Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay, Dryden’s only major critical essay to be published independently of any other work, is technically a Socratic dialogue introducing four characters, each with a different view of drama. Crites, who allegorically represents Dryden’s brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard, defends the rules and practices of classical Greek and Roman dramatists. Lisideius, representing Sir Charles Sedley, defends the French neoclassic dramatists of the seventeenth century as most worthy of emulation. Eugenius, representing Charles Sackville, supports Elizabethan dramatists—William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson—as superior to all others. Neander, representing Dryden himself, suggests that the contemporary Restoration dramatists have in some ways surpassed the achievement of their predecessors. Each speaker in turn examines the qualities of plot, characterization, important themes, style, and diction in dramas of his chosen period. The word “essay” in the title suggests the tentative nature of Dryden’s discourse, and throughout the speakers maintain a rational tone.
The discourse introduces the dichotomous approach frequently found in Dryden’s poetry and prose, with terms juxtaposed and explored. This device is best demonstrated in Lisideius’s definition of a play: “A just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” Contrastive terms such as “passion” (emotion) and “humour” (wit and eccentricity), “delight and instruction,” and “just and lively” are hallmarks of neoclassic criticism. Dryden extends them to include contrastive authors such as Homer and Vergil, Shakespeare and Jonson.
Since Neander is the last to speak, the major emphasis of Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay falls to his portion, and Dryden intends his points of view to prevail. Neander pays eloquent tribute to the genius of Shakespeare and Jonson, praising them as the two English predecessors who bear comparison with the ancient dramatists. Yet he defends contemporary drama by arguing that it depicts better manners than those of Elizabethan drama and that it has the added beauty of rhyme. In a lengthy analysis, Neander explains why rhyme should be considered superior to blank verse. The position on rhyme exposes both the tentative nature of Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay and Dryden’s tendency toward inconsistency in his critical opinions, for within less than a decade he reversed this position.