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...
(The entire section is 591 words.)