Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment and The Age of Reason are alternate names used by historians and critics to identify the eighteenth century. While the eighteenth century technically, of course, began in 1700, the term ‘‘eighteenth century’’ when used by literary critics has come to mean the years falling between the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (the book that sparked English romanticism) in 1798. In short, the eighteenth century was a period marked by incredible enthusiasm for science, history, and literature that the English had not enjoyed since the end of the Renaissance a century earlier.

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The reasons for this sudden renewal of interest in the arts and sciences are complex but can be roughly understood by considering the terrible chaos that the nation had just endured and barely survived. The seventeenth century was marked by a civil war in which King Charles I and his army of loyalist ‘‘Cavaliers’’ fought with an army raised by the Puritan members of Parliament, who felt that Charles had grown too corrupt, too powerful, and too belligerent. Eventually, the Puritans defeated their Royalist opponents; after a trial by his enemies in which he could never have prevailed, Charles I was beheaded in 1649. The monarchy was—so the Puritans believed—abolished, and Oliver Cromwell, the military genius and commander of the Puritan forces, became the nation’s ruler. (He was called ‘‘Lord Protector.’’) After Cromwell’s death in 1658, his son, Richard, assumed the Lord Protectorship, continuing this historical period, known as the Interregnum, without a king. The citizens of England, however, found their new rulers worse than the monarch they had replaced; after a number of secret missions, negotiations, and meetings, the son of Charles I was brought out of hiding (from Scotland) to a tremendously warm welcome in London. Charles II was crowned in 1660, when the monarchy was restored.

This terrible war, coupled with a visitation of bubonic plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666, stood in the English mind as horrible examples of the fury wrought both by man and nature. Enlightenment thinkers, therefore, sought to better understand both politics and science in an effort to ensure that similar events would never again occur. In 1662, the Royal Society (a government- funded organization of scientists working together and sharing information) was created; important books from this period include the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1768), Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774), Burke’s Reflections of the Revolution in France (1760), Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1775), and Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776).

The first great dramatist of the age was John Dryden (1631–1700), whose comedy Marriage á la Mode (1673) and tragedy All for Love (1677) were immensely popular and reveal what would become the public’s taste in both modes. Many eighteenthcentury plays are ‘‘comedies of manners’’: plays that feature domestic plots, quick dialogue, and an ironic examination of the behaviors (or ‘‘manners’’) of the upper class. Examples of this genre include Sir George Etherege’s She Wou’d if She Cou’d (1688), William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), and Sheridan’s own The School for Scandal (1777), which cemented his fame as a comic playwright. Another popular comic form was the dramatic burlesque, in which theatrical conventions and means of productions became the subjects of satire: the Duke of Buckingham’s The Rehearsal (1671), John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), Fielding’s The Tragedy of Tragedies (1731), and the famed actor David...

(The entire section contains 2262 words.)

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