“My whole discourse was skeptical … You see it is a dialogue sustained by persons of several opinions, all of them left doubtful, to be determined by the readers in general.” Dryden in Defense of An Essay.
John Dryden whom Walter Scott named "Glorious John" writes Essay of Dramatic Poesy or An Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668) which is, "the most elaborate and one of the most attractive and lively" of his works. As his combatants dispute the relative merits of Ancient and Modern drama, of English and French theatrical practice, Dryden conjures up echoes of the Platonic dialogue “A thing well said will be wit in all languages.”
According to Crites, ‘Ben Jonson as the greatest English playwright followed the ancients’ heritage by referring to the unities.
‘‘… he loved their fashion when he wore their clothes…’’
The speakers actually contrast Ben Jonson who wrote regular plays and also obeyed all the Classical rules, with William Shakespeare who broke these dramatic rules and unities with great abandon:
“He invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets is only victory in him.”
Eugenius, as his counterpart favors the moderns over the ancients, arguing that the moderns exceed the ancients because of having learned and profited from their example. Unlike the ancients, moderns have the chance of benefiting from the works of elder generations. In order to surpass the ancients, something should be added to what was learned from them. So, moderns are greater poets and superior to the ancients.
Crites interrupts Eugenius saying that they can not come to an agreement. Because, Crites believes that the moderns do not create something new but just changing the appearance. He concludes the debate:
“the ancients should be accepted as the masters today and in the future as well.”
Another debate starts between Eugenius and Lisideius on French Drama vs. English Drama then Neander also comes to the stage sharing his ideas as well. Eugenius favors English Drama and accepts it superior to the French Drama. However, Lisideius who glorifies French plays, replies by saying that French Drama is superior to the English and also any other European Drama. He supports himself by accepting the French Drama as the most strictly faithful one to the Aristotle’s three unities:
‘‘There is 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’.
Lisideius defines it as ‘‘unnatural mixture of comedy and tragedy’’. Shakespeare’s plays’ consisting of both a plot and a sub plot is also a default according to Lisideius.
“Some actions which should be done behind the scene such as a battle or a murder which English Drama lacks and causes turmoil on the scene.”
And he finishes “none of the French plays end with any unbelievable conversions.
Neander goes on to defend English Drama and tragicomedy. According to him, tragicomedy increases the effectiveness of both tragic and comic elements by way of contrast. He then criticizes French Drama especially for its shallowness: consisting of only one plot without sub plots; showing to the audience too little action but too many words, shortly, its narrowness of imagination. And these are all qualities which makes it inferior to the English Drama.
Neander extends his criticism of French Drama by reasoning for his preference of Shakespeare over Ben Jonson.
Shakespeare has ‘‘the largest and most comprehensive soul’’ while Jonson is ‘‘the most learned and judicious writer which any theater ever had’’.
Moreover, Neander prefers Shakespeare for his greater faithfulness to the life while Jonson has a French/Classical tendency to deal with the ‘beauties of a statue, but not of man’.
‘‘If I would compare him with Shakespeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our Dramatick Poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing; I admire him but I love Shakespeare’’.
The last debate takes its start by Crites’ objecting to rhyme in plays. ‘
‘Rhyme is incapable of expressing the greatest thought naturally, and the lowest it can not with any grace’’
According to him, no man speaks in rhyme, and if the stage is reflection of the real life, then why he ought to do it on the stage. He supports his objection by citing from Aristotle as saying
‘‘plays should be writ in that kind of verse which is nearest prose.’’
He uses it as a justification for banishing rhyme from drama in favor of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter).
Three versions of classicism have held the stage, but Neander’s deferential conclusions have persuasively illuminated Dryden’s true ambition: a vindication of English drama. It is one which will pay sufficient respect to the rules, but which will be generous enough to accommodate the wilder genius of a Shakespeare who
“when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too.”
What pleased the Greeks may not satisfy the English taste. In this respect he is more liberal than Sidney or Ben Jonson or any of the continental neo-classical critics.
Before going deep into the essay, please read this para first.
The treatise is a dialogue between four speakers:
- Eugenius was Sir William Davenant [Dryden's "ingenious" collaborator on their revision of The Tempest],
- Crites was Sir Robert Howard [playwright and Dryden's brother-in-law],
- Lisideius was the earl of Orrery [Roger Boyle, author of the first heroic play in rhymed couplets],
- Neander was Dryden himself (Neander means "new man" and implies that Dryden, as a respected member of the gentry class, is entitled to join in this dialogue on an equal footing with the three older men who are his social superiors).
On the day that the English fleet encounters the Dutch at sea near the mouth of the
Thames, the four friends take a barge downriver towards
the noise from the battle.