Dryden of course neither wrote nor adapted a Hamlet. But sometimes negatives, or questions, can say as much as positives. And Dryden is perhaps an odder, a more involved figure than might be surmised from his enormous productivity – from his energy, his directness, his mass and variety of achievement. This first of our great professional poets may have understood very fully the oxymoron in that phrase, ‘professional poet’: may have known, even beyond the withdrawals of his own temperament, how many silences went into being so formidably articulate. Biographers don’t forget the history of himself that Dryden was to have given John Aubrey, but that he never gave.
Dryden adapted Shakespeare, out of confidence and from a sense of necessity. I have chosen Hamlet as a point of comparison between them – a comparison, after all, provoked by Dryden himself – for a reason best given by anecdote. A very long while ago I found myself in the stalls enjoying Shakespeare’s play. At the interval one of the two ladies in front of me turned to the other and said, with deep if philosophical sadness: ‘Don’t tell me, May. I don’t want to know. But he isn’t going to come through, is he?’ I think Shakespeare would have been delighted. This is not the only way to define a classic – by the power to hold and move two sensitive and intelligent if not particularly literate persons, 350 years after first publication. But it is one way: and, though that was certainly a more innocent phase of our culture, I was glad to see a warning in a recent Radio Times that Romeo and Juliet contains violence and ‘drug abuse’.
I use Hamlet as a case, as the case, of the power to be taken seriously (while not forgetting that Shakespeare is also characterised by Henry IV and King John and Timon and Cymbeline). If Dryden died three hundred years ago, then a tercentenary feels like the right moment to ask what his Hamlet is, or what it is that we now recommend him for. The interest of the question is increased, though also complicated, by the fact that the writer’s public esteem has surely never been so low. Perhaps the few readers of poetry who still exist need an intensity of verse that Dryden never cared to supply – perhaps his great virtue was to relieve his readers of that intensity. Whatever the explanation, and though this is by no means the only or best definition of a good readership, I have to acknowledge after decades of teaching that only the rarest of able pupils has agreed to try Dryden, has indeed (it sometimes seems) heard of him. It is true that these rarities have gone on to join the still flourishing and admirable world of Dryden scholarship. But it remains equally true that Hamlet has had a life beyond scholarship.
An obvious place to begin would be among the plays themselves. Dryden’s output, of rising thirty dramas, was nearly as extensive and various as Shakespeare’s own. They filled the first half of his career, and he was still writing for the theatre at the beginning of his last decade. Even if the poet himself came to hate his work for the stage, this enormous labour can hardly be just dismissed. And in fact the quandary is in itself interesting. The plays represent in the simplest way the utilitarianism governing post-Restoration arts, and colouring in different forms all Dryden’s career. He wrote (necessarily) for money, for a political party, or for an audience.
There are scholars who are happy to extend his success in the theatre into the present moment. Deference used to go to All for Love. Mark van Doren called it ‘the maturest of the tragedies’, its style ‘virtually impeccable’ – but his general critique of the plays is always disaffected: a judgment that matters, given that his eighty-year-old study of Dryden remains that unusual thing, a more or less perfect critical book, deeply learned, fine in analysis and marvellously written (no wonder Eliot liked it). The preference has moved now to Amphitryon, called by Earl Miner ‘his greatest comedy and one of the greatest comedies in English’. More recently, Howard Erskine-Hill, pursuing a political theme, sees the writer as doing a ‘particularly brilliant thing’ in Amphitryon; and Michael Cordner three times reiterates the word ‘masterpiece’ when introducing his edition of the play.
There is an appealing American proverb, ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ It seems to throw light on the difficult case of Dryden. During the past century productions of Dryden’s plays have been few and far between. Directors and dramaturgs in our major theatres, always desperately hunting for new plays and themselves neither illiterate nor inexperienced, have clearly done what my directorial or theatre-minded students have done, when appealed to to go away and read Marriage à la Mode or Sir Martin Mar-all or Don Sebastian or Amphitryon. They have nodded, said ‘interesting’, and gone away to direct Congreve or Otway or Vanbrugh or Etherege or Wycherley or Southerne or Behn, sometimes with dazzling success.
Dryden’s plays lack the dramatic pace and rhythm that come only from a belief in the significance of human action; and his characters have no character. But again and again stylistic confidence and point will make these things seem not to matter. There are the lovers in Marriage à la Mode who ‘when they came to possession, have sighed and cried to themselves, “Is this all?”’ – a brutalism modern in its economy. Or there is this grace note from The Rival Ladies:
I think and think on things impossible,
Yet love to wander in that golden maze …
– a note almost Racinian. But the fact is that Dryden disliked Racine. What we have here is what his plays often give us: imitation Racine and pastiche drama – something flawlessly achieved from outside without any sympathetic or original life from within. This has been much better said before, and by a great critic: ‘He could more easily fill the ear with some splendid novelty than awaken those ideas that slumber in the heart’ – Samuel Johnson, who in a page or two of unanswerable analysis clarifies the reasons why a poet whom he both loved and respected could not conceal ‘the difficulty which he found in exhibiting the genuine operations of the heart’. The key word is ‘genuine’. Probably all Drydenians tolerantly accept that the heroic dramas are, in their exposition of love and honour, farcical, pure Cecil B. DeMille (though Aureng-Zebe, too, or The Conquest of Granada, it would be good to see just once, for the fun of it).
This speciousness or fine hollowness always touches the rest of the plays. Their steady assurance and their real intelligence can prove persuasive for those who don’t much like the theatre: but on stage, they die the death. Since criticism is pointless without honesty, I will admit that Amphitryon strikes me, with all its momentary stylishness, as inept and unstructured. It startlingly wastes its peculiar but haunting source story, which it renders above all heartless, therefore weightless. By ‘heartless’ I don’t mean simply ‘cold’ or ‘cruel’. It is to be noted that Johnson, unlike Earl Miner, does not simply contrast ‘intellect’ and ‘feeling’. He is saying something much subtler and truer with his ‘ideas that slumber in the heart’. Real thinking and real feeling are indivisible in great dramatists, or even good minor ones.
For reasons partly social or sociological, the theatre of Dryden’s time operated at a great distance from whatever we mean by ‘reality’. Though the work of a mind at once shrewd and large, Dryden’s plays have a kind of false purchase on human experience in general. But they also lack – as, indeed, his poems often do, too – social actuality in a quite limited sense. We don’t turn to Dryden for anything like the vision of the common life of his time that makes Pepys, say, so much less of an artist in considerable ways, survive so much more widely through his diary. Probably Dryden’s whole dramatic canon contains nothing seen with the clarity of that old muff of his wife’s that Pepys borrowed when the fashion moved to men; or those London pigeons, unwilling to leave their nests in the Great Fire and falling to the ground, their wings burned; or Pepys himself, walking home reading by the light his man carried. These are small things. But Hamlet begins with ‘not a mouse stirring’.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.