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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I

Class 12: Corneille, Dryden, Behn

Reading Assignment:

    Corneille (NATC 363-78)
    Dryden (NATC 379-388) AND Essay of Dramatic Poesie; see course docs for pdf from Google Books, or Web Resources for link to U Toronto web text of the complete essay
    Behn (NATC 388-398)

    Please read (or refresh your memory of) Othello or another play by Shakespeare

    Reports: Joe Benson and Megan Weber

Class Objectives:

  • Analyze Corneille's Of the three unities;
  • Analyze Dryden's complete Essay of Dramatic Poesie;
  • Analyze Behn's prefaces to her printed plays;

This week's reading moves into the Neoclassical age with the stage at the forefront. All of our writers for today are practicing and popularly successful dramatists who wrote criticism of their craft. The influence of French neoclassical rules, particularly on the unities of time, place and action, can be read throughout. In between the lines, issues of class, education, gender and performance all arise. As you read, consider how each of these authors responds to these ideological pressures in theorizing the art of drama.

Notes and Discussion Questions:


What is the context for this discourse? How does that effect what is written here? Who do you imagine is Corneille's audience?

Review your notes on Aristotle's Poetics for a discussion of dramatic unity. How does Aristotle's own argument compare with the neoclassical precepts on the unities of time, action and place? How might you explain the differences?

What is the basis for the necessity of unity of action? Of time? Of place? In Corneille's discourse, what is the general precept or accepted critical standard for each unity? How does Corneille respond to these putative claims in his explanation of his own practice?

How closely does Corneille read Aristotle?

Describe some of the practical "rules" that Corneille discusses with regard to stagecraft, such as the continuous presence of characters, the division into acts and scenes, the distribution of lines, or the elapse of time.

"The dramatic poem is an imitation, or rather a portrait of human actions, and it is beyond doubt that portraits gain in excellence in proportion as they resemble the original more closely. A performance lasts two hours and would resemble reality perfectly if the action it presented required no more for its actual occurrence" (374). Examine the logic of this argument. How does it compare to your experience in theatre-going? What is at stake in making this point consistent with common sense?

In discussing the rules of unity of place, Corneille argues for mercy "otherwise we should have to decide against many plays which we see succeeding brilliantly" (377). What is the nature of the conflict in this sentence? What defines success? Who do you think Corneille is trying to convince?

What do you see as Corneille's principal goals in writing this preface?


Please read the entire of Essay of Dramatic Poesie. It is by far the most significant argument on English drama at this time and you get next to nothing in the excerpt. Samuel Johnson calls Dryden the father of English criticism; his career as both a playwright and a critic begins with this essay.

What is the context for the essay (established both in the dedicatory letter and the opening paragraphs)? What is the significance of this context?

Evaluate Dryden's use of the dialogue form. What is its significance?

Robert D. Hume writes that Dryden's rambling style creates the "rather charming impression that he is discoursing casually -- the writer of a formal treatise could, after all, have gone back to interpolate what he had missed. Actually Dryden is dissembling." How would you describe Dryden's style of writing here? (Dryden was praised for his prose style and held up as a model for many generations.)

What are the major questions concerning dramatic forms and purposes in this essay? How does this relate to Sidney and to Corneille before him?

Dryden's voice is generally thought to be aligned with Neander or "new man." In what ways does this essay represent Dryden's views in relation to other critics? How does this compare with Sidney, Corneille, or Behn?

The essay is roughly divided into arguments for and against ancients and moderns, and then French and English drama. Summarize the arguments. In what ways do they recapitulate some of the arguments that come before? What is new?

Does the label "neoclassical" adequately characterize the essay?

What literature does Dryden actually analyze? How would you describe his methods of literary criticism?

Why are the unities so important to Dryden? In what ways does he differ from Corneille? How is he like?

Again and again Dryden comes back to the primary purpose of poetry: "The poet's business is certainly to please the audience." What supporting or conflicting motivations does he discuss? What are some of the implications of Dryden's emphasis on pleasure?

Consider Dryden's use of the term nature, and particularly the idea that art should imitate nature. What does Dryden signify by the word? How does this build upon Aristotle or the neoplatonic tradition? In what ways is this similar to Sidney's view of poetry and nature?

Throughout his critical essays, Dryden negotiates the differing relationships between the audience and the author and general aesthetic standards. Sometimes he evaluates literature from the point of view of its reception, sometimes from its creation. From what point of view does Dryden evaluate drama in Essay?


What is the context for these critical writings by Behn? How does she present herself in the prefaces? What purpose does this serve?

How does Behn represent learning in preface to The Dutch Lover? Why? What is the relationship between comedy and learning? How does this differ from Sidney?

How does the audience figure in Behn's early preface? What role does gender play?

Is the preface a form of revenge?

What elements of practical stagecraft come to the fore in Behn's analysis of her play?

The critical issues differ in the later preface to The Lucky Chance. What is the major concern here and what role does her being a woman play?

Again, what roles do audience play for the argument about her play? Do ideological factors such as gender, class, education operate here? If so, how?

How would you describe Behn's concepts of masculine and feminine?

Critics from Jaqueline Pearson to Catherine Gallagher have focused on the connection between the dramatic personae Behn creates in her plays and the writing woman she herself was - the main commonality lies in theatricality and role playing. The woman writer - Behn playfully suggests - dons a mask and plays a role, many roles in fact. What evidence of role playing can you find in Behn's critical prefaces?

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