Read this article to know about the summary and main arguments in Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy or Of Dramatic Poesie.
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
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...
(The entire section is 1774 words.)