A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, March 15, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Dryden

Prologue to The Tempest 
or, The Enchanted Island

As, when a tree's cut down, the secret root 
lives underground, and thence new branches shoot; 
So from old Shakespeare's honored dust, this day 
Springs up and buds a new reviving play: 
Shakespeare, who (taught by none) did first impart
To Fletcher wit, to laboring Jonson art. 
He, monarch-like, gave those, his subjects, law; 
And is that nature which they paint and draw. 
Fletcher reached that which on his heights did grow, 
Whilst Jonson crept, and gathered all below. 
This did his love, and this his mirth digest: 
One imitates him most, the other best. 
If they have since outwrit all other men,
'Tis with the drops which fell from Shakespeare's pen. 
The storm which vanished on the neighboring shore, 
Was taught by Shakespeare's Tempest first to roar. 
That innocence and beauty which did smile 
In Fletcher, grew on this Enchanted Isle
But Shakespeare's magic could not copied be; 
Within that circle none durst walk but he. 
I must confess 'twas bold nor would you now 
That liberty to vulgar wits allow, 
Which works by magic supernatural things; 
But Shakespeare's power is sacred as a king's. 
Those legends from old priesthood were received, 
And he them writ, as people then believed.
But if for Shakespeare we your grace implore, 
We for our theater shall want it more: 
Who by our dearth of youths are forced to employ 
One of our women to present a boy; 
And that's a transformation, you will say, 
Exceeding all the magic in the play. 
Let none expect in the last act to find 
Her sex transformed from man to womankind. 
Whate'er she was before the play began, 
All you shall see of her is perfect man. 
Or if your fancy will be farther led 
To find her woman, it must be abed. 
--John Dryden

Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare get a pretty bad rap, and some of them, such as Nahum Tate's rewriting of King Lear with a happy ending in which Cordelia marries Edgar, deserve it. But as Dryden's prologue to his version of The Tempest asserts, they did it to honor Shakespeare, not to better him. And really, is adapting Shakespeare to the theater of the times really any different from what Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim did when they turned Romeo and Juliet into a musical about street gangs, or when Giuseppe Verdi adapted Macbeth, Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor for the opera stage? Not to mention countless film adaptations, modern-dress stagings and transpositions of The Taming of the Shrew to the American West (or the American high school). 

Actually, Dryden's version of The Tempest (co-written with William D'Avenant) was nowhere near as radical as Tate's Lear. And All for Love, his version of Antony and Cleopatra, rewritten to adhere to the so-called "unities," stands on its own. Like Pope, Dryden is a difficult sell to modern readers, and his best poems are his satires, "Absalom and Achitophel" and "MacFlecknoe." But his mastery of poetic technique is unsurpassed.