George Second Duke of Buckingham Villiers Essay - Critical Essays

Villiers, George Second Duke of Buckingham


George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham 1628-1687

English essayist, playwright and poet.

During his lifetime Buckingham was considered, as his contemporary Francis Lockier declared, the “most accomplished man of the age,” a central figure in the political and literary circles of Restoration England. He was raised with the future king Charles II, and during the Commonwealth period played an active role in the efforts to return the monarchy to power. After the Restoration, Buckingham was the principal member of the Court Wits, a literary circle that included figures such as Charles Sackville and John Denham. Buckingham is principally remembered today for his 1671 play The Rehearsal, a satirical attack on theatrical conventions that, as Peter Lewis has asserted, “scattered its progeny throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then projected its powerful hereditary strain even into our own comedies, farces, and revues.”

Biographical Information

Buckingham was born January 30th, 1628, into a wealthy and powerful family. His father, George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham, was a favorite of both James I and Charles I. In August 1628 the elder Villiers was assassinated and his son, just seven months old, assumed his title of Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham's mother, Lady Katherine Manners, was pregnant at the time of her husband's death. When she later remarried, Buckingham and his siblings were left in the care of Charles I, who raised them along with his sons, Charles and James, both of whom would later rule England. In 1640 Buckingham and his younger brother, Francis, enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, but left two years later to join royalist forces involved in the civil war. Francis was killed in battle in 1648, and Buckingham escaped to the Continent. After Charles I was beheaded in 1649, Buckingham worked to restore the monarchy. In 1657 he returned to England and married Mary Fairfax, whose father had been awarded a significant portion of Buckingham's former estate. Buckingham's close association with the royal family led to his arrest and imprisonment shortly after his marriage, and he was sentenced to death. However, before he could be executed, Oliver Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored. After the Restoration, Buckingham regained his property and the income it produced, and became an influential member of Charles II's court, serving for a time as the king's first minister. During this time, he began writing plays and poems, and his position at court made Buckingham the most influential of the so-called Court Wits, a circle of courtier artists and intellectuals, among them Abraham Cowley, Christopher Wren, and Samuel Butler. Buckingham's plays were often produced in collaboration with other Court Wits, and several satirical portraits of Buckingham's political and literary enemies achieved great popular acclaim. In 1665 Buckingham began a notorious affair with Anna-Maria, the Countess of Shrewsbury, which provoked her husband to challenge Buckingham to a duel. When Lord Shrewsbury died of wounds he received in the contest, public opinion turned against Buckingham. In 1671 Lady Shrewsbury gave birth to Buckingham's son, but the infant died shortly after birth. Buckingham's very public grief at the loss of his only child—along with the elaborate funeral he staged—caused further scandal. In 1674 Buckingham was ordered by Parliament not to cohabit with Lady Shrewsbury and was removed from office. He lived for a year in retirement in Yorkshire before returning to London to lead the opposition in Parliament. He was briefly jailed in 1677, an event that restored public sympathy for him. He again retired in 1681 and devoted his remaining years to his writing and leisure. Buckingham died on April 16, 1687, two days after catching a chill while fox hunting near his Yorkshire estate.

Major Works

Buckingham's literary career began in the early 1660s, when he began composing poems which were circulated among his friends at court. The first of his small handful of plays, a revision of John Fletcher's The Chances, was first performed in 1664. His next play was The Country Gentleman (1669), written with Robert Howard. In 1671 Buckingham's most famous and enduring work, The Rehearsal, was staged in London. The play is believed to be a collaborative effort with other Court Wits, but the extent of each man's contribution has not been determined. A biting satire about the theater, The Rehearsal features a play-within-a-play, written by the character Bayes. The play, which unintentionally (by Bayes) burlesques the genre of heroic drama, is observed in rehearsal by two gentlemen, Mr. Smith and Mr. Johnson, who critique and mock it. Bayes is commonly considered to be a caricature of John Dryden, although some critics maintain that the character more closely resembles the Earl of Arlington, Buckingham's political foe. No fewer than seventeen contemporary heroic dramas were directly parodied in The Rehearsal, and many more were referenced obliquely. The Rehearsal was extremely successful, and was revived over 170 times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1683, after his retirement, Buckingham adapted the tragicomedy Philaster by Fletcher and Francis Beaumont and retitled it The Restauration. It has never been staged.

Critical Reception

Buckingham's most successful work—and the one that has attracted the most critical attention—is The Rehearsal. Several critics, among them Emmett L. Avery and Dane Farnsworth Smith have attested to the play's tremendous popularity in the century following its debut. According to Smith, it was “a burlesque so satirically pungent and so diverting that the public returned to it year after year.” Smith has written that the work was a critical as well as a popular success, claiming that The Rehearsal was “the criterion of good drama for more than a century, and still remains the best negative statement on dramatic art.” Peter Lewis has cited the play's originality and considerable influence on succeeding satires, noting that Richard Brinsley Sheridan's enormously successful The Critic “is closely modeled on Buckingham's exceptionally popular play.” G. Jack Gravitt has suggested that the play's appeal for modern audiences lies in the fact that it shares many of the conventions usually associated with a twentieth-century art form. “The modernity of The Rehearsal results,” according to Gravitt, “from its anticipation of literary techniques and devices present in today's Theatre of the Absurd.” Many contemporary critics have also commented on the scope of Buckingham's satire, which targets both political and literary figures as well as the conventions of theater itself, particularly those associated with the heroic drama. Lewis, for example, has described one scene that “simultaneously ridicules the arbitrary inclusion of dramatically irrelevant songs in many Restoration plays, the use of stage machines to obtain sensational effects at the cost of dramatic sense (visual burlesque), and those miraculous reversals in heroic drama accomplished by a deus ex machina (situational burlesque).” While most scholars, among them Robert F. Willson, Jr. and Richard Elias, have asserted that the character Bayes represents John Dryden, George McFadden has argued that the true target of Buckingham's satire is the Earl of Arlington. Margarita Stocker has contended that both views are accurate and neither should necessarily be privileged over the other; asserting that “in The Rehearsal political and literary satire are analogous, mutually reinforcing, and effectively inseparable. … The Rehearsal offers a logical political analysis of its time, precisely by diagnosing the ideology implicit in its literary target, the heroic drama.”

Principal Works

The Chances [adapter; from John Fletcher's play] (play) 1664

The Country Gentleman [with Robert Howard] (play) 1669

An Epitaph upon Thomas late lord Fairfax. Written by a person of honour (epitaph) 1671

The Rehearsal [with Martin Clifford, Samuel Butler, and Thomas Sprat] (play) 1671

The Restauration: or, Right will take place [adapter; from Fletcher's and Francis Beaumont's play Philaster; or, Love Lies a-Bleeding] (play) 1683

A Short Discourse upon the Reasonableness of Men's Having a Religion, or Worship of God (essay) 1685

The Miscellaneous Works of his Grace, George, late Duke of Buckingham, &c. 2 vols. [edited by Tom Brown] (satire and poetry) 1704-05

Buckingham: Public and Private Man: The Prose, Poems, and Commonplace Book of George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham (1628-87) [edited by Christine Phipps] (poetry and prose) 1985


Arthur Colby Sprague (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: Sprague, Arthur Colby. “The Alterations and Adaptations.” In Beaumont and Fletcher on the Restoration Stage, pp. 129-262. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926.

[In the following excerpt, Sprague discusses two plays adapted by Buckingham: The Chances, originally by Fletcher, and The Restauration from Philaster, or Love Lies a Bleeding, by Beaumont and Fletcher.]


In The Miscellaneous Works of His Grace George, Late Duke of Buckingham, printed nearly twenty years after his death, appeared two excellent pieces entitled respectively, A Prologue to Philaster...

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Emmett L. Avery (essay date December 1939)

SOURCE: Avery, Emmett L. “The Stage Popularity of The Rehearsal, 1671-1777.” Research Studies 7, no. 4 (December 1939): 201-04.

[In this essay, Avery lists performances of Buckingham's most famous play, contending that it was far more popular in the century after its debut than was originally believed.]

In his study of The Rehearsal and allied types of drama,1 Mr. D. F. Smith has given in Appendix D a list of revivals in the eighteenth century of several plays which are discussed in the earlier chapters. Among these is The Rehearsal, Buckingham's play, which is treated at considerable length in Chapter II. In his demonstration of the...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

Dane Farnsworth Smith (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Smith, Dane Farnsworth. “Sir William D'Avenant and the Duke of Buckingham.” In The Critics in the Audience of the London Theatres from Buckingham to Sheridan: A Study of Neoclassicism in the Playhouse 1671-1779, pp. 17-25. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1953.

[In the essay below, Smith discusses Buckingham's role as a theater critic and his inclusion of the critic characters Smith and Johnson in The Rehearsal.]


Perhaps the first reference to the critic in the drama of the Restoration, like so many other firsts in the history of English drama, is found in the work of Sir William...

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Peter Lewis (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Lewis, Peter. “‘The Rehearsal’: A Study of Its Satirical Methods.” In Die Englische Satire, edited by Wolfgang Weiss, pp. 284-314. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1982.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1970, Lewis explores the methods used by Buckingham in satirizing Dryden, D'Avenant, and others in The Rehearsal.]

The Rehearsal is the archetype of most later Restoration and Augustan dramatic burlesques. A few pre-Commonwealth plays such as The Knight of the Burning Pestle might be regarded as burlesques, and, to judge from Jonson's satirical portraits of his contemporaries in Every Man out of his...

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Sheridan Baker (essay date spring 1973)

SOURCE: Baker, Sheridan. “Buckingham's Permanent Rehearsal.Michigan Quarterly Review 12, no. 2 (spring 1973): 160-71.

[In the essay that follows, Baker contends that The Rehearsal still speaks to modern audiences three centuries after its composition.]

The Rehearsal (1671), the Duke of Buckingham's satire on the heroic play and its chief perpetrator, John Dryden, was a howling success when it appeared at the Theatre Royal in London before an audience that reflected the sophistication of Charles II's court. Everyone knew everything about everyone, and even the slyest hint was not lost. But timely and personal as it was, it nevertheless...

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Robert F. Willson, Jr. (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Willson, Robert F., Jr. “Bayes Versus the Critics: The Rehearsal and False Wit.” In ‘Their Form Confounded’: Studies in the Burlesque Play from Udall to Sheridan, pp. 81-110. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1975.

[In this excerpt, Willson discusses the historical context of Buckingham's play.]


In evaluating Buckingham's inspired farce, we again must turn to historical context, as in the case of The Knight, Dream, and Roister Doister. The Restoration brought with it a revived interest in the theatre and the arts in general. Escaping from Puritan repression and feeling the influence of Louis XIV's worldly...

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Richard Elias (essay date March 1978)

SOURCE: Elias, Richard. “‘Bayes’ in Buckingham's The Rehearsal.English Language Notes 15, no. 3 (March 1978): 178-81.

[In the following essay, Elias discusses similarities between Buckingham's characterization of the playwright Mr. Bayes and John Dryden.]

Through the figure of Mr. Bayes, the obnoxious playwright in The Rehearsal (first acted December 1671), Buckingham and his collaborators extended their satiric attack on heroic drama to include the personal characteristics of the poets who wrote it. Since Dryden was foremost among the new dramatists of the Restoration, he took most of the drubbing, and despite his denials, the name “Bayes”...

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G. Jack Gravitt (essay date winter 1982)

SOURCE: Gravitt, G. Jack. “The Modernity of The Rehearsal: Buckingham's Theatre of the Absurd.” College Literature 9, no. 1 (winter 1982): 30-8.

[In the following essay, Gravitt suggests that The Rehearsal still appeals to modern readers because of its similarity to twentieth-century Theatre of the Absurd.]

It is hardly a matter for dispute that George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, and his collaborators used The Rehearsal to satirize the great heroic dramatist John Dryden, and the genre of heroic drama itself.1 In recent demonstrations of the play's satiric intent and devices, Peter Lewis tells us, “The Rehearsal is...

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John H. O'Neill (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: O'Neill, John H. “Buckingham's Nondramatic Poetry and Prose,” and “Buckingham's Minor Dramatic Works.” In George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham, pp. 21-51; 52-80. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the first essay below, O'Neill comments on Buckingham's verse elegies, satires, and epigrams, and on his prose works, including political tracts and speeches in Parliament. In the second, O'Neill discusses Buckingham's minor plays, including The Chances, The Country Gentlemen, and The Restauration.]


The duke of Buckingham was influenced by, and was a part of, a tradition of...

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John H. O'Neill (essay date August 1985)

SOURCE: O'Neill, John H. “Edward Hyde, Heneage Finch, and the Duke of Buckingham's Commonplace Book.” Modern Philology 83, no. 1 (August 1985): 51-54.

[In the following essay, O'Neill discusses the possible targets of a satirical poem found in Buckingham's commonplace book.]

The commonplace book of George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, contains a fragment of a blank-verse tragedy and a large number of poems, none of which was published in his lifetime.1 The book was found in the duke's pocket at the time of his death; he died of a chill contracted while hunting on horseback near Castle Helmsley, his estate in Yorkshire, in April 1687. As is...

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Margarita Stocker (essay date winter 1988)

SOURCE: Stocker, Margarita. “Political Allusion in The Rehearsal.Philological Quarterly 67, no. 1 (winter 1988): 11-35.

[In the following essay, Stocker contends that The Rehearsal is both political and literary satire, not one or the other as many critics claim.]

The Duke of Buckingham's Rehearsal1 (1671) has usually been regarded as a purely theatrical burlesque, of which the central butt is Dryden, in the character of Bayes. Its extensive allusions to heroic drama, in both Bayes' “mock-play” and the “commentary” dialogues surrounding it, evince “shrewd insights into the condition of Restoration drama.”2...

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Kristiaan P. Aercke (essay date June 1988)

SOURCE: Aercke, Kristiaan P. “An Orange Stuff'd with Cloves: Bayesian Baroque Rehearsed.” English Language Notes 25, no. 4 (June 1988): 33-45.

[In the following essay, Aercke maintains that Bayes, the playwright in The Rehearsal, is a Baroque artist, not a modernist as has been claimed by some critics.]

Buckingham's playwright Bayes summarizes a scene of his own unnamed play in The Rehearsal (1671) as “an orange stuff'd with cloves” (III.i.24-5).1 A more Baroque image can hardly be found. Oranges are of course associated with the theater of the seventeenth century through the “orange wenches,” but more relevant still is the...

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Further Reading


Chapman, Hester W. The Great Villiers: A Study of George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham 1628-1687. London: Secker & Warburg, 1949, 315 p.

Detailed study of Villiers' life from his childhood to his years at court.

Gardner, Lady Burghclere, Winifred. George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham, 1628-1687: A Study in the History of the Restoration. London: John Murray, 1903, 414 p.

Detailed account of Buckingham's life and political career.

Wilson, John Harold. “The Court Wits.” The Court Wits of the Restoration: An Introduction, pp. 3-24. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton...

(The entire section is 351 words.)