After the great success of his first comedy, The Old Bachelor (1693), William Congreve was disappointed at the poor reception of The Double-Dealer, which he considered a better play on a more serious theme. Serious it was; like other contemporary comedies, it satirizes the follies and vices of the time, but here the emphasis is on the vices rather than the follies. An unusual combination of Restoration comedy and Jacobean melodrama, the play’s action is largely devoted to the intrigues of the villain Maskwell. Audiences were apparently uncomfortable at being forced to take such a long hard look at Machiavellian treachery and romantic knavery at work. As John Dryden pointed out, “The women think he has exposed their bitchery too much and the gentlemen are offended with him, for the discovery of their follies, and the way of their intrigues, under the notion of friendship to their ladies’ husbands.” Maskwell, in the depth of his resourceful villainy, is reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s Iago, and Lady Touchwood compares him to a devil.
Lady Touchwood, of course, is herself a villain, but, as one of the victims of Maskwell’s double-dealing, a lesser one. As she reminds Maskwell, her excuse is “fire in my temper, passion in my soul, apt to every provocation, oppressed at once with love, and with despair. But a sedate, a thinking villain, whose black blood runs temperately bad, what excuse can clear?” Unquestionably, the depiction of burning love turning into burning hatred has seldom been as powerful in a work professing to be a comedy as it is in Congreve’s play. Lady Touchwood, indeed, has struck some critics as an almost tragic figure. Other indications of the playwright’s striving for tragic effect are the unusual number of soliloquies and the play’s ending with a piece of moralizing, rather than (as was customary for Restoration comedy) a dance.
Because Congreve’s focus of attention is on Maskwell, his hero and heroine are given relatively short shrift. Mellefont and Cynthia are an agreeable pair of lovers, but no more than that. Cynthia is shown to be sensible and sincere, but she has none of the sparkling wit that was to make Congreve’s Millamant so admirable. Nor are there any of the almost obligatory battles of wit between hero and heroine. Indeed, Mellefont appears much of the time to be a passive dupe and a fool, so much so that Congreve felt obliged to defend his hero from such charges in the play’s dedication.
The plot is original; Congreve was proud that “the mechanical part of [the play] is perfect.” Consciously trying to incorporate the three unities into a classical form, he succeeded at least in molding a work that has unity of time (the action is continuous, over a three-hour period) and place (it all takes place in one gallery). As for unity of action, the plot is unusually tight, but there are subplots in the form of the cuckolding of Sir Paul Plyant by Careless and of Lord Froth by Brisk. Indeed, what levity and wit the play has to offer are largely contained in these subplots. The various affectations of the minor characters, the romantic intrigues between the ladies and their gallants, and such brilliantly actable passages as the dialogue between Brisk, Lord Froth, and Careless on whether or not one should laugh at comedies, are ample evidence that Congreve had not forgotten that his prime task as a comic playwright was not to moralize—at least, not overtly—but to entertain.