Dryden, John

Assigned: Dryden, John. From “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (308-10). Also read the editors’ introduction (307-08).

From “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (1668/1684)

1. On 308-09 (“To begin, then, with Shakespeare…”), John Dryden, who became England’s first poet laureate in 1668 during the Restoration Period, assesses in the dialogic character of “Neander” Shakespeare’s abilities as a playwright and wordsmith. What high praise does Dryden offer in describing, as we would call it today, Shakespeare’s imagination? How does Dryden turn the longstanding reproach of Shakespeare for his supposed lack of scholarly erudition into a compliment—why doesn’t it matter, in Dryden’s view, that the great playwright wasn’t an Oxford or Cambridge man like certain other dramatists of his acquaintance? What abilities did Shakespeare have that fully compensated him for not being enormously “book-learned”?

2. On 309 top (“… I cannot say he is everywhere alike…”), in spite of all his praise for Shakespeare, what criticisms does Dryden level against him, especially in terms of his linguistic and rhetorical habits as a playwright? All the same, how does Dryden rescue Shakespeare from these blemishes with yet more praise? In what sense would Dryden, in defending Shakespeare’s primacy over newer and currently more popular authors, agree with Samuel Johnson’s remark in his 1765 “Preface to Shakespeare” that “what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood” (Leitch 393)?

3. On 309 (“Beaumont and Fletcher, of whom…”), what assessment does Dryden make of the playwright duo Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, who were contemporaries of Shakespeare? What fine qualities generally marked their dramatic output, and how did these compare to those of Shakespeare himself? In the course of his commentary on Beaumont and Fletcher, what remarks does Dryden, a Restoration-Era poet, make about the current state of English literary language?

4. On 310 (“As for Jonson, to whose character…”), how does Dryden assess the capacities of Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright, Ben Jonson? In what sense was Jonson’s success in part due to the man’s canny appreciation of his own strengths and limitations? According to Dryden, what did Jonson really excel in as a dramatist? Moreover, what did he not try to do, and why? On the whole, how does Dryden compare Jonson’s considerable talents as a dramatist with those of Shakespeare?

5. General question: In our excerpt from “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” John Dryden writes that Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson “represents old Rome to us, in its rites, ceremonies, and customs” (310) so well in his plays that he outdoes even the Roman historians in accuracy. Shakespeare, of course, had worthy classical sources for his Roman plays Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, and, for the English history plays, he followed modern accounts such as the Holinshed Chronicles. Yet, nobody would say that the chief merit of those plays consists in their historical accuracy or in their Jonsonian faithfulness to the ancient rites and customs. Even so, many of us find Shakespeare’s Roman and English history plays riveting. What is it about them that makes them so compelling, then? What qualities do they possess that make us feel that we really have understood something vital about ancient Rome, or Cleopatra, or King Richard III?

6. General question: In our excerpt from “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” John Dryden remarks humorously about Ben Jonson’s bold borrowings from the ancient poets and playwrights: “he has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any law,” writes Dryden, and “what would be theft in other poets is only victory in him” (310). Shakespeare, too, clearly didn’t mind engaging in almost wholesale adaptation of other artists’ plots, figures and themes. Still, we don’t fault him for it, even in a contemporary culture in which musicians sue one another for the slightest perceived borrowings in rhythm or lyric, and in literature, strict copyright laws sometimes prevail over creativity. How, in your understanding, did Shakespeare and his contemporaries construe the concept of “borrowing” and of ownership of the products of their imagination; i.e., of the texts and other artworks they created? How does our modern conception of these things differ from the thinking that prevailed centuries ago?

7. General question: The full text of John Dryden’s “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” runs to over 26,000 words, so our excerpt is only a sliver of the piece in its entirety. Still, what sense of Dryden as a critic do you get from the excerpt? We know that in addition to being a celebrated English poet of the Restoration Period, he was among the best of the era’s neoclassical critics. Neoclassical theorists have a reputation for being strict in their application of formal rules such as the three unities of time, place, and action, and at times heavy-handed in their concern for the morals of readers and audiences. To what extent does any of this appear to be true of Dryden? In responding, consider Dryden’s praise of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher as well as his comparison of Shakespeare with the classical-tending Ben Jonson.

8. General question: Dryden’s defense of Shakespeare is hardly the only such defense in the Neoclassical Period—Samuel Johnson is the most illustrious of Shakespeare’s appreciators, though he did not spare him a fair amount of criticism on moral grounds, claiming that too often he failed to make his villains hateable enough. Draw up your own list of Shakespeare’s best and worst qualities as a dramatist—what do you find most remarkable about his work, and what, if anything, annoys or even exasperates you? Finally, do you prefer Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, romances, or history plays? What is your reason for this preference?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake