Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Heroic Friendship in Dryden's Troilus and Cressida

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Heroic Friendship in Dryden's Troilus and Cressida

Article excerpt

This essay reconsiders John Dryden's Troilus and Cressida, Or Truth Found Too Late as part of Dryden's larger project of heroic plays, specifically as plays designed to instruct his "betters" at court on matters of ethics and public policy. Troilus rewrites Shakespeare's play in order to instruct King Charles and his royal brother, the Duke of York, in the ethics of friendship. Following Aristotle's account of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, Dryden depicts the Greek camp as riven with faction because their friendships are less than virtuous. He depicts the Trojans, especially the royal brothers Hector and Troilus, as devotees of virtuous friendship. Dryden expects the English court to see King Charles and his brother in Hector and Troilus, and to note how important such virtuous friendship can be in a crisis like that besetting England in 1679--the Exclusion Crisis.

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JOHN Dryden deployed classical teaching on the ethics of friendship in his Troilus and Cressida in an effort to encourage Charles II to stand by his royal brother James, Duke of York, during the greatest crisis of his reign, known since as the Exclusion Crisis. Since John M. Wallace convincingly demonstrated Dryden's programmatic use of Seneca's and Cicero's Stoic ethics in plays designed to instruct his "betters" at court, the heroic plays have received more attention, but the ethical foundation and topical significance of Troilus and Cressida have been pretty much ignored. (1) Wallace saw that Dryden's plays spoke to "matters of urgent and topical concern" and set his formalist and historicist skills to the task by claiming "that Dryden was as totally committed in his drama to political and constitutional positions as he was in his great nondramatic poems, and that the issue at stake for him was no less than the survival of the Restoration settlement itself." (2) His essay opened our eyes to the systematic Stoic ethics that inform the heroic plays and to the Restoration court's desperate need for such delightful (and sometimes slightly painful) instruction.

Charles may not have needed such encouragement, especially from a playwright, although one biographer, John Miller, speculates that "James' greatest fear was that Charles would not stand by him." Only weeks before this play was performed at The Duke's Theater (April, 1679), James and his bride of less than six years, Mary of Modena, had been sent out of the country. (3) He returned to London for several weeks in late summer when the king was ill, only to be sent away again once Charles got well, this time to Scotland. Even Charles's closest adviser, Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, showed some signs of encouraging Charles to abandon his brother and accede to the Commons' shrill and persistent calls to exclude him from the succession on the grounds that he was a Roman Catholic. (4) (He later, as it turned out, voted for the Exclusion Bill in 1681.) Perhaps Dryden meant to catch the attention of other courtiers who regularly attended plays at the Duke's Theater. My argument does not stand or fall on whether Dryden was successful in teaching "his betters" a lesson in ethics or even whether he expected to be. Instead I argue that Dryden believed it his duty, as a "Servant to His Majesty," official Poet Laureate, and Royal Historiographer, to attempt such instruction. (5)

An essay published with the play, "The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy," begins with a nearly schematic articulation of Aristotle's famous description of tragedy in the Poetics (Works 13.229-48). Aristotle held that tragedy was "grander and of more esteem" than the older epic from which it developed. (6) Dryden also thought that one of its superior virtues was that it represented heroic action rather than just narrating it. But from Rene Le Bossu, he also adopted the principle that "the moral of the work" is fundamental to both kinds of heroic poem and indeed "all Dramatic Poetry":

The first Rule which Bossu prescribes to the Writer of an Heroic Poem, and which holds too by the same reason in all Dramatic Poetry, is to make the moral of the work; that is, to lay down to yourself what that precept of morality shall be, which you would insinuate into the people; as, namely, Homer's (which I have Copy'd in my Conquest of Granada,) was, that Union preserves a Commonwealth and discord destroys it. …

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