The complementary relationship between comic and serious plots in Dryden's tragicomedies



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Dryden constructed his tragicomedies by weaving together two distinct plots, one in the heroic-romantic mode and one patterned after the Restoration comedy of wit. The values and emotional tone of these two modes are antithetical: heroic characters view love as a spiritual bond which inspires eternal fidelity and violent passion; comic lovers manipulate one another as objects of sexual gratification, cynically doubting the possibility of fidelity and avoiding any deep emotional commitments. Because these two plots exhibit antithetical attitudes toward the man / woman relationship, many critics believe that they cannot be successfully combined in the same play. Yet this juxtaposition of opposites creates a unique irony. By blending the heroic and comic philosophies of life in alternating scenes, Dryden contrasts two visions of mankind, the idealistic and the cynical. A study of three representative tragicomedies demonstrates that in each play Dryden manipulates the contrasts in a slightly different manner. Sometimes he balances the comic and heroic viewpoints without deciding for either; at other times he ridicules the heroic values. In each play the unique combination of elements achieves a special effect; as he manipulates the tragicomic formula in different ways, Dryden is like a baroque musician, constructing the varied counterpoints of his fugue on the pattern of one simple, lovely melody.