John Dryden 1631-1700

Ben Johnson (c. 1573-1637) came closest, with prologues and inductions to many of his plays, his common-place book (Timber, or Dicoveries)and some off-the-cuff remarks about his contemporaries which happen to have survived; he was essentially Horatian in outlook, insisting on decorum, resonable standards of craftsmanship and mixing 'delight' with 'profit'. John Milton (1608-74) defended poetry during the Commonwealth period, when Puritan attacks on literature(particularly on the theatre) were most virulent; against accusations that most literature was either frivolous or immoral or implicity monarchist in its sympathies, Milton argued for a poetry that was fiercely moral, based largely on the Bible; freedom-loving, in a responsible, middle-class style freedom, abhorring both the tyranny of kings and the licence of the mob; and patriotic, in celebrating the progress of a pious nation towards God's goals. The Essay only came to be written because the Great Plague of 1665 closed the theaters in London. The Essay of Dramatic Poesy is different in that it was not attached to any particular play and is dressed up as a fictitious dialogue between four characters, ostensibly weighing up the relative merits of various forms of drama; but it is clear that Dryeden's main interest, here as elsewhere, lies is justifying the kind of plays with which he was most concerned at the time - this happened to be rhymed herioc drama - rather than in dispassionate analysis. This is reflected in the setting of the dialogue; it is Dryeden's contention that rhymed herioc drama is the supreme achievement of the native dramatic tradition and a true reflection of the standards of taste set by the Restoration, so the characters are placed in a boat on the Thames(a gentemanly way to travel) and can hear the noise of a naval battle - an English victory over the Dutch in June 1665 - in the far distance, an occasion for patriotic pride and satsification.

The Essay opens with a lively and convincing discussion that throws up a rough-and-ready 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.

The main concern of the opening is that some forms of drama work more satisfactory than others. After the apparent spontaneity of the opening, the Essay settles into six set speeches, arranged in three pairs, with no real attempt at credible dialogue: Crites defends ancient dramatic practice, Eugenius that of the Moderns; Lisideus speaks in favour of recent French drama and Neander ('the new man' a probably Dryden himself) defends the English; Crites advances the claims of blank verse, and Neander those of rhyme. In each case the second speaker carries more conviction, partly because he has the opportunity to refute his opponent's propositions.

As modern science has gone beyond Aristotle, so may modern drama go beyond the example of the ancients, not least in making good the 'ancients' notable failure to write plays with love as a centeral theme. Dryden, incidentally, was a founder-member of the influential Royal Society, which flourishes to this day. The Society was instrumental in persuading authors to adopt a simpler prose style, 'a close, naked way of speech', according to Thomas Sprat(1635-1713), Bishop of Rouchester and the first historian of the Society.

Neander wrote:

To begin, then, with Shakespeare. He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comperhensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them, not laboriously, but luckily; when he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too.....He is many times flat, insipid; his comic wit degenerating into clencehs [puns], his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him.

He briefly considers Beaumont and Fletcher, who remined remarkably popular in the Restoration('two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's), paving the way in many respects for Dryden's own heroic drama. Then he turns to Jonson's, whom he considers:

The most learned and judicious writer any theatre ever had.....if I would compare him with Shakespeare, I must aknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer, or the father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing; I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.

Criticism for Dryden is the justification of whatever works.