Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923
England is one of the world’s most politically stable countries. It has been ruled in substantially the same way (by a monarchy and a Parliament) for almost a thousand years. The country’s most traumatic political event, though, occurred in 1640, when Puritan forces overthrew King Charles I, executed him, and ruled under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell for almost twenty years. In 1660, however, the monarchy was restored, King Charles II assumed the throne, and the complicated system of obtaining power by cultivating royal favor was reinstituted.
The Puritans attempted to radically change English society. They closed the theatres, feeling that they were immoral and promoted promiscuity, blasphemy, and prostitution; they destroyed such religious art as statues and stained glass because they felt they promoted idolatry; they discouraged the freewheeling, daring, sexually playful literature and social organization of the upper classes. Since Puritan theology was centered on man’s sinfulness and on the doctrine of predestination, Puritan society was grim and focused entirely on religion and the world to come. For Puritans, enjoyment and sensual pleasures were not only suspect; they were sinful.
Consequently, when the monarchy was restored the hedonistic energies that had been suppressed over the previous decades surged forth powerfully. Early Restoration society was exuberant and risqué, and, as the theatres reopened, playwrights produced works centered on sexual intrigue, social game playing, and duplicity—all themes anathema to the Puritans. The upper classes, whose actions were depicted by these plays, enjoyed seeing their lives dramatized and appreciated verbal wit, and the lower classes, who also attended the theatre, loved the sexual innuendo and occasional slapstick humor. By Congreve’s time, the excitement had diminished, and playwrights were beginning to satirize the complicated and often cruel games of London society.
This is not to say that England was without turmoil in the latter half of the seventeenth century. When James II took the throne upon the death of his brother Charles II in 1685, he sought to reestablish Catholicism as the official religion of the realm. Religious conflict, first between Catholics and the Church of England and then between High Church Anglicans and Puritans, had marked the previous century, and Britons were eager to avoid it. In 1688, a group of nobles invited William of Orange, a Protestant, to take the throne. He landed on the English coast, encountered little resistance from the king’s forces, and took the throne. However, he refused to do so as an absolute monarch. Instead, he stipulated that he would only assume power under a bill of rights that limited royal privilege and guaranteed a number of basic rights to citizens. England became a constitutional monarchy. Perhaps most importantly for writers such as Congreve, the bill of rights allowed for a free press in England, which made it more difficult for writers to be suppressed by the king or by religious authorities for sedition, immorality, or blasphemy.
The Rake / The Wit
The best-known stock character of Restoration comedy is the wit. The cult of wit and verbal wordplay was at its height in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and such writers as Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, and Samuel Johnson are known as much for their wit and skill in conversation as for their writings. Since power and influence was often obtained through social set tings, an ability to use words articulately and with flair could not only gain a person prestige and respect but tangible benefits as well.
Reflecting this aspect of society, Restoration plays often have as their primary characters men and women who succeed by their wit. Often the humor in such...
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