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Dryden's and Pope's Criticism of Shakespeare
John Dryden and Alexander Pope have been considered as the representative critics of Shakespeare in the neoclassical period. They praised Shakespeare's representation of nature, however, at the same time, they criticized his faults; they had a balanced critical point of view. In “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” published in 1668, Dryden wrote: “[Shakespeare] had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously but luckily.” This is Dryden's praise of Shakespeare as a poet of nature, however, he did not ignore his faults: “He is many times flat, insipid; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast.” Alexander Pope also criticized Shakespeare's use of degenerating expressions, comic wit, puns, and bombast, but he never forgot to point out his merits. He praised Shakespeare, in the preface of The Works of Shakespeare, Collated and Corrected (1725), saying that “[Shakespeare's] characters are so much Nature herself.” For Pope, the works of other poets were “the reflection of a reflection,” while Shakespeare's works were original and his characters were “as much an Individual as those in Life itself.” The following praise of Pope is one of the most memorable paragraphs dedicated to Shakespeare. “The poetry of Shakespeare was Inspiration indeed: he is not so much an Imitator as an Instrument of Nature.” Dryden, Pope, and Samuel Johnson all praised Shakespeare as the poet of Nature who was original and represented “a faithful mirror” of a real life. Dryden and Pope criticized such defects of Shakespeare as his excessive uses of pun and quibble, vulgar words, bombasts, exaggerate wits, furthermore, they criticized Shakespeare's lack of moral instruction or poetic justice. They were not so much free from neoclassical rules in writing and to teach truths through delights had been the classical ideal since Horace emphasized it. Their criticisms of Shakespeare reflected the taste of the neoclassical period and their views of Shakespeare were limited by the neoclassical principles. Nevertheless, their criteria were not confined within the Aristotelian concept of the three unities, which was the most basic rule for the dramatic criticism in the period. They defended Shakespeare's disregard of the unities of time and place and Shakespeare's tragic-comedies. Pope compared the plays of regular writers to “a neat modern building,” accurately formed, elegant, and glaring, and the irregular plays of Shakespeare to an ancient majestic piece of Gothic architecture, more solemn and more strong than a modern building. This is the praise for Shakespeare's varieties and comprehensions, and it is a just view concerning Shakespeare's originalities represented in his works.
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