• John Dryden

    An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

    Crites praises the Greeks and Romans suggesting that they cannot be surpassed.

    Eugenius recognizes their worth but suggests that they have indeed been exceeded and in many instances are not consistent in their adherence to Aristotle’s conventions.

    Lisideius suggests that the French are superior to the English.

    Neander (ostensibly Dryden) counters that, based on their agreed definition of what “a play ought to be,” the English are superior.

    Two types of “bad” English poets: (p.164)

    1.      the poets who “perpetually pay us with clenches upon words and a certain clownish kind of raillery;” (bad metaphysicals?)

    2.      he who ” affects plainness to cover his want of imagination” (bad Puritans?)

    Definition of a play: “just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humors, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” (p.166)


    On the ancients vs. the moderns:

    The moderns are still imitating the ancients and using their forms and subjects, relying on Aristotle and Horace, adding nothing new and yet not following their good advice closely enough, especially with respect to the unities of time, place and action.

    On the three unities: Time, Place, Action:

    While the unity of time suggests that all the action should be portrayed within a single day, English plays attempt to use long periods of time, sometimes years. In terms of place, the setting should be the same from beginning to end with the scenes marked by the entrances and exits of the persons having business within each. The English, on the other hand, try to have all kinds of places, even far off countries, shown within a single play. The third unity, that of action, requires that the play “aim at one great and complete action”, but the English have all kinds of sub-plots which destroy the unity of the action.

    On the language of the ancients:

    In anticipating the objection that the ancients’ language is not as vital as the moderns, Crites say that we have to remember that we are probably missing a lot of subtleties because the languages are dead and the customs far removed from this time.


    Though “the moderns have profited by the rules of the ancients” they have “excelled them.”

    On Aristotle’s 4 part:

    The entrance, the intensifying of the plot, the counter-turn, and the catastrophe.

    On the defects of the ancients:

    1.      Unlike Italians and Spaniard, ancients have not been consistent on number of acts.

    2.      Ancient plots are transparent, everybody already knows what will happen; the Romans borrowed from the Greeks.

    3.      Unities of place and time are ignored by ancients.

    4.      Evil characters were presented to prosper.

    5.      Ancient writers can excel in one only, either tragedy or comedy.

    6.      Had no wit in their language (even considering Crites’ reference to the effect of translation)


    On the French plays:

    French are best of all Europe because of their adherence to the unities.

    They maintain the unity of action by not adding confusing sub-plots.

    English tragi-comedy are “absurd”.

    French base their tragedies on “some known history,” combining fiction with reality so that some truth can be revealed.

    French use narration (reporting by the characters) to describe things that happen, like battles and deaths, that Lisideius says are ridiculous when shown on stage.

    French never end their plays with “conversions” or “changes of will” without setting up the proper justification for it. The English, by contrast, show their characters having changes of heart that are over-reactions to circumstances and therefore not believable.

    In the French plays, the characters never come in or leave a scene without the proper justifications being supplied.

    French poetry more beautiful than English.


    English are best at “the lively imitation of nature” (human nature)

    Regularity of French plots makes the plays too much alike.

    Defends the English invention of tragi-comedy by suggesting that the use of mirth with tragedy provides “contraries” that “set each other off” and give the audience relief from the heaviness of straight tragedy.

    Sub-plots, if they are well-ordered, make the plays interesting and help the main action.

    English plays are more entertaining and instructive because they offer an element of surprise that the ancients and the French do not.

    Decorum: “suspension of disbelief” The audience knows that none of it is real, why should they think scenes of death or battles any less “real” than the rest? He credits the English audience with a certain robustness in suggesting that they want their battles and “other objects of horror.”