Dryden's Criticism on Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont & Fletcher

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      Many literary critics have assessed the worth of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher as well as Ben Jonson. Of them Dryden’s position is unique and unrivaled. In the Essay of Dramatic Poesy Dryden has raised many a topic and has given us splendid paragraphs of critical appraisals. Of them all, the passages offering critical appraisal of Shakespeare, Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher can be considered splendid.

      On Shakespeare. Scores of writers have praised Shakespeare but Meander’s appraisal consists of some rare insights made in Dryden’s comparative method. Dryden effectively uses the method of comparison for finding out the relative worth of Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher and Jonson. He visualizes the literary qualities of these dramatists simultaneously and represents to us the similarities and contrasts in their literary output. Thus he arrives at very illuminating points of critical appraisal. It is indeed true that many of the readers may have overlooked the fact that Shakespeare had natural gifts, that Beaumont and Fletcher were successful, planks to their cultivation, and that Jonson displayed his vast learning in his works. It was Dryden who brought these things to the attention of the lay reader as well as leading literary luminaries. The following lines about Shakespeare are worthy of careful study: “Those who accuse him to have wanted learning give him the greater commendation, he was naturally learned, he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature, he looked inwards and found her there. I cannot say he is every where alike; were he so I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat and insipid, his comic wit degenerating into clenches and his serious swelling to bombast. But he is always great when some great occasion is presented to him.” Dryden ceases here to be a classicist. His critique of Shakespeare is evidence of his imaginative sensibility. He shows himself conscious of Shakespeare’s strengths as well as weaknesses.

      On Jonson. Dryden’s comment on Jonson is also remarkable: “If I would compare him with Shakespeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer or Father of our dramatic poets. Jonson was like Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing. I admire him but I love Shakespeare.” Jonson was the most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had. He was a critically severe judge of all writers including himself. He was rather frugal of wit and so no one can say he lacked in wit. Something of art was wanting to the Drama till Jonson come on the scene. He managed his strength to more advantage than any of his predecessors in English literature. Humour was his proper sphere and in that he delighted most to represent common people. He has borrowed boldly from the Greek and the Romans. But he has borrowed in such a way that no one can accuse him of plagiarism. He invades authors like a monarch and what would be theft in others is only victory in him. Finally, when Dryden concludes the remarks on Jonson, he says: “If there was any fault in his language ’twas that he weaved it too closely and laboriously in his serious plays.” Jonson tried to Romanize the English tongue leaving the words which he translated as Latinised as he found them. He complied with the idiom of the Latin language, overlooking that of the English tongue in which he wrote.

      On Beaumount and Fletcher. Besides comparing Shakespeare and Jonson, Dryden also appraises the work of Beaumount and Fletcher. He finds that their plots are generally more regular than Shakespeare’s and that they understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better than other playwrights. Dryden considers their contribution to the perfection of English language to have been considerable. Their plays are seen by Dryden to be more popular than even Shakespeare’s or Jonson’s on account of the gaiety in their comedies and the pathos in their serious plays. Dryden compares them with Shakespeare and Jonson and decides that they are more modem in language as compared to Shakespeare and more witty than Jonson.

      Conclusion. Dryden’s catholicity of taste and fairness of judgment are noteworthy. Virtues and faults of the great playwrights are judicially balanced by Dryden. He is aware of the special gifts of the writer he comments upon. He does not think it right to censure a writer for lacking the qualities which another writer had in abundance. Finally, Dryden’s ability to summarise the total achievement of a writer is to be highly appreciated. These aspects go to make Dryden a great critic of all times. Jonson’s performance as critic is far sketchier and less organized than that of Dryden whose studies are polished. Dryden’s critical genius is evident both in enthusiastic praise of a good writer and in ruthless criticism of an inferior writer. His assessment of Shakespeare, Beaumount and Fletcher and Jonson is significant for it completes the historical perspective that he presents in the Essay, He establishes the merits of the Elizabethan dramatists versus the Restoration dramatists. And he has given to the history of English criticism a valuable example of the comparative method at work.

University Questions

Examine critically Dryden’s comparison of Shakespeare and Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy.
Or
“Dryden’s distinction between the natural gifts of Shakespeare, the cultivation of Beaumont and Fletcher and Ben Jonson’s learning is the main thread on which most of his criticism is strung” (David Daiches). Comment with reference to An Essay of Dramatic Poesy.

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