George Etherege Etherege, George (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

George Etherege 1636-1692?

English playwright and poet.

Etherege has been credited as a principal founder of the comedy of manners tradition in English drama. This dramatic genre represents the satirical exploitation of the manners and fashions of the aristocratic class on the stage for their own amusement. Critics have acknowledged Etherege as an accomplished writer of wit, speculating that his comedic voice was shaped by his experiences as a young traveler in France, where he likely witnessed the pioneering social comedy of Molière as well as the ostentatious display of Parisian court fashion and manners. Based on these experiences, Etherege wrote comedies in which he affectionately, yet incisively parodied Carolinian attitudes toward a vast array of ideological concerns, including sexuality, naturalism, fashion, and social class. Etherege's peers revered his easy wit and his portraits of French-aping fops, gamely embracing the dramatist's social satire which poked fun at their class as a whole. As John Dryden wrote in the Epilogue to The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676): “Yet none Sir Fopling him, or him can call; / He's Knight o' th' Shire, and represents ye all.”

Biographical Information

Etherege was likely born in London in 1636, to Captain George Etherege and Mary Powney. Little is known about his formative years, other than the fact that his father, who was a royalist during the Civil War, fled to France in 1644 and died in exile six years later. Placed in the care of his grandfather, Etherege was apprenticed to attorney George Gosnold of Beaconsfield in 1654. Five years later, he was admitted to Clements Inn to study law, during which time he was involved in a lawsuit between his uncle and grandfather over a disputed inheritance. Literary scholars have noted that Etherege exhibited neither the aptitude nor the inclination to study law; instead, he began writing poems and bawdy verse that earned him some notoriety in academic and courtly circles. Indeed, commentators have discovered little evidence to indicate the substance of Etherege's activities as a young man, but some have argued that he traveled to Flanders and France at this time and became highly influenced by French comedy and manners. Also during this period, Etherege became acquainted with Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst and later the earl of Dorset, who would become a close friend and patron.

Back in London by 1664, Etherege became an instant celebrity when his The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub debuted to widespread popular acclaim at the Duke's Playhouse. Apparently taking advantage of his newfound fame, Etherege embraced a lifestyle of drinking, gambling, and seducing women, earning the nicknames “Gentle George” and “Easy Etherege” for his devotion to free living. He also became acquainted with a group of court wits known as the “merry gang,” which included Buckhurst, Sir Charles Sedley, and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. Rochester in particular shared Etherege's libertine proclivities and the two became fast friends. In fact, many scholars contend that the rake Dorimant in The Man of Mode was modeled on Rochester and his real-life antics.

In 1668 Etherege's She Would If She Could premiered at the Duke's Playhouse. Based on Samuel Pepys's eyewitness account, the audience was disappointed with the play, and Etherege himself placed the blame for the play's failure on the actors' uninspired performances. The failure of the play did not affect Etherege's court preferment; in fact, he was granted gentleman status and assigned as a secretary to the Turkish ambassador, Daniel Harvey. Etherege followed Harvey on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople in late 1668, and after some three years there, he made his way to Paris and then back to London. In London, Etherege resumed his life of dissolution, occasionally circulating poems and songs but more often pursuing libertine activities with his “merry gang.” By 1676 Etherege had written his third and final play, The Man of Mode, which was staged at the Dorset Garden Theatre. That same year, Etherege and other members of the “merry gang” were involved in a fracas with a watchman at Epsom which left a man dead.

In the years that followed, Etherege was knighted and he married a rich widow named Mary Arnold. In fact, some biographers have posited that Etherege married Arnold for her fortune in order to pay off his gambling debts and to purchase a knighthood. Based on Etherege's own letters, the union was not happy, and when he was appointed by James II as ambassador to Ratisbon, Germany, in 1685, Arnold did not join him at his new post. By all accounts, Etherege missed his life of ease at the English court. He despised living in conservative, provincial Germany, and he became embroiled in several gambling and sex scandals. Nevertheless, he remained at his post in Ratisbon until he learned of James II's ouster in the Glorious Revolution in late 1688. The following year, Etherege joined James and the exiled court in Paris, where it is believed that he died in 1691 or 1692.

Major Works

While most commentators have censured Etherege's insubstantial plots and the lack of dramatic action in his comedies, they nearly all acknowledge the brilliance of his brisk and witty dialogue. It is this element, critics have contended, which invigorates his characters and creates humorous scenes that resonated with Carolinian audiences. Because of their lack of technical sophistication, Etherege's plays have often been viewed as prototypes of the later, more refined Restoration comedies of William Wycherley, William Congreve, and John Vanbrugh.

In The Comical Revenge, critics have mainly focused on Etherege's experimentation with four plot schemes ranging from high drama to low comedy. Dismissing as inferior the serious high plot written in heroic rhyming couplets, commentators instead have focused on the comic plot featuring Sir Frederick Frolick. They have posited that Frolick is the embryonic representation of a character type known as the Restoration rake, a libertine aristocrat with a sharp wit who subscribes to free living, drinking, gambling, and pursuing women for romantic trysts. Despite the flashes of humor in the scenes featuring Frolick, critics have pointed out how Etherege's maladroit handling of the various unconnected plots creates a sense of ambiguity and lack of structural unity in the comedy.

In She Would If She Could, critics have contended that Etherege displayed marked improvement in developing a cohesive dramatic structure and in polishing his witty dialogue. Further, commentators have noticed that Etherege initiated a more complex exploration of sexual politics between his characters, especially Courtall and Lady Cockwood. They have argued that Courtall represents Etherege's ideal libertine of easy morals and fine wit who defies social convention, whereas Lady Cockwood embodies the playwright's disdain for those who succumb to sensual, naturalistic impulses but who hide behind social pretense to manipulate and seduce others.

According to most critics, Etherege demonstrates the full power of his dramatic genius in The Man of Mode. They have maintained that the comedy deftly combines witty dialogue, superbly drawn characters, and Etherege's trademark social satire to produce a work which had no small influence on subsequent Restoration comedies. Commentators have regarded Dorimant, the central character, as the consummate Restoration rake, still given to liberal excess, but also exhibiting a worldly cynicism which suggests a more complex perception of the character than the farcical, one-dimensional Sir Frederick Frolick. Critics have added that Harriet provides another layer of complexity to the play in that she complements Dorimant as no other female character had complemented a rake in Etherege's earlier dramas. Harriet is considered a strong and intelligent heroine who proves to be Dorimant's equal in verbal banter and who shares his distain for social artifice; moreover, of all of Etherege's women characters, Harriet comes the closest to outmaneuvering the rake in the end. The significance of Sir Fopling Flutter himself as the foil to Dorimant has not been lost on commentators: he is the epitome of the vain, superficial man of mode, who is wholly involved in his affectation of courtly manners and fashion. In fact, Sir Fopling initiated the popular stage convention of the foppish imitator of flamboyant French courtly manners who is oblivious to the mocking ridicule of the other characters.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Etherege's comedies met with general approbation by his peers and audiences, and he was eulogized in numerous contemporary poems and pamphlets. A generation later, the comedies were disdained as vulgar products of a licentious and immoral age.

Writing in 1711 about The Man of Mode, Sir Richard Steele asserted that: “This whole celebrated piece is a perfect contradiction to good manners, good sense, and common honesty.” Theophilus Cibber in 1753 affirmed Steele's sentiments, writing that while he found merit in Etherege's wit, nevertheless “his works are so extremely loose and licentious, as to render them dangerous to young, unguarded minds.” Throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, Etherege and his comedies remained in a state of general neglect. In the late nineteenth century, commentators began to reexamine Etherege as a leading innovator in the English comedy of manners, but still generally dismissed his works as superficial showpieces intended merely to appease the degenerate tastes of Carolinian theatergoers. This opinion prevailed well into the twentieth century.

Writing in 1924, Bonamy Dobrée maintained that “Etherege was not animated by any moral stimulus, and his comedies arose from a superabundance of animal energy that only bore fruit in freedom and ease, amid the graces of Carolingian society.” Dobrée concluded that Etherege “rarely makes an appeal to the intellect.” Etherege's literary reputation suffered another blow in 1937 when L. C. Knights wrote an essay condemning Restoration comedies as “trivial, gross, and dull” written by dramatists with a “miserably limited set of attitudes.” Knights's essay ignited a critical controversy in which literary scholars set out to restore the reputation of Restoration drama. Thomas H. Fujimura was one of the first critics to challenge Knights's censure of Etherege in particular, arguing that the playwright was in fact a literary and intellectual genius who masterfully synthesized such cultural influences as naturalism, libertinism, and skepticism into multilayered social satires. Critics such as Robert Markley and Lisa Berglund examined the language of Etherege's comedies in an effort to understand the cultural and historical circumstances that influenced their composition. Markley explored the playwright's experimentation with dialogue and dramatic form in his plays to examine the ideological dislocation of aristocratic culture in Restoration England. Berglund discussed the dramatist's construction of a “libertine language” of extended metaphors and analogies in The Man of Mode to subvert conventional morality. Despite these complex interpretations of Etherege's works, modern scholars nevertheless have remained divided in their opinion of the level of his literary achievement. To some, the playwright has been redeemed as a brilliant satirist of the ideological turbulence of the Restoration period; to others, he remains an unsophisticated dramatist who merely intended to amuse and delight his peers by lampooning their court manners on the stage.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub (play) 1664

She Would If She Could (play) 1668

The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter (play) 1676

The Works of Sir George Etherege: Containing His Plays and Poems (plays, poetry) 1704

The Works of Sir George Etherege: Plays and Poems (plays and poetry) 1888

The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege 2 vols. (plays) 1927

The Letterbook of Sir George Etherege (letters) 1928

The Poems of Sir George Etherege (poetry) 1963

Letters of Sir George Etherege (letters) 1974


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Edward Phillips (essay date 1675)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Phillips, Edward. “The Modern Poets: George Etherege.” In Theatrum Poetarum, Vol. 2, p. 53. London: Charles Smith, 1675.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips briefly identifies Etherege as a popular contemporary dramatist.]

George Etheridge [is] a Comical writer of the present Age; whose Two Comedies, Love in a Tub, and She would if She could, for pleasant Wit, and no bad Oeconomy, are judg'd not unworthy the Applause they have met with.

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Gerard Langbaine (essay date 1691)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Langbaine, Gerard. “Sir George Etherege.” In An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, pp. 186-88. 1691. Reprint. New York: Garland Publishing, 1973.

[In the essay below, Langbaine provides a favorable account of Etherege and his plays.]

A Gentleman sufficiently eminent in the Town for his Wit and Parts, and One whose tallent in sound Sence, and the Knowledge of true Wit and Humour, are sufficiently conspicuous: and therefore I presume I may with justice, and without envy, apply Horace's Character of Fundanus, to this admirable Author;

Argutâ meretrice potes, Davoque Chremet,
Eludente senem, comis garrire libellos,

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Richard Steele (essay date 1711)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Steele, Richard. “No. 65, Tuesday, May 15, 1711.” In The Spectator, Vol. 1, edited by Donald F. Bond, pp. 278-80. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

[In the following essay originally published in The Spectator, Steele deems Etherege's wit immoral in The Man of Mode, concluding that the “whole celebrated piece is a perfect contradiction to good manners, good sense, and common honesty.”]

… Demetri, teque, Tigelli,
Discipularum inter Jubeo plorare cathedras.


After having at large explained what Wit is, and described the false Appearances of it, all that Labour seems but an useless Enquiry, without...

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John Dennis (essay date 1722)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Dennis, John. A Defence of Sir Fopling Flutter, a Comedy Written by Sir George Etherege. London: T. Warner, 1722, 24 p.

[In the following essay, originally published as an anonymous pamphlet, Dennis conducts a thoroughgoing defense of The Man of Mode from Richard Steele's condemnation of the play in the Spectator.]

A Certain Knight, who has employ'd so much of his empty Labour in extolling the weak Performances of some living Authors, has scurriously an inhumanly in the 65th Spectator, attack'd one of the most entertaining Comedies of the last Age, written by a most ingenious Gentleman, who perfectly understood the World, the Court, and the...

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Theophilus Cibber (essay date 1753)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Cibber, Theophilus. “Sir George Etherege.” In The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 3, pp. 33-9. 1753. Reprint. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1968.

[In the essay below, Cibber appraises Etherege's life and works, maintaining that the poet “possessed a springly genius,” but that “his works are so extremely loose and licentious, as to render them dangerous to young, unguarded minds.”]

A celebrated wit in the reign of Charles and James II. He is said to have been descended of an ancient family of Oxfordshire, and born about the year 1636; it is thought he had some part of his education at the university of Cambridge,...

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Horace Walpole (essay date 1775-76)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Walpole, Horace. “Thoughts on Comedy.” In The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Oxford, Vol. 2, pp. 315-22. London: G. G. and J. Robinson and J. Edwards, 1798.

[In the following excerpt, originally written between 1775 and 1776, Walpole ranks Etherege's The Man of Mode among the best English comedies.]

The [Restoration] age dealt in the intricacies of Spanish plots, enlivened by the most licentious indecency. Dryden and the fair sex rivalled each other in violating all decorum. Wycherley naturalized French comedy, but prostituted it too. That chaste stage blushed at our translations of its best pieces. Yet Wycherley was not incapable of easy...

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Thomas Davies (essay date 1784)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Davies, Thomas. Dramatic Miscellanies, p. 101. 1784. Reprint. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971.

[In the excerpt below, Davies praises Dorimant as one of the best creations of the “fine gentleman” on the English stage.]

The only dramatic writer, in all Charles's reign, who wrote with some decency of manners and modesty of language, was Sir George Etheridge. His Man of Mode is the original of that species of dramatic writing called genteel comedy. The second Duke of Dorset assured a gentleman, as greatly esteemed for his learning and abilities as his humanity and integrity [Mr. Thomas Sheridan], that Dorimant was formed from two originals: his father, the...

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S. T. Coleridge (essay date 1812)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Coleridge, S. T. “Sir George Etherege, & c.” In Omniana; or Horae Otiosiores, by Robert Southey and S. T. Coleridge, edited by Robert Gittings, pp. 185-88. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay from a collection that was originally published in 1812, Coleridge discusses the immoral nature of Etherege's works, censuring the playwright for “lampoon[ing] the noblest passions of humanity in order to pander for its lowest appetites.”]

Often and often had I read Gay's Beggar's Opera, and always delighted with its poignant wit and original satire, and if not without noticing its immorality, yet without...

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Robert Bell (essay date 1865)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bell, Robert. “The Comedies of Etherege.” The Fortnightly Review 3, no. 15 (15 December 1865): 298-316.

[In the essay below, Bell acknowledges Etherege as the inventor of the comedy of manners and favorably surveys his dramatic works.]

It has been said of the comedies of Etherege that they are mere Conversation Pieces, with barely enough of plot in them to thread the scenes together—a capital defect which weakens their whole foundations; and that the characters are shadows speaking a common language, so little marked by individuality that the dialogue might be shuffled like a pack of cards. The stage literature of the Restoration having long ceased to be...

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Edmund W. Gosse (essay date 1881)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gosse, Edmund W. “Sir George Etherege: A Neglected Chapter of English Literature.” Cornhill Magazine 43, no. 255 (March 1881): 284-304.

[In the following essay, Gosse considers Etherege a principal founder of modern English comedy, particularly focusing on Molière's influence on the dramatist. The critic also provides an intimate glimpse of the author's later years through an examination of his personal and official correspondence in a recently discovered Letterbook.]

That Sir George Etheredge wrote three plays which are now even less read than the rank and file of Restoration drama, and that he died at Ratisbon, at an uncertain date, by falling down the...

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G. S. Street (essay date 1893)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Street, G. S. “Etherege.” In Miniatures and Moods, pp. 34-9. London: David Nutt, 1893.

[In the essay below, Street praises Etherege's display of comedic talent in The Comical Revenge, She Would If She Could, and The Man of Mode.]

When you read Wycherley, you recognise a master of theatrical effects, the able exponent of a robustly vile humanity; then you feel a trifle sickened, and anon are downright bored. He is no cynic, not held by any ethical convention; if in his pages the world be a thing grotesque, obscene, it is because to a modern apprehension the man was even so: honest he was, as well, and, therefore, with little satisfaction for a...

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Bonamy Dobrée (essay date 1924)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Dobrée, Bonamy. “Etherege (? 1635-91).” In Restoration Comedy, 1660-1720, pp. 58-77. 1924. Reprint. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Dobrée characterizes Etherege's comedies as lighthearted, unsophisticated works intended mainly to delight and amuse Carolinian audiences.]

The air rarefied and pure, danger near, and the spirit full of a gay quickedness: these agree well together.


Seen through the haze of time, Etherege appears as a brilliant butterfly, alighting only upon such things as attract him; a creature without much depth,...

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Ashley H. Thorndike (essay date 1929)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Thorndike, Ashley H. “The Restoration, 1660-1680.” In English Comedy, pp. 269-303. New York: Macmillan, 1929.

[In the excerpt below, Thorndike maintains that Etherege's comedies reflect a combination of cynicism and wit which springs from an intellectual mind.]

The initiation of that particular type of the comedy of manners which reaches its height in Congreve has been universally attributed to Sir George Etherege. “The dawn,” said Hazlitt, “was in Etherege, as its latest close was in Sheridan.”1 His three plays possess therefore a certain historical as well as inherent interest, and the last, The Man of Mode, has long served as an...

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Thomas H. Fujimura (essay date 1952)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Fujimura, Thomas H. “Sir George Etherege.” In The Restoration Comedy of Wit, pp. 75-116. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1952.

[In the essay below, Fujimura discusses how Etherege employs wit in his plays to reflect Restoration intellectual attitudes toward such topics as naturalism, skepticism, and libertinism.]

Sir George Etherege is generally credited with having originated a new type of comedy, and this belief need not be challenged, though there is reason to question modern opinion as to the type of comedy he inaugurated. To determine the nature of his contribution, however, we should first find out what sort of man he was. And here we...

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Norman N. Holland (essay date 1959)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Holland, Norman N. “The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub,” “She Wou'd If She Cou'd,” and “The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter.” In The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve, pp. 20-7, 28-37, 86-95. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.

[In the essays below, Holland analyzes the plot, main characters, themes, and structure of each of Etherege's comedies in an effort to trace his artistic maturation.]


By March 1664 the theaters had been open for well over four years following the so-called dramatic...

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Virginia Ogden Birdsall (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Birdsall, Virginia Ogden. “The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter.” In Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage, pp. 77-104. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

[In the essay below, Birdsall explores the contrast of lifestyles between Sir Fopling Flutter's rule-bound world of social pretense and Dormant and Harriet's natural, honest, and self-deterministic world. The critic posits that Sir Fopling's milieu is “a dead world … being exposed by juxtaposition to a living one.”]

Fashion n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.

Reason, v.i....

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Jean Gagen (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gagen, Jean. “The Design of the High Plot in Etherege's The Comical Revenge.Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 1, no. 22 (winter 1986): 1-15.

[In the essay below, Gagen discusses The Comical Revenge, focusing on how Etherege's satirical treatment of the high plot differs from the more conventional approach of other early Restoration playwrights.]

The tremendous success which Etherege's The Comical Revenge, or, Love in a Tub1 received when it was first performed (c. March, 1664) is a matter of theatrical history. Later critics, however, have often accused Etherege of incongruously mixing two dramatic...

(The entire section is 5913 words.)

Robert Markley (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Markley, Robert. “‘A Way of Talk’: Etherege and the Ironies of Wit.” In Two-Edg'd Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve, pp. 100-37. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Markley discusses how Etherege experiments with dialogue and dramatic form in his plays to examine the ideological dislocation of aristocratic culture in Restoration England.]

Shakespeare and Jonson did herein [in comic language] excel,
And might in this be imitated well;
Who refined Etherege copies not at all,
But is himself a sheer original.(1)

Rochester's praise of his friend (implicitly at Dryden's expense)...

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Lisa Berglund (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Berglund, Lisa. “The Language of Libertines: Subversive Morality in The Man of Mode.SEL: Studies in English Literature 30, no. 3 (summer 1990): 369-86.

[In the essay below, Berglund explores how Dorimant and his retinue use a “libertine language” of extended metaphors and analogies to subvert conventional morality in The Man of Mode.]

When the practical but unhelpful maid Pert advises her mistress to renounce Dorimant, Mrs. Loveit defends her devotion by indicting her tormentor's paradoxical nature. “I know he is a devil,” she cries, “but he has something of the angel yet undefaced in him, which makes him so charming and agreeable that I...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Mann, David D. Sir George Etherege: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981, 135 p.

Comprehensive bibliography of Etherege's life and works, ranging from 1664 to 1980.


Barnard, John. “Point of View in The Man of Mode.Essays in Criticism 34, no. 4 (October 1984): 285-308.

Examines the relationship between the text of The Man of Mode and how Restoration cultural milieu likely influenced the way it was staged in Etherege's time.

Boyette, Purvis E. “The Songs of George Etherege.” Studies in English...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)