Dryden’s Alcmena

Dryden’s play, though radically original, was intimately shaped by his knowledge of two previous masterpieces which retell the same story – by the Ancient Roman dramatist Plautus and the French playwright Molière in the 1660s.   But, among the many departures from the precedents they set, Dryden chooses to allow us to see Alcmena in matrimonial happiness before Jupiter deceives and enjoys her. The other versions introduce her in the immediate aftermath of that experience. Only Dryden feels it to be important to show us, however briefly, what normality, and contentment, were like for her, before an alien, and invisible, power transformed her world irreparably.   From the moment actresses were introduced to the English stage in 1660, Dryden relished writing more and more challenging roles for them. He continues those experiments here, giving the actress playing Alcmena a more complex arc of experience to travel through than had confronted any of her predecessors in earlier dramatic versions of her story.

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