"My conversation is slow and dull; my humour saturine and reserved; in short, I am none of those who endeavour to break jests in company, or make reparties."
Despite his popularity during the Restoration and even today, little is known about John Dryden except what is contained in his works. Because Dryden wrote from the beginning through the end of the Restoration period, following his career is like following the history of English society during this time. In fact, many literary scholars consider the end of the Restoration period to have occurred with Dryden's death in 1700.
Dryden was the first born of fourteen to Puritan parents on 9 August 1631. In 1659, Dryden published his first writing entitled "Heroique Stanzas to the Glorious Memory of Cromwell." Then, in 1660, he wrote "Astraea Redux," another poem, but this one celebrated "the happy Restoration and return" of Charles II.
Also in 1660, Dryden wrote a poem honoring Sir Robert Howard, an investor in the King's Company, with whom Dryden remained involved personally and professionally for some time. Howard helped Dryden get involved with the King's Company, and in 1662, Dryden's first play, a comedy called The Wild Gallant, appeared (and failed) there. In 1663, Dryden married Howard's sister, Lady Elizabeth, "under the cloud of some personal disgrace." The marriage provided no financial advantage or much compatibility for the couple, but Dryden did gain social status because of her nobility. For his first dramatic success, Dryden collaborated with Sir Howard to write The Indian Queen, a rhyming tragedy that created a sensation with its elaborate scenery and costumes.
Because of his social success, Dryden was made a member of the Royal Society in 1663. Since he was a non-participating member and did not pay his dues, his membership was later revoked.
In 1668, Dryden was named Poet Laureate and was offered a share in the Theatre Royal's profits in exchange for his plays. He became the chief writer of rhymed heroic tragedy. His writing was mocked by Buckingham in The Rehearsal with the character of Bayes. With All for Love, or the World Well Lost in 1677, Dryden broke away from using rhyme in his plays. All for Love, the story of Antony and Cleopatra, is still Dryden's most admired work and was his most financially successful play.
Dryden was a very vocal Tory during the Popish Plot, at which time he made many Whig enemies, including Buckingham and Thomas Shadwell. He remained a Tory propagandist until the end of James II's reign.
Dryden's religious beliefs seemed to change with the times as well. In 1682, he declared himself an Anglican. When James took the throne in 1685, however, Dryden converted to Catholicism. Unfortunately for Dryden, when William and Mary took the throne in 1689, they replaced Catholic Dryden with Protestant Shadwell as Poet Laureate. With the loss of his honorable position, Dryden was forced financially to return to the theatre and wrote four plays, all relatively unsuccessful because of Protestant prejudices, before retiring in 1694. With his retirement, Dryden found time to relax by receiving attention from younger writers at Will's Coffeehouse, fishing, and translating classic authors such as Virgil.
A few weeks before his death, Dryden finished a "secular masque" for The Pilgrim, a play written for his benefit. Dryden died on May 1, 1700 on the third night of its production.
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