Restoration Drama Term Paper

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Restoration Drama: the Rake as a Symbol of Social Disorder

One of the distinctive features of Restoration comedy is the figure of the rake as romantic hero. The image of the rake-hero is of a witty, cynical, calculating, and self-serving man who pursues his own pleasure above all other considerations. Antagonistic to established rules and mores, the rake rejects conventional ideas of virtue, integrity, fidelity, restraint; above all he adopts a rhetorical position of opposition to the institution of marriage. However, it is significant that in most plays which feature a rake-hero in a prominent role, he becomes reconciled to the concept of marriage and ends up either actually married or firmly committed to marriage. It is the contention of this paper that first, it is overly simplistic to see the rake as irredeemably opposed to marriage, and that the relationship between such figures and the institution of wedlock is more ambiguous than has often been perceived, and that second, this reflects the particular context of the Restoration period in England. The violence and discord of the Civil War (1642-9), the repressive moral climate of the Interregnum (1649-60), and the tumultuous return of the Monarchy in the Restoration (1660) had constructed a social and moral context in which a rejection of narrow 'puritan' morality, the re-establishment of potentially licentious entertainments such as the theater, and the welcoming of a degree of license in matters of personal conduct and morality, combined with a concern to re-establish social and political conservatism and ensure no such breakdown in social structure as the Civil War and consequent events had represented would be allowed to occur again. In short, the rake-hero simultaneously celebrates the new moral freedom of permissiveness and asserts the importance of limits on that freedom; he marks out the acceptable rules of conduct for the revived 'court bourgeoisie' of Restoration England while reflecting the new climate which they had created.

In this paper the significance of the rake-hero as a symbol of social disorder will be examined against this wider context. Three plays will be considered in detail: 'The Careless Lovers' (1673) by Edward Ravenscroft; 'The Man of Mode' (1676) by George Etherege; and 'Love's Last Shift' (1696) by Colley Cibber. In 'The Careless Lovers' the seemingly incorrigible rake Careless is reconciled to marriage by his love for the seemingly equally libertine Hillaria; in 'The Man of Mode' Dorimant proposes to Harriet Woodvil and agrees to follow her into the country to receive her answer; in 'Love's Last Shift' Loveless returns to his virtuous and faithful Amanda after a conversion from his rakish ways. The first two plays come from the period sometimes seen as the apogee of Restoration comedy, in which the libertine quality of the earliest Restoration plays begins to reflect more of a concern with morality and humanity; the latter play marks the beginnings of the 'sentimental' drama in which the reform of character through appeal to his or her noble qualities (and, by extension, to the same qualities in the audience) is the central concern of the drama. Throughout this period, the rake remains central to the modes of engagement of stage comedy with the social concerns of its time.


The rake-hero is almost an over-familiar figure in Restoration stage comedy; he has become such a cliche of the age that it has hard to look at him afresh and understand in depth what he is all about. In particular, both scholarship and popular estimate has tended to lump all rake characters together and regard them in a rather simplistic manner. As Robert D. Hume has remarked:

Reading modern scholarship, one might deduce that 'Restoration comedy' is full of unrepentant rakes; that the plays expounded a 'libertine' philosophy; and that they are essentially hostile to marriage. Sensible critics have realized that the third proposition is ridiculous and that the other two require significant qualification. (Hume (1983), 138)

Hume goes on to distinguish between the three categories of the 'extravagant rake', the 'vicious rake', and the 'judicious rake' or 'philosophical libertine' (Hume (1983), 159) and points out that these characters are very different in their outlooks and motivations, and in the ultimate consequences of their actions. In particular, the quality and significance of any 'reform' these different characters display are very variable: '"Reform" may be anything from a pro forma convenience to an occasion for moral preachment' (Hume (1983), 139). There is no simple model of libertinage giving way to reform, but nor is it a matter of the rake acting as a rebel against conventional morality and (within the confines of comic form) triumphing over it by the end of the play, as the critic Virginia Birdsall suggested in 1970:

They [the rakes] create their own morality, which has little to do with conventional morals and which may be termed a morality of honesty or of integrity in the most basic meaning of the word... Confronted with a world which lacks any sense of comic orderliness and abstract moral certainty and which has committed itself to civilized forms largely derivative and hollow, they make their spirit prevail. (Birdsall (1970), 8)

Such a point-of-view depends on our understanding of rakish attitudes as being rooted in a genuine opposition to restrictive social norms; 'social and moral repression... give[s] rise to that rebellion'(Birdsall (1970), 7). If such characters as Careless, Dorimant and Loveless are in rebellion against conventional morality, particularly in the form of marriage, they seem signally not to triumph and make their spirit prevail, as they all end up one way or another within the confines of conventional marriage. Why this should be the case surely touches on some fundamental issues concerning the nature of Restoration drama and its relationship with the world it depicted.

Marriage was a fundamental institution in seventeenth-century society, and it was an institution whose forms were clearly defined and were difficult to challenge or change. As the social historian Lawrence Stone has described the situation, marriage lay at the center of the interlocking structures of birth and death, ownership and inheritance, legal and social status, patterns of moral conduct and systems of outward respectability. Furthermore it was a one-way process; you could enter the state of marriage, but except in very specific and uncommon circumstances only death could get you out again: 'England in the early modern period was neither a separating nor a divorcing society: death was virtually the sole agent for dissolving marriage' (Stone, (1990), 2). This was the fundamental point underlying the Restoration genre of the 'marriage play' (Cordner and Clayton (1998), xx). It was an institution that had to be taken seriously, and the Restoration rake does take it seriously. Initially, he protests his irreconcilability to the married state, in terms expressive of its restrictive qualities. Often the rhetorical demands of the rakish character require that such protests are framed in terms of the ending of libertinage and irresponsible pleasure entailed in marriage, but this relatively light-hearted critique is formed by an awareness, shared by character and audience, of marriage's very real demands for the social class depicted. As one literary scholar has recently written, with reference to the Restoration dramatic world in general,

From the 1660s to the 1680s authors like Dryden, Shadwell, Robert Howard, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, and Aphra Behn regard the genres of tragedy, heroic drama, romance, wit comedy, humours comedy, and farce not merely as pleasing and useful (or offensive and useless) verbal constructs, but as cultural indices with overt class associations. (Dharwadker (1997), 461) recognition of the role of such 'cultural indices' serves to weaken the argument that the world of the Restoration rake is essentially comic and distinct from the concerns of real life; on the contrary, as critics have increasingly noted, the social and cultural context constantly shapes both the work of art and its reception. The rake-hero does not reflect that context simply to subvert it, as an act of rebellion against stifling convention, as Birdsall has suggested:

The Restoration comic hero does not turn the world of inherited rules upside down merely for the smutty or destructive fun of it. If he is self-consciously wicked, it is because the prevailing system has proved repressive of his elan vital and hence prompts him to demand more flexible and expressive forms. For him the only true morality is living well and fully. (Birdsall (1970), 20)

It seems far more credible to argue that it is the rebellion that is neutered by reason of its location in the realms of comic exaggeration and dramatic rhetoric, and the affirmation of social mores expressed in the characters' ultimate acceptance of marriage that is the true cultural index of the plays. The paradigm of marriage thus represented is a challenge to a certain type of conventional morality: the morality that accepted loveless and essentially hollow unions to fulfil economic and social functions and then criticized those within such marriages - perhaps particularly women - who did not then act…

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