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...
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