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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

I. Dryden

§ 15. The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy

With this attempt, which must be classed among Dryden’s dramatic failures, was printed the remarkable Preface concerning the Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy, which, although not actually the last of Dryden’s contributions to dramatic criticism, may be said to complete their cycle. Here, at last, we find a plain and reasonable application of the fundamental Aristotelian theory of tragedy to the practice of the English drama. Shakespeare and Fletcher—the former in particular—are set down as deficient in “the mechanic beauties” of the plot, but, in the “manners” of their plays, in which the characters delineated in them are comprehended, the two great masters of the English drama are extolled at the expense of their French rivals. Although exception must be taken to the distinction between Shakespeare and Fletcher as excelling respectively in the depiction of the more manly and the softer passions, “to conclude all,” we are told, “Fletcher was a limb of Shakespeare”—in other words, the less is included in the greater. Thus, though neither of much length nor very clearly arranged, this essay signally attests the soundness of Dryden’s critical judgment, with his insight into the fact that the most satisfactory dramatic theory is that which is abstracted from the best dramatic practice. It was not given to him to exemplify by his own dramatic works the supreme freedom claimed by the greatest masters of the art; but he was not to end his theatrical career without having come nearer than he had as yet approached to his own ideals.

From this point of view, two tragedies may be passed by in which the unbalanced, but not wholly uninspired, powers of Lee co-operated with the skill and experience of Dryden. Oedipus (acted 1678), though provided with an underplot, threw down a futile challenge to both Sophocles and Corneille. In The Duke of Guise (acted in December, 1682), Dryden’s share seems to have been mainly confined to the furbishing up of what he had written many years before. Whatever he might say in the elaborate Vindication of the Duke of Guise (printed in 1683), the political intention of the play, as a picture of the now discomfited intrigues of Shaftesbury in favour of Monmouth, was palpable, and not disproved by the fact that the authority of Davila had been more or less closely followed, or by the other fact that the parallel might, in some respects, have been pressed further than would have been pleasing to king Charles.

In Albion and Albanius, Dryden committed himself to a still lower descent—hardly to be excused by the “thought-depressing” quality of opera mentioned by Dryden (who, on this head, agreed with St. Évremond) in the interesting preface which gives a short account of the early history of musical drama. After many delays, the chief of them being due to the death of Charles II, in compliment to whom the opera had been first put together, it was at last performed on 3 June, 1685. Ten days later, the news arrived of Monmouth’s landing at Lyme, and the unlucky piece, with its jingling rimes, French music and all, was finally withdrawn. Saintsbury describes it as, to all intents and purposes, a masque; but it lacks all the beauties of which that kind of composition is capable, and which are not made up for by the grotesquely ridiculous supernatural machinery to which here, as in The Duke of Guise, the author condescended to have recourse. Dryden was not, however, deterred from carrying out his intention of writing the “dramatic opera” of King Arthur or The British Worthy, to which Albion and Albanius had been designed as a prelude. It was produced in 1691, with music by Purcell; but, notwithstanding the claim put forth in the preface, little or no proof is furnished of Dryden’s familiarity with Arthurian romance; and, in spite of the magic, there is not much fire in the piece, while the figure of the blind Emmeline is an unpleasing experiment. Perhaps, as the tag suggests, the poet was, for once, almost losing heart.