Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014
Gender Roles and Sexual Behavior
Throughout Love for Love, Congreve plays with the limited roles assigned to the genders in upper-class society. Men can be cuckolds, cruel masters, rakes, or provincials, while women can be scheming meddlers, whores, or (rarely) good wives. The crucial characteristic for women is how permissive they are in terms of bestowing their sexual favors; men, however, are judged less by their sexual behavior and more by their ‘‘mastery’’ of the world: their children, finances, servants, and love affairs.
For the contemporary reader approaching Restoration drama for the first time, what is most striking is the ‘‘double standard’’ applied to sexual behavior. Men were encouraged to seduce virgins or other men’s wives, while women who were too promiscuous sexually were considered disreputable. Valentine, for instance, is visited by the nurse of one of his illegitimate children and curses the mother for not killing the child and sparing him the expense of supporting it; Tattle and Scandal both boast of their success with women. The women of the play, however, know to keep their experiences quiet. Ironically, in the comedies of this period, women’s promiscuity is less serious and damaging than it would be in later decades. After the two decades of strict Puritan rule (which strictly enforced conservative sexual behavior), the Restoration witnessed a return to relaxed attitudes about sexual behavior. The underlying joke of most comedy in this period is that men may not be having sex but are always talking about it, while women do the exact opposite.
Dissembling / Role Playing
The Puritans, who took over England in the 1640s, sought to establish God’s rule on earth. Part of the Puritan ethic was a deep mistrust of costumes, disguises, and appearances; for this and other reasons, the theatres were all closed during Puritan rule. But the Puritans were also deeply suspicious of the intrigues, game playing, and stratagems that dominated court and upper-class life in the monarchical system. They wished things to be open to their scrutiny.
The Restoration of 1660 changed all of this. Attempting to make up for twenty years of lost fun and intrigue, courtiers immediately reestablished the complicated and sophisticated society they had enjoyed before. Playwrights, in turn, depicted their intrigues with irony and hyperbole. In Love for Love, only the provincial characters of Miss Prue and Ben are what they seem. All of the urbanites pretend to be what they are not in order to benefit themselves. Valentine’s sham madness is only the most obvious example of this, and his own ‘‘dissembling,’’ or seeming to be what he is not, is met by Angelica’s. Other characters who dissemble are Jeremy (who fools any number of characters with phony plans), Sir Sampson (who pretends to be a loving father to Ben but really is antipathetic to his parental duties), Mrs. Foresight (who cheats on her husband), Tattle (who pretends to be interested in Miss Prue), and Mrs. Frail (who plays games in order to marry into Sir Sampson’s estate). In act 2, Mrs. Frail and Mrs. Foresight encourage Miss Prue to act in a manner that is contrary to how she actually feels. Things are never what they seem in this society, Congreve tells the audience that only the best gameplayers will succeed in obtaining their desires.
Father/Son Relationships and Good Governance
Many critics have pointed out the potential political ramifications of Congreve’s play. The model of governance he presents is that of Sir Sampson, Ben and Valentine’s father. Such critics have argued that Congreve is making a claim against government based solely on blood or lineage and that he stands for government based on the welfare of the governed. Sir Sampson pretends to have the welfare of his subjects in mind, but in reality he could care less about them; once Angelica shows interest in him he is more than happy to cut both sons off. Congreve must portray this idea with subtlety, for to argue against hereditary monarchy in seventeenth century England could have resulted in imprisonment.
One of the most common and widespread themes in English-language literature has historically been the difference between sophisticated urbanites and country bumpkins. This theme is rarely a serious one; it is generally used for humorous purposes. An early example of this theme can be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where the pilgrim with the notably provincial accent tells a crude and naïve tale. To this day, humorous encounters between urbanites and provincials are a mainstay of many movie comedies.
In the Restoration period, the intrigues of London’s high society were the primary concern of popular drama (partly because the inhabitants of London’s high society were the primary audience for such theatre). Love for Love uses the contrast between two provincial characters—Ben and Miss Prue—and the complicated urbanites of the rest of the play to underscore the differences between the social classes. Ben cannot understand, or ‘‘fathom,’’ the dissembling and intrigues going on around him. His language refers always to maritime life, and he knows nothing of society or city life. Miss Prue, a country girl, cannot comprehend that people marry for reasons other than immediate attraction. She is betrothed to Ben (who, for reasons of their structural similarity, would probably be her ideal match) but rejects him immediately for the charms of the libertine Tattle. When Tattle shows no interest in actually marrying her, she decides that she wants Robin, the butler.
Although this theme is played for laughs, there is often a serious, satirical undertone. Urban life, as depicted by such writers as Congreve, is a complicated, subtle minefield of game playing and deception. Often these comedies criticize the Baroque constructions of the schemes hatched by the characters. Why, the playwrights seem to ask, can people not be honest? Why must sophistication equate with dishonesty? Why can’t urbanites adopt the simple, unbeguiling ways of country people? But these questions are rarely serious, posed as they are by people who could not imagine living anywhere but in urban society.