Satiric characterization of John Dryden's later works



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The purpose of this study is to provide a corrective to some predominant misconceptions about Dryden's works and to point to new directions in interpreting his later works. By focusing on the satiric characters, this study demonstrates the mutual complementary nature of the dramatic and non-dramatic works. The validity of such an approach is supported by a careful study of Dryden's theoretical statements on satire and character, his dramatic and non-dramatic practices of satiric characterization, and his lifelong interest in the using of forms of satire. Though critics have been able to see the relationship of his early work to that of his middle years when he was writing the great verse satires, they have failed to look at the later works from a similar perspective. Thus plays such as The Duke of Guise, Amphitryon, Cleomenes, and Love Triumphant have either been ignored or seen as the lesser accomplishment of a now fading dramatist. Such critical essays as A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy, and numerous other essays, prefaces, prologues, and epilogues indicate Dryden's genuine interest in satire as a serious art that aims primarily at moral improvement. Tlie satirist is frequently equated with the 'Physician' and the satirized character with the 'Patient.' The patient's disease is diagnosed in order to prescribe the necessary remedy for him. Equally revealing in these critical writings is Dryden's theorizing about character, which he held to be the 'soul of poesy' and the foundation of dramatic and non-dramatic art. Dryden was never slavishly committed to or excessively influenced by any single literary tradition. But as this study demonstrates, his knowledge and use of the Theophrastan tradition of Character-writing and of the rhetorical tradition affected his conception of satire and character, and in practice shaped his allusive method of satiric characterization in the dramatic and non-dramatic works. The striking parallels, verbal echoes, and resemblances between Dryden's characters and those of Theophrastus, Earle, Hall, Overbury, and Breton support such a contention. Many critics have noted Dryden's good training in rhetoric and deep knowledge of the Rhetorical tradition. This study discusses the importance of rhetoric in his characterization, especially in the verse satires and some of the later plays. In Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, MacFlecknoe, and The Hind and the Panther, the use of rhetorical techniques helped to create vivid characters. In such later plays as The Duke of Guise, Troilus and Cressida, and Cleomenes, rhetoric renders some characters lively. On occasions, however, Dryden overuses the rhetoric and thus loses a sharp dramatic effect. Even in the early plays written before 1678, Dryden displayed an interest in satire and character. But since his chief endeavor was to please his audience, satire was subdued to other comic effects. The satire in these plays is Horatian—debonair and sympathetic in nature. Wit, repartee, farce, and delight temper Dryden's satirical inclinations. In the plays written from 1678 on, in the verse satires, and in the translations of Juvenal and Persius, Dryden's satirical talents sharpened and his moral concerns deepened. Dryden's dramatic experience in creating a variety of characters taught him what human follies and vices to stress in the non-dramatic works. In the verse satires and in the translations of Juvenal and Persius, Dryden also utilized his dramatic talents. Frequently, such techniques appear in the dramatic setting, a conscious theatrical background, or in use of dialogue. To suit his satirical purposes, Dryden continued to use description -and wit in the later works, but wit in the sense of repartee and gaiety was no longer compatible with his high seriousness. A Juvenalian rather than an Horatian tone permeates almost all his later works. Such later plays as Don Sebastian, Amphitryon, Cleomenes, and Love Triumphant demonstrate a satiric method and moral purpose similar to those found in the other plays Dryden wrote after 1678. In all these plays Dryden advocates moral ideas conveyed through vivid and lively characterization, and this quality is their major literary value. Dryden's later dramatic career is not a diminution but a shift of his dramatic talents. His profound interest in satiric characterization brought about by his disillusionment with contemporary figures and events affected his sense of the dramaturgy. It is only when Dryden achieves a balance between the dramatic and the satiric, between character and action, that his later plays are dramatically successful.