Of Dramatic Poesie

by John Dryden

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What is John Dryden's opinion on the doctrine of poetic justice in "Of Dramatic Poesie"? How does he draw on the theories of Le Bossu regarding the function of art as the teaching of morality?  

In "Of Dramatic Poesie," Dryden supports the doctrine of poetic justice in which virtue is rewarded and evil punished, but says it should spring out of a imitation of nature that is realistic. Realism should not be sacrificed to impose an artificial justice. The English dramatists, such as Shakespeare, he argues, are the best at creating poetic justice. Dryden follows Le Bossu in stating that a moral message should be central to a work of art.

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Dryden's "Of Dramatic Poesie" is structured as a debate between four critics who have ventured out on a boat to watch a battle between Great Britain and the Netherlands. In this work, the figure of Neander represents the views of Dryden.

Dryden's intent in this work is to exalt and find a space for the "dramatic poesie" of English writers such as Shakespeare, even though such works don't fit precisely into the categories of classical drama and were often criticized in his time period as inferior for not following the unities of time, place, and action.

Poetic justice in literature occurs when virtue is rewarded and evil punished. In his essay, Dryden contends that the French dramatists are superior to the Greek in that they adhere strictly to notions of poetic justice, while the Greeks too often showed immoral acts being rewarded. However, Dryden finds the French too strict in adhering to poetic justice, stating that they alter reality in order to make a moral point. The English dramatists, in contrast, find a happy medium: they fulfill the need for poetic justice but in their case it arises from an imitation of nature that sticks to the reality of the human experience, and thus is more true to life. If French drama is too mechanical in adhering to the proper forms, robbing their plays of vitality, a dramatist like Shakespeare has the highest of virtues, "the largest and most comprehensive soul." Out of this the best poetic justice arises. Shakespeare might break all the rules but he produces the best and most moral art.

As for Le Bossu, Dryden followed him in believing that a writer should lay out the moral of a work very clearly. Dryden writes in his preface to Troilus and Cressida that the artist should know ahead of time:

What that precept of morality shall be, which you would insinuate into the people.

Expressing the right morality is thus important to Dryden, but he argues it should spring from realism.

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