George Etherege

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Edward Phillips (essay date 1675)

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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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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...

(This entire section contains 1805 words.)

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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.

Gerard Langbaine (essay date 1691)

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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,
Unus vivorum, Fundani.———

This Ingenious Author has oblig'd the World by publishing three Comedies, viz.

Comical Revenge,or Love in a Tub, a Comedy, acted at his Royal-Highness the Duke of York's Theatre in Lincolns-Inn-fields: printed quarto Lond. 1669. and dedicated to the Honourable Charles Lord Backburst. This Comedy tho' of a mixt nature, part of it being serious, and writ in Heroick Verse; yet has succeeded admirably on the Stage, it having always been acted with general approbation.

Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, a Comedy acted at the Duke's Theatre printed 40. Lond. 1676. and dedicated to her Royal Highness the Dutchess. This Play is written with great Art and Judgment, and is acknowledg'd by all, to be as true Comedy, and the Characters as well drawn to the Life, as any Play that has been Acted since the Restauration of the English Stage. Only I must observe, that the Song in the last Act written by C.S. is translated from part of an Elegy written in French by Madame la Comtesse de la Suze, in Le Recüeil des Pieces Gallantes, tom. 1. p. 42.

She wou'd if she cou'd, a Comedy Acted at his Highness the Duke of York's Theatre, and printed quarto Lond. 1671. This Comedy is likewise accounted one of the first Rank, by several who are known to be good Judges of Dramatick Poesy. Nay our present Laureat says, 'Tis the best Comedy written since the Restauration of the Stage. I heartily wish for the publick satisfaction, that this great Master would oblidge the World with more of his Performances, which would put a stop to the crude and indigested Plays, which for want of better, cumber the Stage.

Principal Works

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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

The Plays of Sir George Etherege (plays) 1982

Richard Steele (essay date 1711)

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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 some Time be spent in considering the Application of it. The Seat of Wit, when one speaks as a Man of the Town and the World, is the Play-house; I shall therefore fill this Paper with Reflections upon the Use of it in that Place. The Application of Wit in the Theatre has as strong an Effect upon the Manners of our Gentlemen, as the Taste of it has upon the Writings of our Authors. It may, perhaps, look like a very Presumptuous Work, tho' not Foreign from the Duty of a Spectator, to tax the Writings of such as have long had the general Applause of a Nation: But I shall always make Reason, Truth, and Nature the Measures of Praise and Dispraise; if those are for me, the Generality of Opinion is of no Consequence against me; if they are against me, the General Opinion cannot long support me.

Without further Preface, I am going to look into some of our most Applauded Plays, and see whether they deserve the Figure they at present bear in the Imaginations of Men, or not.

In reflecting upon these Works, I shall chiefly dwell upon that for which each respective Play is most celebrated. The present Paper shall be employed upon Sir Foplin Flutter.2 The Received Character of this Play is, That it is the Pattern of Gentile Comedy. Dorimant and Harriot are the Characters of Greatest Consequence, and if these are Low and Mean, the Reputation of the Play is very Unjust.

I will take for granted, that a fine Gentleman should be honest in his Actions, and refined in his Language. Instead of this, our Hero, in this Piece, is a direct Knave in his Designs, and a Clown in his Language. Bellair is his Admirer and Friend, in return for which, because he is forsooth a greater Wit than his said Friend, he thinks it reasonable to perswade him to Marry a young Lady, whose Virtue, he thinks, will last no longer than 'till she is a Wife, and then she cannot but fall to his Share, as he is an irresistible fine Gentleman. The Falshood to Mrs. Loveit, and the Barbarity of Triumphing over her Anguish for losing him, is another Instance of his Honesty, as well as his good Nature. As to his fine Language; he calls the Orange Woman, who, it seems, is inclined to grow Fat, An Over-grown Jade, with a Flasket of Guts before her; and salutes her with a pretty Phrase of, How now, Double Tripe?3 Upon the Mention of a Country Gentlewoman, whom he knows nothing of, (no one can imagine why) he will lay his Life she is some awkard, ill-fashioned Country Toad, who not having above four Dozen of Hairs on her Head, has adorned her Baldness with a large white Fruz, that she may look Sparkishly in the Fore-front of the King's Box at an old Play. Unnatural Mixture of senseless Common Place!

As to the Generosity of his Temper, he tells his poor Footman, If he did not wait better—he would turn him away, in the insolent Phrase of, I'll Uncase you.

Now for Mrs. Harriot: She laughs at Obedience to an absent Mother, whose Tenderness Busie describes to be very exquisite, for that she is so pleased with finding Harriot again, that she cannot chide her for being out of the Way.4 This Witty Daughter, and Fine Lady, has so little Respect for this good Woman, that she Ridicules her Air in taking Leave, and cries, In what Struggle is my poor Mother yonder? See, See, her Head tottering, her Eyes staring, and her under Lip trembling.5 But all this is atoned for, because she has more Wit than is usual in her Sex, and as much Malice, tho' she is as Wild as you would wish her, and has a Demureness in her Looks that makes it so surprising!6 Then to recommend her as a fit Spouse for his Hero, the Poet makes her speak her Sense of Marriage very ingeniously. I Think, says she, I might be brought to endure him, and that is all a reasonable Woman should expect in an Husband.7 It is, methinks, unnatural that we are not made to understand how she that was bred under a silly pious old Mother, that would never trust her out of her Sight, came to be so Polite.

It cannot be denied, but that the Negligence of every thing, which engages the Attention of the sober and valuable Part of Mankind, appears very well drawn in this Piece: But it is denied, that it is necessary to the Character of a Fine Gentleman, that he should in that manner Trample upon all Order and Decency. As for the Character of Dorimant, it is more of a Coxcomb than that of Foplin. He says of one of his Companions,8 that a good Correspondence between them is their mutual Interest. Speaking of that Friend, he declares, their being much together makes the Women think the better of his Understanding, and judge more favourably of my Reputation. It makes him pass upon some for a Man of very good Sense, and me upon others for a very civil Person.

This whole celebrated Piece is a perfect Contradiction to good Manners, good Sense, and common Honesty; and as there is nothing in it but what is built upon the Ruin of Virtue and Innocence, according to the Notion of Merit in this Comedy, I take the Shoomaker to be, in reality, the fine Gentleman of the Play: For it seems he is an Atheist, if we may depend upon his Character as given by the Orange-Woman, who is her self far from being the lowest in the Play. She says of a Fine Man, who is Dorimant's Companion, There is not such another Heathen in the Town, except the Shoe-maker. His Pretention to be the Hero of the Drama appears still more in his own Description of his way of Living with his Lady. There is, says he, never a Man in Town lives more like a Gentleman with his Wife than I do; I never mind her Motions; she never enquires into mine. We speak to one another civilly, hate one another heartily; and because it is Vulgar to Lye and Soak together, we have each of us our several Settle-Bed. That of Soaking together is as good as if Dorimant had spoken it himself; and, I think, since he puts Humane Nature in as ugly a Form as the Circumstance will bear, and is a staunch Unbeliever, he is very much Wronged in having no part of the good Fortune bestowed in the last Act.

To speak plainly of this whole Work, I think nothing but being lost to a Sense of Innocence and Virtue can make any one see this Comedy, without observing more frequent Occasion to move Sorrow and Indignation, than Mirth and Laughter. At the same time I allow it to be Nature, but it is Nature in its utmost Corruption and Degeneracy.9


  1. Motto. Horace, Satires, 1. 10. 90-91:

    Demetrius and Tigellius, know your place;
    Go hence, and whine among the school-boy race.
  2. Etherege's comedy, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter (1676), had been given at Drury Lane on 20 Apr., with the following cast: Sir Fopling, Cibber; Dorimant, Wilks; Medley, Mills; Old Bell-Air, Penkethman; Young Bell-Air, Bullock Junior; Shoe-maker, Bowen; Loveit, Mrs. Oldfield; Belinda, Mrs. Rogers; Harriet, Mrs. Santlow; Emilia, Mrs. Porter.

  3. The quotations in this paragraph and the next are all from the opening scene.

  4. Act III, scene iii.

  5. Act IV, scene i.

  6. Act I, scene i.

  7. Act III, scene i.

  8. Bellair. The remaining quotations are again from the opening scene.

  9. Dennis replied to this paper in his Defence of Sir Fopling Flutter in 1722 (Critical Works, ed. Hooker, ii. 241-50), arguing that while Dorimant might not be ‘the Pattern of Gentile Comedy’ by present-day standards, Etherege was writing according to Restoration standards of conduct and hence ‘was oblig'd to accommodate himself to that Notion of a fine Gentleman, which the Court and the Town both had at the Time of the writing of this Comedy’ (ii. 244).

John Dennis (essay date 1722)

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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 Town, and whose Reputation has now for near thirty Years together, surviv'd his Person, and will, in all Probability, survive it as long as Comedy shall be in vogue; by which Proceeding, this worthy Knight has incurr'd the double Censure, that Olivia in the plain'd Dealer has cast upon a certain Coxcomb Who rather, says she, then not flatter, will flatter the Poets of the Age, whom none will flatter, and rather then not rail, will rail at the Dead, at whom none besides will rail.

If other Authors have had the Misfortune, to incurr the Censure of ill-nature with unthinking deluded People, for no other so much as pretended Reason, than because to improve a noble Art, they have expos'd the Errors of popular Writers, who ow'd their Success, to the infamous Method of securing an ignorant or corrupt Cabal; when those Writers were not only living, but in full Prosperity, and at full Liberty to answer for themselves; what Appellation must he deserve, who has basely and scurrilously attack'd the Reputation of a Favourite of the comick Muse, and of the Darling of the Graces, after Death has for so many Years depriv'd him of the Means of answering for himself.

What the Knight falsely and impudently says of the Comedy, may be justly said of the Criticism, and of the whole 65th Spectator, that 'tis a perfect Contradiction to good Manners and good Sense. He allows this Comedy, he says, to be in Nature, but 'tis Nature in its utmost Corruption and Degeneracy.

Suppose this were true, I would fain know where he learnt, that Nature in its utmost Corruption and Degeneracy, is not the proper Subject of Comedy? Is not this a merry Person, who after he has been writing what he calls Comedy for twenty Years together, shews plainly to all the World, that he knows nothing of the Nature of true Comedy, and that he has not learnt the very first Rudiments of an Art which he pretends to teach? I must confess, the Ridicule in Sir Fopling Flutter, is an Imitation of corrupt and degenerate Nature, but not the most corrupt and the most degenerate; for there is neither Adultery, Murder, nor Sodomy in it. But can any Thing but corrupt and degenerate Nature be the proper Subject of Ridicule? And can any Thing but Ridicule be the proper Subject of Comedy? Has not Aristotle told us in the Fifth Chapter of his Poeticks, that Comedy is an Imitation of the very worst of Men? Not the worst, says He, but in every Sort of Vice, but the worst in the Ridicule. And has not Horace, in the Fourth Satyr of his First Book, reminded us, that the old Athenian Comick Poets made it their Business to bring all Sorts of Villains upon the Stage, Adulterers, Cheats, Theives, Murderers? But then they always took Care, says a modern Critick, that those several Villanies should be envelop'd in the Ridicule, which alone, says he, could make them the proper Subjects of Comedy. If this facetious Knight had formerly li'vd at Lacedemon with the same wrong turn'd Noddle that he has now among us, would he not, do you think, have inveigh against that People, for shewing their drunken Slaves to their Children? Would he not have represented it as a Thing of most pernicious Example? What the Lacedemonians did by Drunkenness, the Comick Poet does by that and all other Vices. He exposes them to the View of his Fellow Subjects, for no other Reason, than to render them ridiculous and contemptible.

But the Criticism of the Knight in the foresaid Spectator, is a contrary to good Manner, as it is to good Sense. What Aritotle and his Interpreters say of Tragedy, that 'tis infallibly good, when it pleases both the Judges and the People, is certainly as true of Comedy; for the Judges are equally qualify'd to judge of both, and the People may be suppos'd to be better Judges of Comedy then they are of Tragedy, because Comedy is nothing but a Picture of common Life, and a Representation of their own Humours and Manners. Now this Comedy of Sir Fopling Flutter, has not been only well receiv'd, and believ'd by the People of England to be a most agreeable Comedy for about Half a Century, but the Judges have been still more pleas'd with it then the People. They have justly believ'd (I speak of the Judges) that the Characters, and especially the principal Characters, are admirably drawn, to answer the two Ends of Comedy, Pleasure, and Instruction; and that the Dialogue is the most charming that has been writ by the Moderns: That with Purity and Simplicity, it has Art and Elegance; and with Force and Vivacity, the utmost Grace and Delicacy. This I know very well, was the Opinion of the most eminent Writers, and of the best Judges contemporary with the Author; and of the whole Court of King Charles the Second, a Court the most polite that ever England saw.

Now, after this Comedy has pass'd with the whole People of England, the knowing as well as the Ignorant, for a most entertaining and most instructive Comedy, for fifty Years together, after that long Time comes a Two Penny Author, who has given a thousand Proofs thro' the Course of his Rhapsodies, that he understands not a Tittle of all this Matter; this Author comes and impudently declares, that this whole celebrated Piece, that has for half a Century, been admir'd by the whole People of Great Britain, is a perfect Contradiction to good Sense, to good Manners, and to common Honesty. O Tempora! O Mores!

The Knight certainly wrote the fore-mention'd Spectator, tho' it as been writ these ten Years, on Purpose to make Way for his fine Gentleman, and therefore he endeavours to prove, that Sir Fopling Flutter is not that genteel Comedy which the World allows it to be. And then, according to his usual Custom, whenever he pretends to criticise, he does, by shuffling and cutting and confounding Notions, impose upon his unwary Reader; for either Sir George Etherege, did design to make this a genteel Comedy, or he did not. If he did not design it, what is it to the Purpose, whether 'tis a genteel Comedy or not? Provided that 'tis a good one: For I hope, a Comedy may be a good one, and yet not a genteel one. The Alchimist is an admirable Comedy, and yet it is not a genteel one. We may say the same of The Fox, and the silent Woman, and of a great many more. But if Sir George did design to make it a genteel one, he was oblig'd to adapt it to that Notion of Gentility, which he knew very well, that the World at that Time had, and we see he succeeded accordingly. For it has pass'd for a very genteel Comedy, for fifty Years together. Could it be expected that the admirable Author, should accomodate himself, to the wrong headed Notions of a would be Critick, who was to appear fifty Years after the first Acting of his Play: A Critick, who writes Criticism, as Men commit Treason or Murder, by the Instigation of the Devil himself, whenever the old Gentleman owes the Knight a Shame.

To prove that this Comedy is not a genteel one, he endeavours to prove that one of the principal Characters is not a fine Gentleman. I appeal to every impartial Man, if when he says, that a Man or a Woman are genteel, he means any Thing more than that they are agreeble in their Air, graceful in their Motions, and polite in their Conversation. But when he endeavours to prove, that Dorimont is not a fine Gentleman, he says no more to the Purpose, then he said before, when he affirm'd that the Comedy is not a genteel Comedy; for either the Author design'd in Dorimont a fine Gentleman, or he did not. If he did not, the Character is ne'er the less excellent on that Account, because Dorimont is an admirable Picture of a Courtier in the Court of King Charles the Second. But if Dorimont was design'd for a fine Gentleman by the Author, he was oblig'd to accommodate himself to that Notion of a fine Gentleman, which the Court and the Town both had at the Time of the writing of this Comedy. 'Tis reasonable to believe, that he did so, and we see that he succeeded accordingly. For Dorimont not only pass'd for a fine Gentleman with the Court of King Charles the Second, but he has pass'd for such with all the World, for Fifty Years together. And what indeed can any one mean, when he speaks of a fine Gentleman, but who is qualify'd in Conversation, to please the best Company of either sex.

But the Knight will be satisfy'd with no Notion of a fine Gentleman but his own. A fine Gentleman, says he, is one who is honest in his Actions, and refin'd in his Language. If this be a just Description of a fine Gentleman, I will make bold to draw two Consequences from it. The first is, That a Pedant is often a fine Gentleman. For I have known several of them, who have been Honest in their Actions, and Refin'd in their Language. The second is, That I know a certain Knight, who, though he should be allow'd to be a Gentleman born, yet is not a fine Gentleman. I shall only add, that I would advise for the future, all the fine Gentlemen, who travel to London from Tipperary, to allow us Englishmen to know what we mean, when we speak our native Language.

To give a true Character of this charming Comedy, it must be acknowledg'd, that there is no great Mastership in the Design of it. Sir George had but little of the artful and just Designs of Ben Johnson: But as Tragedy instructs chiefly by its Design, Comedy instructs by its Characters; which not only ought to be drawn truly in Nature, but to be the resembling Pictures of our Contemporaries, both in Court and Town. Tragedy answers to History-Painting, but Comedy to drawing of Portraits.

How little do they know of the Nature of true Comedy, who believe that its proper Business is to set us Patterns for Imitation: For all such Patterns are serious Things, and Laughter is the Life, and the very Soul of Comedy. 'Tis its proper Business to expose Persons to our View, whose Views we may shun, and whose Follies we may despise; and by shewing us what is done upon the Comick Stage, to shew us what ought never to be done upon the Stage of the World.

All the Characters in Sir Fopling Flutter, and especially the principal Characters, are admirably drawn, both to please and to instruct. First, they are drawn to please, because they are drawn in the Truth of Nature; but to be drawn in the Truth of Nature, they must be drawn with those Qualities that are proper to each respective Season of Life.

This is the chief Precept given for the forming the Characters, by the two Great Masters of the Rules which Nature herself dictated, and which have [gap in original] in every Age, for the Standards of writing successfully, and of judging surely, unless it were with Poetasters, and their foolish Admirers. The Words of Horace, in his Art of Poetry, are these, v. 153.

Tu, quid ego & populo mecum desideret, audi.
Si sessoris eges aulæa manentis, & usque
Sessuri, donec cantor, vos plaudite, dicat;
Ætatis cujusque notandi sunt tibit mores,
Mobilibúsque decor naturis dandus, & annis.

And thus my Lord Roscommon has translated it:

Now hear what ev'ry Auditor expects,
If you intend that he should stay to hear
The Epilogue, and see the Curtain fall;
Mark how our Tempers alter with our Years,
Then give the Beauty proper to each Age,
And by this Rule form all your Characters.

And now see the Character that Horace gives of a Person who is in the Bloom of his Years.


Imberbis tandem juvenis custode remoto,
Gaudet equis, canibúsque, & aprici gramine campi;
Cereus in vitium flecti, monitoribus asper,
Utilium tardus proviso, prodigus æeris,
Sublimis, cupidúsque, & amata relinquere pernix.

And thus the 'foresaid Noble Poet translates it:

A Youth that first casts off his Tutor's Yoke,
Loves Horses, Hounds, and Sports, and Exercise,
Prone to all Vice, impatient of Reproof,
Proud, careless, fond, inconstant, and profuse.

Now, Horace, to shew the Importance of this Precept, as soon as he has done with the Characters of the four Parts of Life, returns to it, repeats it, and enforces it.

———Ne forte seniles
Mandentur juveni partes, pueróque viriles,
Semper in adjunctis, œvóque morabimur aptis.

That a Poet may never be guilty of such an Absurdity, says he, as to give the Character of an Old Man to a Young Man, or of a Boy a Middle Ag'd Man, let him take Care to adhere to those Qualities, which are necessarily or probably annexed to each respective Season of Life.

If a Dramatick Poet does not observe this Rule, he misses that which gives the Beauty, and the Decorum, which alone can make his Characters please.

As Horace is but an Epitomizer of Aristotle, in giving Rules for the Characters; that Philosopher gives us more at large the Character of a Person in his early Bloom, in the 14th Chapter of the Second Book of his Rhetorick.

Young Men, says he, have strong Appetites, and are ready to undertake any thing, in order to satisfy them; and of all those Appetites which have a Relation to the Body, they are most powerfully sway'd by Venereal ones, in which they are very changeable, and are quickly cloy'd. For their Desires are rather acute than lasting, like the Hunger and Thirst of the Sick. They are prone to Anger, and ready to obey the Dictates of it. For by Reason of the Concern which they have for their Honour, they cannot bear the being undervalu'd, but resent an Affront heinously. And as they are desirous of Honour, they are more ambitious ov Victory: For Youth is a Sort of Excellency. Thus far Aristotle.

And here it may not be amiss to shew, that this Rule is founded in Reason and in Nature: In order to which, let us see what Dacier remarks upon that Verse of Horace, which we cited above.

Mobilibúsque decor naturis dandus, & annis.

Behold, says he, a very fine, and very significant Verse; which tells us, if we render it Word for Word, That we ought to give to moveable Natures and Years their proper Beauty. By moveable Natures, (says Dacier) Horace means Age, which still runs on like a River, and which, as it runs, gives different Inclinations to Men; and those different Inclinations make what he calls Decor, the Beauty proper to the Age. For every Part of Man's Life has its proper Beauties, like every Season of the Year. He that give to Manly Age the Beauties of Youth, or to Youth the Beauties of Manly Age, does like a Painter, who should paint the Autumn with the Ornaments of Summer, or the Summer with the Ornaments of Autumn.

A Comick Poet, who gives to a Young Man the Qualities that belong to a Middle Ag'd Man, or to an Old Man, can answer neither of the Ends of his Art. He cannot please, because he writes out of Nature, of which all Poetry is an Imitation, and without which, no Poem can possibly please. And as he cannot please, he cannot instruct; because, by shewing such a young Man as is not to be seen in the World, he shews a Monster, and not a Man, sets before us a particular Character, instead of an allegorical and universal one, as all his Characters, and especially his principal Characters, ought to be; and therefore can give no general Instruction, having no Moral, no Fable, and therefore no Comedy.

Now if any one is pleased to compare the Character of Dorimont, to which the Knight has taken so much absurd Exception with the two forementioned Descriptions, he will find in his Character all the chief distinguishing Strokes of them. For such is the Force of Nature, and so admirable a Talent had she given Sir George for Comedy, that, tho' to my certain Knowledge he understood neither Greek nor Latin, yet one would swear, that in drawing his Dorimont, he copy'd the foresaid Draughts, and especially that of Aristotle. Dorimont is a young Courtier, haughty, vain, and prone to Anger, amorous, false, and inconstant. He debauches Loveit, and betrays her; he Belinda, and as soon as he enjoys her is false to her.

But 2dly, The Characters in Sir Fopling are admirably contriv'd to please, and more particularly the principal ones, because we find in those Characters, a true Resemblance of the Persons both in Court and Town, who liv'd at the Time when that Comedy was writ: For Rapin tells us with a great deal of Judgment, That Comedy is as it ought to be, when an Audience is apt to imagine, that instead of being in the Pit and Boxes, they are in some Assembly of the Neighbourhood, or in some Family Meeting, and that we see nothing done in it, but what is done in the World. For it is, says he, not worth one Farthing, if we do not discover our selves in it, and do not find in it both our own Manners, and those of the Persons with whom we live and converse.

The Reason of this Rule is manifest: For as 'tis the Business of a Comick Poet to cure his Spectators of Vice and Folly, by the Apprehension of being laugh'd at; 'tis plain that his Business must be with the reigning Follies and Vices. The violent Passions, which are the Subjects of Tragedy, are the same in every Age, and appear with the same Face; but those Vices and Follies, which are the Subjects of Comedy, are seen to vary continually: Some of those that belonged to our Ancestors, have no Relation to us; and can no more come under the Cognisance of our present Comick Poets, than the Sweating and Sneezing Sickness can come under the Practice of our contemporary Physicians. What Vices and Follies may infect those who are to come after us, we know not; 'tis the present, the reigning Vices, and Follies, that must be the Subjects of our present Comedy: The Comick Poet therefore must take Characters from such Persons as are his Contemporaries, and are infected with the foresaid Follies and Vices.

Agreeable to this, is the Advice which Boileau, in his Art of Poetry, gives to the Comick Poets:

Etudiez la Cour, & connoissez la ville,
L'une & l'autre est tousoers en modeles fertile,
C'est par lá que Moliere illustrant ses evrits,
Peutetre de son Art eut remporté la prix, & c.

Now I remember very well, that upon the first acting this Comedy, it was generally believed to be an agreeable Representation of the Persons of Condition of both Sexes, both in Court and Town; and that all the World was charm'd with Dorimont; and that it was unanimously agreed, that he had in him several of the Qualities of Wilmot Earl of Rochester, as, his Wit, his Spirit, his amorous Temper, the Charms that he had for the fair Sex, his Falshood, and his Inconstancy; the agreeable Manner of his chiding his Servants, which the late Bishop of Salisbury takes Notice of in his Life; and lastly, his repeating on every Occasion, the Verses of Waller, for whom that noble Lord had a very particular Esteem; witness his imitation of the Tenth Satire of the First Book of Horace:

Waller, by Nature for the Bays design'd,
With Spirit, Force, and Fancy unconfind,
In Panegyrick is above Mankind.

Now, as several of the Qualities in Dorimont's Character were taken from that Earl of Rochester, so they who were acquainted with the late Sir Fleetwood Shepherd, know very well, that not a little of that Gentleman's Character is to be found in Medley.

But the Characters in this Comedy are very well form'd to instruct as well as to please, especially those of Dorimont and of Loveit; and they instruct by the same Qualities to which the Knight has taken so much whimsical Exception; as Dorimont instructs byt his Insulting, and his Perfidiousness, and Loveit by the Violence of her Resentment and her Anguish. For Loveit has Youth, Beauty, Quality, Wit, and Spirit. And it was depending upon these, that she repos'd so dangerous a Trust in Dorimont, which is a just Caution to the Fair Sex, never to be so conceited of the Power of their Charms, or their other extraordinary Qualities, as to believe they can engage a Man to be true to them, to whom they grant the best Favour, without which they can never be certain, that they shall not be hated and despis'd by that very Person whom they have done every Thing to oblige.

To conclude with one General Observation, That Comedy may be qualify'd in a powerful Manner both to instruct and to please, the very Constitution of its Subject ought always to be Ridiculous. Comedy, says Rapin, is an Image of common Life, and its End is to expose upon the Stage the Defects of particular Persons, in order to cure the Defects of the Publick, and to correct and amend the People, by the Fear of being laugh'd at. That therefore, says he, which is most essential to Comedy, is certainly the Ridicule.

Every Poem is qualify'd to instruct, and to please most powerfully by that very Quality which makes the Fort and the Characteristick of it, and which distinguishes it from all other Kinds of Poems. As Tragedy is qualify'd to instruct and to please, by Terror and Compassion, which two Passions ought always to be predominant in it, and to distinguish it from all other Poems. Epick Poetry pleases and instructs chiefly by Admiration, which reigns throughout it, and distinguishes it from Poems of every other Kind. thus Comedy instructs and pleases most powerfully by the Ridicule, because that is the Quality which distinguishes it from every other Poem. The Subject therefore of every Comedy ought to be ridiculous by its Constitutions; the Ridicule ought to be of the very Nature and Essence of it. Where there is none of that, there can be no Comedy. It ought to reign both in the incidents and in the Characters, and especially in the principal Characters, which ought to be ridiculous in themselves, or so contriv'd, as to shew and expose the Ridicule of others. In all the Masterpieces of Ben Johnson, the principal Character has the Ridicule in himself, as Morose in The Silent Woman, Volpone in The Fox, and Subtle and Face in The Alchimist: And the very Ground and Foundation of all these Comedies is ridiculous. 'Tis the very same Thing in the Master-pieces of Moliere. The Mis-Antrope, the Impostor, the Avare, and the Femmes Secuanter. Nay, the Reader will find, that in most of his other Pieces, the principal Characters are ridiculous; as L'Etoardy, Les precieuses Ridicules, Le Cocu Imaginaire, Le Fascheux, and Monsieur de pousceaugnac, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, L'Ecole de Maris, L'Ecole des Femmes, L'Amour Medicis, Le Medicin Magré luy, La Mariage Forcé, George Dandin, Les Fourberies de Scapin, Le Malade Imaginaire. The Reader will not only find, upon Reflection, that in all these Pieces the principal Characters are ridiculous, but that in most of them there is the Ridicule of Comedy in the very Titles.

'Tis by the Ridicule that there is in the Character of Sir Fopling, which is one of the principal ones of this Comedy, and from which it takes its Name, that he is so very well qualify'd to please and instruct. What true Englishman is there, but must be pleas'd to see this ridiculous Knight made the Jest and the Scorn of all the other Characters, for shewing, by his foolish aping foreign Customs and Manners, that he prefers another Country to his own? And of what important Instruction must it be to all our Youth who travel, to shew them, that if they so far forget the Love of their Country, as to declare by their espousing foreign Customs and Manners, that they prefer France or Italy to Great Britain, at their Return, they must justly expect to be the Jest and the Scorn of their own Countrymen.

Thus, I hope, I have convinc'd the Reader, that this Comical Knight, Sir Fopling, has been justly form'd by the Knight his Father, to instruct and please, whatever may be the Opinion to the contrary of the Knight his Brother.

Whenever The Fine Gentleman of the latter comes upon the Stage, I shall be glad to see that it has all the shining Qualities which reommend Sir Fopling, that his Characters are always drawn in Nature, and that he never gives to a young Man the Qualities of a Middle-aged Man, or an old one; that they are the just Images of our Contemporaries, and of what we every Day see in the World; that instead of setting us Patterns for our Imitation, which is not the proper Business of Comedy, he makes those Follies and Vices ridiculous, which we ought to shun and despise; that the Subject of his Comedy is comical by its Constitution; and that Ridicule is particularly in the Grand Incidents, and in the principal Characters. For a true Comick Poet is a Philosopher, who, like old Democritus, always instructs us laughing.

Further Reading

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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 Literature 6, no. 3 (summer 1966): 409-19.

Discusses the significance of the songs included in Etherege's plays.

Brown, Laura. “Dramatic Social Satire.” In English Dramatic Form, 1660-1760: An Essay in Generic History, pp. 28-65. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Explores the evolution of social satire in Etherege's plays, finding little criticism of social standards in his two early comedies and a more outspoken approach in The Man of Mode.

Davies, Paul C. “The State of Nature and the State of War: A Reconsideration of The Man of Mode.University of Toronto Quarterly 39, no. 1 (October 1969): 53-62.

Argues that a “true understanding” of the relationship between Dorimant and Harriet is essential for understanding The Man of Mode as a whole.

Fisher, Judith W. “The Power of Performance: Sir George Etherege's The Man of Mode.Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 10, no. 1 (summer 1995): 15-28.

Analyzes the text of The Man of Mode in an effort to reconstruct how the play might have been staged for Etherege's audience.

Hayman, John G. “Dorimant and the Comedy of A Man of Mode.Modern Language Quarterly 30 (1969): 183-97.

Contends that the “comic movement” of The Man of Mode rests on Dorimant's “initial skill and subsequent failure in fulfilling the requirements of polite society and turning them to some ulterior end.”

Hazlitt, William. “Lecture III: On Cowley, Butler, Suckling, Etherege, Etc.” In Lectures on the English Comic Writers, with Miscellaneous Essays, pp. 49-69. 1819. Reprint, London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1910.

Brief notice of Etherege, with a favorable description of The Man of Mode as a “more exquisite and airy picture of the manners of that age than any other extant.”

Henshaw, Wandalie. “Sir Fopling Flutter, or The Key to The Man of Mode.Essays in Theatre 3, no. 2 (May 1985): 98-107.

Contends that critics have underestimated Sir Fopling Flutter's significance to The Man of Mode, due to their emphasis on the characters of Dorimant and Harriet.

Hughes, Derek. “Play and Passion in The Man of Mode.Comparative Drama 15, no. 3 (fall 1981): 231-57.

Analyzes game-playing and religious imagery in The Man of Mode, maintaining that the subtly shifting images reveal Etherege's attitudes toward game-playing and the losers in those games.

Hume, Robert D. “The Nature of Comic Drama.” In The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeeth Century, pp. 63-148. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Takes exception to the claim that The Man of Mode is an intellectual showpiece on the manners and mores of Etherege's cultural milieu, arguing that the dramatist simply meant to create “a delightfully satiric entertainment.”

Husboe, Arthur R. Sir George Etherege. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 143 p.

In-depth critical discussion of Etherege's life and works.

Knights, L. C. “Restoration Comedy: The Reality & The Myth.” Scrutiny 6 (June 1937): 122-43.

Censures all Restoration comedy, including Etherege's, as inferior works of literature which depict social conventions artificially. The critic further argues that because these dramatists relied on “a miserably limited set of attitudes,” not one “has achieved a genuinely sensitive and individual mode of expression.”

Martin, Leslie H. “Past and Parody in The Man of Mode.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 16, no. 3 (summer 1976): 363-76.

Posits that Etherege invented the character of Mrs. Loveit in The Man of Mode to parody heroic drama and other outmoded conventions.

Mignon, Elizabeth. “Etherege.” In Crabbed Age and Youth: The Old Men and Women in the Restoration Comedy of Manners, pp. 36-47. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1947.

Examines Etherege's attitudes toward youth and old age in his comedies.

Morrow, Laura. “The Right Snuff: Dorimant and the Will to Meaning.” Restoration 14, no. 1 (spring 1990): 15-21.

Psychological analysis of Dorimant and his relationships to women in The Man of Mode.

Muir, Kenneth. “Sir George Etherege.” In The Comedy of Manners, pp. 28-40. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1970.

Broad survey of Etherege's comedies and their critical reception.

Palmer, John. “The Life and Letters of Sir George Etherege.” In The Comedy of Manners, pp. 30-91. 1913. Reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.

Comprehensive biographical and critical account of Etherege.

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vols. IV-VI, edited by Henry B. Wheatley, p. 304. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1926.

Briefly recounts seeing Etherege's The Comical Revenge, describing it as “very merry, but only so by gesture, not wit at all.”

Pinto, Vivian de Sola. “Sir George Etherege.” In The Restoration Court Poets, pp. 33-40. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1965.

Examines Etherege's role in the influential group of court poets which included John Wilmont, earl of Rochester, Charles Sackville, and Sir Charles Sedley.

Powell, Jocelyn. “George Etherege and the Form of Comedy.” In Restoration Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, no. 6, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 43-69. London: Edward Arnold, 1965.

Argues that Etherege's comedies display a central problem of subjectivity in that they condone ridicule and vice rather than satirizing antisocial behavior.

Staves, Susan. “The Secrets of Genteel Identity in The Man of Mode: Comedy of Manners vs. the Courtesy Book.” In Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 19, edited by Leslie Ellen Brown and Patricia Craddock, pp. 117-28. East Lansing, Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1989.

Discusses the relationship between The Man of Mode and contemporary courtesy books, asserting that Etherege represents courtesy literature as “a threat to his ideology of gentility.”

Traugott, John. “The Rake's Progress from Court to Comedy: A Study in Comic Form.” Studies in English Literature 6, no. 3 (summer 1966): 381-407.

Explores the role of the rake in Restoration comedy, noting that Dorimant in Etherege's The Man of Mode nearly succeeds in making “a nasty character the vessel of value for the society and the aesthetic center of a proper comedy.”

Underwood, Dale. Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957, 165 p.

Comprehensive discussion of Etherege's comedies within the context of the seventeenth-century intellectual and cultural milieu. The critic maintains that Etherege's plays validate the genre of the comedy of manners in that they are works of “literary and comic art” which enhanced “the principal traditions of pre-Restoration drama.”

Walsh, Paul. “Performance, Space, and Seduction in George Etherege's The Man of Mode (Dorset Garden Theatre, 1676).” Essays in Theatre/Études Théâtrales 11, no. 2 (May 1993): 123-31.

Proposes a possible seventeenth-century staging of The Man of Mode, exploring how “performance space”—the physical environment of the theater and the audience interaction with the actors—perhaps influenced the “dynamics of seduction and revelation” in the play.

Weber, Harold. “Charles II, George Pines, and Mr. Dorimant: The Politics of Sexual Power in Restoration England.” Criticism 32, no. 2 (spring 1990): 193-219.

Examines the sexual dynamics in Etherege's The Man of Mode, arguing that the comedy affirms a patriarchal anxiety in the Restoration period about the power of female sexuality.

Wilkinson, D. R. M. “Etherege and a Restoration Pattern of Wit.” English Studies 68, no. 6 (December 1987): 497-510.

Asserts that Etherege played a critical role in the development of the witty dialogue which is the hallmark of Restoration comedy.

Young, Douglas M. “The Play-World of Sir George Etherege.” In The Feminist Voices in Restoration Comedy: The Virtuous Women in the Play-Worlds of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve, pp. 25-83. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

Discusses how Etherege innovated on Restoration attitudes toward women in his comedies, arguing that in each of the plays the virtuous heroine culminates the action in equal standing to her libertine male suitor.

Zimbardo, Rose A. “Of Women, Comic Imitation of Nature, and Etherege's The Man of Mode.Studies in English Literature 21, no. 3 (summer 1981): 373-87.

Analyzes the comic function of the female characters in The Man of Mode, noting that Etherege was one of the last playwrights to utilize women to achieve proper comic perspective.

Additional coverage of Etherege's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 80 and Literature Resource Center.

Theophilus Cibber (essay date 1753)

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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, but in his younger years he travelled into France, and consequently made no long stay at the university. Upon his return, he, for some time, studied the Municipal Law at one of the Inns of Court, in which, it seems, he made but little progress, and like other men of sprightly genius, abandoned it for pleasure, and the gayer accomplishments.

In the year 1664 the town was obliged with his first performance for the stage, entitled the Comical Revenge, or, Love in a Tub, the writing whereof brought him acquainted, as he himself informed us, with the earl of Dorset, to whom it is by the author dedicated. The fame of this play, together with his easy, unreserved conversation, and happy address, rendered him a favourite with the leading wits, such as the duke of Buckingham, Sir Charles Sedley, the earl of Rochester, Sir Car Scroop. Being animated by this encouragement, in 1668, he brought another comedy upon the stage, entitled She Would if She Could; which gained him no less applause, and it was expected, that by the continuance of his studies, he would polish and enliven the theatrical taste, and be no less constant in such entertainments, than the most assiduous of his cotemporaries, but he was too much addicted to pleasure, and being impelled by no necessity, he neglected the stage, and never writ, 'till he was forced to it, by the importunity of his friends. In 1676, his last comedy called the Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, came on the stage, with the most extravagant success; he was then a servant to the beautiful duchess of York, of whom Dryden has this very singular expression, ‘that he does not think, that at the general resurrection, she can be made to look more charming than now.’ Sir George dedicates this play to his Royal Mistress, with the most courtly turns of compliment. In this play he is said to have drawn, or to use the modern cant, taken off, some of the contemporary coxcombs; and Mr. Dryden, in an Epilogue to it, has endeavoured to remove the suspicion of personal satire, and says, that the character of Flutter is meant to ridicule none in particular, but the whole fraternity of finished fops, the idolaters of new fashions.

His words are,

True fops help nature's work, and go to school,
To file and finish God Almighty's fool:
Yet none Sir Fopling, him, or him, can call,
He's Knight o'th' Shire, and represents you all.

But this industry, to avoid the imputation of personal satire, but served to heighten it; and the town soon found out originals to his characters. Sir Fopling was said to be drawn for one Hewit, a beau of those times, who, it seems, was such a creature as the poet ridiculed, but who, perhaps, like many other coxcombs, would never have been remembered, but for this circumstance, which transmits his memory to posterity.

The character of Dorimant was supposed to represent the earl of Rochester, who was inconstant, faithless, and undertermined in his amours; and it is likewise said, in the character of Medley, that the poet has drawn out some sketch of himself, and from the authority of Mr. Bowman, who played Sir Fopling, or some other part in this comedy, it is said, that the very Shoemaker in Act I. was also meant for a real person, who, by his improvident courses before, having been unable to make any profit by his trade, grew afterwards, upon the public exhibition of him, so industrious and notable, that he drew a crowd of the best customers to him, and became a very thriving tradesinan. Whether the poet meant to display these characters, we cannot now determine, but it is certain, the town's ascribing them to some particular persons, was paying him a very high compliment, and if it proved no more, it at least demonstrated, a close imitation of nature, a beauty which constitutes the greatest perfection of a comic poet.

Our author, it seems, was addicted to some gay extravagances, such as gaming, and an unlicensed indulgence in women and wine, which brought some satirical reflexions upon him. Gildon in his Lives of the Dramatic Poets, says, that upon marrying a fortune, he was knighted; the circumstances of it are these: He had, by his gaming and extravagance, so embarrassed his affairs, that he courted a rich widow in order to retrieve them; but she being an ambitious woman, would not condescend to marry him, unless he could make her a lady, which he was obliged to do by the purchase of a knighthood; and this appears in a Consolatary Epistle to captain Julian, from the duke of Buckingham, in which this match is reflected on. We have no account of any issue he had by this lady, but from the information of Mr. Bowman we can say, that he cohabited, for some time, with the celebrated Mrs. Barry the actress, and had one daughter by her; that he settled 5 or 6000 l. on her, but that she died young.

From the same intelligence, it also appears, that Sir George was, in his person, a fair, slender, genteel man, but spoiled his countenance with drinking, and other habits of intemperance. In his deportment he was very affable and courteous, of a generous disposition, which, with his free, lively, and natural vein of writing, acquired him the general character of gentle George, and easy Etherege, in respect of which qualities, we often find him compared to Sir Charles Sedley. His courtly and easy behaviour so recommended him to the Duchess of York, that when on the accession of King James II. she became Queen, she sent him ambassador abroad, Gildon says, to Hamburgh; but it is pretty evident, that he was in that reign a minister at Ratisbon, at least, from the year 1686, to the time his majesty left this kingdom, if not later, but it appears that he was there, by his own letters wrote from thence to the earl of Middleton.

After this last comedy, we meet with no more he ever wrote for the stage; however, there are preserved some letters of his in prose, published among a collection of Familiar Letters, by John earl of Rochester; two of which, sent to the duke of Buckingham, have particular merit, both for the archness of the turns, and the acuteness of the observations. He gives his lordship a humorous description of some of the Germans, their excessive drunkenness; their plodding stupidity and offensive indelicacy; he complains that he has no companion in that part of the world, no Sir Charles Sedleys, nor Buckinghams, and what is still worse, even deprived of the happiness of a mistress, for, the women there, he says, are so coy, and so narrowly watched by their relations, that there is no possibility of accomplishing an intrigue. He mentions, however, one Monsieur Hoffman, who married a French lady, with whom he was very great, and after the calamitous accident of Mr. Hoffman's being drowned, he pleasantly describes the grief of the widow, and the methods he took of removing her sorrow, by an attempt in which he succeeded. These two letters discover the true character of Etherege, as well as of the noble person to whom they were sent, and mark them as great libertines, in speculation as in practice.

As for the other compositions of our author, they consist chiefly of little airy sonnets, smart lampoons, and smooth panegyrics. All that we have met with more than is here mentioned, of his writing in prose, is a short piece, entitled An Account of the Rejoicing at the Diet of Ratisbon, performed by Sir George Etherege, Knight, residing there from his Majesty of Great Britain, upon Occasion of the Birth of the Prince of Wales; in a Letter from himself, printed in the Savoy 1688. When our author died, the writers of his life have been very deficient; Gildon says, that after the Revolution, he followed his master into France, and died there, or very soon after his arrival in England from thence. But there was a report (say the authors of the Biograph. Brit. which they received from an ingenious gentleman)

that Sir George came to an untimely death, by an unlucky accident at Ratisbon, for, after having treated some company with a liberal entertainment at his house there, when he had taken his glass too freely, and, being through his great complaisance too forward, in waiting on his guests at their departure, flushed as he was, he tumbled down stairs, and broke his neck, and so fell a martyr to jollity and civility.

One of the earliest of our author's lesser poems, is that addressed to her Grace the Marchioness of Newcastle, after reading her poems, and as it is esteemed a very elegant panegyric, we shall give the conclusion of it as a specimen.

While we, your praise, endeavouring to rehearse,
Pay that great duty in our humble verse;
Such as may justly move your anger, now,
Like Heaven forgive them, and accept them too.
But what we cannot, your brave hero pays,
He builds those monuments we strive to raise;
Such as to after ages shall make known,
While he records your deathless fame his own:
So when an artist some rare beauty draws,
Both in our wonder there, and our applause.
His skill, from time secures the glorious dame,
And makes himself immortal in her fame.

Besides his Songs, little panegyrical Poems and Sonnets, he wrote two Satires against Nell Gwyn, one of the King's mistresses, though there is no account how a quarrel happened between them; the one is called Madam Nelly's Complaint, beginning,

If Sylla's ghost made bloody Cat'line start.

The other is called the Lady of Pleasure, with its Argument at the Head of it, whereof the first line is,

The life of Nelly truly shewn.

Sir George spent a life of ease, pleasure, and affluence, at least never was long, nor much, exposed to want. He seems to have possessed a sprightly genius, to have had an excellent turn for comedy, and very happy in a courtly dialogue. We have no proof of his being a scholar, and was rather born, than made a poet. He has not escaped the censure of the critics; for his works are so extremely loose and licentious, as to render them dangerous to young, unguarded minds: and on this account our witty author is, indeed, justly liable to the severest censure of the virtuous, and sober part of mankind.

Horace Walpole (essay date 1775-76)

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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 dialogue. The same age produced almost the best comedy we have, though liable to the same reprehension: The Man of Mode shines as our first genteel comedy; the touches are natural and delicate, and never overcharged. Unfortunately the tone of the most fashionable people was extremely indelicate; and when Addison, in the Spectator, anathematised this play, he forgot that it was rather a satire on the manners of the court, than an apology for them. Less licentious conversation would not have painted the age.

Thomas Davies (essay date 1784)

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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 witty Earl of Dorset, and Wilmot Earl of Rochester. This character is properly the first fine gentleman of the English stage; a more gay and spirited man of pleasure has not been drawn since, unless we except the Sir Harry Wildair of Farquhar. …

S. T. Coleridge (essay date 1812)

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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 any offence from it. Some years ago, I for the first time saw it represented in one of the London Theatres; and such were the horror and disgust with which it imprest me, so grossly did it outrage all the best feelings of my nature, that even the angelic voice, and perfect science of Mrs Billington, lost half its charms, or rather increased my aversion to the piece by an additional sense of incongruity. Then I learnt the immense difference between reading and seeing a play … no wonder, indeed. For who has not passed over with his eye a hundred passages without offence, which he yet could not have even read aloud, or have heard so read by another person, without an inward struggle? In mere passive silent reading the thoughts remain mere thoughts, and these too not our own … phantoms with no attribute of place, no sense of appropriation, that flit over the consciousness as shadows over the grass or young corn in an April day. But even the sound of our own or another's voice takes them out of that lifeless, twilight realm of idea, which is the confine, the intermundium, as it were, of existence and non-existence. Merely that the thoughts have become audible, by blending with them a sense of outness gives them a sort of reality. What then when by every contrivance of scenery, appropriate dresses, accordant and auxiliary looks, and gestures, and the variety of persons on the stage, realities are employed to carry the imitation of reality as near as possible to perfect delusion? If a manly modesty shrinks from uttering an indecent phrase before a wife or sister in a private room, what must be the effect when a repetition of such treasons (for all gross and libidinous allusions are emphatically treasons against the very foundations of human society, against all its endearing charities, and all the mother virtues) is hazarded before a mixed multitude in a public theatre? When every innocent female must blush at once with pain at the thoughts she rejects, and with indignant shame at those, which the foul hearts of others may attribute to her!

Thus too with regard to the comedies of Wycherly, Vanburgh, and Etherege, I used to please myself with the flattering comparison of the manners universal at present among all classes above the lowest with those of our ancestors even of the highest ranks. But if for a moment I think of those comedies, as having been acted, I lose all sense of comparison in the shame, that human nature could at any time have endured such outrages to its dignity; and if conjugal affection and the sweet name of sister were too weak, that yet Filial Piety, the gratitude for a Mother's holy love, should not have risen and hissed into infamy these traitors to their own natural gifts, who lampooned the noblest passions of humanity in order to pander for its lowest appetites.

As far, however, as one bad thing can be palliated by comparison with a worse, this may be said, in extenuation of these writers; that the mischief, which they can do even on the stage, is trifling compared with that style of writing which began in the pesthouse of French literature, and has of late been imported by the Littles of the age, which consists in a perpetual tampering with the morals without offending the decencies. And yet the admirers of these publications, nay, the authors themselves, have the assurance to complain of Shakespear (for I will not refer to one yet far deeper blasphemy)—Shakespear, whose most objectionable passages are but grossnesses against lust, and these written in a gross age; while three fourths of their whole works are delicacies for its support and sustenance. Lastly, that I may leave the reader in better humour with the name at the head of this article, I shall quote one scene from Etherege's Love in a Tub, which for exquisite, genuine, original humour, is worth all the rest of his plays, though two or three of his witty contemporaries were thrown in among them, as a make-weight. The scene might be entitled, “the different ways in which the very same story may be told, without any variation in matter of fact”: for the least attentive reader will perceive the perfect identity of the Footboy's account with the Frenchman's own statement in contradiction of it.




I wonder Sir Frederick stays out so late.
Dis is noting; six, seven o'clock in the morning is ver good hour.
I hope he does not use these hours often.
Some six, seven time a veek; no oftiner.
My Lord commanded me to wait his coming.
Matré Clark, to diverstise you, I vill tell you, how I did get be acquainted vid dis Bedlam Matré. About two, tree year ago me had for my convenience discharge myself from attending [Enter a Foot boy] as Matré D'ostel to a person of condition in Parie; it happen after de dispatch of my little affairé———
That is, after h'ad spent his money, Sir.
Jan foutré de Lacque; me vil have de vip and de belle vor your breeck, rogue.
Sir, in a word, he was a Jack-pudding to a Mountebank, and turned off for want of wit: my master picked him up before a puppit-show, mumbling a half-penny custard, to send him with a letter to the post.
Morbleu, see, see de insolence of de foot-boy English, bogre, rascale, you lie, begar I vil cutté your Troaté.


He's a rogue; on with your story, Monsieur.
Matré Clark, I am your ver humble serviteur; but begar me have no patience to be abusé. As I did say, afte de dispatché of my Affairé, van day being idele, vich does producé de mellanchollique, I did valké over de new bridge in Parie, and to devertise de time, and my more serious toughté, me did look to see de marrioneté, and de jack-pudding, vich did play hundred pretty trické, time de collation vas come; and vor I had no company, I vas unvilling to go to de Cabareté, but did buy a darriolé, littel custardé vich did satisfie my appetite ver vel: in dis time young Monsieur de Grandvil (a jentelman of ver great quality, van dat vas my ver good friendé, and has done me ver great and insignal faveure) come by in his caroché, vid dis Sir Frolick, who did pention at the same academy, to learn de language, de bon mine, de great horse, and many oder trické; Monsieur seeing me did make de bowe, and did beken me come to him: he did tellè me dat de Englis jentelman had de Letré vor de posté, and did entreaté me (if I had de oppertunity) to see de letré deliver: he did tellé me too, it vold be ver great obligation: de memory of de faveur I had received from his famelyé, beside de inclination I naturally have to servé de strangeré, made me to returné de complemen vid ver great civility, and so I did take de letré and see it deliveré. Sir Frolick perceiving (by de management of dis affairé) dat I was man d'esprit, and of Vitté, did entreaté me to be his serviteur; me did take d'affection to his personé, and vas contenté to live vid him, to counsel and advisé him. You see now de lie of de bougre de lacque Englishe, Morbleu.

Robert Bell (essay date 1865)

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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 either read or acted, nobody has thought it worth while to disturb a verdict, in the justice or injustice of which the world takes little interest; and Etherege has accordingly come down to us as a loose, easy dramatist, who was master of a certain airy way of making his characters talk, but who was altogether wanting in the power of putting them into action.

This judgment has been too hastily adopted. Etherege's comedies are essentially comedies of manners. They seize the fleeting colours on the surface of society, and dispose them on the canvas with a corresponding gaiety of tint and lightness of hand. A weightier treatment would be inconsistent with the aims of those brilliant and volatile productions. There is not much bustle in any of them; but there is everywhere a progressive movement which, worked out with quiet skill in its attenuated details, always rises to a climax at the close. Modern audiences, spoiled by coarser excitements for the carte and tierce of wit, would, probably, consider the dialogue tedious and languid; and the disorderly episodes that delighted the Londoners of the seventeenth century, who recognised their fidelity, would now be endured with impatience, if, indeed, they would be endured at all. Compared with the more advanced comedy of later times, which embraces a wider range of life, presented in more active development, the romping, dissipated comedy of Etherege must be admitted to be diffuse and tame. It has no startling effects. There are no violent transitions or unexpected situations. It never deals in sentiment; and wherever a scrap of seriousness crops up it generally looks like a sly touch of burlesque. The plot, slender as it is, sometimes stands still for half a scene together to let the scapegraces have full swing for their wicked pleasantries; and the current foibles and vices are often lashed in a round of repartees to the suspension of an intrigue, for the certain issue of which the audience are quite willing to be kept waiting on such agreeable terms. Now all this prodigality of the animal spirits, this trusting to impulse rather than to rule, and the setting up of headlong enjoyment above the canons of art, which would be fatal to a comedy of our day, if there were nothing more solid to depend upon, are vital elements in a comedy of manners of the age of Charles II. We must test such plays by the contemporary standard; and, tried by that test, Etherege is at the head of his class.

But it is a mistake to suppose that these comedies are deficient in plot. They have as much plot as they want, or as they could bear. They abound in sprightly incidents, are constructed with considerable ingenuity, considering the fragility of their texture, and are remarkable for the unity and compactness of such action as there is. If the scenes do not always advance the story, they never fail to heighten the colouring; and it would not be easy to retrench them without doing injury to the general effect. Nor should it be overlooked that the story is, by intention, of minor importance in these pieces. In that sense at least they fulfil one of the severest conditions of dramatic art by relying upon Expectation, which is the highest source of interest, in preference to Surprise, which is the lowest. Mysteries or sudden turns of fortune never enter into their design. There are no secrets in them to be kept from the audience. Everything that is done is clear, and everything that is coming is the obvious sequel of what has gone before. The audiences, consequently, who witnessed these plays, knowing what was going to happen quite as well as the author, were not impatient about the catastrophe, and, therefore, could afford to listen at ease to the dialogue.

Sir George Etherege wrote three comedies, the first of which, The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub, was produced at the Duke's Theatre, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, in 1664. He was then about twenty-eight years of age, had not long returned from a tour in France, and had just relinquished the study of the law for the more dazzling attractions of fashionable life. The date of the production of The Comical Revenge determines his position as the founder of English comedy. During the four years that had elapsed since the re-opening of the theatres, the plays acted were nearly all revivals; and the few new pieces produced, such as The Adventures of Five Hours, either owed their origin to foreign sources or were composed of mixed and heterogeneous materials. The Comical Revenge was the first prose comedy that embodied living manners, and reflected back from the stage the habits of the people. Shadwell did not produce his first comedy, The Sullen Lovers—a piece adapted to English modes rather than drawn from them—till 1668, after Etherege's second comedy had appeared; nor did Shadwell acquire distinction as a writer of comedies, notwithstanding the success of his début, for three or four years afterwards, when Etherege was at the height of his reputation. Wycherley's first comedy, Love in a Wood, came out in 1672, eight years after The Comical Revenge; Congreve's Old Bachelor in 1693; and Vanbrugh did not appear as a writer for the stage till 1697. These dates are important, as enabling us to trace to its source that form of pure English comedy whose descending stream has been enriched by the contributions of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, Farquhar, and Sheridan. “The dawn,” observes Mr. Hazlitt, speaking of this style of comedy, “was in Etherege, as its latest close was in Sheridan;” and with this passing recognition he dismisses a claim to priority which a little closer examination would have led him to acknowledge with a larger measure of justice.

Etherege's second comedy, She Would if She Could, was produced at the same theatre, and played by the same actors, in 1668. It was not so successful as the first, although it exhibits some structural improvement.

His third comedy, The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter, was brought out at Dorset Gardens in 1676. Wycherley had produced all his comedies, except The Plain Dealer; Sedley had launched his Mulberry Garden; Shadwell had followed up The Sullen Lovers with three pieces, including the Epsom Wells; and this form of drama had by this time become familiar to the public. In the school which Etherege had himself founded, skilful competitors had appeared, and become established favourites; and it is, therefore, the more worthy of note that this, his last production, was not only his best, but, as a picture of existing society, the most perfect comedy of the age. It is in this particular excellence that Etherege is to be distinguished above all other writers who attempted to transfer the living manners to the stage. He is excelled by Wycherley in greater attributes; but he is incontestably superior to him in the closeness and high finish of his contemporary portraiture. In those qualities none of the dramatists of the Restoration will bear comparison with him. Shadwell's comedies are more crowded with local allusions; but they belong to a lower and ruder order of dramatic writing. Remarkable for audacious invention and prodigious variety, they are no less remarkable for want of symmetry and glaring defects of judgment. They served the fugitive purpose, however, for which they were written, and the very disorder that runs through them was probably one of the secrets of their popularity. But they made no permanent impression on the literature of the stage, supplied no models for study or imitation, and are now never read, except when some industrious antiquary consults their pages for the curious light they throw on extinct habits and fashions. Etherege, on the other hand, although he produced only three comedies—about a fifth of the number bequeathed to us by Shadwell—imparted a permanent character to that form of composition, and created materials out of which many subsequent reputations have been built without acknowledgment. Even Farquhar lies under large obligations to Etherege; and the lineage of most of the fine gentlemen of modern comedy may be distinctly traced back to the Man of Mode. Much of the special merit of these pieces, their comparative refinement in an age of grossness, their disciplined taste, and authentic tone of high breeding, may be referred to the fact that Etherege lived in the circles whose modes he described, and was himself one of the most accomplished men of fashion at the Court of Charles II.

Following the order of production, for the sake of showing the course of Etherege's genius, from its first step to its highest point of development, we will begin with the Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub. This comedy offers a striking contrast to the other two, in so far as it is addressed to a different phase of society. We have not to deal here merely with fine ladies and gentlemen. The main interest lies in an opposite direction, the intention being to exhibit in a broad light the roarers, scourers, cheats, and gamblers who infested the town, and made the taverns ring day and night with their riots. Mixed up with these rampant scenes is a pure love story, treated more gravely and earnestly than usual. This love story is the weakest part of the comedy. Etherege was out of his element in a true passion, and, as if he were conscious of the defect, he endeavours to make up for the want of real emotion by turgid declamation. There are two sisters, with romantic names to help them through their tender difficulties—Graciana and Aurelia. Colonel Bruce, a gallant cavalier, is in love with Graciana, who has bestowed her affections upon Lord Beaufort, a walking gentleman of the seventeenth century. The rivals fight a duel on the stage, and the Colonel is disarmed. Resolved not to survive the loss of his mistress, he falls on his sword, and is severely wounded. Carried in bleeding to the house of the lady's father, he discovers that Aurelia, who had magnanimously urged his suit with her sister, has all the time secretly loved him; whereupon he displays a nobility of soul worthy of Bayard himself, by at once relieving Graciana from his importunities, and transferring his affections to Aurelia. The passage in which this evolution is performed, affords a fair sample of that spurious coinage which passed current for the true metal with audiences to whom honourable love was little more than a myth.

Graciana, I have lost my claim to you,
And now my heart's become Aurelia's due;
She all this while within her tender breast,
The flame of love has carefully suppressed,
Courting for me, and striving to destroy
Her own contentment to advance my joy.
I did no more than honour pressed me to;
I wish I'ad wooed successfully for you.
You so excel in honour and in love,
You both my shame and admiration move.
Aurelia, here, accept that life from me,
Which heaven so kindly has preserved for thee.(1)

This meretricious glitter, lacquering such remarkably shabby verse, would have been intolerable from sheer dreariness, but for a humorous underplot, crowded with absurdities, to which it acts as a foil. Sir Nicholas Cully, one of Oliver's knights, is the hero of the low comedy life, or more properly, the broad farce, of the play. He is an unmistakable gull, with a sufficient touch of cunning in him to make him a rogue when occasion serves; a genuine sot of the old, absolute stamp—a swilling, vapouring, country fool; the type of a class of sensual, sweltering ninnies, that abounded at the time, and were remorselessly choused and fleeced by town sharpers through their egregious vanity and love of drink. Whenever he appears, this consummate ass throws the stage into an uproar, kicks the drawers before him with monstrous oaths, is perpetually bellowing out for more wine and music, and is altogether so outrageous and contemptible a wittol, that when Sir Frederic Frolic dupes him into a marriage with his cast-off mistress, under pretence that she is his sister, and then, the cheat being disclosed, advises him to take her down into the country, where she will be sure to pass current amongst his neighbours for a very honest, well-bred woman, one cannot help feeling that the wife, with all her drawbacks, has the worst of the bargain.2

The Sullen of Farquhar is a lineal descendant of Sir Nicholas Cully, and closely resembles him—with a difference. Sullen lacks the active principle that makes Cully turbulent and uproarious. His constitution is not so robust. With Sullen all the vigour is soaked away in tobacco and sleep. Cully is a harder drinker, although he, too, sometimes sinks under it, as when he talks of marrying a widow whom, in his cups, he has mistaken for another woman. “Widow, Sir Frederic shall be one of our bride men; I will have none but such mad fellows at our wedding;—but before I marry thee, I will consider upon it,” and then, by way of considering upon it, he sits down and falls asleep. But his faculties, as far as he has any, are wide awake up to the last moment of speech, and he is no sooner roused than he bursts out as tempestuous as ever. He never complains, like Sullen, of headache and nausea. He is superior to such infirmities. He has not stupified himself with ale; and seems to have got something of the ruddy sunshine of the grape into his nature, only rendered a little muddy now and then by the lees. He is more genial than Sullen; is subject to none of his moods of spleen and brutality; and, although his notions about women are barbarous enough, he regards them through a bacchanalian medium which, at least, makes him treat them more hilariously. In nervous energy he is the representative of the great profligates of the time: his frame is capable of sustaining an incessant round of dissipation, and his animal spirits are inexhaustible. However offensive such a portrait would be on the modern stage, we can easily imagine the popularity that attended it two hundred years ago. There was a provocation to enjoyment even in the name of this boisterous fool, which was much the same as if we were now to put a rich country booby into a play, and call him Sir Nicholas Goose.

The brawls of Cully and his companions are set off by the more fashionable licentiousness of Sir Frederic Frolic, the fine gentleman of the piece—an inferior variety of the genus Dorimant, which was to be brought to full perfection in a future comedy. The first scene plunges at once into the town life, introducing the hero with a flourish of preliminaries, which has been imitated with sundry modifications by subsequent dramatists. Sir Frederic is a pattern rake. He passes his days in adventures with ladies, and his nights in the taverns, seldom finding his way home before six or seven o'clock in the morning. The play begins at noon in his lodgings. He had been out as usual, the night before, carousing after the play. From the tavern he had proceeded to knock up a frail acquaintance at the unseasonable hour of two o'clock, and, being denied admittance, he finished his exploits by breaking the windows and fighting the constables. When the scene opens, his French valet comes into the ante-chamber with a plaister on his head, complaining of his master's conduct; when presently Sir Frederic makes his appearance in a morning gown. This is a key to the whole play; ‘and it makes a capital dramatic opening, which has been appropriated in several modern comedies. But the age of window-breaking and constable-beating is at an end; and the pictures of extinct manners we find in this piece, although very curious to the reader, no longer possess any interest for the spectator.

Notwithstanding his “sorrow and repentance” in the first act, Sir Frederic knocks up a respectable widow in the third, with a rout of link-boys and fiddlers; and the widow, who is not disinclined towards him, lets him in rather than alarm the neighbours and bring a scandal on the house. It is a choice of evils, and she risks her honour to save her reputation. But the adventure leads to nothing; for the lady has no sooner got him into the house, and appeased the uproar, than she very coolly dismisses him to the streets again. This oscillation between impetuous pursuit on the one side, and encouraging repulses on the other, keeps up the movement of the play to the end, when it settles down into the usual contract, with stringent stipulations for future good behaviour.

The second title of Love in a Tub is taken from a single scene, of a thoroughly farcical kind, which has so little to do with the plot that it might be advantageously left out. The French valet makes love to a chambermaid, and after drinking himself asleep is put into a tub with a hole in it for his head, and in this helpless condition he ramps about the stage, swearing and sputtering, to the infinite merriment of the Abigails who have put the trick upon him. Devices of this absurd description are common to this whole class of plays, and are generally so preposterous that one wonders how they could have been endured.

Upon the whole, this comedy is not very artistically put together. The scenes are too detached, and do not always help the progress of the action. There are two hostile meetings on the stage—one serious, and the other humorous. In the former, a duel is fought out before the audience, and the vanquished man and his second, after being fairly overcome, attempt to fall upon their swords—rather too grim an effect for comedy; and in the latter, the coward yields to the bully, and grants his conditions rather than engage. But although the scenes are strongly contrasted, the repetition of the same incident, however varied in treatment, is a blemish in art.

Pepys, whose judgment in these matters is not always so critical, had a poor opinion of The Comical Revenge. He describes it as “very merry, but only so in gesture, not wit at all.” At another time, seeing it played at Whitehall by the Duke's people, he speaks of it as “a silly play,” and adds, “the whole thing being done ill, and being ill also, I had no manner of pleasure in it.” As it is one of those plays that materially depend for their effects on the free humours and high spirits of the actors, the flatness of its performance may, possibly, be attributable to the restraint the players felt themselves under in the presence of the Court, for the cast was exactly the same that had unprecedented success at Lincoln's Inn Fields, the comedy having brought no less than £1,000 to the house in the course of a month. The play was, indeed, so great a “hit,” that it raised the popularity of all the actors concerned in it, especially of Nokes, whose Sir Nicholas Cully was considered his masterpiece. All the parts were in skilful hands; Betterton was the Lord Beaufort (a character much beneath his subsequent reputation), Harris Sir Frederic Frolic, Prince the French valet, and Mrs. Betterton and Mrs. Davis were amongst the ladies.

The Comical Revenge was followed four years afterwards by She Would if She Could, which was not successful, although it had the advantage of the same excellent actors. The idea attempted to be developed in this play is indicated clearly enough in the title. The wife of a country knight, who has outlived her attractions, but not her vanity (to express the lady's weakness inoffensively), lays open siege to a young town gallant, who humours her wishes only to disappoint them, while he prosecutes his designs in another quarter. There is more grossness in the language and conduct of this play than in either of Etherege's other comedies; but in invention it is superior to both, The broad humour is contributed by two country knights, who are resolved to make the most of their visit to London, and are detected in their unlawful indulgences by the ladies of their families. The ladies are themselves engaged in similar courses, and, in order to avert exposure, they adroitly turn the tables on the gentlemen. There is an ingenious situation where they all meet at the “Bear” in Drury Lane, which, unknown to each other, they had selected for their rendezvous; and another, where Lady Cockwood, perpetually frustrated in her object by Courtal, writes notes in the names of her young kinswomen to make an appointment in Spring Gardens with Courtal and his friend Freeman, and then surprises them together. Lady Cockwood's character is abominable enough, but it is full of humour. Her method of managing her husband, and persuading him that she is a woman of exemplary virtue and devoted affection, is irresistibly comical. The imbroglio in the last scene, with the two gallants shut up in a closet (a situation often borrowed, and altered to suit circumstances), and the audacity of the explanations by which the honour of the wife is saved, all suspicions cleared up, and everybody enabled to come off handsomely at the conclusion, are happily contrived.

Some of the usual extravagances are interwoven with the plot to amuse the galleries. Of this description is the stratagem resorted to by Lady Cockwood to keep her husband at home, while she goes out to an appointment with Courtal. The trick consists in locking up his clothes, and leaving him only what she calls his “penitential suit,” a ridiculous costume she forces him to wear, by way of punishment for having been drunk the night before, just as a fool's-cap is put upon a naughty boy at school. The husband, however, is persuaded by his friend, the other tipsy knight, to go to a tavern, and his appearance abroad in this ludicrous dress is a source of infinite mirth to the rest of the characters.

Altogether, we have few examples in English comedy of so much clever mechanism wrought out of such slender materials; but unfortunately the play is so saturated with licentiousness as to render all this constructive skill mere waste and abuse. The laxity of public morals is here presented with startling candour. The whole business of the scene is illicit pleasure. There is not a single person concerned, from the young ladies who come up to town with roses in their cheeks, to the experienced rake-hells into whose arms they are ready to throw themselves, that is not engaged in the same pursuit. The ordinary comedy of intrigue has generally some relief; there is none in She Would if She Could. It is intrigue from first to last. Even the young ladies enter into it with avidity, although it must be admitted to their credit that they betray a little fright when they find matters growing serious.

Pepys was present at the first representation of this comedy, and it appears from his account of its reception that the audience, who came in great crowds to see it, went away disappointed both with the play and the actors.3 This was on the 6th February, 1667-8:—

My wife being gone before, I to the Duke of York's playhouse, where a new play of Etherege's, called She Would if She Could; and though I was there by two o'clock, there was one thousand people put back that could not have room in the pit; and I at last, because my wife was there, made shift to get into the 18d. box, and there saw; but, Lord! how full was the house, and how silly the play, there being nothing in the world good in it, and few people pleased in it. The king was there; but I sat mightly behind, and could see but little, and hear not all. The play being done, I into the pit to look for my wife, it being dark and raining, but could not find her, and so staid going between the two doors and through the pit an hour and half, I think, after the play was done; the people staying there till the rain was over, and to talk with one another. And, among the rest, the Duke of Buckingham to-day openly sat in the pit; and there I found him with my Lord Buckhurst, and Sedley, and Etherege, the poet; the last of whom I did hear mightily find fault with the actors, that they were out of humour, and had not their parts perfect, and that Harris did do nothing, nor could so much as sing a ketch in it;4 and so was mightily concerned; while all the rest did, through the whole pit, blame the play as a silly, dull thing, though there was something very roguish and witty; but the design of the play, and end, mightily insipid.5

This passage is interesting in two or three points of view. It lets us into the interior of the playhouse, and enables us to see what sort of place it was, with all the celebrities “assisting” at the inauguration of the new piece, and the fine company flocking down from the boxes into the pit when the play was over, weather-bound and waiting for their “Flemish barbs,” and glad of an excuse for a lounge amongst the wits, to pick up stray crumbs of scandal, and a little criticism. It shows us also something of the life of the stage; the imperfect study and ill-humours of the actors—Harris especially, who had a leading part, one of the ramping, uproarious country knights, yet could not sing a catch in it; the excitement of a first representation, drawing so great a concourse to the house that a thousand people were turned away from the doors, and Pepys himself, although he went so early as two o'clock, being obliged to put up with a back seat in the 18d. box, where he could see little and hear nothing; and, still more characteristic of a scene repeated often enough from that time to this, the mortification of the author condemned to see his play spoiled in the acting. And here, too, we have Etherege in his true position amongst the men of taste and fashion, who gave a tone to the literature of the day, and were themselves the principal persons to whom the stage held up its mirror.

The next, and last, is the greatest of Etherege's works. All the characters in The Man of Mode are now the common property, under different modifications, of many plays. But here these stock figures are for the most part new, and contain the germs of suggestions which later writers have expanded and adapted to other circumstances. Dorimant, the universal gallant of the piece, the prince of intriguers, dashing, handsome, irresistibly impudent, and adding to the rest of his fascinations the prestige of a most dangerous reputation, is the progenitor of the Belcours, Doricourts, and a score of brilliant heroes of modern comedy, lacking only those sentimental qualities which were considered necessary some sixty years ago to balance the recklessness of youth, but which would have taken off all its piquancy in the days of the Restoration. Dorimant is not wholly unredeemed, however, by a touch of grace, for after betraying two ladies, he settles down in marriage with a third, the sting of the moral being that the ladies he has undone are reconciled to his desertion by the consideration that he has abandoned them, not for a mistress, but a wife. This desperate refuge of a profligate philosophy lets us a little into the social ethics of the time. When a man married, instead of being shut out from the wild pleasures of the town, he became a sort of licensed libertine, and was more in favour than ever, especially when it was thought desirable, which was seldom the case, to consult appearances. The last woman in the world a mistress would be jealous of was the wife of her lover. It seemed, indeed, to be quite true, as a married roué says in one of these comedies, when he is following up an amour, that “marriage is the least engagement of all, for that only points out where a man cannot love.”6

This lax doctrine was carried down traditionally in our popular comedies long after, it is to be hoped, the practice of it had gone into disuse, and was last openly proclaimed under the régime of Garrick, subsequently to which it appears to have given way before a stricter code of domestic morality.

The other characters are a couple of young fellows about town, an old gentleman from the country, and the usual supply of ladies at cross-purposes, and bent upon adventures, with a dash of reserve and prudence thrown in amongst them in the persons of a suspicious mother and, what must have been regarded by most people as an anomalous hybrid, a respectable woman of fashion.

The old gentleman, although he has very little to do, stands out prominently from the rest. We are now so familiar with the portrait of prurient senility on the stage that we must keep in view the chronology of these plays in order to do full justice to the merits of the conception. But with a hundred copies of Old Bellair before us, the rich colouring of the original eclipses them all. Not wanting in sense, he betrays the folly of age only in the dawdling imbecility of a liquorish tooth; and this constitutional weakness is brought into play by his taking a violent fancy to a young girl, and making love to her with an hysterical gusto which has often been imitated, but rarely without degenerating into caricature. His delight is to chirp up to her, and then retreat from her, chuckling and pretending to chide her with a “Go—you're a rogue, you're a rogue;—dod, I can't abide you—I can't abide you!” When he is suddenly called off the scene, he cries out to one of the young sparks who are paying court to her, and laughing in their sleeves at him, “A-dod, what does she say? Hit her a pat for me there!” A vice so ludicrously peccant, and so liable to be overcharged, must have run into mere drivelling grossness in the hands of most of these dramatists—of which we have, indeed, plenty of examples; but it is restrained by Etherege within such careful limits, and regulated with such a judicious regard for the more rational features of the character, as to become a perfectly natural bit of genuine comic humour.

The great part is Sir Fopling Flutter, who gives the title to the play. Upon this elaborate fribbler Etherege has bestowed infinite pains, and the result is the most consummate coxcomb in the repertory of an age when the species were as common as flies in summer. All our stage fops and male coquets trace their lineage to this early exquisite, who overshadows the whole tribe by the costliness of his style and the surpassing self-satisfaction of his bearing. Sir Fopling is a special product of the period; the type of that class of travelled popinjays that brought home to England, in the train of Charles II., the most egregious follies and vanities of France. He has just arrived from Paris, and presents in his person a complete reflection of the extremity of the mode. His costume is a picture of the newest fashions carried to the height of the prevailing extravagance; and its details, which are enumerated with scrupulous minuteness, reveal all the secrets of a fine gentleman's toilet. His periwig is “more exactly curled than a lady's head newly dressed for a ball;” he wears a pair of fringed and perfumed gloves that stretch up to his elbows; every article upon him is of Paris make—the suit by Barroy, the garniture by Le Gras, the shoes by Piccar, the mountainous periwig by Chedreux,7 and the gloves by Orangerii, always to be detected by their peculiar odour; knots, tassels, and ribbons stream from every available point of his body; he is literally steeped in scents; he carries his head on one side with the languishing air of a lady lolling in her coach, or angling for admirers from her box at the play; and his mincing conversation, which is the moral counterpart of his dress and action, acquires zest from a pretty lisp which he has studied and practised till it has become indispensable to the expression of his thoughts. Dryden, in his admirable epilogue to the comedy, gives a sketch of Sir Fopling, which, for what it is, is as good as the character itself. He describes him as the representative of the whole race of fops, and as being composed of features selected from a variety of originals.

Yet none Sir Fopling him, or him, can call,
He's knight o' th' shire, and represents ye all.
From each he meets he culls whate'er he can,
Legion's his name, a People in a Man.
His bulky folly gathers as it goes,
And, rolling o'er you, like a snow-ball grows.
His various modes from various fathers follow;
One taught the toss, and one the new French wallow.
His sword-knot this, his cravat this designed,
And this the yard-long snake he twirls behind.
From one the sacred periwig he gained,
Which wind ne'er blew nor touch of hat profaned.
Another's diving bow he did adore,
Which with a shog casts all the hair before;
'Till he with full decorum brings it back,
And rises with a water-spaniel's shake.

This illustrious fop brings before us in colours that will never fade one of those portraits of bygone manners which are entitled to be received as valuable contributions to the gallery of history.

Sir Fopling's share in the action of the comedy is not much. He is merely made use of as a set-off to promote the intrigues of others, he being allowed, all the time, to flatter his vanity with the belief that he is achieving conquests on his own account. It clearly would never have answered the purpose of the dramatist to suffer such a butterfly to carry off the éclat of a successful amour from any of the lusty wooers, who, in their sweeping licentiousness, represented the ascendant spirit of the time. Poor Sir Fopling, therefore, after parading his equipage in the Mall, with a retinue of six footmen and a page, for the purpose of making an impression on a lady who affects to be smitten by him merely to pique the triumphant Dorimant, is unceremoniously dismissed with contempt in the end. But he bears his humiliation like a gentleman, and consoles his wounded pride by resolving henceforth to dedicate himself, not to one woman, but to the whole sex. There is a grandeur in this view of the matter which was, probably, designed to appease the boxes, and reconcile the courtly part of the audience to the discomfiture of a character drawn from living originals in Whitehall.

In this comedy we have an example of that intrigue upon intrigue literally taking place, so to speak, in the open air, and conducted with the most peremptory frankness, which may be accepted as the express image of the scenes that were enacted every day in Spring Gardens, the Mall, the New Exchange, the China-houses, and other favourite places of resort. From the nature of the incidents, the scenes are unavoidably tinged with licentiousness; but they are singularly free from the gratuitous grossness which stained the bulk of the contemporary drama. Etherege threw into his dialogue a tone of society that gave it a certain softening air of refinement. He wrote upon the most dangerous themes like a gentleman.

The following scene will show how complete a master he was of stage art. The situation is constructed with remarkable skill. Old Bellair and Lady Woodvil having determined to force their son and daughter into a marriage, the young people plot together to contrive an escape from it, and have just hit upon the expedient of pretending to be in love with each other for the purpose of deceiving their tormentors and gaining time, when the father and mother make their appearance. The girl, although she professes to be a novice in such matters, falls into the plan with facility, and discovers an aptitude for improvised coquetry which must have been highly piquant in the acting.8 The whole scene is played aside.

Y. Bell.
Can you play your part?
I know not what 'tis to love; but I have made pretty remarks by being now and then where lovers meet. Where did you leave their gravities?
Y. Bell.
In the next room. Your mother was censuring our modern gallant.


Peace! Here they come. I will lean against this wall, and look bashfully down upon my fan, while you, like an amorous spark, modishly entertain me.
LADY Wood.
Never go about to excuse 'em; come, come, it was not so when I was a young woman.
OLD Bell.
A-dod; they're something disrespectful.
LADY Wood.
Quality was then considered, and not rallied by every fleering fellow.
OLD Bell.
Youth will have its jest, a-dod it will.
LADY Wood.
'Tis good breeding now to be civil to none but players and exchange women; they are treated by 'em as much above their condition, as others are below theirs.
OLD Bell.
Out a-pize on 'em,(9) talk no more, the rogues ha' got an ill habit of preferring beauty, no matter where they find it.
LADY Wood.
See your son and my daughter, they have improved their acquaintance since they were within.
OLD Bell.
A-dod, methinks they have! Let's keep back and observe.
Y. Bell.
Now for a look and gestures that may persuade 'em I am saying all the passionate things imaginable———
Your head a little more on one side; ease yourself on your left leg, and play with your right hand.
Y. Bell.
Thus; is it not?
Now set your right foot firm on the ground, adjust your belt, then look about you.
Y. Bell.
A little exercising will make me perfect.
Smile, and turn to me again very sparkish!
Y. Bell.
Will you take your turn, and be instructed?
With all my heart.
Y. Bell.
At one motion play your fan, roll your eyes, and then settle a kind look upon me.
Y. Bell.
Now spread your fan, look down upon it, and tell the sticks with a finger.
Very modish.
Y. Bell.
Clap your hand up to your bosom, hold down your gown, shrug a little, draw up your breasts, and let 'em fall again gently, with a sigh or two.
By the good instructions you give, I suspect you for one of those malicious observers who watch people's eyes, and from innocent looks make scandalous conclusions.
Y. Bell.
I know some, indeed, who out of mere love to mischief are as vigilant as jealousy itself, and will give you an account of every glance that passes at a play, and in the circle.
'Twill not be amiss now to seem a little pleasant.
Y. Bell.
Clap your fan then in both your hands; snatch it to your mouth, smile, and with a lively motion fling your body a little forwards. So—now spread it; fall back on the sudden, cover your face with it, and break out into a loud laughter—take up! look grave, and fall a fanning of yourself. Admirably well acted!
I think I am pretty apt at these matters.
OLD Bell.
A-dod I like this well.
LADY Wood.
This promises something.(10)

A fuller flavour of the comedy may be obtained from a scene of higher pretensions, in which Dorimant comes out in all the glory of his inconstancy. Wearied of his mistress, Mrs. Loveit, whose violent temper and inconvenient jealousy have worn out his patience, he prevails upon Belinda, her successor in his vagrant affections, to enter into a scheme for getting rid of her. The two ladies are intimate acquaintances, but love cancels all other considerations in the heart of Belinda, who is easily persuaded to accept Dorimant's sacrifice of her friend as a proof of his devotion to herself. It is arranged that Belinda shall pay a visit to Mrs. Loveit, and inflame her jealousy by a story of Dorimant's infidelities with another (who is in reality Belinda herself), and that Dorimant shall break in upon them when the lady is at the height of her fury, and make a pretext of her invectives to discard her on the spot. The conspiracy is sufficiently base; but we must take these people in their own way. We must not look to their conduct for instances of fidelity, nor to their professions for maxims of love. On the other hand, there was no assumption of that “sentimental French plate,” which Joseph Surface substitutes for the “silver ore of pure charity,” and which, he tells us, “makes quite as good a show, and pays no tax.” Everybody knew what they had to trust to in matters of this kind, and took the risk of the issue. Engagements such as that of Dorimant and Mrs. Loveit were regulated by an understood license, which greatly relieves our conscience in contemplating their ruthless violation. The lady could have expected nothing better from a man whose indiscriminate gallantries were so notorious; and, considering the general laxity to which he might have appealed for precedents, it is rather a sign of latent grace in Dorimant, that instead of outraging her pride by open desertion, he pays her the artful compliment of affecting to find in her own actions an excuse for his perfidy. A woman is naturally inclined to extract from such a situation whatever solace it may be made to yield; and the lover who throws upon her the sole responsibility of their separation leaves with her at least the miserable consolation, true or false, that she might have kept him if she had tried.

The scene is sustained with unflagging spirit and energy. The jealous rage of Mrs. Loveit, finding vent in torrents of abuse and despair, and the coolness and gaiety of Dorimant, floating triumphantly above the storm, present a striking opposition of temper, character, and circumstance. But this is merely the dramatic side of the picture. So mean a stratagem, conducted to so successful a close, would utterly revolt our better feelings, were it not that the moral which creeps out at the end, when Belinda expresses her fear that the lover who has acted so cruelly to another may one day act as treacherously to herself, goes some way, if not to redeem a little of the turpitude of the proceeding, at least to deprive it of complete impunity. In a more artificial age, when it would be necessary to propitiate the moral scruples of the audience, Belinda would have been made to exhibit remorse at the barbarous treatment she had brought upon her friend; but there is no affectation in these plays, and the only regret of which she is conscious, and to which she honestly confesses, is purely selfish—a slight, but significant, indication of the predominant sentiment that entered into such incidents in real life.

Etherege's intimate association with the Buckinghams, Dorsets, and Rochesters gives a special value to his comedies. He lived the life he painted, and represented in his own person all the experiences which other dramatists derived at second-hand. His plays have the direct impress of the lax high-breeding of the circles in which he moved. …


  1. Act v., sc. 5.

  2. In the last scene we have one of the numerous illustrations to be found in the Restoration comedies, of the indiscriminate mixture of women of character with others of tainted reputation. No less than two of these graceless ladies are brought in married to wind up the play, and join in the general wedding festivities with which it closes, the peculiar antecedents of the brides furnishing a characteristic joke to tag the whole.

  3. Dennis says that, although it was esteemed by men of sense for the trueness of some of its characters, and the purity, freeness, and easy grace of its dialogue, yet, on its first appearance, it was barbarously treated by the audience. Shadwell, it will be seen, ascribed its failure to the negligence of the actors, an opinion strongly expressed by Etherege himself.

  4. Harris played Sir Joslin Jolly, to whom nearly all the catches or snatches of song were given. Nokes, who had done wonders in Cully, was again fitted with a country knight; but, like most reproductions of a good thing, the second country knight was very inferior to his predecessor. Songs and dances were always introduced into the comedies of this period, and, being highly popular, often retrieved the credit of a new piece. Shadwell attributes the redemption of the Humourists from total condemnation to the success of a favourite figurante, “who, for four days together, beautified it with the most excellent dancings that had ever been seen upon the stage.”

  5. Others, it should be noted, held a different opinion. Shadwell, in his preface to the Humourists, threw the whole blame of its ill-success upon the actors. “The imperfect action,” he says, “had like to have destroyed She Would if She Could, which I think (and have the authority of some of the best judges in England for it) is the best comedy that has been written since the restoration of the stage; and eventually, for the imperfect representation of it at first, received such prejudice that, had it not been for the favour of the Court, in all probability it had never got up again; and it suffers for it, in a great measure, to this very day.” Philips, Gildon, and Langbaine also pronounce She Would if She Could one of the best comedies of the age.

  6. Shadwell's Epsom Wells.

  7. Extravagant periwigs were by no means the exclusive mark of the fribbler and the coxcomb, nor were they even confined to the laity. They were worn by vain clergymen. Pepys was horribly scandalised at seeing the Earl of Carlisle's curate preach in a flowing periwig.

  8. The name of the actress who played Harriet, at Dorset Gardens, is omitted from the cast, although the names of all the other performers are given. Jevon played Young Bellair; Betterton was the original Dorimant.

  9. Equivalent to “plague on 'em!”

  10. Act II., sc. 3.

Edmund W. Gosse (essay date 1881)

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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 stairs of his own house and breaking his neck after a banquet, these are the only particulars which can be said to be known, even to students of literature, concerning the career of a very remarkable writer. I shall endeavour to show in the following pages that the entire neglect of the three plays is an unworthy return for the singular part they enjoyed in the creation of modern English comedy; and I shall be able to prove that the one current anecdote of Etheredge's life has no foundation in fact whatever. At the same time I shall have the satisfaction of printing, mainly for the first time, and from MS. sources, a mass of biographical material which makes this dramatist, hitherto the shadowiest figure of his time, perhaps the one poet of the Restoration of whose life and character we know the most. The information I refer to has been culled from two or three fields. Firstly, from the incidental references to the author scattered in the less-known writings of his contemporaries; secondly, from an article published in 1750, and from MS. notes still unprinted, both from the pen of that “busy, curious, thirsty fly” of polite letters, the antiquarian Oldys; but mostly, and with far the greatest confidence, from a volume in the Manuscript Room of the British Museum, entitled The Letterbook of Sir George Etheredge, while he was Envoy Extraordinary at Ratisbon. This volume, which is in the handwriting of an un-named secretary, contains drafts of over one hundred letters from Etheredge, in English and French, a certain number of letters addressed to him by famous persons, some of his accounts, a hudibrastic poem on his character, and, finally, some extremely caustic letters, treacherously written by the secretary, to bring his master into bad odour in England. I cannot understand how so very curious and important a miscellany has hitherto been overlooked. It was bought by the British Museum in 1837, and, as far as I can find out, has been never referred to, or made use of in any way. It abounds with historical and literary allusions of great interest, and, as far as Etheredge is concerned, is simply a mine of wealth. Having premised so much, I will endeavour to put together, as concisely as possible, what I have been able to collect from all these sources.

On January 9, 1686, Etheredge addressed to the Earl of Middleton an epistle in octosyllabics, which eventually, in 1704, was printed in his Works. Readers of Dryden will recollect that a letter in verse to Sir George Etheredge by that poet has always been included in Dryden's poems, and that it begins:—

To you who live in chill degree,
As map informs, of fifty-three,
And do not much for cold atone
By bringing thither fifty-one.

That Etheredge was fifty-one at the date of this epistle has hitherto been of little service to us, since we could not tell when that letter was composed. The Letterbook, however, in giving us the date of Etheredge's epistle, to which Dryden's poem was an immediate answer, supplies us with an important item. If Etheredge was fifty-one in the early spring of 1686, he must have been born in 1634 or the first months of 1635. He was, therefore, a contemporary of Dryden, Roscommon, and Dorset, rather than, as has always been taken for granted, of the younger generation of Wycherley, Shadwell, and Rochester. Nothing is known of his family. Gildon, who knew him, reported that he belonged to an old Oxfordshire family, and, therefore, may probably have been a descendant of Dr. George Etheredge, the famous Greek and Hebrew scholar, who died about 1590, and whose family estate was at Thame. Oldys very vaguely conjectures that our dramatist was educated at Cambridge. Gildon states that for a little while he studied the law, but adds, what external and internal evidence combine to prove, that he spent much of his early manhood in France. My own impression is that from about 1658 to 1663 he was principally in Paris. His French, in prose and verse, is as fluent as his English; and his plays are full of allusions that show him to be intimately at home in Parisian matters. What in the other Restoration playwrights seems a Gallic affectation seems nature in him. My reason for supposing that he did not arrive in London at the Restoration, but a year or two later, is that he appears to have been absolutely unknown in London until his Comical Revenge was acted; and also because he shows in that play an acquaintance with the new school of French comedy. He seems to have possessed means of his own, and to have lived a thoroughly idle life, without aim or ambition, until, in 1664, it occurred to him, in his thirtieth year, to write a play.

At any critical moment in the development of a literature, events follow one another with such headlong speed, that I must be forgiven if I am a little tiresome about the sequence of dates. According to all the bibliographers, old and new, Etheredge's first play was She Would if She Could, 1668, immediately followed by The Comical Revenge, first printed in 1669. If this were the case, the claim of Etheredge to critical attention would be comparatively small. Oldys, however, mentions that he had heard of, but never seen, an edition of this latter play of 1664. Neither Langbaine, Gildon, or any of their successors believe in the existence of such a quarto, nor is a copy to be found in the British Museum. However, I have been so fortunate as to pick up two copies of this mythical quarto of 1664, the main issue of which I suppose to have been destroyed by some one of the many accidents that befell London in that decade, and Etheredge's precedence of all his more eminent comic contemporaries is thus secured. The importance of this date, 1664, is rendered still more evident when we consider that it constitutes a claim for its author for originality in two distinct kinds. The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub, which was acted at the Duke of York's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, in the summer of 1664, is a tragicomedy, of which the serious portions are entirely written in rhymed heroics, and the comic portions in prose. The whole question of the use of rhyme in English drama has been persistently misunderstood, and its history misstated. In Mr. George Saintsbury's new life of Dryden, for the first time, the subject receives due critical attention, and is approached with the necessary equipment. But while I thoroughly agree with Mr. Saintsbury's view of the practice, I think something may be added from the purely historical side. The fashion of rhyme in the drama, then, to be exact, flourished from 1664 until Lee and Dryden returned to blank verse in 1678. Upon this it suddenly languished, and after being occasionally used until the end of the century, found its last example in Sedley's Beauty the Conqueror, published in 1702. The customary opinion that both rhymed dramatic verse and the lighter form of comedy were introduced simultaneously with the Restoration is one of those generalisations which are easily made and slavishly repeated, but which fall before the slightest historical investigation. When the drama was reorganised in 1660, it reappeared in the old debased forms, without the least attempt at novelty. Brome and Shirley had continued to print their plays during the Commonwealth, and in Jasper Mayne had found a disciple who united, without developing, their merits or demerits. During the first years of the Restoration the principal playwrights were Porter, a sort of third-rate Brome, Killegrew, an imitator of Shirley, Stapylton, an apparently lunatic person, and Sir William Lower, to whom is due the praise of having studied French contemporary literature with great zeal, and of having translated Corneille and Quinault. Wherever these poetasters ventured into verse, they displayed such an incompetence as has never before or since disgraced any coterie of considerable writers. Their blank verse was simply inorganic, their serious dialogue a sort of insanity, their comedy a string of pothouse buffooneries and preposterous “humours.” Dryden, in his Wild Gallant, and a very clever dramatist, Wilson, who never fulfilled his extraordinary promise, tried in 1663 to revive the moribund body of comedy, but always in the style of Ben Jonson; and finally, in 1664, came the introduction of rhymed dramatic verse. For my own part, I frankly confess that I think it was the only course that it was possible to take. The blank iambics of the romantic dramatists had become so execrably weak and distended, the whole movement of dramatic verse had grown so flaccid, that a little restraint in the severe limits of rhyme was absolutely necessary. It has been too rashly taken for granted that we owe the introduction of the new form to Dryden. It is true that in the 1664 preface to The Rival Ladies, a play produced on the boards in the winter of 1663, Dryden recommends the use of rhyme in heroic plays, and this fact, combined with the little study given to Dryden's dramas, has led the critics to take for granted that that play is written in rhyme. A glance at the text will show that this is a mistake. The Rival Ladies is written in blank verse, and only two short passages of dialogue in the third act exhibit the timid way in which Dryden tested the ear of the public. Of course lyrical passages in all plays, and the main part of masques, such as the pastorals of Day, had, even in the Elizabethan age, been written in decasyllabic rhymed verse; but these exceptions are as little to the point as is the example which Dryden shelters himself under, The Siege of Rhodes. This piece was an opera, and therefore naturally in rhyme. As a point of fact Dryden was the first to propose, and Etheredge the first to carry out, the experiment of writing ordinary plays in rhyme. Encouraged by the preface to The Rival Ladies, and urged on by the alexandrines he was accustomed to listen to on the French stage, Etheredge put the whole serious part of his Comical Revenge into dialogue of which this piece from the duel scene is an example:—

Brave men! this action makes it well appear
'Tis honour and not envy brings you here.
We come to conquer, Bruce, and not to see
Such villains rob us of our victory;
Your lives our fatal swords claim as their due,
We'ed wronged ourselves had we not righted you.
Your generous courage has obliged us so,
That to your succour we our safety owe.
You've done what men of honour ought to do,
What in your cause we would have done for you.
You speak the truth, we've but our duty done;
Prepare; duty's no obligation.          [He strips.]
None come into the field to weigh what's right,
This is no place for counsel, but for fight.

And so on. The new style was at once taken up by the Howards, Killegrews, and Orrerys, and became, as we have seen, the rage for at least fourteen years.

But the serious portion of The Comical Revenge is not worth considering in comparison with the value of the prose part. In the underplot, the gay, realistic scenes which give the play its sub-title of the “Tale of a Tub,” Etheredge virtually founded English comedy, as it was successively understood by Congreve, Goldsmith, and Sheridan. The Royalists had come back from France deeply convinced of the superiority of Paris in all matters belonging to the business of the stage. Immediately upon the Restoration, in 1661, an unknown hand had printed an English version of the Menteur of Corneille. Lower had translated the tragedies of that poet ten years before, and had returned from his exile in Holland with the dramas of Quinault in his hand. But the great rush of Royalists back to England had happened just too soon to give them an opportunity of witnessing the advent of Molière. By the end of 1659 the exiled Court, hovering on the Dutch frontier, had transferred their attention from Paris to London. A few months before this, Molière and his troop had entered Paris, and an unobtrusive performance of L'Étourdi had gradually led to other triumphs and to the creation of the greatest modern school of comedy. What gave The Comical Revenge of Etheredge its peculiar value and novelty was that it had been written by a man who had seen and understood L'Étourdi, Le Dépit Amoureux, and Les Précieuses Ridicules. Etheredge loitered long enough in Paris for Molière to be revealed to him, and then he hastened back to England with a totally new idea of what comedy ought to be.

The real hero of the first three comedies of Molière is Mascarille, and in like manner the farcical interest of The Comical Revenge centres around a valet, Dufoy. When the curtain went up on the first scene, the audience felt that a new thing was being presented to them, new types and an unfamiliar method. Hitherto Ben Jonson had been the one example and theoretical master of all popular comedy. The great aim had been to hold some extravagance of character up to ridicule, to torture one monstrous ineptitude a thousand ways, to exhaust the capabilities of the language in fantastic quips and humours. The comedian had been bound to be in some sort a moralist, to lash himself into an ethical rage about something, and to work by a process of evolution rather than by passionless observation of external manners. Under such a system wit might flourish, but there was no room for humour, in the modern acceptation of the word, for humor takes things quietly, watches unobtrusively, and is at heart sublimely indifferent. Now, the Royalists had come home from exile weary of all moral discussion, apt to let life slip, longing above all things for rest and pleasure and a quiet hour. It was a happy instinct that led Etheredge to improve a little on Molière himself, and simply hold up the mirror of his play to the genial, sensual life of the young gentlemen his contemporaries. The new-found motto of French comedy, castigat ridendo mores, would have lain too heavy on English shoulders, the time of castigation was over, and life flowed merrily down to the deluge of the Revolution. The master of Dufoy, Sir Frederick Frollick, is not a type, but a portrait; and each lazy, periwigged fop in the pit clapped hands to welcome a friend that seemed to have just strolled from the Mulberry Garden. He is a man of quality, who can fight at need with great spirit and firmness of nerve, but whose customary occupation is the pursuit of pleasure without dignity and without reflection. Like all Etheredge's fine gentlemen, he is a finished fop, although he has the affectation of not caring for the society of fine ladies. He spends hours at his toilet, and “there never was a girl more humorsome nor tedious in the dressing of her baby.” It seems to me certain that Etheredge intended Sir Frederick as a portrait of himself. Dufoy gives an amusing account of his being taken into Sir Frederick's service. He was lounging on the new bridge in Paris, watching the marionettes and eating custard, when young M. de Grandville drove by in his chariot, in company with his friend, Sir Fred. Frollick, and recommended Dufoy as a likely fellow to be entrusted with some delicate business, which he carried out so well, that Sir Frederick made him his valet. The Comical Revenge is a series of brisk and entertaining scenes strung on a very light thread of plot. Sir Frederick plays fast and loose, all through, with a rich widow who wants to marry him; a person called Wheedle, with an accomplice, Palmer, who dresses up to personate a Buckinghamshire drover, plays off the confidence-trick on a stupid knight, Sir Nicholas Cully, quite in the approved manner of to-day. This pastime, called “coney-catching” a century earlier, was by this time revived under the title of “bubbling.” By a pleasant amenity of the printer's the rogues say to one another, “Expect your Kew,” meaning “cue.” Meanwhile high love affairs, jealousies, and a tremendous duel, interrupted by the treachery of Puritan villains, have occupied the heroic scenes. The comedy grows fast and furious; Sir Nicholas rides to visit the widow on a tavern-boy's back, with three bottles of wine suspended on a cord behind him. Sir Frederick frightens the widow by pretending to be dead, and Dufoy, for being troublesome and spiteful, is confined by his fellow-servants in a tub, with his head and hands, stuck out of holes, and stumbles up and down the stage in that disguise. A brief extract will give a notion of the sprightly and picturesque manner of the dialogue. A lady has sent her maid to Sir Frederick's lodgings to capitulate with him on his boisterousness.

Jenny in tears! what's the occasion, poor girl?
I'll tell you, my Lord.
SIR Fred.
Buzz! Set not her tongue a-going again; she has made more noise than half a dozen paper-mills; London Bridge at low water is silence to her; in a word, rambling last night, we knocked at her mistress's lodging, they denied us entrance, whereat a harsh word or two flew out.
These were not all your heroic actions; pray tell the consequences, how you marched bravely at the rear of an army of link-boys; upon the sudden, how you gave defiance, and then, having waged a bloody war with the constable, and having vanquished that dreadful enemy, how you committed a general massacre on the glass windows. Are not these most honourable achievements, such as will be registered to your eternal fame by the most learned historian of Hicks's Hall?
SIR Fred.
Good, sweet Jenny, let's come to a treaty; do but hear what articles I propose.

The success of The Comical Revenge was unprecedented, and it secured its author an instant popularity. While it was under rehearsal, it attracted the attention of the young Lord Buckhurst, then distinguished only as a Parliamentary man of promise, but soon to become famous as the poet Earl of Dorset. To him Etheredge dedicated his play, and by him was introduced to that circle of wits, Buckingham, Sedley, and the precocious Rochester, with whom he was to be associated for the rest of his life.

Four years later he produced another and a better play. Meanwhile English comedy had made great advances. Dryden and Wilson had proceeded; Sedley, Shadwell, the Howards, had made their first appearance; but none of these, not even the author of The Mulberry Garden, had quite understood the nature of Etheredge's innovation. In She Would if She Could he showed them more plainly what he meant, for he had himself come under the influence of a masterpiece of comedy. It is certain to me that the movement of She Would if She Could is founded upon a reminiscence of Tartuffe, which, however, was not printed until 1669, “une comedie dont on a fait beaucoup de bruit, qui a esté longtemps persecutée.” Etheredge may have been present at the original performance of the first three acts, at Versailles, in May 1664; but it seems to me more probable that he saw the public representation at Paris in the summer of 1667, and that he hastened back to England with the plot of his own piece taking form in his brain. The only similarity between the French and English plays is this, that Lady Cockwood is a female Tartuffe, a woman of loud religious pretensions, who demands respect and devotion for her piety, and who is really engaged, all the time, in the vain prosecution of a disgraceful intrigue. Sir Oliver Cockwood, a boisterous, elderly knight, has come up to town for the season, in company with his pious lady, who leads him a sad life, with an old friend, Sir Jocelyn Jolly, and with the wards of the latter, two spirited girls called Ariana and Gatty. These people have taken lodgings in St. James's Street, at the “Black Posts,” as Mrs. Sentry, the maid, takes pains to inform young Mr. Courtall, a gentleman of fashion in whom Lady Cockwood takes an interest less ingenuous than she pretends. The scene, therefore, instead of being laid in Arcadia or Cockayne, sets us down in the heart of the West End, the fashionable quarter of the London of 1668. The reader who has not studied old maps, or the agreeable books of Mr. Wheatley, is likely to be extremely ill-informed as to the limits and scope of the town two hundred years ago. St. James's Street, which contained all the most genteel houses, ran, a sort of rural road, from Portugal Street, or Piccadilly, down to St. James's Park. One of Charles II.'s first acts was to beautify this district. St. James's Park, which then included Green Park, had been a sort of open meadow. The King cut a canal through it, planted it with lime-trees, and turned the path that led through St. James's Fields into a drive called Pall Mall. In St. James's Street rank and fashion clustered, and young poets contended for the honour of an invitation to Mr. Waller's house on the west side. Here also the country gentry lodged when they came up to town, and a few smart shops had recently been opened to supply the needs of people of quality.

Such was the bright scene of that comedy of fashionable life of which She Would if She Could gives us a faithful picture. In a town still untainted by smoke and dirt, with fresh country airs blowing over it from all quarters but the east, the gay world of Charles II.'s court ran through its bright ephemeral existence. There is no drama in which the physical surroundings of this life are so picturesquely brought before us as that of Etheredge. The play at present under discussion distinguishes itself from the comic work of Dryden, or Wycherley, or Shadwell, even from that of Congreve, by the little graphic touches, the intimate impression, the clear, bright colour of the scenes. The two girls, Sir Jocelyn's wards, finding life dreary with Lady Cockwood and her pieties, put on vizards, and range the Parks and the Mall without a chaperon. This is an artful contrivance, often afterwards imitated—as notably by Lord Lansdowne in his She Gallants—but original to Etheredge, and very happy, from the opportunity it gives of drawing out naïve remarks on familiar things; for in the second act the girls find their way to the Mulberry Garden, a public place of entertainment, adjoining Lord Arlington's mansion of Goring House, afterwards Buckingham Palace, and much frequented by a public whom Cromwell's sense of propriety had deprived of their favourite Spring Garden. Here Ariana and Gatty meet Lady Cockwood's recalcitrant spark Courtall, walking with his friend Freeman, and from behind their masks carry on with them a hazardous flirtation. The end of this scene, when the two sprightly girls break from their gallants and appear and reappear, crossing the stage from opposite corners, amid scenery that reminded every one in the theatre of the haunt most loved by Londoners, must have been particularly delightful and diverting to witness; and all these are circumstances which we must bear in mind if we wish the drama of the Restoration to be a living thing to us in reading it. It was a mundane entertainment, but in its earthly sincerity it superseded something that had ceased to be either human or divine.

The two old knights are “harp and violin—nature has tuned them to play the fool in concert,” and their extravagances hurry the plot to its crisis. They swagger to their own confusion, and Lady Cockwood encourages their folly, that she herself may have an opportunity of meeting Courtall. She contrives to give him an appointment in the New Exchange, which seems to have been a sort of arcade leading out of the Strand, with shops on each side. When the curtain rises for the third act, Mrs. Trinkett is sitting in the door of her shop inviting the people of quality to step in: “What d'ye buy? What d'ye lack, gentlemen? Gloves, ribbands, and essences? ribbands, gloves, and essences?” She is a woman of tact, who, under the pretence of selling “a few fashionable toys to keep the ladies in countenance at a play or in the park,” passes letters or makes up rendezvous between people of quality. At her shop the gallants “scent their eyebrows and periwigs with a little essence of oranges or jessamine”; and so Courtall occupies himself till Lady Cockwood arrives. Fortunately for him, Ariana and Gatty, who are out shopping, arrive at the same moment; so he proposes to take them all in his coach to the “Bear” in Drury Lane for a dance. The party at the “Bear” is like a scene from some artistically mounted drama of our own day. Etheredge, with his singular eye for colour, crowds the stage with damsels in sky-blue, and pink, and flamecoloured taffetas. To them arrive Sir Oliver and Sir Jocelyn; but as Sir Oliver was drunk overnight, Lady Cockwood has locked up all his clothes, except his russet suit of humiliation, in which he is an object of ridicule and persecution to all the bright crowd who—

Wave the gay wreathe, and titter as they prance.

In this scene Etheredge introduces a sword, a velvet coat, a flageolet, a pair of bands, with touches that remind one of Metzu or Gheraerdt Douw. Sir Oliver, who is the direct prototype of Vanbrugh's Sir John Brute, gets very drunk, dances with his own wife in her vizard, and finally brings confusion upon the whole company. The ladies rush home, whither Freeman comes to console Lady Cockwood; a noise is heard; and he is promptly concealed in a cupboard. Courtall enters, and then a fresh hubbub is heard, for Sir Oliver has returned. Courtall is hurried under a table just in time for the old knight to come in and perceive nothing. But he has brought a beautiful china orange home to appease his wife, and as he shows this to her it drops from his fingers, and runs under the table where Courtall lies. The maid, a girl of resource, promptly runs away with the candle, and, in the stage darkness, Courtall is hurried into the cupboard, where he finds Freeman. The threads are gradually unravelled: Courtall and Freeman are rewarded, for nothing in particular, by the hands of Ariana and Gatty, and Lady Cockwood promises to go back to the country and behave properly ever after. The plot of so slight a thing is a gossamer fabric, and scarcely bears analysis; but the comedy was by far the most sprightly performance at that time presented to any audience in Europe save that which was listening to Molière.

Etheredge had not dedicated She Would if She Could to any patron; but the grateful town accepted it with enthusiasm, and its author was the most popular of the hour. It was confidently hoped that he would give his energies to the stage; but an indolence that was habitual to him, and against which he never struggled, kept him silent for eight years. During this time, however, he preserved his connection with the theatres, encouraged Medbourne the actor to translate Tartuffe, and wrote an epilogue for him when that play was first produced in England in 1670. He wrote, besides, a great number of little amatory pieces, chiefly in octosyllabics, which have never been collected. Oldys says, in one of his MS. notes, that he once saw a Miscellany, printed in 1672, almost full of verses by Etheredge, but without his name. I have not been able to trace this; but most of the numerous collections of contemporary verse contained something of his, down to the Miscellany of 1701. If anyone took the trouble to extract these, at least fifty or sixty poems could be put together; but they are none of them very good. Etheredge had but little of the lyrical gift of such contemporaries as Dryden, Rochester, and Sedley; his rhymed verse is apt to be awkward and languid. This may be as good an opportunity as any other of quoting the best song of his that I have been able to unearth:—

Ye happy swains, whose hearts are free
          From love's imperial chain,
Take warning and be taught by me
          To avoid th' enchanting pain;
Fatal the wolves to trembling flocks,
          Fierce winds to blossoms prove,
To careless seamen, hidden rocks,
          To human quiet—love.
Fly the fair sex, if bliss you prize—
          The snake's beneath the flower;
Who ever gazed on beauteous eyes
          And tasted quiet more?
How faithless is the lovers' joy!
          How constant is their care!
The kind with falsehood do destroy,
          The cruel with despair.

We learn from Shadwell, in the preface to The Humorists of 1671, that the success of She Would if She Could was endangered by the slovenly playing of the actors. This may have helped to disgust the fastidious Etheredge. At all events, the satirists began to be busy with the name of so inert a popular playwright; and, in 1675, Rochester expressed a general opinion in the doggerel of his Session of the Poets:

Now Apollo had got gentle George in his eye,
And frankly confessed that, of all men that writ,
There's none had more fancy, sense, judgment, and wit;
But i' the crying sin, idleness, he was so hardened
That his long seven years' silence was not to be pardoned.

“Gentle George” gave way, and composed, with all the sparkle, wit, and finish of which he was capable, his last and best-known piece, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, brought out at the Duke's Theatre in the summer of 1676. Recollecting his threatened fiasco in 1668, Etheredge determined to put himself under powerful patronage, and dedicated his new play to Mary of Modena, the young Duchess of York, who remained his faithful patroness until fortune bereft her of the power to give. Sir Car Scroope wrote the prologue, Dryden the epilogue, and the play was acted by the best company of the time—Betterton, Harris, Medbourn, and the wife of Shadwell, while the part of Belinda was in all probability taken by the matchless Mrs. Barry, the new glory of the stage.

The great merit of The Man of Mode rests in the brilliance of the writing and the force of the characterisation. There is no plot. People of the old school, like Captain Alexander Radcliffe, who liked plot above all other things in a comedy, decried the manner of Etheredge, and preferred to it “the manly art of brawny Wycherley,” the new writer, whose Country Wife had just enjoyed so much success; but, on the whole, the public was dazzled and delighted with the new types and the brisk dialogue, and united to give Sir Fopling Flutter a warmer welcome than greeted any other stage-hero during Charles II.'s reign. There was a delightful heroine, with abundance of light brown hair, and lips like the petals of “a Provence rose, fresh on the bush, ere the morning sun has quite drawn up the dew;” there was a shoemaker whom everyone knew, and an orange-woman whom everybody might have known—characters which Dickens would have laughed at and commended; there was Young Bellair, in which Etheredge drew his own portrait; there was the sparkling Dorimant, so dressed that all the pit should know that my Lord Rochester was intended; there was Medley, Young Bellair's bosom friend, in whom the gossips discovered the portrait of Sir Charles Sedley; above all, there was Sir Fopling Flutter, the monarch of all beaux and dandies, the froth of Parisian affectation—a delightful personage, almost as alive to us to-day as to the enchanted audience of 1676. During two acts the great creature was spoken of, but never seen. Just arrived from France, all the world had heard about him, and was longing to see him, “with a pair of gloves up to his elbows, and his periwig more exactly curled than a lady's head newly dressed for a ball.” At last, in the third act, when curiosity has been raised to a fever, the fop appears. He is introduced to a group of ladies and gentlemen of quality, and when the first civilities are over he begins at once to criticise their dress:—

LADY Townley.
Wit, I perceive, has more power over you than beauty, Sir Fopling, else you would not have let this lady stand so long neglected.
SIR Fopling
(to Emilia). A thousand pardons, Madam! Some civilities due of course upon the meeting a long absent friend. The éclat of so much beauty, I confess, ought to have charmed me sooner.
The brilliant of so much good language, sir, has much more power than the little beauty I can boast.
SIR Fopling.
I never saw anything prettier than this high work on your point d'Espagne.
'Tis not so rich as point de Venise.
SIR Fop.
Not altogether, but looks cooler, and is more proper for the season. Dorimant, is not that Medley?
The same, sir.
SIR Fop.
Forgive me, sir, in this embarras of civilities, I could not come to have you in my arms sooner. You understand an equipage the best of any man in town, I hear!
By my own you would not guess it.
SIR Fop.
There are critics who do not write, sir. Have you taken notice of the calèche I brought over?
O yes! it has quite another air than the English make.
SIR Fop.
'Tis as easily known from an English tumbrel as an inns-of-court man is from one of us.
Truly there is a bel-air in calèches as well as men.
But there are few so delicate as to observe it.
SIR Fop.
The world is generally very grossier here indeed.
LADY Townley.
He's very fine (looking at Sir Fop).
Extreme proper.
SIR Fop.
O, a slight suit I had made to appear in at my first arrival—not worthy your admiration, ladies.
The pantaloon is very well mounted.
SIR Fop.
The tassels are new and pretty.
I never saw a coat better cut.
SIR Fop.
It makes me look long-waisted, and, I think, slender.
LADY Townley.
His gloves are well-fingered, large, and graceful.
SIR Fop.
I was always eminent for being bien-ganté.
He must wear nothing but what are originals of the most famous hands in Paris!
SIR Fop.
You are in the right, Madam.
LADY Townley.
The suit?
SIR Fop.
The garniture?
SIR Fop.
Le Gras.
The shoes?
SIR Fop.
The periwig?
SIR Fop.
LADY Townley and Emilia
(together). The gloves?
SIR Fop.
Orangerie (holding up his hands to them). You know the smell, ladies?

The hand that throws in these light touches, in a key of rose-colour on pale gray, no longer reminds us of Molière, but exceedingly of Congreve. A recent critic has very justly remarked that in mere wit, the continuity of brilliant dialogue in which the action does not seek to advance, Moliere is scarcely the equal of Congreve at his best, and the brightest scenes of The Man of Mode show the original direction taken by Etheredge in that line which was more specially to mark the triumph of English comedy. But the author of Love for Love was still in the nursery when The Man of Mode appeared, as it were, to teach him how to write. Until Congreve reached manhood, Etheredge's example seemed to have been lost, and the lesson he attempted to instil to have fallen on admiring hearers that were incapable of repeating it. The shallowness, vivacity, and vanity of Sir Fopling are admirably maintained. In the scene of which part has just been quoted, after showing his intimate knowledge of all the best tradesmen in Paris, some one drops the name of Bussy, to see if he is equally at home among literary notabilities. But he supposes that Bussy d'Ambois is meant, and is convicted of having never heard of Bussy Rabutin. This is a curiously early notice of a famous writer who survived it nearly twenty years; it does not seem that any French critic has observed this. Sir Fopling Flutter is so eminently the best of Etheredge's creations that we are tempted to give one more sample of his quality. He has come with two or three other sparks to visit Dorimant at his rooms, and he dances a pas seul.

YOUNG Bellair.
See! Sir Fopling is dancing!
SIR Fop.
Prithee, Dorimant, why hast thou not a glass hung up here? A room is the dullest thing without one.
Y. Bell.
Here is company to entertain you.
SIR Fop.
But I mean in case of being alone. In a glass a man may entertain himself,———
The shadow of himself indeed.
SIR Fop.
Correct the errors of his motion and his dress.
I find, Sir Fopling, in your solitude you remember the saying of the wise man, and study yourself!
SIR Fop.
'Tis the best diversion in our retirements. Dorimant, thou art a pretty fellow, and wearest thy clothes well, but I never saw thee have a handsome cravat. Were they made up like mine, they'd give another air to thy face. Prithee let me send my man to dress thee one day. By heavens, an Englishman cannot tie a ribband.
They are something clumsy fisted.
SIR Fop.
I have brought over the prettiest fellow that ever spread a toilet, he served some time under Merille, the greatest génie in the world for a valet de chambre.
What, he who formerly belonged to the Duke of Candolle?
SIR Fop.
The very same—and got him his immortal reputation.
You've a very fine brandenburgh on, Sir Fopling!
SIR Fop.
It serves to wrap me up after the fatigue of a ball.
I see you often in it, with your periwig tied up.
SIR Fop.
We should not always be in a set dress; 'tis more en cavalier to appear now and then in a deshabille.

In these wholly fantastical studies of manners we feel less than in the more serious portions of the comedy the total absence of moral purpose, high aim, or even honourable instinct which was the canker of the age. A negligence that pervaded every section of the upper classes, which robbed statesmen of their patriotism and the clergy of their earnestness, was only too exactly mirrored in the sprightly follies of the stage. Yet even there we are annoyed by a heroine who is discovered eating a nectarine, and who, rallied on buying a “filthy nosegay,” indignantly rebuts the accusation, and declares that nothing would induce her to smell such vulgar flowers as stocks and carnations, or anything that blossoms, except orange-flowers and tuberose. It is a frivolous world, Strephon bending on one knee to Cloe, who fans the pink blush on her painted cheek, while Momus peeps, with a grin, through the curtains behind her. They form an engaging trio, mais ce n'est pas la vie humaine.

The Man of Mode was licensed on June 3, 1676; it enjoyed an unparalleled success, and before the month was out its author was flying for his life. We learn this from the Hatton Correspondence, first printed in 1879. It seems that in the middle of June, Etheredge, Rochester, and two friends, Captain Bridges and Mr. Downes, went down to Epsom on a Sunday night. They were tossing some fiddlers in a blanket for refusing to play, when a barber, who came to see what the noise was, as a practical joke, induced them to knock up the constable. They did so with a vengeance, for they smashed open his door, entered his house, and broke his head, giving him a severe beating. At last they were overpowered by the watch, and Etheredge having made a submissive oration, the row seemed to be at an end, when suddenly Lord Rochester, like a coward as he was, drew his sword on the constable, who had dismissed his men. The constable shrieked out “Murder!” and the watch returning, one of them broke the skull of Downes with his staff. The others ran away, and the watchmen were left to run poor Downes through with a pike. He lingered until the 29th, when Charles Hatton records that he is dead, and that Etheredge and Rochester have absconded. Four years afterwards the Hatton Correspondence gives us another glimpse of our poet, again in trouble. On January 14, 1680, the roof of the tennis-court in the Haymarket fell down. “Sir George Etheridge and several others were very dangerously hurt. Sir Charles Sidley had his skull broke, and it is thought it will be mortal.” Sidley, or Sedley, flourished for twenty years more; but we may note that here, for the first time, our dramatist is “Sir George.” It is evident that he had been knighted since 1676, when he was plain “George Etheredge, Esq.” In an MS. poem called The Present State of Matrimony, he is accused of having married a rich widow to facilitate his being knighted, and with success. The entries in The Letterbook give me reason to believe that he was not maligned in this. But he seems to have lived on very bad terms with his wife, and to have disgraced himself by the open protection of Mrs. Barry, after Rochester's death in 1680. By this famous actress, whose name can no more be omitted from the history of literature than that of Mrs. Gwynn from the history of statecraft, he had a daughter, on whom he settled five or six thousand pounds, but who died young.

The close of Etheredge's career was spent in the diplomatic service. When this commenced is more than I have been able to discover. From The Letterbook it appears that he was for some time envoy of Charles II. at the Hague. It would even seem that he was sent to Constantinople, for a contemporary satirist speaks of

Ovid to Pontus sent for too much wit,
Etheredge to Turkey for the want of it.

Certain expressions in The Letterbook make me suspect that he had been in Sweden. But it is not until the accession of James II. that his figure comes out into real distinctness. In this connection I think it would be hard to exaggerate the value of The Letterbook, which I am about to introduce to my readers. After reading it from end to end I feel that I know Sir George Etheredge, hitherto the most phantasmal of the English poets, better than I can know any literary man of his time, better than Dryden, better, perhaps, than Milton.

In February 1685 James II. ascended the throne, and by March, Mary of Modena had worked so assiduously for her favourite that this warrant, for the discovery of which I owe my best thanks to Mr. Noel Sainsbury, was entered in the Privy Signet Book:—

Warrant to pay Sir Geo. Etheredge (whom his Maj. has thought fit to employ in his service in Germany), 3l. per diem.

On March 5 The Letterbook was bought, and Etheredge and his secretary started for the Continent. Why they loitered at the Hague and in Amsterdam does not appear, but their journey was made in so leisurely a manner that they did not arrive in Ratisbon until August 30. It does appear, however, that the dissipated little knight behaved very ill in Holland, and spent one summer's night dead drunk in the streets of the Hague. On his arrival at Ratisbon, he had two letters of recommendation, one from Barillon to the French ambassador, the other from the Spanish ambassador to the Burgundian minister. The first of these he used at once, and cultivated the society at the French Embassy in a way that would have been extremely impolitic if it had not, without doubt, been entered upon in accordance with instructions from home. It was doubtless known to Etheredge, although a secret at the German court, that James had commenced his reign by opening private negotiations with France. The poet settled in a very nice house, with a garden running down to the Danube, set up a carriage and good horses, valets, and “a cook, though I cannot hope to be well-served by the latter” in this barbarous Germany. On December 24 he wrote two letters, parts of which may be quoted here. To Lord Sunderland he writes:—

Since my coming here I have had a little fever, which has been the reason I have not paid my duty so regular as I ought to do to your Lordship. I am now pretty well recovered, and hope I am quit at a reasonable price for what I was to pay on the change of climate, and a greater change in my manner of living. Is it not enough to breed an ill habit of body in a man who was used to sit up till morning to be forced, for want of knowing what to do with himself, to go to bed in the evening; one who has been used to live with all freedom, never to approach anyone without ceremony; one who has been used to run up and down to find variety of company, to sit at home and entertain himself in solitude? One would think the Diet had made a Reichsgut-achten to banish all pastimes in the city. Here was the Countess of Nostitz, but malice would not let her live in quiet, and she is lately removed to Prague. Good company met at her house, and she had a little hombre to entertain them. A more commode lady, by what I hear, never kept a basset [table] in London. If I do well after all this, you must allow me to be a great philosopher; and I dare affirm Cato left not the world with more firmness of soul than I did England.

And to a friend in Paris, on the same date:—

Le divertissement le plus galant du pays cet hiver c'est le traîneau, où l'on se met en croupe de quelque belle Allemande, de manière que vous ne pouvez ni la voir, ni lui parler, à cause d'un diable de tintamarre des sonnettes dont les harnais sont tous garnis.

In short, he very soon learned the limitations of the place. His letters are filled with complaints of the boorish manners of the people, the dreary etiquette which encumbers the Court and the Diet, and the solitude he feels in being separated from all his literary friends. The malice of the secretary informs us that Sir George soon gave up his precise manner of living, and adopted a lazier style. He seldom rose until two or three p.m., dined at five or six, and then went to the French ambassador's for three or four hours. Finding time hang heavy on his hands, he took to gaming with any disreputable Frenchman that happened to pass through the town. Already, early in 1686, a scoundrel called Purpurat, from Vienna, has got round him by flatteries and presents of tobacco, and has robbed him of 10,000 crowns at cards. When, however, things have come to this pass, Etheredge wakes up, and on the suggestion of M. Purpurat, that he will be going back to Vienna, detains him until he has won nearly all his money back again, and finally escapes with the loss of a pair of pistols, with his crest upon them, which Purpurat shows in proof of his ascendency over the English ambassador.

These matters occupy the spring and summer of 1686, but there is nothing said about them in the letters home. These letters, however, are cheerful enough. In January he encloses, with his dispatches to the Earl of Middleton, a long squib in octosyllabic verse, which the English minister, who is ill at these numbers, gets Dryden to answer in kind. A cancelled couplet in the first draft of the former remarks:—

Let them who live in plenty flout;
I must make shift with sour kraut.

In June 1686 he writes to Middleton that he has “not this week received any letter from England, which is a thing that touches me here as nearly as ever a disappointment did in London with the woman I loved most tenderly.” Middleton comforts him by telling him that the king, after a performance of The Man of Mode, remarked to him that he expected Etheredge to put on the sock, and write a new comedy while he was at Ratisbon. Once or twice, in subsequent letters, the poet refers to this idea; but the weight of affairs, combined with his native indolence, prevented his attempting the task. Meanwhile, he does not seem to have neglected his duty, as it was understood in those days. He writes, so he says at least, twice every week about state matters to Middleton, and, notwithstanding all the spiteful messages sent home about him, he does not seem to have ever lost the confidence of James and his ministers. These latter were most of them his private friends, and in his most official communications he suddenly diverges into some waggish allusion to old times. His attitude at Ratisbon was not what we should now demand from an envoy. The English people, the English Parliament, do not exist for him; his one standard of duty is the personal wish of the king. By indulging the bias of James, which indeed was his own bias, an excessive partiality for all things French, he won himself, as we shall see, the extreme ill-will of the Germans. But the only really serious scrape into which he got, an affair which annoyed him throughout the autumn and winter of 1686, does not particularly redound to his discredit. It is a curious story, and characteristic of the times; The Letterbook, by giving Etheredge's own account, and also the secretary's spiteful rendering, enables us to follow the circumstances pretty closely. A troop of actors from Nuremburg came over to Ratisbon in the summer of 1686, with a star who seems to have been the leading actress of her time in South Germany. This lady, about whom the only biographical fact that we discover is that her Christian name was Julia, seems to have been respectability itself. Even the enemies of Etheredge did not suggest that any immoral connection existed between them, and on the last day of the year, after having suffered all sorts of annoyance on her behalf, he still complains that she is as fière as she is fair. But actors were then still looked upon in Germany, as to some extent even in France, as social pariahs, vagabonds whom it was disgraceful to know, except as servants of a high order; artistic menials, whose vocation it was to amuse the great. But England was already more civilised than this; Etheredge was used to meet Betterton and his stately wife at the court of his monarch, and even the sullied reputation of such lovely sinners as Mrs. Barry did not shut them out of Whitehall. Etheredge, therefore, charmed in his Abdera of letters by the art and wit and beauty of Julia, paid her a state visit in his coach, and prayed for the honour of a visit in return. Ratisbon was beside itself with indignation. Every sort of social insult was heaped upon the English envoy. At a fête champêtre the lubberly Germans crowded out their elbows so as to leave him no place at table; the grand ladies cut him in the street when their coaches met his, and it was made a subject of venomous report to England that, in spite of public opinion, he refused to quit the acquaintance of the comédienne, as they scornfully named her. At last, on the evening of November 25, a group of students and young people of quality, who had heard that Julia was dining with the English ambassador to meet the French envoy and one or two guests, surrounded Etheredge's house in masks, threw stones at the windows, shouted “Great is Diana of the English envoy!” and, on Etheredge's appearing, roared to him to throw out to them the comédienne. The plucky little poet answered by arming his lacqueys and his maids with sword-sticks, pokers, and whatever came to hand, and by suddenly charging the crowd at the head of his little garrison. The Germans were routed for a moment, and Etheredge took advantage of his success to put Julia into his coach, jump in beside her, and conduct her to her lodging. The crowd, however, was too powerful for him; and though she slept that night in safety, next day she was thrown into prison by the magistrates, for causing a disturbance in the streets.

Etheredge, not knowing what to do, wrote this epistle to the ring-leader of the attack on his house, the Baron von Sensheim:—

J'estois surpris d'apprendre que ce joly gentil-homme travesty en Italien hier au soir estoit le Baron de Sensheim. Je ne savois pas que les honnetes gens se méloient avec des lacquais ramassez pour faire les fanfarons, et les batteurs de pavéz. Si vous avez quelque chose à me dire, faites le moy savoir comme vous devez, et ne vous amusez plus à venir insulter mes Domestiques ni ma maison, soyez content que vous l'avez échappé belle et ne retournez plus chercher les récompences de telles follies pour vos beaux compagnons. J'ay des autres mesures à prendre avec eux.

To this he received a vague and impertinent reply in German. Opinion in the town was so strongly moved, that for some time Etheredge never went out without having a musketoon in his coach, and each of his footmen armed with a brace of pistols ready charged. Eventually the lady was released, on the understanding that she and her company should leave the town, which they did, proceeding in the last days of 1686 across the Danube to Bayrischenhoff, where Etheredge visited them. It was in the midst of this turmoil that Etheredge composed some of his best occasional verses. I do not think they have ever been printed before:—

Upon the downs when shall I breathe at ease,
Have nothing else to do but what I please,
In a fresh cooling shade upon the brink
Of Arden's spring, have time to read and think,
And stretch, and sleep, when all my care shall be
For health, and pleasure my philosophy?
When shall I rest from business, noise, and strife,
Lay down the soldier's and the courtier's life,
And in a little melancholy seat
Begin at last to live and to forget
The nonsense and the farce of what the fools call great.

There is something strangely Augustan about this fragment; we should expect it to be dated 1716 rather than 1686, and to be signed by some Pomfret or Tickell of the school of Addison.

On New Year's Day, 1687, he encloses in a letter to the Earl of Middleton a French song, inspired by Julia, which may deserve to be printed as a curiosity. I give it in the author's spelling, which shone more in French than English:—

Garde le secret de ton ame,
          Et ne te laisse pas flatter,
Qu'Iris espargnera ta flamme,
          Si tu luy permets d'éclater;
Son humeur, à l'amour rebelle,
          Exile tous ses doux desirs,
Et la tendresse est criminelle
          Qui veut luy parler en soupirs.
Puis que tu vis sous son empire,
          Il faut luy cacher ton destin,
Si tu ne veux le rendre pire
          Percé du trait de son dédain;
D'une rigeur si delicate
          Ton cœur ne peut rien esperer,
Derobe donc à cette ingrate
La vanité d'en trionfer.

In February a change of ministry in London gives him something else to think about; he hears a report that he is to be sent to Stockholm; he writes eagerly to his patrons for news. On the eleventh of the month he receives a tremendous snub from the treasury about his extravagance, and is told that in future his extra expenses must never exceed fifty pounds every three months. He is, indeed, assailed with many annoyances, for his wife writes on the subject of the comédienne from Nuremburg, and roundly calls him a rogue. Upon this Etheredge writes to the poet, Lord Mulgrave, and begs him to make up the quarrel, sending by the same post, on March 13, 1687, this judicious letter to Lady Etheredge:—

My Lady,

I beg your pardon for undertaking to advise you. I am so well satisfied by your last letter of your prudence and judgment that I shall never more commit the same error. I wish there were copies of it in London that it might serve as a pattern to modest wives to write to their husbands; you shall find me so careful hereafter how I offend you that I will no more subscribe myself your loving, since you take it ill, but,


Yr. most dutyfull husband,

G. E.

His letters of 1687 are very full of personal items and scraps of literary gossip. It would be impossible on this, the first introduction of The Letterbook, to do justice to all its wealth of allusion. He carefully repeats the harangue of the Siamese ambassadors on leaving the German court; he complains again and again of the neglect of the Count of Windisgrätz, who represents the Prince of Nassau, and is all powerful in the Palatinate; he complains still more bitterly of the open rudeness of the Countess Windisgrätz; he is anxious about the welfare of Nat Lee, at that time shut up in a lunatic asylum, but about to emerge for the production of The Princess of Cleve, in 1689, and then to die; he writes a delightful letter to Betterton, on May 26, 1687, asking for news of all kinds about the stage. He says that his chief diversion is music, that he has three musicians living in the house, that they play all the best operas, and that a friend in Paris sends him whatever good music is published. One wonders whether Etheredge knew that Jean Baptiste Lully had died a week or two before this letter was written. News of the success of Sedley's Bellamira reaches him in June 1687, and provokes from him this eloquent defence of his old friend's genius:—

I am glad the town has so good a taste as to give the same just applause to Sr. Charles Sidley's writing which his friends have always done to his conversation. Few of our plays can boast of more wit than I have heard him speak at a supper. Some barren sparks have found fault with what he has formerly done, only because the fairness of the soil has produced so big a crop. I daily drink his health, my Lord Dorset's, your own, and all our friends'.

A few allusions to famous men of letters, all made in 1687, may be placed side by side:—

Mr. Wynne has sent me The Hind and the Panther, by which I find John Dryden has a noble ambition to restore poetry to its ancient dignity in wrapping up the mysteries of religion in verse. What a shame it is to me to see him a saint, and remain still the same devil [myself].

Dryden finds his Macfleknoe does no good: I wish him better success with his Hind and Panther.

General Dryden is an expert captain, but I always thought him fitter for execution than council.

Remind my Lord Dorset how he and I carried two draggled-tailed nymphs one bitter frosty night over the Thames to Lambeth.

If he happens in a house with Mr. Crown, John's songs will charm the whole family.

A letter from Dryden, full of pleasant chat, informs Etheredge in February that Wycherley is sick of an apoplexy. The envoy begs leave, later in the year, to visit his friend, the Count de Thun, whose acquaintance he made in Amsterdam, and who is now at Munich, but permission is refused. In October the whole Electoral College invites itself to spend the afternoon in Sir George Etheredge's garden, who entertains them so lavishly, and with so little infusion of Danube water in the wine, that next morning he is ill in bed. His indisposition turns to tertian ague, and towards the end of the month he asks to be informed how quinine should be prepared. He compares himself philosophically to Falstaff, however, and by Christmas time grows pensive at the thought of the “plum-pottage” at home, and is solicitous about a black-laced hood and pair of scarlet stockings which he has ordered from London. In January 1688 he laments that Sedley has grown temperate and Dorset uxorious, but vows that he will be on his guard, and remain foppish. The last extract that has any literary interest is taken from a letter dated March 8, 1688:—

Mrs. Barry bears up as well as I myself have done; my poor Lord Rochester [Wilmot, not Hyde] could not weather the Cape, and live under the Line fatal to puling constitutions. Though I have given up writing plays, I should be glad to read a good one, wherefore pray let Will Richards send me Mr Shadwell's [The Squire of Alsatia] as soon as it is printed, that I may know what is being done. … Nature, you know, intended me for an idle fellow, and gave me passions and qualities fit for that blessed calling, but fortune has made a changeling of me, and necessity now forces me to set up for a fop of business.

Three days after this he writes the last letter preserved in The Letterbook, and, but for an appendix to that volume, we might have believed the popular story that Etheredge fell down stairs at Ratisbon and broke his neck. But the treacherous secretary continues to write in 1689, and gives us fresh particulars. He states that his quarrel with Sir George was that he had been promised 60l. per annum, and could only get 40l. out of his master. He further declares that to the last Etheredge did not know ten words of Dutch (German), and had not merely to make use of a French interpreter, but had to entrust his private business to one or other of his lacqueys; and that moreover he spent a great part of his time “visiting all the alehouses of the town, accompanied by his servants, his valet de chambre, his hoffmaster, and his dancing and fighting master, all with their coats turned inside outwards.” In his anger he lets us know what became of Etheredge at the Revolution, for in a virulent Latin harangue at the close of The Letterbook he states that after a stay at Ratisbon of “tres annos et sex menses,” accurately measured, for the secretary's cry is a cry for gold, Etheredge fled to Paris. This flight must therefore have taken place early in March 1689. “Quando hinc abijt ad asylum apud Gallos quærendum,” the poet left his books behind him, a proof that his taking leave was sudden and urgent. The secretary gives a list of them, and it is interesting to find the only play-books mentioned are Shakespeare's Works and the Œuvres de Molière, in 2 vols., probably the edition of 1682. I note also the works of Sarrazin and of Voiture.

At this point, I am sorry to say, the figure of Etheredge at present eludes me. There seems no clue whatever to the date of his death, except that in an anonymous pamphlet, written by John Dennis, and printed in 1722, Etheredge is spoken of as having been dead “nearly thirty years.” Dennis was over thirty at the Revolution, and is as trustworthy an authority as we could wish for. By this it would seem that Etheredge died about 1693, nearer the age of sixty than fifty. But Colonel Chester has the record of administration to the estate of a Dame Mary Etheredge, widow, dated Feb. 1, 1692. As we know of no other knight of the name, except Sir James Etheridge, who died in 1736, this was probably the poet's relict; and it may yet appear that he died in 1691. He was a short, brisk man, with a quantity of fair hair, and a fine complexion, which he spoiled by drinking. He left no children, but his brother, who long survived him, left a daughter, who is said to have married Aaron Hill.

G. S. Street (essay date 1893)

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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 splenetic mood. Congreve, of course, is pre-eminent in wit and diction; and because there is a malicious subtlety in the wickedness of his world, and his way is to see evil in everything, while you are aware, all the time, that your author has in reality as clear a perception of what is otherwise as your own, he suits your occasional spite against dull circumstance. But this convention—that there is nothing good under the sun, that desire is the whole of life—grows, in spite of Elia, tedious to minds that have outgrown the counter convention of Puritan propriety too long for constant militancy against it.

If this be so with you, Etherege should find place in your appreciations. If he lack the scenic sense of Wycherley, he lacks also his brutality; if the wit of Congreve, Congreve's conscious narrowness. He is more apt to distinguish than either; the passions of his men take an individual air; his women, honest or not, show degrees and differences. A most readable play is his last, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter. It seems to show you ‘Gentle George's’ world, as he saw it. A world gayer and more wanton than our own, but not immersed in (what you would call) immoral pursuits, not unknowing of the charm of frank innocence and virile friendship. It is an obvious criticism to say, with Lamb, that the whole business of this world is intrigue. But these plays are frankly of intrigue, and in what age have idle young men of the town not given the most of their attention to one or other sort of the world of women? The Dorimant is said to be sketched from Rochester, and it may well be the case, though it is curious that a song in the play, said to be by Dorimant, is by Sir Charles Sedley. Dorimant is of profligate habit and ironical temper, a ‘fine gentleman,’ a man of parts withal, and fascinating at will. ‘I know he is a devil,’ says poor Mrs. Loveit; ‘but he has something of the angel yet undefac'd in him.’ Now when he would cast off this Mrs. Loveit—a woman ‘in society’—it is to be noted that, vain and unfeeling though he be, he yet sets about it with a regard for outward decency, bears him in fact more as a gentleman than in a like case the hero of The Story of the Gadsbys. And his friend Medley, ‘the spirit of scandal’—said to be Sedley or Etherege himself—and young Bellair are possible. Old Bellair would be no doubt accounted coarse in his speech to-day, but he is neither a brute nor a bully, and his heartiness (that most difficult quality to portray) has a certain engaging sincerity. Sir Fopling Flutter was said by Dean Lockitt to be Etherege, which can hardly be the case; the foundation for the idea is that in him French modes and predilections are ridiculed, and Etherege had lived in Paris. He may or may not be drawn from one Beau Hewit, but in any case he is drawn with art, effectively. Dryden can say with truth in his epilogue that ‘Sir Fopling is a fool so nicely writ, the ladies ‘would mistake him for a wit.’ His folly is absurd but not extravagant; his conceit immense but not abnormal. Supposed to have birth and breeding, he is no clown: and because it is comedy, the satire is not a whit less mordant. The women are, one passionate and reckless, one amorous and discreet, besides two lightly sketched match-makers. Their superficial coarseness is of the time, hardly more pronounced than you find it a hundred years later.

Of the other two plays, She Would if She Could is merely farcical on broad lines, diverting sometimes, sometimes wooden; and Love in a Tub is a compound of serious scenes in verse, and of buffoonery dragged in by the heels. They deserve a word: the ‘Poems’ do not, and one may pass to a general and somewhat noticeable consideration. The girls in Etherege are commonly charming. In the first play, Love in a Tub, they are on a poetical plane, and, it may be, dull; but at least you must credit their author with a not ignoble conception. Aurelia, who pleads with her sister to accept the love of a man herself loves secretly, may be unconvincing, but is not, surely, the creation of a narrowly base nature. This play, it is to be observed in the connection, benefited the house by a thousand pounds in a month. In She Would if She Could are ‘two young ladies’ neither prudes nor hussies, neither sticks nor unnaturally witty. Wild by our notions, they are provocative, human, delightful.

This is sly and pretty,
And this is wild and witty;
If either staid
'Till she dy'd a maid,
I' faith 'twould be great pity.

And you feel, as you read, that the catch is in the right. And Harriet, in the best play, is likewise natural and frank and charming. All are unaffectedly aware of the lives of their suitors, but they are open with their knowledge, and sin not with innuendo or pretence. And the writers who can show, convincingly, innocence which is not mere ignorance are sufficiently uncommon.

Etherege, then, has distinction as a writer. He is fanciful, life-like, and sometimes even fine, and is further notable among his contemporaries for an effective restraint in satire. A touch of feeling here and there and a suggestion of romance come pleasantly upon you. His grossness—ah, there we come on an old friend in this connection. ‘Chastity,’ says Sterne, ‘by nature the gentlest of the affections, ‘give it but its head—'tis like a ramping and ‘a roaring lion.’ But it must really spare this lamb without the argumentative interference of a champion. Of Etherege the man our ramping lion has better right to make a meal. Horace Walpole tells a tale of a king's mistress discarded, who was insulted by the rabble. ‘Messieurs,’ she said, ‘puis-que vous me connoissez, priez Dieu pour moi.’ Etherege was the friend of Rochester, and had to retire with my lord from the public eye. Sent to the Hague by Charles, and to Ratisbon by James, he was a scandalous ambassador given to gaming and other vice. But he had the grace to be ruined by the Revolutions which ruined his master. Priez Dieu pour lui, though he himself would not have thanked you.

Bonamy Dobrée (essay date 1924)

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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, but of an extraordinary charm and a marvellous surety of touch.

He was professedly no student. ‘The more necessary part of philosophy’, he once wrote to Dryden, ‘is to be learn'd in the wide world more than in the gardens of Epicurus’; and again, to Lord Dover, ‘The life I have led has afforded me little time to turn over books; but I have had leisure sufficient, while I idly rolled about the town, to look into myself’. What he found in himself was that he was infinitely delighted in the delicate surface of things, and that not for the world would he have had anything changed. All was entertaining to ‘gentle George’ or ‘easy Etherege’, to that ‘loose wand'ring Etherege, in wild pleasures tost’, of whom Southern wrote. All, except hard work.

Thus his is a perfectly simple, understandable figure in Restoration court society; he is in tune with it. His friends were Buckingham, Sedley, Rochester, Buckhurst—with the last of whom he ‘carried the two draggle-tailed nymphs one bitter frosty night over the Thames to Lambeth’1—and, above all, Dryden. He was the intimate of lords and wits, of actors (perhaps he used to spend musical evenings with the Bettertons) and of actresses. It was said he had a daughter by Mrs. Barry. He had friends at the Rose, and there was a lily at the Bar, for he was never absent from a new play, nor behindhand with a pretty woman.

Between his last two comedies he went on some diplomatic mission to Constantinople;

Ovid to Pontus sent for too much wit,
Etherege to Turkey for the want of it,

they said. When he came back he resumed his gay life, rioted at Epsom with Rochester, and wrote his best play. Then he married for money so as to get a knighthood, or got a knighthood so as to marry for money, which it was is not quite clear. In any case he does not appear to have been fortunate:

What then can Etherege urge in his defence,
What reason bring, unless 'tis want of sense.
For all he pleads beside is mere pretence …
Merit with honour joined a crown to life,
But he got honour for to get a wife.
Preposterous knighthood! in the gift severe,
For never was a knighthood bought so dear.

Etherege apparently agreed, for when in the year 1685 he was sent as envoy to Ratisbon, he left Dame Etherege behind. One of his letters to her remains:

I beg your pardon for undertaking to advise you. I am so well satisfied by your last letter of your prudence and judgement that I shall never more commit the same error. I wish there were copies of it in London; it might serve as a pattern for modest wives to write to their husbands. You shall find me so careful hereafter how I offend you, that I will no more subscribe myself your loving since you take it ill, but


Your most dutiful husband, G. E.

We see that he liked things to be clear cut.

And if he is perfectly simple to understand, so are his plays. They are pure works of art directed to no end but themselves, meant only, in Dryden's phrase, ‘to give delight’. For 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. He was a hothouse product, and knew it. ‘I must confess’, he once wrote, ‘I am a fop in my heart. I have been so used to affectation, that without the help of the air of the court, what is natural cannot touch me.’ So what was the use of Dryden urging him to ‘scribble faster’ when he was abroad? ‘I wear flannel, sir,’ he wrote to another friend, ‘wherefore, pray, talk to me no more of poetry’, for his comedy was a gesture not very different in impulse from the exquisite tying of his cravat, or the set of his wig; ‘poetry’ to him was essentially an affair of silks and perfumes, of clavichord music and corrants.

His plays then are lyrical, in the sense of being immediate reactions to things seen around him, pondered only as works of art and not as expositions of views. He was a true naïf, ‘too lazy and too careless to be ambitious’, as he wrote to Godolphin. He had no ethic to urge him to produce the laughter of social protection. His laughter, on the contrary, is always that of delight at being very much alive in the best of all possible societies, and is only corrective, here and there, by accident. There was, for instance, no move in the sometimes graceful sex-game he did not enjoy. ‘Next to the coming to a good understanding with a new mistress’, says Dorimant, whom, we may remember, he perhaps designed as a portrait of himself, ‘I love a quarrel with an old one; but the Devil's in it, there has been such a calm in my affairs of late, I have not had the pleasure of making a woman break her fan, to be sullen, or forswear herself these three days.’ Or again, in the words of Courtal, ‘A single intrigue in love is as dull as a single plot in a play, and will tire a lover worse than t'other does an audience’. The motto of life is gaiety at all costs, the first duty the defeat of dulness.

Indeed, there is no lack of plots in his first play; there are no less than four—and a curious mixture they are. There is a romantic Fletcherian plot, that of Lord Beaufort and Graciana, Bruce and Aurelia, written in rhymed couplets; a Middletonian one, with cheats and gamesters, and a great deal of noise and drinking; a number of completely farcical scenes centring about the French valet Dufoy; and finally the Sir Frederick-Widow tale, which, from both the historical and artistic points of view is the most interesting. It set the whole tone of Restoration comedy, and gave out the chief theme, which was never relinquished. At his first trial, with amazing intuition, Etherege had laid his finger upon the most promising material of his time.

The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub need not be taken very seriously. It is on the whole a sheer ebullience of high spirits, full of joyous pranks, practical joking, and charming but not very real sentiment, in which the shrewd witty observer of the later plays is almost entirely absent. Yet his alertness for a telling simile, or for bringing all London upon the stage, is apparent in the first act.

LORD Beaufort.
How now, cousin! What, at wars with the women?
SIR Frederick.
I gave a small alarm to their quarters last night, my lord.
LORD Beaufort.
Jenny in tears! What's the occasion, poor girl?
I'll tell you, my lord.
SIR Frederick.
Buzz; set not her tongue going again (clapping his hand before her mouth). She has made more noise than half a dozen paper mills! London Bridge at low water is silence to her.

This is clever drawing, but most of this comedy is the purest tomfoolery. The valet, while drugged, is locked in a tub which he has to carry about on his shoulders. ‘Vat are you?’ he cries, as he awakes. ‘Jernie! Vat is dis? Am I Jack in a box’? Begar, who did putté me here?’ Disguise is the order of the day, and there is high-spirited burlesque, as when Sir Frederick dresses up his fiddlers as bailiffs, and Dufoy, released from his tub, thinks his master is in danger. He enters, therefore, ‘with a helmet on his head, and a great sword in his hand, “Vare are de bougres de bailié! Tête-bleu, bougres rogues”’, he cries, and ‘falls upon the fiddlers’.

This is not comedy, but roaring, rollicking farce—that is, the fun depends upon incident. Our author had not found himself; there was small promise in all this of what was to come, little of the ‘sense, judgement, and wit’ for which Rochester was later to praise him. Yet in the Sir Frederick-Widow plot there are portions that treat most deliciously of the duel of the sexes.

Widow, I dare not venture myself in those amorous shades [of the garden]; you have a mind to be talking of love, I perceive, and my heart's too tender to be trusted with such conversation.
I did not imagine you were so foolishly conceited; is it your wit or your person, sir, that is so taking?

Isn't it delightfully boy and girl? And later:

By those lips,———
Nay, pray forbear, sir———
Who is conceited now, widow? Could you imagine I was so fond to kiss them?
You cannot blame me for standing on my guard, so near an enemy. …
Let us join hands then, widow.
Without the dangerous help of a parson, I do not fear it, sir.

The whole play, even to the romantic scenes, is just a youngster's game. It is tentative, full of action and boisterousness, alive with gaiety indeed, but the method is not perfected.

In She Would if She Could Etherege was much more certain of what he wanted to do. He had begun to see what elements to reject, and in consequence devoted a great deal of space to that delightful quartette, Ariana and Gatty, Courtal and Freeman. The passages where these are involved read like directions for a ballet; it is all a dance; the couples bow, set to partners, perform their evolutions, and bow again; and indeed their value consists in their ability to create this sort of atmosphere. Here is the first meeting of the principal dancers:

Fie, fie! put off these scandals to all good faces.
For your reputation's sake we shall keep 'em on. 'Slife, we should be taken for your relations if we durst show our faces with you thus publicly.
And what a shame that would be to a couple of young gallants. Methinks, you should blush to think on't.
These were pretty toys, invented, first, merely for the good of us poor lovers to deceive the jealous, and to blind the malicious; but the proper use is so wickedly perverted, that it makes all honest men hate the fashion mortally.
A good face is as seldom covered with a vizard-mask, as a good hat with an oiled case. And yet, on my conscience, you are both handsome.
Do but remove 'em a little, to satisfy a foolish scruple.
This is a just punishment you have brought upon yourselves by that unpardonable sin of talking.
You can only brag now of your acquaintance with a Farendon gown and a piece of black velvet.
The truth is, there are some vain fellows whose loose behaviour of late has given great discouragement to the honourable proceedings of all virtuous ladies.
But I hope you have more charity than to believe us of the number of the wicked.

And here is another figure:

I suppose your mistress, Mr. Courtal, is always the last woman you are acquainted with.
Do not think, madam, I have that false measure of my acquaintance which poets have of their verses, always to think the last best—though I esteem you so in justice to your merit.
Or if you do not love her best, you always love to talk of her most; as a barren coxcomb that wants discourse is ever entertaining company out of the last book he read in.
Now you accuse me most unjustly, madam; who the devil that has common sense will go birding with a clack in his cap.?
Nay, we do not blame you, gentlemen; every one in their way; a huntsman talks of his dogs, a falconer of his hawks, a jockey of his horse, and a gallant of his mistress.
Without the allowance of this vanity, an amour would soon grow as dull as matrimony.

The very words foot it briskly, taking their ease among horsemen's terms. When Courtal and Freeman first sight Ariana and Gatty in the Mulberry Garden, Freeman says, ‘'Sdeath, how fleet they are! Whatsoever faults they have they cannot be broken-winded.’ And Courtal takes it up, ‘Sure, by that little mincing step they should be country fillies that have been breathed a course at park and barley-break.2 We shall never reach 'em.’ Sir Joslin Jolley, the young ladies' kinsman, describes Gatty as ‘a clean-limbed wench, and has neither spavin, splinter nor wind-gall’, while Sir Joslin himself is straight from the kennels, and evidently hunts his own hounds. ‘Here they are, boys, i' faith’, is his method of introducing ‘that couple of sly skittish fillies’, his wards, to the young gallants, ‘heuk! Sly girls and madcap, to 'em, to 'em boys, alou!’

Though full of charm and vivacity, the play was not a success when first acted. Pepys wrote that he heard ‘Etheredge, the poet … mightily find fault with the actors, that they were out of humour, and had not their parts perfect, and that Harris (who played Sir Joslin) did do nothing’, and Shadwell supports the view that it was badly acted. But, indeed, it was difficult for the actors to be in humour, for Etherege had fallen between two stools. He had not quite fused the elements of art and life, for side by side with Ariana's fragile world we have the full-blooded boisterousness of Sir Joslin Jolley and Sir Oliver Cockwood. With those boon companions the play could hardly fail to partake of rough and tumble. They are bold, desperate old fellows among women and wine, and Sir Joslin is ever bursting into song which for frankness would not have disgraced our armies in Flanders. The two atmospheres are mutually destructive. Etherege had not yet broken away from the late Elizabethan tradition.

The Cockwoods and Sir Joslin are, for the matter of that, would-be Jonsonian, but they have all the grittiness of Jonsonian characters without their depth. What are we to make of this scene, where Lady Cockwood is in company with the young ladies and their gallants, Sir Joslin, and Sentry, her ‘gentlewoman’?

SIR Oliver
(strutting). Dan, dan, da, ra, dan, & c. Avoid my presence! the very sight of that face makes me more impotent than an eunuch.
LADY Cock.
Dear Sir Oliver (offering to embrace him).
SIR Oliver.
Forbear your conjugal clippings; I will have a wench; thou shalt fetch me a wench, Sentry.
Can you be so inhuman to my dear lady?
SIR Oliver.
Peace, Envy, or I will have thee executed for petty treason; thy skin flayed off, stuffed and hung up in my hall in the country, as a terror to my whole family.

It is no wonder that after the scene in the Mulberry Garden the actors were a little puzzled; it is too brutal, and the punishment that follows upon Sir Joslin's misdemeanour is humorous fantasy, certainly, but a little crude in idea. His clothes are locked up, with the exception of his ‘penitential suit’, an old-fashioned, worn-out garment in which he dare not stir abroad.

Lady Cockwood, who gives the play its title, is an unpleasant character, not clearly conceived. The ‘noble laziness of the mind’, of which Etherege was so proud, forbade him to deal ably with things he did not like. Since he was no satirist (until he went to Ratisbon), and did not feel impelled to criticize manners—which after all suited him admirably—he could only touch well what he could touch lovingly. And he did not love Lady Cockwood. She was a woman eager for amorous adventure, and equally eager to preserve her ‘honour’; so far good. But Courtal, whom she pursued ferociously, found her ‘the very spirit of impertinence, so foolishly fond and troublesome, that no man above sixteen is able to endure her’. Alas! the poor soul had not got the technique of the Restoration game; she could not pretend to deny.

On the other hand, there is plenty of fun to be got out of her, and Courtal's evasions of her addresses are full of ingenuity. The figure of the man who, as his name implies, was not over selective, pursued by a woman he cannot endure, provides a good case of the Meredithan comic. But the best scene of all, where she is concerned, takes place in an eating-house. She has gone there with Courtal, Freeman, and the two young ladies, leaving Sir Oliver safe at home in his penitential suit. But though he had ‘intended to retire into the pantry and there civilly to divert himself at backgammon with the butler’, Sir Joslin lures him forth with the promise of good wine, and women not so good, to the very place where Lady Cockwood has gone. Her ladyship outmanœuvres her husband, and bursts upon him with all the colours of offended virtue flying bravely. After a counterfeited swoon she breaks out:

Perfidious man; I am too tame and foolish. Were I every day at the plays, the Park and Mulberry Garden, with a kind look secretly to indulge the unlawful passion of some young gallant; or did I associate myself with the gaming madams, and were every afternoon at my Lady Brief's and my Lady Meanwell's at ombre and quebas, pretending ill-luck to borrow money of a friend, and then pretending good luck to excuse the plenty to a husband, my suspicious demeanour had deserved this; but I who out of a scrupulous tenderness to my honour, and to comply with thy base jealousy, have denied myself all those blameless recreations which a virtuous lady might enjoy, to be thus inhumanly reviled in my own person, and thus unreasonably robbed and abused in thine too!

Such admirable prose from a lady so little able to manage her affairs astonishes Courtal. ‘Sure she will take up anon, or crack her mind, or else the devil's in it’, he remarks. And here we see the value of the restraint Etherege had learned; the Elizabethan scene might have romped away with him to the regions of farce, but seeing the danger he pulled it together with some neat phrasing. The jeunes premiers and their partners are calming Lady Cockwood after her outburst against her husband:

How bitterly he weeps! how sadly he sighs!
I daresay he counterfeited his sin, and is real in his repentance.
Compose yourself a little, pray Madam; all this was mere raillery, a way of talk, which Sir Oliver, being well bred, has learned among the gay people of the town.
If you did but know, Madam, what an odious thing it is to be thought to love a wife in good company, you would easily forgive him.

What charming wit! and how naïvely Etherege seems to believe in the argument himself!

The above may show how Etherege laughed with delight at the entertaining thing life was. Neither it nor his plays were to be taken too seriously. Both were vastly amusing things, and sex comedy like the frolicking of lambs. He rarely makes an appeal to the intellect. Yet there are two or three notes in this play that, wittingly or not, cause that deeper laughter, provoked by man's realization of his own helplessness against his desires, the laughter at the triumph of man's body over his mind Schlegel found at the root of all comedy. Thus when the young ladies are finally engaged, Sir Joslin asks, ‘Is it a match, boys?’ and Courtal replies, ‘if the heart of man be not very deceitful, 'tis very likely it may be so’.

After this play Etherege was silent for eight years, and in the interval two things had happened; he had become less boisterous, his pleasures were becoming those of the intellect rather than those of the healthy animal seeking ‘wild pleasures’ as an outlet for his energies; and at the same time he had begun to weary a little of the game, so that here and there we have a display of sheer bad temper. He was no longer so young as he had been, and perhaps the life led by ‘gentle George’ was beginning to tell on his nerves. But if in his weariness he would have liked solitude, he could not endure dullness. If it can be said he was afflicted by any sort of Weltschmierz, he knew of no method to dissipate it other than a brawl, such as the one which, in the year The Man of Mode appeared, culminated in the death of one of the participators. So, as already in the rough and tumble of his earlier comedies we find a spice of brutality underlying the laughter, in his last play there is now and again a harshness that is in danger of spoiling it. When he writes such a sentence as ‘I have of late lived as chaste as my Lady Etherege’, we get a hint of the state of mind that produced the Dorimant-Mrs. Loveit scenes in The Man of Mode. We may take the first, where Dorimant, determined to break relations with his mistress for the sake of her ‘friend’ Belinda, sets to work:

Faithless, inhuman, barbarous man!
Good, now, the alarm strikes—
Without sense of love, of honour, or of gratitude, tell me—for I will know—what devil, masked she, were you with at the play yesterday?
Faith, I resolved as much as you, but the devil was obstinate and would not tell me.
False in this as in your vows to me! You do know.
The truth is, I did all I could to know.
And dare you own it to my face? Hell and furies—(tears her fan in pieces)
Spare your fan, madam; you are growing hot, and will want it to cool you.
Horror and distraction seize you, sorrow and remorse gnaw your soul, and punish all your perjuries to me (Weeps).
So thunder breaks the clouds in twain
And makes a passage for the rain.

This is no longer in comedy vein; it is too cruel. It was no wonder that Belinda, herself the ‘devil, masked she’, declared:

He's given me the proof I desired of his love:
                                        But 'tis a proof of his ill-nature too;
                                        I wish I had not seen him use her so.

But the ill-nature does not stop there, and Dorimant becomes an outrageous bully. He gets Belinda to induce Loveit to walk in the Mall that he may cause her to make a fool of herself with Sir Fopling. Even Belinda protests, ‘You persecute her too much’, but the excuse is that ‘You women make 'em (the afflications in love), who are commonly as unreasonable in that as you are at play; without the advantage be on your side, a man can never quietly give over when he is weary’. This is sex-antagonism with a vengeance; we are down to bedrock here, and thus expressed it is not very laughable. There is too much spite in it.

At the same time Mrs. Loveit is an amazingly natural presentation of a jealous woman, struggling fiercely against her fate. She did not deserve to be told in public by Harriet, her successful rival, a charming coquette full of womanly wisdom, that ‘Mr. Dorimant has been your God Almighty long enough’, and that she must find another lover, or, better still, betake herself to a nunnery! Yet this only harshness in an otherwise admirable comedy may not have appeared a flaw to the audiences of those days. Those scenes may have induced the laughter of common sense which the writer of comedy can rarely escape, but for us they spoil the delight. After all, Etherege could do better on the theme:

It is not, Celia, in our power
To say how long our love will last;
It may be we within this hour
May lose those joys we now do taste;
The blessed, that immortal be,
From change in love are only free.
Then since we lovers mortal are,
Ask not how long our love will last;
But while it does let us take care
Each minute be with pleasure pass'd:
Were it not madness to deny
To live, because we're sure to die?

the perfect expression of Etherege's philosophy of love—and life. For even in this comedy he could keep the sentiment on the lyric level, as when Emilia says, ‘Do not vow—Our love is frail as is our life and full as little in our power; and are you sure you shall outlive this day?’

To turn to Dorimant. He is a marvellous erotic, with ‘more mistresses now depending than the most eminent lawyer in England has causes’. ‘Constancy at my years!’ he cries. ‘You might as well expect the fruit the autumn ripens in the spring.’ He has, moreover, the courage of his philosophy. ‘When love grows diseased the best thing we can do is to put it to a violent death; I cannot endure the torture of a lingering and consumptive passion.’ He is master of all the technique of feminine conquest; he can pique as well as caress and insinuate, and his method of attack on Harriet is blunt. Loving her to the distraction of marriage—though even here he must excuse himself on the plea that it will ‘repair the ruins of my estate’—he attempts the satiric. He tells her:

I observed how you were pleased when the fops cried, She's handsome, very handsome, by God she is, … then to make yourself more agreeable, how wantonly you played with your head, flung back your locks, and look'd smilingly over your shoulder at 'em.

Temerarious man, she was more than a match for him, and retorted with an admirable little sketch of what we cannot but think an odious gallant:

I do not go begging the men's, as you do the ladies' good liking, with a sly softness in your looks and a gentle slowness in your bows as you pass by 'em—as thus, sir—(acts him).

For Etherege was a master of witty description: the fat orange-woman is an ‘overgrown jade with a flasket of guts before her’, or an ‘insignificant brandy-bottle’; Medley, as Amelia tells him, is ‘a living libel, a breathing lampoon’, and he is at times ‘rhetorically drunk’. This is the bright current coin of lively description, but Etherege, with his vivid imagination, can give us wonderful set pieces of brilliant mimicry. Long before we see Sir Fopling Flutter, we know exactly what he looks like:

He was yesterday at the play, with a pair of gloves up to his elbow and a periwig more exactly curled than a lady's head newly dressed for a ball. … His head stands for the most part on one side, and his looks are more languishing than a lady's when she lolls at stretch in her coach, or leans her head carelessly against the side of a box in the playhouse.

He delighted to observe every pose and gesture, each revealing intonation. Here, for instance, are Young Bellair and Harriet instructing one another how to appear charmed by each other's company, so as to deceive their parents about their real sentiments. First Bellair has his lesson from Harriet:

Your head a little more on one side, ease yourself on your left leg, and play with your right hand.
Thus, is it not?
Now set your right leg firm on the ground, adjust your belt, then look about you … Smile, and turn to me again very sparkish.

Then it is her turn to be instructed:

Now spread your fan, look down upon it, and tell the sticks with a finger …
'Twill not be amiss now to seem a little pleasant.
Clap your fan then in both your hands, snatch it to your mouth, smile, and with a lively motion fling your body a little forwards. So—now spread it; fall back on the sudden, … take up! look grave and fall a-fanning of yourself—admirably well acted.

Could anything be written with a surer touch, a greater descriptive acumen?

Occasionally he touches farce in a manner we must admit is Molièresque:

Where does she live?
They lodge at my house.
Nay, then she's in a hopeful way.
Good Mr. Medley, say your pleasure of me, but take heed how you affront my house. God's my life, in a hopeful way!

Finally, the character of his observation may be seen in Dorimant's remark:

I have known many women make a difficulty of losing a maidenhead, who have afterwards made none of a cuckold.

Or in this letter from Molly:

I have no money, and am very mallicolly, pray send me a guynie to see the operies.

This is life, and its placing makes it art.

The ostensible hero of the play, Sir Fopling Flutter, has little to do with the action. He is the most delicately and sympathetically drawn of all the fops in the great series of coxcombs. He is in himself a delight, presented from pure joy of him, and is not set up merely as a target for the raillery of wiser fools. Unlike Vanbrugh's Lord Foppington, he has no intellectual idea behind his appearance. He exists by his garments and his calèche; there is, as it were, no noumenal Flutter. We have his picture:

LADY Town.
His gloves are well fringed, large and graceful.
SIR Fop.
I was always eminent for being bien ganté.
He wears nothing but what are originals of the most famous hands in Paris. …
LADY Town.
The suit?
SIR Fop.
The garniture?
SIR Fop.
Le Gras.
The shoes?
SIR Fop.
The periwig?
SIR Fop.
The gloves?
SIR Fop. Orangerie.
You know the smell, ladies.

Moreover, all the people around him enjoy him as much as Etherege himself so evidently did. Life would be the duller without him, and so his existence is justified. He must even be encouraged:

SIR Fop.
An intrigue now would be but a temptation to throw away that vigour on one, which I mean shall shortly make my court to the whole sex in a ballet.
Wisely considered, Sir Fopling.
SIR Fop.
No one woman is worth the loss of a cut in a caper.
Not when 'tis so universally designed.

It is exquisite. Etherege never oversteps the bounds. Sir Fopling is not for a moment the fatuous ass Vanbrugh's Lord Foppington becomes. Should he say, ‘I cannot passitively tell whether ever I shall speak again or nat’, our attitude would at once become critical. But this one cannot be with Sir Fopling, who so obviously enjoys himself without any affectation whatever. He is not like Sir Courtly Nice in Crowne's comedy, who when challenged declared, ‘It goes against my stomach horribly to fight such a beast. Should his filthy sword but touch me, 'twould make me as sick as a dog.’ Etherege was too good an artist for that kind of exaggeration. He presented, and avoided awakening the critical spirit. Sir Fopling was to him what a rare orchid is to an enthusiastic gardener, a precious specimen, and the finger of satire must not be allowed to touch him. We should be fools to take the trouble to think Sir Fopling a fool, and to weary of him would be to show ourselves ‘a little too delicate’, like Emilia. It is not as an universal abstract that he exists, but as a fantasy. To him, and perhaps to him only, Charles Lamb's remarks are applicable. No disharmonies of flesh and blood disturb this delicate creation: no blast of reality dispels the perfumery, or ruffles the least hair on the inimitable perruque. No acrimony guided the pen that described him, no word of common sense reduced him to a right proportion among ‘les gens graves et sérieux, les vieillards, et les amateurs de vertu’. To attempt to deduce a lesson from him is as fruitful as to seek a symbol in a primrose, a meaning in the contours of a cloud.

But Etherege was writing comedy, and he could not quite escape the presentment of the happy mean, or an indication of the most comfortable way to live. Bellair, ‘always complaisant and seldom impertinent’, is to be our model; but even he errs on the side of sentiment, and does not escape the comic censor:

I could find in my heart to resolve not to marry at all.
Fie, fie! that would spoil a good jest, and disappoint the well natured town of an occasion of laughing at you.

Indeed, Etherege, from the ‘free’ comedy point of view, was slightly tarnished by experience. ‘When your love's grown strong enough to make you bear being laughed at, I'll give you leave to trouble me with it’, Harriet tells Dorimant. She was in the right of it there, but it has a serious note, and Medley is ever and anon a little tiresome. To him Sir Fopling is ‘a fine-mettled coxcomb, brisk and insipid, pert and dull’, but one would weary of Medley sooner than of Sir Fopling. These, however, are only occasional lapses, and even the most sententious remarks are relieved in a spirit of tomfoolery, or lightened with a happier wisdom. When Harriet says ‘beauty runs as great a risk exposed at Court as wit does on the stage’, she would have pleased Collier, until she added, ‘where the ugly and the foolish all are free to censure’, and the sound truths enunciated by Loveit and Dorimant are only by way of weapons against each other. They would be the last to live by their own precepts.

For some reason Etherege has been much neglected. Leigh Hunt did not include him in his famous edition—it was thus his none too blameless life escaped the misrepresentations of Macaulay—nor does he grace the Mermaid collection. But Mr. Gosse and Mr. Palmer have done much to remedy this, and the former has done him full justice as a delicate painter who loved subtle contrasts in ‘rose-colour and pale grey’, who delighted in grace and movement and agreeable groupings. It is a frivolous world, Strephon bending on one knee to Chloe, who fans the pink blush on her painted cheek, while Momus peeps with a grimace through the curtains behind her. They form an engaging trio, ‘mais ce n'est pas la vie humaine’. Well it is not la vie humaine to us nowadays, but if it was such to Dennis (‘I allow it to be nature’), how much more so must it have been to the Sedleys, the Rochesters, and the Beau Hewitts! Even Langbaine stated it to be ‘as well drawn to the life as any play that has been acted since the restoration of the English stage’. And if Steele said that ‘this whole celebrated piece is a perfect contradiction of good manners, good sense, and common honesty’, we must remember that such a play could never appeal to the ‘good sense’ of the confectioner of the sentimental comedy.

Etherege, if you will, is a minor writer, in his exuberance nearer Mrs. Behn than to Congreve with his depth. But from another point of view he is far above all the other playwrights of his period, for he did something very rare in our literature. He presented life treated purely as an appearance: there was no more meaning in it apart from its immediate reactions than there is in a children's game of dumb-crambo. This sort of comedy, while it is realistic in semblance, and faithfully copies the outward aspects of the time, creates an illusion of life that is far removed from reality. Here is no sense of grappling with circumstance, for man is unencumbered by thoughts or passions. Life is a merry-go-round, and there is no need to examine the machinery or ponder on the design. It is not play for the sake of exercise, but play for its own sake, and the game must not be allowed to become too arduous. Nor is it life seen at a distance, but the forms of those known and liked seen intimately from a shady arbour in an old, sunny garden. Butterflies hover against the wall, and the sound of the viol da gamba floats serenely over the scent-laden atmosphere, while the figures, absorbed in their own youth, bend gracefully to the movements of the bourrée or sarabande. Eheu fugaces! Yes, now and again: but the idle thought passes in the ripples of laughter, and the solemn motto on the sundial is hidden beneath the roses.


  1. An episode of which he reminded Dorset in a letter from Ratisbon. Etherege, Letter-book, Brit. Mus. MS.

  2. A game not unlike Prisoner's Base.

Ashley H. Thorndike (essay date 1929)

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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 archetype of the Restoration comedy both for the admirers and the detractors of that species. Of Etherege's life little is known; he apparently lived in France long enough to gain an intimate knowledge of things Parisian; he was a gay man about town, the companion of Rochester and Sedley, married a fortune, was knighted and at fifty left England for a diplomatic career at Ratisbon. French literature and manners perhaps helped to form his style and dramatic method, but his plays are manifestly a reflection of the manners and the wit of the London circle of which he was thought one of the ornaments.

His first play, The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub (1664) has little to distinguish it from other plays of that date. The serious plot in which love and honour appear in their loftiest mien is written in rhymed couplets, then a novelty; and the realistic scenes are in prose which is at least vastly superior to the verse. The confusion of heroics, humours and intrigues gives little hint of a new dramatic development, unless in the occasional wit and gaiety of Sir Frederick Frollick and his impudent French valet, borrowed from Molière.

The Comical Revenge appears to have excited so much interest that the second play She Wou'd if She Cou'd (1668) was greeted with extraordinary excitement, Pepys finding the theater crowded and “1000 people put back that could not have room in the pit.” The piece did not at first meet the public expectations, but it soon won general admiration, Shadwell declaring it “the best comedy that has been written since the restoration of the stage.” It shows indeed a marked improvement over the earlier play. Sentiment and heroics have disappeared, and though both intrigue and humours are commonplace, they are brightened by wit, with enough hints of characterization to give verisimilitude to the clever dialogue. Courtal, the self-contained and cynical gentleman, directs the tricks and the wit, frees himself from the seductions of the middle-aged Lady Cockwood and captures for himself and his friend Freeman the two young heiresses, “sly girl and madcap.” This seems to have been the epitome of life and the triumph of wit as understood by Restoration comedy.

The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter was not produced until eight years later, after Dryden's Marriage à la Mode and all four of Wycherley's comedies. It is, however, nearer to Congreve and Sheridan than any of those plays, and unquestionably a fine example of the pure comedy of manners. It is free from sentimentality or heroics and from practical jokes or impossible tricks, while its humours are confined to the affected Sir Fopling Flutter, the first of a long line of stage fops airing French styles on the English stage. Five gentlemen encounter six gentlewomen in various drawing-rooms or on the Mall, and both action and conversation move nimbly and naturally without any excess unless it be of wit. The chief personage is the arrogant, clear-headed and cold-hearted Dorimant, thought at the time to have been patterned after Rochester. His manners are admirable when he wishes them to be; his wit equal to any occasion and master over his emotions or even his vanity. He coldly insults and discards one mistress, the ardent and hysterical Mrs. Loveit, as coolly dismisses her successor, the timid but amorous Belinda, and carries off the heiress, overcoming by his politeness and self-control the alarms of her mother and her own sharp-tongued defense.

A few lines may be enough to recall the exquisite finish and the dramatic point of the dialogue. The stage has filled for the closing scene. The two cast mistresses have intruded on the company but have failed in their purpose to injure Dorimant. The mother of the heiress graciously accepts him.

LADY Woodvil.
Mr. Dorimant, every one has spoke so much in your behalf that I can no longer doubt but I was in the wrong.

Then Mrs. Loveit speaking to Belinda, the other cast mistress, fires her parting shot.

MRS. Loveit.
There's nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world, all men are villains or fools; take example from my misfortunes, Belinda; if thou wouldst be happy, give thyself wholly up to goodness.

Harriet, the heiress, now hastens to take a shot at her retreating rival.

(to Loveit). Mr. Dorimant has been your God Almighty long enough; 'tis time to think of another.
Jeered by her! I will lock myself up in my house and never see the world again.
A nunnery is the more fashionable place for such a retreat, and has been the fatal consequence of many a belle passion.
Hold, heart! till I get home; should I answer, 'twould make her triumph greater.

[Is going out.

Dorimant does not speak to the furious lady, or even escort her to the door, but in two words he completes her humiliation by passing her over to the odious fop.

Your hand, Sir Fopling—
SIR Fopling.
Shall I wait after you, madam?
Legion of fools, as many devils take thee!


But the lovers do not now rush into each other's arms. That is not the fashion. Lady Woodvil invites Dorimant to visit them in the country, and the last words of the lovers before the final dance are as follows:

To a great rambling lone house that looks as if it were not inhabited, the family's so small; there you'll find my mother, an old lame aunt, and myself, sir, perched up on chairs at a distance in a large parlour, sitting moping like three or four melancholy birds in a spacious volery. Does not this stagger your resolution?
Not at all, madam. The first time I saw you, you left me with the pangs of love upon me, and this day my soul has quite given up her liberty.
This is more dismal than the country, Emilia; pity me who am going to that sad place. Methinks I hear the hateful noise of rooks already—Knaw, knaw, knaw. There's music in the worst cry in London. My dill and cucumbers to pickle.

Everyone has admired the wit that distinguishes all the persons of the play, but there has been difference of opinion as to how far it presents a natural or an artificial view of society. Etherege has been denied skill in characterization; and Dryden's criticism, extravagant if applicable at all, has been sometimes echoed in regard to his masterpiece—“being too witty himself, he could draw nothing but wits in a comedy of his; even his fools were infected with the disease of the author. They overflowed with smart repartee, and were only distinguished from the intended wits by being called coxcombs though they deserved not so scandalous a name.”2 Etherege anticipates such criticism when he makes Emilia say of Sir Fopling, “However you despise him, gentlemen, I'll lay my life he passes for a wit with many.” But really his pseudo wit and affected asininity are made apparent, although without exaggeration or horseplay. And the gentlemen and ladies are sufficiently individualized in spite of the fact that they all exhibit skill in dialogue and repartee. They do not attempt to lay bare their souls, but they never speak out of character, and we have some satisfaction in knowing that such superior gentlemen as Dorimant and Bellair find ladies who match them in wit. Superior wit is, of course, always artificial in comparison with the dulness of ordinary conversation, but the dialogue in The Man of Mode presents a real society and real persons. “I allow it to be nature,” cried Steele in The Spectator, “but it is nature in its utmost corruption and degeneracy.”3 Well, Etherege's view of human nature is assuredly not that of the sentimentalists or idealists, but he holds up for admiration neither corruption nor degeneracy but good manners and good dialogue. He sees the comedy of life, not through sentiment or fancy, nor with either malice or kindness, nor with any emotional prepense whatever, but with a cynicism and wit that both spring from the intellect. This is something new in our dramatic art, and it is not, I think, without a refreshing moral stimulus.


  1. Hazlitt, quoted from The English Comic Writers.

  2. Dryden's criticism. See A. W. Ward, Vol. III, p. 444.

  3. Steele, Spectator, No. 65. See also No. 51 for further criticism of Etherege.

Thomas H. Fujimura (essay date 1952)

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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 are fortunate in having the Letterbook, the epistolary record of his last years at Ratisbon. From these letters, both personal and official, and also from contemporary records, there emerges a clear picture of Etherege as a Truewit—libertine, skeptical, naturalistic, and more concerned with wit than with morality or “manners.”

Unfortunately, Etherege has suffered the same misinterpretation as have his comedies, and at present his true features are obscured by the descriptions of the censorious and of the “manners” critics. On the one hand, he is called “the most irresponsible rake of all,” “an atrocious libertine” who could be fierce and vindictive under passion, and a man whose life is “a sordid story.”1 On the other hand, he is described by the “manners” critics as “a brilliant butterfly, alighting only upon such things as attract him; a creature without much depth, but of an extraordinary charm and a marvellous surety of touch.”2 He is called “a delicate painter who loved subtle contrasts in ‘rose-colour and pale grey’”;3 and he is said to have encountered gracefully the one problem of his generation, that of style, “whether it was fighting the Dutch, defeating the policy of Achitophel, tying a riband, or writing a play.”4 The world of his plays is described as a frivolous one, where Strephon bends on one knee to Chloe fanning the pink blush on her painted cheek, while Momus peeps out at them—“an engaging trio, mais ce n'est pas de la vie humaine.5

Of these two schools, the moralistic critics have at least a more colorful conception of Etherege than his apologists, who emasculate both the man and his art. But neither gives a credible nor faithful picture of the witty dramatist who created such intelligent and convincing people as Harriet and Dorimant. What is needed is an examination of Etherege's ideas and personality to determine to what extent he was affected by the currents of naturalism, skepticism, and libertinism, and how his comedies are an aesthetic expression of the Truewit's attitude toward life. Once we have a clear picture of Etherege as a human being, and of the connection between the man and his art, we shall not dismiss him casually as a brilliant butterfly or a mere rake, nor regard his plays as creating only the illusion of life.

The accounts of his contemporaries do not harmonize with either of the descriptions given above of Etherege. By Oldys he was called “a celebrated Wit,” and he was praised by Langbaine as “a Gentleman sufficiently eminent in the Town for his Wit and Parts, and One whose tallent in sound Sence, and the Knowledge of Wit and Humour, are sufficiently conspicuous.”6 The Earl of Rochester, in “A Trial of the Poets for the Bays,” credited Etherege with “fancy, sense, judgment and wit”—virtues which are not all suggested in the “manners” description. The charming, yet rather malicious, character of his wit is evident from his comedies (particularly in such passages as the raillery between Dorimant and Harriet), the rallying letter to Buckingham, and some “smart lampoons” on Nell Gwynn with which Theophilus Cibber credited him.7 In his writings there was a grace, delicacy, and courtly air that made them attractive;8 and this, with his affable and courteous deportment, and his sprightly and generous temper, gained him the character of “Gentle” George and “Easy” Etherege.9 By virtue of these qualities, he gained ready access to the best company, and soon became a popular companion of aristocratic Wits like Buckingham, Rochester, Sir Car Scroope, Sedley, and Henry Savile.10 They constituted an intimate circle with similar tastes: they were all men of wit and pleasure, all naturalistic, libertine, and skeptical; they were occasionally amateur men of letters, now and then diplomats, and sometimes rakes, but always Truewits. With them Etherege had his share of writing, diplomacy, and dissipation. He wrote three plays and some verse, served as secretary to the English ambassador at Constantinople, created some scandal, and in late life found himself the King's envoy at Ratisbon.

There is not much need to linger over the more scandalous events of his life, such as his part, with Rochester, in the notorious Downes affair in which Downes was killed,11 his squabble with Buckley,12 his championing of the actress Julia which upset the staid citizens of Ratisbon,13 or his keeping a wench and getting diseased.14 He was, as Cibber said, as great a libertine “in speculation as in practice.”15 Such libertinism was the product of an unsettled age, when the Civil Wars created political and social chaos, and the “new philosophy” induced skepticism among thinking men. Etherege belonged to a younger generation, described by Clarendon as having no respect for authority or religion, which had seen conventional notions discarded and family relations destroyed.16 He passed through an unsettled youth in unsettled times, and though of gentle birth, he seems to have had little or no university training, and went early into France to escape the Civil Wars in England.17

The libertinism of Etherege consisted of a witty, naturalistic attitude born of such conditions, rather than of settled principles arrived at through speculation. There is a poem by him entitled “The Libertine” which sums up the easy carpe diem philosophy by which he lived:

Since death on all lays his impartial hand,
And all resign at his command,
The Stoic too, as well as I,
With all his gravity must die:
Let's wisely manage the last span,
The momentary life of man,
And still in pleasure's circle move,
Giving t'our friends the days, and all our nights to love.
Thus, thus, whilst we are here, let's perfectly live,
And taste all the pleasures that nature can give;
And fill all our veins with a noble desire.

In this and the remaining stanzas, there is a touch of disillusionment and cynicism, a sense of the brevity and vanity of this “momentary life of man”; but this is buoyed up by the witty irreverence for conventional notions, and a zestful relish for “all the pleasures that nature can give,” such as friendship, gaming, wine, women, and wit.

His easy libertinism and his naturalistic bias are expressed also in his letters from Ratisbon. Like his friend the Earl of Rochester, Etherege pursued the pleasures of “wine and women,”18 and he found himself “often very hearty” with a “plain Bavarian,”19 though he complained that the handsome young ladies were difficult because “their unconscionable price is marriage.”20 To a man who had been “bred in a free nation / With liberty of speech and passion,”21 it must have been extremely painful to curtail the natural indulgence of sexual passion, which he believed good and necessary. “'Tis a fine thing,” he exclaimed, “for a Man, who has been nourish'd so many Years with good substantial Flesh and Blood, to be reduc'd to Sighs and Wishes, and all those airy Courses which are serv'd up to feast a belle Passion.”22 But at least there was the divertissement of “le traîneau où l'on se met en croupe de quelque belle Allemande,”23 and for a time there was also Julia, “a comedian no less handsome and no less kind in Dutchland than Mrs. Johnson was in England.”24 At times, after over-indulgence, he confessed himself more epicurean than libertine: “tout d'un coup je suis devenu disciple d'Épicure, je me tien, dans ma petite retraite, et je me suis établi pour maxime que la plus grand volupté consiste dans une parfaite santé.”25

His philosophy was a worldly and sensible one arrived at through experience and observation, and he was never overly interested in anything transcendental or theoretical. Speaking of his epicureanism, he declared: “je n'ai pas le loisir de m'étendre sur un si digne sujet; pour ces atomes ils ne me rompent guère la tête.” Metaphysics and the atoms of Democritus were beyond his scope: “Par la grâce de Dieu je sais où mon esprit est borné et je ne me mets guère en peine de savoir de quelle manière ce monde ici a été fait ou comment on se divert dans l'autre.”26 Like the skeptical St. Evremond, Etherege regarded such metaphysical speculations as futile and sterile.

His skeptical and naturalistic temper is evident also in his references to religion. In such matters he confessed, “'tis indifferent to me whether there be any other in the world who thinks as I do; this makes me have no temptation to talk of the business.”27 As the boon companion of free-thinkers like Sedley and Rochester, Etherege probably had a commonsensical, and perhaps deistic, attitude toward religion, and he no doubt accepted the hereafter as another of the possible hazards of existence. In a letter to a friend he said that the only quarrel that Mme. de Crecy had with them was that they were “heretics,”28 and Hughes reported the Count to have said of Etherege, “Ce que je trouve de plus pire en lui que toutes ses débauches est, qu'il est profane et voudrait persuader tout le monde d'être de son sentiment.”29 There is no proof that Etherege was atheistic, but he was at least anticlerical and as Erastian as Hobbes, for he wrote of the clergy: “The mischief they daily do in the world makes me have no better an opinion of them than Lucian had of the ancient philosophers; their pride, their passion, and their covetousness makes them endeavour to destroy the government they were instituted to support, and, instead of taking care of the quietness of our souls, they are industrious to make us cut one another's throats.”30

As a Truewit he accepted the vicissitudes of this life with equanimity, and without too much anxiety about the future. Of his attitude toward life he wrote:

Humble to fortune, not her slave,
I still was pleas'd with what she gave;
And, with a firm, and cheerful mind,
I steer my course with every wind,
To all the ports she has design'd.(31)

He accepted life as it is, without complaint, because he had experienced enough of it to know what its limitations are. After all, this life is brief, and there is the disillusionment of knowing that “our Gayety and Vigour leaves us so soon in the lurch, … Feebleness attacks us without giving us fair Warning, and we no sooner pass the Meridian of Life but begin to decline.”32 He was not dazzled by the sham prizes of this world; and when James Fitzjames, the king's natural son, received a dukedom, Etherege wrote him that such honors are of no intrinsic value—“nevertheless the glittering favours of fortune are necessary to entertain those who, without examining any deeper, worship appearances.”33 This is the wisdom of a Truewit who has seen enough of the world to know that titles are baubles, of no intrinsic value to men of sense, yet useful in impressing the foolish, with whom the world abounds. When Etherege was praised too highly by Lord Dover, he wrote back: “The life I have led has afforded me little time to turn over books, but I have had leisure sufficient while I idly rolled about the town to look into myself and know when I am too highly valued.”34 He was not swayed by popular opinion or rumor, and upon hearing that Prince Herman of Baden, who was coming to Ratisbon, was an intolerably proud person, Etherege wrote to his superior in London, “I know the injury report generally does to mankind and therefore will not give you his character by hearsay, but stay till I have seen him and know him a little myself.”35 He showed manliness and generosity, if not prudence, in defending the actress Julia against the irate citizens of Ratisbon,36 and he remained loyal to King James to the end of his life.

This is hardly the superficial “butterfly” depicted by the “manners” critics. Though never profound in his thinking, Etherege had the sensible worldliness of an Augustan like Horace. He was not overly interested in speculative matters like religion and philosophy, and he lived for this world in an epicurean spirit, in accordance with his naturalistic bias; but he was tolerant of others' beliefs, affectionate toward his friends, and capable of loyalty. He accepted this life, according to his judgment, without illusions, and he lived it as sensibly and pleasantly as a Truewit could, suffering neither envy at the fortunes of others nor regret for his libertine existence.

Toward women he had the naturalistic bias of most Truewits: he regarded them as affected, hypocritical, vain, and dissembling creatures, useful principally for venereal pleasures. From Constantinople, during his secretaryship there, he wrote of the Sultana: “though women here are not so polite and refin'd as in Christendome, yet shee wants not her little arts to secure her Sultan's affections, shee can dissemble fondness and jealousy and can swoone at pleasure.”37 He probably agreed with Dryden when the latter wrote to him from London, “Ask me not of love, for every man hates every man perfectly and women are still the same bitches.”38 To Buckingham he wrote a witty account of how a grief-stricken widow, a “Pattern of Conjugal Fidelity,” had eloped with a young ensign, after being persuaded that immoderate sorrow would be ruinous to her beauty, and had thus proved herself a modern example of the Widow of Ephesus.39 Toward matrimony he could scarcely be charitable in view of his own unhappy marriage to a widow, gently described by an anonymous writer as “a Bitch, / A Wizard, wrincled Woman, & a Witch.”40 In a poem “To a lady, asking him how long he would love her,” he declared that a man and woman should be constant to each other, freely and naturally, only so long as love endured between them; any such yoke as marriage was an unnatural imposition on human nature, and a commitment to love one another when love had ceased to exist.

Being a Truewit, he was opposed not only to marriage but to business; and as the King's envoy at Ratisbon he conducted himself more like a Wit than a diplomat, though he discharged his duties creditably. He was encouraged in this attitude by his superior and friend Lord Middleton, who wrote, “I hope in a little time we may hear something of your diversions as well as your business, which would be much pleasanter, and perhaps as instructive.”41 Following such advice, Etherege referred lightly to political matters, and to a friend he wrote, “The business of the Diet for the most part is only fit to entertain those insects in politics which crawl under the trees in St. James's Park.”42 Yet, to the Duke of Buckingham he confessed to a greater aptitude for business than he had suspected,43 and his lucid reports of the political situation in the Empire and of its relations with France show his mastery of affairs. Though he challenged Dryden's title to the province of idleness,44 he turned out a voluminous official correspondence, as well as many personal letters, three comedies, and some verse. One suspects that his “noble laziness of mind” was a pretense, especially when he described himself ironically as an idle fellow at the end of a lengthy official communication that runs to some three printed pages.45 Etherege was closer to the truth when he said, “I am too lazy and too careless to be ambitious.”46

At Ratisbon, he longed for cheer, company, and late hours—some such evening as Dryden described so happily in his dedication of a play to Sedley: “We have, like them our genial nights, where our discourse is neither too serious nor too light, but always pleasant, and, for the most part, instructive; the raillery, neither too sharp upon the present, nor too censorious on the absent; and the cups only such as will raise the conversation of the night, without disturbing the business of the morrow.”47 But at Ratisbon, Etherege found that the men were so addicted to drinking that it destroyed the pleasures of conversation.48 The ceremony of the place also made convivial gatherings rare; and often he was condemned “To make grave legs in formal fetters, / Converse with fops, and write dull letters.”49 Wittily Etherege exposed the absurd formality with which the Diet conducted even the trifling business of arranging to see a farce that had come to town,50 and he exercised his wit in a malicious portrait of the Count de Windisgratz, the most pompous of them all.51 He kept the wittiest and easiest company he could find—the French ambassador the Count de Crecy, described by Etherege as “a bel esprit”; the Count de Lamberg, a gentleman who knew how to live; and Monsieur Schnolsky, so much a Wit that no one could distinguish “between his jest and earnest.”52 He remembered with regret the bitter frosty night when he and Dorset carried “two draggle-tailed nymphs” over the Thames to Lambeth,53 and in his letters he asked to be remembered to all his friends at the Rose and “the lily at the bar.”54 He was cheered to hear that his friend Sedley, who “had always more wit than was enough for one man,” had produced a successful play in Bellamira.55 Himself he compared to Ovid at Pontus,56 and epigrammatically he dismissed the bourgeois society in which he was stranded: “London is dull by accident but Ratisbon by nature.”57 The person mirrored in these letters is, indeed, a Truewit—genial, witty, skeptical, worldly, and easy.

As a writer, Etherege displayed the same careless, playful attitude, and of his literary success he wrote to Dryden: “Though I have not been able formerly to forbear playing the fool in verse and prose I have now judgment enough to know how much I ventured, and am rather amazed at my good fortune than vain upon a little success; and did I not see my own error the commendation you give me would be enough to persuade me of it. A woman, who has luckily been thought agreeable, has not reason to be proud when she hears herself extravagantly praised by an undoubted beauty. It would be a pretty thing for a man who has learned of his own head to scrape on the fiddle to enter the list with the greatest master in the science of music.”58 Yet, Etherege was the man of whom Dryden said in 1687, “I will never enter the lists in prose with the undoubted best author of it which our nation has produced.”59 That this high praise is merited is evident if we compare the rather heavy and labored wit of Dryden's letter with the sprightly ease and wit of Etherege's reply.60 There was ease and carelessness in Etherege's attitude toward writing, but he was by no means an artless writer. In his library at Ratisbon he had copies of Critiques sur Horace (5 volumes), Rymer's Tragedies of the Last Age, and Reflections on Aristotle's Treaty of Poesy;61 and as a Truewit, Etherege was also committed to the principle of decorum (wit), which called for naturalness, an easy elegance, and propriety. What he objected to was the labored writing that savored of the pedant or the professional writer, as one may gather from his censure of the Count de Crecy for meticulously polishing and repolishing the expressions in his memorial.62

As a writer Etherege seems to have been interested in wit in all its manifestations. In the prologue he wrote for Dryden's Sir Martin Mar-all, he lamented the fact that the age was no longer content with wit, but wanted gaudy sights. From Ratisbon, he requested a copy of Shadwell's Squire of Alsatia that he might know what fools were prevalent.63 In his own comedies, what contemporaries praised was the witty, naturalistic depiction of coxcombs and Truewits, and Dryden wrote in “MacFlecknoe”:

Let gentle George in triumph tread the stage,
Make Dorimant betray, and Loveit rage;
Let Cully, Cockwood, Fopling, charm the pit,
And in their folly show the writer's wit.

Oldys, in fact, attributed Etherege's success as a dramatist to his witty dialogue and to his naturalistic representation of Truewits: “These applauses arose from our Author's changing the study after old copies, and chimerical draughts from ungrounded speculation, which is but painting with dead colours, for those, taken directly from the freshest practise and experience in original life. … He has also spirited his dialogues, especially in the courtship of the fair sex, for which he is distinguished by Mr. Dryden and others, with a sparkling gaiety which had but little appeared before upon the stage, in parts pretending to the character of modish Gallants; and to judge his figures according to the rules of true resemblance, he will appear a masterly hand; but strictly to examine them, by the rules of honour, morality, and the principles of virtue, where none are seriously professed … would be a severity.”64

This is as clear a statement as one can find anywhere of what constitutes the salient features of Etherege's comic writing: witty dialogue, especially between the gallant and his mistress in raillery and “proviso” scenes, a naturalistic view of man (and a consequent disregard of conventional morality), and realistic technique. These are the points in which Etherege excelled as a writer, though not every critic approved, as one gathers from Captain Alexander Radcliffe's censure of Etherege for being too photographic in his realism, “So what he writes is but Translation / From Dog and Partridge conversation.”65 What we should look for in Etherege's comedies, then, is not interest in “manners,” but such features of wit comedy as witty dialogue, naturalistic content, and realistic technique. We should also expect malicious laughter at fools, and the expression of a skeptical and libertine philosophy in witty form.

His first comedy, The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub (1664),66 has most of these elements, though in rather rudimentary form. Evelyn described the play as “a facetious comedy,” and Pepys observed that it was “very merry, but only so by gesture, not wit at all, which methinks is beneath the House.”67 Both Langbaine and Downes record that the play was a success,68 and we have Oldys' statement that “the fame of this play,” dedicated to the witty Lord Buckhurst, helped Etherege gain the friendship of the aristocratic Wits.69

But despite its warm reception, the play reveals an ambiguity of purpose on Etherege's part, and a consequent lack of unity; and at best, it represents only a groping toward what later became the comedy of wit. In the prologue, Etherege lamented the fact that political bias, and not wit, determined the merit of a play. Yet one cannot say that he succeeded in writing a witty play, nor in wholly excluding political bias. The title of the play suggests an outwitting situation; and the three comic plots are indeed of this nature: Wheadle and Palmer setting plots against Sir Nicholas Cully, only to be outwitted themselves by the Truewit; Betty exposing Dufoy; and Sir Frederick and the Widow trying to outwit each other in a series of “comical revenges.” But in these situations, the comical element is more in evidence than the witty; and the opening scenes could hardly have impressed the audience. In the first scene, Dufoy, with a plaster on his head, is complaining that his master Sir Frederick has broken his head:

dis Bedlamé, Mad-cape, diable de matré, vas drunké de last night, and vor no reason, but dat me did advisé him to go to bed, begar he did striké, breaké my headé, Jernie.
Have patience, he did it unadvisedly.
Unadvisé! didé not me advise him justé when he did ité?

(i, i)

When Sir Frederick appears, the wit is not much better. Upon Dufoy's showing his plastered head, Sir Frederick remarks lamely, “Thou hast a notable brain” (i, ii).

The embryonic character of this first comedy of wit by Etherege is most apparent from an examination of the Truewits in the play. Sir Frederick, who dominates the outwitting situations, is such a man as is described in The Character of a Town-Gallant—a drinker of wine, an assailer of the watch, and a breaker of windows.70 His wildness reminds us of the author's own frolics. The night prior to the first scene, Sir Frederick has been out drinking, crying “whore” at the door of a kept mistress, and he has come home drunk and broken Dufoy's head. There are coachmen, link-boys, and fiddlers to be paid after the night's debauch. There is a rather sophomoric quality about his escapades; and by the standards of Dorimant or Mirabell, Sir Frederick could hardly qualify as a Truewit. Noise, bustle, the breaking of windows, and the beating of the watch gradually came to be regarded as signs of false wit; and in later wit comedies, these came to be the marks of Witwoud rather than of the Wit. Sir Frederick conforms to a rather callow conception of the Truewit, though Etherege distinguished between his gallant wildness and the stupid, witless wildness of Sir Nicholas (iv, iii).

Though he is a poor specimen of a Truewit by comparison with Dorimant, Sir Frederick satisfies the Widow's taste for “the prettiest, wittiest, wildest Gentleman about the Town.” He has traveled abroad in France; he has the easy courage of a Truewit who does not take life, death, or love too seriously; and he can bear with “the inconveniences of honest Company,” if there is freedom of conversation. He speaks lightly of virtue, and is inclined to be cynical about women and matrimony. He believes that “Women, like Juglers-Tricks, appear Miracles to the ignorant; but in themselves th' are meer cheats” (i, ii); and when he disposes of his kept mistress Lucy to Sir Nicholas, he tells the cully: “And, give her her due, faith she was a very honest Wench to me, and I believe will make a very honest Wife to you” (v, v). As a Truewit he also shares the naturalistic belief that love is only lust, and when informed by Beaufort that the Widow loves him, he exclaims, “What? the Widow has some kind thoughts of my body?” (i, ii). He has honesty enough to save Sir Nicholas from being cheated by Wheadle, but he has malice enough to marry off Sir Nicholas to his own kept mistress, and to couple Wheadle with Grace, and Palmer with Grace's maid.

There is no doubt that Sir Frederick possesses vivacity, some degree of perspicacity, and malice—all marks of the Truewit. But he hardly conforms to the standard of decorum, nor displays much novelty or fineness of fancy. In fact, he can even be gross in his double-entendre, as on the occasion of his disturbing the Widow's household late at night:

Sir Frederick, I wonder you will offer this; you will lose her favour for ever.
SIR Fred:
Y'are mistaken; now's the time to creep into her favour.
I'm sure y'ave wak'd me out of the sweetest sleep. Hey ho—
SIR Fred:
Poor girl! let me in, I'le rock thee into a sweeter.

(iii, ii)

In his solitary efforts he is seldom striking, and for the Widow he has this rather jejune similitude: “Some Women, like Fishes, despise the Bait, or else suspect it, whil'st still it's bobbing at their mouths; but subtilly wav'd by the Angler's hand, greedily hang themselves upon the hook” (i, ii).71 Again, the double hyperbole of his remark on Jenny the maid lacks novelty: “Sh'as made more noise than half a dozen Paper-mills: London-bridge at a low water is silence to her” (i, ii). Even the most frequently quoted of his witticisms comes off poorly when read in its context:

Unhand me; are you a man fit to be trusted with a woman's reputation?
SIR Fred:
Not when I am in a reeling condition; men are now and then subject to those infirmities in drink, which women have when th' are sober. Drunkenness is no good Secretary, Jenny; you must not look so angry, good faith, you must not.

(i, ii)

The author spoils the wit by not knowing when to stop; and Sir Frederick, after a witty stroke at women, tumbles into a feeble apology to a maid. Sir Frederick's wit splutters now and then, but is never sustained.

The liveliest wit is to be expected in the courtship scenes, but here again, we usually find tricks rather than comic wit. Part of this defect is due to the fact that the heroine suffers under the handicap of being a widow. Sir Frederick assumes that her marital experiences have only sharpened her sexual appetite, and the Widow Rich conforms to his expectations by betraying more eagerness than a witty woman should. She is obviously in love with him from the beginning; and when he pretends to be dead, in order to trick a confession of love from her, she weeps with genuine grief and exclaims in blank verse: “Unhappy woman! why shou'd I survive / The only man in whom my joys did live? / My dreadful grief!” (iv, vii). Though she laughs at Sir Frederick a moment later to prove she saw through his trick, her show of emotion is too genuine to be laughed away so easily. She is too warm and generous for a Truewit: she feels sorry for Dufoy and orders him released from the tub, and she also sends money to free Sir Frederick when she hears he has been arrested for his debts. In these episodes she shows a lack of perspicacity which makes her the dupe of others. It is evident that the Widow lacks the perspicacity and the malice of a Truewit, so that she is no ready match for Sir Frederick. Because of this initial disadvantage under which the Widow labors, there can be no real wit combat between her and Sir Frederick such as we find in later comedies by Etherege. Furthermore, the combats between the two very often degenerate into tricks (“comical revenges”), such as Sir Frederick's having himself borne in on a bier or his sending word that he has been arrested. It is then up to the Widow to penetrate his trick, and thus expose him.

It is in these encounters, however, that we have the best repartee in the play. There is not a great deal of wit in these exchanges, but they do show some spirit. On their first meeting the two are wary of each other but amiable, and they rally one another sharply, though with more humor than wit:

SIR Fred:
Widow, I dare not venture my self in those amorous shades; you have a mind to be talking of Love I perceive, and my heart's too tender to be trusted with such conversation.
I did not imagine you were so foolishly conceited; is it your Wit or your Person, Sir, that is so taking?
SIR Fred:
Truly you are much mistaken, I have no such great thoughts of the young man you see; who ever knew a Woman have so much reason to build her Love upon merit? Have we not daily experience of great Fortunes, that fling themselves into the arms of vain idle Fellows? Can you blame me then for standing upon my guard?

(ii, i)

Sir Frederick and the Widow are too good-natured for sharp raillery, and his disparagement of himself at the same time that he rallies the Widow shows a man of humor as much as a man of wit. On another occasion, when he pounds her door at night to prove his wit, we have this characteristic passage of repartee:

SIR Fred:
Can you in conscience turn a young man out of doors at this time o'th' night, Widow? Fie, fie, the very thought on't will keep you waking.
So pretty, so well-favour'd a young man; one that loves me.
SIR Fred:
Ay, one that loves you.
Truly 'tis a very hard-hearted thing. (She sighs.)
SIR Fred:
Come, come, be mollifi'd. You may go, Gentlemen, and leave me here; you may go. (To the Masquers.)
You may stay, Gentlemen; you may stay, and take your Captain along with you: You'l find good Quarters in some warm Hay-loft.
SIR Fred:
Merciless Woman! Do but lend me thy Maid; faith I'le use her very tenderly and lovingly, even as I'd use thy self, dear Widow, if thou wou'dst but make proof of my affection.

(iii, iii)

The Widow's wit is sarcasm of no very high order, and her speech, with its “Hay-loft,” is too homely for a city Wit. The raillery lacks polish and point; and Sir Frederick can be smutty but not very witty. Now and then the Widow may bristle up and exclaim, “I have seen e'ne as merry a man as your self, Sir Frederick, brought to stand with folded arms, and with a tristful look tell a mournful tale to a Lady” (ii, ii); but more often, Sir Frederick adopts a domineering tone toward her, and cries, “Widow, May the desire of man keep thee waking till thou art as mad as I am” (iv, vii).

It is evident that Pepys's criticism of the play as “merry by gesture, not wit,” is largely justified. The play has occasional flashes of wit, but they are never sustained. The two Truewits lack the polish and brilliance of a Dorimant and Harriet. They are promising young fledglings not yet come of age, and their wit necessarily shows a somewhat callow quality. Sir Frederick at least has the buoyancy and carefree attitude toward life characteristic of the Truewit, but his interests are still too physical, such as playing tricks on the Widow, creating disturbances at night, and chasing maids. He has not yet arrived at a refined taste in women or in wit.

The naturalistic temper in the play is much more consistently maintained than the wit, particularly in the comic scenes involving the minor figures. There are such naturalistic passages as Dufoy jesting about being “clap'd”:

Methinks the wound your Master gave you last night, makes you look very thin and wan, Monsieur.
Begar you mistake, it be de voundé dat my Metresse did give me long agoe.
What? some pretty little English Lady's crept into your heart?
No, but damn'd littel English whore is creepé into my bone begar, me could vish dat de Diable vould také her vid allé my harté.

(ii, i)

In appreciating such scenes, we need not be as squeamish as some modern critics are,72 for such witticisms are to be expected from characters naturalistically conceived. The saucy, impertinent Dufoy is also ridiculous as an incipient Witwoud who claims he was hired for being a “man d'esprit, and of vitté,” and is consequently exposed to the malicious laughter of his superiors.

The strength of the naturalistic temper is evident, too, in the Wheadle-Sir Nicholas plot. This has been described as Middletonian in spirit,73 but Etherege probably did not go back to his literary predecessor when he could copy directly from the life about him. A book published in the reign of Charles, Proteus Redivivus: or the Art of Wheedling, or Insinuation (1675), gives a very complete account of the contemporary practice of wheedling, and describes such persons as Wheadle and Sir Nicholas. “Wheedle” is defined as a term in the “Canting Dictionary” which “imports a subtil insinuation into the nature, humours and inclinations of such we converse with, working upon them so effectually, that we possess them with a belief that all our actions and services tend to their pleasures and profit, whereas it is but seemingly so, that we may work on them our real advantage”; and the town Wheedle is described as living off fops, whom he entices to a tavern for the purpose of swindling them.74 He has also laid up a store of choice things to say, and has wit enough to please in conversation.75 This picture corresponds to Sir Frederick's description of Wheadle: “one whose trade is Trechery, to make a Friend, and then deceive him; he's of a ready Wit, pleasant Conversation, throughly skill'd in men” (i, ii). Like Dufoy, Wheadle has a dry, hard wit that is part of his naturalistic make-up. When outwitted by the Truewit and forced to marry the mistress he has been keeping, he says: “Come hither, Grace; I did but make bold, like a young Heir, with his Estate, before it came into his hands: Little did I think, Grace, that this Pasty, (Stroaking her belly.) when we first cut it up, should have been preserv'd for my Wedding Feast” (v, iv). Wheadle has many of the characteristics of the Witwoud; and at the same time, he is a realistic portrayal of a familiar figure from contemporary low-life.

Sir Nicholas Cully is obviously the Witless in the play, but like Wheadle, he is an imperfect copy of what eventually became a type figure in wit comedy. He is ridiculous not only because of his stupidity and boorishness but because he has Puritan antecedents. He is described by Sir Frederick as “one whom Oliver, for the transcendent knavery and disloyalty of his Father, has dishonour'd with Knight-hood; a fellow as poor in experience as in parts, and one that has a vain-glorious humour to gain a reputation amongst the Gentry, by feigning good nature, and affection to the King and his Party” (i, ii).

Though neither Sir Nicholas nor Wheadle are perfect examples of Witless and Witwoud, they fit into the normal pattern of wit comedy. Wheadle, as Witwoud, plays with Sir Nicholas Cully; but he overrates his wit (cleverness), and is exposed at the end by Sir Frederick, the Truewit, who forces him to marry Grace. Wheadle and Sir Nicholas, along with Dufoy, are naturalistically conceived, and they contribute to the comic side of the play, since they are all exposed to the malicious laughter of the Truewits.

Of the main plot, which is heroic and serious, I have said nothing, because it is out of keeping with the rest of the play. Aurelia puts her finger on the essential difference between it and the rest of the play when she says: “But we by Custom, not by Nature led, / Must in the beaten paths of Honour tread” (ii, ii). The characters in the comic portion follow nature because of their naturalistic bias, and a person like Sir Frederick never considers honor; but the people of the Graciana-Beaufort world act according to custom and honor. Yet the heroic world is not insulated against the currents of skepticism and naturalism; and even Graciana recognizes the fact that men admire women who can conceal their love, and contend with them on equal terms (ii, ii), though she herself is incapable of profiting from this knowledge, as the Widow Rich does. The two worlds in the play are irreconcilable; and Etherege, perhaps unintentionally, shows the absurdity and artificiality of the code by which the honorable, custom-bound half lives and suffers.

Etherege's second play, She Would it She Could, opened on February 6, 1668, to a capacity audience which included Wits like Charles, Buckingham, Buckhurst, and Sedley. Pepys, who was also there, wrote in his Diary, “Lord! how full was the house, and how silly the play, there being nothing in the world good in it, and few people pleased in it”—to which he added, “all the rest did, through the whole pit, blame the play as a silly, dull thing, though there was something very roguish and witty; but the design of the play, and end, mighty insipid.” Dennis observed many years later that despite its poor reception on the first performance, “it was esteem'd by the Men of Sense, for the trueness of some of its Characters, and the purity and freeness and easie grace of its Dialogue.”76

The story of the overeager woman frustrated is not very original, and is familiar to us from pre-Restoration plays like Shirley's Lady of Pleasure (1635). But the picture of the lustful woman in Lady Cockwood is an extremely fine naturalistic study. She serves several purposes in the play: first, she exemplifies the author's naturalistic belief that women are, at bottom, as sensual as men; second, she gives pleasure to the audience by serving as the butt of its malicious laughter; and third, through her, the dramatist wittily exposes the conventional notion of honor. It is a mistake to think of her as “a woman of social pretensions whose attempted illicit amours are wrecked by the pressure of a social standard which she lacks intelligence to comprehend.”77 She has no social pretensions because she is evidently on good terms with the modish people of her group. Nor is she “a female Tartuffe, a woman of loud religious pretensions, who demands respect and devotion for her piety, and who is really engaged, all the time, in the vain prosecution of a disgraceful intrigue.”78 Neither the “manners” nor the moralistic interpretation can explain her character and her role in the play. She is actually an unhappily married woman whose strong sexual desires are frustrated because her unmanly husband shuns his marital duties.

In the naturalistically conceived role of the frustrated wife, Lady Cockwood becomes ridiculous only because of her overeager efforts to satisfy her sexual desire, and, at the same time, her refusal to recognize the natural fact that she has physical needs. Since she has other faults such as impertinence, inordinate fondness, vanity, and jealousy—all marks of the female Witwoud—she is also ridiculed for aspiring to the love of a Truewit. But her chief flaw is her pretending to the principles of conventional morality: she declares that she loves her husband fondly, and she professes to be the very soul of honor. Since she is at the same time striving to satisfy her desires extramaritally, she speaks euphemistically, from hypocrisy or self-delusion, of Courtall's “generous passion.” Even in her relations with her maid Mrs. Sentry, she cannot put off her tarnished dress of honor; and following an interview alone with Courtall, which she desired, Lady Cockwood admonishes her maid:

LA. Cock:
What a strange thing is this! will you never take warning, but still be leaving me alone in these suspicious occasions?
I was but in the next room, Madam.
LA. Cock:
What may Mr. Courtall think of my innocent intentions? I protest if you serve me so agen, I shall be strangely angry: you should have more regard to your Lady's Honour.

(ii, ii)

This is not social satire, as the “manners” critics would suggest, for Lady Cockwood is not criticized because of her failure to conform to a social mode: she is ridiculed because of her self-delusion, her hypocrisy, and her cant about honor. On the other hand, this is not conventional moral satire; for though Etherege may prefer sincerity to hypocrisy, he is not concerned with virtue or with exposing vanity and hypocrisy for the usual moral reasons. In fact, Lady Cockwood will undoubtedly take Courtall's advice at the end to “entertain an able Chaplain,” as the best means of satisfying her sexual appetite circumspectly. She remains as obdurate as ever in her lust and reforms only so far as to solace herself with a chaplain rather than a gallant; and there is no suggestion that Etherege condemns her for having adulterous desires. As her name implies, she is a naturalistically conceived woman who would follow nature and fornicate, if she could stop pretending that she lives by honor. Through her, Etherege wittily exposes the conventional notion of honor, since it is only a ridiculous female coxcomb like her that professes it.

In this naturalistic world, Sir Oliver Cockwood and Sir Joslin Jolly are quite at home: they are a pair of Witlesses who set off each other's folly and expose themselves to the malicious laughter of the Truewits. Sir Oliver and Lady Cockwood, in the familiar role of Witless and Witwoud, are also involved in an outwitting situation in which the more stupid is exposed to laughter. Sir Oliver pretends to be a “taring Blade” but is cowardly at heart, and as a husband, he is not only uxorious and hen-pecked, but lacks the wherewithal to satisfy his wife. Above all, he is a stupid oaf who believes in his wife's fidelity, and says fatuously, “Never man was so happy in a vertuous and loving Lady!” (v, i). Sir Joslin Jolly is equally a Witless. His merriment smacks of the coarse boisterousness of the country, and his speech is larded with sexual references, horse and hare similitudes, and country snatches; and he thinks that low creatures like the pimp Rake-hell and the whores that Rake-hell brings to their parties are the finest company in the world. These two Witlesses are ridiculous because they lack sense and judgment, they are boorish in their fun, and they lack perspicacity to see through the deception of others.

Pepys's comment on the mediocrity of the plot and the unoriginal ending applies to the pursuit of the young girls by the gallants as much as to the Cockwood story, for the courtship is left pretty much to chance, and the final agreement among the lovers is due principally to accident and opportunity. The outwitting plot serves as a framework, however, for the wit play of a quartet of Truewits consisting of the two gallants and their mistresses.

Courtall and Freeman are “two honest Gentlemen of the Town” in pursuit of wine, women, and wit. Of the two, Courtall is not only the wittier and more perspicacious but the bolder, and he takes the lead in the intrigue to outwit Lady Cockwood and gain the favors of the young women. When Freeman fears that the girls mistrust them, Courtall exclaims, “Never fear it; whatsoever women say, I am sure they seldom think the worse of a man, for running at all, 'tis a sign of youth and high mettal, and makes them rather piquee, who shall tame him” (iii, i). With his ready tongue, he rallies the Exchange women, who are fond of him for his wit; and he plays with Lady Cockwood, wittily pretending that it is his virtue and her honor that stand in the way of their affair:

Oh, 'tis impossible, Madam, never think on't now you have been seen with me; to leave 'em upon any pretence will be so suspitious, that my concern for your honour will make me so feverish and disordered, that I shal lose the taste of all the happiness you give me.
LA. Cock:
Methinks you are too scrupulous, heroick Sir.

(iii, i)

This is Truewit using Lady Cockwood's own cant about honor to outwit a hypocritical woman for whom he has no real taste. Courtall rallies her ironically at times: “The truth is, Madam, I am a Rascal; but I fear you have contributed to the making me so” (iv, ii). He is cynical about marriage, and exclaims, “a Wife's a dish, of which if a man once surfeit, he shall have a better stomach to all others ever after” (iii, iii). In a conversation with Sir Oliver, he also expresses his libertinism and skepticism:

SIR Oliv:
Well a pox of this tying man and woman together, for better, for worse! upon my conscience it was but a Trick that the Clergy might have a feeling in the Cause.
I do not conceive it to be much for their profit, Sir Oliver, for I dare lay a good wager, let 'em but allow Christian Liberty, and they shall get ten times more by Christnings, than they are likely to lose by Marriages.

(i, i)

Freeman is less witty than his friend, and is less inclined to indulge in skeptical wit, though now and then he can handle a witty antithesis cleverly: “I have an appointment made me without my seeking too, by such a she, that I will break the whole ten Commandments, rather than disappoint her of her breaking one” (iv, ii). But more often he plays second fiddle to his friend:

I have been so often balk'd with these Vizard-Masks, that I have at least a dozen times forsworn 'em; they are a most certain sign of an ill face, or what is worse, an old Acquaintance.
The truth is, nothing but some such weighty reason, is able to make women deny themselves the pride they have to be seen.

(ii, i)

In the witticisms of these two gallants, there is nothing very striking, aside from an occasional hit at matrimony and Courtall's ironical pretense to virtue. Sometimes they even fall into such labored similitudes as the following, when they meet unexpectedly:

What unlucky Devil has brought thee higher?
I believe a better natur'd Devil then yours, Courtall, if a Leveret be better meat then an old Puss, that has been cours'd by most of the young Fellows of her country: I am not working my brain for a Counterplot, a disappointment is not my bus'ness.
You are mistaken, Freeman: prithee be gone, and leave me the Garden to my self, or I shall grow as testy as an old Fowler that is put by his shoot, after he has crept half a mile upon his belly.
Prithee be thou gone, or I shall take it as unkindly as a Chymist wou'd, if thou should'st kick down his Limbeck in the very minute that he look'd for projection.

(iv, ii)

The wit play of the two gallants alone, though spirited, shows no great merit: not only is there an absence of original similitudes, but there is little of the elegance and epigrammatical quality of fine wit. What chiefly distinguishes the two as Truewits is their carefree attitude, their naturalistic temper, and their contempt for Witlesses like Sir Oliver and Sir Joslin.

Of the two girls, Gatty is the only real Truewit: she is almost as fine a figure as Harriet, and she is superior to Courtall. On their first appearance, Gatty reveals herself as a Truewit, and Ariana as something less. Gatty cries, “How glad am I we are in this Town agen,” while Ariana regrets the pleasures of the country—“the benefit of the fresh Air, and the delight of wandring in the pleasant Groves” (i, ii). Gatty is also rebellious against the restraints imposed by their “grave Relations,” and wants to partake freely of the pleasures of the town. She is wild and free, and has the freshness of the country about her; if she does not always show the decorum of a fine town lady, she has the verve of a young filly romping about the pasture. She is not above a homely country simile: to the young gallants she says, “Our Company may put a constraint upon you; for I find you daily hover about these Gardens, as a Kite does about a back-side, watching an opportunity to catch up the Poultry” (iv, ii). But this is part of her carefree, witty attitude toward life. She likes freedom and sincerity, and when Ariana reproves her for singing a wanton love-song, she exclaims, “I hate to dissemble when I need not.” With true naturalistic bias, she ridicules Platonic love, and she rallies her sister for being melancholy out of love: “Now art thou for a melancholy Madrigal, compos'd by some amorous Coxcomb, who swears in all Companies he loves his Mistress so well, that he wou'd not do her the injury, were she willing to grant him the favour, and it may be is Sot enough to believe he wou'd oblige her in keeping his Oath too” (v, i). To a woman, nothing can be more serious than love, but she will jest about it nevertheless. Gatty has the virtue of maintaining the character of a Truewit throughout the play, without falling into flat similitudes or ever losing her witty attitude toward life.

It is hardly sound, then, to suggest, as Dobrée does, that “the full-blooded boisterousness of Sir Joslin Jolly and Sir Oliver Cockwood” is incompatible with “Ariana's fragile world.”79 Actually there is no such fragile and artificial world of the sort the “manners” critics imagine, for the world of Ariana and Gatty is full-blooded and naturalistic. The two girls are happy-go-lucky in their attitude toward life; and after so serious an episode as Sir Oliver and Courtall fighting, the girls are next door, “laughing and playing at Lantre-lou.” Though Ariana expresses too much sentiment in her earlier appearances, neither of the girls weeps and trembles over the future, as do Graciana and Aurelia in the preceding play. They are a charming pair of Truewits, with a touch of naïveté, but with sufficient perspicacity to see through the hypocrisy of Lady Cockwood and the coxcombry of Sir Oliver. There is more good-nature than malice in their raillery, and their frank delight in the pleasures of courtship is unspoiled by satiety or experience.

Separately, the four young Truewits do not approach the highest wit. The courtship scenes, however, provide passages that Pepys found “very roguish and witty.” When the quartet meet, they usually engage in what Gatty calls “a little harmless Raillery betwixt us.” Their first encounter is marked by a long passage of sustained repartee which has the character of a tour de force:

By your leave, Ladies—
I perceive you can make bold enough without it.
Your Servant, Ladies—
Or any other Ladys that will give themselves the trouble to entertain you.
'Slife, their tongues are as nimble as their heels.
Can you have so little good nature to dash a couple of bashful young men out of countenance, who came out of pure love to tender you their service?
'Twere pity to baulk 'em, Sister.
Indeed methinks they look as if they never had been slip'd before.
Yes faith, we have had many a fair course in this Paddock, have been very well flesh'd, and dare boldly fasten.

(ii, i)

The speeches are quick and short, and the repartee has verve. Despite the absence of balanced epigrams and of real malice, the remarks are witty, and Freeman's double-entendre is superior to anything in the preceding play.

As they grow more familiar and develop a little pique toward each other, the comic wit improves; and when the girls encounter the men, who they believe have audaciously forged letters from them, there is some sharp repartee:

I suppose your Mistress, Mr. Courtall, is always the last Woman you are acquainted with.
Do not think, Madam, I have that false measure of my acquaintance, which Poets have of their Verse, always to think the last best, though I esteem you so, in justice to your merit.
Or if you do not love her best, you always love to talk of her most; as a barren Coxcomb that wants discourse, is ever entertaining Company out of the last Book he read in.
Now you accuse me most unjustly, Madam; who the Devil, that has common sense, will go a birding with a Clark in his Cap?
Nay, we do not blame you, Gentlemen, every one in their way; a Huntsman talks of his Dogs, a Falconer of his Hawks, a Jocky of his Horse, and a Gallant of his Mistress.
Without the allowance of this Vanity, an Amour would soon grow as dull as Matrimony.

(iv, ii)

Here are fine “turns” and some pointed rejoinders. Finally, in an incipient “proviso” scene, there is one fine passage, at once balanced and paradoxical, when Courtall says to Gatty: “Now shall I sleep as little without you, as I shou'd do with you” (v, i).

She Would if She Could is superior to the first play in every respect. Yet the wit is not always of the highest: there is often a lapsing into flat similitudes; there is not much of the malicious and skeptical wit that gives so much vitality to wit comedy; and there is little of the elegance and fine balance of language which is the mark of high wit. The comic wit sparkles at times, but principally because of the zest and high spirit of the young Truewits rather than because of an original play of ideas. The Truewits are, in fact, extremely young, and display more fancy than judgment in their speech and conduct. Finally, the wit in the play does not always spring from the dramatic action, nor is the wit of the different characters often distinguished, since the witticisms are assigned somewhat indiscriminately to the several Truewits. The best thing in the play is the naturalistic portrait of Lady Cockwood, and Etherege's witty use of her to deflate the notion of honor.

His last play, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter (1676), is one of the best examples of the comedy of wit. In the prologue Sir Car Scroope implied that one would find “Nature well drawn and Wit” in this comedy; and Langbaine commended its naturalism: “This Play is written with great Art and Judgment, and is acknowledg'd by all, to be as true Comedy, and the Characters as well drawn to the Life, as any Play that has been Acted since the Restauration of the English Stage.”80 The contemporaries of Etherege noted particularly this fact of realistic portraiture, and there was much speculation as to the originals of characters like Dorimant, Sir Fopling, and Medley.

It is a failure to appreciate the realistic technique and the naturalistic basis which has led to an underestimation of the play's true merits. On the one hand, we have Steele's moralistic censure of the play, in the Spectator #65, as “a perfect contradiction to good manners, good sense, and common honesty,” and of Dorimant as “a direct knave in his designs, and a clown in his language.” On the other hand, we have the “manners” view that the play is “a more exquisite and airy picture of the manners of that age than any other extant.”81 Neither of these estimates does justice to the comedy, for they both fail to appreciate the essential character of the play and the two main elements in it—the wit and the naturalistic characterization. The Man of Mode is a comedy of wit, with the usual outwitting situations involving naturalistically conceived characters.

Among the major figures, Dorimant is perhaps the least appreciated by modern readers, largely because the naturalistic characterization is not recognized. He is too often dismissed as a cruel and selfish rake; whereas he is actually a superb portrait of a Truewit. Dennis, in his defence of the play, pointed out that “Dorimont is a young Courtier, haughty, vain, and prone to Anger, amorous, false, and inconstant,” because this is the true nature of young men as described by Aristotle in his Rhetoric, and the dramatist must be true to life (that is, be a naturalistic writer).82 Dennis also pointed out that Rochester was the model for the part: “all the World was charm'd with Dorimont; and … it was unanimously agreed, that he had in him several of the Qualities of Wilmot Earl of Rochester, as, his Wit, his Spirit, his amorous Temper, the Charms that he had for the fair Sex, his Falshood, and his Inconstancy; the agreeable Manner of his chiding his Servants … ; and lastly, his repeating, on every Occasion, the Verses of Waller, for whom that noble Lord had a very particular Esteem.”83 Jacob says further that “the Character of Dorimant was drawn in Compliment to the Earl of Rochester.84

Dorimant embodies all the virtues of the masculine Truewit, and he is what Dean Lockier called “the genteel rake of wit.”85 Every term of this description deserves emphasis: Dorimant is genteel, as a Truewit who observes decorum ought to be; he is a rake, because his principles are libertine; and above all, he is a Wit, for he values intellectual distinction above other virtues. This is a far better description than Hazlitt's, which makes Dorimant “the genius of grace, gallantry, and gaiety”86—and sacrifices accuracy to alliteration. The gallantry of Dorimant is more predatory than courtly, in keeping with his naturalistic bias; and his gaiety is subdued, for there is a dark streak in his nature, compounded of the intellectuality, cynicism, and passion of his original. He is not easy to understand because he has considerable depth, and unlike Courtall and Freeman, he is not open and frank about his inner life. He is a man of strong passions, but is Wit enough to have control over them; his fancy is tempered by judgment; and he possesses higher intellectual qualities than the average Truewit.

On the more superficial side, he is the embodiment of elegant ease—a ready Wit, a cultivated man who has Waller on his lips, and an easy conversationalist with “a Tongue … would tempt the Angels to a second fall.” He has histrionic talents, and can adopt the proper tone for every occasion: with Lady Woodvill, he ironically plays the role of the formally courteous Mr. Courtage; with his fellow Wits he is the railler; with Belinda he is gallantly amorous and ardent; and with the Orange Woman and the Shoemaker, he adopts a tone of rough raillery and easy superiority. Possessing the superior perspicacity and cleverness of a Truewit, Dorimant can see through the devices of others, and at the same time, dissemble well enough so that others cannot see through him. His histrionic talents are also displayed in mimicry of others, a talent which Harriet shares with him. He does it grossly and sarcastically with Loveit, in his imitation of Sir Fopling, or ironically and maliciously, as in his mimicry of Harriet. Dorimant can please anyone when, and if, he wishes to do so, because he possesses the virtues of versatility, ease, and perspicacity.

As a Truewit, he also has a tongue as sharp as a rapier—and the raillery of Dorimant is seldom gentle, since he has malice enough to be cutting. Yet it has point and originality enough to be pleasing. It can be as fine as his repartee with Harriet on their first encounter:

You were talking of Play, Madam; Pray what may be your stint?
A little harmless discourse in publick walks, or at most an appointment in a Box bare-fac'd at the Play-House; you are for Masks, and private meetings, where Women engage for all they are worth, I hear.
I have been us'd to deep Play, but I can make one at small Game, when I like my Gamester well.
And be so unconcern'd you'l ha' no pleasure in't.
Where there is a considerable sum to be won, the hope of drawing people in, makes every trifle considerable.
The sordidness of mens natures, I know, makes 'em willing to flatter and comply with the Rich, though they are sure never to be the better for 'em.
'Tis in their power to do us good, and we despair not but at some time or other they may be willing.
To men who have far'd in this Town like you, 'twoud be a great Mortification to live on hope; could you keep a Lent for a Mistriss?
In expectation of a happy Easter, and though time be very precious, think forty daies well lost, to gain your favour.

(iii, iii)

His raillery can also be as sarcastic as his retort to Pert, “Oh Mrs. Pert, I never knew you sullen enough to be silent” (ii, ii); or as good-naturedly rough as his remark to his servant, “Take notice henceforward who's wanting in his duty, the next Clap he gets, he shall rot for an example” (i, i).

As a Truewit, Dorimant professes naturalistic principles, and he is cynical about women. He has known enough women to be certain that they are vain, hypocritical, and affected creatures; most complaisant when they seem most to resist; and jealous and demanding when won. A striking example of his raillery, malice, his libertinism, frankness, and wit is his passage with Mrs. Loveit:

Is this the constancy you vow'd?
Constancy at my years! 'tis not a Vertue in season, you might as well expect the Fruit the Autumn ripens i'the Spring.
Monstrous Principle!
Youth has a long Journey to go, Madam; shou'd I have set up my rest at the first Inn I lodg'd at, I shou'd never have arriv'd at the happiness I now enjoy.
Dissembler, damn'd Dissembler!
I am so, I confess; good nature and good manners corrupt me. I am honest in my inclinations, and wou'd not, wer' not to avoid offence, make a Lady a little in years believe I think her young, wilfully mistake Art for Nature; and seem as fond of a thing I am weary of, as when I doated on't in earnest.
False Man!
True Woman!
Now you begin to show your self!
Love gilds us over, and makes us show fine things to one another for a time, but soon the Gold wears off, and then again the native brass appears.

(ii, ii)

He is professedly libertine, and lives according to naturalistic principles.

If there is any fault in Dorimant as a Truewit, it is his over-sophistication, which makes his wit a little too self-conscious; for now and then his wit is a trifle forced, as in his raillery on the young woman whom the Orange Woman reports to him: “This fine Woman, I'le lay my life, is some awkward ill fashion'd Country Toad, who not having above Four Dozen of black hairs on her head, has adorn'd her baldness with a large white Fruz, that she may look sparkishly in the Fore Front of the Kings Box, at an old Play” (i, i). Harriet, who is a keen judge of wit, observes of Dorimant, when Young Bellair praises him for his ease and naturalness, “He's agreeable and pleasant I must own, but he does so much affect being so, he displease me” (iii, iii). Dorimant has too much judgment to indulge in franciful wit, so that he does not provide the most natural and spontaneous display of wit. But he is a Truewit because he is libertine in his principles, perspicacious and malicious, he observes decorum in his speech and conduct, and he detests coxcombs like Sir Fopling.

His friend Medley has the more fanciful wit of the two, and he serves, therefore, as a foil to Dorimant's more solid wit. When he is “rhetorically drunk,” he is a great elaborator of fancies; and he rallies the ladies with a pleasant account of a fictitious book, “written by a late beauty of Quality, teaching you how to draw up your Breasts, stretch up your neck, to thrust out your Breech, to play with your Head, to toss up your Nose, to bite your Lips, to turn up your Eyes, to speak in a silly soft tone of a Voice, and use all the Foolish French Words that will infallibly make your person and conversation charming, with a short apologie at the end, in behalf of young Ladies, who notoriously wash, and paint, though they have naturally good Complexions” (ii, i). Medley rallies everyone, but with much less malice than Dorimant, and he lets his tongue run freely on everyone and everything.

It is also he, rather than Dorimant, who voices most of the skeptical wit in the play; and this is done with a much more natural, if less fine, carelessness than Dorimant is capable of. He is a skeptic in matrimony as well as religion, and he rallies Young Bellair on his intended marriage: “You have a good strong Faith, and that may contribute much towards your Salvation. I confess I am but of an untoward constitution, apt to have doubts and scruples, and in Love they are no less distracting than in Religion; were I so near Marriage, I shou'd cry out by Fits as I ride in my Coach, Cuckold, Cuckold, with no less fury than the mad Fanatick does Glory in Bethlem” (i, i). When Dorimant gets a letter from Molly the whore asking for a guinea to see the “Opery,” Medley exclaims, “Pray let the Whore have a favourable answer, that she may spark it in a Box, and do honour to her profession” (i, i). He also gives the rallying advice to the witty Shoemaker: “I advice you like a Friend, reform your Life; you have brought the envy of the World upon you, by living above your self. Whoring and Swearing are Vices too gentile for a Shoomaker” (i, i). Though Dorimant is the finer Wit, with more malice, perspicacity, and judgment, Medley, with his fanciful and skeptical wit, is often more original and entertaining.

The one other important Truewit in the play is Harriet, who has much in common with Dorimant. Compared to her sisters Gatty, Ariana, and the Widow Rich, Harriet is endowed with a much more solid wit; and her perspicacity, sound sense, and fine self-control make her a formidable person. She is, as Dorimant says, “Wild, witty, lovesome, beautiful and young,” but tempering these qualities is sound judgment and sincere feeling. Her exceptional physical beauty is the least part of her merits, and it speaks well for Dorimant that he is interested in her wit (i, i).

Like Dorimant, she has histrionic talents and the ability to dissemble, and there are excellent scenes of comic with when she and Dorimant take each other off on their first meeting, and when she and Young Bellair dissemble before their parents, by pretending to be in love. She displays a roguish wit, as when she tells Young Bellair, “I know not what it is to love, but I have made pretty remarks by being now and then where Lovers meet” (iii, i). Or when she is merry at her mother's expense, by exclaiming in the presence of Dorimant, who is unknown to Lady Woodvill, “I would fain see that Dorimant, Mother, you so cry out of, for a monster; he's in the Mail I hear” (iii, iii). But there is goodnature at bottom in Harriet, and the occasional malice of her tongue is due to some deeper feeling which she wishes to conceal. She is a Truewit with sufficient self-control to treat her lover and her emotion playfully; and if her emotion breaks through, it is perceptible only in her sharper and more malicious wit:

I did not think to have heard of Love from you.
I never knew what 'twas to have a settled Ague yet, but now and then have had irregular fitts.
Take heed, sickness after long health is commonly more violent and dangerous.
I have took the infection from her, and feel the disease spreading in me—(Aside.)
Is the name of love so frightful that you dare not stand it? (To her.)
'Twill do little execution out of your mouth on me, I am sure.
It has been fatal—
To some easy Women, but we are not all born to one destiny; I was inform'd you use to laugh at Love, and not make it.
The time has been, but now I must speak—
If it be on that Idle subject, I will put on my serious look, turn my head carelessly from you, drop my lip, let my Eyelids fall and hang half o're my Eyes—Thus—while you buz a speech of an hour long in my ear, and I answer never a word! why do you not begin?

(iv, i)

Such raillery is a fine weapon in her capable hands.

Her wit is charming because it springs from sincere feeling and sound judgment. She has sensible views, untainted by cynicism; and though she may say of a husband, “I think I might be brought to endure him, and that is all a reasonable Woman should expect in a Husband,” she adds significantly, “but there is duty i'the case,” implying thereby that were not duty involved (as there must be in an arranged marriage), a woman might reasonably dote on her husband (iii, i). As a Truewit she is an enemy of all that is affected, dull, and formal, and speaking of Hyde Park, she says, “I abominate the dull diversions there, the formal bows, the Affected smiles, the silly by-Words, and amorous Tweers, in passing” (iii, iii). She has passions, and will not conceal them under an affected softness (iv, i). In fact, she loves naturalness so much that she criticizes even Dorimant for not being natural enough in his wit (iii, iii). And she exclaims against all pretenders—“That Women should set up for beauty as much in spite of nature, as some men have done for Wit!” (iii, i). At its best, her wit is first-rate because it is unpretentious: her witticisms are never forced, and her speech is free of labored similitudes. Only she is capable of wit at once so sensible and whimsical as the following:

Is this all—will you not promise me—
I hate to promise! what we do then is expected from us, and wants much of the welcom it finds, when it surprizes.
May I not hope?
That depends on you, and not on me, and 'tis to no purpose to forbid it.

(v, ii)

It must be her speeches in particular that Dennis had in mind when he said of The Man of Mode: “the Dialogue is the most charming that has been writ by the Moderns: That with Purity and Simplicity, it has Art and Elegance; and with Force and Vivacity, the utmost Grace and Elegance; and with Force and Vivacity, the utmost Grace and Delicacy.”87

As foils to the three Wits discussed so far, there are the several characters who fall short of being Truewits. Of these Emilia and Young Bellair are the most attractive, but like Graciana and Beaufort in the first play, they belong to an honorable world which is out of harmony with the dominantly naturalistic temper of the play. Young Bellair is described by Dorimant as “Handsome, well bred, and by much the most tolerable of all the young men that do not abound in wit” (i, i); and Emilia, according to Medley, “has the best reputation of any young Woman about Town, who has beauty enough to provoke detraction; her Carriage is unaffected, her discourse modest, not at all censorious, nor pretending like the Counterfeits of the Age” (i, i). What alone makes them tolerable to the Truewits is their naturalness and lack of affectation; as lovers, they lack fire and spirit, and theirs is a conventional affair, with the usual obstacles and hazards of honorable courtship and marriage.

Aside from Bellinda, who is a rather foolish young woman, the other foils to the Truewits are all objects of malicious laughter in the play. Mrs. Loveit has some beauty and wit, but she is absurd because of her unnatural jealousy and affectation. Lady Woodvill and Old Bellair, “their Gravities” of a past age, are minor objects of ridicule. Old Bellair is laughable because of his unnatural love for a young girl, for such fond love at his age is a sure sign of dotage or impotent lechery. Lady Woodvill is “a great Admirer of the Forms and Civilities of the last Age,” when beauties were courted in proper form, with a due regard for the conventions of Platonic love. “Lewdness is the business now,” she says with regret, “Love was the bus'ness in my Time” (iv, i). She does not realize that the new world in which she is so out of place is naturalistic in its principles, and that young couples like Emilia and Young Bellair who carry on in the approved fashion of her age are passé.

The chief foil to the Truewits is Sir Fopling, but so much has been said about him by critics that further commentary seems superfluous. It is important, however, to note that he is not chiefly an object of social satire, as is commonly supposed: he is laughed at principally because he is deficient in wit. His pretension to fashion and taste in clothes reveals the poverty of his mind, and it is this mental defect that exposes him to laughter. He is such a person as the Marquess of Halifax described—a superfine gentleman whose understanding is so appropriated to his dress that his fine clothes become his sole care.88 After the Truewits have ironically ridiculed his supposed fine taste in clothes, they mercilessly condemn him as a fool:

a fine mettl'd Coxcomb.
Brisk and Insipid—
Pert and dull.
However you despise him, Gentlemen, I'le lay my life he passes for a Wit with many.
That may very well be, Nature has her cheats, stum's a brain, and puts sophisticate dulness often on the tasteless multitude for true wit and good humour.

(iii, ii)

Undoubtedly there is some element of social satire in the ridicule of the fop, but the “manners” approach which makes Sir Fopling a mere conglomeration of fine clothes misses the whole point of his being Witwoud. Furthermore, the “manners” view which finds him a superfluous accessory to the plot fails to grasp the unity of the play. It is quite evident that in this comedy of wit he occupies the role of the Witwoud who is exposed by his intellectual superiors, and that he is not only a foil to the Truewits but the butt of their malicious laughter.

In his three wit comedies, Etherege shows a progressive development in his art. The Comical Revenge, his first attempt at the comedy of wit, shows an uncertain mastery: the heroic-moral world is not properly subordinated, Wheadle and Dufoy are not perfect Witwouds, and Sir Nicholas is not a very amusing Witless. The Truewits are also deficient: Sir Frederick, with his callow interest in frolics, and the Widow, with her over-ready show of feeling, are not yet capable of the brilliant comic wit to be found in later plays. But the naturalistic temper is prominently displayed. In the second comedy, She Would if She Could, Etherege successfully poked witty fun at the conventional notion of honor, in the person of Lady Cockwood, and he brought together a quartet of spirited Truewits. The wit in the play, however, seldom reaches a very high level: the repartees are characterized more by high spirits than by an original exchange of ideas; there is a preponderance of wit play over comic wit; and the Truewits are not properly distinguished in their wit, for the difference between Courtall and Freeman, for example, is that the former is the bolder of the two.

The last play, The Man of Mode, is superior in every respect. Not only does it have a fine Witwoud in Sir Fopling Flutter, but it has three notable Truewits, in Dorimant, Harriet, and Medley, who are carefully distinguished by Etherege in terms of their wit: Dorimant is characterized by malice and judgment, Medley by fanciful and skeptical wit, and Harriet by natural, spontaneous wit. In Dorimant and Harriet, we see to what an extent Etherege succeeded in making the wit significant and dramatic: not only does the wit of Harriet probe deeper into human absurdities; it is more thoroughly a part of the dramatic action, as well as an expression of her true character. Dorimant and Harriet also have an intellectual solidity and depth of feeling which make them far more human and substantial than their predecessors. These two Truewits are both lovers of fine wit; they have penetration enough to see through the affectation and folly of others, and wit enough to dissemble with the world; enough judgment to act sensibly at all times; a sufficiently playful attitude toward life not to be swept away by their own emotions; and an easy and elegant superiority to everyone else by virtue of these qualities. They are intelligent without being over-intellectual, worldly without being disillusioned with life, and witty without being superficial or frivolous.

Dorimant and particularly Harriet represent the finest expression of Etherege's witty attitude toward life—his good sense, elegance, and libertinism; and his scorn of fools, ceremony, and artificiality. As Truewits they belong to a free world—and a world which is neither corrupt as the moralistic critics affirm, nor superficial as the “manners” critics would have us believe. It may not have the breadth of Dante's universe because the supernatural is excluded, but there is much in this world of the Truewit that is valuable, such as elegance, intellectual distinction, clarity of thought, absence of artificial formality, freedom from cant about honor, and a graceful and natural acceptance of this life on earth.


  1. Elwin, The Playgoer's Handbook to Restoration Drama, pp. 12-13; Dr. Doran, “Their Majesties' Servants: Annals of the English Stage, from Thomas Betterton to Edmund Kean, New York, 1865, i, 140; Felix E. Schelling, English Drama, London and New York, 1914, p. 259.

  2. Dobrée, [Bonamy.] Restoration Comedy [1660–1720. Oxford University Press, 1925], p. 58.

  3. Ibid., p. 76.

  4. Palmer, [John.] [The] Comedy of Manners [London, G. Bell and Sons, 1913], p. 91.

  5. Edmund Gosse, “Sir George Etheredge,” in Seventeenth Century Studies, New York, 1897, p. 283.

  6. John Oldys, “Sir George Etherege,” in Biographia Britannica, London, 1747-1766, iii, 1841. Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, Oxford, 1691, p. 186.

  7. Theophilus Cibber, The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland to the Time of Dean Swift, London, 1753, iii, 37-38.

  8. Dennis, Original Letters, Familiar, Moral and Critical, London, 1721, p. 52.

  9. Oldys, “Sir George Etherege,” Biographica Britannica, iii, 1844.

  10. Ibid., iii, 1841. Cf. also, Cibber, The Lives of the Poets, iii, 33; Charles Gildon, The Lives and Characters of the English Dramatick Poets, London, 1699, p. 53.

  11. Correspondence of the Family of Hatton, 1878, ed. Edward M. Thompson, i, 133-134.

  12. The Rochester-Savile Letters, 1671-1680, ed. John Harold Wilson, Columbus, Ohio, 1941, p. 52.

  13. Etherege, The Letterbook, ed. Rosenfeld, pp. 388-389.

  14. Ibid., pp. 383-384.

  15. Cibber, The Lives of the Poets, iii, 37.

  16. Clarendon, [Edward Hyde.] [The] Life, [of Edward Earl of Clarendon, 3 vols. Oxford, 1759], ii, 39-49.

  17. Cibber, op. cit., iii, 33.

  18. Letterbook, p. 304.

  19. Ibid., p. 190.

  20. Ibid., p. 304.

  21. Ibid., pp. 62-63.

  22. Ibid., p. 422.

  23. Ibid., p. 55.

  24. Ibid., p. 328.

  25. Ibid., p. 264.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Ibid., p. 305.

  28. Ibid., p. 310.

  29. Ibid., pp. 386-387.

  30. Ibid., p. 337.

  31. Ibid., p. 63.

  32. Ibid., p. 415.

  33. Ibid., p. 187.

  34. Ibid., pp. 301-302.

  35. Ibid., p. 284.

  36. Ibid., p. 119.

  37. Ibid., p. 406.

  38. Ibid., p. 357.

  39. Ibid., pp. 417-421.

  40. Quoted by H. F. Brett-Smith, intro. to [Etherege, Sir George.] The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege, [ed. H. F. Brett-Smith, 2 vols. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1927], i, xxix.

  41. Letterbook, p. 344.

  42. Ibid., p. 210.

  43. Ibid., p. 413.

  44. Ibid., p. 167.

  45. Ibid., p. 67.

  46. Ibid., p. 139.

  47. Dryden, Dedication of The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery, in [Dryden, John. The]Works, [of John Dryden, ed. Sir Walter Scott and George Saintsbury, 18 vols. Edinburgh, 1882–1893], iv, 351.

  48. Letterbook, p. 414.

  49. Ibid., p. 62.

  50. Ibid., p. 117.

  51. Ibid., pp. 103-104.

  52. Ibid., p. 290, p. 142, p. 309.

  53. Ibid., p. 240.

  54. Ibid., p. 325.

  55. Ibid., p. 227, p. 212.

  56. Ibid., p. 293.

  57. Ibid., p. 278.

  58. Ibid., p. 168.

  59. Ibid., p. 355.

  60. Dryden to Etherege, February 16, 1687; Etherege to Dryden, March 10/20, 1686/7. Letters 13 and 14, in The Letters of John Dryden, ed. Charles E. Ward, Durham, 1942.

  61. Letterbook, pp. 376-378.

  62. Ibid., p. 289.

  63. Ibid., p. 338.

  64. Oldys, “Sir George Etherege,” Biographia Britannica, iii, 1842.

  65. Radcliffe, “News from Hell,” in Dryden, Miscellany Poems, London, 1716, ii, 101.

  66. The edition used for this and subsequent plays is The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege, ed. H. F. Brett-Smith, 2 vols., Oxford, 1927.

  67. Evelyn, [John. The] Diary [of John Evelyn, 3 vols. London, Macmillan, 1906], April 27, 1664; Pepys, [Samuel. The] Diary [of Samuel Pepys, ed. by Hendy B. Wheatley, 2 vols. New York, Random House, 1946], January 4, 1664/5.

  68. Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, p. 187. Rev. John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, or, an Historical Review of the Stage, London, 1789, p. 35.

  69. Oldys, op. cit., iii, 1841.

  70. The Character of a Town-Gallant[; Exposing the Extravagant Fopperies of some vain Self-conceited Pretenders to Gentility and Good Breeding. London, 1675], p. 6.

  71. Cf. Etherege's use of the same figure in Act I, sc. iii, where Wheadle is speaking of Sir Nicholas Cully: “How eagerly did this half-witted fellow chap up the bait? Like a ravenous Fish, that will not give the Angler leave to sink his Line, but greedily darts up and meets it half way.” This reveals a somewhat indiscriminate distribution of wit among the characters in the play.

  72. Cf. Palmer: “To-day the scenes in which the plight of Dufoy is for comic purposes exploited are wholly disgusting” (Comedy of Manners, p. 75).

  73. Lynch, The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy. [University of Michigan Publications, iii, New York, Macmillan, 1926], p. 143.

  74. [Richard Head], Proteus Redivivus: or the Art of Wheedling, or Insinuation, London, 1675, pp. 2, 4, 198.

  75. Ibid., p. 149.

  76. Dennis, “A Large Account of the Taste in Poetry” (1702), in The Critical Works, i, 289.

  77. Lynch, op. cit., p. 154.

  78. Gosse, “Sir George Etheredge,” p. 271.

  79. Dobrée, Restoration Comedy, p. 65.

  80. Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, p. 187.

  81. Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Comic Writers, in The Collected Works, viii, p. 129.

  82. Dennis, “A Defence of Sir Fopling Flutter,The Critical Works, ii, 245-247.

  83. Ibid., p. 248.

  84. Giles Jacob, The Poetical Register, London, 1719, p. 96.

  85. Rev. Joseph Spence, Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters, of Books and Men, London, 1858, p. 47.

  86. Hazlitt, op. cit., viii, 68.

  87. Dennis, “A Defence of Sir Fopling Flutter,The Critical Works, ii, 243.

  88. Halifax, [Marquess of.] “Some Cautions offered to the Consideration of those who are to chuse Members to serve for the Ensuing Parliament,” in The Complete Works [of George Savile, First Marquess of Halifax, ed. Walter Raleigh. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1912], p. 153.

Norman N. Holland (essay date 1959)

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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 interregnum. Yet scarcely a half-dozen new comedies had emerged to interrupt the revivals of Fletcher, Shakespeare, and Jonson that filled the stages, and none of these had caught the fancy of Restoration audiences enough to set a new style. There survived only Dryden's device of witty lovers from The Wild Gallant (February 1663), probably suggested by Nell Gwyn and her then lover, Charles Hart, of the Theatre Royal. The first new comedy to provoke real imitation was Sir George Etherege's The Comical Revenge.

Of Etherege the man, little is known. A gay, handsome individual, who spoiled his looks with drinking, he was a wit of the court circle who turned his hand to playwriting as a gentlemanly thing to do and wrote no more than the gentlemanly number of three plays. James II appointed him envoy to the Diet in Ratisbon, where he misbehaved in a gentlemanly manner, complained of Lady Etherege (apparently a shrew whom he had married for money), and found solace with a young comedienne stranded in the Low Countries. After the Glorious Revolution, he was, of course, replaced. He cast his lot with the Stuarts, went to France, and apparently never returned to England. He died in the early nineties; neither the date nor the place are known. Although to modern eyes his first play looks anything but promising, “The clean and well performance of this Comedy,” wrote the prompter, John Downes, “got the Company more reputation and profit than any preceding Comedy; the Company taking in a month's time at it 1000£.”1

The Comical Revenge has three plots, high, low, and middle. The high plot, in neat couplets and even neater patterns of love, honor, and confidants, follows the crossed loves of Lord Beaufort and Colonel Bruce for Graciana, and the unrequited love of Graciana's sister, Aurelia, for Bruce. In the middle plot, Sir Frederick Frollick, Beaufort's cousin, lackadaisically pursues the Widow Rich, Graciana and Aurelia's aunt. The low plot shows Wheadle, a rogue acquaintance of Sir Frederick's, and Palmer, a card-sharper, swindling a Cromwellian knight named Sir Nicholas Cully. In the incident—one cannot call it a plot—that gives the play its title, Betty, the widow's maid, lures and locks Sir Frederick's valet, the Frenchman Dufoy, into a tub. (A sweating-tub was the usual seventeenth-century remedy for Dufoy's “French disease.”)

Most commentators on this play dismiss the heroics of the high plot as irrelevant—“obviously out of the picture,” or “out of keeping with the rest of the play.” “We turn from one to the other,” says one critic of a similarly bifurcated play, “as a music-hall audience will welcome the alternation of bawdry and sentiment.”2 More important, however, is the fact that the high heroic drama and the low farce interact, each making the other more meaningful. “The clash,” Mr. Empson notes of Dryden's similarly hybrid Marriage à la Mode, “makes both conventions less unreal; … it has a more searching effect, almost like parody, by making us see they are unreal.”3 Certainly the high plot is not the main plot, as many writers seem to think. On the contrary, more than twice as many scenes and two and a half times as many lines are given to the low plots as to the romantic, heroic plot. The play opens and closes with Sir Frederick.4

The high plot of The Comical Revenge idealizes and exaggerates in pure heroic style. The story concerns Cavalier bravery and romance. Both Lord Beaufort and Colonel Bruce love Graciana, while Graciana's sister Aurelia loves Colonel Bruce. The colonel returns from imprisonment by the Roundheads to find Graciana in love with Beaufort. He therefore challenges Beaufort; on the field, these gallant enemies unite to drive off some treacherous Cromwellian assassins pursuing Bruce and then return to their fight. Beaufort wins the duel but spares the colonel's life. The colonel, then, despairing of Graciana, falls on his sword and the doctor pronounces him certain to die. Graciana decides she ought to be in love with Colonel Bruce and therefore spurns Beaufort, who despairs. Meanwhile Aurelia reveals her love for Bruce and he reciprocates, at which point “the wound / By abler Chyr'gions is not mortal found,” and confessions match the proper pairs.

It is somewhat puzzling that a man of “easie” George Etherege's urbanity could write this sort of thing. Etherege was a comic writer, and nothing could be farther from the multiple perspectives of comedy than the single-minded admiration of the heroic manner. Possibly, as I suggested in the preceding chapter, Etherege and his friends found the heroic manner funny in and of itself. But whether they did or not, Etherege plays the high plot of The Comical Revenge off against the lower plots to develop Sir Frederick Frollick's role as a realistic but golden mean.

Frollick, being somewhat of a roisterer, beats up the widow's quarters with a drunken serenade by way of showing his affection; she puts him off, however. He acts as second for Beaufort in the high-plot duel, and has himself carried in as though dead to make the widow reveal her love, but she sees through his ruse in time. He then pretends to be arrested for a debt and the widow pays it, thus committing herself. After much verbal play and pretended indifference, Sir Frederick and the widow are finally matched. As a ludicrous parallel to their courtship, Betty, the widow's maid, locks the neck of Sir Frederick's valet into a great tub, which Dufoy must then carry about with him like a snail's shell.

Strange as it may seem, Sir Frederick is the one breath of common sense in the high plot, as, for example, when, after Colonel Bruce has fallen on his sword, he prevents Bruce's second from doing the same so as to complete the stylized heroic pattern. Sir Frederick says simply, “The Frollick's not to go round, as I take it” (55).5 “I mistrust your Mistresses Divinity,” he answers to one of Beaufort's exalted love-speeches. “You'l find her Attributes but Mortal: Women, like Juglers Tricks, appear Miracles to the ignorant; but in themselves th'are meer cheats” (7). “What news from the God of Love?” he cries to Beaufort's servant, “he's always at your Master's elbow, h'as jostl'd the Devil out of service; no more! Mrs. Grace! Poor Girl, Mrs. Graciana has flung a squib into his bosome, where the wild-fire will huzzéé for a time, and then crack; it fly's out at's Breeches” (3). The hint that Beaufort knew the wench Grace somewhat better than his high-flown heroics warrant (see also 7) and these various contrasts—physical sex as opposed to spiritual love, the devil as opposed to the god of love, firecrackers as opposed to the flames of love, Grace the wench as opposed to Graciana the heroine—run throughout the play and make up the antiheroic humor.

Sir Frederick is also the one who straightens out the complexities of the low plot. Wheadle, an acquaintance of Frollick's, and Palmer, another crony, disguised as a sheep-farmer, cheat Sir Nicholas Cully at cards. Cully refuses to pay his losses, and Palmer challenges him. In the field, Cully's cowardice forces him to sign a judgment for the amount. Wheadle, at this point, promises to mend his fortunes by introducing him to the Widow Rich (actually Wheadle's mistress Grace in disguise). Cully, however, blunders in on the real Widow Rich, roaring like Sir Frederick. The real Sir Frederick rescues both her and Sir Nicholas by blackmailing the sharpers out of the debt and into marrying: Wheadle to Grace, and Palmer—and Sir Nicholas—to his own ex-mistresses.

Just as Sir Frederick is contrasted by his common sense and earthiness to Beaufort, his counterpart in the high plot, he is, as an urbane, brave, amorous Cavalier, the opposite of the countrified, Cromwellian knight Cully, the fake Frollick of the low plot. Just as Sir Frederick wittily reveals the unreality of the high plot with his skepticism, he brings to the intrigues of the low characters a semblance of honor and mercy. “'Tis fit this Rascal shou'd be cheated; but these Rogues will deal too unmercifully with him: I'le take compassion upon him, and use him more favourably my self” (73), he says, as he decides to marry Cully off to his ex-mistress. The fact that it is Sir Frederick who puts Cully in his place, Professor Underwood points out, establishes a sense of “degree” between “hero and dupe, wit and fool, gentleman and fop.” The applicability of the word “degree” here shows how this typical trick of Restoration comedy relates to traditional medieval and Renaissance values.6

Even so, lest Sir Frederick be taken too seriously, there is always his own ludicrous counterpart, Dufoy, who puts a comic perspective on even the golden mean. Not all the antiheroic contrasts are channeled through Sir Frederick, moreover. Palmer ironically pretends to be a virtuous Loyalist like Colonel Bruce (32), and Wheadle compares the dueling-field to a sheep-field (29). Palmer can speak the heroic cant of the high plot as he complains of his lack of business:

I protest I had rather still be vicious
Then Owe my Virtue to Necessity.


The widow (who “must needs have furious flames,” 16) is a comic compromise between the virginal heroines of the high plot and the wenches of the low—a woman sexually experienced, but not immorally so. High and low scenes are contrasted individually: III. v, the cowardly duel, to III. vi et seqq., the honorable duel; the incident of a letter supplies a bridge between low I. iii and heroic I. iv; the mention of love-wounds brings the audience from Aurelia's unrequited worship in I. iv to Dufoy's syphilis in II. i.

As all this talk of wounds suggests, the whole play is a set of variations on the theme of hostility. Sir Frederick's debauches set the keynote; as described in the opening scene they consist of brawls with watchmen and constables, “beating up” a lady's quarters, breaking windows, and the like. Counterattacks take place in the morning: “De divil také mé,” announces Dufoy in his French dialect, “if daré be not de whole Regiment Army de Hackené Cocheman, de Linke-boy, de Fydler, and de Shamber-maydé, dat havé beseegé de howsé” (3). Love, in particular, is compared over and over to fighting. In the high plot, the metaphor takes the form of a stale Petrarchanism—the victory of the mistress' eyes over the lover (17, 34, 46, 56, 57, 63). “Beauty's but an offensive dart; / It is no Armour for the heart” (76). In the low and middle plots, however, the metaphor becomes an anti-ideal, a reference to the sexual duel: “I have not fenc'd of late,” says Sir Frederick, “unless it were with my Widows Maids; and they are e'en too hard for me at my own weapon” (47). Grace, when she is trapping Sir Nicholas, must “lye at a little opener ward” (78). Sir Frederick mocks the convention when he raids the widow's home in the middle of the night: “Alas, what pains I take thus to unclose / Those pretty eye-lids which lock'd up my Foes!” (31). In the high plot, love is the heart-wound inflicted by the mistress' conquering eyes (63, 64), but Dufoy's wound is far more realistic. He expains it in a dialogue with Beaufort's servant:

… it be de voundé dat my Metresse did give me long agoe. 
What? some pretty little English Lady's crept into your heart?
No, but damn'd little English Whore is creepé into my bone begar.


This colloquy is immediately preceded by a soliloquy in the high plot in which Aurelia mourns the wounds Bruce has inflicted on her heart (13), wounds she later refers to as her “disease” (22).

Hostility exists not just between lovers: love itself and all passions are essentially hostile influences, flaming arrows (63) or flames (46) that burn and torture the heart (63). Passions assault (19); they raise a tempest in the mind (44) that tosses and tumbles the individual until difficulties are resolved and love reaches its expression in marriage:

Thus mariners rejoyce when winds decrease,
And falling waves seem wearied into Peace.


Nor is dueling the only metaphor in the lower plots for the hostilities associated with love. Sir Frederick describes his courtship of the widow as fishing (8) and the sharpers in the low plot use exactly the same metaphor for their swindle (11), and refer to it also as trapping (9, 78). The ideas of tricking and courtship are linked again when Sir Frederick disguises fiddlers as bailiffs and tricks the widow into bailing him out thereby swindling her: “Nay, I know th'art spiteful,” he laughs, “and wou'dst fain marry me in revenge; but so long as I have these Guardian Angels about me, I defie thee and all thy Charms: Do skilful Faulkners thus reward their Hawks before they fly the Quarry?” (82). (The pun on “angels” as coins is only one of many parodies of the religious imagery in the high plot.) Instead of revenge taking the form of a duel, as in the high plots, in the middle plot the widow retains her estate when Sir Frederick marries her for it; that is one “comical revenge” (Epilogue) and Betty's locking Dufoy into a tub is another.

With marrying for money in mind, Etherege supplies his characters with gambling, as well as swindling, as a metaphor for courtship and marriage. “Do you imagine me so foolish as your self,” the widow asks of Sir Frederick, referring to the money of which he has cheated her, “who often venture all at play, to recover one inconsiderable parcel?” (83) Sir Frederick's debt is a parody of the obligations (“debts,” 64, 65, 77, 85) of love and honor in the high plot. Just as Beaufort can speak of his “claim” or “title” to Graciana (45), so Wheadle can call his illicit relationship with Grace, making “bold, like a young Heir, with his Estate, before it come into his hands” (80). This “conversion downward” of abstractions to matter, of people to things—Sir Frederick's former mistresses to furniture (84) or old gowns (85), the soul to body (42), reputation to a possession (5), and the like—becomes a major component of the antiheroic jokes of Restoration comedy, a metaphorical form of hostility.

Love, in the high plot, is divine, a kind of religious devotion to the loved one (45), directed by the god of love (12, 45, 81), for passion is too much for mere mortals to control (43). By contrast to this febrile neoplatonism, the low plot takes place in the “Devil” inn (10), using the “Devil's bones” (27), i.e., dice. The “hell” of the low plot is dramatized as complete pretense. One disguise follows another and the basest motives are tricked out as love, friendship, or honor. The high plot lacks any pretense. Every emotion is on the surface, to be talked about, analyzed, displayed. It is as though Etherege were trying “to express the motions of the spirits, and the affections or passions whose center is the heart,” trying “in a word, to make the soul visible.” (These phrases come from a treatise on painting that Dryden translated for its insights into poetry.)7 In the high plot, there is no body; the fact that “the Parenchyma of the right lobe of the lungs, near some large branch of the Aspera arteria, is perforated” must never intrude upon “Those flames my tortur'd breast did long conceal” (63). As opposed to the low plot, the heroics are only a different kind of incompleteness.

Between this bodiless heaven and soulless hell stands Sir Frederick Frollick, complete because he partakes of both sides. He cuts through the pretenses of both high and low, but is in turn capable of both kinds of conduct, honorable dueling or drunken battles with constables and bailiffs, which are called his “Heroick actions” (6).

Thus, an elaborate set of contrasts and parallels establishes the somewhat doubtful merits of Sir Frederick Frollick as a golden mean and casts a comic perspective on the doings of all the characters, both high and low. There are the parallel duels, one the paragon of honor, the other of dishonor. There are the parallel near-deaths, Bruce's real and Sir Frederick's pretended one, both of which result in declarations of love later recalled. There are the parallel “revenges”: Betty the maid taunts Dufoy the valet for his disease as the widow taunts Sir Frederick for his promiscuity; the maid drugs the valet and locks him in a tub, while the mistress makes her admirer fall in love, and locks him into marriage. All four plot lines are united by the faintest hint of a comic version of death and resurrection. Each one of the men must be laid low before the final matches can take place: Sir Frederick has himself brought in as though dead; Sir Nicholas falls into a drunken stupor and wakes to find himself about to receive Sir Frederick's Lucy in marriage; Dufoy is drugged so Betty can lock him into the tub; and Colonel Bruce is nearly killed before Aurelia declares her love. These absurd deaths-and-rebirths fit into what Professor Underwood sees as the basic comic action of Restoration comedy, which, he says, Etherege developed in this play: the protagonist (Sir Frederick—or Sir Nicholas or Colonel Bruce or Dufoy) aspires to a love or libertinism beyond his “degree,” falls (dies) through this pride, and is regenerated by compromise.8 We might say the hero dies and is reborn at a more reasonable level.

Thus, in the much-maligned scene (IV.vii) where Sir Frederick pretends to be dead to trick the widow into declaring her love, the action runs the whole gamut from utter heroic down to utter antiheroic and comes up again to the middle note. The intrigue is admittedly not very sophisticated, but the scene is central to the structure of the play. In the scene immediately preceding it, Betty locked the drugged Dufoy into the tub. A messenger from the field of honor goes before Sir Frederick's corpse to announce in solemn poesy the “bloody consequence” of the duel. The widow drops social restraint and reveals her love. “The World's too poor to recompense this loss,” she cries, but just as Sir Frederick is about to be elevated to the role of Everyman, Dufoy enters, grotesquely locked in his tub, and frightens everyone away with his cries of distress at his master's death. Sir Frederick starts up, and the fact of death against which the widow's pretense of indifference had collapsed shrinks again to comic size: “Farewell, Sir;” laughs the widow, “expect at night to see the old man, with his paper Lanthorn and crack'd Spectacles, singing your woful Tragedy to Kitchin-maids and Coblers Prentices,” and the love-duel resumes. The scene ranges in fifty-six lines from high plot to low.

As this sample shows, the play seems neither overpoweringly funny, nor startlingly new. It uses a number of Restoration devices developed before 1664: the witty lovers, the concentration upon the upper class, and the cynical, competent rake-hero. In many ways, moreover, it stands closer to Tudor-Stuart dramatic techniques than to those of the Restoration, particularly in the religious imagery of the high plot and the extended use of parallelism and analogy. Nevertheless, the play did, for those who first saw it, define a new comedy. Although the dominant humor of this new comedy was to be antiheroic, its techniques grow from the same sense of schism that shows in the rigid patterns of love and honor in heroic drama and the antithetical structure of heroic verse. Its cynicism is that of a disappointed idealist. Things are either perfect or awful: the hero, if he cannot be a heroic Cavalier, becomes a rake.

This antiheroic comedy found three characteristic devices of language and action. First, love is shown with a strong component of hostility or reluctance (a comic and truer version of the artificial love-honor conflicts of heroic drama). The lovers engage in a verbal duel, pretending indifference and comparing themselves to adversaries. Second, abstractions and ideals are converted downward into physical realities: love into sex, reputation into a possession, and so on. Finally, the outer appearance of a thing or person and its inner nature are shown as separate, indeed, inconsistent, and this division is seen as usually true, not an aberration that the action of the play corrects. The cuckold is not given justice as he would be in an Elizabethan play; rather Cully must set out to pass Frollick's ex-mistress off as an honest lady to his country neighbors.

Although The Way of the World, written nearly forty years later, is a far more subtle and complex piece, these three elements of Etherege's first play still pervade it. “The Coldness of a losing Gamester lessens the Pleasure of the Winner,” says the villain in what is almost the opening speech, “I'd no more play with a Man that slighted his ill Fortune than I'd make Love to a Woman who undervalu'd the Loss of her Reputation.” First, there is the sarcastic sense of hostility: love is a winning against the woman-opponent. Second, the speaker converts reputation downward into something monetary that can be priced and wagered. Third, he tacitly assumes that reputation (an appearance) is normally inconsistent with the woman's “natural” desires. Unpromising as it is, The Comical Revenge sounded the authentic triad.



It was nearly four years before Etherege brought out his second play. In his entry for February 6, 1668, Pepys describes the opening run:

I to the Duke of York's playhouse; where a new play of Etherige's, called “She Would if she Could;” and though I was there by two o'clock, there was 1000 people put back that could not have room in the pit: and I at last, because my wife was there made shift to get into the 18 d. box, and there saw; but, Lord! how full was the house, and how silly the play, there being nothing in the world good in it, and few people pleased in it. The King was there; but I sat mightily behind, and could see but little, and hear not at all. The play being done, I into the pit to look [for] my wife, and it being dark and raining, I to look my wife out, but could not find her; and so staid going between the two doors and through the pit an hour and half, I think, after the play was done; the people staying there till the rain was over, and to talk with one another. And, among the rest, here was the Duke of Buckingham to-day openly sat in the pit; and there I found him with my Lord Buckhurst, and Sidly, and Etherige, the poet; the last of whom I did hear mightily find fault with the actors, that they were out of humour, and had not their parts perfect, and that Harris did do nothing, nor could so much as sing a ketch in it; and so was mightily concerned: while all the rest did through the whole pit, blame the play as a silly, dull thing, though there was something very roguish and witty; but the design of the play, and end, mighty insipid.9

A rival playwright, though, Thomas Shadwell, wrote in the preface to his own The Humorists (1671), “I think (and I have the Authority of some of the best Judges in England for't), [it] is the best Comedy that has been written since the Restauration of the Stage.”10 Even though Shadwell was writing before Restoration comedy had reached a very high level, I fear that Pepys, for once in his life, was right in his critical judgment.

Nevertheless, Etherege had come a step closer to what was to become the final Restoration style. That is, She wou'd if she cou'd does not make its point by the contrast between high and low plots as Elizabethan or Jacobean drama—or The Comical Revenge—did. Instead, it concentrates on the one plot of matching two pairs of witty lovers. Further, She wou'd if she cou'd presupposes a fundamental split in human beings between appearance and nature, between social requirements and “natural” desires. The basic theme of the play, its sense of humor, thus becomes the contrast between liberty and restraint. “The Town” in the play stands for a place big enough, offering enough opportunities for anonymity, so that social restrictions do not really interfere with natural desires. Conversely, the country stands for a place where close observation makes social restrictions impinge directly on natural desires. In the town, private self and social self can be quite separated; in the country they cannot. The town thus suggests liberty, and the country, restraint. Similarly, gallantry and flirtation are associated with the town and liberty; marriage becomes associated with confinement and the country. Country restraints are permanent; one only lends oneself to such town requirements as clothing, conversation, or disguise. Thus, plot, symbols, and action all grow from the fundamental assumption that there is a deep division between social and “natural” man.11

As the play opens, two young gallants, Courtall and his friend Freeman, are interrupted in their search for “new game” by Mrs. Sentry, who tells Courtall that her mistress, Lady Cockwood, has come back to town and is eagerly looking forward to seeing him. Courtall has so far managed to avoid satisfying the lady's importunities, and to escape her attentions this time he pleads an engagement to meet her henpecked husband, Sir Oliver Cockwood, and his drinking companion, Sir Joslin Jolly, both of whom are eager to run riot after their release from the country. While Courtall and Freeman are on their way, they meet and are charmed by two witty and handsome girls in masks. When the two gallants are brought to Lady Cockwood's by the two drunken country knights, they find these young ladies are Sir Joslin's nieces Ariana and Gatty, who, also feeling suddenly liberated from the restraints of the country, had been taking the liberty of the town. After a number of meetings during Sir Oliver's alternate drinking bouts and penances and Lady Cockwood's schemes to consummate her relation with Courtall, the two gallants become thoroughly enamoured of the girls. Lady Cockwood sees that they are and angrily realizes why she and Courtall never seem to find an opportunity. She sends forged letters to antagonize the couples, meanwhile assuring Sir Oliver that Courtall has made her dishonorable proposals. Despite the confusion, Courtall adroitly figures out what is going on, and maneuvers Lady Cockwood into a position where she is forced to let the young romances take their course. The girls finally agree to accept their suitors on a month's probation.

As one might surmise from the plot, there is one “natural” desire which is constant for every character—almost the only one: the desire for sexual gratification. And this desire is constant regardless of outward differences between town people or country people, between Lady Cockwood's pretenses to honor or Sir Joslin's frank vulgarity. It is conspicuously true of all the women in the play, to any one of whom the title She wou'd if she cou'd applies. Moreover, each character assumes that sexual desire is the major motive in any action by another. Ariana and Gatty suspect Lady Cockwood's affair with a gallant as she does theirs; Sir Oliver assumes Lady Cockwood is motivated by desire—his only mistake is that he thinks he is to be the instrument of her gratification; Sir Joslin introduces the lovers to each other on strictly physical terms; Lady Cockwood even suspects Sentry of trying to take Courtall away from her. The characters express this indiscriminate sexuality in animal terms. A lover is to his mistress as a spaniel (155) or as horses are to a coach (98).12 A jealous woman is like a bloodhound (142). “I was married to her when I was young, Ned,” sighs the restless Sir Oliver, “with a design to be baulk'd, as they tye Whelps to the Bell-weather; where I have been so butted, 'twere enough to fright me, were I not pure mettle, from ever running at sheep again” (137).

Birds are the most common symbol for this animality. Thus, Courtall describes himself as an “old Fowler” (151), and Gatty compares him to a kite looking for poultry (154). The belligerent little oldsters, Sir Oliver and Sir Joslin, think of themselves as game-cocks (101, 131) and Sir Joslin even swears: “If I ever break my word with a Lady, … she shall have leave to carve me for a Capon” (100). Like Courtall, Lady Cockwood pursues and is a “kite” (59), and “old Haggard” (122), even an old hen, to whom the girls are chicks (130). The girls themselves are birds in a cage (103), whereas whores are “ravenous Cormorants” (140). Courtall calls the pursuit of Ariana and Gatty going “a birding” (155); “Are you so wild,” asks Freeman, comparing the masked girls in the park to falcons, “that you must be hooded thus?” (107). The play makes this one joke over and over—its theme, insofar as this play has a satirical theme: the absurdity of a two-legged animal's pretending its animal desires are something better. A curious comparison presents itself at this point. As Professor G. Wilson Knight points out in an entertaining appendix called “The Shakespearian Aviary,” Shakespeare also uses birds frequently.13 “Such images and impressions,” writes Professor Knight, “occur mainly in direct relation to all essences which may be, metaphorically, considered ethereal and volatile. Bird-life suggests flight and freedom and swiftness: it also often suggests pride.” For Etherege, birds are just another two-legged animal. The difference, in a sense, epitomizes what had happened to English drama.

Etherege portrays love in this play, as in The Comical Revenge, as various antagonisms. Thus, the love-chase is a naval battle (106) or land war (118): the gallants are military strategists (105) and the girls mere soldiers (105) to whom they ultimately surrender (109). Even Sir Oliver and Sir Joslin are “mighty men at Arms” ready to “charge anon to the terrour of the Ladies” (132), for whoring requires courage (138). In this terminology, a billet-doux is a challenge, an assignation a duel (156), and so on. In another form of sex-antagonism, the pursuit of the opposite sex is “hunting” (91, 101, 104, 106, 107) or hawking or horsebreaking (92) or fishing, the girls being “young Trouts” (121). In a set of monetary comparisons, sex is a “trade” (91, 119, 131, 175), “gambling” (98, 128, 168), swindling (104), or lawsuits (150): thus, Courtall speaks of Lady Cockwood's sexual forwardness as trying to arrest him for debt (153). Etherege so proliferates this kind of unfavorable comparison that it almost seems to lose any kind of pattern or direction: love (or sex) is acting a part in a play (121), alchemical projecting (151), an execution (131), a stain (168), or a fever (169); a woman is something to be eaten (153, 178), or even read (155). The same disparagement applies to marriage: it is a duel (176) to which the proposal is the challenge. It is a business enterprise (103, 174), a mortgaging of one's person to acquire an estate; courtship is simply negotiating the contract (174). Nevertheless, these comparisons, even as varied and as proliferated as they are, do show a pattern. In every case, the basis for the comparison is that the individual is about to accept an apparent restraint in order to satisfy his real natural desires. In a sense, he must obey “the rules of the game” to achieve satisfaction: in this respect, love and marriage can be thought of as acting or bargaining or lawsuits, even as alchemy. Etherege is simply saying metaphorically that a fine gallant hates falling in love, for then he must restrain his liberty: “All the happiness a Gentleman can desire, is to live at liberty” (174).

This theme of liberty and restraint—the most basic theme of the play—is organized about various contrasts. One such contrast is that between sexual animality and falling in love. Another such contrast is that between town and country. Indeed, the action of She wou'd if she cou'd is simply that of country people (the Cockwoods, Jolly, and his nieces) adventuring into the wider scope and complexity of London. The difference between town and country shows itself in the form of intrigue. “There is some weighty affair in hand, I warrant thee: my dear Ariana, how glad am I we are in this Town agen,” cries Gatty as she infers an intrigue from Lady Cockwood's behavior (102). “A man had better be a vagabond in this Town, than a Justice of Peace in the Country,” says Sir Oliver, summing up the difference between them. “If a man do but rap out an Oath, the people start as if a Gun went off; and if one chance but to couple himself with his Neighbours Daughter without the help of the Parson of the Parish, … there is presently such an uproar, that a poor man is fain to fly his Country” (93). The difference, in other words, is that the country allows little or no scope for a personal life. There is no privacy: observation is so close that one's nature cannot be given free play, but is bound in tightly by social restrictions. Petty pretenses, like a child's, are the only escape.

In the town, on the other hand, pretenses become large and graceful responses to convention, ends in themselves because the town is large enough and anonymous enough for a person's outward appearance and private life to be quite separated. By being separated, each becomes important in and of itself. Clothing, for example, assumes a new importance in the town. Lady Cockwood can severely restrict Sir Oliver's activities by locking up all but his “Penitential Suit” (127ff.) A face is like a hat (107); an affair to Freeman is like putting on a new suit (97); and a lover, to the girls, runs in one's head like a new gown (168). A woman is known simply as her mask and her petticoat (103, 131). In the town, appearances, because they are separated from the private self, have a separate existence all their own.

The humor of the play lies in the contrast between what the young people do with the liberty of the town and what their elders do with it. Lady Cockwood makes herself ridiculous by pursuing Courtall, and Sir Oliver and Sir Joslin make themselves ridiculous by their sophomoric debauches, while the young people use their liberty to fall in love. Their doing so does not mean they are wiser. On the contrary, they have simply used their freedom to exchange it for confinement; they have ceased being “Tenants at Will” and have bound themselves to a “Lease for life” (174). Accepting confinement means letting oneself in for pretense, because confinement creates a tension between the “natural” self and the outward, social self, and that tension in turn creates a need to deceive others. Thus, Ariana and Gatty disguise themselves to flirt in the Mulberry Garden and resent the social rules that deny them the same liberties as men. Thus, too, Sir Oliver pretends fidelity to escape and resents Lady Cockwood who, by restraining him, creates the need for pretense. In this way, the Cockwood marriage operates not by love but power politics. Sir Oliver tries to establish himself as a monarch (114, 115) or “tyrant” (96) controlling the “politicians,” his wife and Mrs. Sentry. Sentry's name, of course, is significant and Sir Oliver's might be a reminiscence of the Civil War. At any rate, domestic altercations are called “civil war” (137) and infidelities, whether Sir Oliver's or Courtall's, “treason” (139, 144). They are put down, however, and in the finale Lady Cockwood is cast as a restored monarch bestowing an “Act of Oblivion” (176) and marching Sir Oliver off to bed where “we'll sign the Peace” (179). Even the young lovers at this early stage of their relation are subject to power politics. Courtall and Freeman are to Gatty and Ariana as subjects are to rulers, or indeed to “absolute Tyrants” (103).

The play, however, develops one important difference between the old pretenders and the young. Sir Oliver and Lady Cockwood have been pretending so long and so hard that the inconsistency between their inner natures and outer appearances has confused them and corrupted the expression of their real selves. The two overtones in their name suggest this confusion, Cockwood, expressing sexual desire, and “woodcock,” the bird proverbial for stupidity. Lady Cockwood, even in her private interviews with Courtall, cannot put aside her pretenses to honor (as in II.ii, for example.) Even when they are alone, she scolds Sentry for neglecting to chaperone her, and Sentry apologizes for her: “This is a strange infirmity she has, [but] custom has made it so natural, she cannot help it” (113). Sir Oliver's continual pretense of affection and respect to his lady has mixed his inner and outer selves, too, so that he can no longer satisfy his desires for other game. His riots are tainted with the impotency that his relations with Lady Cockwood bring out (“The very sight of that face makes me more impotent than an Eunuch”—114). Thus, his amours in the play are uniformly failures; even his desires are limited: “When we visit a Miss, / We still brag how we kiss, / But 'tis with a Bottle we fegue her” (141). He pretends to his wife (to whom he should not have to pretend at all) that he is more virtuous than he is and to the world that he is more vicious.

This, then, is what is laughable about the older people: that they let their social pretenses creep into private affairs where they do not belong. The difference between them and the young people shows in the two “hiding” scenes. In the first (I.i), Mrs. Sentry, who has come to tell Courtall of the Cockwoods' arrival, is forced to hide when Sir Oliver comes, and overhears him invite the young men to a wild evening. Only confusion results from Lady Cockwood's learning of this, because, since both Cockwoods are pretending to each other, she cannot admit to her knowledge. In the later hiding scene (V.i), when Courtall and Freeman overhear the girls solving the problem of the forged letters, the result is to give both sides the knowledge to break down the barriers Lady Cockwood put between them. The lovers can use their knowledge because they are completely aware of the line where social pretense leaves off and plain dealing begins. The young people use pretense without being dominated by it, and their sense of appropriateness is the screen against which most of the wit sallies are projected. The young people are as aware of their double selves as an actor in a part and, indeed, Gatty uses the metaphor: “I hate to dissemble when I need not; 'twou'd look as affected in us to be reserv'd now w'are alone, as for a Player to maintain the Character she acts in the Tyring-room” (170). “A single intrigue in Love,” says Courtall, “is as dull as a single Plot in a Play, and will tire a Lover worse, than t'other does an Audience.” “We cannot be long without some under-plots in this Town,” replies Freeman, “let this be our main design, and if we are anything fortunate in our contrivance, we shall make it a pleasant Comedy” (121). Two acts of frankness in friendship are what break through the outer barriers of pretense and resolve the intrigue, such as it is. “Let us proceed honestly like Friends, discover the truth of things to one another,” says Freeman, and the two gallants find to their good fortune that they are pursuing different women (152). Similarly, it is Ariana's and Gatty's frank talk (168) that clears up the business of the forged letters. In broader terms, the lovers know that appearance and nature are necessarily different; they know when one's inner nature can be converted into a social, outer fact and when it cannot be, and that is the key to their competence. The difference between old and young, then, is simply that pretense has taken over the old folks' personalities, but not the young lovers'—at least not Courtall's and Gatty's.

The lesser lovers, however, Freeman and Ariana, have begun to show the same confusion of selves that mars the actions of the older people. Freeman's explanation to Courtall of his beginning an intrigue with Lady Cockwood is not convincing (173), and suggests that he is playing his friend false. Similarly, Ariana rejects Gatty's frankness; Gatty demands, “Hast thou not promis'd me a thousand times, to leave off this demureness?” and Ariana answers, “If your tongue be not altogether so nimble, I may be conformable,” suggesting that she, like Lady Cockwood, carries social pretense into a relationship where it ought not to be (102, see also 170).

The denouement resolves these contrasts between town and country, gallantry and marriage, old and young, liberty and restraint, by compromise. Early in the play, when Gatty and Ariana successfully trick Courtall, they speak of turning him into a “Country Clown” (126). At the end of the play, Gatty, speaking of marriage as a kind of confinement, ironically remarks, “These Gentlemen have found it so convenient lying in Lodgings, they'll hardly venture on the trouble of taking a House of their own.” “A pretty Country-seat, Madam,” replies Courtall gallantly, “with a handsom parcel of Land, and other necessaries belonging to't, may tempt us; but for a Town-Tenement that has but one poor conveniency, we are resolv'd we'll never deal” (174). The young men accept their confinement and agree to a month's trial before their final satisfaction: For Courtall, the ways of intrigue seem almost to have passed: “If the heart of man be not very deceitful, 'tis very likely it may be [a match].” For Freeman, however, the lesser lover, “A month is a tedious time, and will be a dangerous tryal of our resolutions; but I hope we shall not repent before Marriage, whate're we do after” (176). The month's trial, of course, continues the pattern of the various unfavorable metaphors for love and marriage: that one must obey “the rules of the game” to achieve satisfaction, submitting to a restraint to win in the end. There is a hint in Freeman's remark that these marital confinements will give rise eventually to the same pretense and hostility that mar the Cockwood marriage. The older people at the end of the play continue their pretenses unchanged. “I am resolv'd,” piously says Lady Cockwood, “to give over the great bus'ness of this Town, and hereafter modestly confine my self to the humble Affairs of my own Family.” “Pray entertain an able Chaplain,” replies Courtall dryly (178). Sir Joslin and the unwitting Sir Oliver are just as restless as at the opening of the play as they prepare to return to country life, a morass of crabbed pretenses forced on them by the binding effect of social restrictions on natural desires.

Etherege's second play is quite different from his first, and the change measures his capacity for growth as a dramatist. Gone are the old devices of parallel plots and character groups. The entire action is built on a series of contrasts, each of which grows from one central idea: the felt conflict between social restraints and “natural” desires. The conception is thoroughly un-Elizabethan, and the form of the play his grown to meet the conception. While there is an occasional heroic note in Lady Cockwood's hypocritical cant about her honor, the highness of the high plot of The Comical Revenge is almost wholly gone, too. The supernatural element, present in a half-serious way in his first play, has now been almost eliminated. The Devil appears: everyone in the play is called a devil at one time or another (126, 129, 150, 151, 157, 158); Lady Cockwood, in particular, is an “Old Devil” (153, 158) or a “long-Wing'd devil” (121). But the epithet is not meant in any traditional religious way and there is hardly any heavenly counterpart in the finale; marriage is taken as a penance for the sins of the gallants (174), Lady Cockwood is urged to entertain an able chaplain, and that is about all. The new play is saturated with realism, real taverns, real parks, real stores, contrasted implicitly to the outlandish atmospheres of heroic drama. The play is antiheroic, but to heroics heard only in the mind's ear. So too, the low plot has been absorbed into the single, unified dramatic situation. Folly, in this play, has risen to the upper class, though it still is, as it was for Sir Nicholas Cully, allowing one's pretenses to take the place of one's real nature.

She wou'd if she cou'd is a study, still somewhat crude, of this kind of folly. The young people of the play face constantly the risk that their necessary and proper social pretenses, whether to honor or to vice, may obstruct their real feelings; they face, too, the warning example of the Cockwoods. Their success in avoiding this pitfall defines an ethic of pretense. Etherege's second play has little of the sheer doings of his first—there are neither duels nor slapstick—and this suggests a growing awareness on the part of the characters and their author that “talk is a very important kind of action.”14 Conversation is a performance; speech, clothing, manners, and other forms of appearance have importance in themselves because they are separate from the private life of the individual, his “nature.” These appearances constitute the visible, apparent acquiescence to social and other restraints and are thought of as separate from the nature that rebels against restraint. But even the purely private actions of an individual—sexual conversation as opposed to verbal, for example—are felt to have this double nature, a visible, external performance and a personal, internal satisfaction.

The talk Etherege gives his characters bodies forth this sense in linguistic form. “Now shall I sleep as little without you,” cries Courtall, in his curtain speech, as he is parting from his betrothed, “as I shou'd do with you: Madam, expectation makes me almost as restless as Jealousie.” These comparisons, a late-seventeenth-century version of Donne's conceits, let a man be passionate but discuss his passion at the same time, as Donne's do. Impersonally, whimsically, the observer talks about things which he, by an odd coincidence, happens to be doing.15 In later Restoration comedies, this figure of speech becomes a rhetorical device of extraordinary complexity: the speaker hides his feelings by the comic comparison at the same time that by discussing them at all he makes them more visible and himself transparent in the heroic manner. In She wou'd if she cou'd the device is not yet used with skill. When the events of the play move quickly, metaphor drops out. Where characters are acting or planning action, they speak normally, as when Sir Oliver or Sir Joslin plan their parties or Lady Cockwood an assignation or when the gallants hide in the Cookwood house. Figurative speech is reserved for the obvious occasions when talk is an action itself, such as the time in the park when the two young men meet the girls or when the final matches are made. Metaphor is still felt as a frothy formality opposed to the “weighty affairs” of the play, not yet a part of them. Nevertheless, Etherege has begun to weld action and language into a way of seeing. Town and country symbolize opposite poles of experience, liberty and restraint. Etherege uses this division to split his characters, to show how in response to the pressure to conform some respond by dissimulation and affectation, and some evolve a golden mean of a restraint, the acceptance of which is an expression of self—marriage for love. Both language and action represent human conduct split under the pressure of conformity into a visible, social appearance and a personal, private nature. Folly is the confusion of the two; wisdom is their separation and balance. She wou'd if she cou'd is a quasi-scientific exploration of divided man, and this was to be the Restoration comic mode.



There have been few audiences in history as lucky as the one that in 1676 braved the March weather of London and the crowding at Dorset Garden to see Etherege's new play, destined to be his last. The Man of Mode was a tremendous success; its easy, witty dialogue was the finest yet to appear, and its hard, brilliant portrait of the Restoration rake was never to be equaled. Etherege, however, had not taken over the sense of good and evil that Wycherley had begun to develop in The Country Wife.The Man of Mode still treats cleverness as the ultimate virtue.

The play develops its theme and humor from the contrast between two parallel lines of intrigue, one “high” and one “low.” The high intrigue involves Harriet, Young Bellair, and Emilia. The low involves Mrs. Loveit, Dorimant, and Bellinda. In each, a young man is involved with two women, one he wants and one he does not want but who pursues him: Dorimant wants Bellinda, but is pursued by Mrs. Loveit; Young Bellair wants Emilia, but is pursued by Harriet, or, more properly, she is forced on him by their families who wish the match. In each line, the young man uses another young man to decoy the extra woman away: Dorimant uses Sir Fopling for Mrs. Loveit, and Bellair helps Dorimant's relationship with Harriet along. Dorimant thus occupies a pivotal position in both lines of intrigue: he is the decoy for the “high” line and he is the man pursued in the “low.”

In more detail, Dorimant, at the beginning of the play, has begun the exchange of an old mistress, Mrs. Loveit, for a new and younger one, Bellinda. To do the business Bellinda uses Dorimant's attention to a masked lady (actually Bellinda herself) to work Mrs. Loveit into a jealous rage, while Dorimant accuses her of flirting with Sir Fopling Flutter, the “man of mode.” In the second intrigue, young Bellair, one of Dorimant's friends, is in love with Emilia, but his father is forcing him to marry Harriet. Dorimant falls in love with Harriet, but she pretends to be in love with Young Bellair just long enough to let him fool his father and marry Emilia, and, unknown to her, long enough to let Dorimant consummate his affair with Bellinda. Finally, however, Dorimant succumbs to Harriet's charms and agrees to go off to the country (no less!) to court her.

Etherege contrasts the characters as he does the two plot lines. Most critics agree that the play sets off the sleek competence of Dorimant against the strained effects of Sir Fopling. Actually, however, not just these two, but all the principal characters are ranged on a scale. For the men, affectation is the negative value and the worst offender is, of course, Sir Fopling, who absurdly and magnificently incarnates the idea. He has no inner personality, only externals—clothes, attendants, and mannerisms. For example, he criticizes Dorimant for not having a mirror in his drawing room, for “In a glass a man may entertain himself.” “The shadow of himself,” remarks Dorimant. Medley, Dorimant's gossipy friend, ironically adds: “I find, Sir Fopling, in your Solitude, you remember the saying of the wise man, and study your self” (260-261).16 Sir Fopling's self is totally outside: there is neither inner man nor inner desires.

Medley, Dorimant's confidant, slightly older than the other young men of the play, is almost as bad. He too remains always a spectator of the action, never a participant (255). For his natural self, he has substituted the gossip the ladies enjoy, so much so that Emilia calls him “a living Libel, a breathing Lampoon” (225), and Dorimant, “the very Spirit of Scandal” (226). Medley is also rather effeminate, the only character who indulges in “the filthy trick these men have got of kissing one another,” or who calls Dorimant, “my Life, my Joy, my darling-Sin” (191). Young Bellair is next to Medley in the scale of affectation. “By much the most tolerable of all the young men that do not abound in wit,” “ever well dress'd, always complaisant, and seldom impertinent,” are the judgments of his peers (201-202). Harriet, more subtle, says of him: “The man indeed wears his Cloaths fashionably, and has a pretty negligent way with him, very Courtly, and much affected; he bows, and talks, and smiles so agreeably, as he thinks. Varnish'd over with good breeding, many a blockhead makes a tolerable show” (220). He is to Dorimant what the heroic people of The Comical Revenge were to Sir Frederick Frolick, but Etherege has developed: the contrast is much subtler.

The cynical, witty Dorimant is far more “wild” and “bewitching” (213) than earnest Young Bellair, but even he, as Harriet sets him out, has some affectation. His reputation as a lover is as important to him as clothing is to Sir Fopling. Thus, Dorimant speaks of his long affair with Loveit as old clothes (194) and compares his own person to a bauble or a fashion (229). This play has not just one “man of mode,” but two: Dorimant, as well as Sir Fopling, both occupying similar places in the structure. Etherege is laughing at the hero as well as the fop.

There is, then, a second pattern on which the men are ranked: sexual success, an alternative kind of affectation. Thus, the ladies laugh at Sir Fopling; Medley achieves some popularity, but no particular successes; Young Bellair reaches consummation, but only within the framework of marriage, while Dorimant has two successful illicit affairs and one matrimonial courtship. This scale parallels the other; modishness is a sublimation of sexuality, or replaces it. Sir Fopling thus sees men and women simply as clothes, equipage, or the like (230); he treats his own gown as a person (253). In short, he is one of “the young Men of this Age” who are “only dull admirers of themselves, and make their Court to nothing but their Perriwigs and their Crevats, and would be more concern'd for the disordering of 'em, tho' on a good occasion, than a young Maid would be for the tumbling of her head or Handkercher” (245). Sir Fopling's importance is not so much that he is affected about clothes and “manners,” but that his affectation supplants his sexuality, indeed, his very self.

Etherege sets up this relation between Sir Fopling and Dorimant in his brilliant post-seduction scene (IV.ii); the dialogue contains some appalling insights into the ways of womankind. Critics have complained of the frank stage direction calling for Dorimant's manservant “tying up Linnen.” His inconspicuous, useful presence, however, is a meaningful realistic note, an ironic comment on the fancy speeches of Dorimant and Bellinda downstage. She escapes just as Sir Fopling enters. He, by way of contrast to Dorimant's sexual affectation, immediately starts to dance by himself and to talk of mirrors and clothes. The juxtaposition of the fop's affectations with the hero's, like the juxtaposition of the false courtship of Bellinda and the “real” courtship of Harriet, reveals Dorimant's Don Juanism for what it is, simply another kind of affectation.

Etherege puts the ladies of the play into a pattern based on the opposite of affectation: “Wildness,” which shows itself mostly as sexual promiscuity. Just as Dorimant displays a permissible, or at least curable, kind of affectation, so a woman must be only “as wild as you wou'd wish her,” and should have “a demureness in her looks that makes it so surprising” (193). Mrs. Loveit is far from this ideal. Her affair with Dorimant is the common gossip of London. At the slightest provocation she tears a passion to tatters with a welter of invective (out of Restoration tragedy): “Insupportable! insulting Devil! this from you, the only Author of my Shame!” and so on. Her inner self is always on the surface. She has virtually no concern with appearances, no “affectation,” as that word applies to the men. Bellinda is next in the scale. Although she conceals her affair with Dorimant, she lets her passionate, private self burst the outer restraint of reputation. She cannot control herself, even though she sees how Dorimant used Loveit (274). Emilia does not hide her affectations so adeptly as Bellinda, but she is considerably more chaste. Yet even her virtue is not above suspicion: Dorimant cynically hints that once she is married he might have better luck with her (202). Harriet alone is so completely in control of her passions as to confine her wildness to the dressing table (219). She is outraged that anyone should think her “easy” to marry, let alone to be seduced (279). Yet to Dorimant she can say: “My Eyes are wild and wandring like my passions, / And cannot yet be ty'd to Rules of charming” (248). She is hardly passionless: she simply does not allow her wildness any unfitting expression.

The comedy opens with two brilliantly drawn characters who appear only once: Foggy (i.e., puffy) Nan the orange-woman and Swearing Tom the shoemaker who call on Dorimant at his levée. They introduce, the critics say, a touch of low life and suggest vices among the lower classes like those of the aristocracy. While they certainly do these things, they occupy a good deal of valuable space at the beginning of the play for purely gratuitous bits of local color. One must, I think, find some sort of keynote they represent, or else conclude that Etherege erred seriously in starting with two irrelevancies instead of exposition. Actually, they serve as “sign-post characters.” They establish the two scales along which the other characters are ranged. Nan's business is fruit, something appropriate to one's natural self as opposed to one's social front. (The rest of the ladies in the play face chiefly this problem, expressing their “natural” desires within the limits of society.) Thus, fruit is used later in the play (267) as a double-entendre for Bellinda's misbehavior: “She has eaten too much fruit, I warrant you.” “'Tis that lyes heavy on her Stomach.” “I was a strange devourer of Fruit when I was young, so ravenous—” says Mrs. Loveit's ingenuous maid. Harriet's mother criticizes the appetite of the age for “green Fruit,” instead of ladies like herself, “kindly ripen'd” (246). Swearing Tom, on the other hand, deals in shoes, and the men in the play are ranked by clothing or other factors of appearance. Secondarily, he is concerned with his own inner vices “too gentile for a Shoomaker.” “There's never a man i' the town,” he says, “lives more like a Gentleman, with his Wife, than I do” (198). Just as Medley and Dorimant are called atheists by Bellair, the orange-woman calls Tom an atheist, religious devotion being a continued metaphor in the play for love (278ff.). Tom's chief attribute, swearing, reflects Dorimant's pretended loves and broken vows.

Besides the main characters and these “sign-post” characters, there are three older people. Harriet's mother and Old Bellair (who falls in love with Emilia) make themselves ridiculous by their flirtatious efforts to impose their outmoded selves on the young. Lady Townley, however, Young Bellair's aunt, is urbane and sophisticated, wise enough to accept her role as elder stateswoman, a charming instance of the wisdom “the Town” offers: how to express one's inner nature in outward forms that will withstand time.

To the satirical contrasts between the two plots and the characters associated with them, Etherege adds further contrasts; for example, the differing treatments of love in the two plots. To Loveit, in the low plot, love is subject to disease and death (217), for which jealousy is the best medicine (239). Dorimant, before Harriet brings him from the low plot to the high, calls love a sickness (242), a disease, a “settled Ague” or “irregular fitts” (249), for which intercourse is the cure (260); an appetite, though one can very quickly get one's “belly full” (257). It is a deception: “Love gilds us over,” says Dorimant, “and makes us show fine things to one another for a time, but soon the Gold wears off, and then again the native brass appears” (216). To the people in the low plot, love seems a kind of adversary proceeding, a duel (201), no different for people than for “game-Cocks” (224), for an affair is “a thing no less necessary to confirm the reputation of your Wit, than a Duel will be to satisfie the Town of your Courage” (231). Love affairs are lawsuits (208), carried on with ladies who are “practising Lawyers” (228). Love is a game, in which a woman ought to lose her reputation fairly (269): “The deep play is now in private Houses” (228). Sex, in the low plot, is thoroughly animal: poaching (190), hunting (207, 217), or fishing (242). Only while Dorimant is still in the low plot can he think of Harriet as a business enterprise, requiring “Church security,” or speak of their relation as gambling (235). In the high plot, however, the loves of Harriet, Emilia, and Young Bellair are described in half-serious religious images, “Faith” as opposed to “sence” or “reason” (198-199).

Etherege contrasts the two plots further by their use of acting and dissembling. In the Bellinda-Loveit intrigue, all the affairs are illicit and must be concealed. The whole atmosphere is one of dissimulation. In the Emilia-Harriet plot, acting is a mere jeu d'esprit. The orange-woman sets the tone when she describes Harriet's playful imitation of Dorimant (191), for Harriet does indeed enjoy “the dear pleasure of dissembling” (222), as do Emilia and Lady Townley when they mimic Old Bellair (233). They and Harriet and Young Bellair, however, play-act only to “deceive the grave people” outside the threesome. In the Bellinda-Loveit intrigue, the pretenses are to deceive the people within the threesome: Bellinda and Dorimant conceal their affair; Mrs. Loveit feigns an interest in Sir Fopling. In the low plot, Loveit can say: “There's nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world! all men are Villains or Fools” (286); “Women, as well as men, are all false, or all are so to me at least” (265). Dorimant sees “an inbred falshood in Women” (269). Acting is not sport but deadly earnest, to hurt, as when Dorimant imitates Sir Fopling (267) or pretends indifference to Loveit (238), or to deceive and manipulate—Bellinda's pretenses (V.i) or Loveit's feigned indifference to Dorimant (242).

Etherege provides still a third contrast. In the low plot, everyone—Loveit, Bellinda, even Medley—is a “Devil” (193, 208, 210, 214, 218, 270), though Dorimant “has something of the Angel yet undefac'd in him” (210), and is charming enough to “tempt the Angels to a second fall” (237), as indeed he does. True love and the high plot, on the other hand, represent Heaven, at least linguistically. Dorimant establishes the metaphor in the opening speech of the play when he compares his being forced to write a billet-doux “after the heat of the business is over,” to a “Fanatick” paying tithes. Medley and Young Bellair also discuss in the first scene the contrast between the “Heaven,” “Faith,” and “Salvation” of true love and the “doubts and scruples” of the rakes (199). But in the end, the most cavalier of Cavaliers gives up his skepticism for “repentance” and “the prospect of … Heav'n” (278).

In this, as in most Restoration comedies, the action involves a cure or therapy for one of the characters, and the important therapy of this play is to tame Dorimant. He must be brought out of the “hell” of the low plot where pretense is the normal order of business, “good nature and good manners” (216); where it is laughable when one's emotions show (as Mrs. Loveit's or Young Bellair's do); and where sex comes not from love, but from hostility. “There has been such a calm in my affairs of late,” says Dorimant, summing up this stormy way of life, “I have not had the pleasure of making a Woman so much as break her Fan, to be sullen, or forswear her self these three days” (195). He must be brought into the “heaven” of the high plot in which the emotional, natural desire can be made a social fact. The critics' sympathies for Loveit and Bellinda in this situation are simply wasted words. By Restoration, or for that matter Victorian, standards these ladies are irretrievably lost, condemned to an endless series of pretenses. The fault in the situation is not that Dorimant gives up his mistresses in favor of a wife, but that the ladies wrongfully succumbed to his blandishments. Neither of them expects Dorimant to marry her; all they ask is that he continue his illicit relationships. Surely Dorimant is more to be praised than censured for preferring the honorable course of matrimony.

It is, of course, Harriet who performs the cure. She very quickly realizes what is wrong with Dorimant: affectation in a much broader sense than the other characters conceive it—for example, Young Bellair in the dialogue quoted above. She knows that Dorimant concerns himself too much with superficial sexual affairs that answer only his vanity: “begging … the Ladies Good liking, with a sly softness in your looks, and a gentle slowness in your bows, as you pass by 'em—as thus, Sir—[Acts him] Is not this like you?” (236). She realizes that Dorimant is used to a group that keeps appearance from revealing the private self, to whom dissembling is the normal condition. She therefore refuses to have anything to do with the oaths that Bellinda and Loveit had regarded as such important tokens, and that Dorimant had broken so lightly (216, 227, 259): “Do not speak it, if you would have me believe it; your Tongue is so fam'd for falsehood 'twill do the truth an injury” (278). Before she will let him come over to the way of life she shares with Young Bellair and Emilia, she puts him through a sort of initiation:

I was inform'd you used to laugh at Love, and not make it.
The time has been, but now I must speak—
If it be on that Idle subject, I will put on my serious look, turn my head carelessly from you, drop my lip, let my Eyelids fall and hang half o're my Eyes—Thus—while you buz a speech of an hour long in my ear, and I answer never a word!

This is, of course, exactly the same kind of play-acting she fell into so naturally with Bellair. But while that was to “deceive the grave people,” this is to achieve a catharsis in Dorimant. Dorimant, however, resists.

… why do you not begin?
That the company may take notice how passionately I make advances of Love! and how disdainfully you receive 'em.
When your Love's grown strong enough to make you bear being laugh'd at, I'll give you leave to trouble me with it. Till when pray forbear, Sir.


Submitting to being laughed at is only the beginning.

Dorimant's final submission or “initiation” comes in Act V. It is marked by the transition from Act V, scene i, at Mrs. Loveit's, where all the characters of the low plot are treacherously deceiving each other, to Act V, scene ii, Lady Townley's house, where all the pretenses are broken down and all is camaraderie and good fellowship. (In both scenes, three women work on Dorimant, in each case, two ladies and a maid. Not much is made of the parallel in the text; it is more in the director's realm, to be brought out in the grouping of the players.) Whereas the earlier scene is a study in continued deception, Dorimant having betrayed both the ladies, the initiation scene moves from deception to truth. At first, Harriet quite consciously plays Dorimant's game to make him play hers; she makes herself appear indifferent to force him to commit himself;

[Aside turning from Dorimant.] My love springs with my blood into my Face, I dare not look upon him yet.
What have we here, the picture of a celebrated Beauty, giving audience in publick to a declar'd Lover?
Play the dying Fop, and make the piece compleat, Sir.
What think you if the Hint were well improv'd? The whole mystery of making love pleasantly design'd and wrought in a suit of Hangings?
'Twere needless to execute fools in Effigie who suffer daily in their own persons.


Half-serious religious imagery marks Dorimant's progress toward the “heaven” of the high plot:

In men who have been long harden'd in Sin, we have reason to mistrust the first signs of repentance.
The prospect of such a Heav'n will make me persevere, and give you marks that are infallible.
What are those?
I will renounce all the joys I have in friendship and in Wine, sacrifice to you all the interest I have in other Women—
Hold—Though I wish you devout, I would not have you turn Fanatick—


Because she knows Dorimant is in the habit of hiding or suppressing his emotions, Harriet insists now, in effect, that he train himself into the habit of letting his actions reflect his state of mind. If Dorimant is to love Harriet, she laughingly insists, not only must he submit to being mocked, he must pursue her into the country: “To a great rambling lone house, that looks as it were not inhabited, the family's so small; there you'l find my Mother, an old lame Aunt, and my self, Sir, perch'd up on Chairs at a distance in a large parlour; sitting moping like three or four Melancholy Birds in a spacious vollary—Does this not stagger your Resolution?” (287). As in Etherege's earlier plays, the country was to be understood by his audience as a place highly unpleasant because close observation forces the inner self to conform to visible mores; it is therefore a suitable House of Holiness for Dorimant's penance:

What e're you say, I know all beyond High-Park's a desart to you, and that no gallantry can draw you farther.
That has been the utmost limit of my Love—but now my passion knows no bounds, and there's no measure to be taken of what I'll do for you from any thing I ever did before.
When I hear you talk thus in Hampshire, I shall begin to think there may be some little truth inlarg'd upon.


Dorimant, Professor Underwood points out, is undergoing the conflict between reason and passion which is traditional for comic heroes, though in this case the “reason” is that of the libertine and Machiavellian school of naturalism.17 The passion, moreover, is antirational and fideistic.

Harriet has forced Dorimant from the finite loves of the low plot to a love nominally, at least, infinite. Appropriately enough, she can now sneer at Mrs. Loveit, “Mr. Dorimant has been your God Almighty long enough, 'tis time to think of another—” and suggest a nunnery as the fashionable place for her retreat. Harriet has made it quite clear she does not want Dorimant to abandon his naturalistic desires, but to translate them into marriage: “Though I wish you devout, I would not have you turn Fanatick.” In the play's terms, she does not want a permanent residence in the country which would stifle Dorimant's energy and competence. What she does want is to teach him to bring his natural desires to the social framework of marriage. Only “this dear Town,” as Harriet calls it, admits the full expression of self.

This, then, is the action of the comedy and its sense of humor: to bring Dorimant—and through him the audience—from the low plot where the private self fights social restrictions by deception to the high plot where one can realize his private life in viable social forms. Old Bellair, in these last few lines of the play, hails Sir Fopling indignantly, “What does this man of mode do here agen?” as though Etherege wanted to underline his point: that Dorimant has left that status in favor of a richer kind of “modishness.”

In other words, the play is nothing more nor less than the old sentimental story of the rake reformed, indeed redeemed, by the love of a good woman. At least that would be the basic form of the action, were it not so variously undercut by irony. One very basic irony is the fact that Harriet (the good woman) occupies a position in the plot structure that corresponds to Mrs. Loveit's; similarly Dorimant functions as a decoy like Sir Fopling. Harriet's making Dorimant court her in the country, in fact, her whole “holding out” for marriage is nothing but a more elaborate and safer form of the oaths and conditions Bellinda required from Dorimant. The entire first scene of the play makes Dorimant look arrogant and arbitrary by showing him as he berates and badgers his servants in his slovenly, helter-skelter household. In general, the opening scene provides a variety of episodes running the gamut of love from the poor whore's trade to Young Bellair's neoplatonic adoration; all these episodes serve to strip the conventions and formalities from life and lay bare the naturalistic substratum at the core of every social pretense. There is still more ironic crossfire in the final scene: at the very moment when Dorimant is agreeing to go off to the country to court Harriet, he is deftly assuring Loveit (out of one side of his mouth, as it were) that he is only marrying Harriet for her money and (out of the other side) trying to make another assignation with Bellinda.18 The play bristles with so many ironies, all undercutting one another, that it is difficult to say what, if anything, Etherege wants us to take seriously. Virtually every action of every character becomes a gambit in a great and meaningless social game.

One thing is clear, however. The comedy does not simply laugh at those who do not have “manners.” There are two absurdities. One lies in substituting arbitrary formalism for the inner self, as Sir Fopling does. He lists some French rules of courtship and Medley drily comments, “For all this smattering of the Mathematicks, you may be out in your Judgment at Tennis” (251). The opposite kind of absurdity is Loveit's ranting, an attempt to impose her unformalized inner self on others: “Horrour and distraction seize you, Sorrow and Remorse gnaw your Soul,” and so on (215). “Ill customs,” wrote Etherege from his diplomatic post at Ratisbon, “affront my very senses, and I have been so used to affectation that without the help of the air of the court what is natural cannot touch me. You see what we get by being polished, as we call it.”19 Precisely this kind of “affectation” is the value the comedy half-seriously puts forward: to express the private self in a social form which is decorous, natural, and even redeeming, or, as Old Bellair somewhat crudely puts it (280): “To Commission a young Couple to go to Bed together a Gods name.”


  1. John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus (London, 1708), p. 25. The Letterbook of Sir George Etherege, ed. Sybil Rosenfeld (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928), pp. 1-28.

  2. John Palmer, The Comedy of Manners (London: Bell, 1913), p. 67. Thomas H. Fujimura, The Restoration Comedy of Wit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), p. 95. Clifford Leech, writing of Marriage à la Mode in “Restoration Tragedy: A Reconsideration,” Durham University Journal, XLII (1950), 109.

  3. William Empson, English Pastoral Poetry (New York: Norton, 1938), p. 47.

  4. John Wilcox, The Relation of Molière to Restoration Comedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), p. 73n.

  5. My references are to page numbers in The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege, ed. H. F. B. Brett-Smith, 2 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927), I, 1-88. They may be related to other editions by the following table:

    Act I, sc. i: 1-2; sc. ii: 2-8; sc. iii; 9-11; sc. iv: 11-13.

    Act II, sc. i: 13-16; sc. ii: 17-22; sc. iii: 22-29.

    Act III, sc. i: 29-30; sc. ii: 30-33; sc. iii: 33-34: sc. iv: 35-36; sc. v: 36-40; sc. vi: 40-44; sc. vii: 44-46.

    Act IV, sc. i: 46-47; sc. ii: 48-49; sc. iii: 49-51; sc. iv: 52-56; sc. v: 56-57; sc. vi: 58-59; sc. vii: 60-62.

    Act V, sc. i: 62-66; sc. ii: 66-75; sc. iii: 76-78; sc. iv: 78-81; sc. v: 81-86.

  6. Dale Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners, Yale Studies in English, vol. 135 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), p. 56.

  7. Du Fresnoy, “Observations on the Art of Painting,” trans. John Dryden, Works, ed. Sir Walter Scott and George Saintsbury, 18 vols. (Edinburgh, 1882-1893), XVII, 363.

  8. Underwood, Etherege (n. 6), chap. iii.

  9. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Henry B. Wheatley, 8 vols. (London: Bell, 1926), VII, 287.

  10. Thomas Shadwell, “Preface to The Humorists, A Comedy” (1671), reprinted in Joel E. Spingarn, Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1908), II, 152.

  11. Dale Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners, Yale Studies in English, vol. 135 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), chap. iv, discusses the form and structure of the play at length and with considerable subtlety. This chapter also has a number of insights into the imagery and significance of the play. Though Professor Underwood's approach differs from mine, our conclusions, not unsurprisingly, sometimes agree.

  12. My references are to pages in The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege, ed. H. F. B. Brett-Smith, 2 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927), II, 89-180. They may be applied to other editions by means of the following table:

    Act I, sc. i: 91-98; sc. ii: 99-104.

    Act II, sc. i: 104-110; sc. ii: 110-118.

    Act III, sc. i: 118-126; sc. ii: 126-129; sc. iii: 129-143.

    Act IV, sc. i: 143-149; sc. ii: 149-159.

    Act V, sc. i: 160-179.

  13. G. Wilson Knight, The Shakespearian Tempest, 3d ed. (London: Methuen, 1953), p. 293.

  14. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Heilman, Understanding Drama (New York: Holt, 1948), p. 442. The quotation refers to The Way of the World but is widely applicable to Restoration comedy.

  15. Andrews Wanning, “Some Changes in the Prose Style of the Seventeenth Century,” (Cambridge, Eng., 1938, unpub. diss. on deposit in the Harvard College Library), p. 313. This statement also refers to The Way of the World but applies equally to Etherege's language. Professor Wanning's chapter is entitled “The Language of Split-Man Observation,” a useful term generally for the language of Restoration comedy, and one to which we shall have frequent reference.

  16. My references are to pages in The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege, ed. H. F. B. Brett-Smith, 2 vols. (Boston and New York, 1927), II, 182-288. They may be related to other editions by means of the following table:

    Act I, sc. i: 189-204.

    Act II, sc. i: 205-210; sc. ii: 210-218.

    Act III, sc. i: 219-224; sc. ii: 225-233; sc. iii: 233-244.

    Act IV, sc. i: 244-257; sc. ii: 258-263; sc. iii: 264.

    Act V, sc. i: 265-274; sc. ii: 274-287.

  17. Dale Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners Yale Studies in English, vol. 135 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), p. 79.

  18. Professor Underwood (ibid., pp. 90-91) goes so far as to say that Dorimant is following Harriet to the country more for a “ruin” than a romance.

  19. Letter to Mr. Poley, January 2/12, 1687/8, The Letterbook of Sir George Etherege, ed. Sybil Rosenfeld (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928), p. 309.

Virginia Ogden Birdsall (essay date 1970)

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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. To weigh probabilities in the scales of desire.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

If Etherege's third and last play (1676) is by common consent his best, it is also his most insistently tough-minded and unremittingly open-eyed and honest. The comic challenge which the chief protagonists Dorimant and Harriet hurl at their self-consciously polished, rule-bound world is one which draws its vitality from a full awareness of their own deeper, more demonic natures and from their absolute refusal of all illusions. Knowing and accepting themselves for what they are, they will be free to be themselves; and they will play the game of life with the bravado and the ruthless skill of born gamblers. The gaiety and zest for life of Etherege's earlier protagonists is still theirs, but they suffer fools less gladly, and they both pursue their Hobbesian “power and pleasure and appetite” with aggressive artistry.

In a more than superficial sense the theme of The Man of Mode is, as its title indicates, fashion or “modishness,” and the world in which Dorimant and Harriet move is one of “modes”—both of behavior and dress. A man or woman of “quality” (a term which occurs again and again in the play) acts and dresses by the rules—rules sufficiently solidified so that books of instructions have appeared. Asked by Emilia about “any new Wit come forth, Songs or Novels?” Medley replies: “there is the Art of affectation, written by a late beauty of Quality, teaching you how to draw up your Breasts, stretch up your neck, to throw out your Breech, to play with your Head, to toss up your Nose, to bite your Lips, to turn up your Eyes, to speak in a silly soft tone of a Voice, and use all the Foolish French Words that will infallibly make your person and conversation charming, with a short apologie at the latter end, in the behalf of young Ladies, who notoriously wash, and paint, though they have naturally good Complexions.” The deeper suggestion here is that the “new Wit” is a far cry from the imaginative expansiveness to be expected from “Songs or Novels”; and indeed “rules” and “modishness” become in the play the central metaphor used to define artificiality, effeteness, sterility as these qualities stand opposed to the natural, the robust, the creative possibilities exemplified by Dorimant and Harriet. Again, as in Etherege's earlier comedies, a dead world is being exposed by juxtaposition to a living one.

At the center of the world of artificiality and so-called wit stands that walking rule-book for social and sartorial affectations Sir Fopling Flutter. If Dorimant is “the Prince of all the Devils in the Town” (237), Sir Fopling enjoys an equally supreme status as “the very Cock-fool of all those Fools” (217). Both are “men of Mode,” but with a significant difference that is repeatedly underlined by the dialogue of the play. Being himself made up of “Pantaloon,” “Gloves … well fring'd,” and “Perriwig,” Sir Fopling is never happier than when characterized as a “shape” that “Ladies doat on” (231), and the only fault he can find with Dorimant is in the matter of “Crevats”: “Dorimant, thou art a pretty fellow and wear'st thy cloaths well,” he cries condescendingly, “but I never saw thee have a handsom Crevat. Were they made up like mine, they'd give another Aire to thy face. Prithee let me send my man to dress thee but one day. By Heav'ns an English man cannot tye a Ribbon” (261).

For their part neither Dorimant nor Harriet is indifferent to fashion and neither is lacking in his share of vanity, but both reject impatiently Sir Fopling's brand of artifice. “Varnish'd over with good breeding,” says Harriet, “many a blockhead makes a tolerable show” (220). For her as for Dorimant the morning toilet is a necessary preliminary to the adventure of living, but clothes do not “make the man.” Rather, they must be made to fit him. Thus Dorimant's complaint about his “Shooe” that it “Sits with more wrinkles than there are in an Angry Bullies Forehead” is stoutly denied by the shoemaker (who clearly knows his customer): “'Zbud, as smooth as your Mistresses skin does upon her” (198). But both Dorimant and Harriet firmly refuse to allow themselves to be turned into manikins. “Leave your unnecessary fidling;” Dorimant says testily to Handy, “a Wasp that's buzzing about a Mans Nose at Dinner, is not more troublesome than thou art” (199). And Harriet exclaims to Busy, “How do I daily suffer under thy Officious Fingers!” (219) Both hero and heroine have planted themselves in indignant opposition to the empty modishness of the world in which they live. “That Women should set up for beauty as much in spite of nature, as some men have done for Wit!” deplores Harriet. “That a man's excellency should lie in neatly tying of a Ribbond, or a Crevat!” protests Dorimant.

Clearly the difference between Dorimant and Harriet on the one hand and Sir Fopling on the other has to do in part with style as a manifestation of self. For Dorimant and Harriet style expresses the natural man. For Sir Fopling style replaces nature. Or, to put the matter another way, Dorimant and Harriet control and determine their own modes of dress and behavior according to their own individualities, while every piece of clothing donned by Sir Fopling and every move he makes is dictated by his conception of what polite society demands. Sir Fopling's comicality, in fact, may be regarded as an instance of the Bergsonian “covered” having turned into the “covering.”1 Hopelessly bound by social rules, he has no real life, no “living suppleness” left. He has acted the part of the “Compleat Gentleman” for so long that no vestige of spontaneity has survived; every motion is made by the book, and the imitation has stifled and obliterated the reality. As Medley says, “He has been, as the sparkish word is, Brisk upon the Ladies already; he was yesterday at my Aunt Townleys, and gave Mrs. Loveit a Catalogue of his good Qualities, under the Character of a Compleat Gentleman, who according to Sir Fopling, ought to dress well, Dance well, Fence well, have a genius for Love Letters, an agreeable voice for a Chamber, be very Amorous, something discreet, but not over Constant” (200, 201).2

Sir Fopling, in short, invariably behaves as the rules say he “ought to,” and in this respect he is clearly identified with that other slave to form and model of rigidity, Lady Woodvil. If she is “a great admirer of the Forms and Civility of the last Age” (193), Sir Fopling is just as irrevocably committed to the forms and rules of the new age. And if she is an egregious social snob in her constant concern for “women of quality,” he is equally snobbish in his desire to parade himself as a “man of Quality” (268)—“in imitation of the people of Quality of France.” “It might be said,” remarks Bergson, in an observation which is peculiarly applicable to both Lady Woodvil and Sir Fopling, “that ceremonies are to the social body what clothing is to the individual body. … For any ceremony, then, to become comic, it is enough that our attention be fixed on the ceremonial element in it, and that we neglect its matter … and think only of its form.”3

Significantly Dorimant has occasion in the course of the action to play the fop in both Lady Woodvil's and Sir Fopling's senses and thus to supply a fully conscious parody of both kinds of empty affectation. For the old lady's benefit he appears as Mr. Courtage—“That foppish admirer of Quality, who flatters the very meat at honourable Tables, and never offers love to a Woman below a Lady-Grandmother!” (244) “You know the Character you are to act, I see!” comments Medley, and not even the guarded Harriet can deny that he delivers a convincing performance: “He fits my Mothers humor so well, a little more and she'l dance a Kissing dance with him anon” (245). But the contrast between a Mr. Courtage and Dorimant himself is later underlined heavily:

Lord! how you admire this man!
L. Wood.
What have you to except against him?
He's a Fopp.
L. Wood.
He's not a Dorimant, a wild extravagant Fellow of the Times.
He's a man made up of forms and common places, suckt out of the remaining Lees of the last age.


And subsequently the difference between Dorimant and Sir Fopling is made equally plain in the brief and angry exchange between Dorimant and Loveit:

Now for a touch of Sir Fopling to begin with. Hey—Page—Give positive order that none of my People stir—Let the Canaile wait as they should do—Since noise and nonsence have such pow'rful charms,
I, that I may successful prove,
Transform my self to what you love.
If that would do, you need not change from what you are; you can be vain and lewd enough.
But not with so good a grace as Sir Fopling. Hey, Hampshire—Oh—that sound, that sound becomes the mouth of a man of Quality.

(267, 268)

Several years had elapsed between Etherege's second play and his third, and during that period he had, it would seem, recognized the emergence of a fresh challenge for the comic spirit. In effect, Sir Fopling's modishness represents to the younger aristocratic generation a new kind of affectation which was replacing the précieux mode of an earlier time and which had gradually developed to the point where it was, in its own way, equally far removed from the realities of human experience. The trouble with Sir Fopling is that he has taken over a social mode which had originally grown out of the emancipating libertine convictions of Charles II's courtiers and out of the needs of the Hobbesian “natural man,” and he has turned it into a social pretense quite lacking its original life-giving force and hence as empty of meaning as Lady Woodvil's précieux mode. Oscar Wilde remarks in one of his essays that “Costume is a growth, an evolution, and a most important, perhaps the most important, sign of the manners, customs, and mode of life of each century.”4 But it is a truism to observe that both manners and costume can easily become hollow externals when the real human needs that originally inspired them are lost or forgotten, and it is then that “a man's excellency” comes to “lie in neatly tying of a Ribbond, or a Crevat.”

In Dorimant's and Harriet's world the mode has spread so far down the social scale as to include even Tom the Shoemaker (significantly a dealer in “costume”), who prefers the word “Tope” to the word “drunk” and who exclaims: “'Zbud, there's never a man i'the Town lives more like a Gentleman, with his Wife, than I do. I never mind her motions, she never inquires into mine; we speak to one another Civilly, hate one another heartily, and because 'tis vulgar to lie and soak together, we have each of us our several Settlebed” (198). Artificiality and sterility have extended even into Tom's world. Yet it is the real function of this entire little scene to emphasize, with a kind of sly comic inversion, that for all their affectations there is no essential difference between a Sir Fopling and a Tom nor, for that matter, between a “vulgar” and illiterate “Molly” and a “woman of quality” like Lady Woodvil or Mrs. Loveit. Thus when simple Molly writes to Dorimant: “I have no money and am very Mallicolly; pray send me a Guynie to see the Operies,” Medley remarks, “Pray let the Whore have a favourable answer, that she may spark it in a Box, and do honour to her profession.” And Dorimant assures him “She shall; and perk up i'the face of quality” (204).

To define Young Bellair and Emilia as the “golden mean” in this modish society, as does Norman Holland, is not only to make use of a term which has no validity in the Etheregean comic world unless as a standard to be rejected, but also to ignore the patent tendency of both characters to sentimentality and to what the play repeatedly defines as “unreasonable” behavior and to overlook their commitment to the courtly tradition of love and honor. Bellair, as measured against the positive standards of daring and defiance established by Etherege, emerges as a conservative nonentity. It is he who warns Harriet against the “Mail” as a rather dangerous place for nice young ladies; and earlier Medley has recognized his own and Dorimant's company as equally dangerous for nice young men like Bellair: “how will you answer this visit to your honourable Mistress?” he demands tauntingly, “'tis not her interest you shou'd keep Company with men of sence, who will be talking reason” (198).

The most Dorimant can say of Bellair is that “He's Handsome, well bred, and by much the most tolerable of all the young men that do not abound in wit,” a judgment reinforced by Medley's subsequent characterization: “Ever well dress'd, always complaisant, and seldom impertinent …” (201, 202). In Lady Townley's gay social groups, he fades rather colorlessly into the background, and although he is not quite so much in love with Emilia as to marry her while there is a serious risk of losing his inheritance (he is “reasonable” enough about money if not about love) and is not above a contrivance with Harriet “to deceive the grave people,” he inspires in Harriet herself nothing more than the lukewarm approbation: “I think I might be brought to endure him” (220). Lacking Dorimant's ruthless aggressiveness, he is also lacking in the vitality, virility, and excitement which contribute to making Dorimant the overwhelmingly dominant figure that he is, and he represents finally only a more subtle foil than Sir Fopling in bringing out the fact of the hero's evident superiority.

Much the same can be said also of the role of Emilia vis-à-vis Harriet, and again it is Medley—serving at once as Dorimant's confidant and as the chorus of the play—who sums her up: “her Carriage is unaffected, her discourse modest, not at all censorious, nor pretending like the Counterfeits of the Age” (202). There is, moreover, a special irony in Dorimant's marking her out as a likely prospect for a future conquest (“I have known many Women make a difficulty of losing a Maidenhead, who have afterwards made none of making a cuckold”), since he is thereby not only underscoring his own skeptical attitude toward every “discreet Maid,” but in the process suggesting that the pedestal on which she stands is more than a little precarious and that she is, in her elemental nature, no more civilized and no less appetitive than a Mrs. Loveit, a Bellinda, or a Molly.

On more than one occasion, in fact, Etherege seems to be pointedly asking us to recognize in Emilia something of the same overrefined preciousness that belongs to Sir Fopling. When, for example, Lady Townley says in talking of Dorimant and Mrs. Loveit: “We heard of a pleasant Serenade he gave her t'other Night,” and Medley describes it as “A Danish Serenade with Kettle Drums, and Trumpets,” Emilia exclaims, “Oh, Barbarous!” and Medley chides, “What, you are of the number of the Ladies whose Ears are grown so delicate since our Operas, you can be charm'd with nothing but Flute doux, and French Hoboys?” (208, 209) And in the next Act Lady Townley feels prompted to tax Emilia with being “a little too delicate” after she has remarked stuffily: “Company is a very good thing, Madam, but I wonder you do not love it a little more Chosen” (228, 229).

Neither exchange by itself may seem to possess much importance, but when placed in juxtaposition with certain of Sir Fopling's scenes, an evolving theme becomes apparent, and it is one which has had its roots in the opening scene of the play. Thus to Sir Fopling's question, “Have you taken notice of the Gallesh I brought over?” Medley replies, “O yes! 't has quite another Air, than th'English makes” and Dorimant adds, “Truly there is a bell-air in Galleshes as well as men.” Whereupon Sir Fopling responds approvingly, “But there are few so delicate to observe it” (230, 231). Dorimant and Medley are, of course, playing with Sir Fopling, and their delicacy is only make-believe. The word “delicate,” however, has at this point already been used twice about Emilia, and Dorimant's choice of the word “bell-air” is certainly suggestive. In the following scene Sir Fopling makes another statement reminiscent of Emilia when he declares, in response to Bellinda's observation about “all the rabble of the Town” gathered in the Mail, “'Tis pity there's not an order made, that none but the Beau Monde should walk here” (240). A few lines later we hear him exclaiming, “there's nothing so barbarous as the names of our English Servants” (242). And finally, in the fourth act, Sir Fopling invades Lady Townley's drawing room with a group of masqueraders whom he describes as “A set of Balladins, whom I pickt out of the best in France and brought over, with a Flutes deux or two” (253).

In effect, then, two life styles are being repeatedly contrasted with each other throughout the play—a contrast variously expressed in terms of the “barberous” versus the “delicate,” the English versus the French, the inclusive versus the exclusive, Dorimant versus Sir Fopling. Sir Fopling, as the embodiment of an effete society which has cut itself off almost wholly from its life-giving roots, defines a mode of life which threatens to overtake Emilia as well. His snobbishness and exclusiveness—“I was well receiv'd in a dozen families, where all the Women of quality us'd to visit” (251)—is set against the “universal taste” which Lady Townley advocates. Her house, representing along with the “Mail” the “green world” of the play, is described as “the general rendevouze, and next to the Play-house is the Common Refuge of all the Young idle people.” It is itself, indeed, a kind of “play-house” and “new world,” and Dorimant, in his role as Mr. Courtage, succinctly defines its difference from the old for the benefit of Lady Woodvil: “All people mingle now a days, Madam. And in publick places Women of Quality have the least respect show'd 'em. … Forms and Ceremonies, the only things that uphold Quality and greatness, are now shamefully laid aside and neglected” (244, 245). And Lady Woodvil goes on to summarize the case more accurately than she knows in lamenting: “Lewdness is the business now, Love was the bus'ness in my Time,” for in the terms of the play love has become an empty word and “lewdness” a vital reality (and precisely the quality in which Sir Fopling and his ilk are deplorably lacking).

In Sir Fopling's world every judgment as to a man's “excellency” is made in terms of modishness. Strolling in the Mail with Mrs. Loveit, Sir Fopling comments upon the “four ill-fashioned Fellows” who have passed singing across their path: “Did you observe, Madam, how their Crevats hung loose an inch from their Neck, and what a frightful Air it gave 'em?” To a man of his refined and “delicate” sensibilities, the smell of such dirty fellows is almost unbearable:

Fo! Their Perriwigs are scented with Tobacco so strong—
SIR Fop.
It overcomes our pulvilio—Methinks I smell the Coffeehouse they come from. …
SIR Fop.
I sat near one of 'em at a Play to day, and was almost poison'd with a pair of Cordivant Gloves he wears—
Oh! filthy Cordivant, how I hate the smell!

(240, 241)

Sir Fopling's own gloves, of course, are delicately perfumed: “Orangerie! You know the smell, Ladies!” (231) And to an educated nose like his, even a burning candle is “filthy” and scarcely endurable: “How can you breathe in a Room where there's Grease frying!” (252) To such foppery, Dorimant's impatient opposition has been expressed early in the play:

Will you use the Essence or Orange Flower Water?
I will smell as I do to day, no offence to the Ladies Noses.


Only in the last act of the play, however, does the full thematic significance of this kind of emphasis become apparent. The act opens with a conversation which offers a clear parallel with the opening scene of Act I. Again it is early morning and again the talk is about “Markets” and “Fruit,” and the earlier conversation between Dorimant and the Orange-woman as well as that already quoted between Sir Fopling and Mrs. Loveit ought to echo in our ears as Bellinda confronts Mrs. Loveit:

Do you not wonder, my Dear, what made me abroad so soon?
You do not use to be so.
The Country Gentlewomen I told you of (Lord! they have the oddest diversions!) would never let me rest till I promis'd to go with them to the Markets this morning to eat Fruit and buy Nosegays.
Are they so fond of a filthy Nosegay?
They complain of the stinks of the Town, and are never well but when they have their noses in one.
There are Essences and sweet waters.
O, they cry out upon perfumes they are unwholsome; one of 'em was falling into a fit with the smell of these narolii.
Methinks in Complaisance you shou'd have had a Nosegay too.
Do you think, my Dear, I could be so loathsome to trick my self up with Carnations and stock-Gillyflowers? I begg'd their pardon and told them I never wore any thing but Orange Flowers and Tuberose. That which made me willing to go was a strange desire I had to eat some fresh Nectaren's.
And had you any?
The best I ever tasted.

(265, 266)

If any doubt exists as to the sexual implications of “fruit” in the opening scene of the play, it can scarcely survive now. Since Bellinda has just come from her assignation with Dorimant, the double-entendre of her concluding remarks here becomes obvious and is even more insistently underscored a few lines later as Bellinda pretends illness:

She has eaten too much fruit, I warrant you.
Not unlikely!
'Tis that lyes heavy on her Stomach.
Have her into my Chamber, give her some Surfeit Water, and let her lye down a little.
Come, Madam! I was a strange devourer of Fruit when I was young, so ravenous—


The special irony of the scene lies in the fact that both women are explicitly denying their identity with the “Country Gentlewomen” and, in effect, their own physical, appetitive natures at the same time that they implicitly acknowledge them. Throughout the play the gap between artificiality and naturalness is expressed in terms of “Orange Flower Water” or “Orangerie” on the one hand and “oranges” (or “peaches” or “Nectarens”) on the other. In the broader context of the play, it is the difference between Sir Fopling and Dorimant, between a suit of clothes and a man, between sterility and fertility.

The Orange-woman is, of course, by profession both a seller of fruit and a bawd, and the peach which she offers to Dorimant (“the best Fruit has come to Town t'year”) has a clear identity with Harriet (“a young Gentlewoman lately come to Town”). Dorimant cynically begins by expressing a disbelief in the “freshness” of both, calling the peach the “nasty refuse of your Shop” (190) and the gentlewoman “some awkward ill fashion'd Country Toad” (191), but the description Medley supplies is enough to make Dorimant's mouth water with anticipation. He first describes her as being “in a hopeful way” (192)—a phrase which the Orange-woman chooses to interpret according to her own earthy lights—and then goes on to lyricize:

What alteration a Twelve-month may have bred in her I know not, but a year ago she was the beautifullest Creature I ever saw; a fine, easie, clean shape, light brown Hair in abundance; her Features regular, her Complexion clear and lively, large wanton Eyes, but above all a mouth that has made me kiss it a thousand times in imagination, Teeth white and even, and pretty pouting Lips, with a little moisture ever hanging on them that look like the Province Rose fresh on the Bush, 'ere the Morning Sun has quite drawn up the dew.

By the time Medley has concluded his eulogy, he has Dorimant exclaiming: “Flesh and blood cannot hear this, and not long to know her” (193). It is in this connection that Bernard Harris, commenting on Etherege's prose, points out that “his similitudes from the natural life offer a relationship to the human, not a distinction or even a parallel. In The Man of Mode … there is a persistent relationship effected between the forms of life. … The simile is perfectly absorbed and absorbing.”5

Sir Fopling's senses, however, have, in contrast to Dorimant's, virtually lost touch with flesh-and-blood, sensuous reality. Not only is his nose offended by natural smells but his ears are offended by harsh sounds. Preferring delicate flute notes to Dorimant's “barbarous” trumpets and kettle drums, he also finds the name John Trott “unsufferable” and changes it to the more euphonious (and pretentious) “Hampshire.” “The world is generally very grossier here, indeed,” he remarks, comparing England to France (231), and Dorimant's vigorous masculinity is continually set off against his preciousness and effeminacy:

He was Yesterday at the Play, with a pair of Gloves up to his Elbows, and a Periwig more exactly Curl'd then a Ladies head newly dress'd for a Ball.
What a pretty lisp he has!
Ho, that he affects in imitation of the people of Quality of France.
His head stands for the most part on one side, and his looks are more languishing than a Ladys when she loll's at stretch in her Coach, or leans her head carelessly against the side of a Box i'the Playhouse.


In a later scene, when the group gathered at Lady Townley's tries to persuade Sir Fopling to dance, Medley remarks: “Like a woman I find you must be struggl'd with before one brings you to what you desire.” But there is no persuading Sir Fopling, and when he apologizes to Harriet (“Do not think it want of Complaisance, Madam”), she returns, “You are too well bred to want that, Sir Fopling. I believe it want of power.” To which he smugly assents: “By Heav'ns and so it is. I have sat up so Damn'd late and drunk so curs'd hard since I came to this lewd Town, that I am fit for nothing but low dancing now, a Corant, a Boreè, or a Minnuét; but St. André tells me, if I will but be regular in one Month I shall rise agen. Pox on this Debauchery” (253). Sir Fopling, as it proves, can only “endeavor at a caper” and then be content to dance by proxy—throwing out instructions to his “set of Balladins” from his position seated among the ladies. And his “want of power” turns out to include a strong suggestion of sexual impotence when at the end of the play he is all too easily discouraged from continuing his pursuit of Mrs. Loveit: “An intrigue now would be but a temptation to me to throw away that Vigour on one, which I mean shall shortly make my Court to the whole sex in a Ballet” (285).

Even Old Bellair possesses more animal vigor than does Sir Fopling, and indeed it is he who is the true heir to the role of Sir Joslin Jolley of She wou'd if she cou'd. Forever dancing, singing, drinking, and “bepatting” the ladies, he is the high-spirited, irrepressible Dionysian clown at Lady Townley's revels and is always in the forefront of the exuberant country dances, which contrast so sharply in their energetic natural rhythms with the mannered “French air” imposed by Sir Fopling on his own little “equipage.” Like Sir Joslin, Old Bellaire seems to be constantly in motion (“You are very active, Sir,” says Emilia. He views the male-female relationship in coarsely physical terms and acts as good-natured matchmaker at the end of the play. (“Please you, Sir,” he bids the Chaplain, “to Commission a young Couple to go to Bed together a Gods name?”)

Dorimant, for all his refinement and ironic detachment, possesses the masculine vigor which identifies him with Old Bellair's rather primitive spontaneity and virility, but Sir Fopling has lost touch almost completely with such earthy, natural behavior. Even his carelessness is studied: “We should not alwaies be in a set dress, 'tis more en Cavalier to appear now and then in a dissabillée” (261). And he writes his love songs, as he does everything else, by the rules so that the end product sounds like something straight out of the heroic plot of The Comical Revenge—a pretty pastoral with appropriate references to “my wounded heart” and to sighs and languishings. Boasting of having learned singing from Lambert in Paris, he has to acknowledge: “I have his own fault, a weak voice, and care not to sing out of a ruél,” whereupon Dorimant comments: “A ruél is a pretty Cage for a singing Fop, indeed” (262).

Dorimant himself refuses categorically to live like a songbird in a cage. Just as he takes over the form of the pastoral love song and uses it to express what Underwood calls his own “‘satanic’ posture,”6 so he takes over the vows and protestations of the précieux mode and uses them to his own aggressive ends. Always the comic artist, adapting every form and rule to his particular needs, he sings and versifies his way through the play with supreme confidence in his own superior knowledge of the ways of the world and of the women in it, and Young Bellair pays him the ultimate tribute by remarking: “all he does and says is so easie, and so natural” (234).

To him as to Harriet the first requirement of the game of life is freedom to follow one's own inclinations, however arbitrary they may be. “We are not Masters of our own affections,” he says to Mrs. Loveit, sounding like an echo of Courtall, “our inclinations daily alter; now we love pleasure, and anon we shall doat on business; human frailty will have it so, and who can help it?” (214) The greatest enemy to the élan vital is restriction of the kind Mrs. Loveit would impose on Dorimant and Lady Woodvil on her daughter, and Dorimant's defiance of Mrs. Loveit in Act I, scene ii, has its counterpart in Harriet's defiance of her mother in Act II, scene i. Harriet too has her own “inclinations,” and she confides to her waiting woman her real objection to marrying Bellair:

I think I might be brought to endure him, and that is all a reasonable Woman should expect in a Husband, but there is duty i'the case—and like the Haughty Merab, I
Find much aversion in my stubborn mind,
Is bred by being promis'd and design'd.


And a few lines later, when Young Bellair asks: “What generous resolution are you making, Madam?” Harriet retorts, “Only to be disobedient, Sir.”

In terms of the highly civilized world to which Dorimant and Harriet belong, they are both “barberous” (a word which recurs repeatedly in indignant references to Dorimant)—possessed of no illusions about the “native brass” which lies at the bottom of their own natures. Egotistically cognizant of their own value, they shake off impatiently any attempt to reduce them to a civilized formality. Thus, when Busy pleads with Harriet, “Dear Madam! Let me set that Curl in order,” Harriet exclaims, “Let me alone, I will shake 'em all out of order” (219). In short, they are both “sons of the morning”—the time of day when they first appear on stage in all their rebellious individuality—armed for their encounter with the world with the freshness and vigor of free spirits but also with a tough skepticism that will take nothing on faith.

Neither harbors any undue respect for “quality” and both are merciless mockers of both the foppish and the précieux affectations which surround them. When, for example, Dorimant taunts Harriet by making a jeering comment about ladies' eyes (“Women indeed have commonly a method of managing those messengers of Love! now they will look as if they would kill, and anon they will look as if they were dying. They point and rebate their glances, the better to invite us”), she promptly retorts: “I like this variety well enough; but hate the set face that always looks as it would say Come love me. A woman, who at Playes makes the Deux yeux to a whole Audience, and at home cannot forbear 'em to her Monkey” (248). Both hero and heroine can, like their comic predecessors, play a tongue-in-cheek part in the social game and at the same time detach themselves from it either as highly entertained onlookers or as sardonic commentators.

Possessing flexibility of response and a keen eye for the false and the ridiculous in human behavior, they delight in their own superior ability to control the world around them and are consummate Hobbesian “gloriers.” And dissembling represents one of their methods of having their own way with the world and of remaining wild and free in a society bent on reducing its members to a common mold. Toward the end of the play Lady Townley observes that “Men of Mr. Dorimants character, always suffer in the general opinion of the world,” and Medley corroborates her view: “You can make no judgment of a witty man from common fame, considering the prevailing faction, Madam—” (283). The same might be said of the social response to the comic spirit in any age. Representing as they do the rebellious, freewheeling play spirit dedicated to the art of living well on their own terms, the Dorimants of the world will always find people to brand them as “Devil” and “ingrate” with a wholly negative implication.

Sinner and devil are, of course, the names invariably given by a conventional or Christian society to indulgers of the natural instincts, especially sexual, and to indulgers of the truth-speaking instincts as well. But a comic hero such as Dorimant will always in effect contend with Oscar Wilde, “What is termed sin is an essential element of progress”; and he will thus rejoice in and pride himself on his own sinfulness. Medley, in his opening greeting to Dorimant, calls him “my Life, my Joy, my darling-Sin” (191), and Tom the Shoemaker accuses both men of belonging among those “men of quality” who “wou'd ingross the sins o'the Nation” (197). And in a later passage Medley remarks concerning Mrs. Loveit's jealousy of Dorimant: “She cou'd not have pick'd out a Devil upon Earth so proper to Torment her” (208). In fact the language of the play repeatedly associates “that wicked Dorimant, and all the under debauchees of the Town” (246) with both sin and the devil; and Lady Woodvil recognizes Dorimant as an exceedingly dangerous tempter: “Oh! he has a Tongue, they say, would tempt the Angels to a second fall” (237). In short, not only is the comic hero himself a rebel against divine authority, but he has so charming and persuasive a way about him that he threatens to carry some segments of the angelic group along with him.

Closely associated with the devil imagery, moreover, is the religious terminology frequently used by the “devils” themselves as one means of defining their own nature and their irreverent attitude toward both orthodox religion and marriage as a sacred institution. The play opens, for example, with Dorimant complaining of the difficulty of writing a love letter with all passion spent: “It is a Tax upon good nature which I have here been labouring to pay, and have done it, but with as much regret, as ever Fanatick paid the Royal Aid, or Church Duties.” And later, when Bellmour is discussing with Medley and Dorimant the subject of his approaching marriage, we witness the following exchange:

You wish me in Heaven, but you believe me on my Journey to Hell.
You have a good strong Faith, and that may contribute much towards your Salvation. I confess I am but of an untoward constitution, apt to have doubts and scruples, and in Love they are no less distracting than in Religion; were I so near Marriage, I shou'd cry out by Fits as I ride in my Coach, Cuckold, Cuckold, with no less fury than the mad Fanatick does Glory in Bethlem.
Because Religion makes some run mad, must I live an Atheist?
Is it not great indiscretion for a man of Credit, who may have money enough on his Word, to go and deal with Jews; who for little sums make men enter into Bonds, and give Judgments?
Preach no more on this Text, I am determin'd, and there is no hope of my Conversion.


Clearly Medley is quite as capable as Dorimant of doing witty violence to the religious view of marriage, and in his talk about “Faith” and “Salvation,” “doubts and scruples,” as well as his glib mixing of religious and economic metaphors, he is following Dorimant's lead and emphasizing his devilish inclination to regard nothing as sacred.

And Dorimant's dialogues with Mrs. Loveit suggest a similar pattern. Mrs. Loveit belongs wholeheartedly to the world of sacred convention, and it has been argued by more than one critic that Dorimant treats her with such calculating cruelty that in our sympathy with her we lose all admiration for him. But although such may be Bellinda's reaction, it can hardly have been the audience reaction expected or intended by Etherege, and the play can certainly be acted so as to call forth quite a different response. If Sir Fopling's rule-bound modishness is sterile, her uncontrolled passion for dominance is actively destructive, and her relationship with Dorimant is actually very much like Lady Cockwood's with Courtall. She wants to possess him wholly, to make his vows and oaths eternally binding, to deny him all his liberty. In a world of human relationships characterized by power politics, she wants absolute dominance where only a balance of power is tolerable.

Like Lady Cockwood, moreover, she is masculine in her aggressive pursuit of Dorimant and would reduce him to the submissiveness of fools like Sir Fopling who, as she says with satisfaction, “are ever offering us their service, and always waiting on our will” (268). And like Lady Cockwood too, her thirst for power, when frustrated, leads finally to a wholly destructive rage. In her fury she is even more the heroine of melodrama than is Lady Cockwood: “Death! and Eternal darkness! I shall never sleep again. Raging feavours seize the world, and make mankind as restless all as I am” (274). She expresses her destructiveness actively by tearing her fan into shreds and “flinging” chaotically about the stage, while Dorimant remarks with a coolness designed to madden her still further: “I fear this restlessness of the body, Madam, proceeds from an unquietness of the mind” (214).

Yet in the devilish terms of the play and of a Hobbesian world, Dorimant is quite “reasonable” in expecting his freedom once he has discovered his “decay of passion,” and Mrs. Loveit is wholly “unreasonable” in her jealous possessiveness. (Both words appear repeatedly in the dialogue and always with these same implications.) When Emilia reminds him sentimentally of “afflictions in Love,” he retorts, “You Women make 'em, who are commonly as unreasonable in that as you are at Play; without the Advantage be on your side, a man can never quietly give over when he's weary!” (228) To be “reasonable” in Etherege's comic world is simply to be realistic about the appetitive and inconstant nature of man and to comport oneself accordingly. Thus when Mrs. Loveit accosts Dorimant with: “Is this the constancy you vow'd?” he replies, “Constancy at my years! 'tis not a Vertue in season, you might as well expect the Fruit the Autumn ripens i'the Spring.” Again “fruit” and naturalness are identified, and the passion-versus-reason exchange continues:

Monstrous Principle!
Youth has a long Journey to go, Madam; shou'd I have set up my rest at the first Inn I lodg'd at, I shou'd never have arriv'd at the happiness I now enjoy.
Dissembler, damn'd Dissembler!
I am so, I confess; good nature and good manners corrupt me. I am honest in my inclinations, and wou'd not, wer't not to avoid offence, make a Lady a little in years believe I think her young, wilfully mistake Art for Nature; and seem as fond of a thing I am weary of, as when I doated on't in earnest.
False Man!
True Woman!
Now you begin to show your self!
Love gilds us over, and makes us show fine things to one another for a time, but soon the Gold wears off, and then again the native brass appears.
Think on your Oaths, your Vows and Protestations, perjur'd Man!
I made 'em when I was in love.
And therefore ought they not to bind? Oh Impious!
What we swear at such a time may be a certain proof of a present passion, but to say truth, in Love there is no security to be given for the future.
Horrid and ingrateful, begone, and never see me more!


Like all his kindred comic protagonists, Dorimant matter-of-factly accepts men for the fallen creatures they are and is quite ready (maddeningly so, in Mrs. Loveit's view) to regard himself as more fallen than most. Thus he blandly accepts her cries of “False” and “Impious” and opposes to such passion his own reasonable and realistic analysis of the human condition. The analysis constitutes a highly effective method of verbal attack, both against Mrs. Loveit herself and against the whole religious-moral-social framework which stands behind her abstractions concerning “Constancy,” “Oaths,” “Vows,” “Protestations.” Beneath their innocently logical exterior, Dorimant's remarks are patent insults—insults compounded by the smugly condescending tone in which he coolly sets forth the truths that explain his outrageous behavior. Each lengthy, deliberate speech is clearly designed to enrage further an already angry woman, and each is a little exercise in logic which arraigns by implication her stupidity. Not only is the subject of the dialogue passion as opposed to reason, but so also is the dialogue itself.

Only a Harriet can finally successfully challenge a Dorimant, because only she can meet him on his own ground of controlled reasonableness. As aware as he of the ridiculous posturings of the human animal, she is as ingenious as he in deceits and contrivances which will allow her to have her own way. When her waiting woman reproaches her with eluding her mother (“the Extravagant'st thing that ever you did in your life”), Harriet rejoins, “Hast thou so little wit to think I spoke what I meant when I over-joy'd her in the Country, with a low Courtsy, and What you please, Madam, I shall ever be obedient?” And poor, baffled Busy can only answer, “Nay, I know not, you have so many fetches” (220). Harriet—like Dorimant although more ingenuously—is overwhelmingly in love with life—with “this dear Town” and with “the dear pleasure of dissembling” (222). Taking nothing for granted, she stubbornly refuses to be taken for granted herself—or to fit docilely into any predetermined mold. “I am sorry my face does not please you as it is,” she says defiantly to Dorimant, “but I shall not be complaisant and change it” (248).

Her hatred of life in the country, which she can “scarce indure … in Landskapes and in Hangings” (222), suggests a hatred of repose equal to Dorimant's own, and she is as exuberant a contriver and prankster as he is. At one point Medley explains to Lady Townley the reason for Mrs. Loveit's rage by remarking: “Dorimant has plaid her some new prank” (225); and later Dorimant reveals to Medley his reason for acting the part of Mr. Courtage with the words: “This is Harriets contrivance” (244). Always a sworn enemy of “gravity,” Harriet has “so many fetches” that even Dorimant has a difficult time keeping pace. When she makes him a mock curtsey, he protests: “That demure curt'sy is not amiss in jest, but do not think in earnest it becomes you,” and in the ensuing dialogue it is clear that for her the curtsey is tantamount to flinging a challenge:

Affectation is catching, I find; from your grave bow I got it.
Where had you all that scorn, and coldness in your look?
From nature, Sir, pardon my want of art:
I have not learnt those softnesses and languishings
Which now in faces are so much in fashion.
You need 'em not, you have a sweetness of your own, if you would but calm your frowns and let it settle.
My Eyes are wild and wandring like my passions, And cannot yet be ty'd to rules of charming.


It is Harriet's wit which dominates here, and she is in effect giving Dorimant a taste of his own medicine. She too can appeal to “Nature” and to her “wild and Wandring Passions,” and her witty technique inevitably recalls that which Dorimant himself has used in “handling” Mrs. Loveit. Like Dorimant's words in the earlier scene, hers here are also sweetly reasonable and constitute at once a defense and an attack. While remaining, with her wryly spoken “Sir” and “pardon,” ostensibly within the bounds of good manners, she is actually insulting and defying and making fun of Dorimant. Etherege's most brilliant stroke in the language of the passage, however, has to do with the rhythms he here imparts to Harriet's speeches, for at the very moment when she is impudently apologizing for her “want of art,” she is speaking in blank verse and thus at once parodying such “art” and suggesting the special quality of her own artistic control, organic to her own essentially poetic nature.

Here, as always, Harriet is an indefatigible player (both of roles and of the exciting and even dangerous game of life) and one who delightedly welcomes any challenge. When the respectable young Bellair, escorting her in the Mail a few minutes earlier, has remarked: “Most people prefer High Park to this place,” she has had an instant response ready: “It has the better reputation I confess: but I abominate the dull diversions there, the formal bows, the Affected smiles, the silly by-Words, and amorous Tweers, in passing; here one meets with a little conversation now and then.” And to Bellair's warning: “These conversations have been fatal to some of your Sex, Madam,” she has replied, “It may be so; because some who want temper have been undone by gaming, must others who have it wholly deny themselves the pleasure of Play?” Upon which the always reasonable Dorimant has sounded the familiar note of approbation: “Trust me, it were unreasonable, Madam” (234, 235).

In our softer, more optimistic moods we may all prefer, as so many critics have preferred, a Bellair to a Dorimant, an Emilia to a Harriet, but the comic spirit at its best has no patience with our softer moods, and if the cruelty of Dorimant has often proved a stumbling block to critical appreciation, it has been due to a continuing propensity to regard him as a romantic rather than a comic hero. English comic laughter has always contained a strong vein of cruelty, and no honest study of laughter and comedy has been able to avoid some acknowledgment of the strain. James Sully defines it as an “unfeeling rejoicing at mishap,” to be found “in the laughter of the savage and of the coarser product of civilisation at certain forms of punishment, particularly the administration of a good thrashing to a wife,” but he reluctantly admits that even “‘polite society’ seems to have a relish for this form of amusement.”7 The fact is that neither Hobbes, nor Etherege following in his footsteps, was willing to recognize any essential difference between the members of a polite society and those of a primitive or savage one. Presumably man, in either setting, laughed from a feeling of his own superiority in which he “gloried,” and such laughter is, more often than not, something less than kind.

In Dorimant's and Harriet's world, as in Hobbes's, life is a struggle for power. In more universal comic terms, it is a game involving a battle for self-assertion and self-definition from which the comic hero emerges victorious because he possesses superior mental agility and because he never deceives himself. He is always a disruptive force, challenging a complacent world which would repress his vigorous individuality in the name of civilization. Dorimant's philosophy in matters of both friendship and love is a hard-headed one of mutual advantages or pleasure to be reaped. To Medley's observations about his having “grown very intimate” with Bellair, he explains reasonably: “It is our mutual interest to be so; it makes the Women think the better of his Understanding, and judge more favourably of my Reputation; it makes him pass upon some for a man of very good sense, and I upon others for a very civil person” (202). And when Bellinda, at the conclusion of her assignation with Dorimant, sighs, “Were it to do again—” he replies, “We should do it, should we not?” (258)

Like most of his comic ilk, he is a charming cad, reveling in his own powers of conquest, and he delights in a spirited fight like that with Mrs. Loveit and even seeks it out because it offers him additional opportunity to display his own superiority. Thriving on trouble and excitement, he declares with customary self-confidence: “next to the coming to a good understanding with a new Mistress, I love a quarrel with an old one; but the Devils in't, there has been such a calm in my affairs of late, I have not had the pleasure of making a Woman so much as break her Fan, to be sullen, or forswear her self these three days” (195). The full import of such a statement can perhaps best be appreciated by setting it against an observation made by Faure: “Is not repose the death of the world?” he asked. “Had not Rousseau and Napoleon precisely the mission of troubling that repose? In another of the profound and almost impersonal sayings that sometimes fell from his lips, Napoleon observed with a still deeper intuition of his own function in the world: ‘I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out of it sounds and chords and harmonies. I love it as an artist.’”8

Dorimant too finds “repose the death of the world” and loves power “as an artist,” and it is precisely because Mrs. Loveit lacks his artistic control that her counterplot against him is foredoomed. Possessing passion without wit, she can only shout “Hell and Furies!” in response to his taunt, “What, dancing the Galloping Nag without a Fiddle?” (214) Much in the manner of Courtall in his struggle with Lady Cockwood, Dorimant is momentarily defeated and has to endure Medley's jibes at his expense, but in the final scene he again gathers all the reins into his own competent hands, and Medley declares: “Dorimant! I pronounce thy reputation clear—and henceforward when I would know any thing of woman, I will consult no other Oracle” (286). In a world of power-hungry, passion-driven people, it takes a clearheaded, self-aware, resilient manipulator like Dorimant to keep his balance. And, as already stated, it takes a woman of Harriet's wit and cunning to counter him effectively.

In her own way she is as proud and egotistical as her opponent, and the game they play is one in which she is on the offensive as often as he is. She is, indeed, as Medley once calls her, the “new Woman” (244). Wholly aware of her own power and possessed of both “wit” and “malice,” she enters the playground attracted by its perils and ready to take on the very “Prince of all the Devils” himself. In fact Lady Woodvil's attitude creates for her recalcitrant daughter sufficient provocation to drive her precipitately into his arms. “Lord,” exclaims the Orange-woman to Dorimant, “how she talks against the wild young men o'the Town; as for your part, she thinks you an arrant Devil; shou'd she see you, on my Conscience she wou'd look if you had not a Cloven foot” (193). Harriet corroborates the statement by explaining to Young Bellair: “She concludes if he does but speak to a Woman she's undone; is on her knees every day to pray Heav'n defend me from him.” But when Bellair asks, “You do not apprehend him so much as she does?” Harriet, who is “wild” and “extravagant” enough in her own right, replies confidently, “I never saw any thing in him that was frightful” (233, 234). And the very fact that Dorimant is a man of “no principles” (226) only serves to increase her interest. Rejecting the safety and security of an arranged marriage, she insists on living dangerously, whatever the chances of being “ruined” and “undone.”

Both Dorimant and Harriet constantly refer to the love game in terms of fighting and gambling. “These young Women apprehend loving, as much as the young men do fighting, at first;” says Dorimant, “but once enter'd, like them too, they all turn Bullies straight” (201). Mrs. Loveit has, in effect, “turned bully,” but Harriet seeks an excitement and adventure in her relationship with Dorimant which is quite opposed to Mrs. Loveit's desire for absolute dominance; and the rules by which she plays the game can be reduced to two: play your cards close to the chest and never trust your opponent even for a minute.

Neither Sir Fopling's rule-bound unimaginativeness nor Bellair's and Emilia's complacency will do for either Dorimant or Harriet. Life is for them a continual conflict, and as spectators we are invited to watch the struggle with a full knowledge of the prevailing tensions. “I love her, and dare not let her know it,” mutters Dorimant in an aside. “I fear sh'as an ascendant o're me and may revenge the wrongs I have done her sex” (249). “I feel … a change within,” says Harriet aside, “but he shall never know it” (235). Their self-control is as complete as their self-awareness, and every witty exchange between them pulsates with the resulting rhythmic energies. Both are artists at the game of life, with a pride in their own imaginative and attractive powers which determines them to challenge each other as a part of their refusal to submit to dull and repressive conventionality. “You were talking of Play, Madam;” remarks Dorimant, “Pray what may be your stint?” “A little harmless discourse in publick walks,” comes Harriet's rejoinder, “or at most an appointment in a Box bare-fac'd at the Play-House; you are for Masks, and private meetings, where Women engage for all they are worth, I hear.” And the battle is on:

I have been us'd to deep Play, but I can make one at small Game, when I like my Gamester well.
And be so unconcern'd you'l ha' no pleasure in't.
Where there is a considerable sum to be won, the hope of drawing people in, makes every trifle considerable.
The sordidness of mens natures, I know, makes 'em willing to flatter and comply with the Rich, though they are sure never to be the better for 'em.
'Tis in their power to do us good, and we despair not but at some time or other they may be willing.
To men who have far'd in this Town like you, 'twould be a great Mortification to live on hope; could you keep a Lent for a Mistriss?
In expectation of a happy Easter, and though time be very precious, think forty daies well lost, to gain your favour.
Mr. Bellair! let us walk, 'tis time to leave him, men grow dull when they begin to be particular.
Y'are mistaken, flattery will not ensue, though I know y'are greedy of the praises of the whole Mail.
You do me wrong.
I do not; as I follow'd you, I observ'd how you were pleased when the Fops cry'd She's handsome, very handsome, by God she is, and whisper'd aloud your name; the thousand several forms you put your face into; then, to make your self more agreeable, how wantonly you play'd with your head, flung back your locks, and look'd smilingly over your shoulder at 'em.
I do not go begging the mens as you do the Ladies Good liking, with a sly softness in your looks, and a gentle slowness in your bows, as you pass by 'em—as thus, Sir—[Acts him. Is not this like you?

(235, 236)

In such a passage, typical of the witty exchanges between the two protagonists, language becomes in Dorimant's case a substitute for a more open aggressiveness and in Harriet's a substitute for that elusive female maneuver involving the “no” which suggests “yes.” Words take on a decidedly dramatic quality, with physical activity on the stage giving way to an activity of mind of such intensity that we feel as if we were watching two skilled fencers with mind instead of hand in control. As Harriet repeatedly alters her tactics by a facile change of metaphors (from gaming to the flattery of the rich and thence to religion), Dorimant adjusts his own with scarcely a pause for breath, and the sexual implications are invariably and forcefully present beneath the polite metaphorical surface, whether the reference be to “deep Play,” to the “power” of the wealthy “to do us Good,” or to the following upon “Lent” of “a happy Easter.” And presumably the use of religious terminology in connection with sex suggests again, as in earlier passages and in earlier plays, a defiant irreverence of attitude toward both Christianity and the religious stance of the précieux mode. At this point, however, Dorimant breaks the unspoken rules by shifting from the impersonal third person to the “particular” second, and Harriet is quite justified in walking off the playground—pausing only to throw back with good measure at the piqued Dorimant the insult which he has resentfully flung and to restore the comic perspective with her pantomime. But we have only to observe the way the evenness of the back-and-forth exchange has been interrupted to know that the rhythmic balance of the game has been broken. Short, sharp sallies have abruptly given way to Dorimant's diffuseness.

Whatever their rivalry on their own playground, however, they are partners on the larger social playground, both “contriving” to “make a little mirth” (276) by turning their world into a vastly entertaining spectacle, both mocking at “gravity” and “Rules” by means of parody, and both glorying none too kindly in their triumphant superiority. “Mr. Dorimant has been your God Almighty long enough,” cries Harriet to Mrs. Loveit, “'tis time to think of another—” (286). Seizing upon the affections of their mannered world, both Harriet and Dorimant turn them into a spirited comedy of which they are at once the authors and the principal actors. And they play with language as they play with life, controlling it with a masterful skill and putting it to use for their own purposes of challenge and aggression.

In the end Harriet has won. Or has she? And Dorimant has won. Or has he? In the last analysis both have won out against the larger world. Mrs. Loveit has been outplotted; Lady Woodvil has been brought around. But on their own playground neither has finally either won or lost, and the game goes on. Superficially, of course, a bargain has been struck: Harriet's money in exchange for Dorimant's promise of marriage. Yet all the important questions remain unanswered, and all the dangers are as threatening as ever. “Do all men break their words thus?” asks Bellinda of Dorimant in the final scene. And he replies, “Th' extravagant words they speak in love; 'tis as unreasonable to expect we should perform all we promise then, as do all we threaten when we are angry—” And, never one to succumb to the “unreasonable,” he adds, “We must meet agen” (283). And to Mrs. Loveit he has testily remarked in the same scene: “I must give up my interest wholly to my Love; had you been a reasonable woman, I might have secur'd 'em both, and been happy—” (282, 283). The exchanges ironically undercut all the “extravagant words” which Dorimant has been speaking to Harriet, and those words thus take on the nature of a dare, which she at once recognizes and proceeds to counter with a dare of her own. Thus when Dorimant declares his delight in the “prospect of such a Heav'n” and promises to “renounce all the joys I have in friendship and in Wine, sacrifice to you all the interest I have in other Women—” Harriet cuts him short with, “Hold—Though I wish you devout, I would not have you turn Fanatick—Could you neglect these a while and make a journey into the Country?” (278, 279) Again she is making insinuatingly irreverent use of religious metaphors as an indication of her distrust of his “Heav'n” references and is thereby rejecting the possibility of sinking into any stultifying orthodoxy of the précieux kind. But in effect she is also asking Dorimant, in terms of her own earlier metaphor, to “keep a Lent for a Mistriss.”

If it is the Country which is to constitute the ultimate testing-ground of their relationship, it is also love, and Etherege significantly seems to ask us to equate one with the other. Both represent, paradoxically, at once the source of life and the threat of repression and sterility. Harriet, who cannot “indure the Country … in Hangings,” rejects with equal vehemence the thought of representing “the whole mystery of making love … in a suit of Hangings,” which has become the subject of one of her last witty rallies with Dorimant:

What have we here, the picture of a celebrated Beauty, giving Audience in publick to a declar'd Lover?
Play the dying Fop and make the piece compleat, Sir.
What think you if the Hint were well improv'd? The whole mystery of making love pleasantly design'd and wrought in a suit of Hangings?
'Twere needless to execute fools in Effigie who suffer daily in their own persons.


The passage suggests that what Harriet finally cannot endure is any pressure to reduce her to a formalized pattern of behavior and thus to turn her into just another docile fool. When Dorimant utters his last declaration to the effect that his “soul has quite given up her liberty,” she at once seems to associate his words with the sterility suggested both by “the dying Fop” and by “the hateful noise of Rooks” in Hampshire (“Hampshire” being incidentally the sound Sir Fopling has found so pleasing); and she declares, “This is more dismal than the Country!” In short, she turns off the threat of such a death by turning it into yet another challenge, and the play ends with both protagonists still in tense and rhythmic comic motion.


  1. Bergson speaks of the source of the comic as “some rigidity or other applied to the mobility of life, in an awkward attempt to follow its lines and counterfeit its suppleness,” and he goes on to say: “It might almost be said that every fashion is laughable in some respect. Only, when we are dealing with the fashion of the day, we are so accustomed to it that the garment seems, in our mind, to form one with the individual wearing it. We do not separate them in imagination. The idea no longer occurs to us to contrast the inert rigidity of the covering with the living suppleness of the object covered: consequently, the comic here remains in a latent condition. It will only succeed in emerging when the natural incompatibility is so deep-seated between the covering and the covered that even an immemorial association fails to cement this union: a case in point is our head and top hat.” “Laughter,” Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956), p. 85.

  2. In view of Etherege's patent insistence on these differences between Sir Fopling and Dorimant, it is astonishing that so many recent critics have largely denied the existence of any such distinction. Jocelyn Powell has actually reversed the differences, making an observation about Dorimant and his world which can in reality only be justified with specific reference to Sir Fopling: “in the society Etherege portrays manners have become not a means to an end, but an end in themselves … that which was intended to express feeling, now dictates to it, and manners prevent the intercourse they were designed to aid.” She then goes on to suggest quite rightly that the “energy of love and of living is expressed in the communication between human beings,” but denies, in effect, that Dorimant and Harriet manage to express any such “energy,” hamstrung as they are by “the lightness and elegance of fashion.” And the issue becomes further confused when Sir Fopling is seen as the heir to the “lyrical and musical life and energy” of Sir Frederick Frollick and Sir Joslin Jolly—“picking up the realism of the play and turning it into a dance,” and when the example of Dorimant is held up as one in which “form has become a substitute for feeling.” “George Etherege and the Form of Comedy,” Restoration Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 6 (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), 66-68.

  3. Bergson, “Laughter,” Comedy, p. 89.

  4. Oscar Wilde, “The Truth of Masks,” Intentions (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), p. 241.

  5. Harris, “The Dialect of those Fanatic Times,” Restoration Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 6 (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), 29, 30.

  6. Dale Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1957), p. 88. The song, of which Underwood says that there is a “‘satanic’ posture embedded in the verses' synthetic pastoralisms,” includes the lines:

    The threatning danger to remove
                        She whisper'd in her Ear,
    Ah Phillis, if you would not love,
                        This Shepheard do not hear.
    None ever had so strange an Art
                        His passion to convey
    Into a listning Virgins heart
                        And steal her Soul away.
  7. James Sully, An Essay on Laughter: Its Forms, Its Causes, Its Development, and Its Value (New York: Longmans, Green, 1907), p. 97.

  8. Quoted in Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1923), pp. 11, 12.

Jean Gagen (essay date 1986)

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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 modes—a high plot written in heroic couplets and dealing seriously and sedately with love and honor conflicts among aristocrats and several low or comic plots written in prose and concerned with characters who never seriously consider honor.2 The heroic rimed drama of the high plot “modeled on Davenant and Lord Orrery” has been said to conflict in “spirit and style” with the “realistic comedy and farce” of the low plots,3 which have been the major focus of the critical attention and praise that the play has received.

With the increasing awareness, however, of the compatibility that can exist between comic and serious plots embodying differing themes and sets of conventions, The Comical Revenge—as well as plays apparently similar to it in structure, such as James Howard's All Mistaken (1665), Charles Sedley's The Mulberry Garden, and Dryden's Secret Love (1667) and Marriage Ala-Mode (1671)—has been absolved of the charge of thematic disunity. Virginia Birdsall,4 Laura Brown,5 Norman Holland,6 Jocelyn Powell,7 Arthur Scouten,8 and Dale Underwood,9 have all discussed the many ways in which the comic and serious plots of The Comical Revenge interact through situational parallels and contrasts. Robert Hume, moreover, cites such plays as The Comical Revenge, Tuke's Adventures of Five Hours (1663) and Dryden's The Rival Ladies (1664?) as evidence that it was certainly possible in the 1660s to present exemplary and even heroic characters in works regarded as comedies—that comedy was obviously not thought of exclusively in terms of ridicule of fools or low characters.10

Nevertheless, reputable scholars have continued to express disagreement, disapproval, and downright bewilderment about Etherege's intentions in the high plot. Norman Holland confesses frank puzzlement that a man of Etherege's “urbanity” could write a plot “in pure heroic style” since “nothing could be further from the multiple perspectives of comedy than the single-minded admiration of the heroic manner” (21). Jocelyn Powell accuses Etherege of dallying half-heartedly “with conventional problems of ‘platonic’ love that neither his imagination nor technique” were fitted to handle (46-47). Dale Underwood, on the other hand, maintains that the serio-comic division of The Comical Revenge is fundamental to Etherege's intention—namely, the presentation of “two contrasting worlds of values, attitudes, and action.” In the comic world, libertine attitudes prevail; in the heroic world a “totally virtuous love and honor” regulates the attitudes and actions of all the characters, and honor invariably triumphs in the love and honor conflicts (46-50). Underwood and Holland, moreover, have suggested that in the context of the play as a whole, the staunchly heroic high plot has comic implications. Because the heroic values of the high plot are constantly qualified and undercut by the libertine values of the low plots, both sets of values are negated, and a comic perspective is cast over both the higher and lower worlds of the play (Underwood 49-50; Holland 25).

Virginia Birdsall agrees that the values of the heroic plot constantly suffer an undercutting in comparison with the low comic plots. Yet she insists that we are meant to accept the honor-bound world of the high plot seriously as one of the possible interpretations of reality according to which men may still choose to live (44-45). Hume likewise believes that the leading characters in Etherege's top plot are clearly meant to be “exemplary models of propriety” (44) and that Etherege could enjoy and admire the “high-blown flummery” of the heroic love and honor conflicts even though this pleasure may have been mixed with a “little ironic skepticism” (77).

The very expression “high-blown flummery” suggests, of course, that heroic plots are apt to seem exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous to modern readers. But because of convincing evidence that heroic dramas were originally intended to be taken seriously,11 critics have continued to assume that Etherege's heroic plot was meant to be taken about as seriously12 as other similar plots in plays contemporary with his. Nevertheless, a close examination of Etherege's high or heroic plot reveals that, unlike heroic dramas or the heroic plots in multi-plot plays with which The Comical Revenge is frequently associated, Etherege's high plot is not meant to be taken seriously. Those critics who have conjectured that the high plot, although serious in itself, has comic implications within the total context of the play—or that Etherege's treatment of love and honor conflicts is mixed with a “little ironic scepticism”—are certainly on the right track. They have simply not gone far enough. The ironic contrasts and parallels between the high and low plots may contribute to the humor of the play. But there are more direct sources of humor within the high plot itself, and there is more than a tincture of “ironic scepticism” in Etherege's handling of the intense concern over honor exhibited by the supposedly exemplary characters. In fact, the essence of the comedy of the high plot is the fact that it is an ironic parody rather than an exemplification of the heroic ethos involving love and honor. Its apparent seriousness is a mock-seriousness, its “staunchly heroic” tone is parodic rather than real, and neither its love nor its honor is invariably “totally virtuous.”

Perhaps the fact that modern readers have to exercise their historic imaginations rather more strenuously than usual in order to react seriously to heroic love and honor conflicts has contributed to the failure to notice the difference between Etherege's treatment of the heroic ethos involving love and honor and that of playwrights who had no parodic intent. An even more likely reason is that readers and critics alike have tended to slight the high plot in favor of the robust and obviously amusing low plots which, according to some critics, occupy a crucial position in the evolution of the Restoration comedy of manners.13 Without very careful attention to precisely how Etherege manipulates his love and honor conflicts, the reader inevitably misses the rich humor implicit in the apparently solemn and decorous high plot. It is true, however, that Etherege cleverly “traps” his readers and auditors into assuming that they are about to become involved in serious dilemmas over honor: at first his dignified aristocrats do indeed seem to be thoroughly dedicated to the romantic ethos of love and honor. Even when they are flagrantly violating it, they still profess their ardent devotion to it.

This code of gallantry,14 which had become an international literary phenomenon and had found its way into a variety of literary forms, had already infiltrated Cavalier drama and had begun to infiltrate heroic drama by the time Etherege composed The Comical Revenge. Although the code was concerned with the proper conduct of lovers in a variety of circumstances, it had much to say about how an honorable gentleman should behave when he finds that he has a rival in love.

Ideally, each lover should behave with courtesy and generosity to the other. Both of them should scrupulously honor sacred vows and promises. And eventually one of the lovers should renounce his claim to the love of his lady. Which lover should surrender in deference to his rival depended on a number of factors. But this self-renunciation, when motivated by a genuine sense of honor, was regarded as an act of magnanimity, worthy of praise and glory.

Cavalier15 and earlier heroic drama, as well as other forms of popular drama, had already provided Etherege and his audience with numerous instances of rival lovers, one of whom heroically surrenders his love in favor of his rival. The Earl of Orrery in The General (Dublin, 1662; London, 1664) presented a lover who twice saves the life of his rival and at the close surrenders the lady he loves to his rival because she herself prefers the rival. In later heroic plays by Orrery—Henry the Fifth (1664), Mustapha (1665), The Black Prince (1667), and Tryphon (1668)—similar renunciations occur. For example, in The Black Prince, Lord Delaware gallantly yields his love for the beautiful widow Plantagenet to his friend and royal master Prince Edward. In Tryphon, Seleucus surrenders his love for Cleopatra to his friend and king Aretus, whom Cleopatra prefers.

Dryden's heroic dramas carry on the tradition of glorifying magnanimity and self-sacrifice in situations involving rivalry in love.16 Moreover, in his tragicomedy The Rival Ladies Dryden dramatizes a conflict arising from rivalry in love which has so many analogies to the situation which Bruce faces in Etherege's high plot that some critics are convinced that Dryden's play influenced Etherege's, even though this belief necessitates dating The Rival Ladies earlier than its first known performance in the early summer of 1664.17 What has heretofore not been noted, however, is that Dryden's Don Gonslavo eventually behaves in an exemplary fashion as a rival lover while Etherege's Bruce does not. Dryden's Don Gonsalvo allows himself to be affianced to a woman whose love he knows has already been won by a rival. But he never deludes himself into believing that it is a matter of honor for him to marry Julia against her will. Moreover, after a sharp struggle, he yields to the hard demands of honor, exercises heroic generosity, and surrenders Julia to the man she loves. It is important to note that when Don Gonsalvo makes this magnanimous surrender, he is completely unaware that he will soon be consoled by a new love. Bruce, on the other hand, magniloquently surrenders Graciana to his rival only after his love for Graciana has been replaced by a new love, and he no longer wishes to marry Graciana. In fact, Bruce's conduct as a rival lover repeatedly falls short of the magnanimous ideal that Don Gonsalvo represents once he has won the victory over his dishonorable impulses.

Initially, however, there is nothing reprehensible in Bruce's reaction to the news that a rival has won the love of Graciana, the sister of his friend Lovis. During Bruce's absence at war, Graciana has fallen in love with Beaufort, a virtuous nobleman, and Graciana's father Lord Bevill has consented to their marriage. Only in the first shock of his disappointment does Bruce momentarily blame Graciana. But when Lovis closely questions him, Bruce's honesty compels him to admit that Graciana has not been at fault except in having had too much compassion for him. Bruce freely admits that Graciana had never plighted a promise to him and had even made her distaste for him plain. But because she grieved for the pain she knew that she was inflicting on him, she promised to try to return his love. Unfortunately, this promise encouraged Bruce excessively. He banished despair and allowed his hopes to grow to undue proportions. But after he learns that his hopes have proved false, he sadly remarks, “There is a fate in love, as well as war; / Some though less careful more successful are” (III. vi. 100-101). The latter line suggests “sour grapes” and some self-pity, but there is no serious suggestion that Graciana and Beaufort have actually wronged him.

It is the hot-headed Lovis who precipitates the conflict between Bruce and Beaufort. Though Lovis has been bred “in the school of honour,” in his distress over the plight of his “gen'rous friend,” Lovis' sense of honor becomes thoroughly perverse. Stubbornly determined that Graciana marry his friend Bruce in accordance with his own wishes and Bruce's, Lovis refuses to recognize that Bruce has no rightful claim to Graciana's love. At one point Lovis' anger is so explosive that he rashly exclaims that he wishes Graciana were dead! He declares that the honor of their family is imperiled. He even insists that Lord Bevill order Graciana to marry Bruce. As he is increasingly carried beyond reason, Lovis completely ignores the fact that his father's gracious approval of Bruce's courtship of Graciana had been strictly qualified by his “sacred vow / Never to force what love should disallow” (II. ii. 96-97). In other words, Bruce had to win Graciana's love.

Unfortunately, Lovis is abetted in his resentment against Beaufort and Graciana by his other sister Aurelia. Secretly in love with Bruce herself, she is so tenderly sympathetic to him that she loathes to see him suffer. She accordingly allows her love for Bruce to distort her own sense of honor. She presents the courtship of Beaufort and Graciana in the most derogatory terms possible, as if there had been something almost criminal about it! Lord Bevill, however, knows that there has been nothing amiss in the courtship of Beaufort and Graciana nor in his permission for them to marry. In fact, he becomes so angered by Lovis' outcries over the “threat'ning stain” to the honor of their house that he orders Lovis to “forbear” his “wicked insolence” (III. vi. 2-3) and abruptly leaves him.18

Lovis, however, is now so thoroughly in the grip of pride and anger that he urges Bruce to challenge Beaufort's right to Graciana in a duel. At first Bruce excuses the suggestion because even he realizes that Lovis' behavior is excessive and that Lovis' friendship for him has incited him to speak rashly. Finally, however, Bruce is infected by Lovis' impassioned urgency. As Lovis continues to taunt Bruce for “tamely” surrendering, Bruce suddenly decides that Graciana was indeed at fault in not instantly putting a damper on his “flame.” Once his pride and anger have clouded his reason and corrupted his sense of honor, Bruce views his despair over gaining Graciana's love as “ignoble” and cowardly. Nevertheless, he makes the damaging admission that his love has become “so wild a fire” that he fears it will conspire to both their ruins. Now whipped into a frenzy of anger, Bruce confronts Beaufort and Graciana with the announcement that he has come to make his lawful claim on Graciana (III. vi. 16). Beaufort has previously expressed a generous compassion for the plight of his rival Bruce. But he has recognized that Bruce has no justifiable claim to Graciana. Had Bruce and Beaufort been friends, or had Bruce been Beaufort's royal master, Beaufort might have felt some compulsion to surrender his right to Graciana. But no such situation exists. Consequently, both he and Graciana are in the right when they remind Bruce that Graciana belongs to the man whom she loves and to whom she is avowed. Bruce, however, is by now deaf to all reason and justice and challenges Beaufort to a duel. Despite Graciana's protests, Beaufort accepts the challenge, convinced that the sacredness of his reputation is at stake.

So far there is nothing inherently comic about the crisis which has developed. There is irony, of course, in the fact that courtly characters earnestly devoted to honor find themselves as deeply embroiled in conflicts as those whose sense of honor is much more casual, if it exists at all. It is also ironic that Bruce continues to consider his conduct honorable after he has become as self-deceived in this respect as his friend Lovis. It is doubtful, however, that the irony of the situation in which Bruce, Lovis, and Beaufort find themselves would seem to have comic implications if subsequent events in the plot were handled differently. What actually happens, however, is that from this point on, Etherege's satiric intent emerges much more openly.

Except for Sir Frederick's cynical jesting at Beaufort's exalted ideal of love in the first act, the first unmistakable intrusion of comedy into the high plot occurs at the end of the duelling scene. But from the moment the participants in the duel assemble on the duelling field, we are increasingly prepared to accept the burst of laughter with which this scene concludes.

Before the duel even begins, Beaufort rescues Bruce from an unexpected attack by five villains. Out of gratitude to Beaufort, Bruce now claims that his honor will not permit him to draw his sword against the life that has just saved his own. Beaufort, however, quite rightly refuses to accept Bruce's surrender because Bruce has failed to express any contrition for the unruly pride and passion which induced him to challenge Beaufort's right to Graciana.19 Still suffering from orgies of gratitude to Beaufort, Bruce next offers to allow Beaufort to plunge his sword into his bosom. Again Beaufort, in perfect accord with the rationale and protocol of the duel,20 refuses: to accept Bruce's offer would make him guilty of an appalling lack of courtesy, to say nothing of cruelty. In spite of Bruce's melodramatic display of gratitude, none of this noble posturing absolves him in the least from the blame of provoking a totally unjust duel.21

Finally, when Bruce seems intent on halting the duel for reasons other than the fact that he has no just cause to dispute Beaufort's claim to Graciana, Beaufort becomes so exasperated that he decides to goad the reluctant Bruce into fighting: Beaufort then proceeds to taunt Bruce by asserting that the man who stands before him is the very man who “robb'd” Bruce of Graciana. At this juncture, Etherege directs the shafts of his comic irony at Beaufort instead of Bruce. In order to redeem his honor by defeating Bruce in the duel, Beaufort untruthfully convicts himself of behaving dishonorably in winning Graciana as his prospective bride. With the issues surrounding this “duel of honor” now finely scrambled, Bruce declares that the mere mention of Graciana's name has aroused his “lazy courage,” and he proceeds to strip for action, confident that he is obeying his “scrup'lous honour.”

Beaufort quickly disarms Bruce, then hands Bruce his sword and bids him live. His life saved a second time by his rival, Bruce salutes Beaufort for his honor, courage, and nobility of mind. Though he no longer disputes Beaufort's right to Graciana, Bruce declares that he does not wish to live without Graciana and promptly falls on his sword. He is about to be followed by his friend Lovis when Sir Frederick intervenes with the comment which prevents an orgy of desperate deaths and underscores the essential comedy of the situation. “Forbear, sir; the frolic's not to go round, as I take it,” Sir Frederick remarks. Sir Frederick himself has few scruples about honor. He would never die for love or honour. But he is clear-sighted enough to see the ludicrousness of Bruce's and Lovis' behavior, and he belittles it humorously as a “frolic” rather than a display of heroism as these elegant victims of passion and folly suppose.

From the conclusion of the duelling scene to the end of the play, the comically ironic perspective in which the “heroic” activities of the high plot are placed becomes increasingly apparent. When Graciana learns from her father that the “gen'rous Bruce” has given himself a supposedly mortal wound because he scorned to live without her, the stage is set for another elegant muddle over honor. Graciana's common sense is positively shattered by the prospect of Bruce's imminent death. In bewilderment, she asks “Which is path that doth to honour lead?” and vows not to be misled by love. So confused is she over what the demands of honor are that when Beaufort enters, confident that Graciana will applaud his victory in the duel, she condemns him as a perfidious man—as the only man she hates. As Graciana sweeps off the stage and leaves the astonished Beaufort to lament his cruel fate, surely the audience was intended to smile, at least, at the lengths to which Graciana's excessive pity for Bruce have finally driven her.

Meanwhile Graciana's sister Aurelia, who throughout the play has concealed her love for Bruce out of regard for custom and honor and even pled Bruce's cause to Graciana, decides that she would be justified in disclosing her love to the dying Bruce. Immediately after the surgeon has confessed that he despairs of Bruce's recovery and has left the room, Aurelia enters. Kneeling by Bruce's chair and weeping copiously, she confesses the suffering she has undergone because of her unrequited love. Aurelia's beauty, together with her confession of love for him, instantaneously banishes the love Bruce once had for “proud Graciana.” In fact, he expresses regret that Aurelia concealed her love until this moment when all he is able to do in return is “sigh away” for her what breath still remains to him. For the first time, he repents his rashness in falling on his sword and in some wonderment remarks, “I ne'er thought death till now a punishment” (V. i. 65).

At this moment, Graciana enters begging Bruce not to talk of death. Then on her knees she confesses that she has childishly refused “the gold” of Bruce's love and accepted “the dross” of Beaufort's. Graciana's self-renunciation, motivated by her mistaken sense of honor, is presented in a thoroughly ironic context, since she does not know what the audience knows—that Bruce no longer seeks her love. As the scene progresses, irony is piled on irony. The situation hovers on the edge of farce and escapes falling into actual farce only because of the courtly language and manners of the participants. Bruce tactfully does not reveal that he now loves Aurelia. Instead he commends Graciana for choosing Beaufort instead of him and affirms that only Beaufort's “great soul” is worthy of her love. Graciana, however, protests that if her love is due to the most deserving, it is due to Bruce. Bruce replies that this is mere flattery. “By honour,” she owes her love to the generous Beaufort and to forget this debt would be unjust, for “Honour with justice always does agree” (V. i. 89). Then, as if the effort to dissuade Graciana were too much for him, Bruce declares that his spirits faint within his wearied breast, and the servants enter and convey him to his bed.

Throughout this scene, Bruce has assumed the heroic manner of the magnanimous lover like Don Gonsalvo, who surrenders his love to his worthy rival without any prospect of finding consolation elsewhere for his loss. Bruce, however, never admits that he has no claim on Graciana's love until after he has fallen in love with Aurelia and is no longer interested in Graciana. Consequently, Bruce's renunciation of Graciana's love has no ethical substance. Bruce's mock renunciation and the solemn prattle about honor which accompanies it is as comically ironic as Graciana's unwelcome gesture of self-renunciation.

As long as Graciana has been in Bruce's presence, she has played the part that she believes her honor requires of her with faultless propriety. Yet when she is alone with her maid she confesses that she is pursuing her honor too rigidly—something is due her love. Eventually she decides that her honor will allow her to marry Beaufort if Bruce lives. Only if Bruce dies will she be forever “contracted to his memory” (V. iii. 52-58). When Beaufort enters unexpectedly and overhears Graciana's remarks, he rejoices that “fortune joins with love” to be his friend, for abler surgeons have pronounced Bruce's wound “not mortal.”

In the final scene, in the presence of Lord Bevill, Beaufort, Lovis, Graciana, and Aurelia, Bruce announces that he has lost his claim to Graciana. He conveniently ignores that he never had any legitimate claim to her. Instead he declares that his heart is due to Aurelia because of her selflessness in courting Graciana for him while her own heart yearned with love for him. In fact, he asserts that Aurelia so excels “in honour and in love” that she has inspired in him both shame and admiration. Bruce then bestows Graciana, who was never his to bestow, on his “gen'rous Rival” Beaufort, to whom she has belonged all along.

Bruce gives no indication that he realizes that his conduct has ever fallen short of complete virtue or that his attitude towards Beaufort's right to Graciana has undergone a radical change. Etherege apparently intended to show that, at least in matters of the heart, Bruce is so accustomed to allowing his passions or emotional inclinations to determine what is honorable and what is not that he can see nothing faulty, inconsistent, or ridiculous in his behavior at any point in the play. In so doing, Etherege has made a beautifully ironic commentary on the self-deception of this “honor-bound” aristocrat from the moment he first insists that Graciana rightfully belongs to him until he surrenders his “right” to the noble Beaufort. At any rate, once Bruce is no longer an obstacle to their love, Beaufort and Graciana—as well as Lord Bevill—are willing to play their parts flawlessly in the elegant game of honor in which Bruce takes the lead, probably without even realizing that his gestures of honor are ostentatious and meaningless.

Graciana demurely confesses that since Bruce has recovered and declined his claim to her, she can “with honour” resign her heart to Beaufort. She does not mention that she had already decided that if Bruce recovered, her honor would allow her to marry Beaufort. Nor does she allude to the fact that until Bruce's flamboyant suicide attempt had thoroughly unsettled her emotionally, she had clearly realized that Bruce never had any claim on her love. Though Beaufort knows that Graciana had already decided to marry him if Bruce recovered, and he has consistently defended the honor of his right to Graciana, he lavishly praises Graciana for her refusal to give herself to him as long as Bruce made any claim on her love. “Such honour and such love,” he asserts with a flourish which must have brought a smile to a sophisticated audience, have not heretofore been known. He then asks and receives Lord Bevill's consent to marry Graciana (a consent he already had), and this segment of the plot is finally concluded with rejoicing on the part of all who have been involved in it.

The scene has allowed every one to save face. Surely it was meant to be played with mock-seriousness, in which laughter is rippling just below the surface, or with a smiling geniality which acknowledges the irony of what is going on and in which both the actors and the audience are bound together in their enjoyment of a performance in which they are all participating.22 There is no indication in this final episode that anyone's behavior has been foolish or anything but totally virtuous. Etherege, however, knew better, and so very possibly did his original audiences, at least some members of it. John Evelyn, who saw the play on April 25, 1664, described it as a “facecious Comedy.”23 Pepys, who was present at a performance on Jan. 4, 1664/1665, referred to it as “very merry.”24

While these comments do not in themselves prove that Restoration audiences regarded the high plot as well as the low plots as comic in the sense of being laughter-provoking, they point in that direction. They provide evidence that at least two note-worthy theatre goers of the day felt the impact of the play as a whole was sprightly and amusing. At a time when dramatically sophisticated members of the audience could be counted on to understand the niceties of the code of honor which should govern the behavior of courtly rivals in love, we have every right to believe that at least some members of Etherege's original audiences realized that Etherege was comically manipulating and often reducing to essential meaninglessness the heroic ethos which the plot is supposedly demonstrating. After beginning his tale involving a conflict between love and honor by following the proper ethical guidelines in this matter, Etherege allows courtly personages schooled in the precepts of honor to succumb in the name of honor to some of the same naturalistic passions as characters who make no pretense to honor. Then as the plot progresses the issues centering on honor become so deftly scrambled that they are virtually emptied of all ethical substance.

When the intent of Etherege's high plot is properly understood, it can be enjoyed instead of merely tolerated—perhaps with some patronizing amusement—until portions of the comic plot recur. In this high plot, Etherege has presented a delightfully clever and light-hearted satire on a number of the conventions and ideals which had already pervaded Cavalier and early heroic drama and would continue to characterize many later heroic plays. Etherege has mocked the glorification of self-renunciation by ironically praising it in the approved manner while showing that it is empty, in Bruce's case, and foolish and unwelcome in Graciana's. He has shown how easily passion can dictate what “honor-bound” characters consider honorable or dishonorable. In both the aristocratic world of the high plot and the libertine world of the low plots, Etherege has found targets for laughter. Etherege's achievement in his next two plays was far greater than in his first play. But his accomplishment in The Comical Revenge is more complex and sophisticated than has been realized, and it deserves to be recognized.


  1. Edition used: The Plays of George Etherege, ed. Michael Cordner (Cambridge: UP, 1982). Act and scene will be given in text in Roman numerals, line or lines in Arabic.

  2. Thomas Fujimura in The Restoration Comedy of Wit (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1952) is one of a number of critics who have considered the high and low plots “irreconcilable” 45.

  3. H. F. B. Brett-Smith, introduction, The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege, 2 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927) I:xvi, lxxi, and John Palmer, The Comedy of Manners (London: Bell and Sons, 1913) 67.

  4. Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1970) 42-57.

  5. English Dramatic Form, 1660-1760: An Essay in Generic History (New Haven: Yale UP, 1981) 31, 36-37.

  6. The First Modern Comedies (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1959) 20-27.

  7. “George Etherege and the Form of a Comedy,” Restoration Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, No. 6 (London: Edward Arnold, 1965) 46-48.

  8. “Plays and Playwrights,” vol. 5 of The Revels History of Drama in English: 1600-1750, gen. ed. T. W. Craik (London: Methuen, 1976) 178-181.

  9. Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners (New Haven: Yale UP, 1957) 46-50.

  10. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1976) 45.

  11. See Geoffrey Marshall, Restoration Serious Drama (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1975).

  12. Among such references are the relatively recent ones by Laura Brown 31; Arthur Scouten 181; and Hume 44; 48, n. 2; 77.

  13. Bonamy Dobrée, for example, in Restoration Comedy, 1660-1720 (1924; London: Oxford UP, 1966) 66, declared that the comic plot centering on Sir Frederick and his wooing of the Widow “set the whole tone of Restoration comedy.” Alfred Harbage in Cavalier Drama (New York: Modern Lang. Assoc. of America, 1936) also accords The Comical Revenge a supremely high place in the development of Restoration comedy, as does Virginia Birdsall (4). Fujimura, however, disagrees (87) and so does Hume, who insists that such a view ignores crucial evidence about comic modes which were firmly established before Etherege and on which he and other playwrights drew (238).

  14. D'Urfé's L'Astrée was the single most popular source of the intricacies of this code and for this reason was highly valued by Henrietta Maria and her coterie, who helped popularize the code in England. See, for example, Harbage, chs. 1 and 2 and Kathleen Lynch, The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy (New York: MacMillan, 1926), ch. 3 for discussions of the ethical ideals which this code embodied.

  15. In Walter Montague's The Shepherd's Paradise (London, 1629), Prince Basilino relinquishes Fidamira because her “faith” has been given to another. In Thomas Killigrew's The Princesse in Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1644), Lucius surrenders Sophia to his brother because of his brother's prior claim to her.

  16. Derek Hughes in Dryden's Heroic Plays (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1981) represents a minority view in contending that Dryden's heroic plays “reveal profound scepticism about the utility and practicability of heroic endeavour” (Preface viii).

  17. C. V. Deane in Dramatic Theory and the Rhymed Heroic Play (1931; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968) 168; John Harrington Smith, “The Dryden-Howard Collaboration,” SP, 51 (Jan. 1954) 56; and Frank Harper Moore, The Nobler Pleasure: Dryden's Comedy in Theory and Practice (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1963) 237, n, 11 all argue for 1663 as the date when The Rival Ladies was written and believe that Etherege's play was influenced by Dryden's. Similarly, Judith Milhous and Robert Hume in “Dating Play Premieres from Publications Data, 1660-1700,” Harvard Library Bulletin 22 (1974) consider it likely that The Rival Ladies was performed in the fall of 1663 or early in 1664 (380) and thus could have influenced The Comical Revenge.

  18. Not only would Bruce's behavior be considered dishonorable in accordance with the heroic ethos, but even seventeenth century plays relatively uninfluenced by this code of gallantry regarded the belief that the rejection of a lover's suit justified the taking of revenge as a perversion of the code of honor. See Elizabeth Mary Brennan, “The Concept of Revenge for Honour in English Fiction and Drama between 1580 and 1640,” diss., U of London, 1958.

  19. Sir William Segar in The Booke of Honor and Armes (London, 1590) would allow the injured to accept satisfaction for an injury in place of a duel if the injured expresses contrition, yields himself into the hands of the one he has injured, and stands at his mercy (41). Bruce does place himself at Beaufort's mercy, but out of gratitude for the fact that Beaufort saved his life, not out of contrition for the wrong he has done Beaufort. Vincent Savioli, his Practice (London, 1595) took a dim view of even a man who expresses genuine contrition but waits until he has his weapons in hand to recant. The man who pursues an unjust quarrel to the very zero hour dishonors himself and reveals “a most vile and wicked mind” (n.p.).

  20. According to Segar, when a man in genuine contrition for a wrong he has done places himself at the mercy of one he has injured, he is following a very doubtful course of action, “For if the injured with his own hand shall doe anything to his satisfaction, in so doing he sheweth no courtesie” (41).

  21. To consider this duel a “paragon of honor” which is contrasted with “the tricksters' mock … duel of dishonour” in the low plot (Powell 47 and Holland 25) is to see only half of Etherege's satire. The duel in the low plot is conducted in broadly farcical terms. When honor or reputation or conscience is invoked by Wheadle, Palmer, or Sir Nicholas, these words are such thinly disguised cloaks for cowardice or deceit that they provoke outbursts of laughter. The satire on the duel in the high plot is much more subtle. Nevertheless, Etherege makes it clear that despite Bruce's edifying display of gratitude, his motives for challenging Beaufort are nearly as discreditable as those which have generated the projected duel between Cully and Palmer.

  22. Peter Holland in The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy (Cambridge: UP, 1979) presents the thesis that to discover how a Restoration audience understood a play, one must examine carefully the nature of the performance that they witnessed. Holland, however, does not discuss how Restoration audiences would have understood The Comical Revenge in performance, although he does allude briefly to the fact that in the early 1660s Thomas Betterton played “quasi-heroic roles in comedy” like the role of Beaufort in The Comical Revenge (80).

  23. The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. DeBeer (London: Oxford, 1959) 460, entry for April 27, 1664.

  24. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, eds. Robert Latham and William Matthews, 6 vols. (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1972) 6:4, entry for Jan. 4, 1664/1665.

Robert Markley (essay date 1988)

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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) might sum up three centuries of critical reaction to the dramatic stylist Dryden called the ‘best author of [prose] which our nation has produced’.2 Etherege's comic style, particularly in The Man of Mode, has been praised since his own day, but often only in broad and effusive terms.3 As the first of the ‘major’ Restoration dramatists, Etherege is usually considered as ‘sheer’ an ‘original’ as one finds after 1660, the inventor of an elegant prose style which faithfully emulates the conversation of gentlemen. But this ahistorical characterization, besides overlooking Dryden's stylistic experiments in the 1660s, praises Etherege's style at the expense of studying it. His first play, The Comical Revenge (1664) sifts through a variety of stylistic options, offering its audience a kind of capsule history of early Restoration comic dialogue. Its originality lies not, as Rochester suggests, in its neglect or rejection of Shakespeare and Jonson but in its complex response to the stylistic traditions of Renaissance drama, the linguistic innovations of his own era, and the problems of ‘restoration’ itself. Etherege does not simply refurbish the comic forms he has inherited. More deliberately than any of his contemporaries, he explores the ironies and tensions inherent in the Cavalier ideals of wit and carriage. He is, in this regard, a ‘sheer original’ in adapting the linguistic conventions of comedy to unconventional ends.

In The Comical Revenge Etherege selectively rewrites several decades of experimentation with comic language. If Dryden tries to reconcile the demands of comedy and fashionable stylistic theory, Etherege demystifies the ideal of a stable, conversational medium by employing a variety of theatrical languages, ranging from heroic verse to farcical prose. In one sense, the play fragments Fletcherian tragicomedy into its components: debunking comedy and obstreperous idealism. It offers both an ironic critique and an imaginative reworking of traditional forms, exaggerating the tendencies of satiric and heroic languages and exploiting the discrepancies between them for comic effect.

Each of the play's four plots has its own language: the dilemmas of love and honour are cast in heroic couplets; Sir Frederick and the Widow speak in fashionably witty prose; Wheadle and Palmer are given a language reminiscent of Jacobean city comedy; and Dufoy speaks the broken English of an earlier generation of travestied foreigners. These idioms reflect different influences and parody different languages, from the rhetoric of contemporary tragedy to the morally revealing prose of Jonsonian intrigue and gulling. Yet the boundaries separating these styles often seem to exist solely to be transgressed, particularly by the play's comic hero. As Etherege's first incarnation of the wit, Sir Frederick works both to unify disparate elements of the plot and to call into question the ideological presuppositions underlying the hierarchical arrangement of styles, including the notion that we are supposed to admire and identify with those characters who speak in tub-thumping couplets. The dialogical competition among the languages of wit, pretence, and honour subverts simple notions of the play's ‘aesthetic’ coherence or ‘dialectical unity’ by rendering in dramatic form the contradictions within its ‘restored’ Cavalier ideology. As The Comical Revenge violates narrow conceptions of dramatic decorum, it also leads us to ask whether its various styles represent the ‘natural’ expressions of fundamentally different outlooks or whether they enforce idiomatic distinctions without demonstrating any substantive ideological differences. This question is complicated because the play's ideological—as opposed to political—values resist precise formulation and because comedy, for Etherege, is an affective process rather than merely a formal arrangement of stylistic effects.4

The play's discrete languages call attention self-consciously to those parodic strategies that complicate the relationship of verbal wit to aristocratic privilege. The Comical Revenge is cavalier about defining the social status, though not the political allegiances, of its characters. Sir Frederick is Beaufort's cousin and the Widow Lord Bevill's sister, but the two of them seem more at home in the company of low comic characters than in the heroic world of the romantic lovers; the hero apologizes early in the play for his wit by telling Beaufort, ‘my Conversation has not been amongst ceremonious Ladies’ (I. ii. 189-90).5 The butt of the play's farcical satire is Sir Nicholas Cully, ‘knighted by Oliver’. Wheadle and Palmer are identified simply as ‘gamesters’ in the dramatis personae but demonstrate their ill nature by hiding their schemes under the pretence of plotting for the King's return; and Dufoy tries to obscure his past by insisting that he is a gentleman temporarily forced into the role of servant. The play's stage-aristocracy exists, in this regard, under a comic state of siege; and one of the challenges facing Etherege is to redesign comic idioms to disclose both the conservative and radical tendencies of libertine wit in the 1660s. If Dryden reasserts the values of wit and carriage, Etherege's first comedy distances itself from defensive justifications of the social order which returned to power after 1660. Its wit does less to celebrate the mythos of the Restoration than to investigate the tensions inherent in the play's formal disjunctions; it acknowledges implicitly that the civil war had radically challenged the presumptions of aristocratic culture.6 The seeming haphazardness of Etherege's dramatic form, then, may be seen as a working out of the ideological divisiveness of the ‘restored’ conventions of wit and honour.

The most destabilizing of the play's idioms results from Dufoy's mangling of English. The Frenchman wreaks havoc with grammar and syntax: oaths, mispronunciations, added syllables, inverted word order, hammering repetitions, and syntactic confusion characterize his speech. His favourite oath ‘begar’ punctuates most of his speeches of more than a few words; it indicates his frustration with English. He uses it frequently when he wants to stress his sense of being victimized by others: ‘Begar, I do not care two Soulz if de Shamber-maid ver hangé; be it not great deal better pretendé d'affection to her, dan to tellé de hole Varldé I do take de Medicine vor de clapé; begar it be de ver great deale better’ (II. i. 102-5). Other linguistic features emphasize Dufoy's role as a pretender to wit and fashion. His accent—stage mock-French—is no doubt intended to get laughs by itself. The typographical substitutions (‘d’ for ‘th’, ‘v’ for ‘f’ and ‘w’) and the dropped and added syllables should be taken as cues for the actor rather than as linguistic evidence about speech patterns in 1664. Dufoy is fond of derogatory epithets, either stringing them into a series (‘dis Bedlamé, Mad-cape, diable de matré’) or doubling them. Synonymous verbs are also frequently doubled (‘to beaté and abusé’). Almost as a matter of course Dufoy takes the final words of others' speeches and repeats them as introductions to his own:

Have patience, [Sir Frederick beat you] unadvisedly.
Unadvisé! didé not me advise him justé when he did ité?
Yes; but he was in drink you say.
In drinké! me vishé he had ben over de head and de ear in drinké …

(i. i. 13-18)

Dufoy's repetitions turn these words and phrases into brief comic routines that fuel his exasperation and emphasize his role as a satiric butt.

Etherege uses the Frenchman's mangling of English to emphasize the self-serving nature of language in The Comical Revenge. When characters speak, they usually intend either to deceive others or to justify their actions. The prose given to Dufoy, Wheadle, Palmer, and Sir Frederick, in this regard, is often as deceptive as the heroic verse of Bruce and Beaufort is compulsively transparent. Dufoy's account of being hired by Sir Frederick turns the rhetoric of compliment into hyperbolic self-praise:

… young Monsieur de Grandvil (a Jentleman of ver great Quality[)] … did tellé me dat de Englis Jentleman had de Letré vor de Posté, and did entreaté me (if I had de oppertunity) to see de Letré deliver; he did tellé me too, it vold be ver great obligation: de memory of de faveur I had receive from his Famelyé, beside de inclination I naturally have to servé de strangeré, made me retourné de complemen vid ver great civility, and so I did take de Letré, and see it deliveré. Sir Frollick perceiving (by de management of dis affairé) dat I vas man d'esprit, and of vitté, did entreaté me to be his Serviteur, me did take d'affection to his Personé, and vas contenté to live vid him, to counsel and to advisé him.

(iii. iv. 33-52)

Syntactically, Dufoy's speech is marked by frequent parentheses and involved dependent clauses that slow its progress to a near standstill. His attempts to narrate a chronological sequence of events are side-tracked by his efforts to glorify his past. His pretence to chivalry, like his pretence to logic, is undercut by his rambling exaggerations and verbal quirks. It is not merely what Dufoy says that is comically suspect but how he says it. His prose is inherently, if ineptly, deceptive; it allows the audience to judge satirically his pretence to being something more than Sir Frederick's lackey.

Dufoy's speech, however, is neither pure fantasy nor, in a Jonsonian sense, a precise measure of his moral failings; it is rather a parodic travesty of the language of ‘Birth & Quality’, of aristocratic presumptions to absolute moral and political authority. For Etherege, it seems a strategy for controlling (or suppressing) the tendencies of comic language towards Bakhtinian heteroglossia, towards displaying itself as the site of class antagonism, ideological conflict, and festive misrule. By reducing the discourse of the servant to a parody of gentlemanly speech, Etherege implicitly promotes the fiction that the former is an imperfect version of the latter, that it exists parasitically on its refined host. In this regard, Dufoy's speech raises the question which I posed about The Wild Goose Chase: is the language of The Comical Revenge self-consciously dialogical or merely, as Bakhtin puts it, ‘dramatistic’, a dividing up of a dominant, authoritative speech among several characters? I would argue that Etherege arrives at a historically significant compromise between these theoretical—and evaluative—extremes: he foregrounds the parodic, subversive, and destabilizing tendencies of comic discourse but exploits them as strategies to dramatize the ironies within dominant modes of discourse—wit and the idealized language of heroic passion—rather than to display the opposition of class-specific languages. The parodic ironies and competing voices in The Comical Revenge make it difficult for the audience to latch on to any stable values or immutable truths of the sort articulated by the Queen in Secret Love. Dufoy's language, then, encourages a double-take: he undermines himself satirically by appropriating the language of gentlemanly compliment to deny the Footboy's claim that ‘he was Jack-pudding to a Mountebank’ (iii. iv. 16); yet his language also serves as an ironic commentary on polite discourse by demonstrating its susceptibility to parody and solipsistic farce. It is suggestive, in this regard, that the play's wits, sharpers, and pretenders to wit often upstage those characters who proclaim their devotion to the values of heroic absolutism.

Etherege's undermining of affected compliment in Dufoy's prose is indicative of the ways he subverts hierarchical distinctions between ‘low’ and ‘high’ forms of dramatic discourse. In one sense the verse of Beaufort and Graciana is a naïvely idealized form which isolates its speakers from the naturalistic world of Dufoy and Sir Frederick; in another, however, it represents an extreme articulation—to the point of self-parody—of the values underlying the Restoration settlement: loyalty, propriety, honour, and class privilege. Abstract and often morbidly self-centred, Beaufort's, Graciana's, Lovis's, and Aurelia's verse parodies the excesses of précieuse sentiment. Its tensions and inconsistencies are heightened by Etherege's antithetical couplets:

Small is the difference that's between our grief:
Yours finds no cure, and mine seeks no relief:
You unsuccessfully your Love reveal;
And I for ever must my Love conceal:

(i. iv. 62-5)

[Beauty] like the glow-worm, only cast'st a light
To them whose Reason Passion does benight.
Thou art a Meteor, which but blazing dies,
Made of such vapours as from us arise.

(iii. vi. 7-10)

To make sure that his audience hears the contradictions in his characters' verse, Etherege repeats several of these rhymes throughout the play. These pairings are one measure of the dilemmas which plague the heroic figures. The rhyme scheme which brings ‘grief’ and ‘relief’ together also calls attention to the discrepancies that underlie their similar sounds. Each end word embodies an emotion or attitude to which the speaker is passionately committed; its rhyme word counters that passion with its own absolute statement. Etherege's verse, in this respect, does not progress from emotion to emotion so much as it parades its contradictory verbal postures. These contortions of aristocratic idealism register not as ironic wit but as the language of baffled absolutism.

The self-parodying verse of The Comical Revenge represents an ideaological dislocation, a de-centring of the values of nobility and honour on which aristocratic conceptions of order and identity are based. Etherege does not directly attack aristocratic love and honour so much as he subverts their claims to unquestioned moral authority and dramatizes the dilemmas which these values create. The ‘heroic’ characters are united by their expressions of steadfast loyalty to the exiled King and his cause. When Bruce is ambushed by disguised Commonwealth ‘slaves’, Beaufort, his rival for Graciana's love, and Sir Frederick come to his rescue. As soon as the common enemy has retreated, however, Beaufort and Bruce are no longer bound by their transcendent loyalty to the King and revert to form, declaring their convictions and proceeding with their duel. Bruce's honour—his unassailable political virtue as a Cavalier hero of the Battle of Naseby7—becomes a liability when he tries to apply its dictates to his love life. After he has lost the duel, his response to Beaufort's offer of friendship is to attempt suicide. The conflicts between love and honour that all of the heroic characters, to some degree, experience demonstrate that they are verbally and ideologically incapable of exploring the conditions of their existence; they can neither analyse their behaviour nor question the ideology of aristocratic privilege and obligation that is ultimately the source of their problems. Graciana, for example, who has previously rejected Bruce, feels bound by her honour to him after he tries to kill himself: she jilts Beaufort and vows to remain unmarried if her unsuccessful suitor dies. Her honour, like Bruce's, is a form of self-inflicted torture.

Because the language of moral absolutism can only state and restate its contradictions, it verges on becoming a parody of the hero's wit, an unsuccessful strategy for coping with the demands of upper-class existence. Before the audience has heard a single couplet, Jenny (Grace's maid) offers a mock-heroic account of Sir Frederick's previous night's ‘Heroick actions’: ‘tell the Consequence, how you march'd bravely at the rere of an Army of Link-boys; upon the sudden, how you gave defiance, and then wag'd a bloody war with the Constable; and having vanquish'd that dreadful enemy, how you committed a general massacre on the glass windows’ (i. ii. 117-23). Jenny's speech does not, however, end in a satiric condemnation of Sir Frederick but in an appointment for him to come to her lodgings. By setting the play sometime before the Restoration, Etherege is able to imply that Sir Frederick's violations of ‘all order’, his ‘Heroick actions’, are a form of Cavalier ‘resistance’ to the hypocrisy and moralistic rigour of the Commonwealth. The order that the hero disrupts is, in a sense, paradoxically that of both the 1650s and the 1660s. It becomes difficult for the audience to condemn moralistically Sir Frederick's excursions because his actions represent a comic fifth column within Puritan London. Wit becomes part of a political dialectic with royalist honour, a comic version of the ‘dear loyalty’ which Beaufort and Bruce embody. Yet although wit has loyalist overtones, its oppositional force goes beyond defying Puritan pieties. It allows Sir Frederick to out-negotiate and out-plot the Jennys, Wheadles, and Palmers of the world, and to avoid the excessive zeal of those characters who are committed to idealistic but self-defeating actions. Ideologically and theatrically, wit thrives where honour fails.

The prose which Etherege creates for Sir Frederick and the Widow is akin to Dryden's comic language in its use of similes, comparatives, antitheses, and evocations of the fashionable world of chasing women and beating fiddlers. Yet it seems closer, in some respects, to the language which Fletcher uses for his comic renegades. Etherege's success in revitalizing the wit-hero after the Restoration lies in his evoking those traditional values which his hero comically subverts and which had been under attack during the 1640s and 1650s. Sir Frederick comes close to being as ‘sheer’ an original as one finds on the stage in the early 1660s: a Fletcherian defier of all order, protected from harsh condemnation by his royalist good nature, negotiating his way through the idealized mystifications of aristocratic absolutism. Paradoxically, Etherege's first hero represents both a vindication of Cavalier values and a displacement into libertine wit of the radical political energies—the potential hostilities of class and religious antagonism—that the restoration of Charles II had papered over but hardly eliminated.8

Sir Frederick's first speech displays the kinds of self-mocking, ironic verbal poses which the hero assumes throughout the play:

I am of the opinion that drunkenness is not so damnable a sin to me as 'tis to many; Sorrow and Repentance are sure to be my first Work the next morning: ‘Slid, I have known some so lucky at this recreation, that, whereas 'tis familiar to forget what we do in drink, have even lost the memory, after sleep, of being drunk: Now do I feel more qualms then a young woman in breeding.

[Enter Dufoy and Clark. Dufoy goes out again]

Clark! What news from the God of Love? he's always at your Master's elbow, h'as jostl'd the Devil out of service; no more! … Mrs. Graciana has flung a squib into his bosome, where the wild-fire will huzzéé for a time, and then crack; it fly's out at's Breeches.

(i. ii. 21-32)

The hero's cavalier consideration of his drunkenness accounts for much of the humour of his opening lines. Unlike Fletcher's Mirabel, Sir Frederick does not launch frontal assaults against accepted moral values. Instead he appropriates and parodies the diction of moral analysis—‘sin’, ‘Sorrow’, and ‘Repetance’—to contemplate the effect of his drinking: he subverts both conventional pieties (the kind that the noble lovers voice) and merely cynical debunking and deception (the staples of Wheadle and Palmer). Sir Frederick's wit is double-edged. It celebrates his libertine life-style yet reminds the audience that wild debaucheries have their consequences—whether hangovers or, as the image of the young woman implies, unwanted pregnancies; it makes explicit the reckonings which Fletcher's wit usually only implies. Sir Frederick, like Dorimant in The Man of Mode, is ironically both the perpetrator and object of his wit. His prose is not part of a dialectic, as Celadon's is in Secret Love, but a destabilizing counter-discourse. By mediating dynamically between the plays' high and low idioms, it registers the ambiguities of libertine existence. The hero's language, in effect, offers a partial solution to the dilemma which troubles Dryden: how to justify wit as a principle of dramatic structure without descending to ‘fifth-rate’ trivialities.

With Clark's entrance, Sir Frederick's speech changes from musingly witty to bluntly suggestive. His language becomes abrupt, almost fractured, given to contractions, exclamations, and rhetorical questions. It also gives over the imagery of sin and its consequences for sexual fireworks. His final image is a self-dramatizing parody of fashionable naysaying; it appropriates a diction traditionally associated with low-life characters, undermining the ‘decorous’ separation of styles to which Dryden, for example, scrupulously adheres. In one sense, Sir Frederick's wit is dialogical, although its subversive implications—those which might carry it towards a radicalizing heteroglossia—are subordinated to an ironic debunking of essentialist commonplaces. His wit is centred neither in a holistic notion of ‘self’ nor simply in a rejection of the stylistic excesses of love and honour; rather it is the protean, ambiguous nature of his wit that attracts our attention. Beaufort tells him early in the play that his ‘careless carriage has done more / Than all the skill and diligence of love / Could e're effect’ (i. ii. 200-2) to impress the Widow. Wit and carousing become the hero's erotic and theatrical attractions.

The hero has many comic voices. He prevents Lovis from falling on his sword, and interrupts a passage of high-flows verse, with ‘Forbear, Sir; the Frollick's not to go round’ (iv. iv. 101). With the Widow he is often more verbally aggressive, even brutal, than wittily seductive: ‘Laugh but one minute longer I will forswear thy company, kill thy Tabby Cat, and make thee weep for ever after’ (iv. vii. 33-5). Sir Frederick's punning on his name and mock-heroic threats are typical of his self-dramatizing wit. He is, at heart, an ironist who implicates himself in his debunking of others:

his Name is Wheadle; he's one whose trade is Trechery, to make a Friend, and then deceive him; he's of a ready Wit, pleasant Conversation, throughly skill'd in men; in a word, he knows so much of Virtue as makes him well accomplish'd for all manner of Vice: He has lately insinuated himself into Sir Nich'las Culley, one whom Oliver, for the transcendent knavery and disloyalty of his Father, has dishonour'd with Knight-hood; a fellow as poor in experience as in parts, and one that has a vain-glorious humour to gain a reputation amongst the Gentry, by feigning good nature, and an affection to the King and his Party. I made a little debauch th' other day in their Company …

(i. ii. 155-67)

Having satirically dissected Wheadle's deception and Sir Nicholas's traitorous lineage, the hero concludes by suggesting that they are worth carousing with. The basis of his satire is political rather than moral. In describing Sir Nicholas, Sir Frederick implies that aristocratic wit and carriage are functions of political loyalty: ‘feigning good nature’ is equated with the ‘transcendent knavery and disloyalty’ of opposition to the King. But if Sir Frederick allies himself with virtue and loyalty, he also provides the means for the audience to question these values by invoking a ‘democratic’ community of ‘debauch’. Drinking, wenching, and gaming in The Comical Revenge, like the wit-battle between Rosalaura and Mirabel in The Wild Goose Chase, reduce man—aristocratic man—to his physical appetites, implying a ‘natural’ similarity underlying the differences of birth and politics.9 Given this ‘levelling’ tendency of wit, it is significant that Etherege has Sir Frederick devote his energies to outwitting Wheadle and Palmer, to keeping them within their generically and politically foreordained places as ‘low’ comic villains who have pretensions to rank and ill-gotten privilege. Wheadles states his credo in a manner reminiscent of Massinger's Sir Giles Overreach: ‘I was not born to ease or Acres; Industry is All my stock of living’ (iv. iii. 78-9). Like Sir Nicholas, who claims that the regicide ‘Colonel Hewson is my neighbour, and very good friend’ (iii. v. 7-8), Wheadle and Palmer fall outside the ‘natural’ aristocracy of loyalty, birth, and quality, and must be punished by being forced to marry sexually-compromised women. In this regard, the play works paradoxically both to validate a hierarchical ideology at the expense of the ‘democratic’ biology of ‘debauch’ and to demystify the values of rank and privilege on which the comic authority of wit ultimately depends. Neither function takes precedence over the other; they are dialectically bound as operations of a divided ideology.

Structurally as well as ideologically, Sir Frederick's language emphasizes disjunctions, ironies, and contradictions that work against our hearing it as an expression of a consistent, essentialist point of view. His ‘characters’ of Wheadle and Culley are cast in a language which does not progress from point to point so much as it seizes occasions to demonstrate its speaker's ingenuity. Logical transitions are often suppressed or ignored. The hero frequently begins sentences or independent clauses with ‘Now’ or ‘But’, words which separate the member from its predecessor and call attention to its self-sufficiency. As a result, his speech is assertive and aphoristic as well as ironic. The raw material for his wit is often a comic version of seventeenth-century misogyny:

Women, like Juglers Tricks, appear Miracles to the ignorant; but in themselves th'are meer cheats.

(i. ii. 179-81)

Some Women, like Fishes, despise the Bait, or else suspect it, whil'st still it's bobbing at their mouths; but subtilly wav'd by the Angler's hand, greedily hang themselves upon the hook. There are many so critically wise, they'l suffer none to deceive them but themselves.

(i. ii. 207-11)

I'le have all the helps that may be to allay a dangerous fire; Widows must needs have furious flames; the bellows have been at work, and blown 'em up.

(ii. i. 93-5)

Sir Frederick's images focus the audience's attention as much on his ingenuity as on the ‘nature’ of women. They are, in effect, double-edged utterances which serve both as commonplaces, ahistorical assertions of feminine sexual aggressiveness, and as strategies which allow him to avoid the excesses of passion displayed by the heroes of the high plot. His language stresses the socially acceptable antagonism between the sexes and acts as a safety valve to control this hostility by making it the subject of his self-dramatizing wit. Sir Frederick uses his characterizations of women to position himself ironically between Petrarchan idealism and misogynistic cynicism. In this regard, his libertine assertions about women articulate a patrilineal culture's ambiguous, tension-filled responses to feminine sexuality. It is significant that the object of Sir Frederick's desire is a sexually knowledgeable widow rather than, as in Fletcher's and Dryden's comedies, witty but virtuous virgins. As a sexually experienced woman, the Widow is less a cipher, less a paradox for the hero than the embodiment of his imagery—a woman already educated in the libertine verities of ‘furious flames’ and ‘bellows’.

The Comical Revenge is ultimately a play of stylistic factions. Its hero's wit is not an icon of the dispassionate observation of human folly but a means of coping with and overcoming the tensions and ambiguities of seventeenth-century culture. Sir Frederick both embodies and travesties the fictions of aristocratic disinterest. His wit, as the final act makes clear, is extremely ‘interested’ in the pursuit of money, women, and land, in separating the rightful heirs of the King's party from the pretenders to fashion and privilege who are satirized in the figure of Sir Nicholas Cully. What intrigues Etherege is precisely this paradox of interested and disinterested wit. In his next two plays he explores the language of his heroes and heroines as historical responses to the ironies of libertine existence.

In its own way, the prose of She Wou'd if She Cou'd is as experimental as that of The Comical Revenge. In his second play Etherege abandons the variety of styles he experimented with in his first comedy in an effort to resolve within a single comic language the tensions of a divided dramatic form. If verbal wit in She Wou'd develops from the assumptions and practices that characterize Sir Frederick's speech, it is also stripped of its overt political implications—less given to dislocations of syntax and meaning and less dependent on its opposition to heroic verse. Outright burlesque, like Dufoy's broken English, gives way to more subtle forms of linguistic and social satire. Yet in focusing on the language of wit, Etherege keeps the stylistic ideals celebrated by Sprat, Glanvill, and Dryden at arm's length. He remains as sceptical of the dictates of fashionable decorum as he seems to be of Restoration idealism. His stylistic motto for the play might be taken from Abercrombie's A Discourse of Wit: ‘as the greatest Wit of Angels consists in knowing; the greatest Wit in Men consists in doubting’.10 Like Rochester, Etherege elevates to a fine art the ironies of ‘doubting’, calling into question even the self-questioning wit that his heroes and heroines employ. The dialogical tensions and paradoxes of his language, then, emerge less as positive ideals than as necessary processes of self-scrutiny, the irony—at once limiting and transcendent—that he sees as essential to dramatic presentation.11

Comic prose in She Wou'd subsumes the functions that Etherege had divided among various forms of speech in his first play. In the mouths of different characters wit articulates, lampoons, perverts, and comments ironically upon its own ideals of gentlemanly decorum. All the characters try to live up to fashionable standards of wit and carriage; the ways in which they fail mark their own limitations and those of wit as a cultural ideal. Yet compared to the prose of The Man of Mode, the language of She Wou'd if She Cou'd seems inelastic, tied to a Fletcherian comedy of situation rather than to a satiric anatomy of society. Again and again in the play, Etherege returns to the antitheses, similes, stock images, and verbal tags that by 1668 are staples of comic language. The result, as Brown notes, is that the characters, particularly Courtall and Freeman, talk a better game than they play; there often seems to be less at stake than their verbal rejections of conventional morality imply. Their libertinism is a stylistic construct, a product of their wit that partially conceals the conventionality of their pursuit of Gatty and Ariana.12 Like Dryden in An Evening's Love, Etherege creates an ironic language that is indebted to the values it mocks.

Polite discourse in Etherege's second play is characterized by frequent repetitions, agrammatical interjections, and varieties of proclitic and enclitic constructions that comically undermine its idealistic claims to rational, univocal communication. As in his first comedy, Etherege manipulates conventional verbal formulae for satiric effect. Using the familiar ‘nay … but’ structure, for example, he calls attention to the disruptions and contradictions inherent in the oppositional stance of Cavalier wit.

SIR Joslin.
Come, come, never talk of Cloaths, put on any thing, thou hast a person and a mind will bear it out bravely.
SIR Oliver.
Nay, I know my behaviour will show I am a Gentleman; but yet the Ladies will look scurvily upon me, Brother.

(iii. ii. 36-8)

Sir Oliver's ‘but’ emphasizes the lack of logical co-ordination between clauses, the distance between standards of gentlemanly behaviour and individual folly. It is, in this respect, typical of the abrupt syntactical changes and rhetorical dislocations that characterize Etherege's attempts to register the fragmentation and contentiousness that he hears in the raillery of fashionable society.13

The ‘buts’, ‘nays’, and negative constructions that qualify direct statements in She Wou'd are characteristic of a comic rhetoric that proceeds by indirection, that falls short in its attempts to pin language down to unequivocal meanings. As the syntactical structuring of Etherege's dramatic prose becomes more complex, it also becomes more precise in assigning causes and weighing effects. But these efforts at clarification demonstrate that the characters' actions and explanations need clarifying, that the dynamics of fashionable existence and speech are opaque and problematic, not morally unambiguous and ideologically pristine as the theorists in the Royal Society claimed. Even as it narrows interpretative possibilities, ‘but’ reminds the audience of the uncertainties and second-guessing that accompany all imperfect speech and that necessitate the circumlocutions that intrude between desire and articulation. At one point Courtall acknowledges the impression that Gatty has made on him: ‘'Tis impossible to be insensible of so much goodness, Madam’ (iv. ii. 252-3). Even in the play's final scene, negative constructions and circumlocutions hedge in the traditional language of celebration:

SIR Joslin.
… is it a match, Boys?
If the heart of man be not very deceitful, 'tis very likely to be so.
A month is a tedious time, and will be a dangerous tryal of our resolutions; but I hope we shall not repent before Marriage, whate're we do after.

(v. i. 540-6)

Courtall's and Freeman's negative phrasings work against comic convention, distancing them not only from marriage but from the women they are to marry and from what we might suppose are their own sexual desires. Their constructions are indicative of a discourse that defines its speakers' interactions negatively. Positive values—love, for example—are encrypted in negative, awkwardly impassive, phrasings. Sentry justifies her role as go-between in this fashion: ‘having reason to believe the young Ladies had no aversion to their inclinations, I was of opinion I shou'd have been ill natur'd, if I had not assisted 'em in the removing those difficulties that delay'd their happiness’ (v. i. 567-72). This restrictive, affected propriety, hedged in by limiting adverbs and negative phrasings, suggests the limitations of a society ‘naturally’ given to pretence and hypocrisy.

The excessive verbal formality that marks the closing of the play, though, should be taken less as Etherege's attempt to re-create contemporary speech than as a stylized rendering of how language functions within social constraints. As in Dryden's comedies, the ideological restrictions of wit and carriage result in overdetermined systems of communication that paradoxically deny and reveal their characters' desires. Courtall and Freeman adopt libertine truisms to describe their existence in the language of aesthetic—not political—rebellion. They are wits as much out of fashion as conviction. Ironically, their libertine imperatives seem as demanding and confining as the conventional moral proprieties that they, like the other characters, verbally attack. If Lady Cockwood is a familiar type of hypocrite who tries to disguise lust with a show of respectability, her husband, by attempting to emulate the heroes' libertinism, becomes a pretender of a new sort. His ‘counterfeited … sin, and real … Repentance’ (iii. iii. 375-6) are comically contrasted to his wife's real appetite and counterfeited honour. The complicated, overdetermined decorum of wit becomes, for Etherege, an object as well as a means of comedy; it exposes its practitioners to the same risks that it holds for its victims.

In this context, we should keep in mind that Etherege, writing in 1668 for the Duke's Company, does not have Charles Hart and Nell Gwyn to trade witticisms on stage. If Dryden uses the conventions of wit in An Evening's Love to showcase the abilities of Hart and Gwyn, Etherege makes a virtue of theatrical necessity by emphasizing the sceptical, self-mocking nature of his theatrical language. As Holland points out, She Wou'd comes out of a tradition of double-plot plays for the company (including The Comical Revenge) that produces a peculiar attitude toward wit and repartee.14 Wit, for Etherege, is impure, polyvocal, and protean; it reflects his desire to resolve ideologically tensions that inhere in the discrete languages of tragicomedy. If wit in An Evening's Love is the language of holiday libertinism, it is more diffuse and paradoxical in She Wou'd—neither an end in itself nor an aberration that needs to be corrected in Act V but a stylistic strategy that doubles back upon and ironically questions the libertine premises that bring it into being. In this sense, Etherege's wit retains something of the radical energy of Fletcherian comedy; yet it is also more self-consciously structured: its ironies centre as much on its reflexive violations of decorum as they do on its challenges to patrilineal authority.

Courtall and Freeman open the play by commenting ironically on their participation in a comically corrupt society. Their language is part deception and part affection, a way to distance themselves from their environment and their own actions. Typically, they cast their lust for wine and women in a rationally impersonal form:

Well, Franck, what is to be done to day?
Faith, I think we must e'ne follow the old trade; eat well, and prepare our selves with a Bottle or two of good Burgundy, that our old acquaintance may look lovely in our Eyes …
Well! this is grown a wicked Town, it was otherwise in my memory …

(i. i. 3-10)

Courtall's use of the passive makes him seem as much an object as an actor in the opening tableau, disassociating him from Freeman's description of the day's activities. The verbs describe states of existence rather than actions. The characters' speech registers changes in their surroundings—‘this is grown a wicked Town’—as though ‘what is to be done’ were more a function of custom or fashion—that is, of a determinant ideology—than an individual decision. For Courtall and Freeman, wit describes the repetitive processes of drinking and wenching, the ‘old trade’ of cavalier carousing. In this respect, their language presents itself as a social form which can be consciously assumed, imitated, and replicated, that celebrates the anonymity of fashion. It is a means to acclimate themselves to the repetitions of fashionable existence.

The anonymity of wit—the ease with which it may be replicated or appropriated—ensures its perversion. In She Wou'd wit is defined differentially as well as hierarchically. If characters are judged by how closely they approximate Cavalier ideals of wit and carriage, they are also played off against each other to offer the audience a variety of comic images: the rake as huntsman, the rake as schemer, the rake as fool. Etherege's distinctions among these aspects of the protean wit are both maintained and ironically blurred. Sir Oliver, for example, appropriates the stylistic forms of wit to present his libertine credentials:

… a man had better be a vagabond in this Town, than a Justice of Peace in the Country: I was e'ne grown a Sot for want of Gentleman-like recreations; if a man do but rap out an Oath, the people start as if a Gun went off, and if one chance but to couple himself with his Neighbours Daughter, without the help of the Parson of the Parish, and leave a little testimony of his kindness behind him, there is presently such an uproar, that a poor man is fain to fly his Country: as for Drunkenness, 'tis true, it may be us'd without scandal, but the Drink is so abominable, that a man would forbear it, for fear of being made out of love with the vice.

(i. i. 79-91)

Like Courtall, Sir Oliver affects a distance from his generic catalogue of libertine pursuits, and, again like Courtall, he defines himself by his speech rather than by his actions. The personal pronoun ‘I’ (with one exception) is replaced by the impersonal forms ‘a man’ and ‘one’. The adverb ‘but’ (‘but rap out’, ‘but to couple himself’) makes violating country morality seem like chance incidents that naturally befall men of wit. The transparent exaggerations of Sir Oliver's derivative wit allow Courtall, Freeman, and the audience to see through his verbal disguises. In Act III, when Courtall defends Sir Oliver's ‘Repentance’, he suggests that this ‘was meer Raillery, a way of talk, which Sir Oliver being well bred, has learned among the gay people of the Town’ (iii. iii. 377-9). Although Sir Oliver may be a fool, his social position offers him the opportunity to reproduce ‘a way of talk’ that guarantees his entry into fashionable society and confirms his pretensions to the existence that Courtall and Freeman discuss in the opening scene. The discrepancies in Sir Oliver's attack on country life between a comically decorous language and the physical appetites it describes are, in this respect, exaggerations of the tensions that mark the heroes' existence, the ironies of being defiers of order in the ideologically sensitive world of post-Restoration England. What labels Sir Oliver as a fool is his lack of scepticism, his eager embrace of the libertine forms that the play comically questions.

Like her husband, Lady Cockwood is a victim of her speech, although her ‘way of talk’ is less a corruption of fashionable wit than a prose version of heroic ranting. Whether trying to deceive others or bewailing her misfortunes, she speaks in stock phrases that trivialize her passionate displays:

Do not stay and torment me with thy sight; go, graceless Wretch, follow thy treacherous resolutions, do, and waste that poor stock of comfort which I should have at home, upon those your ravenous Cormorants below: I feel my passion begin to swell again.

(iii. iii. 356-60)

How am I fill'd with indignation! To find my person and my passion both despis'd, and what is more, so much precious time fool'd away in fruitless expectation: I wou'd poyson my face, so I might be reveng'd on this ingrateful Villain.

(iv. i. 57-61)

As Lady Cockwood's passion swells, her language wilts into clichés. If her tirade against her husband is intended to deceive him, her brief soliloquy becomes self-deceiving. Her linking of her ‘person’ and ‘passion’ aptly and ironically suggests her lack of self-control: she acts like, and sees herself as, the heroine of a graceless tragedy. The stylistic similarities of the two speeches—particularly the strong verb forms and hyperbolic diction—make her hypocrisy and pretentiousness come close to being one and the same. Regardless of her conscious motives, then, her self-serving language becomes inherently deceptive; it measures the parodic degradation of heroic passion to mock-heroic rant. Her speech offers Etherege a means to deflate verbally the ideology of ‘passion’, the kind of humourless absolutism caricatured more subtly in Bruce's couplets in The Comical Revenge.

Lady Cockwood is the play's most linguistically subversive character, a forerunner of the ladies of ‘Honour’ who flock to Horner in The Country Wife. Her obsessive abuse of ‘Honour’ transcends simple hypocrisy, making it, in effect, a pimp for her sexual appetite. She protests hypocritically to Courtall, whom she is trying to seduce, ‘I shall deny myself the sweetest recreations in the world, rather than … bring a blemish upon my spotless Honour’ (iii. i. 136-8). The workings of ‘Honour’, like those of all pimps, are as ambiguous as they are deceptive. The ‘Honour’ that Lady Cockwood abuses but cannot lose is both a verbal joke and a symptom of the play's semantic instability. In one respect, this instability seems a residue of Etherege's satire of heroic hyperbole; in another, it suggests the end to which all verbal pretence must come. When Lady Cockwood exclaims, ‘Heaven knows my innocence’, her assertion lays bare the arbitrary relationship between verbal signs and what they presume to signify. That she remains technically innocent despite her efforts makes her protest absurdly false and more absurdly true.

Lady Cockwood's inability to cuckold her husband calls attention to the discrepancies which exist throughout the play between the characters' libertine languages and their conventional actions. If Etherege has mastered the ‘quickness of wit in repartees’, he is faced with the problem of developing an action for his ironic, self-questioning wit to describe. In ‘Timon’ (1674) Rochester has Dingboy praise his friend's ‘two talking plays without one plot’ (l. 125), a telling assessment of Etherege's fascination in his first two plays with the articulation—rather than demonstration—of the ironies of libertine existence. All of the major figures in his second play would, if they could, violate prohibitions against adultery or premarital sex, but they are constrained by a code of conduct that allows them to voice challenges to traditional morality without offering them the opportunities to accomplish what they threaten. After complaining about the liberty that men enjoy and that women can only envy, Ariana concludes, ‘But whatsoever we do, prithee now let us resolve to be mighty honest’ (i. ii. 162-3). This resolution in their first scene on stage distinguishes what Gatty and Ariana say from what they do; they speak freely but act chastely. For their part, Courtall and Freeman talk as though the women of the town lay panting at their feet, but they devote themselves to pursuing only two. Throughout She Wou'd potentially disruptive actions are displaced into speech; talking about sex defers sexual experience to an unrealized future ‘after’ the end of the play, to the marriage conventions of festive comedy that the playwright chooses not to dramatize. In this respect, the language of wit disrupts conventional systems of signification without necessarily undermining the values they uphold.

This paradox of an ironic wit undercutting its pretences to a radical critique of social hypocrisy is particularly evident in the speech of the play's heroines. Gatty, like Fletcher's Rosalaura and Dryden's Isabelle and Jacinta, often speaks as cavalierly as the men around her. Her language signifies her desire to appear liberated from conventional morality; it is a strategic statement of her availability as a mate, a form of advertisement that both conceals and reveals her vulnerability as an unmarried woman. The wit duels between the two sets of lovers emphasize that verbal style, for Etherege, is not the man or woman but a self-conscious projection of the social self. ‘Quickness of wit’ is at once a challenge to the speakers' ingenuity and a testing of one another's verbal poses. The following exchange marks a crisis in the plot; Lady Cockwood's plan to discredit Courtall is apparently succeeding and colours the women's responses to the wits' advances:

I suppose your Mistress, Mr. Courtall, is always the last Woman you are acquainted with.
Do not think, Madam, I have that false measure of my acquaintance, which Poets have of their Verses, always to think the last best, though I esteem you so, in justice to your merit.
Or if you do not love her best, you always love to talk of her most; as a barren Coxcomb that wants discourse, is ever entertaining Company out of the last Book he read in.
Now you accuse me most unjustly, Madam; who the Devil, that has common sense, will go a birding with a Clack in his Cap?
Nay, we do not blame you, Gentlemen, every one in their way; a Huntsman talks of his Dogs, a Falconer of his Hawks, a Jocky of his Horse, and a Gallant of his Mistress.

(iv. ii. 203-19)

The language of this exchange is almost self-generating. The heroes and heroines do not argue specific points—say, instances of Courtall's treachery—but trade generalizations about the vicissitudes of libertine behaviour. Wit becomes a circumscribed code that reduces language to the give and take of repartee triggered by the ‘Or's’, ‘Now's’, and ‘Nay's’ characteristic of Etherege's dialogue. Both Courtall and Ariana adopt the animal imagery that is prevalent throughout the play. The comparisons that she draws between the heroes' bragging and the ‘Falconer’ and ‘Jocky’ praising their animals degrade the relationship between the sexes into naturalistic images that reinforce structures of patriarchal authority: women become beasts, men their masters.

In this respect, the chase of wit is never far removed from the appetites that motivate it. Petrarchan idealizations of women as saints and whores are conflated and debased into images that stress their physicality and their subservience to men. For the male characters, women are ‘Rook[s]’ (ii. i. 27), ‘Deer’ (ii. i. 69), ‘skittish Fillies’ (ii. ii. 132), ‘Trouts’ (iii. i. 100), ‘Chickens’ (iii. iii. 30), and ‘Horse-flesh’ (iv. ii. 152). Gatty and Ariana, for their part, see the men ‘daily hover about these Gardens, as a Kite does about a back-side, watching an opportunity to catch up the Poultry’ (iv. ii. 189-91). As these images suggest, the town's ‘way of talk’ is shot through with sexual hostility. While the heroines' cold-shouldering of the men in Act IV is a result of Lady Cockwood's machinations, their language voices a basic antagonism between the rulers and the ruled that underlies their exchanges with their suitors: ‘we cannot plague 'em enough’, says Gatty, ‘when we have it in our power for those priviledges which custom has allow'd 'em above us’ (i. ii. 151-4). Verbally plaguing the heroes, then, becomes a way of rebelling against ‘custom’—the ideological apparatus which asserts masculine ‘priviledges’ and restricts women to talk rather than action. Sexual encounters are transformed metaphorically into political struggles, naval battles, and hand-to-hand combat. Gatty and Ariana, politicizing Petrarchan convention, describe themselves as ‘absolute Tyrants’ to their ‘lawless Subjects’ (i. ii. 168, 165). When the women first glimpse their suitors in Mulberry Garden, Ariana hopes ‘these should prove two men of War that are cruising here, to watch for Prizes’, and Gatty confesses that she ‘long[s] to be engag'd’ (ii. i. 73-6). Later Sir Joslin claims that he and Sir Oliver ‘are both mighty men at Arms’ who will ‘charge anon to the terrour of the Ladies’ (iii. iii. 102-4). Like the animal imagery, these metaphors of conflict verbalize the sexual hostility that stricter notions of decorum might proscribe. They are a form of psychological release for the characters and the basis of a politically charged language that reasserts masculine, patriarchal values, even as it registers the volatile nature of sexual relationships.

The divorce of language and action in the play thus provides Etherege with an escape from the dialogical, ‘revolutionary’ implications of wit. He is wary rather than unaware of the destabilizing potential of libertine speech. Like An Evening's Love,She Wou'd tests the limits of how far wit can go without offending its audience. By having his characters verbalize rather than act, Etherege ensures that his wit manifests itself as a form of hyperbole that is comically overstated as well as ideologically overdetermined. By deliberately promising more than he delivers, he exploits and satirizes both the assertiveness of wit—its penchant for generalized observations—and its substitution of form for substance. In this respect, wit takes on connotations different from those it exhibited in his first play. In The Comical Revenge the characters suffer the consequences of their actions: hangovers, the pox, and various figurative and literal wounds; in She Wou'd, they suffer the indeterminacies of their language: at the end of the play Courtall and Freeman are given a probationary period of a month by their lovers and the game of wit continues. The heroes undergo no fifth-act conversion; they pledge their love in the same language that they have employed throughout the play. The antagonism that marks the wit duels of the first four acts does not disappear so much as it temporarily dissipates. The play has produced neither a radical critique of society nor a whole-hearted endorsement of the values of aristocratic wit. It has instead suspended the characters, and the audience, in comic irresolution.

Between the first performances of She Wou'd if She Cou'd in 1668 and the opening of The Man of Mode in 1676, Etherege spent three years in Constantinople as secretary to the Ambassador, Sir Daniel Harvey, and then nearly five in London living what Bracher moralistically calls ‘a life of dissipated idleness’.15 During these eight years, a number of influential comedies were produced in London, among them The Rehearsal, Wycherley's first three plays, Dryden's Marriage à la Mode, Shadwell's The Humorists and The Libertine, Sedley's Mulberry Garden, and Behn's The Dutch Lover. These plays—particularly The Rehearsal, The Country Wife, and The Libertine—altered comic practice radically. In the latter two, Wycherley and Shadwell redefined the limits of the naturalistic comedy of aggression by exploiting dramatically what is implicit in the imagery of Etherege's first two comedies.16 In The Rehearsal Buckingham travestied Dryden's verse, lambasting theatrical conventions and burlesquing the heroic ideals and rhymed couplets that Restoration tragedy tried to take seriously. The theatre to which Etherege returned was not, in short, the theatre he had left. Between aborted duels and drinking bouts, he apparently took stock of the theatrical successes of others, particularly the changes wrought in comedy by Wycherley's ironic attacks on wit and its pretensions. The result is that in his final play Etherege does not simply rehash his previous successes but breaks new ground stylistically and dramatically by offering an insider's appreciation of the dynamics of language and fashion in ‘the Town’. Social satire gives way to an ironic rendering of upper-class society that implicates the audience in the ambiguities of fashionable pretence and deception.

If The Comical Revenge and She Wou'd parody the language of heroic passion, The Man of Mode registers the reflexive, parodic tendencies of gentlemanly wit. For the most part, Etherege dispenses with the naturalistic imagery and jagged antitheses of his earlier plays. The satiric languages of cant and mock-realism are limited to minor characters: Old Bellair, ‘Foggy Nan the Orange Woman and swearing Tom the Shoomaker’. In place of straightforward linguistic satire, Etherege offers a hierarchical anatomy of wit: Dorimant and Harriet are truewits, Medley is the fashionable gossip and scandalmonger, Emilia and Young Bellair are lower-order redactions of the hero and heroine, Loveit is a caricature of the passionate woman, and Sir Fopling is the satirically gullible pretender to wit and fashion. But the action of the play blurs distinctions among these characters by calling into question the bases on which we judge them. In Act I, for example, Dorimant describes Young Bellair as ‘by much the most tolerable of all the young men that do not abound in wit’ (i. i. 424-6) and justifies their friendship as a matter of ‘mutual interest’: ‘it makes the Women think the better of his Understanding, and judge more favourably of my Reputation; it makes him pass upon some for a man of very good sense, and I upon others for a very civil person’ (i. i. 430-4). Harriet, Young Bellair's nominal fiancée, remarks of him that ‘Varnish'd over with good breeding, many a blockhead makes a tolerable show’ (iii. i. 48-9). Yet as the play progresses, it becomes difficult to remember that this ‘blockhead’ is a mere pretender to wit: the scene that he plays with Harriet to deceive their parents puts him on an equal footing with her. ‘By the good instructions you give’, she tells him, ‘I suspect you for one of those malitious Observers who watch peoples Eyes, and from innocent looks, make scandalous conclusions’ (iii. i. 167-9). Harriet's compliment elevates Young Bellair, at least for the moment, to the status of a Medley, if not a Dorimant. If he does ‘not abound in wit’, he is apparently an adroit reader of the semiotics of flirtation and capable of blending into the anonymous company of fashionable society. That at different times in the play he seems a blockhead and a worthy coconspirator is indicative of the shifting perspectives and competing assessments of character and situation that the audience encounters in The Man of Mode. The wit that Young Bellair may or may not have is less a register of social competence than an unstable sign of the ambiguity which characterizes the play's language.

Etherege's metaphors for the instability of wit and perception in the play are, as Hawkins notes, those of acting and game-playing.17 The ironies of acting measure the distance between the actual and the ideal, between the ways characters appear to others and the ways they appear to themselves. Role-playing in The Man of Mode is presented as a given, morally neutral condition of society, an accepted expression of social character.18 The audience is confronted by the difficulties that arise from trying to distinguish the original from the copy, true wit, emotion, and fashion from their various imitations. In the course of the play, Harriet acts Dorimant, Dorimant acts Sir Fopling, Harriet mimics Dorimant, he mimics Loveit's passionate outbursts, Harriet and Young Bellair act as though they are in love, Emilia and Young Bellair pretend they are not, Old Bellair feigns disinterest in his son's lover, Dorimant assumes the role of Courtage to fool Lady Woodvil, and is or pretends to be in love with Bellinda, Harriet, and Emilia. What the heroine calls ‘the pleasure of dear dissembling’ is not the province solely of Etherege's wits, although they are by definition more accomplished actors than Sir Fopling, the ‘senceless Mimick’ (v. i. 101). Dorimant warns Loveit that ‘Fools can dissemble too—’ (v. i. 118). The parodic language of wit destabilizes the relationships between actor and role, original and mimic, truewit and witwoud. Acting makes identity a problem rather than a Cartesian truism. As Bellinda, Dorimant, and Harriet discover, to play a role is to disturb relationships between self and social projection. The language of wit in the play, then, mediates between social forms and natural desires; it subverts conventional distinctions between nature and art by suggesting that language is both natural and artificial, a ‘reflection’ of character and a tool to be manipulated. In this manner, nature and affection—the staples of seventeenth-century satire—are dialogically related: they compete with and impinge on each other. Unlike Valentine and Angelica in Love for Love, Etherege's characters cannot ‘think of leaving acting, and be [them] selves’ (iv. i. 708)19 because they have no ‘selves’ distinct from their acting.

The Man of Mode begins by setting competing comic idioms against each other. Dorimant and Medley in the opening scene insult ‘Foggy Nan’ and ‘swearing Tom’ unmercifully: she is a ‘Jade’, ‘Cartload of Scandal’, and ‘Bawd’ and he a ‘Rogue’, ‘drunken sot’, and ‘Raskal’. Wit as detraction in these exchanges is based on a not-too-subtle class antagonism that springs from the pretensions and ambitions of Nan and Tom and the uneasiness of their ‘betters’. Harriet and her mother, the audience soon learns, are lodgers at the Orange-woman's house, and Tom, Medley, and Dorimant are drawn into a discussion of libertine existence:

I advise you like a Friend, reform your Life; you have brought the envy of the World upon you, by living above yourself. Whoring and Swearing are Vices too gentile for a Shoomaker.
'Zbud, I think you men of quality will grow as unreasonable as the Women; you wou'd ingross the sins o'the Nation; poor Folks can no sooner be wicked, but th'are rail'd at by their Betters.
Sirrah, I'le have you stand i'the Pillory for this Libel.
Some of you deserve it, I'm sure; there are so many of 'em, that our Journeymen now adays instead of harmless Ballads, sing nothing but your damn'd Lampoons.
Our Lampoons, you Rogue?
Nay, Good Master, why shou'd not you write your own Commentaries as well as Caesar?

(i. i. 266-81)

Although the Shoemaker's oaths label him as a low comic character, he manages to live ‘above [him]self’ as much by his imitation of gentlemanly wit as by his ‘Whoring and Swearing’. Dorimant and Medley rail at Tom for his ‘Libel’ precisely because he is able to replicate the patterns, if not the studied ease, of polite discourse. His jibe at the ‘Commentaries’ of the wits satirically reduces aristocratic privilege to mock-heroic pretensions, thereby both fulfilling and questioning conventional expectations about the language of wit.20 Wit represents an ‘ideal’ standard of gentlemanly discourse, but it is an ideal which is itself dialogical, shot through with destabilizing forms, radical implications, and incipient challenges to authority. Its ideological divisiveness renders it capable of being imitated, appropriated, and turned back upon its aristocratic practitioners. Medley's lame follow-up to Tom's ‘Commentaries’ line—‘The Raskal's read, I perceive’—emphasizes that, in this exchange at least, a shoemaker has proved more verbally adroit than the rakes who are baiting him. The Fletcherian equation of wit and breeding has been disrupted for comic effect.

Etherege's treatment of wit necessarily complicates our responses to Dorimant, a hero who embodies the ironies of libertine existence.21 More subtly than Horner in The Country Wife, Dorimant exploits fashionable assumptions about wit, carrying its aesthetic implications to comic extremes in his quests for absolute grace and sexual mastery. But like Courtall and Freeman, he inhabits a world in which all ideals prove illusory. What distinguishes him from them and from Dryden's rake-heroes is his ability to modulate his voice, to assume different tones to fit his needs. His language attempts to bridge the chasm between the actual and the ideal—it is less an end in itself than a way of colouring experience to make it fit his image of how matters should be. Dorimant is a consummate actor, the Fletcherian wit metamorphosed from rebel to artist. The skill and irony with which he plays his roles are essential to his thriving in a world that, like his letter to Mrs Loveit, is often ‘a Tax upon good nature’ (i. i. 4-5).

Dorimant's language is unusually concise and controlled for a Restoration hero, always calculated for its theatrical effect. It shapes rather than passively reflects his involvement in the world. The audience first hears him, like Sir Frederick Frollick, speaking to his servants rather than to his peers:

Call a Footman.
None of 'em are come yet.
Dogs! Will they ever lie snoring a bed till Noon?
'Tis all one, Sir: if they're up, you indulge 'em so, they're ever poaching after Whores all the Morning.
Take notice henceforward who's wanting in his duty, the next Clap he gets, he shall rot for an example.

(i. i. 14-20)

Dorimant is both imperious and indulgent. His language, given to imperative verb forms and declarations, seems almost as assertive as the couplet of Waller's with which he begins the play. But his forcefulness, as Handy makes clear, is at least partially an act. Dorimant's indulging his servants reveals a tolerant, even undisciplined side to his character at odds with his vision of an aesthetically ordered world of punctual footmen and resounding couplets. His threat to let his men rot seems more a rhetorical display than a means to discipline them. His wit serves as a release for the kind of frustration that Sir Frederick takes out physically on Dufoy.

As this exchange suggests, Dorimant's characteristic mode of expression is hyperbole, whether he is insulting the Orange-woman, bantering with Medley, or ordering about his servants. When he first hears about Harriet from the Orange-woman he imagines that she ‘is some awkward ill fashion'd Country Toad, who not having above Four Dozen of black hairs on her head, has adorn'd her baldness with a large White Fruz, that she may look sparkishly in the Fore Front of the Kings Box, at an old Play’ (i. i. 51-5). What distinguishes this comic portrait from the set pieces of satiric invective in She Wou'd is its dramatic function: Dorimant uses his wit to establish his social superiority to the Orange-woman, debunking her conception of a ‘Fine Woman’ and provoking her to prove that Harriet is all that the bawd says she is. His language is not simply fashionable detraction but a comic negation of the actual—Harriet—that allows him to create a free space in his mind for the play of irony and desire. For Dorimant, wit is invariably self-dramatizing. When he speaks, he calls attention not to what he is describing but to his verbal artifice, to whatever role he is playing at the moment. He perceives his existence as an aesthetic endeavour, an attempt to master the contradictions of social gamesmanship by the virtuosity of his performance.

Performance, for Dorimant, frequently takes the form of verbal parody. Like Harriet, the hero echoes, mimics, and assumes the voices of those around him to assert his control, not simply to travesty verbal affectations. He answers Loveit's passionate tirades with mock-heroic detraction; with Bellinda, he modulates his voice to counter her uncertainties. His speech to her in front of the distraught Mrs Loveit, is shot through with irony: ‘here I vow revenge [for ‘making discoveries’ of his infidelity]; resolve to pursue, and persecute you more impertinently than ever any Loving Fop did his Mistress, hunt you i'the Park, trace you i'the Mail, Dog you in every visit you make, haunt you at the Plays, and i'the Drawing Room, hang my nose in your neck, and talk to you whether you will or no, and ever look upon you with such dying Eyes, till your Friends grow Jealous of me, send you out of Town, and the World suspect your reputation’ (ii. ii. 172-84). Dorimant's ironies work in several ways: they ridicule Loveit, implicate Bellinda in his scheme, even as they play off her insecurities, and distance the hero from both women by demonstrating his power over them. His hyperbole reduces Loveit's metaphoric fury earlier in the scene to the social dimensions of the Park and the Mall. His active verbs (‘pursue’, ‘persecute’) jar ironically with the actions they describe, emphasizing the discrepancies between the world as Loveit sees it and the social realities of the ‘Drawing Room’. By making Bellinda his accessory, Dorimant forces her to assume the role that he creates for her: his mistress. She is trapped, by having to deceive Loveit, into putting herself in his power. Yet the exaggerations of his mock-heroic voice also emphasize that the hero, too, is part of a society that reduces passion to game-playing or ridicule. Dorimant's language becomes his means of controlling his attraction for Bellinda by placing it within the context of a created mock-reality. After he has seduced her, his subtler parodying of her seriousness (see iv. ii. 11-25) allows him to play an ambiguously double role: he becomes both her heartless seducer and concerned lover, an actor capable of erasing the line between parody and sincerity.

Dorimant's acting, then, does not resolve itself into thematic contraries: appearance versus reality or art versus nature. He does not appear to be one thing and then reveal himself to be another but incorporates several possibilities at once. In defending his inconstancy to Loveit, he revels in the ambiguities of his existence:22

Dissembler, damn'd Dissembler!
I am so, I confess; good nature and good manners corrupt me. I am honest in my inclinations, and wou'd not, wer't not to avoid offence, make a Lady a little in years believe I think her young, wilfully mistake Art for Nature; and seem as fond of a thing I am weary of, as when I doated on't in earnest.
False Man!
True Woman!
Now you begin to show your self!
Love gilds us over, and makes us show fine things to one another for a time, but soon the Gold wears off, and then again the native brass appears.

(ii. ii. 198-210)

Dorimant, as he admits, is a dissembler, but his dissembling is more complex than Loveit perceives. By linking ‘good nature’ and ‘good manners’, he initially implies that they work in similar ways to corrupt him. In the next sentence, however, Dorimant's refusal to offend against decorum drives a wedge between his ‘nature’ and his assumed ‘manners’. ‘Honest’, then, becomes a loaded—and ambiguous—term. At first it seems to carry the conventional meaning of Dorimant's being true to his nature. Yet to avoid the social sin of giving ‘offence’, the hero does precisely what he says he would otherwise not do, ‘wilfully mistake Art for Nature’. The double negative (‘wou'd not … wer't not’) hints at the complications underlying his antitheses. That Dorimant recognizes the necessity of dissembling—and willingly participates in the deceptions of others—undercuts the distinction that he then makes between ‘seem’ and ‘earnest’. This antithesis, like those contrasting ‘nature’ and ‘manners’ or ‘Gold’ and ‘native brass’, paradoxically implies similarities where the logic of the prose insists on differences. Dorimant's ‘Nature’ is his ‘Art’; he takes Loveit's accusation—‘damn'd Dissembler!’—as a compliment. Unlike Harriet, she fails to realize that his dissembling is a form of self-definition, an implicit acknowledgement of the radical contingencies of ‘character’ and ‘identity’. Even as he speaks to her he is playing a role. Much of what he says in this exchange, like the gold-brass metaphor, condescends to Loveit's understanding. He is not, as she assumes, revealing his true ‘self’ by jilting her but merely taking on another role—that of the heartless ex-lover.

In Dorimant, then, Etherege demonstrates that verbal pretence and sexual deceit are forms of power that celebrate rather than suppress the contradictions of the dramatic ‘self’. But by creating a hero who lives as well as speaks ironically, the dramatist hardly intends to produce mindless laughter among the would-be rakes in his audience. In contrast to Medley, a more conventional version of the simile-spouting wit (‘a living Libel, a breathing Lampoon’ as Emilia calls him (iii. i. 6)), Dorimant performs less for the sake of others than as a condition of his existence. His acting is a form of dialogical actualization: it displays the tensions within traditional theatrical incarnations of the libertine wit and calls attention to the interplay among the roles that constitute Dorimant's fragmented and fragmentary ‘nature’.

Among the roles that the hero finds himself playing is that of the fool. Once, when Loveit temporarily bests him by feigning an attraction to Sir Fopling, the role is forced on him, but several times Dorimant assumes it willingly. To gall Loveit after her ‘triumph’ in the Mall, Dorimant enters her house imitating Sir Fopling and quoting Waller: ‘I, that I may successful prove, / Transform my self to what you love’ (v. i. 94-5). At ‘Harriets contrivance’ he takes on the role of Courtage, a man he describes as a ‘foppish admirer of Quality, who flatters the very meat at honourable Tables, and never offers love to a Woman below a Lady-Grandmother’. Medley responds, ‘You know the Character you are to act, I see! (iii. iii. 351-4). Harriet has cast the hero as a sycophant, a fop who is neither a wit nor an aristocrat, a socially-debased version of Sir Fopling. As Courtage, Dorimant slips easily into the mocking, dispassionate observations that Lady Woodvil eagerly accepts as genuine wit: ‘the young Men of this Age … [are] generally only dull admirers of themselves, and make their Court to nothing but their Perriwigs and their Crevats, and would be more concern'd for the disordering of 'em, tho' on a good occasion, than a young Maid would be for the tumbling of her head or Handkercher’ (iv. i. 20-5). Although Dorimant may be playing a role, his observation comes close enough to what the audience sees on stage—including his own fastidiousness (see i. i. 349-55)—to prevent his speech from being simply a cliché to gull Lady Woodvil. It becomes difficult to tell where Courtage leaves off and Dorimant begins. When Lady Woodvil asks her daughter what she has against Courtage, Harriet replies, ‘He's a Fopp … a man made up of forms and common places, suckt out of the remaining Lees of the last age’ (iv. i. 339, 342-3). Harriet's target may be Dorimant's performance, but her remark is similar enough to her other jibes as his affectations to be taken as a critique of the actor. Earlier, Harriet had exercised her wit on the synthetic qualities of Dorimant's social graces:

Y. Bellair.
… have you not observed something extream delightful in his Wit and Person?
He's agreeable and pleasant I must own, but he does so much affect being so, he displeases me.
Y. Bellair.
Lord, Madam, all he does and says is so easie, and so natural.
Some Mens Verses seem so to the unskilful, but labour i'the one and affectation in the other to the Judicious plainly appear.

(iii. iii. 22-30)

On one level, Harriet's protestations are themselves a pretence to hide her attraction for Dorimant. Yet her criticism reveals the disturbing possibilities that exist in any culture which worships appearance. Dorimant, in effect, is already Courtage, or Courtage is a part of the protean ‘self’ waiting to be actualized, to be performed. What Young Bellair accepts as Dorimant's ‘Person’ Harriet sees as part of his self-willed performance.

The ease with which Dorimant slips into and out of his roles is contrasted to the naïveté with which Sir Fopling Flutter acts out his fantasies as the man of mode. Sir Fopling is a paradox. His presence in the play comically disturbs the hierarchical socio-political assumptions of Fletcherian comedy: the gentleman is displayed as ‘the freshest Fool in Town’ (iii. ii. 140). Yet if, on one level, the play encourages the audience to see him playing the witwoud to Dorimant's truewit, on another it suggests that there are similarities between them. At times Sir Fopling seems less a foil for the hero, an inept imitation, than a simpler version of Dorimant, the man of mode uncontaminated by the deception of his society.

Sir Fopling's appeal lies in his innocence, in the paradox of a fool naïve enough to believe that his performance is being taken as he intends it. In one respect, he seems a later version of Cokes in Barthol'mew Fair, the wide-eyed man-child fascinated by all that he sees—women, crevats, French dances—who is protected by his lack of guile. This paradox, the fop as innocent, comes to the other characters' minds when they attempt to describe him:

Brisk and Insipid—
Pert and dull.
However you despise him, Gentlemen, I'le lay my life he passes for a Wit with many.
That may very well be, Nature has her cheats … and puts sophisticate dulness often on the tasteless multitude for true with and good humour.

(iii. ii. 261-7)

These paradoxical descriptions accurately sum up a character for whom the height of eloquence is reciting the names of his Parisian tailor, shoemaker, and wigmaker (see iii. ii. 220-33). His obsession with fashion extends to his speech, unselfconsciously littered with Gallicisms: ‘When thou wer't [in Paris] La corneus and Sallyes were the only habitudes we had, a Comedian would have been a bone fortune’ (iv. i. 235-8). For Sir Fopling, French words and phrases are newly acquired playthings. Like his clothing, they are a projection of his vanity, evidence of his devotion to his idol, fashion.

Yet his concern with being ‘bien gante’, as exaggerated as it may be, is shared by the society he inhabits. Unlike Dufoy in The Comical Revenge, Sir Fopling does not wander through a farcical world of his own; his folly lies ironically in his eagerness to conform to the same dictates that the other characters recognize and observe. The more he seeks to conform, the more ‘original’ he appears. In creating him, Etherege works with and against the archetype of the fop as absolute fool. Sir Fopling's child-like devotion to playing the role of the man of mode travesties his society's preoccupation with style as an end in itself. As Emilia and Dorimant suggest, he is close enough to being a wit to pass for one among ‘the tasteless multitude’ who are aesthetically (and ideologically) unable to distinguish true wit from false. Medley, Lady Townley, and Dorimant encourage his folly, then, for two reasons: his ‘Extravagancies’ are entertaining and they provide a painless way for the play's wits to laugh at the follies to which they, in more subtle ways, are prone.

At the beginning of Act V, Pert tries to comfort her mistress by asserting that her new suitor, Sir Fopling, is ‘as handsom a man as Mr. Dorimant, and as great a Gallant’ (v. i. 4-5). Loveit finds Pert's comparison ‘intolerable’ and ‘false’, but her reaction is typical of the overdetermined satire directed against the fop throughout the play.23 She is angry not because Pert's comparison is far-fetched but because it comes close to subverting the ideological distinctions between true and false wit that all the upper-class characters try rigorously to maintain. The proximity of true and false wit allows Sir Fopling to function as a convenient target to deflect from Dorimant the kind of criticism that can be levelled at a hero who admits, ‘I would fain wear in Fashion as long as I can … 'tis a thing to be valu'd in men as well as Bawbles’ (iii. ii. 156-7). Sir Fopling represents that aspect of the man of fashion given to small vanities, self-dramatizing poses, and celebrations of style, that part of Dorimant susceptible to foolishness and fashion-mongering. After Sir Fopling's appearance in Act III, the hero's diction, for the first time in the play, shows symptoms of Gallic affectation:

The Town has been very favourable to you this afternoon, my Lady Townley, you use to have an Ambara's of Chaires and Coaches at your Door, an uproar of Footmen in your Hall, and a noise of Fools above here.

(iii. ii. 122-5)

SIR Fopling.
Forgive me, Sir, in this Ambara's of Civilities, I could not come to have you in my Arms sooner.

(iii. ii. 187-8)

What was Bellindas business with you at my Lady Townleys?
To get me to meet Loveit here in order to have an Eclerisment; I made some difficulty of it, and have prepar'd this rancounter to make good my Jealousy.

(iii. iii. 168-72)

Although the semiotics of Restoration comedy encourage us to hear Sir Fopling's French as affectation and Dorimant's as a mark of sophistication, their use of ‘Ambara's’ a few moments apart is suggestive. Sir Fopling's ‘Ambara's of Civilities’ marks his sacrifice of common sense to far-fetched ingenuity, but it also casts the formalities of Lady Townley's house in a satiric light; like Dorimant's ‘Ambara's of Chaires and Coaches’, it reduces social ceremony to comic disorder. If Sir Fopling inadvertently mimics the hero, however, Dorimant falls into patterns of speech similar to those that his foolish counterpart affects. When he begins plotting his sexual intrigues, his diction—‘Eclerisment’, ‘rancounter’—becomes that of a simpler, more conventional comic figure, the rake-hero as rake-fop. His French (like his recitation of Waller's verse) is a defence mechanism, insulating him from the effects of his machinations by turning his intrigues into a verbal game of artifice and exaggeration. Etherege's parody, then, works in both directions: the fool and the hero are of a world compact, distinguished not by their values but by the quality of their acting.

Harriet presents a different kind of challenge to Dorimant and to the decorum of wit. Although her language often masks her feelings for the hero, it is not in itself ambiguous or inherently deceptive; it is less a pose than a projection of her determination to turn her powerlessness as a woman to her advantage. Her language is sparse, frequently epigrammatic, and given to bold, commonsensical declarations:

I … hate the set face that always looks as it would say Come love me. A woman, who at Playes makes the Deux yeux to a whole Audience, and at home cannot forbear 'em to her Monkey.

(iv. i. 126-30)

Beauty runs as great a risque expos'd at Court as wit does on the Stage, where the ugly and the foolish, all are free to censure.

(iv. i. 148-50)

Harriet's assertions achieve their authority by rigorously excluding doubts and second guesses and by emphasizing her distance from the objects of her satiric censure. If Dorimant, even by Loveit's admission, ‘has something of the Angel yet undefac'd in him’ (ii. ii. 17-18), Harriet seems far removed from the angelic. Her constant upbraiding of the hero for his ‘affectation’ suggests that she is a more accurate judge of his character than Loveit or Young Bellair. Like the hero, she is an accomplished parodist, who ‘Acts him’ (stage direction) to his face while asking, ‘Is not this like you?’ (iii. iii. 106). Her mimicking of Dorimant is both a pleasure and a form of control; it reflects both her struggle to master her attraction to him and her desire to outwit and out-perform him. By playing the part of the disdainful beauty, she is able to force Dorimant into the role of the dutiful suitor. As Hawkins and Hume argue,24 her success in winning his love results from outplaying him at his own game, even as she faces the temptations that she is quick to ridicule in others.

The wit duels between Dorimant and Harriet contrast two different epistemologies of language, two kinds of verbal tactics. The hero tries a variety of approaches, ranging from easy banter to fervent protestation; she consistently uses her wit to mock his assumed voices and deflate his hyperbole. Their languages represent male and female versions of libertinism: the first to depart from the rhetoric of wit—the first, in other words, to be forced into sincerity—loses. In a society in which pretence is the norm and romantic love ridiculed, the wit battles between Dorimant and Harriet become their only means to distinguish dissembling from ‘genuine’ emotion. Their exchanges, in this respect, have a dramatic purpose often absent from earlier versions of the wit duel.

Harriet's success in her verbal skirmishings with Dorimant results from her ability to parody his different voices: what he does successfully to Bellinda and Loveit, she does to him. She disrupts his performances and mocks his roles, responding to his ‘grave bow’, for example, with a ‘demure curt'sy’ and the line, ‘Affectation is catching’ (iv. i. 110). Harriet has mastered the semiotics of outright deception: her ‘scorn’ and ‘coldness’, which she claims are the natural signs of her ‘want of art’ (IV. i. 114), belie her confessed feelings for Dorimant. Her disdainfulness, her mocking of his pretensions to love, distinguish her deflating, mocking wit from both Loveit's passion and Bellinda's vacillation:

… I was inform'd you use to laugh at Love, and not make it.
The time has been, but now I must speak—
If it be on that Idle subject, I will put on my serious look, turn my head carelessly from you, drop my lip, let my Eyelids fall and hang half o're my Eyes—Thus—while you buz a speech of an hour long in my ear, and I answer never a word! why do you not begin?
That the company may take notice how passionately I make advances of Love! and how disdainfully you receive 'em.
When your Love's grown strong enough to make you bear being laugh'd at, I'll give you leave to trouble me with it.

(iv. i. 169-82)

Harriet gains the advantage in this exchange by forcing Dorimant into the role of passionate lover while she acts out her feigned indifference to his ‘Idle subject’. Her verbal wit becomes an erotic inducement that tempts the hero by challenging his rhetorical control of the scene.

If with becomes the scene of their confrontations, however, what each of them invests in their verbal battles differs. For Dorimant, the stakes are his ironic scepticism and self-esteem as an actor. In an aside he admits, ‘I have took the infection [love] from her, and feel the disease now spreading in me—’ (iv. i. 161-2). The image of love as disease marks his retreat from ironic wit to a metaphoric language that threatens to become a self-conscious parody of précieuse sentiment. But Dorimant has no other language to deal with an emotion that he cannot express directly or master ironically. He may, as he claims, ‘renounce all the joys I have in friendship and in Wine, sacrifice … all the interest I have in other Women’, but his sacrifices are announced in a language of passionate intensity that Harriet recognizes as overwrought. ‘Though I wish you devout’, she responds, ‘I would not have you turn Fanatick—’ (v. ii. 143-7).

Harriet's risks in the wit duels—precisely because she is a woman—are qualitatively different from Dorimant's. Wit, for her (as it is for Fletcher's women), is a form of release, a means of expressing those desires which she cannot act upon. When Busy, her waiting-woman, counsels her to ‘let [Dorimant] know your mind,’ Harriet responds, ‘May he hate me, (a curse that frights me when I speak it!) if ever I do a thing against the rules of decency and honour’ (v. ii. 167, 172-4). Her predicament is the opposite of Bellinda's. Bellinda must maintain a show of innocence after her seduction; Harriet must play the role of a wit to entice Dorimant into a relationship that is both sexual and honourable. Her verbal wit, therefore, is a displacement into language of the ‘Rules of charming’ (iv. i. 120) that she accuses other women of using to seduce men. If Dorimant's wit reflects the ironies of his existence, Harriet's is shaped by the ideological and moral constraints that determine its seductive and deceptive functions. The form of her wit is more assertive and conservative than her suitor's because she must still play the mating game by ‘the rules of honour and decency’. No matter how witty she may be, her wit cannot obscure the fact that she is out to bring back a man—a potential patriarch—to an estate inhabited solely by women. In this respect, her wit is a means to lure an acceptable mate into marriage and fatherhood. As in The Wild Goose Chase, feminine wit becomes the vehicle for the comedy of patrilineal succession.

Feminine wit in The Man of Mode, then, operates in an inverse relationship to sexual experience: Harriet, like the heroines of She Wou'd, is witty but chaste; Loveit, the sexually-compromised woman, has lost her capacity to dissemble along with her virginity. When she forces herself to flirt with Sir Fopling, she is able—temporarily—to rekindle Dorimant's interest. But physical passion has robbed her of her ability to sustain her charade. Harriet, in contrast, keeps both her tongue and body inviolate. Her wit is itself an erotic display that entices Dorimant yet forestalls their sexual relationship to a future that exists only in the blank space ‘after’ the end of the play. Like the hero, Harriet has no language that can reconcile the demands of appearance and emotion. She can resolve only to try her suitor by forcing him to join her in the country.

Etherege's return to the device of a month's trial is instructive for what it suggests about the self-imposed limits of his final two comedies. Fifth-act marriage scenes in comedy—feasts, dances, nuptial celebrations—are both metaphors for and promises of fertility, assurances that the species will be propagated, that a son will be born who can inherit his father's land and wealth and continue the socio-economic stability that the marriage secures. In patrilineal cultures marriage signals the hero's passage from adolescence into political maturity, into history; yet it paradoxically testifies to a desire to overcome or deny history (think of the Cavaliers) by reproducing one's self—and one's place in society—in the person of a son and heir.25 In this respect, fifth-act marriages mark the hero's ascension to patriarchal responsibility: there is, in effect, no need to dramatize what happens ‘after’ his marriage because his history has ‘already’ been inscribed in the self-perpetuating traditions of patrilineal succession. Etherege's deferrals of the expected weddings at the conclusions of his final two plays thus imply a retreat from marriage and the responsibilities it entails. Unlike the proviso scenes that mark the endings of Secret Love and The Way of the World, the ending of The Man of Mode forgoes the legalisms that seek to reintegrate the libertine into society. Dorimant retreats into passionate declarations which Harriet mocks by turning his new-found language of fanaticism against him: ‘In men who have been long harden'd in Sin, we have reason to mistrust the first signs of repentance’ (v. ii. 138-9). Significantly, it is the heroine who, at the end of the play, is still speaking the language of wit, still questioning Dorimant's sincerity, and still verbally resisting dwindling into a wife. If his claim that his ‘soul has quite given up her liberty’ parodies myths of the rake reformed, her reaction reasserts the sceptical irony of libertine wit: ‘This is more dismal than the Country’ (v. ii. 428-30). The ending of the play thus pits our expectations of a happy ending against our knowledge of the characters and the world they inhabit. The relationships of actors to their roles are not resolved linguistically or philosophically, as they are at the conclusion of Love for Love, but are ironically confirmed.

Harriet's final line might stand as an epitaph for sixty years of Fletcherian wit comedy. Like the heroes of The Libertine and The Plain Dealer, Dorimant ultimately runs out of stylistic options. The dialogical energy of Etherege's dramatic prose tends toward indeterminacy because his ‘radical’ wit is culturally and historically constrained: it dissipates rather than focuses (as Bakhtin assumes) its incipient political critique. Etherege has taken the language of wit as far as it can go toward an ironic discourse which celebrates the metaphysics of paradox and pretence without surrendering the parodic mythos of rebellion and restoration that shapes comedy from 1660 to 1676. His deconstruction of wit can be taken as a variety of mock-heroic, a questioning and subverting of one set of fashionable ideals that The Rehearsal had left untouched. But by exposing wit's seductiveness and limitations, its subversive ingenuity and stale pretensions, Etherege has effectively undermined its post-Fletcherian conventions, leaving his successors to restructure comedy as best they can. After Wycherley and he retired from the stage, the language of wit underwent a series of radical transformations that turned it into a vehicle for an exemplary, if not a sentimental, comic mode.26 When wit comedy was revived in the 1690s by Southerne, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Cibber, it developed new languages and modified existing ones. Rather than overtly challenging the traditions of Fletcherian wit, these playwrights search for ways to reinvest comedy with moral seriousness.


  1. ‘An Allusion to Horace’, The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. David Vieth (New Haven, 1968), 122. All subsequent quotations from Rochester's works are from this edition.

  2. Letters of Sir George Etherege, ed. Frederick Bracher (Berkeley, 1974), 276.

  3. For an important exception see Dale Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-century Comedy of Manners (New Haven, 1957), 94-110.

  4. On the affective aspect of Etherege's plays see Jocelyn Powell, ‘George Etherege and the Form of a Comedy’, in Restoration Theatre, ed. John Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1965), 43-69. For arguments for the thematic unity of the play see Norman Holland, The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), 20-7; Underwood, Etherege and Comedy, pp. 43-58; and Virginia Birdsall, Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage (Bloomington, Ind., 1970), 41-56.

  5. All quotations from Etherege's plays are from the edition of H. F. B. Brett-Smith, The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege (repr. St Clair Shores, Mich., 1977).

  6. On the close connections between the theatre and the Court after the Restoration see Nicholas Jose, Ideas of the Restoration in English Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 37, 120-41.

  7. The Battle of Naseby (June 1645) was a crippling defeat for the royalist forces. The chief of Bruce's attackers vows revenge for his father's ‘murder’ during this battle, but one of his ‘hired slaves’ remarks, ‘I have heard [Bruce] kill'd him fairly in the Field at Nasby’ (IV. iv. 8-9).

  8. In Some Considerations Touching the Style of the Holy Scriptures (London, 1661), Robert Boyle explicitly yokes libertine wit to atheism, blasphemy, and sedition. In a series of rather clumsy satires of ‘wits’ he maintains that they appeal to ‘our Corruptions’ rather than to ‘our Judgments’ (see esp. pp. 175-86).

  9. It is worth noting that Etherege, who went to London to study law at Clements Inn, ended up as one of Rochester's drinking companions. For Etherege and Wycherley, dramatic wit offered a means to advance socially as well as theatrically. In this respect, libertine wit ironically encourages the transgression as well as the maintenance of class barriers, a point which both playwrights exploit.

  10. David Abercrombie, A Discourse of Wit (London, 1686), 106.

  11. On the ironic aspects of the play see Holland, First Modern Comedies, pp. 28-37; Laura Brown, English Dramatic Form 1660-1760 (New Haven, 1981), 38-40; Birdsall, Wild Civility, pp. 57-76; and Peter Holland, The Ornament of Action (Cambridge, 1979), 48-54.

  12. See Brown, Dramatic Form, pp. 39-40.

  13. ‘But’ appears as a connective over 100 times in the play; this frequency suggests something of the oppositional structure of Etherege's prose.

  14. See Holland, Ornament of Action, p. 86.

  15. Etherege, Letters, p. ix; see also Thomas Fujimura, ‘Etherege at Constantinople’, PMLA 62 (1956), 465-81.

  16. For Etherege's praise of Shadwell's The Squire of Alsatia see Etherege, Letters, pp. 96, 186. See also Michael Neill, ‘Heroic Heads and Humble Tails: Sex, Politics, and the Restoration Comic Rake’, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 24 (1983), 133.

  17. Harriet Hawkins, Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethan and Restoration Drama (Oxford, 1972), 79-97.

  18. See Holland, Ornament of Action, p. 55, and John Barnard, ‘Point of View in The Man of Mode’, Essays in Criticism, 34 (1984), 285-308.

  19. All quotations from Congreve's plays are from Herbert Davis's edition, Complete Plays of William Congreve (Chicago, 1967), and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  20. See Neill, ‘Heroic Heads and Humble Tails’, pp. 134-5.

  21. On Dorimant's role in the play see Hawkins, Likenesses, pp. 79-97; Powell, ‘Etherege and the Form of a Comedy’, pp. 58-69; Underwood, Etherege and Comedy, pp. 72-93; Holland, First Modern Comedies, pp. 86-95; Birdsall, Wild Civility, pp. 77-104; Brown, Dramatic Form, pp. 43-8; Robert Hume, ‘Reading and Misreading The Man of Mode’, Criticism, 14 (1972), 1-11; id., The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1976), 92-7; Brian Corman, ‘Interpreting and Misinterpreting The Man of Mode’, Papers on Language and Literature, 13 (1977), 35-53; Rose Zimbardo, ‘Of Women, Comic Imitation of Nature, and Etherege's The Man of Mode’, Studies in English Literature, 21 (1981), 373-87; Derek Hughes, ‘Play and Passion in The Man of Mode’, Comparative Drama, 15 (1981), 231-57; Paul C. Davies, ‘The State of Nature and the State of War: A Reconsideration of The Man of Mode’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 39 (1969), 53-62; John G. Hayman, ‘Dorimant and the Comedy of a Man of Mode’, Modern Language Quarterly, 30 (1969), 183-97; Ronald Berman, ‘The Comic Passions of The Man of Mode’, Studies in English Literature, 10 (1970), 459-68; and Leslie Martin, ‘Past and Parody in The Man of Mode’, Studies in English Literature, 16 (1976), 363-76.

  22. See Underwood, Etherege and Comedy, pp. 96-103 for another discussion of this passage.

  23. See Susan Staves's discussion of the role of the fop, ‘A Few Kinds Words for the Fop’, Studies in English Literature, 22 (1982), 413-28.

  24. See Hawkins, Likenesses, pp. 88-9 and Hume, ‘Reading and Misreading’, pp. 10-11.

  25. On the significance of the Oedipal situation, see Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (Middletown, Conn., 1959) and id., Love's Body (New York, 1966), esp. 3-12. On the political implications of patriarchal social structures see Gordon Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought (Oxford, 1975).

  26. On comedy between Etherege and Congreve see Robert Hume's valuable article, ‘“The Change in Comedy”: Cynical versus Exemplary Comedy on the London Stage, 1678-1693’, Essays in Theatre, i (1983), 101-18.

Lisa Berglund (essay date 1990)

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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 must love him, be he never so wicked” (II.ii.15-17).1 Critics of Etherege's The Man of Mode suffer similar distress when faced with Dorimant, who, though the hero, is after all a damned libertine. He maintains three mistresses, treats them all shamefully, interrupts an evening with the woman he professedly loves for a sordid liaison, and sneers at his friend Bellair behind that “tolerable” young man's back (I.i.395). At the same time, he is witty, charming, and magnetic, and clearly deserves the love of the most fascinating woman of his world, Harriet.

Evading the need to address this contradiction, Harriett Hawkins argues, “The primary purpose of this comedy seems to be neither immoral nor moral, but rather spectacular—to exhibit, rather than to censure.”2 She suggests that the discomfort Dorimant provokes should not disturb us, because Etherege did not intend us to judge his hero, but merely to appreciate him. Jocelyn Powell, too, contends that “we are seeing [Etherege's libertines] in human, not in moral terms.”3 More persuasively, Laura Brown argues that our uncertain response to Dorimant derives from Etherege's deliberate attempt simultaneously to support and to condemn his hero's rakish values. She writes, “[T]he ambivalence toward the social status quo—or the disjunction between represented social reality and the implicit moral judgment upon the ‘rightness’ of that reality—represents an aesthetic expression of the ambiguous aristocratic attitude toward the subversive content of the libertine ideology.”4 Etherege and his peers, according to Brown, advocated freedom from a morality that had become identified with the monied middle class, but at the same time recognized that such subversiveness could destroy the society on whose stability, in the end, all depended. The Man of Mode and other “dramatic social satires,” as she calls them, is “fundamentally conservative in its allegiance to traditional values and to the status quo, but daringly radical in its exposure of the hypocrisy, the immorality and the materialism of the society it must finally accept” (p. 42).

Despite her reasonable argument that Etherege's attitude toward his society is not amoral, but rather satirical, Brown fails to recognize that his impulse, like that of any responsible satirist, is to correct as well as to expose. She claims that “The Man of Mode is filled with actual and serious conflict—so serious that it does not submit to resolution” (p. 46). However, the evidence that she offers as Etherege's irresolute criticism of Dorimant is flawed, for it issues from characters who are outside Dorimant's society and who therefore neither adequately comprehend their target nor merit enough respect from either Dorimant or Etherege's audience to be credible witnesses. For example, Brown uses Mrs. Loveit's attack on Dorimant in V.i to conclude that “the force of her eloquence, joined with the force of moral judgment communicated more indirectly in the rest of the action, permits her to carry the day” (p. 45). But Mrs. Loveit does not carry the day, because her own moral failure (the publicly recognized affair with Dorimant) ultimately excludes her from society. Etherege cannot and does not present her as a successful critic of Dorimant's vices. When, at the end of the play, Harriet and the rest of the company at Lady Townley's laugh her from the room, Mrs. Loveit exits with none of the power of persecuted virtue or despised sense.

If we are to look to Etherege for an attack on Dorimant's libertine values, and I agree that we ought, then unlike Brown I believe that such criticism will come from within the society it condemns, from characters who, like Etherege himself, can both correctly appreciate the impulse to immorality and offer a solution tempting enough to convert the guilty. Brown wrongly concludes that Mrs. Loveit voices Etherege's censure of Dorimant, and identifies the Orange Woman and the Shoemaker as lesser moralists, because she neither allows for the extreme separation of Etherege's characters into two independent groups, nor recognizes on what principle this division exists. Dorimant, Medley, Young Bellair, Harriet, Emilia, and Lady Townley form an exclusive, witty society from which all other characters, whatever their social or financial lot, from Old Bellair to Molly the whore, are excluded. These six witty characters clearly differ from the rest of the dramatis personae because they alone use and understand extended metaphors, a speech pattern that I will call the “libertine language.” Any character who attempts to influence, attack, or join the society of the wits, but does not speak its language, cannot possibly succeed because his inarticulateness betrays his ignorance of the code of libertinism, and exposes him to contempt. On the other hand, a critic who couches his censure in the metaphorical language of the wits is heard and approved because his targets recognize that his membership in their society gives him the authority to demand reform. In The Man of Mode two characters speak for true love and marriage, but maintain their aristocratic freedom: Young Bellair and Harriet. They counter rakish antagonism to constancy, affection, and honor by demonstrating that conventional morality may be, like Harriet herself, “wild, witty, lovesome, beautiful” (III.iii.327-28).

Brown rightly points out that “libertinism is … viewed as a threat … even by the libertine himself” (p. 42). To reconcile with his moral sense his enjoyment of dangerous antisocial behavior, Etherege's libertine speaks a highly metaphorical language that conceals the true nature of his sexual activities. His use of analogy to discuss the institutions in which restrictive and conventional morality is most overwhelmingly embodied—love and marriage—disguises his rebellion against those institutions, and displaces both confession and criticism into an understood sub-text. (It is Etherege's removal of explicit moral debate from the play that provokes “spectacular” interpretations like that of Hawkins.) In other words, Dorimant and his peers avoid confession or judgment by perpetually speaking of other things.5 They most usually cloak their licentiousness in allusions to health or to games of chance; their disdain for honest love is voiced as disdain for the church and “devotions.” For example, Emilia, Medley, and Dorimant discuss the risks of illicit love, and Mrs. Loveit's tiresomeness, in terms of gambling:

There are afflictions in love, Mr. Dorimant.
You women make 'em, who are commonly as unreasonable in that as you are at play: without the advantage be on your side, a man can never quietly give over when he's weary.
If you would play without being obliged to complaisance, Dorimant, you should play in public places.
Ordinaries were a very good thing for that, but gentlemen do not of late frequent 'em. The deep play is now in private houses.


Notice how much ground the conversation covers within the terms of the analogy of “play.” Dorimant admits that he is tired of Mrs. Loveit; Medley recommends that he confine himself to prostitutes, who will not require him to be agreeable; and Dorimant rejects this suggestion because, as a rake, he finds it more stimulating to seduce women of quality. After Dorimant establishes the initial comparison, neither he nor Medley mentions the tenor of the simile, keeping the conversation strictly within the terms of the vehicle. The libertine language thus creates a polite fiction (that women are bad-mannered gamblers) which conceals the actual result of the libertine ethic (the destruction of Mrs. Loveit's honor).6

The wits also turn to metaphor when Bellair and Medley greet Dorimant after his tryst with Bellinda. They are perfectly aware of his activities, if not of the lady's identity, but wouldn't dream of being explicit:

YOUNG Bellair.
Not abed yet?
You have had an irregular fit, Dorimant.
I have.
YOUNG Bellair.
And is it off already?
Nature has done her part, gentlemen. When she falls kindly to work, great cures are effected in little time, you know.


Medley, by recalling the phrase “irregular fit,” with which Dorimant himself had described his amorous dalliances (in his conversation with Harriet [IV.i.146]), inserts an entire scene between vehicle (illness) and tenor (sexual intercourse). This polite inquiry into Dorimant's health, in which Medley confirms that Dorimant has been entertaining a lady, and Bellair that she has departed, therefore even more successfully practices the art of displacement than the first example I quoted. It also illustrates how the discourse of the six wits separates them from the other characters. Speaking the libertine language confirms their mutual recognition that although libertinism is destructive, to give over their freedom for conventional morality would violate their aristocratic identities. The ends of their linguistic strategy become particularly clear as IV.ii continues, because Dorimant's activities are exposed through the obtuseness of Sir Fopling, who does not recognize that the practice of immorality requires the protection of a metaphor. Sir Fopling's gauche persistence forces Dorimant, against his will, to explain the nature of his “fit”:

SIR Fopling.
We thought there was a wench in the case, by the chair that waited. Prithee, make us a confidence.
Excuse me.
SIR Fopling.
Le sage Dorimant. Was she pretty?
So pretty she may come to keep her coach and pay parish duties, if the good humor of the age continue.


Dorimant's embarrassment and vexation in this scene, however, do not undercut the fact that those who speak the libertine language are the most powerful characters in the play—powerful because they use wit to disguise and transform their weaknesses and thus render themselves invulnerable to external criticism or pressure. Thus the key to Mrs. Loveit's unfitness for the society of the wits is her inability to mask her passion and challenge Dorimant in his own terms. The explicitness that convinces Brown of her critical “force” in fact undermines Mrs. Loveit's case, because it exposes her own moral blemish.

MRS. Loveit.
Now you begin to show yourself.
Love gilds us over and makes us show fine things to one another for a time; but soon the gold wears off, and then again the native brass appears.
MRS. Loveit.
Think on your oaths, your vows, and protestations, perjured man!


The “belle passion” (V.ii.356) that prevents Mrs. Loveit from pursuing Dorimant's gilding metaphor, a response that would be proof of wit and self-control, is also the root of Dorimant's disgust for her, and, presumably, the flaw that made her susceptible to seduction. In other words, Mrs. Loveit's inability to speak the libertine language is a symptom of the ungoverned temperament that drives her to ostracism.

Like Mrs. Loveit, Old Bellair and Sir Fopling cannot speak the libertine language. Although, unlike her, they do not try to force the wits into plain dealing, the linguistic strategy they severally adopt nevertheless exposes them as incompetent imitators. Old Bellair and Sir Fopling set up rival languages whose shallowness betrays the dullness of the speakers; and their inferiority is emphasized by the glee with which the witty characters mockingly mimic them. Old Bellair's fancy that his constant snubs of Emilia conceal his senile passion for her suggests an impotent approximation of the displacement effected by the libertine language. The repetitive pattern of the insults—“You are ugly, you are ugly!” (IV.i.82)—carries over into the rest of his conversation, which he also interlards with ejaculations of “Out a pize!” and “A dod!” The latter, for example, appears four times in his first three speeches, and his first scene ends with the following flourish:

Out, a pize o' their breeches, there are keeping fools enough for such flaunting baggages, and they are e'en too good for 'em. (To Emilia.) Remember night. (Aloud.) Go, y'are a rogue, y'are a rogue. Fare you well, fare you well. (To Young Bellair.) Come, come, come along, sir.


This monotonous speech pattern identifies Old Bellair as an old fool, just as Mrs. Loveit's passionate outbursts illustrate her inability to control her desires.

Sir Fopling's conversation, too, is distinctive, in his case because he embellishes his remarks with French phrases, an affectation that Emilia parodies the moment they are introduced:

SIR Fopling.
… The éclat of so much beauty, I confess, ought to have charmed me sooner.
The brillant of so much good language, sir, has much more power than the little beauty I can boast.


Emilia's pointed reference to the power of language should not be overlooked. Her sarcasm alerts the audience to the awareness of the libertines that language is the tool of those who would control their world. Characters who try but fail to create their own languages, on the other hand, betray their corresponding lack of a motive for metaphor; they reveal that they are sexually powerless. Old Bellair is a conventional senex figure, his son's unsuccessful rival, while Sir Fopling is husbanding his “vigor” in order to “make [his] court to the whole sex in a ballet” (V.ii.340-41). The two cannot understand the seriousness of the strategy of displacement because they do not participate in the antisocial intrigues it conceals.

Yet we cannot dismiss Sir Fopling as easily as we do Old Bellair, for the eponymous fop, with his equipage and his wig, his clothes and his capers, has a magnetism and joie de vivre as captivating as that of the witty lovers.7 Like Harriet, as we shall see, Sir Fopling penetrates the metaphors of Dorimant and Medley and discloses their polite secrets; he does so, however, because he is sublimely unaware that anything has been concealed. For example, he sees through the reticence of the “half a dozen beauties” whom he meets in Whitehall:

Did you know 'em?
SIR Fopling.
Not one of 'em, by heavens, not I! But they were all your friends.
How are you sure of that?
SIR Fopling.
Why, we laughed at all the town—spared nobody but yourself.


Sir Fopling's subsequent indiscretion at Dorimant's apartments already has been discussed; in both these cases, he ignores the super-texts of metaphor and, in the case of the “beauties,” of discreet silence, because for him sex itself is part of the garniture. The energy that a Dorimant expends on intrigues, the fop channels into surface; where the rake hides behind metaphors and false names, the fop in disguise is instantly recognizable:

Enter Sir Fopling and others in masks.


YOUNG Bellair.
This must be Sir Fopling.
That extraordinary habit show it.


Sir Fopling has no patience with concealment. When a cloaking metaphor is too obscure, he protests (and exposes the libertine strategy to the audience):

SIR Fopling.
Let her be what she will, I know how to take my measures. In Paris the mode is to flatter the prude, laugh at the faux-prude, make serious love to the demi-prude, and only rally with the coquette. Medley, what think you?
That for all this smattering of the mathematics, you may be out in your judgment at tennis.
SIR Fopling.
What a coq-à-l'âne is this? I talk of women, and thou answer'st tennis.
Mistakes will be, for want of apprehension.


Sir Fopling's vitality, therefore, derives from being purely extrinsic; he incorporates into his surface everything that the rakes wish to conceal. Dorimant may disdain mirrors because in them a man sees “[t]he shadow of himself” (IV.ii.88), but Sir Fopling is a very tolerable reflection of the libertine hero. He forces the rakes to look at themselves and, as Dryden notes in his epilogue, “Sir Fopling is a fool so nicely writ, / The ladies would mistake him for a wit” (lines 7-8). Although an object of derision, Sir Fopling in every gesture and remark belittles the character of Mr. Courtage—the polite surface—that Dorimant assumes, and implicitly diminishes the power of Dorimant's sexuality to a “ballet.”

While Sir Fopling unconsciously undercuts Dorimant, Etherege locates in the wit of Young Bellair and Harriet informed criticism of the libertine code. It is no accident that, at the beginning of the play, Harriet and Young Bellair are all but betrothed; they are coupled to highlight the fact that their views of the world and morality are identical. That Etherege gave them similar Christian names—Harriet and Harry—also contributes to my sense of them as female and male versions of the same character: a character who accepts the institutions that the libertines reject. In the ante-contract scene, the two articulate their belief in true love:

There are some [ladies], it may be, have an eye like Bart'lomew, big enough for the whole fair; but I am not of the number, and you may keep your gingerbread. 'Twill be more acceptable to the lady whose dear image it wears.
YOUNG Bellair.
I must confess, madam, you came a day after the fair.
You own then you are in love?
YOUNG Bellair.
I do.
The confidence is generous, and in return I could almost find in my heart to let you know my inclinations.


Note that, although this conversation begins in the metaphorical manner of the witty set, Harriet then asks a direct question, and receives a direct answer. Neither she nor Bellair needs to speak in metaphor, because, unlike Dorimant or Emilia, they have embraced the institutions of love and marriage. They are both, however, sharp-eyed (as the love scene they stage for their parents confirms) and sensitive to the reasons for the concealment practiced by their peers; both therefore when conversing with the other wits speak the libertine language. They use it, however, to articulate their disagreement with the ideology of the rakes.

When Young Bellair first enters, Medley challenges his wish to marry. Their debate employs the metaphor of the church, and while Young Bellair contradicts Medley, he does so in Medley's terms:

… may the beautiful cause of our misfortune give you all the joys happy lovers have shared ever since the world began.
YOUNG Bellair.
You wish me in heaven, but you believe me on my journey to hell.
You have a good strong faith, and that may contribute much towards your salvation. I confess I am but of an untoward constitution, apt to have doubts and scruples; and in love they are no less distracting than in religion. Were I so near marriage, I should cry out by fits as I ride in my coach, “Cuckold, cuckold!” with no less fury than the mad fanatic does “Glory!” in Bethlem.
YOUNG Bellair.
Because religion makes some run mad, must I live an atheist?


Bellair's retort is powerful because in itself it demonstrates that a man may be both a wit and a lover. Similarly, when Emilia, who at the beginning of the play, like Dorimant and Medley, puts no trust in emotions, substitutes the metaphor of health for matters of the heart, Bellair answers within the limits of her analogy, and his words only confirm his faith in true love:

YOUNG Bellair.
My constancy! I vow—
Do not vow. Our love is frail as is our life, and full as little in our power; and are you sure you shall outlive this day?
YOUNG Bellair.
I am not, but when we are in perfect health, 'twere an idle thing to fright ourselves with the thoughts of sudden death.


Young Bellair's fluency in the libertine language locates a voice of morality within, rather than without, society. The play ends with a celebration of his marriage in order to show that one may accept moral institutions without forfeiting wit and gaiety. When Old Bellair, who has been reconciled to his son's disobedience, tells the pit, “And if these honest gentlemen rejoice, / Adod, the boy had made a happy choice,” Etherege asks approval not just for The Man of Mode, but in particular for the decision of one of his libertines to forsake profligacy for marriage (V.ii.399-400).

Within the restrictions of metaphor, Young Bellair warns Dorimant that Harriet will not abandon her principles—“You had best not think of Mrs. Harriet too much. Without church security, there's no taking up there” (IV.iii.179-80)—and Dorimant confesses that he “may fall into the snare, too” (line 181). Harriet fascinates him because she speaks the libertine language as effortlessly as he, and he therefore treats her as an equal, a fellow wit. Witness their first conversation, using the gaming analogy, in which they establish the limits of their courtship:

You were talking of play, madam. Pray, what may be your stint?
A little harmless discourse in public walks or at most an appointment in a box, barefaced, at the playhouse. You are for masks and private meetings, where women engage for all they are worth, I hear.
I have been used to deep play, but I can make one at small game when I like my gamester well.
And be so unconcerned you'll ha' no pleasure in't.


Because she has fallen in love, Harriet understands Dorimant even better than does Young Bellair. Her last remark in the dialogue quoted above confirms what Dorimant himself only hints (at I.i.189ff.): that he does not enjoy harmless flirtation (“small game”), but rather, as Mrs. Loveit later charges, takes “more pleasure in the ruin of a woman's reputation than in the endearments of her love” (V.i.183-84). But whereas Mrs. Loveit's direct accusation will provoke Dorimant to label her coquetry with Sir Fopling “an infamy below the sin of prostitution with another man” (V.i.188-89), Harriet's metaphorical criticism piques Dorimant's interest because it attacks his rakish career without threatening to violate the libertine code of indirection; and so he answers in kind with a compliment, albeit a lascivious one: “Where there is a considerable sum to be won, the hope of drawing people in makes every trifle considerable” (III.iii.71-72).

Harriet also recognizes that Dorimant is so much the rake, he calculates every word and movement, and she therefore confronts him with the charge of affectation with which she had earlier surprised Young Bellair (III.iii.23-29):

That demure curtsy is not amiss in jest, but do not think in earnest it becomes you.
Affectation is catching, I find. From your grave bow I got it.


Harriet's retort tells Dorimant that she finds his pose—that of the libertine—no more attractive than he finds her assumed prudery. She also reminds him of their first meeting, when she imitated his pleasure in “the ladies' good liking” (III.iii.95-96) and showed him that she knew he was vain.8 In each conversation with him, although she confesses her love in asides, Harriet treats Dorimant the way he treats Mrs. Loveit: she demonstrates that she thoroughly understands his character, forces him to confess his love, and leaves him:

To men who have fared in this town like you, 'twould be a great mortification to live on hope. Could you keep Lent for a mistress?
In expectation of a happy Easter; and though time be very precious, think forty days well lost to gain your favor.
Mr. Bellair! Let us walk, 'tis time to leave him. Men grow dull when they begin to be particular.


By turning the libertine language to her own ends, and making it a vehicle for honest avowals rather than a cloak for profligacy (see also her religious metaphors in V.ii), Harriet forces Dorimant to confront the libertine ideology to which he subscribes, and to recognize that she, like Young Bellair, unites wit with love, desire with constancy.9 The Restoration heroine, as John Harrington Smith points out, must marry, but at the same time neither she nor the man she loves can “surrender … individuality” to matrimony.10 Etherege makes Harriet woo Dorimant in the libertine language to prove to him that he will not forfeit his independence if he falls in love with her.11

In Harriet's use of the libertine language to criticize as well as to fascinate Dorimant, Etherege matures the flirtation of his earlier heroes and heroines into a moral, as well as a sexual, confrontation. His first play, The Comical Revenge: Or, Love in a Tub, set the stakes low. Within the limited space they occupy in this plot-heavy play, neither the roistering Sir Frederick Frollick nor the independent Widow Rich appears to regard their eventual union as demanding more than a token sacrifice. (Sir Frederick disposes of his mistress Lucy with daunting insouciance.) Only one brief exchange suggests the extended banter Etherege would write for The Man of Mode. Repulsing her suitor's advances, the Widow adopts a military analogy:

You cannot blame me for standing on my guard so near an enemy.
SIR Frederick.
If you are so good at that, widow, let's see, what guard would you choose to be at should the trumpet sound a charge to this dreadful foe?
It is an idle question amongst experienced soldiers; but if we ever have a war, we'll never trouble the trumpet; the bells shall proclaim our quarrel.
SIR Frederick.
It will be most proper; they shall be rung backwards.
Why so, sir?
SIR Frederick.
I'll have all the helps that may be to allay a dangerous fire; widows must needs have furious flames; the bellows have been at work, and blown 'em up.
You grow too rude, sir.


This conversation demonstrates that the Widow and Sir Frederick deserve one another—they speak the same language. Yet they employ extended metaphors not, like Dorimant, to disguise the nature of their sexual activities, but simply for the fun of it (I read the Widow's “Why so, sir?” as a rueful admission that she can't quite follow his analogy).

Similarly, Ariana and Gatty in She Would if She Could secure the love of Freeman and Courtall through metaphorical repartee, even before removing their black velvet masks. (As Freeman exclaims, “I perceive, by your fooling here, that wit and good humour may make a man in love with a blackamoor” [II.i.161-63]). Fluent use of metaphor, however, merely ranks with the young ladies' other accomplishments, as Sir Joslin Jolly makes clear:

so, boys, and how do you like the flesh and blood of the Jollies—heuk, Sly-girl—and Mad-cap, hey—come, come, you have heard them exercise their tongues a while; now you shall see them ply their feet a little: this is a clean-limbed wench, and has neither spavin, splinter, nor windgall; tune her a jig and play't roundly, you shall see her bounce it away like a nimble frigate before a fresh gale—hey, methinks I see her under sail already.

Gatty dances a jig.


In his last and most sophisticated comedy, however, Etherege transforms metaphor from the “garniture” of carefree flirtation into the defensive language of a society aware of its willful moral degradation.13

Throughout The Man of Mode, Etherege uses the image of the mask to illustrate the metaphorical technique of the libertines. Since Restoration masks are shaped like faces, a masker not only conceals his or her identity, but substitutes another face for his own, just as the language of the libertines exchanges a dangerous subject for an innocuous one. When Harriet prevents Dorimant from declaring his love by pointing out that both amorous words and looks are suspect, she makes the analogy of countenance and language explicit:

Do not speak it if you would have me believe it. Your tongue is so famed for falsehood, 'twill do the truth an injury. (Turns away her head)
Turn not away, then, but look on me and guess it.
Did you not tell me there was no credit to be given to faces—that women nowadays have their passions as much at will as they have their complexions, and put on joy and sadness, scorn and kindness, with the same ease they do their paint and patches? Are they the only counterfeits?


In a conversation I quoted earlier, Harriet compares her desire for sincerity to appearing “barefaced in the playhouse,” while noting that Dorimant prefers “masks.” When a masked Sir Fopling crashes the party at Lady Townley's, the lovers' responses to his disguise apply pertinently to their own situation:

What's here—masquerades?
I thought that foppery had been left off, and people might have been in private with a fiddle.
'Tis endeavored to be kept on foot still by some who find themselves the more acceptable, the less they are known.


Harriet's contempt for “that foppery” recalls her mimicry of Dorimant's affectation, while the fact that Dorimant has appeared at the party pretending to be Mr. Courtage gives his explanation of masquerades double significance: he, like Sir Fopling, is attempting to appear “the more acceptable.” Yet despite her criticism of masks here and in her conversation with Busy in III.i, Harriet bewitches Dorimant by playing his game better than he does himself; she never unmasks, or allows her language to grow too “particular,” and their courtship ends by reversing the play's established relationship between Dorimant and women:

Is this all? Will you not promise me—
I hate to promise. What we do then is expected from us and wants much of the welcome it finds when it surprises.


Compare Harriet's refusal to commit herself to Bellinda's capitulation:

Be sure you come.
I sha' not.
Swear you will.
I dare not.
Swear, I say!
By my life, by all the happiness I hope for—
You will.
I will.


The most important mask in the play, of course, is the “vizard” with whom Dorimant has been seen at the theater. At different moments in the play she is identified as a prostitute, as Mrs. Loveit, as Bellinda, and as Harriet. This collection demonstrates that the mask, like the language of the libertines, really covers Dorimant's sexual appetite, and, ultimately, his willingness to reform, while the various interpretations offered by the characters spring from their own response to libertinism. Mrs. Loveit, who has been ruined by Dorimant, believes the “vizard” to be what she herself has become: an “unknown, inconsiderable slut” (V.i.159). Bellinda mendaciously asserts that she had taken the woman for Mrs. Loveit, a deliberate substitution that marks her plunge into illicit sexuality, and confirms to us that she has replaced Mrs. Loveit as Dorimant's mistress (II.ii.75-85). Medley, who bears too much allegiance to the libertine code to peek beneath the mask, is content to speak of “a vizard” (I.i.184), while Young Bellair recognizes Bellinda, and his accuracy disconcerts Dorimant into an insult (I.i.380ff.). Finally, when Dorimant himself claims to unmask the lady, a disclosure comparable to “growing particular,” he names Harriet, and declares his wish to marry her (V.ii.261-66).

Etherege understood the attractions of the libertine ideology, and recognized that to conclude The Man of Mode with absolute capitulation from Dorimant would be as awkward as the reversal Colley Cibber did not resist at the end of Love's Last Shift. Instead, Dorimant's marriage to Harriet is left conditional, and it is up to the imagination of the pit to decide whether the “devil” or the “angel … undefaced” will prevail in the hero's heart. (By ending the play with a test ordered by the heroine to judge the hero, Etherege recalls Shakespeare's strategy in Love's Labors Lost, where the constancy of the gentlemen goes on trial as the curtain falls.) Nevertheless, that Dorimant accepts Lady Woodvill's invitation to Hartly, a surrender set amid the nuptial rejoicings of the other lovers, shows that the corrective impulse embodied in Harriet and in Harry Bellair is more powerful than the drive to libertinism, and can reform the community of the wits without destroying it. Because Harriet, unlike Mrs. Loveit, speaks the language of the libertines, she demands no unreasonable metamorphosis or confession. Instead, she cuts short Dorimant's extravagant vows of temperance, saying, “Hold! Though I wish you devout, I would not have you turn fanatic” (V.ii.137-38). Her words recall Medley's comparison of a man bent on marriage to a “mad fanatic … in Bethlem” and therefore suggest that Bellair's response to the analogy may now apply to Dorimant as well; he, too, need no longer live an atheist. By bringing Dorimant to confess the pangs of the passion to which he has always been an enemy, without ever herself violating his standards, she resolves the libertine dilemma. Harriet offers honesty in indirection, and virtue beneath a vizard.


  1. All references to The Man of Mode are from The Man of Mode, ed. W. B. Carnochan, Regents Restoration Drama Series (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1966).

  2. Harriett Hawkins, Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethan and Restoration Drama (Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), p. 94.

  3. Jocelyn Powell, “George Etherege and the Form of a Comedy,” Restoration Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965), p. 60. See also Thomas H. Fujimura, The Restoration Comedy of Wit (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1952); Norman Holland, The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959); John G. Hayman, “Dorimant and the Comedy of a Man of Mode,” MLQ 30 (1969):183-97; and Dale Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners (Hamden: Archon Books, 1969).

  4. Laura Brown, English Dramatic Form, 1660-1760: An Essay in Generic History (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), p. 41.

  5. In his essay “Language and Action in The Way of the World, Love's Last Shift and The Relapse,ELH 40, 1 (1973):44-69, Alan Roper makes a similar argument about metaphor in Vanbrugh's play. He writes, “Berinthia's ‘Virtue is its own Reward’ is also strictly ironic in its use of a cliché of moral congratulation as a means of self-deprecation. As such, it is defensive. The metaphor enables Berinthia to talk about the fact without, as it were, referring to it. The metaphor places a shield of language between her and the actuality of her deeds and motives” (p. 56). Unlike Berinthia's defensive strategy, however, Etherege's extended metaphors are spoken and shared by a community of wits, not all of whom require a “shield of language.” And whereas Vanbrugh locates a moral voice in the plain-speaking Amanda (as Roper notes, “Amanda insists in reading off the literal sense” [p. 59]), thus clearly separating wit from wisdom, Etherege harmoniously confuses the two qualities in Harriet and Harry Bellair.

  6. John G. Hayman argues that the wits strive to preserve “the semblance of l'honnêteté” (p. 187), and he describes “the tempting strategy that offered itself to a wit such as Dorimant: he might conform to the superficies of courtesy and use them to cloak an essentially antisocial nature” (p. 186). The libertine language offers the cover Dorimant requires.

  7. W. B. Carnochan points out that a 1965 revival of The Man of Mode “was announced as the first since 1793” (p. xi); when confined to the printed page, as it was for 170 years of readers, Sir Fopling's exuberance is muted.

  8. For other interpretations of the roles of dissembling, mimicry, and playacting in The Man of Mode, see two articles in Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 6 (1982): James Thompson, “Lying and Dissembling in the Restoration,” pp. 11-19; and Katherine Zapantis Keller, “Re-reading and Re-playing: An Approach to Restoration Comedy,” pp. 64-71.

  9. J. Douglas Canfield, in “Religious Language and Religious Meaning in Restoration Comedy,” SEL 20 (1980):385-406, writes that “the religious language associated with Harriet and Dorimant's love … suggests the possibility of transcendence” (p. 388). Canfield rightly addresses the play's copious allusions to Christian ceremonies and to scripture; but by failing to note that the libertine language relies as well on metaphors of health, gambling, and masquerades (among others), Canfield's reading disproportionately emphasizes religious language as the key to Dorimant's potential reformation. It is Harriet's witty use of all these metaphors that attracts and disarms the rake. I do agree with Canfield's argument that the prevalence of religious ejaculations and allusions “also serves in part to portray this world as one in which such language has become merely a manner of speaking” (p. 389). Since the libertines employ metaphors to disguise antisocial behavior, images drawn from a religion reduced to a mere “manner of speaking” are particularly useful, for they lack any power beyond that which the libertines choose to bestow.

  10. John Harrington Smith, The Gay Couple in Restoration Comedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948), p. 49.

  11. Similarly, Derek Hughes remarks that “when Dorimant tries to convince Harriet of his earnest feelings he can find no reliable words … since he has playfully misused them all in the past. … Harriet's task, therefore, is not only to reconcile love and play but to reconcile love and language,” (“Play and Passion in The Man of Mode,CompD 15 [1981]:231-257; 237). I differ from Hughes in finding serious motives for Dorimant's linguistic strategy. Sheer “playfulness,” on the other hand, does characterize the metaphorical exchanges of Etherege's two earlier dramas.

  12. All references to The Comical Revenge and She Would if She Could are from The Plays of Sir George Etherege, ed. Michael Cordner (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982).

  13. Other Restoration comedies usually employ extended metaphors simply to separate the wits from the gulls, as in this exchange from Wycherley's The Country Wife:

    Ay, ay, a gamester will be a gamester whilst his money lasts, and a whoremaster whilst his vigor.
    Nay, I have known 'em when they are broke and can lose no more, keep a-fumbling with the box in their hands to fool with only, and hinder other gamesters.
    That had wherewithal to make lusty stakes.
    Well, gentlemen, you may laugh at me, but you shall never lie with my wife; I know the town.

    (The Country Wife, ed. Thomas H. Fujimura, Regents Restoration Drama Series [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965], I.i.421-28).

    By insisting on the tenor, rather than the vehicle, of the conversation, Pinchwife excludes himself from witty society; but Dorilant and Harcourt, unlike Dorimant and Medley, do not require indirection. They spin out the metaphor for its own sake and for the pleasure of needling Pinchwife.


Etherege, George (Drama Criticism)


Sir George Etherege Poetry: British Analysis