Kings, queens, dragons, and swordfights; John Dryden (1631-1700) was the seventeenth century counterpart to George R. R. Martin. His play King Arthur, or the British Worthy (1691) is a piece of pure medieval fantasy. With an elegant score composed by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the play tells the tale of Arthur attempting to drive the Saxons out of Britain. Yet the tale that it tells of King Arthur is different to the one you might recognise. There is no Guinevere, no Sir Lancelot – in fact, none of the Knights of the Round Table make an appearance. The only other character in the play that you might recognise is Merlin, who is accompanied by two dragons.
Dryden lived through one of the most tumultuous centuries in English history. He witnessed the English Revolution and Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1659), the Restoration of Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw James II ousted from the English throne in favour of William of Orange and his wife, Mary. Dryden’s own career was intertwined with the changing political scene in Britain. He worked in an administrative capacity for the Protectorate, and had a certain degree of admiration for Cromwell, having authored the poem Heroick Stanzas in his honour. He seems, however, to have been able to sense which way the wind was blowing, and upon the Restoration threw in his lot with the returning Stuarts, becoming one of their most loyal supporters, and being appointed as Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668. But after the ascension of William and Mary in 1688, his position as Poet Laureate was rescinded and he had no choice but to concentrate on dramatic works and translations. It is in the latter period that some of his most successful works date, including King Arthur.
The setting of the play is Britain at some point during the early medieval period. In Kent the Saxon King, Oswald, reigns and is assisted by his magician, Osmond. Arthur rules over the rest of Britain, and is assisted by the wizard Merlin. Act 1 opens by depicting both the Briton’s and Saxons’ camps on the eve of a battle between them. In the Britons’ camp, Arthur talks to his friend Conon, a Cornish Duke, about the coming battle. It is revealed that Conon’s daughter, the blind Emmeline, is to be wed to Arthur after having rejected the advances of Oswald the Saxon. The battle then takes place and the Saxons are at beaten back, played out excellently in the rousing song ‘Come if you dare’.
Meantime, in Act 2 Emmeline and her servant are back at the Britons’ camp awaiting news of the battle, but Oswald, along with his friend infiltrates the Britons’ camp and kidnaps Emmeline, carrying her off to his castle. Upon learning this, in Acts 3 & 4, Arthur sets out to attack Oswald’s castle, but Osmond erects an enchanted wood around the castle preventing their access. Arthur enters the wood alone in order to rescue Emmeline, but as he travels through the wood, forest spirits try to seduce him, accompanied by what is probably one of Purcell’s finest compositions entitled ‘How Happy the Lover’. Arthur resists these temptations from the spirits of the forest and cuts down the magic tree in the centre of the forest, which makes the whole of the magic woods disappear, thus freeing access to Oswald’s castle. With the castle now exposed, in Act 5 Oswald sees Arthur’s approaching army, and challenges Arthur to a trial-by-combat. Arthur wins, though he does not kill Oswald. Instead he commands the Saxons to return home because ‘my Britain’s [sic] brook no Foreign Power, to Lord it in a Land, Sacred to its Freedom’. The play ends with a masque, which sees Britannia rising out of the ocean surrounded by sailing ships, whilst the chorus sings ‘for the honour of Old England’.
Although the play is set during the medieval period it is still a very “classical” portrayal of the Middle Ages. Cupid, the Roman god of desire, makes numerous appearances throughout the play. King Arthur’s best friend in the play has the Roman name Aurelius. The forest spirits who try to beguile Arthur in the enchanted wood are named as ‘nymphs and sylvans’. This fits with the general vogue for all things classical during the eighteenth century, a time when, drawing inspiration from Ancient Greece and Rome, grand houses in England were built in the Roman style. It is not that eighteenth-century contemporaries had no respect for their medieval past – far from it. The well-known song Rule Britannia, for instance, is from a masque written by Thomas Arne entitled Alfred (1740), about the eponymous medieval King. Rather, as Rosemary Mitchell says, they wanted to give their own past a neoclassical overlay. And it may be remembered that, as far as the Arthurian tradition is concerned, we have recently returned to a kind of classical representation of King Arthur’s story. In the most recent movie King Arthur (2004) starring Clive Owen, King Arthur is a Roman general who goes by the name of Artorius, and all of his knights are Roman soldiers who are fending off a Saxon invasion after the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain in 410AD. Similarly, The Last Legion (2007) – in many ways an Arthurian prequel – shows the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, as being exiled to England, bringing with him the sword Excalibur, and it is suggested that this Roman Emperor is the father of King Arthur. Through the majority of the movie, furthermore, Merlin goes by his Latin name, Ambrosinus.
The play is obviously very patriotic, and the vision of Britannia rising from the water at the finale cannot have failed to have resonance for contemporaries watching the play. By 1691, when the play was first performed, England was well on its way to becoming the “polite and commercial” nation it would be characterised as during the eighteenth century, a prosperity spurred on by Britain’s expanding overseas trade and commerce. Eighteenth-century Britons believed, as Joseph Addison mused in The Spectator in 1711, that their prosperity was linked to the idea of (personal and economic) liberty; Protestantism, constitutional monarchy, and the Bill of Rights, all combined to make Britain this “polite and commercial” nation. What Dryden is saying is that King Arthur’s mythical quest for “liberty” from oppression in his play looks forward to securing the rights, liberties, and prosperity that Britons were enjoying in his own time.
While Dryden may have disagreed with the regime change that came in 1688, he still had to write his play to survive in the theatrical marketplace of 1691-92, hence his emphasis on the notion of liberty. The politics of the play have been a matter of debate for some time. Originally written in 1684, some scholars maintain that the original version was a political allegory for the Exclusion Crisis – when debates in Parliament raged over who was to succeed Charles II, for in all honesty many MPs did not want the Catholic James Stuart to succeed Charles. This is the theory advanced by Curtis Price, who maintains that the Britons represent the seventeenth-century Tories, who back James II (Arthur), and the Saxons are the Whigs, backing the “foreign power”. This theory is not altogether implausible, for Dryden’s own attachment to the Stuart cause was well-known, and loyalty to the Stuarts was the reason that he lost his position as Poet Laureate under William III, and was reduced to writing plays. Nevertheless, Dryden had to, and in the case of King Arthur, quite successfully managed to avoid being too partisan in his writing by editing his original version which is now lost.
The play was well-received, and when it premiered at the Dorset Garden Theatre in December 1691, according to the historian Jamie Childs, both “concert” and “fully-staged” versions were performed in order to accommodate demand. Revivals of the play were common throughout the succeeding century. In 1711, in what must have been a spectacular medievalist double-bill, Dryden’s King Arthur played opposite Georg Frederich Handel’s Rinaldo, a story of the First Crusade (1096-1099). In fact, in every decade of the eighteenth century, the play was revived in some form, with an especially brilliant version adapted by the actor-manager, David Garrick, in the 1770s. In short, if you lived in the eighteenth century, this was the story of King Arthur that you knew, not the heavily “Victorianised” story of Arthur, Guinevere, Launcelot, and the rest of the Knights of the Round Table. With its tales of magic, intrigue, romance, and brilliantly-staged battles, Dryden’s King Arthur, or the British Worthy really was the seventeenth-century Game of Thrones.