writing His Essay of Dramatic Poesy


The Man: John Dryden, a lifelong man of letters, lacking in the creative imagination which lifts Shakespeare and Milton above their times, lacking too in moral and emotional qualities, but a man of great intellect and a master craftsman able to use his pen along many lines of composition. John Dryden defends tragic comedy which the English dramatists ably and artistically wrote. In his essay on dramatic poesy, Dryden ,in the voice of Neander, rises up in defence of English Dramatists and strongly pleads that English dramatists are fully justified in not slavishly accepting the classical principles in many respects.  They have developed their own principles and proved themselves to be superior to the Greek and French dramatists in many ways.

The Critic: Dryden developed a very ingenious plan for writing his Essay of Dramatic Poesy.  In 1665 great plague broke out in London.  In order to escape from the infection of the plague, many people left London and moved out to the countryside.  Dryden takes this situation and develops a plan to write a great treatise on the theory and practice of dramatic poesy.  He imagines he and his three friends sail out of London in a boat on the river Thames.  The journey is long and tedious.  Therefore in order to to avoid the boredom of the journey, the four friends decide to hold some useful discourse on the theory and practice of drama in different ages in Greece, Rome, France and England.

 Four Critics:

1) Eugenius--favors the moderns over the ancients, arguing that the moderns exceed the ancients because of having learned and profited from their example.
2) Crites--argues in favor of the ancients: they established the unities; dramatic rules were spelled out by Aristotle which the current--and esteemed--French playwrights follow; and Ben Jonson--the greatest English playwright, according to Crites--followed the ancients' example by adhering to the unities.
3) Lisideius--argues that French drama is superior to English drama, basing this opinion of the French writer's close adherence to the classical separation of comedy and tragedy. For Lisideius "no theater in the world has anything so absurd as the English tragicomedy . . . in two hours and a half, we run through all the fits of Bedlam."
4) Neander (thought to represent Dryden)--favors the moderns, but does not disparage the ancients. He also favors English drama--and has some critical things to say of French drama: "those beauties of the French poesy are such as will raise perfection higher where it is, but are not sufficient to give it where it is not: they are indeed the beauties of a statue, but not of a man."

Five issues:

1)Ancients vs. Moderns
2) Unities
3) French vs. English Drama
4) Separation of Tragedy and Comedy vs. Tragicomedy
5) Appropriateness of Rhyme in Drama

The Key Analytical Points:  
  • The four friends by mutual agreement decide to allot one country or one age to each of the four friends.  Thus there are four interlocutors, each taking up the defense of dramatic literature of one country or one age.  This ingenious device helps Dryden in developing historical, comparative, descriptive, and independent method of criticism.  In final conclusion, Dryden holds that ancient principles should be respected but they should not be followed slavishly.
  •  Dryden strongly defended the technique of Shakespeare in this regard in his dramatic romances. In Dryden’s opinion, joys and sorrows go together in nature. Therefore, tragic comedy is true representation of nature. He says that, “ a scene of mirth, mixed with tragedy has the same effect upon us which our music has betwixt the acts; which we find a relief to us from the best plots and language of the stage, if the discourses have been long.” He considers it an honourable thing for England that the English playwrights have invented and perfected “a more pleasant way of writing for stage than was ever known to the ancients or moderns of any nation, which is tragi comedy.” Eugenius defends the English dramatists of the last age with a highly penetrating insight.  It is true, that the ancient Greek and Roman scholars laid down many basic principles of drama.
  • The English authors gave due respect to them, but they adhered more to the rules of nature.  The ancients had no clear-cut concept of dividing a play into acts.
  •  The English dramatists set the vogue of dividing a play into five acts.  Most of the ancient Greek playwrights wrote their plays on highly popular episodes of Thebes or Troy on which many narrative poems, epics and plays had already been written.  Therefore the spectators found nothing new in them.  Many times they spoke out the dialogues before the actors spoke them.
  • The English dramatists wrote their plays on new and interesting themes.  In comedies the Greek as well as Roman playwrights repeated a common theme of lost children coming back to their parents as grown up gentleman and ladies after a gap of many years.  The spectators lost their interest in this often repeated theme.  The English dramatists invented new and interesting themes.  So far as the dramatic unities are concerned even the Greek authors who gave their concept, did not always observe them.  In the case of moral teaching too the ancients grossly erred.  They often presented the wicked prospering and the virtuous suffering and languishing.
  • The English playwrights exhibited poetic justice whereby the virtuous won and the wicked lost in the end.  In all these respects the English dramatists of the last age were better than the Greek or Roman dramatists.


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