Sir William Davenant Essay - Critical Essays


Thematically and technically, Sir William Davenant’s plays link the theater of Charles I with that of Charles II. For example, the seeds of Restoration comedy are embedded in The Witts, in which Davenant explores the subject of wit, using heroes and heroines who prefigure those of Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve. His early tragedies and tragicomedies, such as Love and Honour, explore the love and honor conflicts that later dominate Restoration heroic drama, beginning with Davenant’s own The Siege of Rhodes. His court masques for Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, used the movable scenery that he would popularize in the public theater after the Restoration. His revivals of the plays of Ben Jonson and his adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays preserved and advanced the reputations of those writers during the reign of Charles II.

Davenant’s plays as a whole reveal the “imagination” of two ages—that of Charles I and that of Charles II. The heroes and heroines of Restoration tragedy and comedy are nascent in Davenant’s early plays and reach their maturity in his later plays, reflecting the heroic ideals and pragmatic cynicism of the age of Charles II. Indeed, the unpleasantness of the English Civil War and the uncertainties of the restored monarchy seem both to have enhanced expectations for a new heroic age and to have tempered those expectations with the wisdom of the recent past.

However well Davenant may have reflected his world, he also dared to try to shape it, both politically and theatrically. He was no mere spectator during the English Civil War but risked his life in the service of the Crown. In the theater, he risked Puritan opposition to present his entertainments at Rutland House, and he risked introducing actresses and innovative staging in the public playhouse. Like Young Pallatine in The Witts, Davenant had wit; like Alphonso in The Siege of Rhodes, he had heroic ideals; but above all, like the player and the housekeeper, he had a “playhouse to be lett.” To his credit, he filled its stage with exceptional entertainments.

The Witts

The Witts is perhaps the best of Davenant’s early comedies. During the seventeenth century, the term “wit” came to have multiple meanings. It could mean verbal cleverness expressed in appropriate and sustained repartee, the synthetic faculty of the mind that could see similarities in apparently dissimilar things, the ornamentation of discourse, or gamesmanship, implying a superior understanding of “the way of the world.”

Gamesmanship comes closest to the meaning that concerns Davenant in The Witts. Most of the characters in this work are concerned with outmaneuvering their opponents in games of love and legacy. The contest is between the Truewits—those who truly have wit—and the Witwouds—those who think they have wit but do not. Davenant represents the first in the characters of Young Pallatine and Lady Ample; the second, in the characters of the Elder Pallatine and his companion, Sir Morglay Thwack, a country squire.

These last two characters come to London to live by their wits, which to them means seducing rich women who will afterward support them lavishly. Young Pallatine, already in London, has been successful at this game, having gone so far as to persuade his mistress Lucy to sell her belongings to pay for his indulgences. When the brothers Pallatine meet in London, the elder rejects his younger brother’s plea for money, and Young Pallatine plots how he may reap both revenge and reward at his brother’s expense.

Young Pallatine enlists Lucy in his plot. When Lucy’s aunt finally turns her out of her house, she seeks aid from a friend, the wealthy Lady Ample, who, of all the play’s characters, turns out to be the wittiest because she can best understand and control her own and others’ actions. Lady Ample eventually uses that wit to foil her guardian, Sir Tirant Thrifty, who has picked out an inappropriate husband for her.

In one of the play’s key scenes, Lady Ample discusses her wit with Lucy, whom she first takes to task for being so dull-witted and traitorous to her sex as to support a man. Lady Ample, who says she draws her wit from nature, argues instead for tempting “the Fowl” until it can be “caught” and “plume[d].” She then proceeds to demonstrate the application of this principle by acquiring complete mastery over the Elder Pallatine.

After a series of twists, turns, and deceits, engineered by Young Pallatine, Lucy, and Lady Ample herself, the Witwouds are totally humiliated. Sir Morglay Thwack resolves to return to the country while the Elder Pallatine is forced to recant his pretensions to wit. Surprisingly, however, Lady Ample, eager to escape the match arranged by her miserly guardian, agrees to marry the Elder Pallatine because she likes being able to dominate one who has so much money and so little wit.

Lady Ample further demonstrates her mastery over him by forcing him to sign certain bonds without him knowing what it is he is signing. It turns out to be a deed to part of his estate that he has unwittingly signed over to his younger brother. This generous settlement allows Young Pallatine and Lucy to marry. That done, Lady Ample confirms her intention to marry the Elder Pallatine, whom she “has the wit to govern.” This scene, in which an independent woman sets the terms on which she will be married, is a forerunner of the famous “proviso” scenes of Restoration comedy in which like-minded heroines set forth the terms on which they will consent to marry. Thus, Lady Ample clearly proves to be the best gamester, and therefore the greatest wit, among all the characters. With the addition of more polished repartee and a worthier adversary, Congreve at the end of the seventeenth century would refine a charming Lady Ample into the brilliant Millamant of his The Way of the World (pr., pb. 1700).

The First Days Entertainment at Rutland House

The English Civil War temporarily halted Davenant’s playwriting career, but toward the end of the interregnum, Davenant succeeded in convincing the Puritan government that theatrical entertainments could be useful in teaching morality. Davenant was granted permission to set up a semiprivate stage at Rutland House, his London residence, and to present The First Days Entertainment at Rutland House on May 23, 1656. Carefully avoiding even the semblance of drama, Davenant’s entertainment was little more than two debates, interspersed with musical interludes. The first debate concerned the usefulness and morality of public entertainments. Indeed, The First Days Entertainment at Rutland House was itself designed to demonstrate that public entertainments need not threaten either public morals or the Puritan government. The second debate concerned the relative merits of Paris and London, with, of course, English nationalism triumphant.

The Siege of Rhodes

Encouraged by the success of this initial enterprise, Davenant again used Rutland House to present his “opera” The Siege of Rhodes in the fall of 1656. This time Davenant was more daring, moving his entertainment a step closer to drama by giving it a thin plot and characters developed beyond those of the debaters in The First Days Entertainment at Rutland House. In fact, Edward J. Dent in his...

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