What is William Congreve's art of characterization in his comedies?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Congreve's characterizations were built on Restoration era definitions of "wit," a concept encompassing the verbal and moral behavior of a gentleman, for Congreve's plays were primarily about how a gentleman should conduct himself in society, as were Restoration comedies in general. The ladies in his mirrored the gentlemen' verbal and intellectual wit but altogether different standards governing moral and financial obligations.

Some of the primary traits of Congreve's characterization are as follows. One is urbanity, which includes witty repartee, liveliness, energy and emotion ruled by reason. Another trait is intelligence, which is demonstrated in conversation but is manifest in outwitting anyone interfering with the attainment of his desire; a "true wit" plots and schemes to acquire what is rightly his to begin with and is being withheld or interfered with. Another trait of Congreve's characterizations is selflessness, which requires generosity that may look excess but is in fact selfless giving. Bravery is a trait of characterization that is mandatory; any man who backs down from defending himself is no true wit.

Congreve's characterization for female characters is similar on the points of urbanity (witty repartee, elegant dress, relaxed manners, etc) and intelligence (able to plot well enough to protect or acquire one's own rights or rightful property) but there is a great divergence on social and moral behavior. Female characters do not defend themselves against attack--they get a man to do it if it needs to be done. More often they use the weapon of cutting offenders off socially, forbidding them access to social events. More importantly, where male characters are encouraged to moral and sexual liberty, female characters are required to be chaste.

Overall, Congreve delved the motivational level (though not on a psychological level) of characters' behavior revealing their thoughts about their situations. This creates individuals who are capable of suffering, especially the "Witwoud," the opposite of the "Truewit," who is Congreve's Restoration comedies, the one's who do not succeed. Congreve reveals their thoughts as well as the hero's thus elevating out of the Elizabethan type of "fool" or "clown" and giving human dimensions that reveal their suffering.

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