John Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode is a curious mixture of heroic tragedy and comedy of manners. One plot concerns the playful seventeenth century attitude toward married love, another concerns court intrigue. Skillful characterization, especially in the comic plot, has assured a continuing place for the play. In that plot, Dryden illustrates the view of life prevalent in Restoration drama, which sees humans as creatures of appetite constantly searching for new sensations and always battling to steal or conquer the property of others. In both of the play’s two plots, the characters play out this view of life through their actions, but in the end, Dryden leads them to a very different conclusion from the one no doubt expected by a Restoration audience.
All the partners in the romantic plot share the belief that a desired love conquest loses its attractiveness the moment it is possessed. In their pursuit of women, Rhodophil and Palamede are like sated, jaded gourmets in frantic search of new delicacies to intrigue their palates. They are caught in a dilemma that seems to have no solution: If love depends on desire, how can love remain after desire has once been satisfied? Unable to solve this riddle, the characters have accepted the proposition that extramarital affairs are necessary. The opening song in the play states the premise that no one should feel bound to a silly marriage vow once passion has cooled. Operating on this assumption, the characters hopelessly entangle themselves in a confusion of affairs: Palamede, engaged to Melantha, tries to seduce Rhodophil’s wife, Doralice, while Rhodophil is trying to secure Melantha as his mistress. Their exploits are described in a series of images relating sex to appetite, sport, war, and stolen property, as they fight to conquer someone else’s partner while safeguarding their own from like treatment.
The plot dealing with court politics is pervaded with the same belief in the attraction of the forbidden and in the need to dominate. Melantha understands the social hierarchy within which she is battling to ascend, and she knows that manners and dress are the signs by which different classes or castes are identified. Thus she constantly assimilates the ever-changing modes of dress and behavior currently in vogue; she wears the latest fashion as faithfully as she parrots the newest gossip or adheres to the most recent opinion of Leonidas. When she feels discouraged in the daily battle for popularity at court, she can always comfort herself with her vast moral superiority to those lowly creatures not connected with the palace—the women who live in the city, or worse, in the country.
By the end of Marriage à la Mode, Dryden has come full circle from the proposal stated in the opening song, by showing that a life of indulged appetites can only lead to satiety and discomfort. Miserable and at the point of fighting, Palamede and Rhodophil agree to halt competition and abide by rules of mutual respect for each other’s “property.” The message of the play is that marital love and peace are possible if humans can curb their greed for greener pastures and enjoy the estate at home.