The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 13. Aureng-Zebe
It was not till three (or four) years later that Dryden took a final leave of heroic tragedy with Aureng-Zebe, or The Great Mogul (acted 1675, and printed in the following year). As the prologue, one of the noblest of Dryden’s returns upon himself, confesses, he was growing “weary of his long-loved mistress, Rhyme,” and, while himself abandoning dramatic for other forms of composition, inclined to “yield the foremost honours” of the stage to the early masters on whose want of refinement he had previously insisted. The play itself, while already less rigidly adhering to the self-imposed rules of the species, is visibly influenced by the example of the refinement and restraint of Racine.
Between The Conquest of Granada and Aureng-Zebe, Dryden had produced, besides two comedies already noted, a tragedy d’occasion, of which the plot is, indeed, as in a heroic play, based upon amorous passion, but which was thrown upon the stage to inflame popular feeling against the Dutch (with whom the country was now at war). Amboyna, or The Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants, a production unworthy of its author, was hastily written in prose, with an admixture of blank verse. On the other hand, in the opera The State of Innocence and Fall of Man (printed in 1674, shortly after the death of Milton) Dryden had, no doubt, taken his time in “tagging the verses” of Paradise Lost; for his dramatic version of the poem was meant as a tribute to its great qualities and not intended for performance on the stage, any more than Milton’s own contemplated dramatic treatment of his theme would have been. The Author’s Apology for Heroick Poetry and Poetic Licence, which accompanies the published “opera,” does little more than vindicate for the treatment of sublime themes the use of a poetic diction from which convention shrinks; but it is valuable, if for nothing else, for its opening definition of true criticism, which they wholly mistake “who think its business is principally to find fault.” The “operatic” version of Paradise Lost must be pronounced a failure, not the least in what it adds to its original; its chief interest in connection with Dryden’s literary progress lies in his skilful handling of certain celebrated argumentative passages.