John Dryden: Poetry, Plays & Criticism

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  • 0:00 Life of John Dryden
  • 1:56 John Dryden and Criticism
  • 3:47 John Dryden's Plays
  • 5:00 John Dryden's Poetry
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson explores John Dryden as poet, playwright, and critic. Discover his main accomplishments and consider the ways that he influenced other writers in a variety of genres.

Life of John Dryden

Few writers are lucky and talented enough to have a large and lasting influence in one genre, let alone multiple genres. John Dryden, however, remains a crucial figure in the poetry, plays, and criticism that were written during the last half of the 17th century.

Dryden, who lived from 1631 to 1700, was born in a time when there was much political and religious turmoil in England. The disagreements between those who supported the traditional monarchical English form of government and those who desired a more republican form of government resulted in a series of violent events. These events include the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651, and the ruling of England by various republican governments from 1649 to 1660.

The traditional English monarchy was restored, however, when Charles II became king in 1660. Charles ruled until he died in 1685, and his brother, James II, ruled as king until he was removed from the throne in 1688. This period from 1660 to around 1689 is called the Restoration period of literature. During the Restoration period, many writers and readers looked to Dryden as a defining voice of literature.

Restoration writers were strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, a period of scientific and philosophical revolution that lasted from the mid-17th century until the end of the 18th century. Writers during this time emphasized the potential of logic and reason and believed that individual experience was more insightful than tradition. The Enlightenment saw the birth of modern science and many of the assumptions that are still central to contemporary society. Of all of the artists writing during the Restoration period, few had as significant and as lasting an impact on literature as Dryden did.

John Dryden and Criticism

In the last half of the 17th century, what little formal criticism or critical theory that had been produced by English writers was scattered and not systematic. Moreover, Restoration writers who were aware of this absence of refined criticism also felt that the insightful poetry produced by the Greeks and Romans had been abandoned by English writers.

In addition to studying a handful of writers of the 17th century, such as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Dryden used the work of ancient poets and playwrights to establish and demonstrate the overarching theoretical principles of literature.

Inspired by the ideals of Enlightenment thinking and the conviction of the need for a systematic theory, Dryden wrote his own works of criticism. In them, he addresses various issues of poetry and plays, such as language and setting. More than simply using the works of the writers he admired to demonstrate good writing, Dryden was also eager to describe their weaknesses in his attempt to outline a poetic theory.

Dryden, for example, attempted to identify both the strengths and flaws in Shakespeare's plays. One of Dryden's most interesting criticisms is that Shakespeare violated the Greek ideal of the unity of time in plays, meaning that Shakespeare's plays would be better if they were written in real time (meaning the hours portrayed in the play would match the actual time of the play) rather than condensing months or years into a two or three-hour play.

Although many readers may not hold to all of Dryden's critical thought today, his impulse to establish and introduce theoretical principles played a crucial role in the development of English literature and its aesthetics. Moreover, in addition to crediting him as one of the first real English literary critics, many of the writers of the 18th century used his critical works in their own writings.

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