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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1774

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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 skillfully than their successors. He calls to witness Ben Jonson, the Elizabethan dramatist most highly respected by the neoclassical critics, a writer who borrowed copiously from many of the classical authors and prided himself on being a modern Horace. Crites says I will use no further argument to you than his example: I will produce before you Father Ben, dressed in all the ornaments and colours of the ancients; you will need no other guide to our party, if you follow him.

Eugenius pleads the cause of the modern English dramatists, not by pointing out their virtues, but by criticizing the faults of the classical playwrights. He objects to the absence of division by acts in the works of the latter, as well as to the lack of originality in their plots. Tragedies are based on threadbare myths familiar to the whole audience; comedies revolve around hackneyed intrigues of stolen heiresses and miraculous restorations. A more serious defect is these authors’ disregard of poetic justice: “Instead of punishing vice and rewarding virtue, they have often shown a prosperous wickedness, and an unhappy piety.”

Pointing to scenes from several plays, Eugenius notes the lack of tenderness in classical drama. Crites grants Eugenius his preference, but he argues that each age has its own modes of behavior; Homer’s heroes were “men of great appetites, lovers of beef broiled upon the coals, and good fellows,” while the principal characters of modern French romances “neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, for love.”

Lisideius takes up the debate on behalf of the French theater of the early seventeenth century. The French classical dramatists, led by Pierre Corneille, were careful observers of the unities, and they did not attempt to combine tragedy and comedy, an English practice he finds absurd: “Here a course of mirth, there another of sadness and passion, and a third of honour and a duel: thus, in two hours and a half, we run through all the fits of Bedlam.”

The French playwrights are so attentive to poetic justice that, when they base their plots on historical events, they alter the original situations to mete out just reward and punishment. The French dramatist “so interweaves truth with probable fiction that he puts a pleasing fallacy upon us; mends the intrigues of fate, and dispenses with the severity of history, to reward that virtue which has been rendered to us there unfortunate.” Plot, as the preceding comments might suggest, is of secondary concern in these plays. The dramatist’s chief aim is to express appropriate emotions; violent action always takes place offstage, and it is generally reported by a messenger.

Just as Eugenius devoted much of his discussion to refuting Crites’ arguments, Neander, whose views are generally Dryden’s own, contradicts Lisideius’s claims for the superiority of the French drama. Stating his own preference for the works of English writers, especially of the great Elizabethans, Neander suggests that it is they who best fulfill the primary requirement of drama, that it be “an imitation of life.” The beauties of the French stage are, to him, cold; they may “raise perfection higher where it is, but are not sufficient to give it where it is not.” He compares these beauties to those of a statue, flawless, but without a soul. Intense human feeling is, Neander feels, an essential part of drama.

Neander argues that tragicomedy is the best form for drama, for it is the closest to life; emotions are heightened by contrast, and both mirth and sadness are more vivid when they are set side by side. He believes, too, that subplots enrich a play; he finds the French drama, with its single action, thin. Like Samuel Johnson, who defended Shakespeare’s disregard of the unities, Dryden suggests that close adherence to the rules prevents dramatic depth. Human actions will be more believable if there is time for the characters’ emotions to develop. Neander sees no validity in the argument that changes of place and time in plays lessen dramatic credibility; theatergoers know that they are in a world of illusion from the beginning, and they can easily accept leaps in time and place, as well as makeshift battles.

Concluding his comparison of French and English drama, Neander characterizes the best of the Elizabethan playwrights. His judgments have often been quoted for their perceptivity. He calls Shakespeare “the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher are praised for their wit and for their language, whose smoothness and polish Dryden considers their greatest accomplishment: “I am apt to believe the English language in them arrived to its highest perfection.”

Dryden commends Jonson for his learning and judgment, for his “correctness,” yet he feels that Shakespeare surpassed him in “wit,” by which he seems to mean something like natural ability or inspiration. This discussion ends 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.”

Neander concludes his argument for the superiority of the Elizabethans with a close critical analysis of a play by Ben Jonson, which Neander believes a perfect demonstration that the English were capable of following classical rules triumphantly. Dryden’s allegiance to the neoclassical tradition is clear here; Samuel Johnson could disparage the unities in his Preface to Shakespeare (1765), but Dryden, even as he refuses to be a slave to the rules, makes Ben Jonson’s successful observance of them his decisive argument.

The essay closes with a long discussion of the value of rhyme in plays. Crites feels that blank verse, as the poetic form nearest prose, is most suitable for drama, while Neander favors rhyme, which encourages succinctness and clarity. He believes that the Restoration dramatists can make their one claim to superiority through their development of the heroic couplet. Dryden is very much of his time in this argument; the modern reader who has suffered through the often empty declamation of the Restoration hero returns with relief to the blank verse of the Elizabethans.

Dryden ends his work without a real conclusion; the barge reaches its destination, the stairs at Somerset House, and the debate is, of necessity, over. Moving with the digressions and contradictions of a real conversation, the discussion provides a clear, lively picture of many of the literary opinions of Dryden’s time.