Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954

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John Dryden, the premier poet of his age, is honored primarily as a satirist and controversialist in the political and religious skirmishes of the Restoration. It was in drama, however, that he honed the fine poetic skills of his later poems. Between 1667 and 1678, he wrote a series of comedies and tragedies that provided him with the opportunity to develop the authority and control that distinguish his major poetry. Dryden was never a truly successful comic dramatist, perhaps because the prospect of a foolish or flawed man’s getting better than he deserved was at odds with Dryden’s essentially satiric sensibility. He did, however, create a series of memorable tragedies, including Aureng-Zebe (1675) and Tyrannic Love: Or, The Royal Martyr (1669), which set the norm for heroic drama in the period.

The Restoration was an exciting period in the history of the drama, with the introduction of women playing female roles. The heroic drama, the dominant serious form, is an exaggerated and stylized presentation of themes of epic proportions. Large heroes and heroines confront dastardly villains with a great deal of bombastic rhetoric, usually in heroic couplets. Through his tragedies, Dryden had been building toward a greater control of the excesses of the genre and, in All for Love, he abandons the couplet for blank verse and manages his highly romantic subject matter with distance and restraint.

All for Love is a retelling of the story of Antony and Cleopatra, but, despite Dryden’s great admiration for Shakespeare, it is in no sense an adaptation of Shakespeare’s version. Dryden’s play lacks the panoramic sweep of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623), which ranges broadly over the civilized world. As a devotee of a more rational kind of theater based on a strict interpretation of Aristotle, Dryden is much more concerned about the unities of time, place, and action. The whole drama unfolds in Alexandria and is narrowly limited to the period after the defeat of Antony at the battle of Actium.

The play does not have a climax in the usual sense of the term. The climax of a drama is ordinarily a focal point toward which the conflicts and complications build. It is true that in some Shakespearean plays the climax is early, as in Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), in which the murder of Duncan is accomplished in the second act so that the audience may concentrate on the consequences of Macbeth’s crime. Dryden goes a step further. If All for Love has a climax at all, it occurs before the beginning of the action on stage. The play traces the complex chain of results of the battle of Actium, which changes the course of history, seals the fate of Antony, and dooms Egyptian civilization.

Such a context is the natural element of Restoration heroic drama: a hero larger than life, worthy of the grandest exploits, is thrust into a moribund civilization. Heroic drama of the Restoration is fashioned by a poetics of the terminal. The overreacher, the hero who monumentally represents all that is best in a nation and who tests the justice and the restraining limits of the universe, is gone from the moral universe of the Restoration. Instead, the audience has heroes, noble beyond reproach, who are cast into a twilight world, the world of the terminus, or end. Dryden’s images of sunsets and twilight reinforce the impression of finality. The optimism of Renaissance drama is replaced, if not by despair, at least by resignation to a world in decline. Antony challenged the world, but that time is now past. He is left to examine his passions in a series of after-the-fact confrontations.

New attitudes about what is efficacious social behavior emerge from the Restoration’s predilection for order and stability. The heroic drama is a transposition of the daring hero into a more subdued context. Dryden’s play may be considered a reflection of the time in which he lived in its lack of belief in the social utility of the hero. Dryden establishes a new kind of tragedy that recognizes the limitations of the hero and searches out what is beyond.

Unlike Shakespeare, Dryden does not use setting as a premise for characterization. Dryden takes pains to remove his characters from the particularities of any specific time or place, to isolate them in a world free of extraneous distractions. In this context Antony, his great exploits over, is free to confront himself. It is probably a limitation of the dramatic form that these complications seem to be thrust externally upon Antony, but the fact remains that he must face a series of trials, each of which is designed to challenge another facet of his sorely burdened moral identity. As Antony faces his troubles, he is no more a passionate drunkard than he is any longer the potent hero. He is not a weak man. The conflict is no longer a simple dichotomy of passion and responsibility; rather, it is a matter of Antony, through the blandishments of Ventidius and Cleopatra, trying to decide who he is by discovering where his true loyalties lie.

It is typical of this oddly muted tragic world that its passions are manipulated and stage-managed by the eunuch Alexas. Octavius, the hero in the ascendant, never appears on stage. It is Antony’s descent from godhead to humanity, rather than the drama of war, that is the source of the special tragedy of All for Love. Antony’s experience brings him to a self-perception and an understanding of passion, loyalty, and power that are beyond the hero at the height of his success. Heroic perception of this diminished sort is the appropriate insight for an age of reason and skepticism.