Restoration Comedy

Restoration comedy was a dramatic genre highly popular during the reign of King Charles II (1630-1685) in late 1600s England. Through its defining characteristics of incisive dialogue and lewd humour, Restoration comedies explored themes of marriage and class, commenting on contemporary society.

Restoration Comedy Restoration Comedy

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Table of contents

    Restoration comedy: definition

    Restoration comedy was a dramatic genre popular in the late 1600s and early 1700s. It came to prominence when King Charles II took the throne in 1660. Charles reopened the theatres after a long period of closure under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658).

    The English Civil War ran from 1642 to 1651. It broke out between the Roundheads, those who wished for England to be run by a parliament, and the Cavaliers, who were monarchists. The Roundheads were led by the politician Oliver Cromwell while the Cavaliers consisted of supporters of the monarch King Charles I (1600-1649). Cromwell's forces won the war, and King Charles I was subsequently executed for treason.

    Cromwell then ruled England for the next five years under a Puritan regime. Puritanism is a sect of Protestantism prominent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Puritans believed that the Church of England should be more differentiated from the Roman Catholic Church. Puritanism is defined by its strict moralistic beliefs and avoidance of sin. As ruler of England, Cromwell banned both Christmas and the theatre. These were seen as sinfully lavish things by Puritans. King Charles II, who had fled England after Cromwell's victory, returned and took the throne in 1660 after Cromwell's death. King Charles II's rule was known as the 'Restoration'.

    As a genre, much of Restoration comedy's popularity is because people saw it as a release after Cromwell's suppression of theatres. In the 1600s, attending the theatre was one of the most popular forms of recreation. Restoration comedy can be defined by its witty dialogue, complicated stories, and plots full of sexual innuendoes. The genre was typically light-hearted and comedic. However, many playwrights of the Restoration comedy genre used it to critique and question contemporary society.

    Restoration Comedy, a panoramic view of an elaborately decorated red and gold theatre, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Restoration comedies were full of humour and levity.

    Restoration comedy: characteristics

    Restoration comedy is a genre of theatre that flourished in the late 17th century during the Restoration period in England. It is characterized by its witty dialogue, comedic situations, and exploration of themes such as love, marriage, and social dynamics. Restoration comedies often feature mistaken identities, clever wordplay, and satirical portrayals of the upper class. A notable example of restoration comedy is The Country Wife (1675) by William Wycherley, which showcases the genre's hallmark characteristics through its comedic plot and sharp social commentary.

    While each one was unique, many well-known and popular Restoration comedies contained similar characteristics. Below are defining features of the genre.

    Comedic tone: As shown in the genre's title, comedy is central to these plays. They typically had a light and comedic tone. Restoration comedies were designed to make audiences laugh and give them a sense of enjoyment.

    Witty dialogue: Witty and incisive dialogue is also key to Restoration comedies. This added to the mocking tone that many Restoration comedies had.

    Satire: The majority of Restoration comedies were satirical. Playwrights typically used the humour of the genre to mock different aspects of society. There was a level of absurdity in Restoration comedies that allowed them to poke fun at different societal conditions and social classes.

    Satire is when a literary work uses irony or exaggeration to mock something. Satires often parody a particular well-known figure, social group, or social norm. They can be used to challenge something that is accepted by society. Examples of literary satires include Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1605) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

    Sexual content: Sexual innuendoes and promiscuity featured prominently in Restoration comedies. This marked a sharp break with the norms of Puritan society that Oliver Cromwell had enforced upon England in years previous.

    Complex plots: Many Restoration comedies had quite complicated stories. They often had many characters with intertwined relationships and overlapping interests. This added to the purposeful ridiculousness and absurdity of the genre.

    Social commentary: Despite their humorous tone, Restoration comedies frequently contained a great deal of social commentary hidden beneath their jokes. The mockery of social norms and classes was inspired by a want for change.

    Themes of restoration comedy

    Restoration comedies often depict extravagant lifestyles, sexual intrigues, and the pursuit of love and pleasure. Additionally, restoration comedies frequently employ stock characters, such as witty servants and foppish gentlemen to explore the themes of marriage and class.

    Restoration comedy: marriage

    The vast majority of Restoration comedies centred around the themes of love and marriage. Many of the plays showed complicated marriages breaking down, with lots of the characters having affairs. Restoration comedies also included characters marrying for financial or nefarious means instead of for genuine love and affection. These characters were typically mocked and satirised, not coming to a happy ending at the play's conclusion. The relationships that lasted until the end of Restoration comedies and resulted in marriage were usually those of couples who were truly in love.

    Restoration Comedy, a close up of two gold wedding rings, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Complex marriages were commonly featured in Restoration comedies.

    These depictions of marriage and relationships exemplify the prominence of social commentary in Restoration comedies. Promiscuity and more relaxed approaches to relationships became more common during the Restoration period. This likely happened as a societal reaction to the oppressive nature of Puritanism in England under Oliver Cromwell. Many playwrights of the Restoration comedy genre critiqued these changes. They showcased these criticisms in characters who married for money and ones who had a lax approach to sexual relations, typically at the expense of another's feelings. However, some of the sexual content in Restoration comedies was included for humour and shock value.

    Restoration comedy: class

    Class was also central to Restoration comedies. Despite the fact that many Restoration comedies were written by playwrights of the upper classes, audiences were much more varied. As part of the satire aspect of the genre, plays often depicted an exaggerated version of a particular class in order to mock them or their perceived class characteristics. Many Restoration comedies parodied the aristocracy, presenting them as frivolous, detached from reality, and unable to behave seriously. These characters added to the comedic tone of the plays, as well as engaging in another form of social commentary on class differences.

    Restoration comedy: writers

    Examples of Restoration comedy writer's and their plays include William Wycherley's The Country Wife, William Congreve's The Way of the World, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, and She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith.

    Restoration comedy: William Wycherley (1641-1716)

    William Wycherley was an important figure in the Restoration comedy genre. Born in Shropshire, Wycherley had an ordinary but comfortable childhood. He spent time in France as a teenager and then attended Oxford University. However, Wycherley left without a degree. Through aristocratic connections, he became a member of King Charles II's court.

    Wycherley is best remembered for his Restoration comedy, The Country Wife (1675). The Country Wife was a lewd and sexually explicit play, garnering criticism for this even in the relatively promiscuous society of the Restoration period. The play contains multiple interconnected plots and satirises the upper classes. One plot in The Country Wife is that of the aristocratic Harry Horner. He concocts a plot to seduce married women by spreading false rumours that he is impotent. This means that men are comfortable for their wives to be around Horner, and he can then proposition them. Wycherley's inclusion of this plot adds a sexual dimension to The Country Wife while also critiquing the promiscuity of the aristocracy.

    Impotence is a medical condition in which a male is unable to maintain an erection in order to have sexual intercourse.

    Restoration comedy: William Congreve (1670-1729)

    William Congreve was born near Yorkshire, the son of a military man. Congreve's father was stationed in Ireland for a time, and this is where Congreve received much of his education. He attended Trinity College Dublin, achieving both an undergraduate and a master's degree. Congreve eventually moved back to England, studying to be a barrister for a time, but eventually taking up writing.

    Today, William Congreve is considered a foundational figure in the genre of Restoration comedy. Many of the characteristics he incorporated into his plays came to be defining features of the genre. For example, he often included witty dialogue and social satire in his work. The Way of the World (1700) is widely regarded as Congreve's best work. It centres around a couple, Mirabell and Millamant, who are desperate to marry. However, Mirabell may only marry his lover if her aunt gives consent for the union.

    Further, if Millamant's aunt does not consent, the couple will not receive her dowry upon marrying. The plot is complicated by the fact that Mirabell has previously had an affair with Mrs Fainall, the widowed daughter of Millamant's aunt and Millamant's own cousin. An elaborate scheme is conducted by Mirabell to enable him and Millamant to marry, eventually proving successful.

    A dowry is an amount of money or property that is given to a husband by a bride's family upon marrying.

    The Way of the World is a much later Restoration comedy. It came in 1700 when Charles II was no longer on the throne; King William of Orange was now monarch. Some of the permissiveness of society had now faded, with Congreve's play facing much contemporary criticism for its sexual promiscuity. However, The Way of the World also contained a great deal of incisive commentary, questioning the concepts of marrying for love and marrying for money and whether the two can ever be compatible.

    Restoration comedy: facts

    The Restoration period was, in many ways, a unique time in English history. In reaction to Puritanism, society loosened restrictive social norms. This had a significant impact on the world of drama. Here are some quick facts about Restoration comedies.

    • The Restoration period is generally considered to have lasted from 1660 to 1710.
    • King Charles II himself encouraged the production of sexually suggestive plays.
    • Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was an important Restoration playwright. She was the first known woman to make her living from writing plays.
    • 'Comedy of manners' is another term for a Restoration comedy.
    • The Restoration comedy genre was revived in the late 1700s by playwrights like Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), who wrote The School for Scandal (1777).

    Restoration Comedy - Key takeaways

    • Restoration comedy was a dramatic genre popular during the reign of King Charles II (1630-1685).
    • Restoration comedies were witty plays full of sexual content and social commentary.
    • The genre rose to popularity as a reaction to the repressive Puritanism of the previous years under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658).
    • Marriage and class were two common themes in Restoration comedies.
    • William Wycherley (1641-1716) and William Congreve (1670-1729) were two key examples of Restoration comedy playwrights.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Restoration Comedy

    What is a Restoration comedy?

    Restoration comedy is a dramatic genre popular in the late 1600s, characterised by its humour, sexual content, and social commentary.

    What is an example of Restoration comedy?

    William Wycherley's The Country Wife (1675) is an example of a Restoration comedy.

    What is the main theme of Restoration comedy?

    Two main themes in Restoration comedies are marriage and class.

    What are the characteristics of Restoration comedy?

    Restoration comedies can be characterised by their witty dialogue, humour, sexual innuendoes, and social commentary.

    When did Restoration comedy start?

    The genre began when King Charles II took the throne in 1660.

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