George Etherege

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In addition to his drama, Sir George Etherege wrote poetry, collected and published posthumously in Poems (1963). His correspondence is collected in The Letterbook of Sir George Etherege (1928) and Letters of Sir George Etherege (1973).

Achievements

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In the amazingly vital and varied drama that developed, flourished, and faded in London within a few decades after the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, the most important type was the so-called comedy of manners. The comedy of manners was characterized by strong contemporary realism, by resolution of the main plot in marriage, and by pairs of characters arranged in a hierarchy of wit, from the most witty down to the most foolish. In the Restoration drama, wit is determined in part by the ability of individuals to get their own way and in part by their social grace, best exemplified in the witty (meaning comic, ingenious, and psychologically astute) verbal duels with which the plays abound. It was Sir George Etherege’s achievement to develop and define this distinctive Restoration form in The Comical Revenge and She Would if She Could and to bring it to full maturity in The Man of Mode.

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Sir George Etherege (EHTH-uh-rihj) is primarily known not for his poetry but for his plays. He wrote three comedies, all typical representatives of the risqué wit of Restoration comedy. His first comedy, The Comical Revenge: Or, Love in a Tub (pr., pb. 1644), however, tended to rely more heavily on farce and burlesque than on wit for its comic effect. His second comedy, She Would if She Could, followed in 1668. The play which firmly established Etherege’s reputation, The Man of Mode: Or, Sir Fopling Flutter, appeared in 1676. The play’s characters, particularly the rake Dorimant, the comic lover Sir Fopling Flutter, and the witty Harriet, are among the most memorable in Restoration comedy.

Achievements

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Sir George Etherege’s reputation as an accomplished dramatist is, without question, secure. In modern times, however, his poetry has been little noticed. This lack of recognition is puzzling in view of the fact that in his own age Etherege’s poetry enjoyed a great deal of popularity. Many of his short lyrics were set to music by the best composers of the time, notably Henry Purcell. James Thorpe, Etherege’s modern editor, points out that his poems can be found in fifty contemporary manuscripts and in 150 printed books. In his own time, Etherege was considered as accomplished a poet as the earls of Dorset and Buckingham and Thomas Sedley, Etherege’s best friend, all of whom are much more frequently anthologized. His “soft lampoons,” as one fellow poet expressed it, were “the best of any man.” He was noted especially for his concise expression and confident control of metaphor, and for these reasons, he clearly deserves the attention of the modern reader.

Critics often speak of a particular writer as “a man of his times,” and this epithet certainly applies to Etherege. His poems can be best understood and appreciated by viewing them as near-perfect reflections of the age in which he was writing. Restoration tastes, recorded so vividly in the drama of the period, emphasized wit, elegance, and sophistication, qualities which characterize Etherege’s poems. If one had to characterize Etherege’s poems in one word, the best choice would be “effortless.” Like so many of his Restoration contemporaries, particularly his friend Sedley, Etherege mastered an art of stylish ease and naturalness. There are no jagged edges to his poetry, no profound explorations of troublesome personal questions. Instead, the reader encounters traditional, familiar themes, graced by a polished elegance.

Bibliography

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Boswell, Eleanore. “Sir George Etherege.” The...

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Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language 7 (1931): 207-209. Offers some new information on Etherege’s life, particularly during his diplomatic stay at Ratisbon.

Dobree, Bonamy. “His Excellency Sir George Etherege.” In Essays in Biography, 1680-1726. 1925. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. In 1685 Etherege went to Ratisbon, in Bavaria, as James II’s envoy, and three years later he left for Paris after the accession of William and Mary. Dobree does not discuss the plays but provides an amusing account of Etherege’s licentious behavior and the eventual diminishment of his powers.

Etherege, George, Sir. The Poems of Sir George Etherege. Edited by James Thorpe. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. This collection is included in secondary sources because the preface by James Thorpe provides some useful insights into Etherege’s poetry. Notes that in his own time, Etherege was a poet of consequence, his poems being frequently copied. Thorpe remarks that although Etherege chose conventional themes, he nevertheless gave an edge to them in his poems.

Gill, Pat. Interpreting Ladies: Women, Wit, and Morality in the Restoration Comedy of Manners. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. This study of women in Restoration comedies examines Etherege’s The Man of Mode as well as works by William Wycherley and William Congreve.

Holland, Norman N. The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherly, and Congreve. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967. Holland provides “readings” of Etherege’s three plays, devoting a chapter to each. His essay entitled “Scenes and Heroes” fills in some essential background to Restoration comedy, and “The Critical Failure” analyzes questions of morality that these plays raise. The copious notes are useful to beginning students of the period.

Huseboe, Arthur R. Sir George Etherege. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A useful volume on Etherege’s works, including background information on his life and the times in which he lived. Chapter 5 comments on his poetry and mentions that in his time Etherege’s poems were widely known but are not so today. Discusses his love poems, including those that were also songs, and poems of praise.

Mann, David D. A Concordance to the Plays and Poems of Sir George Etherege. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A valuable resource for Restoration scholars. Includes approximately thirty poems written between 1663 and 1688. Discusses Etherege’s use of language and allusions in the introduction. Cites Bracher’s comments on Etherege as a man with a “shrewd eye for pretense and hypocrisy.”

Mann, David D. Sir George Etherege: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. This vade mecum to Etherege scholarship is designed to help scholars find their way in Restoration drama. Although it needs to be supplemented with bibliographies of recent work, this guide is extremely useful for the period it covers.

Thorpe, James E., ed. The Poems of George Etherege. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. More than seventy pages of notes and bibliographical references enhance this standard edition of the poems.

Underwood, Dale. Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. Underwood interprets Etherege’s plays in terms of a “configuration of forces in seventeenth-century thought and manners.” The chapter entitled “The Fertile Ground” treats the Restoration libertine in a context of the clash between art and nature. Etherege’s language gets special attention, and the plays are viewed under two rubrics: “The Comedy of Love” and “The Comedy of Manners.”

Young, Douglas M. The Feminist Voices in Restoration Comedy: The Virtuous Women in the Play-Worlds of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997. Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve introduce into their play-worlds major female characters who demand independence from and equality with their male counterparts. Young focuses on each of these major female characters and how they fit into the social and marital relationships typically found in English Restoration society.

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