Dryden’s work for the theatre is uneven in quality. His comedies have neither the naturalness nor the wit of those Restoration dramatists whose plays can still hold the stage. His tragedies for the most part exemplify those artificialities of style that are especially associated with Restoration tragedy. The Indian Emperor, The Conquest of Granada (in two parts) and Aureng-Zebe are carefully structured extravaganzas, in rhyming couplets, whose central themes are those of honour and love. Service to honour is represented in a series of super heroes, performing gigantic military feats and exalting their own prowess in bombastic rhetoric. Love, the other value, is an overpowering force, fatal and irresistible. Dryden manufactures a series of situations in which love and honour clash. Perhaps the hero finds himself in battle on the opposite side to his beloved. Such dilemmas recur. The hero must either renounce love or see his beloved slain; the hero can save himself only by renouncing love; the heroine can save the hero only by forsaking him for ever or giving herself to a ‘villain’; the hero can save the heroine only by also saving his bitterest rival (possibly the heroine’s husband, as in The Conquest of Granada).
Plots are complicated excessively in order to produce such situations. When one such situation is cleared up, a further development (often a battle) produces a different one. Events serve to fabricate situations of emotional tension according to standardized formulas. The consequence of using battles as background machinery to produce dramatic situations is a kind of artistic disintegration—a separation of the train of events from the emotional patterns: the one is engineered to produce the other: there is a lack of that inevitability by which plot and emotional sequence are all of a piece. Thus the