I am going to start off with a few remarks about the plays of John Dryden, specificallyÂ All for Love andÂ Marriage Ã la Mode, comparing them with Shakespeareâ€™sÂ Antony and Cleopatra and with one or two comedies. The point of this exercise will be to gain a better understanding of classicism and neoclassicism in modern literature, why it is indispensable and how it often fails.
From Canto I of Byronâ€™sÂ Don Juan:
If ever I should condescend to prose,
Iâ€™ll write poetical commandments, which
Shall supersede beyond all doubt all those
That went before; in these I shall enrich
My text with many things that no one knows,
And carry precept to the highest pitch:
Iâ€™ll call the work â€œLonginus oâ€™er a Bottle,
Or, Every Poet his own Aristotle.â€
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy:
With Crabbe it may be difficult to cope,
And Campbellâ€™s Hippocrene is somewhat drouthy:
Thou shalt not steal from Samuel Rogers, nor
Commitâ€”flirtation with the muse of Moore.
Why did Byron and Scott, the two most popular Romantic writers in Britain, regard John Dryden as one of the great masters? Scott, in fact, put out an edition of his works. T.S. Eliot, in a famous essay, held up Dryden (against the Romantics) as the model, while C.S. Lewis, who out of instinct disagreed with virtually every critical position taken by Eiot, took up the cudgels for Shelley against Dryden. Other major poets come in and out of fashionâ€“witness the fortunes of Donne, Marvell, Pope, and Tennyson. But Dryden alone has fallen from a height on which he stood with Shakespeare and Milton down to the subterannean depths where roam the spirits of poets who are only read in school.
To anticipate the argument I am going to make, Dryden is the poet and dramatist most needed by this age. Of course, we all know that Dryden is a serious commentator on politics and religion, the finest imitator of the classics in our language, a critic of superior judgment and learning, but it is for another quality that I wish to introduce him to friends and readers: He attained the true classic sense of form and balance without entirely losing his native English boldness of language and imagination. He is, in other words, the link between Shakespeare and Pope.
Before going on too long in general terms, let us begin with the concrete, his tragedyÂ All for Love or the World Well Lost, a play (as he says) in the style of Shakespeare. Specifically, the Shakespeare he had in mind wasÂ Antony and Cleopatra, whose last act gave him the subject of his play. It is sometimes said that Dryden was trying to outdo Shakespeare by showing up his crudity. This is a mistake. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Dryden thought Shakespeare to be the greatest English dramatist and preferred him to Ben Jonson, the literary and critical master of the first half of the 17th century. It was Dryden, in a very real sense, who made Shakespeareâ€™s reputation. As a critic, however, Dryden could see Shakespeareâ€™s shortcomingâ€”lack of coherent motivation, lack of emotional control within scenes that swing back and forth from one mood to another, lack of symmetry and balance among characters. On the other hand, he did not side with noble Restoration wits, recently returned from exile in France, who would allow nothing to be excellent that deviated from the rules and practice of Corneille and Racine.
So, read the play and, if you do not remember it, readÂ Antony and Cleopatra. On Monday Iâ€™ll have a few reflections on neoclassicism in general and then weâ€™ll do a quick comparison of the two and see what lessons can be drawn.
Part II: Drydenâ€™s All for Love
It should not be necessary to retell the story of All for Love. The action takes place some time after the naval Battle of Actium (September, 31 BC) in which Antonius was decisively defeated by Gaius Caesar Octavianus, or rather, by Octavianâ€™s friend and commander, Marcus Agrippa. The seasick future emperor lay sick in his bunk, or so it is said. The day might have been saved, but at a critical moment Cleopatra sailed away, apparently leaving Antony in the lurch. Panic ensued, and the dayâ€”and the empire Antony and Cleopatra were buildingâ€”was lost. Some historians have justified Cleopatraâ€™s move as prudenceâ€”her ship was carrying the treasury and she and Antony had agreed it should be protected at all cost. Apparently, if this version is correct, their great mistake lay in not telling anyone of their plan. Both Shakespeare and Dryden, however, attribute her desertion to female cowardice.
InÂ All for Love, Dryden simplifies and clarifies both the plot and the cast of characters: There are, for example, roughly 12 entries in the listing of Drydenâ€™s cast as opposed to Shakespeareâ€™s 40+. While Shakespeare, borrowing directly from Plutarch, presents an historical pageant with cuts back and forth between Antony and Octavian and tells the whole tale of the Triumvirate, marriage pact, quarrel, Actium, and the double suicide, Dryden confines himself to one theme and one scene: Alexandria after the defeat at Actium.
Unlike Shakespeare, who offers a kaleidoscope of shifting characters and emotions, Dryden restricts each scene to one emotional development, and balances his characters, one against the other. In Act I, for example, shame and despair over defeat give way to courage and resolution as Antony listens to Ventidius who plays the part of his Roman conscience. In Act II, which balances the first, Antonyâ€™s resolution to go to the troops is supplanted by his love for Cleopatra, who would rather have him die with her than take his chances. In Act III, the blissful reign of love is overthrown by family loyalty, as Octavia shows Antony their children and promises to leave him alone, if only he will make peace with her brother on honorable terms.
With fewer characters and a much more restricted setting and simpler plot, Dryden can paint his characters with bolder strokes. In All for Love the main characters, compared with their Shakespearean counterparts, are elevated and simplified. Cleopatra is now a majestic queen, no longer a plotting strumpet. When Shakespeareâ€™s Cleopatra pretends she never loved Caesar, her servants mock her, but we believe Drydenâ€™s heroine when she says she was a slave who feared rape and not really a willing mistress.
Shakespeare had stuck more closely to history and made Antony a drunken rake, whose vices were balanced by his courage and audacity. We do not feel that Octavian is being priggish when he objectâ€™s to Antonyâ€™s rioting and inattention to business. Drydenâ€™s Antony, by contrast, is a noble general with only one real weakness, his love for Cleopatra. Since Dryden does not feel free to make major innovations in the plot, he purifies his hero and heroine by forcing minor characters to assume some of their vices. It is Alexas the eunuch, who now contrives the plot ascribed to Cleopatra by Shakespeare. On the other hand, Ventidius, a fairly minor character inÂ Antony and Cleopatra, becomes the Roman voice of duty and acts as Antonyâ€™s conscience. Antonyâ€™s respect for Ventidius lets the audience see that Antony, despite the weakness inspired by love, is really a noble Roman.
Antony and Octavian are well-drawn opposites. Neither lacks virtues, but while Antony is all courage and impetuosity, Octavian is cold caution. Antony does not lack prudence nor Octavian courage, but Antony despises a man who â€œwould live like a lamp to the last wink/ and crawl upon the utmost verge of life./ O Hercules, Why should a man like this/ Who dares not trust his fate for one great action/ Be all the care of heaven?â€
Octavia, Octavianâ€™s sister and Antonyâ€™s wife, has a bigger role in Drydenâ€™s play. For both playwrights, she is a loyal wife who tries to patch things up between the two men she loves, but in Dryden, some of the plot turns on the terms she brings to Antony, demanding nothing for herself, not even her rights as wife. She is also used to set off Cleopatraâ€™s character. In one of the finest scenes of the play, Octavia denounces Cleopatra to Antony, and, with sad patience, he tries to dissuade her. His continued infatuation finally infuriates the injured wife. If a man can throw away a beautiful and loyal wife, the mother of his children, along with his career and very life, then the woman for whom he makes that sacrifice must be more than beautiful. Dryden has perhaps taken a hint from Homer, who instead of describing Helen, makes the whole war a testimonial to her beauty.
Octaviaâ€™s nobility is historically accurate, so far as the sources can inform us. But Dryden cannot let her nobility triumph over Cleopatra. A scene for which Dryden feared censure from Frenchified critics is the witch contest between Antonyâ€™s two women, but he could not resist. Each is herself, each rises to the occasion, though Octavia, with her sneering at erotic passion, gives just a hint as to why a man might leave her.
Part III: Neoclassical Drama, Comedy
Long before Dryden England had produced great dramatistsâ€” Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcherâ€”who had followed in the footsteps of Italian, Spanish, and French playwrights. The Renaissance theater already in the 16th century was neo-classical. This is most obvious in the choice of classical themes, mythology, and even in the fondness for revenge plots, which were borrowed from Seneca, though they ultimately go back to the story of Orestes, a favorite subject of Greek dramatists.
Less obvious is the mere fact of telling coherent stories by means of actors, an art more or less invented by the Greeks. Gilbert Highet, inÂ The Classical Tradition, sums up what Renaissance dramatists learned from the ancients: â€œThe conception of drama as a fine artâ€¦the realization of drama as a type of literatureâ€¦theatre-building and the principles of dramatic productionâ€¦â€ and, finally and perhaps most importantly, â€œthe structure of modern drama.â€ By structure he means such things a drama divided into acts, taking 2-3 hours to perform, the use of iambic verse for narrative, the three unities of place, time, and subject. The three unities have often been ridiculed, but unity of theme was dictated by Aristotle and unity of time (roughly a day) was drawn from his description of Athenian drama, and unity of place could certainly be deduced as a tendency, though it is violated in the Eumenides. Of course any rule can be imposed arbitrarily, but anyone who has sat through one of Shakespeareâ€™s Histories must be irritated and confused by the constant scene-changes.
The Restoration would see a second and perhaps final flowering of the English theater. Setting aside the indecencies of Wycherly, Farquar, Ethredge, and even Congreve or the histrionics of Otwayâ€™sÂ Venice Preserved, Restoration drama is a high point in our literature, only to be equaled by Sheridan in the late 18th century, and, 100 years later, by Wilde and Shawâ€”interesting that the last three were all Irish.
Among the first pieces of business undertaken by the restored Stuart regime was the reopening of the playhouses that had been closed by the Puritans who hated literature almost as much as they hated life. New comedies, like Drydenâ€™sÂ The Wild Gallant, (1663) were as clever as they were indecent. French critics who knew something of English drama and the English critics who followed them censured English plays on several grounds. First, they did not observe the unities of time, place, and action so revered by neoclassical French writers. Secondly, the plots were often extravagant and formless, third, characters were inconsistent and seemed to alter the purpose for no good reason.
Drydenâ€™s greatest popularity came from his comedies. His first play The Wild Gallant (1663) was not a hit, but success soon attended other efforts. Popularity as a dramatist, combined with his loyal support of the restored Charles II, secured him position as Poet Laureate in 1668. One of his finest works,Â Marriage a la Mode, was performed in 1672.
The play is as beautifully constructed as a Christopher Wren building. It is set in Sicily in the reign of one King Polydamas, who usurped the throne of the rightful king. A young courtier, Rhodophil, has fallen out of love with his beautiful and charming wife Doralice and is pursuing Melantha, a foolish bourgeoise who apes French manners and chases after the court. Melantha, however, has been engaged by her father to Palamede, who arrives in Sicily only to be smitten by Doralice, who has grown tired of her husbandâ€™s lack of attentionâ€”though the two play turtledove whenever anyone is around. Each man wants the otherâ€™s wife (or fiancÃ©e), and each resents the otherâ€™s attentions to his own woman but neither is willing to quarrel, since friendship brings access to the would-be mistress. It is a real Mexican stand-off.
These comic scenes are in prose, but they echo a more serious entanglement, whose scenes are in verse. Two beautiful young people, Leonidas and Palmyra, are brought to court. Leonidas, although he is the son of the rightful king, is passed off by his guardian as the son of Polydamas. Iâ€™ll spare you the complications of how the beautiful young things got lost. The guardian claims Palmyra, who really is Polydamasâ€™ daughter, as his own. Polydamas decides that Leonidas will marry the beautiful and noble Amalthea, while Amaltheaâ€™s brother, the slimy Argaleon, is smitten by Palmyra. The trouble is that Leonidas and Palmyra are in love and Leonidas defies Polydamas. But things are no better when the guardian claims Leonidas as his own son and reveals Palmyra as Polydamasâ€™ long-lost child. Amalthea, however, recognizes Leonidasâ€™ true worth, prince or no prince.
This plot in verse is more serious, because the principalsâ€”Leonidas, Palmyra, and Amaltheaâ€”are all sincerely in love. Rodophilâ€™s complaint, that familiarity with his wife has bred contempt, would seem bizarre to Leonidas and Palmyra who have been constant companions since childhood.
Marriage Ã la Mode is a comedy of errors or misunderstanding both in the usual sense that characters often do not understand what is going on and in the more serious sense that the two comic couples in particular do not know who they and there lovers/spouses really are. It is perfectly that the plot reaches a crescendo in a masquerade that pits Melantha and Doralice, both dressed as boys, in a verbal cat-fight.
After Rhodophil and Palamede threaten to fight a duel over each otherâ€™s flirtations, Rodophil begins to come to his senses: â€œFaith I am jealous, and that makes me partly suspect that I love you better than I thought. . . . For Palamede has wit, and if he loves you, thereâ€™s something more in ye than I have found: some rich mine, for ought know, that I have not yet discovered.â€ Palamede comes to a similar conclusion about his bride-to-be. This change of heart precedes their decision to support Leonidas, when they realize he is the rightful king. â€œNo subject eâ€™er can meet/ a nobler fate, then at his Sovereignâ€™s feet.â€ The subject is too serious for prose. Domestic loyalty prepares the way for political loyalty, a subtle suggestion that Roundheads and other traitors cannot be loyal to their wives. (Not a proposition the converse of whichâ€”the marital fidelity of royalistsâ€”I would like to test.)
I took up Dryden for two reasons: first, because I happened to be rereading him in preparation for our Summer School on the English Civil Wars; and second, because he seemed a suitable peg on which to hang a defense of neo-classicism.Â There are many shortcomings to neo-classicism in literature and art, but such movements serve as a necessary corrective to our own barbaric tendencies that break through the surface of civilization in ranting Jacobean drama, Donneâ€™s unreadable satires, gushy romanticism, Walt Whitmanâ€™s yawping,Â and virtually everything published in the United States today.Â In putting ShakespeareÂ alone on a pinnacleâ€“to the exclusion of Dryden,Â Milton, Marvell, Pope, and Tennysonâ€“we are also implicitly defending his vicesâ€“sloppy composition, language that is often as obscure as it is impressive, a striving for effect at theÂ expense of form or even common sense.Â Â Our literary disease today has many phases, some of them being obscurantism, ugliness, formlessness, incoherence, and pretentiousness.Â The remedy, partial though it be, is a classical revival and definitely not the sort of slangy, hip pseudo-classicism pursued by people like William Arrowsmith or David Slavitt.
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