Essay of Dramatick Poesie  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Essay of Dramatick Poesie by John Dryden was published in 1668. It was probably written during the plague year of 1666. Dryden takes up the subject that Philip Sidney had set forth in his Defence of Poesie (1580) and attempts to justify drama as a legitimate artform.

The treatise is a dialogue between four speakers: Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander. The four speakers represented the Earl of Dorset, Sir Robert Howard, Sir Charles Sedley, and Dryden himself. On the day that the English and Dutch fleets begin to fight in the mouth of the Thames, the four friends get on a boat to watch the battle. As the battle subsides, the four men speak of French and English drama. In particular, they are concerned with the French neo-classical obsession with obeying the classical unities prescribed by Aristotle's Poetics (through its interpretetion by the Italian renaissantist school of criticism). They also discuss the usefulness and admissibility of rhyme in drama. The general argument is that the unities should be obeyed where possible but discarded where necessary. The speakers contrast Ben Jonson, who wrote "regular" plays that obeyed all the Classical rules, with William Shakespeare, who flouts the unities and breaks decorum with great abandon. Dryden decides on the side of Shakespeare.

In terms of literary theory, Dryden was attempting to justify specifically drama, as opposed to epic or tragedy. As with his prefaces, Dryden seeks to establish a ground whereby the English stage, which had abandoned the strict divisions of Classical theory, could have legitimacy.



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