Dryden begins by acknowledging that many people before him—including William Shakespeare—have re-told the famous story of Antony and Cleopatra. He decided to write his own version, he explains, because he thinks the play offers an “excellent moral” in its depiction of the unfortunate consequences of “unlawful love.” Antony and Cleopatra are the ideal tragic protagonists because they are neither pictures of “perfect virtue” nor “altogether wicked.” This “middle course” in their characterization makes them sympathetic figures.
Dryden is not interested in villainizing Antony and Cleopatra, but nor is he interested in glossing over their flaws. Rather, he finds them compelling tragic protagonists because they have the capacity for virtue and for making rational decisions—they are not “altogether wicked.” However, they allow their passion for each other to overrule their reason, with disastrous consequences.
Dryden has observed the “unities” of time and place—which is to say, the convention in classical drama that all the action of a play should take place in the same place and within twenty-four hours. As a result, he has used artistic license in making Octavia, Antony’s Roman wife, come to Egypt and (unhistorically) meet Cleopatra. He defends himself for creating this fictional meeting on the grounds that it is dramatically necessary. He also argues that, although he has maintained the “modesty” of the women in their speech, he believes that Cleopatra and Octavia would have indeed exchanged harsh words with each other.
Dryden looks to the authority of the ancients and to the great writers who have come before him. This is why he feels the need to defend his choice to create a fictional meeting between Cleopatra and Octavia, although the two women never met in real life. He uses artistic license in writing in new scenes and characters that suit him, but he also feels the need to justify that creative freedom, suggesting his innate respect for authority.
Dryden then quotes the French essayist Michel de Montaigne on the need for people to make their own judgments about what is appropriate to be spoken. He complains of “dull” French playwrights who are too careful not to offend anyone. He is particularly critical of Jean Racine, a popular French playwright, and the character Hippolytus in Racine’s Phedre (1677). In Dryden’s view, Hippolytus is so concerned with good manners that he becomes a ridiculous and unbelievable character.
In the late 1600s, at the time Dryden was writing, people had a great deal of respect for French tragic playwrights like Jean Racine. French tragicomedy also had rigid rules of decorum that Dryden criticizes. By taking aim at Racine in his preface, Dryden shows an ability to change established literary forms and express disagreement with the critical authorities of his time.
After this critique of French poets and critics, Dryden states that he would rather be judged by the standards of his own country. He argues that poets are the best critics of their own work, since popular audiences have only a “gross instinct” for art. He also rails against the bad poetry and bad critiques of so-called “wits”—rich and powerful men who dabble in poetry and hope to increase their social prestige by proffering their opinions in public. Dryden gives the example of the ancient tyrant Nero, who longed to be a poet and made his subjects sit through his terrible plays. None of these people, however, will ever be “true” poets like Dryden.
Dryden draws a distinction between people who have real talent (“true poets”) and people who use their wealth, political standing, and authority to make people think they have talent. In this sense, despite his respect for political authority, Dryden doesn’t seem to think that political authority and artistic authority—the ability to criticize a play—are the same thing. He argues for the right of artists to be judged by other poets, rather than by the authority of the powerful.
Dryden reflects on the fate of great poets in antiquity. He notes that many of them had unfortunate fates: the poet Lucan was persecuted by Nero for his learning, for instance. Others, like Horace and Virgil, were persecuted in other ways, by bad imitators—he gives the example of Maecenas, a notoriously bad poet who followed Virgil and Horace’s lead. Dryden critiques those modern “vile imitations” of good poetry by bad poets.
Dryden recognizes that the artistic authority of poets to speak their minds sometimes comes into conflict with political authority. Sometimes the needs of the state trump artistic freedom, as in the case of Lucan and Nero. Sometimes aristocrats also “persecute” poets by imitating their verse, even though they don’t have the authority of true talent.
Dryden goes on the attack against one of his critics in particular—probably John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, although he doesn’t mention him by name. He compares Rochester to the historical figure Crispinus, who foolishly challenged Horace to a writing competition, and to Demetrius, a satirical name for an ape who repeats the poetry of Catallus without knowing what it means. He complains that Rochester’s satires reflect poorly on himself as well as his friends. Quoting Horace, Juvenal, and Lucretius, Dryden suggests that true friends wouldn’t point out their faults in this way. He doesn’t think that poets should actually lie, by, for instance, calling a “slow man hasty,” but he thinks that poets can shield their friends’ vices by calling it a “neighbor virtue” instead.
Although Dryden uses examples from antiquity in his mocking of bad poets, it seems clear that he’s using this as a screen for commentary on his own political and cultural moment. In this way, he shows that there is continuity between, say, the historical figure Crispinus and the Earl of Rochester. But his statement about the duties of a poet to the truth also reveals his conflicting attitudes about continuity and change. Dryden doesn’t think that poets should lie outright, but he thinks that cloaking vices in more charitable language is an acceptable change to make.
Throughout these arguments, Dryden has frequently cited classical writers like Horace and Virgil. He professes his belief that the ancients should always be the model of a modern poet. He also takes as his model “the divine Shakespeare,” although his poetic practice is different in that he has forged his own way by, for example, abandoning rhyme. Dryden ends by noting that the scene between Antony and Ventidius is his favorite that he has written.
Dryden claims that he is a mere disciple of great poets like Horace, Virgil, and Shakespeare, and that he defers to their authority. However, this modest stance is belied by his claim that the scene between Antony and Ventidius is his favorite that he has ever written—since this scene is entirely Dryden’s invention and doesn’t exist in any other version of the play.