Essay on Poetic Theory

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

by John Dryden
This moderation of Crites, as it was pleasing to all the company, so it put an end to that dispute; which, Eugenius, who seemed to have the better of the Argument, would urge no farther: but Lisideius after he had acknowledged himself of Eugenius’s opinion concerning the Ancients; yet told him he had forborne, till his Discourse were ended, to ask him why he preferred the English Plays above those of other Nations? and whether we ought not to submit our Stage to the exactness of our next Neighbors?

“Though,” said Eugenius, “I am at all times ready to defend the honor of my Country against the French, and to maintain, we are as well able to vanquish them with our Pens as our Ancestors have been with their swords; yet, if you please,” added he, looking upon Neander, “I will commit this cause to my friend’s management; his opinion of our Plays is the same with mine: and besides, there is no reason, that Crites and I, who have now left the Stage, should re-enter so suddenly upon it; which is against the Laws of Comedy.”

“If the Question had been stated,” replied Lysideius, “who had writ best, the French or English, forty years ago, I should have been of your opinion, and adjudged the honor to our own Nation; but since that time,” (said he, turning towards Neander) “we have been so long together bad Englishmen, that we had not leisure to be good Poets, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Jonson (who were only capable of bringing us to that degree of perfection which we have) were just then leaving the world; as if (in an Age of so much horror) wit and those milder studies of humanity, had no farther business among us. But the Muses, who ever follow Peace, went to plant in another Country; it was then that the great Cardinal of Richelieu began to take them into his protection; and that, by his encouragement, Corneille and some other Frenchmen reformed their Theatre, (which before was as much below ours as it now surpasses it and the rest of Europe). But because Crites, in his Discourse for the Ancients, has prevented me, by touching upon many Rules of the Stage, which the Moderns have borrowed from them; I shall only, in short, demand of you, whether you are not convinced that of all Nations the French have best observed them? In the unity of time you find them so scrupulous, that it yet remains a dispute among their Poets, whether the artificial day of twelve hours more or less, be not meant by Aristotle, rather than the natural one of twenty four; and consequently whether all Plays ought not to be reduced into that compass? This I can testify, that in all their Drama’s writ within these last years and upwards, I have not observed any that have extended the time to thirty hours: in the unity of place they are full as scrupulous, for many of their Critics limit it to that very spot of ground where the Play is supposed to begin; none of them exceed the compass of the same Town or City. The unity of Action in all their Plays is yet more conspicuous, for they do not burden them with under-plots, as the English do; which is the reason why many Scenes of our Tragi-comedies carry on a design that is no thing of kin to the main Plot; and that we see two distinct webs in a Play; like those in ill wrought stuffs; and two actions, that is, two Plays carried on together, to the confounding of the Audience; who, before they are warm in their concernments for one part, are diverted to another; and by that means espouse the interest of neither. From hence likewise it arises that the one half of our Actors are not known to the other. They keep their distances as if they were Montagues and Capulets, and seldom begin an acquaintance till the last Scene of the Fifth Act, when they are all to meet upon the Stage. There is no Theatre in the world has any thing so absurd as the English Tragicomedy, ’tis a Drama of our own invention, and the fashion of it is enough to proclaim it so, here a course of mirth, there another of sadness and passion; a third of honor, and fourth a Duel: Thus in two hours and a half we run through all the fits of Bedlam. The French affords you as much variety on the same day, but they do it not so unseasonably, or mal à propos [inappropriately—ed.] as we: Our Poets present you the Play and the farce together; and our Stages still retain somewhat of the Original civility of the Red-Bull; Atque ursum et pugiles media inter carmina poscunt [they ask for a bear or boxers in the middle of plays. The end of Tragedies or serious Plays, says Aristotle, is to beget admiration, compassion, or concernment; but are not mirth and compassion things incompatible? and is it not evident that the Poet must of necessity destroy the former by intermingling of the latter? that is, he must ruin the sole end and object of his Tragedy to introduce somewhat that is forced in, and is not of the body of it: Would you not think that Physician mad, who having prescribed a Purge, should immediately order you to take restringents upon it?

“But to leave our Plays, and return to theirs, I have noted one great advantage they have had in the Plotting of their Tragedies; that is, they are always grounded upon some known History: according to that of Horace, Ex noto fictum carmen sequar [Out of a known story I should bring a poem—ed.]; and in that they have so imitated the Ancients that they have surpassed them. For the Ancients, as was observed before, took for the foundation of their Plays some Poetical Fiction, such as under that consideration could move but little concernment in the Audience, because they already knew the event of it. But the French goes farther;

Atque ita mentitur; sic veris falsæ remiscet,

Primo ne medium, medio ne discrepet imum:

[He so lies and so mingles the false with the true

that the middle will not disagree with the first, nor the last
    with the middle—ed.]

He so interweaves Truth with probable Fiction, that he puts a pleasing Fallacy upon us; mends the intrigues of Fate, and dispenses with the severity of History, to reward that virtue which has been rendered to us there unfortunate. Sometimes the story has left the success so doubtful, that the Writer is free, by the privilege of a Poet, to take that which of two or more relations will best suit with his design: As for example, the death of Cyrus, whom Justin and some others report to have perished in the Scythian war, but Xenophon affirms to have died in his bed of extreme old age. Nay more, when the event is past dispute, even then we are willing to be deceived, and the Poet, if he contrives it with appearance of truth; has all the audience of his Party; at least during the time his Play is acting: so naturally we are kind to virtue, when our own interest is not in question, that we take it up as the general concernment of Mankind. On the other side, if you consider the Historical Plays of Shakespeare, they are rather so many Chronicles of Kings, or the business many times of thirty or forty years, cramped into a representation of two hours and a half, which is not to imitate or paint Nature, but rather to draw her in miniature, to take her in little; to look upon her through the wrong end of a Perspective, and receive her Images not only much less, but infinitely more imperfect than the life: this instead of making a Play delightful, renders it ridiculous.

Quodcunque ostendis mihi sic, incredulus odi.
[Unbelieving, I hate whatever you show me in this

For the Spirit of man cannot be satisfied but with truth, or at least verisimility, and a Poem is to contain, if not ta etyma [true things], yet etymoisin homoid [things like the truth—ed.], as one of the Greek Poets has expressed it.

“Another thing in which the French differ from us and from the Spaniards, is, that they do not embarrass, or cumber themselves with too much Plot: they only represent so much of a Story as will constitute one whole and great action sufficient for a Play; we, who undertake more, do but multiply adventures; which not being produced from one another, as effects from causes, but barely following, constitute many actions in the Drama, and consequently make it many Plays.

“But by pursuing close one argument, which is not cloyed with many turns, the French have gained more liberty for verse, in which they write: they have leisure to dwell upon a subject which deserves it; and to represent the passions (which we have acknowledged to be the Poet’s work) without being hurried from one thing to another, as we are in the Plays of Calderon, which we have seen lately upon our Theaters, under the name of Spanish Plots. I have taken notice but of one Tragedy of ours, whose Plot has that uniformity and unity of design in it which I have commended in the French; and that is Rollo, or rather, under the name of Rollo, the story of Bassianus and Geta in Herodian, there indeed the Plot is neither large nor intricate, but just enough to fill the minds of the Audience, not to cloy them. Besides, you see it founded upon the truth of History, only the time of the action is not reducible to the strictness of the Rules; and you see in some places a little farce mingled, which is below the dignity of the other parts; and in this all our Poets are extremely peccant, even Ben Jonson himself in Sejanus and Catiline has given us this Oleo [also Olio: a hodgepodge of many various ingredients—ed.] of a Play; this unnatural mixture of Comedy and Tragedy, which to me sounds just as ridiculously as the History of David with the merry humors of Golias. In Sejanus you may take notice of the Scene betwixt Livia and the Physician, which is a pleasant Satire upon the artificial helps of beauty: In Catiline you may see the Parliament of Women; the little envies of them to one another; and all that passes betwixt Curio and Fulvia: Scenes admirable in their kind, but of an ill mingle with the rest.

“But I return again to French Writers; who, as I have said, do not burden themselves too much with Plot, which has been reproached to them by an ingenious person of our Nation as a fault, for he says they commonly make but one person considerable in a Play; they dwell upon him, and his concernments, while the rest of the persons are only subservient to set him off. If he intends this by it, that there is one person in the Play who is of greater dignity than the rest, he must tax, not only theirs, but those of the Ancients, and which he would be loth to do, the best of ours; for ’tis impossible but that one person must be more conspicuous in it than any other, and consequently the greatest share in the action must devolve on him, We see it so in the management of all affairs; even in the most equal Aristocracy, the balance cannot be so justly poised, but some one will be superior to the rest; either in parts, fortune, interest, or the consideration of some glorious exploit; which will reduce the greatest part of business into his hands.

“But, if he would have us to imagine that in exalting of one character the rest of them are neglected, and that all of them have not some share or other in the action of the Play, I desire him to produce any of Corneille’s Tragedies, wherein every person (like so many servants in a well governed Family) has not some employment, and who is not necessary to the carrying on of the Plot, or at least to your understanding it.

“There are indeed some prosaic persons in the Ancients, whom they make use of in their Plays, either to hear, or give the Relation: but the French avoid this with great address, making their narrations only to, or by such who are some way interested in the main design. And now I am speaking of Relations, I cannot take a fitter opportunity to add this in favor of the French, that they often use them with better judgment and more à propos [to the purpose (the earliest recorded use in English)—ed.] than the English do. Not that I commend narrations in general, but there are two sorts of them; one of those things which are antecedent to the Play, and are related to make the conduct of it more clear to us, but, ’tis a fault to choose such subjects for the Stage which will enforce us upon that Rock; because we see they are seldom listened to by the Audience, and that is many times the ruin of the Play: for, being once let pass without attention, the Audience can never recover themselves to understand the Plot; and indeed it is somewhat unreasonable that they should be put to so much trouble, as, that to comprehend what passes in their sight, they must have recourse to what was done, perhaps, ten or twenty years ago.

“But there is another sort of Relations, that is, of things happening in the Action of the Play, and supposed to be done behind the Scenes: and this is many times both convenient and beautiful: for, by it, the French avoid the tumult, which we are subject to in England, by representing Duels, Battles, and the like; which renders our Stage too like the Theaters, where they fight Prizes. For what is more ridiculous than to represent an Army with a Drum and five men behind it; all which, the Hero of the other side is to drive in before him, or to see a Duel fought, and one slain with two or three thrusts of the foils, which we know are so blunted, that we might give a man an hour to kill another in good earnest with them.

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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