was a form mainly specific to the Restoration Period
, through instances continued to be written in the earlier eighteenth century. As Dryden
defined it: "An heroic [sic] play ought to be an imitation, in little, of an heroic poem; and consequently...love and valour ought to be the subject of it" (Preface to The Conquest of Grenada
1672). By 'heroic poem' he meant epic, and the plays attempted to emulate the epic by including a large-scale warrior as hero, an action involving the fate of an empire, and an elevated and elaborate style, usually cast in the epigrammatic form of the closed heroic couplet. A noble hero and heroine are typically represented in a situation in which their passionate love conflicts with the demands of honour and the hero's patriotic duty to his country; if the conflict ends in disaster, the play is called a heroic tragedy. Often the central dilemma is patently contrived and the characters and statuesque and unconvincing, while the attempt to sustain a high epic style swells sometimes into bombast, as in Dryden's Love Triumphant
(1693): 'What woods are these? I feel my vital heat/Forsake my limbs, my curdled blood retreat.'
Dryden's Conquest of Granada is one of the better heroic tragedies, but his highest achievement is his adaptation (which he called All for Love, 1678) of Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra to the heroic formula. Other heroic dramatists were Nathaniel Lee (The Rival Queens) and Thomas Otway, whose Venice Preserved is a fine tragedy that transcends the usual limitations of the form. We also owe indirectly to heroic tragedy two very amusing parodies of the type: the Ducke of Buckingham's The Rehearsal and Henry Fielding's The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great
A Glossary of Literary Terms - M. H. Abrams