Sir William Davenant Analysis
Thematically and technically, Sir William Davenant’s plays link the theater of Charles I with that of Charles II. For example, the seeds of Restoration comedy are embedded in The Witts, in which Davenant explores the subject of wit, using heroes and heroines who prefigure those of Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve. His early tragedies and tragicomedies, such as Love and Honour, explore the love and honor conflicts that later dominate Restoration heroic drama, beginning with Davenant’s own The Siege of Rhodes. His court masques for Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, used the movable scenery that he would popularize in the public theater after the Restoration. His revivals of the plays of Ben Jonson and his adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays preserved and advanced the reputations of those writers during the reign of Charles II.
Davenant’s plays as a whole reveal the “imagination” of two ages—that of Charles I and that of Charles II. The heroes and heroines of Restoration tragedy and comedy are nascent in Davenant’s early plays and reach their maturity in his later plays, reflecting the heroic ideals and pragmatic cynicism of the age of Charles II. Indeed, the unpleasantness of the English Civil War and the uncertainties of the restored monarchy seem both to have enhanced expectations for a new heroic age and to have tempered those expectations with the wisdom of the recent past.
However well Davenant may have reflected his world, he also dared to try to shape it, both politically and theatrically. He was no mere spectator during the English Civil War but risked his life in the service of the Crown. In the theater, he risked Puritan opposition to present his entertainments at Rutland House, and he risked introducing actresses and innovative staging in the public playhouse. Like Young Pallatine in The Witts, Davenant had wit; like Alphonso in The Siege of Rhodes, he had heroic ideals; but above all, like the player and the housekeeper, he had a “playhouse to be lett.” To his credit, he filled its stage with exceptional entertainments.
The Witts is perhaps the best of Davenant’s early comedies. During the seventeenth century, the term “wit” came to have multiple meanings. It could mean verbal cleverness expressed in appropriate and sustained repartee, the synthetic faculty of the mind that could see similarities in apparently dissimilar things, the ornamentation of discourse, or gamesmanship, implying a superior understanding of “the way of the world.”
Gamesmanship comes closest to the meaning that concerns Davenant in The Witts. Most of the characters in this work are concerned with outmaneuvering their opponents in games of love and legacy. The contest is between the Truewits—those who truly have wit—and the Witwouds—those who think they have wit but do not. Davenant represents the first in the characters of Young Pallatine and Lady Ample; the second, in the characters of the Elder Pallatine and his companion, Sir Morglay Thwack, a country squire.
These last two characters come to London to live by their wits, which to them means seducing rich women who will afterward support them lavishly. Young Pallatine, already in London, has been successful at this game, having gone so far as to persuade his mistress Lucy to sell her belongings to pay for his indulgences. When the brothers Pallatine meet in London, the elder rejects his younger brother’s plea for money, and Young Pallatine plots how he may reap both revenge and reward at his brother’s expense.
Young Pallatine enlists Lucy in his plot. When Lucy’s aunt finally turns her out of her house, she seeks aid from a friend, the wealthy Lady Ample, who, of all the play’s characters, turns out to be the wittiest because she can best understand and control her own and others’ actions. Lady Ample eventually uses that wit to foil her guardian, Sir Tirant Thrifty, who has picked out an inappropriate husband for her.
(The entire section is 3,070 words.)