John Dryden Of Dramatick Poesie An Essay

Read this article to know about the summary and main arguments in Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy or Of Dramatic Poesie.

Introduction

Criticism flourished in England during the restoration of Stuarts. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy deals with the views of major critics and the tastes of men and women of the time of Dryden. The work is in the form of semi-drama thus making abstract theories interesting. In late 17th century, Shakespeare was severely criticised for his careless attitude towards the mixing of genres. It was Dryden who elevated Shakespeare to height for his natural genius.

The narrative of An Essay of Dramatic Poesy has four debaters among whom, Neander is the one who holds the views of Dryden. Unlike other characters, Neander does not diminish the arguments that are on contrary to his views. Though he himself favours modern drama, he does not blame others.

Summary of An Essay on Dramatic Poesy

The beginning of the narrative An Essay of Dramatic Poesy or Of Dramatic Poesie is as follows. A battle is going on between England and Netherlands. Four gentlemen namely Crites, Eugenius, Lisideius and Neander are travelling by boat to see the battle and start a discussion on modern literature. Crites opens the discussion by saying that none of his contemporaries (i.e. moderns) can equal the standards and the rules set by ancient Greeks and Romans. Eugenius restrains him from wasting time on finding demerits. He asks him to find relative merit in Greeks and Moderns.

Views of Crites

Crites favours classical drama i.e. the drama of Aristotle who believed that drama is “imitation of life”. Crites holds that drama of such ancients is successful because it depicts life. He says that both classical and neoclassical favour rules and unities (time, place and action). According to Crites, modern dramatists are shadows of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Seneca and Terence. E.g. Elizabethan dramatist Ben Jonson borrowed from Classics and felt proud to call himself modern Horace.  The classical are more skilful in language than their successors. At this, he ends up his conversation.

Views of Eugenius

Eugenius favours modern dramatists. However, instead of telling about the virtues of moderns, he criticises the faults of Classical playwrights. According to him, the Classical drama is not divided into acts and also lacks originality. Their tragedies are based on worn-out myths that are already known to the audience and their comedies are based o overused curiosity of stolen heiresses and miraculous restorations.

There disregard poetic justice. Instead of punishing the vice and rewarding the virtue, they have often shown prosperous wickedness and an unhappy devotion.  The classical drama, also lacks affection. The Heroes of Homer were lovers of appetite, food etc, while the modern characters of French drama gave up everything (sleep, water and food) for the sake of love.


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Views of Lisideius

Lisideius favours French drama of earlier 17th century. French drama led by Pierre Corneille strictly followed unities of time, pace and action.  The French dramatists never mix tragedy and comedy. They strictly adhere to the poetic justice i.e. reward the virtue and punishment the vice. For this they even alter the original situation.

The French dramatists interweave truth with fiction to make it interesting bringing elements that lead to fate and borrow from history to reward the virtuous which he was earlier deprived of.  They prefer emotions over plots. Violent actions take place off stage and are told by messengers rather than showing them in real.

Views of Neander

Neander contradicts Lisideius’ arguments favouring superiority of French drama. He talks about the greatness of Elizabethans. For him, Elizabethans fulfil the drama’s requirement i.e. imitation of life. French drama raises perfection but has no soul or emotions as it primarily focuses on plot.  For Neander, tragicomedy is the best form of drama. Both sadness as well as joy are heightened and are set side by side. Hence it is closest to life.

He believes that subplots enrich the drama. This French drama having single plot lacks this vividness.  Further Samuel Johnson (who defended Shakespeare’s disregard of unities), he believes that adherence to unities prevents depth. According to him, deviation from set rules and unities gives diverse themes to drama.  Neander rejects the argument that change of place and time diminishes dramatic credibility in drama.

For him, human actions will seem more natural if they get enough time to develop. He also argues that Shakespeare is “the man who of all the modern and perhaps ancient poets, and largest and most comprehensive soul. Francis Beaumont and John Fletchers’ dramas are rich in wit and have smoothness and polish in their language.

Neander says, “I am apt to believe the English language in them arrived at its highest perfection”. If Ben Jonson is a genius for correctness, Shakespeare excels him in wit.  His arguments end with the familiar comparison, “Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing; I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.”  Thus for him, Elizabethans are superior because they have a variety of themes, emotions, deviations, wit. They do not adhere to rules as well. Thus their drama is really an imitation of life.

Views on Rhyme in Drama

In the end of the discussion, there is an argument between Crites and Neander over rhyme in plays. Crites believes that Blank Verse as the poetic form nearest to prose is most suitable for drama.  On the other hand, Neander defends rhyme as it briefly and clearly explains everything.  The boat on which they all were riding reaches its destination, the stairs at Somerset House and the discussion ends without any conclusion being made.

Filed Under: English LiteratureTagged With: Drama


An Essay of Dramatic Poesy by John Dryden: An Overview

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy gives an explicit account of neo-classical theory of art in general. Dryden is a neoclassic critic, and as such he deals in his criticism with issues of form and morality in drama. However, he is not a rule bound critic, tied down to the classical unities or to notions of what constitutes a "proper" character for the stage. He relies heavily on Corneille - and through him on Horace - which places him in a pragmatic tradition.


John Dryden (1631-1700)

Dryden wrote this essay as a dramatic dialogue with four characters Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius and Neander representing four critical positions. These four critical positions deal with five issues. Eugenius (whose name may mean "well born") favors the moderns over the ancients, arguing that the moderns exceed the ancients because of having learned and profited from their example. 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. 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." Neander 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." Neander goes on to defend tragicomedy: "contraries, when placed near, set off each other. A continued gravity keeps the spirit too much bent; we must refresh it sometimes." Tragicomedy increases the effectiveness of both tragic and comic elements by 'way of contrast. Neander asserts that "we have invented, increased, -and perfected a more pleasant way of writing for the stage . . . tragicomedy."

Neander criticizes French drama essentially for its smallness: its pursuit of only one plot without subplots; its tendency to show too little action; its "servile observations of the unities…dearth of plot, and narrowness of imagination" are all qualities which render it inferior to English drama. Neander extends his criticism of French drama - into his reasoning for his preference for Shakespeare over Ben Jonson. Shakespeare "had the largest and most comprehensive soul," while Jonson was "the most learned and judicious writer which any theater ever had." Ultimately, Neander prefers Shakespeare for his greater scope, his greater faithfulness to life, as compared to Jonson's relatively small scope and Freneh/Classical tendency to deal in "the beauties of a statue, but not of a Man."

Crites objects to rhyme in plays: "since no man without premeditation speaks in rhyme, neither ought he to do it on the stage." He cites Aristotle as saying that it is, "best to write tragedy in that kind of verse . . . which is nearest prose" as a justification for banishing rhyme, from drama in favor of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). Even though blank verse lines are no more spontaneous than are rhymed lines, they are still to be preferred because they are "nearest nature": "Rhyme is incapable of expressing the greatest thought naturally, and the lowest it cannot with any grace: for what is more unbefitting the majesty of verse, than to call a servant, or bid a door be shut in rhyme?"

Neander respond to the objections against rhyme by admitting that "verse so tedious" is inappropriate to drama (and to anything else). "Natural" rhymed verse is, however, just as appropriate to dramatic as to non-dramatic poetry: the test of the "naturalness" of rhyme is how well-chosen the rhymes are. Is the sense of the verses tied down to, and limited by, the rhymes, or are the rhymes in service to, and an enhancement of, the sense of the verses?

The main point of Dryden's essay seems to be a valuation of becoming (the striving, nature-imitating, large scope of tragicomedy and Shakespeare) over being (the static perfection of the ideal-imitating Classical/French/Jonsonian drama).

Dryden prescriptive in nature, defines dramatic art as an imitation with the aim to delight and to teach, and is considered a just and lively image of human nature representing its passions and humors for the delight and instruction of mankind. Dryden emphasizes the idea of decorum in the work of art.

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