William Congreve Drama Analysis
William Congreve began writing some thirty years after the Restoration, yet his plays retain many of the concerns of those written in the 1660’s and 1670’s. Foremost among these concerns is what constitutes a gentleman; that is, how one should act in society. The seventeenth century, particularly after 1660, was very interested in this matter; some five hundred conduct books were published during the century, the majority of them after the Restoration.
The response that Congreve gives, which is identical to that of Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and other Restoration dramatists, may be summed up in a single word: wit. This wit encompasses far more than mere verbal facility. By the time Sir Richard Blackmore attacked wit as suitable “only to please with Jests at Dinner” (“A Satyr Against Wit,” 1700), the term had lost much of its significance. For Congreve, Dryden’s definition is more relevant than Blackmore’s: “a propriety of thoughts and words”—and, he might have added, of conduct. As Rose Snider wrote in Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward (1937), “Decorum (true wit) might be defined simply as a natural elegance of thought and conduct, based on respect for sound judgment, fidelity to nature, and a due regard for beauty.”
What constitutes propriety and fidelity to nature is subject to varying interpretation. To the nineteenth century, Restoration comedy was at best “the...
(The entire section is 6900 words.)
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