Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 9. The Heroic Couplet in Drama

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

I. Dryden

§ 9. The Heroic Couplet in Drama

It does not seem to be necessary here to enter into a reexamination of the question of the suitableness, or unsuitableness, of the heroic couplet as a form of dramatic verse. Not only in certain kinds of romantic comedy, for which it has been claimed as a suitable vehicle, but, also, for various eccentric species which have been or may be invented—such as pantomime, burlesque or extravaganza—it may readily be allowed to be both well fitted and effective. As to its use, however, for the purposes of the regular tragic or comic drama, the case is altered. Partly, of course, the objection lies in the tendency of the couplet, as treated by Dryden and his successors, to make against continuity of flow, to shut up the sense within fixed limits and, because of the consequent demand for precision of statement, to impart to dialogue or soliloquy a didactic rather than dramatic colouring. And, further, with regard to the use of rime itself in English dramatic verse, the caveat of Taine cannot be put aside, that “rime is a different thing for different races”: the Englishman being transported by it into a world remote from the actual, whereas, for the Frenchman, it is nothing more than a conventional costume. The heroic couplet, as used in Dryden’s plays and those which followed their example, therefore, operates against, instead of in favour of, theatrical illusion and the sway of the imagination on the stage, and helps to urge the dramatist who employs it in the direction of conventionalism and artificiality. Against this general result, it is useless to argue that passion, and even mere eloquence, at times gets the better of the outward form, and, by its driving force, moves and disturbs the hearer in spite of himself.

No sooner had Dryden, in The Rival-Ladies, produced a tragi-comedy, containing an element of rimed verse, in which he had made successful use of his gift of poetical rhetoric, than he was characteristically ready to take a leading part in evolving an ulterior dramatic species not precisely new, but with features of its own so marked as to differentiate it from tragicomedy proper. The tragi-comedy bequeathed to him and the restoration dramatists in general by their predecessors was wont to possess a double plot, consisting, to use Dryden’s own phraseology, of “one main design,” serious in kind, carried on in verse, and “an underplot or second walk of comical characters and adventures subservient to the chief fable, yet carried along under it and helping to it”; although, in point of fact, the connection between the two was frequently very slight. At different stages of his career, he produced three more plays, of various merit, which belonged to this class. Secret Love, or The Maiden Queen (acted 1667), of which—probably because of the frank gaiety of Nell Gwynn’s scenes in it—Charles II approved so greatly as to dub it “his play,” is founded, as to its main plot, on Le Grand Cyrus, and, as to its comic underplot, partly on that romance and partly on the same novelist’s Ibrahim, ou L’illustre Bassa. The interest in the serious plot is impaired by the quite unheroic character of Philocles (intended, as Dryden says, to represent queen Christina of Sweden’s favourite Magnus de la Garide); and the chief attraction of the play consists in the “discoursive” passages between Celadon and Florimel. In The Spanish Fryar, or The Double Discovery, again (acted and printed 1681), which seems certainly to have been designed as a tragi-comedy by Dryden, the comic effect preponderates over that of the serious plot, though the latter cannot be said to be without interest. The interweaving of the two has been praised—perhaps overpraised—by more than one eminent critic. The comic dialogue of this play is excellent, and the character of the friar by no means a replica of Fletcher’s Spanish Curate (though there are points of resemblance in the two plays), but a new variety of an unctuous type which, from Chaucer to Dickens, has afforded unfailing delight to the public, and which it must have given Dryden, who hated priests and parsons with a consistent hatred, much satisfaction to elaborate. His last tragi-comedy, Love Triumphant, or Nature will Prevail (acted 1694), in which there is a large admixture of rime, merely repeated in its main plot that of Marriage-à-la-Mode, and the play justly proved a failure.