Dryden observes that poets only have one weapon: words, and more specifically, insults. He comments particularly on the war of words between “verse” (which is to say, poets and playwrights) and “prose” (which is to say, critics). He calls this a “civil war,” since both groups are in the business of professional writing. For his part, Dryden claims that he is just a “poor wretch” who aims to please audiences with his writing, even if critics like “Mr. Bayes”—the pseudonym which the Duke of Buckingham used when he satirized Dryden in The Rehearsal (1671)—don’t like his work.
Dryden tends to be self-effacing and modest about his work, calling himself a “poor wretch” who has no authority of his own and is dependent on the goodwill of audiences to make his living as a writer. However, this modesty may not be entirely genuine, as Dryden clearly has strong political and literary opinions. He claims that words aren’t real power, but the forcefulness of his statements against his critics suggests otherwise.
If he must be judged for this play, Dryden hopes that he will be judged by the “fair sex.” Men might be interested in Octavius’s ambition, but women will enjoy the story of a man, Antony, who died “all for love.” Dryden grants that some old women might say that this story is unrealistic and has nothing to do with society today, but he argues that this is because they are ugly and wrinkled and can’t enjoy the pleasures of love anymore. Instead, he asks to be judged by the “young and beauteous,” since “young wits and sparks” are the poet’s best defense against his critics.
In his appeal to women in particular, Dryden suggests that he expects audiences to respond emotionally to the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Their choice of passion over reason—sacrificing “all for love”—will appeal to the hearts rather than the minds of audiences, he argues. Audiences can condemn the lovers for their mistakes while still admiring the example of two people who gave up everything for love.