John Dryden Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Dryden was a prolific playwright, creating heroic plays, political plays, operas, heroic tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies; however, he is best remembered for his poetry and criticism, as many of his plays did not stand the test of time.

Marriage à la Mode

Dryden’s best comedy is generally considered to be Marriage à la Mode. His others rely heavily on farcical situations and double entendre and, at times, inept licentiousness that makes comedies such as The Assignation and The Kind Keeper seem unnecessarily coarse even by the standards of his time. Marriage à la Mode combines in its two distinct plot lines the conventions of the romantic tragicomedy and the Restoration comedy of manners, a genre not fully established when Dryden produced his play.

The tragicomic plot involves the theme of succession, perhaps Dryden’s most frequent dramatic theme after love and honor. Polydamas, having usurped the throne of Sicily, discovers two young persons of gentle birth but unknown parentage who have been living among fisher folk under the care of Hermogenes, a former courtier. When Hermogenes tells the usurper that Leonidas is his son, born after his wife had fled from him, the king accepts this as correct, even though Leonidas is actually the son of the king he had deposed. When Polydamas insists that Leonidas marry the daughter of his friend, Leonidas refuses because of his love for Palmyra, the girl with whom he had been discovered. To frustrate this passion, Polydamas seeks to banish her, whereupon Hermogenes declares that Palmyra is the king’s daughter and claims Leonidas as his own son, for he cannot risk revealing the truth about Leonidas, in reality the rightful successor. Polydamas than seeks to have Palmyra marry his favorite, Argaleon, and banishes Leonidas, later changing the sentence to death. Facing execution, Leonidas manages to proclaim his right to the throne, to bring his captors over to his side, and to oust Polydamas, whom he generously forgives as the father of his beloved Palmyra.

The tragicomic characteristics are all present—the unusual setting; the usurper; the long-lost noble youth; the faithful servant; the idealization of romantic love, struggling successfully against the odds and triumphing. To heighten the tone, Dryden uses blank verse rather than prose and, in the most serious passages, employs rhymed heroic couplets. The tragicomic plot, in the manner of John Fletcher, reveals a significant debt to Elizabethan and Jacobean tragicomedies.

Whereas in the main plot, the attitude toward love is idealistic, the subplot represents a sharp contrast in the value placed on both love and marriage. Dryden creates two witty couples—Rhodophil and Doralice, Palamede and Melantha—the first pair married and the second engaged by arrangement of their parents. Their attitudes toward marriage and love are as cynical and sophisticated as is standard in the comedy of manners. Palamede hopes before marriage to carry off an affair with his friend Rhodophil’s wife, while Rhodophil hopes to make Melantha his mistress. They freely satirize Puritans and country folk, and the prevailing attitude of society toward marriage is indicated by Rhodophil when he speaks of his wife, “Yet I loved her a whole half year, double the natural term of any mistress; and I think, in my conscience, I could have held out another quarter, but then the world began to laugh at me, and a certain shame, of being out of fashion, seized me.” Disguises, masked balls, and assignations keep the plot lively and suspenseful, though the couples’ goals are never realized because all plans either are intercepted or go awry, and at the end, they part still friends. Throughout, the dialogue sparkles with repartee unequaled in any of Dryden’s other plays. It includes Melantha’s affected French expressions along with much double entendre and innuendo, yet it is never brutally licentious in tone, as is true of dialogue in comedies such as The Kind Keeper.

Though the two plots are loosely connected, Rhodophil does bring the newly found gentlefolk to the court, and both he and Palamede unite to support Leonidas in the final act. Further, the attitudes of parents who arrange marriages are condemned in both plot lines. For the most part, however, the plots occur in two separate worlds—the witty and sophisticated world of the comedy of manners and the idealistic and sentimental world of tragicomedy.

Heroic Plays

During the period from 1663 to 1680, Dryden wrote, entirely or in part, twenty-one plays. His initial success came with his heroic plays from The Indian Queen to Aureng-Zebe, by which time the genre had almost run its course. The heroic play was influenced by a variety of sources, including the English dramas of John Fletcher, the French tragedies of Pierre Corneille, and the French poetic romances of Madeleine de Scudéry and Gautier de Costes de La Calprenède. The most prominent feature that set the genre apart from the usual tragedy was the dialogue in heroic couplets, attributed to the playwrights’ efforts to please Charles II, who, it was said, had come to enjoy the rhymed French drama he saw during his years in exile. Dryden defended the artificiality of rhymed dialogue on the grounds that the plays dealt with conflicts and characters above the commonplace; thus, the stylistic elevation provided by rhyme was appropriate. The characters, however, engage in lengthy rhymed speeches, usually with two characters confronting each other, and the result has seemed in a later time excessively artificial.

The plays frequently employ spectacle, enhanced by songs, dances, and elaborate costumes. The settings are usually exotic rather than English, thus heightening their romantic appeal. The Indian Queen and The Indian Emperor, for example, are set in Mexico, whereas both parts of Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards are set in Spain. Warfare, conquest, and striving dominate the plays.

The characters belong to a set of types that include as the protagonist the love-honor hero, who finds himself involved in intrigues and power struggles that put those virtues to the test. Like the other characters, he does not change; the tests the characters encounter are intended to show the strength of their virtue or the depth of their depravity. The hero is surrounded by such Fletcherian types as the sentimental maiden, whom he loves; the evil woman, who shamelessly attempts to gain him for herself; the weak king, whom others are attempting to topple from the throne; the faithful friend; and an antagonist who is almost but not quite a Machiavellian villain motivated solely by ambition. The hero is sometimes fortunate and prevails over all of the obstacles he encounters; at other times, he dies without any success other than preserving his love and honor.

The romantic excesses of heroic plays were satirized by George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, in his burlesque The Rehearsal (pr., pb. 1672), which has as its major character John Bayes, a brilliant satiric depiction of Dryden. Villiers parodies many of the absurd and inflated lines of Dryden and others who wrote in the form, yet The Rehearsal failed to drive the heroic drama from the stage. The genre remained viable for nearly two decades, until the late 1670’s, when the playwrights began shifting their efforts to a less flamboyant form of tragedy.


Aureng-Zebe, the last of Dryden’s heroic plays, was judged by him to be his best, though in the prologue he announced that he had grown weary of rhyme, an indication of his imminent shift to blank verse as the appropriate meter for serious drama. By comparison to Dryden’s earlier heroic dramas, Aureng-Zebe makes less use of song and dance and includes less rant and bombast, yet it clearly preserves the major elements of the genre.

Set in India at the time of the Mogul Empire, it derives events and characters from history, though Dryden freely alters the sources. The aging emperor, a stereotypical weak king, finds his throne challenged by several of his sons, the loyal Aureng-Zebe being an exception. Aureng-Zebe is depicted by his friend Arimant, governor of Agra, as “by no strong person swayed/ Except his love,” a hero of unshakable loyalty who hopes that he will attain the hand of the captive queen Indamora for his support of the emperor.

While Aureng-Zebe is tame by earlier standards of the heroic play, echoes of the swashbuckling, superhuman hero remain. In armed conflict, the hero defeats two rebellious brothers, Darah being the first, “Darah from loyal Aureng-Zebe is fled,/ And forty thousand of his men lie dead.” The threat represented by Morat, the ambitious villain of the play, is not so easily parried, for he has raised an immense force thus described by Abbas: “The neighb’ring plain with arms is coverd o’er;/ The vale an iron harvest seems to yield/ Of thick-sprung lances in a waving field.” The hyperboles, typical of the genre, suggest the physical threat posed by...

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