Thomas Shadwell Essay - Critical Essays


The 1680’s were times of personal danger for Thomas Shadwell. He was lampooned, personally assaulted by Tory bullyboys, and his plays were hissed off the stage. Attacks on Catholicism in his The Lancashire Witches, and Tegue o Divelly the Irish Priest, and his known association with the earl of Shaftesbury and his circle, made Shadwell particularly vulnerable after the failure of the 1678 Popish Plot. Shadwell’s creative works are indissolubly intertwined with the attitudes of his age. He spiritedly defended himself against his enemies. Of particular relevance to analysis of his work is his philosophical, rather than political, battle with the earl of Rochester. Conducted in poems, pamphlets, and plays, it was a conflict between two basically opposed attitudes toward life and ways of living: Rochester’s hedonism and love of extremes had their foundations in the writings of Thomas Hobbes; Shadwell’s love of the middle way and his adherence to altruism were rooted in the classics. These contrasting ideologies found their way in one form or another into Shadwell’s eighteen known dramas, which move from adherence to Jonsonian principles, through the fierce satires of the late 1670’s and early 1680’s, to the mellow, less intemperate, late plays extolling the middle way of conduct.

George Saintsbury, in his introduction to Thomas Shadwell (1903), draws attention to Shadwell’s accuracy of observation, his keen eye for contemporary manners, and his dramatic energy and gusto. Attacked by some critics for a seeming lack of selectivity, Shadwell was in fact a dramatist whose techniques reveal careful selective principles at work: the pairing of characters into types and humors in order to present antithetical viewpoints; the reworking of source materials; the interesting use of metaphor and place to convey meaning. Shadwell is, in the words of John Loftis in The Revels History of Drama in English, Volume V: 1660-1750 (1976), “Among the major dramatists” of the Restoration, the only one who “broadens the social range, providing engaging portraits of men outside fashionable society and venturing to criticize gentlemen not only for social affectation.” Shadwell’s dramatic rendering of the conflict between hedonism and altruism is universal. As the shrewd Sir Walter Scott observed, in his notes to Peveril of the Peak (1823), acknowledging his debt to Shadwell’s The Volunteers, Shadwell was indeed “no mean observer of human nature.”

The Sullen Lovers

The Sullen Lovers, Shadwell’s first London comedy, created a stage sensation with its caricaturing of contemporary court personalities. Samuel Pepys went to see the play three times in three days, noting in his diary that “Sir Positive At-all . . . is . . . Sir Robert Howard.” Both men were singularly competent in pronouncing opinions on everything from warfare and domestic architecture to ball games and how they should be played. Pepys’s enthusiasm also owed something to his fascination with the reaction of court figures to the play as they watched it being performed early in May, 1668. Pepys saw it again in April, 1669; Charles II chose The Sullen Lovers as one of the plays to be acted at Dover when his court, in May, 1670, went to meet his sister the duchess of Orleans on her return from overseas. There was a revival at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on October 5, 1703, when it was announced that the play had not been acted for twenty-eight years. Shadwell’s main source was Molière’s Les Fâcheux (pr., pb. 1661; The Impertinents, 1732; also known as The Bores, 1891). Shadwell utilizes Molière’s method of exhibiting various fools, individually and in pairs or various combinations, before the audience. In Shadwell’s play, the fools represent the humors of classical Jonsonian drama. The Sullen Lovers is interesting as a Jonsonian play of humors using neoclassic structural and characterization devices, as an attempt to produce a psychological drama, and as a satire on contemporary court figures. Each character represents an idea or controlling thesis, the idea being made concrete by the dramatist’s skillful play of contemporary allusions juxtaposed to the specific gestures, mannerisms, and speech peculiarities of living persons.

In The Sullen Lovers, Shadwell considers various modes of living in a world of utter folly. Contrast is provided by the device of marrying three pairs of humors: a pair of social misfits, Emilia and Stanford; a couple, appositely named Sir Positive At-All and Lady Vaine, totally devoted to the pursuit of folly; and Lovel and Carolina, wry and detached. Lovel and Carolina best represent the Shadwellian middle course, in contrast to the total isolation of the first pair, Emilia and Stanford, and the uncritical participation of the second pair, Sir Positive At-All and Lady Vaine, in the vanities and follies of the world in which they live. The plot dynamics revolve around the two self-confessed misanthropes, Emilia and Stanford, who are given much of Shadwell’s powerful satiric invective and who are persistently pursued by a gang of idiots. The misanthropes escape from London, which is identified, as in so many of Shadwell’s dramas, with corruption and vice. Emilia, influenced by Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), cultivates privacy and thinks of taking vows and entering a nunnery. Stanford dreams of an escape to a deserted Caribbean island. Deliberately refusing the company of others, they attract some idiosyncratic characters. The attack on Stanford’s citadel is led by the self-obsessed dramatist, Sir Positive At-all, while Lady Vaine, a prostitute disguised as an aristocrat and the first of Shadwell’s long line of theatrical hedonists, leads the attack on Emilia. In the second act, the “sullen lovers” of the title, Stanford and Emilia, meet. Acts 3 and 4 trace the development of their relationship and their realization that dissembling is the sole way to deal with idiocy. In the final act, they marry. Shadwell’s The Sullen Lovers is an interesting synthesis of Jonsonian and Restoration modes of drama. Its use of humors is decidedly Jonsonian, while its emphasis on wit, sexual intrigue, and satire are typical of Restoration comedy.


In Epsom-Wells, in many ways his most representative Restoration drama, Shadwell brilliantly utilizes the indecent characters and libertines about whom he complained in the preface to The Sullen Lovers. Epsom-Wells has as its setting a fashionable spa not too far from London where a rich galaxy of bawds, pimps, courtesans, gamblers, fops, and other contemporary types gather. The plot structure is multidimensional. Lucia and Carolina, two...

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