The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 14. Drydens Adaptation of Shakespearean Plays and Themes
With Dryden’s remaniement of Milton’s greatest work may be compared his handling, before and after this well-meant attempt, of two Shakespearean dramas. In the case of The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island (acted 1667, but not printed till 1670), Dryden’s own preface, dated 1 December, 1669, shows that the workmanship was mainly D’Avenant’s, who, as Dryden, with his habitual generous frankness, declares, “first taught him to admire Shakespeare.” To D’Avenant was owing the grotesque notion of providing a male counterpart for Miranda, a sister for Caliban and a female companion for Ariel; and he would appear to have generally revised the work of his younger partner. Quite otherwise, Dryden’s All for Love, or The World Well Lost is not an adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra, but a free treatment of the same subject on his own lines. The agreeable preface which precedes the published play, written in a style flavoured by the influence of Montaigne, which was perceptibly growing on Dryden, takes the censure of his production, as it were, out of the mouths of the critics, and then turns upon the poetasters with almost cruel ridicule, which may have helped to exasperate Rochester, evidently the principal object of attack. In All for Love, Dryden, with as little violence as might be, was reverting from the imitation of French tragedy to Elizabethan models. The dramatist seems as fully as ever to reserve to himself the freedom which he claims as his inherent right; if he pays attention to the unities, especially to that of place, it is with more exactness “than perhaps the English theatre requires”; and, if he has “disencumbered himself” from rime, it is not because he condemns his “former way.” His purpose was to follow—we may probably add, to emulate—Shakespeare, treating the subject of a Shakespearean tragedy in his own way, uninvidiously, but with perfect freedom. In the result, Dryden has little to fear from comparison in the matter of construction; and, though, in characterisation, he falls short of his exemplar, at all events so far as the two main personages are concerned, there is much in the general execution that calls for the highest praise. He was conscious of his achievement, and declared that he “never writ anything for himself but Antony and Cleopatra.”
Once again, in Troilus and Cressida, or Truth Found too Late (printed 1679), Dryden concerned himself with a Shakespearean play, this time, however, adapting his original plot with scant piety—in his own words, “new-modelling the plot, throwing out many unnecessary Persons; improving those characters which were begun and left unfinished, as Hector, Troilus, Pindarus and Thersites, and adding that of Andromache.” It cannot be gainsaid that Shakespeare, for whatever reason, failed to carry through the action of his Troilus and Cressida with vigour and completeness; but what he left was marred rather than mended in Dryden’s adaptation, the catastrophe being altered and the central idea of the play, the fickleness of the heroine, botched in the process—and all to what end?