The Relapse

by Sir John Vanbrugh

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In this English Restoration comedy, John Vanbrugh’s primary theme is the temptations that fashionable society present to maintaining a virtuous life. Drawing a contrast between the placid countryside and the wicked city, the author also highlights the themes of hypocrisy and social climbing. He wrote the play in an era of Puritanical restrictions.

The young couple at its center, Loveless and Amanda, struggles to have a faithful marriage, as the husband is at heart a libertine. Even a short visit to London threatens their vows, as Loveless relapses in falling for Berinthia, his wife’s friend. While Worthy, Berinthia’s ex-lover, pursues Amanda, she stays true to her husband. Other characters and their exploits follow the formulas of this comedic genre. Their names are either ironic, such as Worthy, who clearly is not, or indicate the stereotype they embody; two of these are Lord Foppington and his brother Tom Fashion. “Fop” was a common term of the time for a man obsessed with fashion and appearance. Others similarly labeled are Hoyden, a generic term for a lower-class, sexually active woman, who is the daughter of Sir Tunbelly Clumsy; his first name is equivalent to “pot belly.”

The plot complications revolve around loyalty and fickleness and include disguises and mistaken identity, as Fashion impersonates his noble brother and marries Hoyden. His disloyalty brings violent repercussion onto his brother, whom Sir Tunbelly thinks is actually the impostor. Although Vanbrugh seems to be praising those who adhere to a righteous path, such as Amanda, some of the wayward characters also succeed in their less-than-noble goals, such as Fashion’s successful marriage to a wealthy young woman, undercutting his own brother’s ambition to do the same thing.

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