The English author John Dryden (1631-1700) is best known as a poet and critic. He also wrote almost 30 plays and was one of the great dramatists of his time.
John Dryden was born on Aug. 9, 1631, in Aldwinckle, Northamptonshire, in the parsonage of All Saints Church, where his maternal grandfather was rector. His family were supporters of Oliver Cromwell and comfortably situated. When Dryden was 15, he was sent to London to Westminster School to study under the celebrated headmaster, Dr. Richard Busby, who was known both for his rigorous discipline and for his ability to instill in his students a knowledge of Latin and Greek.
In 1649 while still at Westminster, Dryden published his first poem, "Upon the Death of Lord Hastings." The next year he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge. While at Trinity he published a poem in honor of a friend, John Hoddesdon, but there is no evidence that his university career was especially dedicated to poetry. In 1654, the year he earned a bachelor of arts degree, his father died, leaving him family property that yielded an income of about £40 a year. After his father's death Dryden seems to have settled in London as secretary to his cousin Sir Gilbert Pickering, but there is no record of his activities until 1659, when his third poem, "Heroic Stanzas to the Glorious Memory of Cromwell," was published.
Shortly after the death of Cromwell, Charles II was restored to the throne. Although Dryden had been brought up to support the parliamentary party, he was evidently weary of the chaos and disorder that followed upon Cromwell's death, for in 1660 he welcomed the King with his poem "Astraea redux." The following year he offered a second tribute, "To his Sacred Majesty," to celebrate Charles II's coronation. He was criticized for changing his political allegiance, but he never withdrew the loyalty proclaimed in these two poems, although it would have been advantageous for him to do so in 1688, when William III came to the throne.
After the Restoration, Dryden settled into the business of playwriting. In the early months of 1663 his first play, The Wild Gallant, was produced, but it proved a failure. Late in that year he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, the sister of his friend Sir Robert Howard. The Howard family were of considerable means and had long supported the royalist cause.
Some of Dryden's most successful plays belong to a type peculiar to his own age called the heroic play. These were spectacular productions featuring exotic characters who defended their honor and proclaimed their love in rhyming couplets. Although the heroic themes of these plays were similar to those of Pierre Corneille, the sensational plots generally were derived from earlier English dramatists such as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. In 1665 Dryden collaborated with his brother-in-law, Sir Robert, on a heroic play, The Indian Queen. It was such a success that Dryden immediately wrote a sequel called The Indian Emperor.
In the summer of 1665 the plague hit London, and the theaters were closed. Dryden and his wife moved to the Howards' country estate at Charleton, Wiltshire. Here Dryden occupied himself with the writing of a long poem on the Dutch War and the London fire, Annus mirabilis, and a critical essay in prose, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy. He also wrote a play, Secret Love.
The years following the plague proved prosperous for Dryden. Both Secret Love and The Indian Emperor, whose performance had been delayed by the closing of the theaters, enjoyed great popularity. Dryden came to be regarded as the leading dramatist of the age. In 1667 he brought forth Sir Martin Mar-All, a new comedy adapted from Molière. He also accepted Sir William Davenant's invitation to collaborate on an operatic version of Shakespeare's Tempest. In 1668 the King's Company made him a shareholder in return for his promise to give them three plays a year. When Davenant died in the spring of 1668, Dryden was designated poet laureate and historiographer royal.
The years following Dryden's appointment as laureate brought his greatest heroic plays. In 1669 he produced Tyrannic Love, a play based on the life of St. Catherine. The next year saw the production of The Conquest of Granada, his most famous heroic play. Dryden continued to write dramas of this type, but it soon became apparent that he was weary of writing for the stage and tastes other than his own. He had, in fact, been eager for some time to undertake the writing of an epic poem. He had worked with epic materials in Annus mirabilis and the heroic plays and had even turned John Milton's Paradise Lost into an opera called The State of Innocence (1674); but the necessity of supporting himself by writing what would prove popular for the stage had deprived him of leisure to pursue his private poetical interests.
In 1676, in his dedication of his final heroic play, Aureng-Zebe, to the Earl of Mulgrave, Dryden expressed his discontent with the stage and begged the earl for the financial support necessary to pursue epic poetry. In 1677 he received a warrant for an additional £100 to his salary as poet laureate. This would have provided a reasonable income, but Charles's treasury was low, and Dryden was forced to abandon his epic dream because he was able to claim only about half of the £300 due him annually.
Dryden was still under contract to the King's Company. In 1677 he gave them his All for Love, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Although its reception was not enthusiastic, it is generally regarded as his finest dramatic achievement. Its lack of acclaim may have been due in part to the deterioration of the King's Company, which was in financial distress. Subsequently Dryden shifted his activities to the Duke's Theatre, where his comedy Limberham, his adaptation of Troilus and Cressida, and his tragedy Oedipus (written in collaboration with Nathaniel Lee) were performed in 1678.
Shortly after joining the Duke's Company, Dryden attacked the dullness of his fellow playwright Thomas Shadwell in MacFlecknoe. The attack seems to have been unprovoked, and the bitterness aroused by this unsolicited lampoon was heightened by political differences between the two playwrights. Dryden was a royalist; Shadwell was a Whig and a supporter of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was scheming among the Whigs to have Charles II's brother, the Catholic Duke of York, excluded from succession to the throne. Dryden was apparently commissioned by the King to expose the treason of the Whig sedition and the presumption of Shaftesbury, and he produced two of the finest political satires in English—Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and The Medal (1682). His next poem, Religio laici (1682), while nominally a defense of the authority of the English Church, was in effect also a satire on the unreason of all who dissented.
When Charles II died in 1685, Dryden was reappointed laureate by James II. At this time Dryden became a Catholic and in 1687 wrote a public apology for his new religion, The Hind and the Panther. Although his enemies accused him of accommodating his faith to that of his king in order to secure preferment, there is no evidence that James influenced Dryden's conversion. His adherence to his new faith after 1688 cost him the laureateship. During James's short reign Dryden was occupied primarily with poetry. He translated selections from Latin poets such as Virgil, Horace, and Lucretius. He also wrote several fine lyric odes: "Threnodia Augustalis," in memory of Charles II, "To the Memory of Anne Killigrew," and "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day."
In 1688, when William III appointed Shadwell poet laureate, Dryden was forced to return to the theater to earn a living. He produced a number of plays—Don Sebastian (1689), Amphitryon (1690), and Cleomenes (1690)—none of which was notably successful. He then turned to translating, which proved more profitable. His greatest translations were probably the Satires of Juvenal and Persius (1692), the Works of Virgil (1697), and the Fables (1700), a collection of tales from Ovid, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Geoffrey Chaucer. He was the first English author to earn his living by his writing. Dryden died on May 1, 1700.
Further Reading on John Dryden
The standard biography of Dryden is Charles E. Ward, The Life of John Dryden (1961). Sir Walter Scott's account in The Works of John Dryden (18 vols., 1808; revised and edited by George Saintsbury, 1882-1893) is also excellent. The best critical study of Dryden's poetry is Earl Miner, Dryden's Poetry (1967). Two recent studies of the heroic plays are Arthur C. Kirsch, Dryden's Heroic Drama (1965), and Selma Zebouni, Dryden: A Study in Heroic Characterization (1965).
Additional Biography Sources
Hammond, Paul, John Dryden: a literary life, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Hollis, Christopher, Dryden, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.
Winn, James Anderson, John Dryden and his world, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.