The Restoration 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...
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in such plays come from two sources: first, the ridiculous, often sexual, predicaments in which the characters find themselves (this humor was meant to appeal to lower-class audiences); second, from the eloquence, subtlety, and wit shown by the characters as they subtly insult each other and tie their opponents in verbal knots. InLove for Love, the main wit is Angelica—which is ironic, for in these plays the wits are generally men. Many of the male characters—Scandal, Sir Sampson, Valentine, and even Jeremy—use their wit to ridicule others or to get what they want.
Closely related to the character of the wit is the rake. The rake was another stock character of Restoration comedy—a male who took pride in seducing the women around him. The women seduced by rakes could range from servants to the wives of important men, but the rake does not care about the consequences of his actions. In Love for Love three rakes all appear together in the first act: Valentine, Scandal, and Tattle. Valentine shows himself to be utterly amoral when the nurse of his illegitimate child asks him for money and he says, with disgust, that she should have ‘‘overlaid,’’ or smothered, the child. At the end of the play, Valentine (defeated by Angelica’s superior wit) gives up his rakishness for his lady’s love. Tattle is an unsuccessful or classless rake, for he brags about his conquests. In the first act, Scandal, using his command of language to his advantage, tricks Tattle into admitting an affair with Mrs. Frail. With an insatiable appetite for gossip, Scandal gets Tattle to name six other conquests in exchange for keeping silent about the affair. A true rake keeps his seductions to himself, to better create an air of mystery and allure about him. Scandal is the true rake here, for he not only seduces a married woman (Mrs. Foresight), he does so secretly.
Irony Wit, the skill most valued by the Restoration, depends upon a masterful use of irony if it is to convey an author’s message. Many of the characters engage in wordplay and double entendre as they converse with each other. Though Congreve uses verbal irony to great effect in this play, his use of structural or dramatic irony is even more evident. Characters scheme to get things only to have their plans backfire in particularly ironic ways. Tattle’s plan to marry Angelica while they are in disguise, for instance, ends with him being married to Mrs. Frail, who is pursuing a similar plot. But the characters’ fates are themselves ironic. When Valentine first appears, he wishes to be a poor philosopher/ poet with no worldly connections. By the end of the play, he is again willing to give up his fortune, only this time for love. Tattle’s prowess with women, his ability to see three steps ahead in the game of seduction, leads him to ‘‘blindly’’ marry Mrs. Frail. Even the names of the characters are ironic: Angelica is hardly angelic, and Foresight utterly lacks the quality designated by his name.
Pace The humor of Love for Love depends largely on the pacing of the work. Farcical comedies are light, frothy, and often silly works, and as such the director must pace the action quickly in order to sustain the comedy and prevent the audience from dwelling too much on the improbability of the plot. That sense of immediacy is lost, however, reading the play. As you read the play, try to imagine how it would be staged. The characters must enter and exit quickly; plots are hatched, secrets are revealed and betrayed, and characters are lied to and misdirected. The humor derives in part from the complexity of the plot. Even the audience becomes confused as to which characters know what and who is the target of seduction.
1690s: England is ruled by King William III; the near-absolute power of the monarchy enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth I and King James II has just been limited by the acts of William. Parliament takes on new importance as England grows slightly more democratic.
Today: England is ruled, in name, by Queen Elizabeth II, although in reality she has no political power. Tony Blair, the prime minister, is reelected for a second term.
1690s: Women cannot vote or run for political office in England or England’s American colonies. Their only hope for influence in society is to enter into the royal court and curry favor from powerful people.
Today: Women can vote and run for office in the United States and England. Although the United States has never had a female chief executive, England had a female prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) for much of the 1980s.
1690s: In the New World, the country that will become the United States is just a collection of English settlements on the Atlantic coast. French trappers explore the interior of the continent, while Spain is the continent’s most important power, holding all of Central America, Mexico, and territories that comprise much of what is now the present-day United States.
Today: The nations of Mexico, the United States, and Canada draw ever closer together as national borders become less important. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) encourages trade among the nations, and millions of people of Mexican descent live in the United States, transforming the cultures and economies of both countries.
1690s: Public schooling in England is far from a reality, and a university education is a reality for very few. Although literacy is widespread, it is by no means universal.
Today: In England and the United States, literacy rates approach 100 percent, and primary education is compulsory. College attendance is at an all-time high.
1690s: News travels via pamphlets and horse couriers.
Today: Because of the telecommunications industry and its technology, information can travel instantaneously. Access to computers and televisions is widespread in England and the United States.
Restoration is not a filmed adaptation of Love for Love, but it is a fascinating portrayal of life in the Restoration period. The film stars Robert Downey Jr., Meg Ryan, and Ian McKellen and was directed by Michael Hoffman, for Miramax, 1995. The film is available from Miramax Home Video.
An audio recording of Love for Love was made by the National Theatre of Great Britain in 1966 and was produced by the RCA Victor Corporation.
Hoffman, Arthur W. Congreve’s Comedies. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1993. Includes a chapter on Love for Love that focuses on the roles of Valentine and Angelica as romantic hero and heroine and on Sir Sampson as blocking agent. Shows how Congreve skillfully employs allusions to biblical, classical, and Shakespearean traditions.
Markley, Robert. Two-Edg’d Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Argues that Congreve is stylistically a transitional figure, with his plays falling in style between earlier satirical comedies and the later sentimental comedies.
Novak, Maximillian E. William Congreve. New York: Twayne, 1971. Provides a good basic overview of Congreve’s life and works. Discusses his various works, with a chapter on Love for Love, and the intellectual, artistic, and moral debates of his period.
Owen, Susan J., ed. A Companion to Restoration Drama. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. Collection of essays examines the types of Restoration drama, places these plays within the context of their times, and analyzes works by individual playwrights. Includes discussion of Congreve’s plays, particularly in the essay “William Congreve and Thomas Southerne,” by Miriam Handley.
Sieber, Anita. Character Portrayal in Congreve’s Comedies “The Old Batchelour,” “Love for Love,” and “The Way of the World.” Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. Focuses on the numerous types of characters in the comedies, including some who are placed in opposition to each other, such as wits versus fools and fops, country characters versus city gallants and ladies, and old people versus young people. Also discusses Congreve’s use of historical characters and his themes of love and marriage.
Van Voris, W. H. The Cultivated Stance: The Designs of Congreve’s Plays. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1965. Discusses Congreve’s social, philosophical, and aesthetic values. Argues that Love for Love represents a chaotic world populated by monsters driven by vanity and self-interest where Valentine and Angelica’s love brings about order, but only ambiguously.
Williams, Aubrey. An Approach to Congreve. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Asserts that the world represented on the Restoration stage appears chaotic but is actually ordered by providential design. Examines Love for Love and finds a pattern of testing, trial, and judgment in the play, at the center of which Angelica stands as judge and reward.
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. Focuses on the female characters in Congreve’s plays who demand independence from and equality with men before they commit to courtship or marriage. Devotes a chapter to Love for Love.
Sources Hughes, Derek, English Drama 1660–1700, Clarendon Press, 1996.
Love, Harold, Congreve, Basil Blackwell, 1974.
Lyons, Patrick, Congreve: Comedies. A Critical Casebook, Macmillan, 1982.
Stieber, Anita, Character Portrayal in Congreve’s Comedies: ‘‘The Old Bachelor,’’ ‘‘Love for Love,’’ and ‘‘The Way of the World,’’ Edward Mellen Press, 1996.
Thomas, David, English Dramatists: William Congreve, Macmillan, 1992.
Young, Douglas M., The Feminist Voices in Restoration Comedy, University Press of America, 1997.
Further Reading Hughes, Derek, English Drama 1660–1700, Clarendon Press, 1996. In this book, Hughes provides a brief discussion of almost every play to have been produced on the London stage during this period. The book is an excellent resource for discovering what kinds of plays were popular and what the conventions of playwriting, production, and theatre attendance were like during the Restoration.
Scouten, Arthur H., and Robert D. Hume, ‘‘‘Restoration Comedy’ and its Audiences,’’ in The Rakish Stage: Studies in English Drama 1660–1800, edited by Robert D. Hume, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Reading and analyzing plays, even accessing records of how they were produced, can foster a better understanding of their meaning. Knowing the composition and expectations of audiences during this early period of modern theater, is, however, much more difficult. Scouten and Hume have researched the subject thoroughly in an effort to reconstruct a picture of Restoration theatre’s audiences.
Quinsey, Katherine M., editor, Broken Boundaries: Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama, University Press of Kentucky, 1996. This collection of twelve original essays is noted as being the first direct study of feminism in the plays of the Restoration period. The essays discuss gender roles in Restoration drama, and in doing so, examine the place of women and men in both family and society during this period.