Love and Marriage in
Three Restoration Comedies
The Restoration comedies can be a window into a unique period of English history. Following the political and social turmoil of the English Civil War, the Restoration Age was characterized by a sense of loss and cultural disillusion coupled with efforts to restore social stability and cohesion. These conditions were associated with a diminishment in the influence of traditional institutions such as religion and the aristocracy and the rise of new institutions to replace them. The Country Wife and The Rover were both produced during this period of uncertain social structures and transformations, and The Wives' Excuse heralds the period's end and the beginning of a new age with new dominant values. This study will examine this progression in terms of the portrayal of each play's hero, a look at each play's heroine and minor female characters, and how the plays comment on marriage and gender to see how, if at all, art and life intersect.
Joseph Wood Krutch contends that Restoration comedy "was derived from the union of certain elements of the old comedy of Humours with certain elements in the romantic plays of the same period. From the former it took its realism, and from the latter hints in the handling of dialogue...Ben Jonson had given a picture of the bottom of society, so that we may call his plays comedies of bad manners. Fletcher had elaborated the play of courtly characters...The writers of the Restoration borrowed from both, presenting a picture as realistic as that of Jonson, but of a society as cultivated as that in the imaginary courts of Fletcher" (7). Though other critics may dispute Krutch's lineage, the point is that Restoration comedy did have its antecedents in English drama and was not an aberration, reflective of earlier forms as well as being a product of its time.
Restoration comedy had a vogue of approximately fifty years, from 1668 to the 1710's (Burns, 1). Built around a central group of young men and women, "its essential ingredients are wit, urbanity and sophistication. The scene is almost invariably London-its streets, parks and coffee houses. The themes are, almost exclusively, love, sexual intrigue and cuckoldry" (Morrah, 109). Also referred to as the Comedy of Manners because the chief characters are usually members of high society, the Restoration comedy tends to feature recurring types- "the graceful young rake, the faithless wife, the deceived husband, and perhaps, a charming young heroine who is to be bestowed in the end on the rake" (Krutch, 2). Finally, great emphasis is placed on witty dialogue and repartee for its own sake. Morrah remarks, "It was in this emphasis on wit, the insistence on elegance in writing, on tidiness of mind, that the age differed from its predecessor" (80). Witty repartee is often operative in these plays, used as a device to ridicule and reveal the flaws of others as well as an aid in attaining one's own goals. As Krutch remarks, "The technique of wit [can] become that of rationalizing debauchery into a philosophical system and producing a great corpus of mock casuistry whose fine points are expounded with a zeal worthy of a theologian" (11). Wit is also a comic and clever way to woo a member of the opposite sex, and one critic credits Dryden with first popularizing "the battle of wits between the emancipated young couple" (McDonald, 77). The Country Wife, The Rover, and The Wives' Excuse collectively share a number of these themes, attributes and character types, and the degree and significance of these commonalities will form the basis of my analysis.
Social and Historical Context
Yet before proceeding to the plays themselves, I would like to "set the stage" as it were. No matter how realistic a work of art, its nature AS art prevents one from making a direct comparison with the particular society in which it is produced. Yet art and society do intersect and often a work can be more appreciated when considered in its historical context. The Restoration comedies in particular intersect with Restoration society at a number of vital points. Many critics remark on the efforts of the contemporary playwrights "to represent the actual manners of the times, and to show real characters in a familiar setting" (Krutch, 19). Wilkinson concurs "that certain essential properties of the plays are derived directly and barely altered from gallant society" (7). I will briefly focus on three areas of Restoration society in order to investigate their possible effects and influences on the characters and content of the Restoration comedies I am studying. These areas are King Charles II and his court, audience composition, and economic and cultural changes that pertain to audience and theme.
Charles II ascended the throne of England in 1660 at age thirty and reigned until his death in 1685. Charles himself was considered a "rake," a successful and skilled pursuer of women, and he boasted a string of beautiful mistresses throughout his reign. Patrick Morrah writes that Charles was especially influenced by the French Court of Louis XIV and wanted his own court to imitate its elegance and sophistication (40-4); thus, the emphasis was on fashion, art, wit, and love. Morrah qualifies that though "there was as much womanizing at the Louvre (and perhaps at the Vatican) as there ever was at Whitehall, certainly at this palace it was openly practiced for all to see" (45), and goes on to point out that "royal mistresses were a phenomenon new to even the oldest of English observers; not since the far-off days of Henry VIII had there been so much as a mention of extra-marital adventures" (45). Thus, the King and his mistresses helped to make the pursuit of love, and particularly sexual love, the main preoccupation of the gallant lords and ladies who made up Court society (Morrah, 47). The King's mistresses set the tones in women's dress which tended to emphasize sexual suggestiveness and sensuality (Burns, 8) and "the king set an example of promiscuity, and his followers emulated him with enthusiasm" (Hume, 145).
In consequence, Burns' charge rings true: "The atmosphere of the plays corresponded very closely with the atmosphere of a portion of society, that their heroes were drawn from the characters of Sedley, Rochester, and Charles himself, and that however shocking the incidents and speeches might be, they are to be matched in dissoluteness by what is to be found in the histories and memoirs" (24). This allusion to Sedley, etc. draws attention to another vital connection between the Court and Restoration theatre: many playwrights of the age were also associated with the Court. "Of the five great comedy writers, Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh and Farquhar, four were distinguished men of fashion, and two were, in addition, knights" (Krutch, 39). In fact, many were part of a loosely knit group of amateur writers known as the Court Wits and these included Sir George Etherege, Sir Robert Howard, his brother-in-law John Dryden, Sir Charles Sedley, and the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester (Burns, 19). Hume declares that Wycherley was a fringe member (146) and Aphra Behn was a close friend of Rochester (Morrah, 110). Obviously most of these writers knew each other and moved within the same social set so their "realistic" representations of fashionable characters and situations were certainly informed by actual knowledge and experience.
Two licensed theatres were opened in 1662 under the special patronage of the King and the Duke of York, and it was in "the theatre that the talents of the Restoration wits found their most prolific output" and became the center of fashionable life (Morrah, 106). Professional actresses were allowed on the stage for the first time, and Morrah claims that the Restoration wits, and indeed the London theatrical scene, revolved around these beautiful ladies (108). Many became mistresses of playwrights, and an actress named Nell Gwyn became mistress to King Charles himself. In these various ways it is clear that the relationship between the Restoration Court and the theatre was an intimate one.
Not only were character portrayals and dramatic plotting influenced by the playwrights' close association with the Court, but it was to a large extent the society of the Court for which the plays were written. There are many reasons for this. King Charles was an enthusiastic patron of the theatre, and he saw over four hundred professional performances during his twenty-five year reign (Roberts, 120). Naturally, his entourage followed suit. As a center of fashionable life, the theatre was a place to see fashionable people and to be seen and also a forum to pursue sexual intrigues. Yet of the ten or fifteen licensed theatres operating before the War, only two were reopened, and they became consolidated in 1682 (Wilkinson, 7). Obviously, the Restoration audiences were both much smaller and more homogeneous, composed disproportionately of the upper classes of London. Thus, audience composition may also provide an insight into some of the recurrent themes of Restoration comedy: pursuit of love and pleasure, cynical manipulation of others, and condemnation of marriage. The playwrights obviously wanted to please their audiences and the Court social set espoused rather different values than the majority of the British population; thus, they are reflected in the plays.
Krutch asserts the debauchery practiced at Court was due in part to a reactionary backlash against Puritan repressiveness (24), and Wilkinson highlights how the War promoted general anxiety regarding previously stable traditional institutions. But rather than clinging more tightly to tradition as much of the lower and middle classes seemed to do, court society was characterized by a rejection of traditional values. Both Wilkinson (59) and Birdsall (161-3) point out that philosophers like Machiavelli and Hobbes (who was also reacting to the Civil War) had an impact within the educated classes and that they "were worldly realists who understood force and compulsion to be the only efficacious means for attaining personal security and social order [who] preferred not to trust unless compelled by necessity" (Wilkinson, 2). Hobbes characterized all human behavior as arising from basic self-interest and a will to power (Birdsall, 163). Hobbes' philosophy was individualistic and materialistic, and these same attitudes towards sensual enjoyment and manipulation of others can certainly be detected in Restoration Court society and in many of the heroes and heroines of the Restoration comedies they went to see.
In general, the Restoration was a time of both political and social uncertainty and transformation (Gill, 5). In addition to the factors above, the rise of a merchant middle-class and its aspirations of social mobility also threatened social hierarchies. The bourgeois values of personal acquisition, private judgment, and subjective self-assessment began to filter into the society and the literature of the period (Gill, 5). Individual self-expression became an increasingly popular value among educated men and women, and there was a growing awareness of the problems of arranged marriage. The Restoration comedies of manners both dealt with many of these new issues yet "the search for novelty, the ready resort to laughter, the conscious reducing of the significance of traditional codes" also helped the audience to evade them (Wilkinson, 57).
The Rakish Hero
One of the features unique to Restoration comedy is the figure of the rake as romantic hero. Birdsall points out that the rake- hero is a descendant of earlier comedic male characters who were rogues, "shrewd, double-dealing rascals dedicated to the cause of their own freedom and prosperity" (6), but he is a sign of the times in that during this period he supplanted the traditional romantic hero in many of the age's theatrical productions. The rake-hero exhibits a number of attitudes and characteristics that one can detect in Horner, Willmore, and Lovemore. He is unmarried, cynical, coarse but with the manners of a gentleman, witty, manipulative, and self-serving. He tends to create his own brand of morality which includes a belief in the open pursuit of sensual pleasure and a dismissal of marriage. His "wit consists not so much in his defiance of traditional notions of right conduct, as in the casual and unruffled manner in which he expresses the 'shocking' sentiments" since "the first major requirement for a reputation for wit is the appearance of being in complete control of one's feelings and/or of one's circumstances, whether one is or not" (Wilkinson, 96).
Horner, the rake-hero of The Country Wife, illustrates this ideal more fully than either Willmore or Lovemore. The dominant plot is set in motion through his experiment: pretending impotence in order to discover which ladies of his acquaintance like sex and are willing to cuckold their husbands by having sex with him: "If I can but abuse the husbands, I'll soon disabuse the wives" (I,i: 146-7). His manipulation of the other characters and control of the situations is nearly total, only faltering in the last scene when the maid, Lucy, must step in and maintain his deception. Within the context of the play, his social power derives from an awareness of 'real' human nature; he 'knows' that 'ladies of quality' want to have sex with men other than their husbands if they will not be found out, and he 'knows' enough about the hypocrisy of men like Pinchwife and Sir Jasper to conclude that they deserve to be cuckolded. He assumes people's inner motives are opposite to their outer behavior: "Ay, your arrantest cheat is your trustee or executor; your jealous man, the greatest cuckold; your churchman, the greatest atheist; and your noisy, pert rogue of a wit, the greatest fop" (I.i: 281-4). Horner mirrors this social 'insight' in his own behavior by feigning impotence to act out his lechery. The fact that he doesn't suffer any adverse consequences supports the idea that his knowledge must be valid.
Horner is also presented as smarter than the other male characters, presumably due to his wit. He knows how to outsmart the husbands, as when he sees through the disguise of Margery dressed as a boy and kisses and fondles her in front of her husband. His witty superiority informs his social insights and makes his social power possible. He aggressively uses his wit to undermine and reveal the foolishness and hypocrisy of the other characters. Sparkish's vanity and Pinchwife's jealousy make them vulnerable to ridicule, and the lesson is "to be invulnerable one must be a wit" (Wilkinson, 136). He expresses his superiority when he mocks and rails at anything that could be considered socially restrictive or dishonest, "Affectation is [nature's] greatest monster" (I.i: 271) but ironically uses affectation to get what he wants. He rails against marriage because it is conventional and limits one's freedom, and he makes cuckolds to express his hostility to marriage gone wrong. Horner illustrates the "social power and witty superiority" of the gallant wit (Wilkinson, 84).
Yet Horner's wit and social power are dedicated almost exclusively to the goal of sexual conquest for its own sake, and his intrigues are as much about power as they are about any genuine feeling he has for the women he sleeps with. His opinion of Lady Fidget and her friends, "pretenders to honour" (II.i: 438) does not deter him from having sex with them. All women appear the same to him, "Now I must wrong one woman for another's sake. But that's no new thing with me" (V.iv: 234) and he only "converse[s] with 'em...to laugh at 'em and use 'em ill" (III.ii: 20-1). One of the consequences of the sexual and power impulses coming together in the rake-hero is that since men hold the power in Restoration society, the 'male fantasy' that is played out in which he has sex without the traditional restraints of society and marriage is as much to prove his superiority over other men as it is about sexual freedom and enjoyment. Though Horner ostensibly outwits the foolish and reveals the pretentious, he becomes limited and caught in his own game when he is used by the women he seeks to use, when he becomes the commodity, and becomes as much defined by the game's rules as the others.
Willmore, the rake-hero of The Rover, exemplifies many of the same traits as Horner, but he differs in significant ways. He too is cynical about love and is the most insightful of the characters when it comes to seeing through disguises; he recognizes Helena dressed as a boy in Act IV and gives away Belville's disguise earlier in the same scene. He refuses to buy into Angelica's self-deception and instead castigates her for "the Vanity of that Pride, which taught you how to set such a Price on Sin" (II.ii: 12-3). Especially with Angelica, his purpose, like Horner's, is to reveal her illusions and hypocrisy. But unlike Horner, he doesn't practice deceit to reveal it. This is probably because his goal is to have sex rather than to cuckold. Thus, the balance between sex and power in Willmore's personality leans more towards the enjoyment of sex, and his manipulation extends only to the women in service of this goal.
Willmore epitomizes the libertine ideal of sexual freedom more so than Horner. He likes Naples where there is "a kind of legal authoriz'd Fornication, where the Men are not chid for 't, nor the Women despis'd" (I.ii: 123-5). He frankly asks both Helena and Angelica to sleep with him when he first meets each of them and declares to Belville, "Thou know'st there's but one way for a Woman to oblige me" (I.ii: 267). But like Horner, all women seem the same to him. He declares, "Oh for my Arms full of soft, white, kind-Woman!" (II.i: 16) and accosts Florinda in the garden for no other reason than that she is there and "'tis a delicate shining Wench" (III.iii: 25). After the attempted rape is stopped by Belville, Willmore recalls Angelica lives nearby and blithely goes to her house. All this occurs after he has promised Hellena to be faithful, and he only renews his pursuit of Hellena when Angelica throws him over. Yet, though Willmore is careless and irresponsible (and sometimes dangerous) and his drunken and sexual excesses outstrip Horner's, he is less consciously manipulative than Horner. He also genuinely admires Helena for her wit and recognizes and appreciates she is as cynical as he: "We are so of one Humour, it must be a Bargain" (V.i: 487). Thus, he takes a step that Horner would never consider, he marries.
One can see the dimunition of the popularity of the witty rake-hero when one reads The Wives' Excuse published in 1691. From the ideal of Horner in The Country Wife (1675) to its variation in Willmore (1677), the power and influence of the rake in Restoration comedy can be seen waning in the portrayal of Lovemore. Like Horner, he conspires to cuckold Mr. Friendall and sleep with Mrs. Friendall. He perceives that Friendall is a coward and so arranges him to be publicly challenged to a duel. When Friendall wriggles out of it, Lovemore hopes that Mrs. Friendall will be so disgusted with her husband that she will sleep with him. Again like Horner, he has an insight into the society: it is a formula that has worked for him before, "Thus, who a married woman's love would win/ Should with the husband's failings first begin:" (I.iii: 68-9). But when Lovemore finally succeeds in publicly exposing Friendall with Mrs. Witwoud (and consequently humiliating Mrs. Friendall), she still frustrates Lovemore's designs and refuses to have sex with him. Thus, Lovemore's social power as the witty rake in the style of Horner is diminished. He can disrupt but not control; his vision of society cannot account for everyone in it.
The character of the rake-hero is a product of Restoration society. Taking their clue from the activities and ideas that prevailed in the Restoration Court, the Restoration playwrights fashioned a character type who could be successful in an uncertain society by outwitting others without being hampered by an outmoded morality. "In a world in which honor is but a word and virtue but a pose, whoever dissimulates most successfully will acquire most power and will least likely be a victim of others' ruthless schemes" (Harwood, 106). The audience was doubtless meant to admire Horner's resourcefulness and Willmore's freedom from convention, yet by the time Lovemore mounts the stage, the rake appears weak and rather pathetic, mechanically pursuing pleasure without knowing why. The rake's currency with the audience lessened with the change in the times, a new monarch, and changes in social and cultural values and mores.
Changing Ideals of the Feminine
The heroines of the three plays, Margery, Hellena, and Mrs. Friendall, also seem to chart the times with regard to the changing attitudes about proper female behavior and the nature of women in general. Like her rake counterpart, each heroine is to a certain extent frank about her sexual needs and desires. Margery sighs over Horner in her room and a "hot fit comes and [she] is all in a fever" (IV.iv: 7). Hellena declares to her sister that she has a healthy sexual appetite and curiosity and knows "how these ought to be employ'd to the best Advantage" (I.i: 47), and the fact that Mrs. Friendall acknowledges that she is tempted by Lovemore (II.ii: 88) makes her rejection of him more admirable. This acknowledgment of normal female sexual desire on the part of the playwrights indicates a shift from ideas found in earlier dramas of the century, (like The Revenger's Tragedy) that female expressions of sexual appetite automatically made a woman a whore. It is also a way for the heroines themselves to challenge the social limitations imposed by husbands, fathers, and brothers that parallels and competes with the rake-heroes' desire for freedom of sexual expression.
Independence of spirit is expressed rhetorically by many of the female characters but only Hellena does so through her use of wit. The other two heroines express themselves through their choices, but these lack little force beyond the rhetorical. Horner declares that "wit is more necessary than beauty; and [he] thinks no young woman ugly that has it" (I.i: 425-6), but Margery is too honest and ignorant to banter with Horner, and he later laments this lack in her and all that it implies in terms of a practical knowledge of the world. Likewise, Mrs. Friendall's dialogue is consistently sentimental, and her declarations of virtue are too serious and prosaic to be witty. Yet, these two women both make moral choices, and they reflect their times in choosing opposite outcomes. Margery chooses to lie to her husband and protect Horner and Mrs. Friendall chooses to reject Lovemore although she separates from her husband. Margery's choice reflects her newly discovered understanding that she must practice deceit in order to survive in a hypocritical and repressive society. Thus, the vision of society that The Country Wife presents remains enclosed for women and there is little questioning of the dominant values espoused by Horner. In The Wives' Excuse, Mrs. Friendall's choice and the play itself tend to undermine Restoration assumptions about women, marriage and the society. Regardless, both women still remain trapped in an unhappy marriage.
Of the three, only Hellena exemplifies the independent and witty Restoration comic heroine, a suitable counterpart to her rake-hero. She resourcefully pursues Willmore and wins him. Hellena aspires to the control of a Horner in displaying an equal ability to outwit other characters and determine plot (Burns, 127) as when she disguises herself as a boy and disrupts the relationship between Angelica and Willmore (Iv.ii). Her use of wit helps her win her man by eliciting his admiration. Willmore muses, "I cannot get her out of my Head; Pray Heaven...she prove damnable ugly that I may fortify my self against her Tongue" (II.i: 7-10) and praises her, "Ah Rogue! such black Eyes, such a Face, such a Mouth, such Teeth,-and so much Wit!" (III.i: 300-1). She also wins the battle of the sexes, played out in the arena of wit in which his aim is seduction and hers is matrimony. Yet, as Wilkinson points out, the hero "accepts marriage often with witty excuses, [only] if she proves resolutely chaste," so in fact chastity is still the basis of female survival and the price of female victory in the battle of the sexes (92). Even Hellena, the most independent and aggressive of these three Restoration heroines, cannot free herself from the social necessities of female chastity and conventional marriage. Thus, for all three women, increased awareness of and ability to talk about their respective situations does not translate into increased freedom to act.
The minor female characters also illustrate some of these same contradictions. Both Alithea and Florinda, who conform to the more traditionally idealized heroine figures, must undergo some kind of education that involves disillusion. Alithea, witty and independently minded in a way that prefigures Hellena, discovers her extreme idealism is out-of-place and even dangerous in this new era in which traditional values are inverted or abandoned. She betrays her naive understanding of the realities of marriage when she says of Sparkish, her betrothed, "Love proceeds from esteem; he cannot distrust my virtue. Besides he loves me, or he would not marry me" (II.i: 233-4). Her overly zealous ideal of honoring her pledge to Sparkish almost leads to a disastrous match, and she learns that her ideals must be tempered by a practical evaluation of the society around her though she never slips into the deep cynicism of Lady Fidget and her cohorts. Alithea contrasts with Margery in that though both start out innocent, Alithea is lucky enough, albiet through the manipulations of Harcourt, to avoid an unhappy match like the Pinchwifes'.
Florinda too is characterized as an ideal heroine, chaste, modest, and beautiful. She is also independent, willing to defy her brother through intrigue and disguise in order to marry Belville. Yet, just as Alithea's reputation is temporarily endangered when Margery impersonates her, Florinda is physically endangered when both Willmore and Blunt nearly rape her. Though Florinda does not acknowledge these experiences as having a lasting or negative effect upon her, I think the audience is meant to take note of the level of male violence directed towards her. Perhaps she encounters danger because she cannot defend herself with wit like her sister, but perhaps it is also an indication that the ideal of woman as a morally elevated being as portrayed in The Broken Heart is also losing currency in the society. Women are no longer automatically respected if they cannot prove they are of a certain class.
In these dramatic presentations, all of these female characters seem to reflect an effort by women in Restoration society to both step up from the moral gutter and down from the pedastal and no doubt corresponds with the slow but continuing move in Britain from a religious society ( with their dogmatic views on the nature of women) to a secular society. They also echo the male heroes in their desires for freedom and self-expression which may be linked to the growing popularity of middle-class values. Yet, as pointed out above, women's growing awareness of their limitations and their aspirations for more freedom in expression does not in the plays, and did not in society, translate into a change of female legal status until the following century. The problem of aspiration and limitation, as with appearance and reality, is dealt with by the female use of masks and disguises which generalizes the female experience in all three plays (Burns, 131). Through disguise Margery achieves her desire of meeting with Horner, and the carnival masks enable Hellena and Florinda to move freely around the city without male supervision in pursuit of their lovers. Mrs. Witwoud in The Wives' Excuse uses a mask when having sex with Mr. Friendall, but it also serves to reveal his true character to Mrs. Friendall. The use of disguise allows many of the female characters to skirt societal restrictions but it also reveals how repressive their conventional roles actually are.
Representations of Marriage
The dramatic representations of male and female characters come together in the way the three plays comment on marriage. Many critics take the view that marriage as an institution is more vilified in Restoration comedy than in the drama of other periods but this is not generally true. The rake-heroes and their friends do express the Hobbesian views of freedom to follow natural impulses and their raillery against marriage is due to it often being seen as a restriction on these impulses, all the more since divorces were practically impossible to obtain (Birdsall, 35). Yet The Country Wife ends with one marriage and The Rover ends with two and though The Wives' Excuse ends bleakly with a failed marriage, the institution itself is still supported. One also has to bear in mind that the rake-hero's inversion of values was also a source of laughter and would not have been had the audience been meant to take his views completely seriously.
The kinds of marriages that are satirized and condemned are those based on economic or other considerations rather than love and mutual affection. Pinchwife marries Margery specifically because of her ignorance and youth since, as he asks Horner, "What is wit in a wife good for, but to make a man a cuckold?" (I.i: 429). But Horner does cuckold him and Pinchwife's selfishness and jealousy are presented as reasons that he deserves to be. Willmore, in response to Angelica's charge that men never ask anything about a Lady proposed to them for marriage except the size of her fortune, responds, "It is a barbarous Custom, which I will scorn to defend in our Sex" (II.ii: 97-8). Hellena rails at her brother for wanting to marry Florinda off to an old man for economic and political gain. The Pinchwife marriage and Hellena's comments refer to a specific result of arranged marriage which was the high incidence of young women being married to older, sometimes much older, men. Hume maintains that "by the standards of comedies written after about 1670 old husbands with young wives are fair game for horning, especially if the wife entered the marriage under duress. Cuckoldom is punishment" (152). This is the attitude expressed in The Country Wife by Horner and such a marriage is avoided for Florinda thanks to the manipulations of Belville and Willmore. Though not significantly older than his intended, Sparkish's economic motives for marrying Alithea are revealed and the marriage is likewise prevented by Harcourt. Unfortunately the same motives led to Mr. Friendall marrying Mrs. Friendall and even though they agree to part, Mrs. Friendall must still be his wife "and still unhappy" (V.iii: 347). All three plays explore the fact that such marriages rarely have a happy outcome. What Gills says of Behn, that her plays focus on "the contending claims of love and money" (21) can rightly be said of The Country Wife and The Wives' Excuse as well.
Instead, the kind of marriages endorsed are those based on love in which each partner chooses the other freely. Florinda and Belville are portrayed as a love match from the first. Harcourt chooses Alithea and she responds when he believes in her innocence. Interestingly, Harcourt is something of a rake and in The Rover, of the three plays, we see the fully developed rake, Willmore, also succumb to marriage. Indeed, Hellena and Willmore provide the most full example of a type of match peculiar to the Restoration comedies because they both seek freedom but when they find each other and are mutually attracted, (as Hellena says to Willmore, "I see our Business as well as Humours are alike" (III.i: 202)), they express an attempt to establish a new kind of paradigm for marriage in which male and female meet on a more equal footing. Hellena's and Willmore's lack of illusions regarding each other and marriage can help them avoid many of the pitfalls and disappointments encountered by couples enacting traditional roles and expectations. Yet, the fact that they do marry nevertheless reinstates a social order and it is Mrs. Friendall's situation, still so common at the end of the century, that restates the argument that some marriages may never work and may be best dissolved.
What is perhaps more interesting than their comments on marriage are the plays' treatment of male and female gender roles. In many ways, gender roles appear more rigidly defined than in the earlier plays. The rake-hero's activities have been narrowed to exclude the traditional romantic hero's roles of soldier, son, etc. (i.e., Hamlet, Philaster) and feature only social manipulations in the service of sexual conquest. Likewise, female characters may perhaps have more rhetorical freedom, but their goals are also primarily sex and pleasure-oriented (Alithea, Margery, Hellena) and when the goals are not, as with Mrs. Friendall, the woman finds there is no role for her within the society.
But the plays also contain gender uncertainty, ambiguity, and reversal. Horner's pretended emasculation leads him to be viewed as feminized by the men and, as he is treated more familiarly and demandingly by the women he wishes to dominate, they feminize him as well; they treat him more like an object or pet and pass him around like a "whore" (Gill, 61). Yet, the play itself seeks to portray Horner as the "superior man" who exposes and groups with the "defective" females like Lady Fidget the "young fops and old lechers...in obvious ways to feminize them also" (Gill, 12); they are lesser men than the rake-hero. The< Rover also subverts gender roles as when both Hellena and Florinda skillfully pursue their lovers as would a male rake though their goals must be marriage; yet the male is object and the female is subject, and the play concludes with Willmore being presented to Hellena as a prize she has won. Finally, at the conclusion of The Wives' Excuse, though Lovemore delivers the last lines, Mrs. Friendall speaks the epilogue, a speech which deflates male vanity, and the audience is left with the impression that her situation is more interesting and significant to the future society than Lovemore's repititious round of philandering; the play concludes with her replacing him on center stage.
Remarking on Restoration drama, Hume claims that "social commentary is an altogether common phenomenon in these plays" (29) and neither The Country Wife, nor The Rover, nor The Wives' Excuse presents an exception. As I think has been made clear, these three plays reflect the age in a number of ways. The increasing awareness of arranged marriages as a social problem paralleled a growing concern with women's rights since once a woman was married she had almost no legal recourse against a tyrannical or unfaithful husband (Hume, 179). This is represented by a body of writing in books, newspapers, and magazines of the time (Roberts, 144), and the Restoration comedy's preoccupation with marriage reflected these concerns. The increasing representation in drama of the urban gentry and middle class rather than royalty or aristocracy also corresponded to shifts in the society in which the merchant middle-class was growing in numbers and wealth and introducing into the culture the middle-class values of private ownership and individual rights. The class and power structure was shifting downward, making possible the opening scene in The Wives' Excuse in which the servants all know what their employers are up to. Yet the plays also reflect the society during these volatile times in promoting "reactionary" sentiments. Hume believes the rake-hero illustrates the upper class rebellion against the repressive morality of the puritans and the bourgeois middle-class (140) which Gill also credits with trends towards a hardening of binary gender roles (138). Nevertheless, the rise of the gentleman from the new gentry contributed to the diminishment of influence of the court gallant, and the parallel can be seen in the rake's loss of influence from Horner to Lovemore. By the 1690's, the wit and explicit sexuality of The Country Wife and TheRover was being superceded by the beginning of the portrayal of more idealized figures like Mrs. Friendall, staid and virtuous, and these kinds of figures would become increasingly prevalent in the new sentimental comedies of the new century.
Adieu, bon vivants!
Birdsall, Virginia Ogden. Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
Burns, Edward. Restoration Comedy: Crises of Desire and Identity. London: The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1987.
Gill, Pat. Interpreting Ladies: Women, Wit, and Morality in the Restoration Comedy of Manners. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Harwood, John T. Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
Hume, Robert D. The Rakish Stage: Studies in English Drama, 1660-1800. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration. New York: Columbia Unviesity Press, 1949.
McDonald, Margaret Lamb. The Independent Woman in the Restoration Comedy of Manners. Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1976.
Morrah, Patrick. Restoration England. London: Constable & Co. Ltd., 1979.
Roberts, David. The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama, 1660-1700. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
Wilkinson, D.R.M. The Comedy of Habit. Leiden: University Press, 1964.
© 1996 Shirley Galloway
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