Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

As a genre, dramatic comedy has always had its stock characters: the cunning servant; the foolish, foppish socialite; the wrongheaded, demanding parent; the thwarted lovers. The genre also has familiar plot devices: multiple stories, disguises, intrigues, and misapprehensions. William Congreve’s third comedy, Love for Love, generally considered one of his finest, is certainly no exception regarding such conventions. The plot is relatively simple and not particularly original. It does have elements reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s drama (the theme of madness, for example, recalls, with comic irony, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603; and King Lear, pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608) or Ben Jonson’s dark comedies of humours (evidenced by Foresight’s obsession with astrology and Sir Sampson’s avarice and lechery), not to mention earlier Restoration plays. Congreve, however, creates from these derivative elements a play with distinctly late Restoration characteristics, language, and attitudes. The play enjoyed great popularity during its time, and audiences have continued to find it entertaining. Love for Love is enlightening as well, for in it Congreve takes up an array of issues, including wit, fashion, sexual conduct, marriage, and family.

Love for Love is a comedy of manners, a play about social behavior, social language, and social intrigue. Its characters are two-dimensional, their ideas without any apparent substance, their actions silly and self-centered. What appear to be most important, as the opening scene between Valentine and Jeremy indicates, are the abilities to turn a witty phrase and to dupe others. Congreve’s play is more, however, than just a frenetic piece of stagecraft with characters running to and fro. At the heart of the play lie a number of questions that are emblematized by Valentine’s role as “Truth” during his feigned madness: What is true? What is true friendship? What is true knowledge? What is true love? What is the truth of human relationships? Can a person navigate honestly through a world based on deception and self-interest? These questions dominate the play’s language, events, and structure. Congreve reveals his answers through three sets of contrasting characters, their contrasting actions, and their contrasting levels of social success. In this way, he leads the audience to recognize the distinction between true wit (intelligence and judgment) and false wit (accidental cleverness or duplicity) and that between true love (self-sacrifice) and false love (self-love or self-interest).

The rustics Prue and Ben enter the play honest and straightforward, but this honesty prevents them from operating effectively in society. Ben blusters around and then simply goes back to sea. Prue eagerly learns the deceitful ways and the sexual freedoms of a society woman, but she lacks the discretion needed to control them. Unmanageable truth serves neither of these characters.

The second set of characters includes the city gallants, both male and female. Each believes him- or herself a social expert, a wit, and a skillful lover, but the truth is somewhat different. Scandal’s attitude toward and relationships with women are cynical and selfish. Tattle’s sexual escapades and his flippant attitude toward women, evidenced by his treatment of Prue, make him vulnerable to the machinations of those more cunning than he. The bored and unhappy Mrs. Foresight is false to her husband and to her lover. The mercenary Mistress Frail is interested only in attaching herself to a man with a fortune. Each one is victimized by his or her own deception and self-deception.

The two fathers in the play also fall into the category of wise fools. Foresight looks for wisdom in the stars, but he cannot see his wife’s infidelity. Unlike his counterpart’s extraterrestrial focus, Sir Sampson’s vision is limited to the terrestrial—namely, his estate, his sons, and his own body. Both men are locked in their own limited, failed visions, excluded from true human relationships. Both are also manipulated and disdained by those around them.

Much of the action of Love for Love’s highly complicated plot—the intrigues, the manipulations, the stratagems to gain money, sex, or power—is generated by these secondary characters. Motivated by egotism, vanity, greed, and revenge, they fracture their world (and the play). As represented by these characters, human relationships are, at worst, predatory and, at best, ambiguous and fragile. Everyone seems to be speaking his or her own language, a point that Congreve intensifies with a variety of figurative images—nautical, astrological, zoological, religious, and legal—and acting according to a set of rules with no heart and no basis in moral truth. Those who believe themselves masters of the game are ultimately victimized by it; those who cannot, or will not, play the game according to its rules withdraw from it.

These three categories of characters are only one dimension of Congreve’s play, however, for amid all the frenetic scheming of the others stand two characters, Valentine and Angelica. In a sense, the play has a double emphasis: Alongside a darkly satirical look at the foolishness of society and its mavens exists the love story of hero and heroine. Valentine and Angelica are nevertheless very much a part of the world they inhabit. Valentine has at least one illegitimate child, he has foolishly lost his fortune to fashionable living, and he tries to trick his way out of the situation in which he finds himself. Angelica is witty, disrespectful, cruel, and not above plotting an intrigue herself. These two characters occupy the middle ground between corruption and perfection: They are wise, witty, and worldly, and yet they are recoverable. Despite all of his faults, Valentine remains true to his love for Angelica—he is willing to martyr himself for her—and she remains true to him.

The sentimentality of their final declaration of love may seem incongruous with the rest of the action, but the ending is of a piece with both the play’s social satire and its underlying moral plot, the reformation of a rake. Angelica (“angel”) puts Valentine (“lover”) to the test in order to teach him, as well as the other characters, what true love is. Their blending of true wit and true love finally rewards the couple with both the greatest social and personal success: She has her fortune, he will inherit his father’s estate, and they will have their marriage. Their union even converts the cynical Scandal from his misbehavior and his misconceptions. Ultimately, the title of the play sums up its social satire and its moral lesson: love for love’s sake.

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Critical Overview