Essay on Poetic Theory

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

by John Dryden
He had no sooner said this, but all desired the favor of him to give the definition of a Play; and they were the more importunate, because neither Aristotle, nor Horace, nor any other, who writ of that Subject, had ever done it.

Lisideius, after some modest denials, at last confessed he had a rude Notion of it; indeed rather a Description than a Definition: but which served to guide him in his private thoughts, when he was to make a judgment of what others writ: that he conceived a Play ought to be, A just and lively Image of Humane Nature, representing its Passions and Humors, and the Changes of Fortune to which it is subject; for the Delight and Instruction of Mankind.

This Definition, though Crites raised a Logical Objection against it; that it was only a genere et fine [that is, too broadly, according to category and purpose—as though one defined “shirt” as “a garment to keep one warm”—ed.], and so not altogether perfect; was yet well received by the rest: and after they had given order to the Water-men to turn their Barge, and row softly, that they might take the cool of the Evening in their return; Crites, being desired by the Company to begin, spoke on behalf of the Ancients, in this manner:

“If Confidence presage a Victory, Eugenius, in his own opinion, has already triumphed over the Ancients; nothing seems more easy to him, than to overcome those whom it is our greatest praise to have imitated well: for we do not only build upon their foundation; but by their models. Dramatic Poesy had time enough, reckoning from Thespis (who first invented it) to Aristophanes, to be born, to grow up, and to flourish in Maturity. It has been observed of Arts and Sciences, that in one and the same Century they have arrived to a great perfection; and no wonder, since every Age has a kind of Universal Genius, which inclines those that live in it to some particular Studies: the Work then being pushed on by many hands, must of necessity go forward.

“Is it not evident, in these last hundred years (when the Study of Philosophy has been the business of all the Virtuosi in Christendom) that almost a new Nature has been revealed to us? that more errors of the School have been detected, more useful Experiments in Philosophy have been made, more Noble Secrets in Optics, Medicine, Anatomy, Astronomy, discovered, than in all those credulous and doting Ages from Aristotle to us? so true it is that nothing spreads more fast than Science, when rightly and generally cultivated.

“Add to this the more than common emulation that was in those times of writing well; which though it be found in all Ages and all Persons that pretend to the same Reputation; yet Poesy being then in more esteem than now it is, had greater Honors decreed to the Professors of it; and consequently the Rival-ship was more high between them; they had Judges ordained to decide their Merit, and Prizes to reward it: and Historians have been diligent to record of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Lycophron, and the rest of them, both who they were that vanquished in these Wars of the Theater, and how often they were crowned: while the Asian Kings, and Grecian Commonwealths scarce afforded them a Nobler Subject than the unmanly Luxuries of a Debauched Court, or giddy Intrigues of a Factious City. Alit æmulatio ingenia (says Paterculus) et nunc invidia, nunc admiratio incitationem accendit: Emulation is the Spur of Wit, and sometimes Envy, sometimes Admiration quickens our Endeavors.

“But now since the Rewards of Honor are taken away, that Virtuous Emulation is turned into direct Malice; yet so slothful, that it contents itself to condemn and cry down others, without attempting to do better: ’Tis a Reputation too unprofitable, to take the necessary pains for it; yet wishing they had it, is incitement enough to hinder others from it. And this, in short, Eugenius, is the reason, why you have now so few good Poets; and so many severe Judges: Certainly, to imitate the Ancients well, much labor and long study is required: which pains, I have already shown, our Poets would want encouragement to take, if yet they had ability to go through with it. Those Ancients have been faithful Imitators and wise Observers of that Nature, which is so torn and ill represented in our Plays, they have handed down to us a perfect resemblance of her; which we, like ill Copiers, neglecting to look on, have rendered monstrous and disfigured. But, that you may know how much you are indebted to those your Masters, and be ashamed to have so ill requited them: I must remember you that all the Rules by which we practice the Drama at this day, either such as relate to the justness and symmetry of the Plot; or the Episodical Ornaments, such as Descriptions, Narrations, and other Beauties, which are not essential to the Play; were delivered to us from the Observations that Aristotle made, of those Poets, which either lived before him, or were his Contemporaries: we have added nothing of our own, except we have the confidence to say our wit is better; which none boast of in our Age, but such as understand not theirs. Of that Book which Aristotle has left us, Peri tes Poiekes, Horace’s Art of Poetry is an excellent Comment, and, I believe, restores to us that Second Book of his [Aristotle’s—ed.] concerning Comedy, which is wanting [missing—ed.] in him.

“Out of these two has been extracted the Famous Rules which the French call, Des Trois Unitez, or, The Three Unities, which ought to be observed in every Regular Play; namely, of Time, Place, and Action.

“The unity of Time they comprehend in hours, the compass of a Natural Day; or as near it as can be contrived: and the reason of it is obvious to every one, that the time of the feigned action, or fable of the Play, should be proportioned as near as can be to the duration of that time in which it is represented; since therefore all Plays are acted on the Theater in a space of time much within the compass of hours, that Play is to be thought the nearest imitation of Nature, whose Plot or Action is confined within that time; and, by the same Rule which concludes this general proportion of time, it follows, that all the parts of it are to be equally subdivided; as namely, that one act take not up the supposed time of half a day; which is out of proportion to the rest: since the other four are then to be straitened within the compass of the remaining half; for it is unnatural that one Act, which being spoke or written, is not longer than the rest, should be supposed longer by the Audience; ’Tis therefore the poet’s duty, to take care that no Act should be imagined to exceed the time in which it is represented on the Stage, and that the intervals and inequalities of time be supposed to fall out between the Acts.

“This Rule of Time how well it has been observed by the Ancients, most of their Plays will witness; you see them in their Tragedies (wherein to follow this Rule is certainly most difficult) from the very beginning of their Plays, falling close into that part of the Story which they intend for the action or principal object of it; leaving the former part to be delivered by Narration: so that they set the Audience, as it were, at the Post where the Race is to be concluded: and, saving them the tedious expectation of seeing the Poet set out and ride the beginning of the Course) you behold him not, till he is in sight of the Goal, and just upon you.

“For the Second Unity, which is that of place, the Ancients meant by it, That the Scene ought to be continued through the Play, in the same place where it was laid in the beginning: for the Stage, on which it is represented, being but one and the same place, it is unnatural to conceive it many; and those far distant from one another. I will not deny but by the variation of painted Scenes, the Fancy (which in these cases will contribute to its own deceit) may sometimes imagine it several places, with some appearance of probability; yet it still carries the greater likelihood of truth, if those places be supposed so near each other, as in the same Town or City; which may all be comprehended under the larger Denomination of one place: for a greater distance will bear no proportion to the shortness of time, which is allotted in the acting, to pass from one of them to another; for the Observation of this, next to the Ancients, the French are to be most commended. They tie themselves so strictly to the unity of place, that you never see in any of their Plays a Scene changed in the middle of the Act: if the Act begins in a Garden, a Street, or Chamber, ’tis ended in the same place; and that you may know it to be the same, the Stage is so supplied with persons that it is never empty all the time: he that enters the second has business with him who was on before; and before the second quits the Stage, a third appears who has business with him. This Corneille calls La Liaison des Scenes, the continuity or joining of the Scenes; and ’tis a good mark of a well contrived Play when all the Persons are known to each other, and every one of them has some affairs with all the rest.

“As for the third Unity which is that of Action, the Ancients meant no other by it than what the Logicians do by their Finis, the end or scope of an action that which is the first in Intention, and last in Execution: now the Poet is to aim at one great and complete action, to the carrying on of which all things in his Play, even the very obstacles, are to be subservient; and the reason of this is as evident as any of the former.

“For two Actions equally labored and driven on by the Writer, would destroy the unity of the Poem; it would be no longer one Play, but two: not but that there may be many actions in a Play, as Ben Jonson has observed in his Discoveries; but they must be all subservient to the great one, which our language happily expresses in the name of under-plots: such as in Terence’s Eunuch is the difference and reconcilement of Thais and Phædria, which is not the chief business of the Play, but promotes; the marriage of Chærea and Chreme’s Sister, principally intended by the Poet. There ought to be one action, says Corneille, that is one complete action which leaves the mind of the Audience in a full repose: But this cannot be brought to pas but by many other imperfect ones which conduce to it, and hold the Audience in a delightful suspense of what will be.

“If by these Rules (to omit many other drawn from the Precepts and Practice of the Ancients) we should judge our modern Plays; ’Tis probable, that few of them would endure the trial: that which should be the business of a day, takes up in some of them an age; instead of one action they are the Epitomes of a man’s life,; and for one spot of ground (which the Stage should represent) we are sometimes in more Countries than the Map can show us.

“But if we will allow the Ancients to have contrived well, we must acknowledge them to have writ better; questionless we are deprived of a great stock of wit in the loss of Meander among the Greek Poets, and of Caeilius, Affranius and Varius, among the Romans: we may guess of Menander’s Excellency by the Plays of Terence, who translated some of his, and yet wanted so much of him that he was called by C. Cæsar the Half-Menander, and of Varius, by the Testimonies of Horace Martial, and Velleus Paterculus: ’Tis probable that these, could they be recovered, would decide the controversy; but so long as Aristophanes in the old Comedy, and Plautus in the new are extant; while the Tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca are to be had, I can never see one of those Plays which are now written, but it increases my admiration of the Ancients; and yet I must acknowledge further, that to admire them as we ought, we should understand them better than we do. Doubtless many things appear flat to us, whose wit depended upon some custom or story which never came to our knowledge, or perhaps upon some Criticism in their language, which being so long dead, and only remaining in their Books, ’tis not possible they should make us know it perfectly. To read Macrobius, explaining the propriety and elegancy of many words in Virgil, which I had before passed over without consideration, as common things, is enough to assure me that I ought to think the same of Terence; and that in the purity of his style (which Tully so much valued that he ever carried his works about him) there is yet left in him great room for admiration, if I knew but where to place it. In the mean time I must desire you to take notice, that the greatest man of the last age (Ben Jonson) was willing to give place to them in all things: He was not only a professed Imitator of Horace, but a learned Plagiary of all the others; you track him every where in their Snow: If Horace, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter, Seneca, and Juvenal, had their own from him, there are few serious thoughts which are new in him; you will pardon me therefore if I presume he loved their fashion when he wore their clothes. But since I have otherwise a great veneration for him, and you Eugenius, prefer him above all other Poets, I will use no farther argument to you than his example: I will produce Father Ben to you, dressed in all the ornaments and colors of the Ancients, you will need no other guide to our Party if you follow him; and whether you consider the bad Plays of our Age, or regard the good ones of the last, both the best and worst of the Modern Poets will equally instruct you to esteem the Ancients.”

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 John  Dryden


After John Donne and John Milton, John Dryden was the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century. After William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, he was the greatest playwright. And he has no peer as a writer of prose, especially literary criticism, and as a translator. Other figures, such as George Herbert or Andrew Marvell or William Wycherley or William Congreve, may figure more prominently in anthologies and literary . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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