As a genre, dramatic comedy has always had its stock characters: the cunning servant; the foolish, foppish socialite; the wrongheaded, demanding parent; the thwarted lovers. The genre also has familiar plot devices: multiple stories, disguises, intrigues, and misapprehensions. William Congreve’s third comedy, Love for Love, generally considered one of his finest, is certainly no exception regarding such conventions. The plot is relatively simple and not particularly original. It does have elements reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s drama (the theme of madness, for example, recalls, with comic irony, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603; and King Lear, pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608) or Ben Jonson’s dark comedies of humours (evidenced by Foresight’s obsession with astrology and Sir Sampson’s avarice and lechery), not to mention earlier Restoration plays. Congreve, however, creates from these derivative elements a play with distinctly late Restoration characteristics, language, and attitudes. The play enjoyed great popularity during its time, and audiences have continued to find it entertaining. Love for Love is enlightening as well, for in it Congreve takes up an array of issues, including wit, fashion, sexual conduct, marriage, and family.
Love for Love is a comedy of manners, a play about social behavior, social language, and social intrigue. Its characters are two-dimensional, their ideas without any apparent substance, their actions silly and self-centered. What appear to be most important, as the opening scene between Valentine and Jeremy indicates, are the abilities to turn a witty phrase and to dupe others. Congreve’s play is more, however, than just a frenetic piece of stagecraft with characters running to and fro. At the heart of the play lie a number of questions that are emblematized by Valentine’s role as “Truth” during his feigned madness: What is true? What is true friendship? What is true knowledge? What is true love? What is the truth of human relationships? Can a person navigate honestly through a world based on deception and self-interest? These questions dominate the play’s language, events, and structure. Congreve reveals his answers through three sets of contrasting characters, their contrasting actions, and their contrasting levels of social success. In this way, he leads the audience to recognize the distinction between true wit (intelligence and judgment) and false wit (accidental cleverness or duplicity) and that between true love (self-sacrifice) and false love (self-love or self-interest).
The rustics Prue and Ben enter...
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