Subversive Comedy vs Social Comedy in Restoration Drama Term Paper

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jul 1st, 2020

Introduction

One of the main reasons why Restoration comedies The Country Wife by William Wycherley and The Rover by Aphra Behn were able to attain a popularity with the members of viewing audiences at the time of their staging, is that both dramaturgical works contain themes and motifs of an unmistakably societal significance.

That is, just as it is the case with Wycherley’s comedy, the one written by Behn does address the socio-cultural effects of Restoration on British society. In this paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while arguing that; whereas, The Country Wife is best discussed within the conceptual framework of a ‘subversive comedy’, The Rover fits better into the framework of a ‘social comedy’ (as defined by Canfield).

Main body

According to Canfield: “Subversive comedy reveals fissures under the smooth surface of official ideology, even as the play end in ritual celebration of society’s centripetal power – usually a marriage” (XVII). [This is how the page, containing Canfield’s definition, is numbered].

Canfield’s term implies that this particular type of comedy exposes deep-seated inconsistencies between the official state-ideology and the actual state of socio-cultural affair in the country. In order for us to be able to substantiate the suggestion that the earlier provided definition does apply to Wycherley’s comedy, we will have to make mentioning of what were the specifics of a socio-political situation in Britain, during the course of Restoration.

Before being allowed to return to Britain and to assume British throne, Charles II was made to promise that, while acting as a king, he would refrain from trying to limit the British citizens’ newly gained civil liberties, including the right to enjoy a religious freedom.

This created a somewhat paradoxical situation – whereas, the government headed by Charles II predominantly consisted of ‘old school’ aristocrats, strongly affiliated with the representatives of largely Catholic social elites in Europe, the majority of ordinary Britons were in fact Protestants, who resented the ‘immorality’ of the Charles’s court.

Thus, in order to be considered a legitimate ruler, Charles II had no other option but to act on behalf of these people, while safeguarding Britain’s interests, as an essentially ‘Protestant country’ – even at the expense of imposing a certain ideological censorship on the members of his formally Catholic/Anglican but factually atheist entourage.

It is needless to mention, of course, that the court’s aristocratic sophisticates (libertines) were far from considering such state of affairs thoroughly normal. However, while being unable to openly express their lack of enthusiasm towards the prospect of having to coexist peacefully with ‘brutish commoners’, they nevertheless used to do it in a rather subtle manner – such as by favoring the plays, which were supposed to expose the officially sponsored ideology of a ‘national unity’, as having been utterly superficial (Jones, 298).

Therefore, it will be fully appropriate, on our part, to refer to Wycherly’s The Country Wife as an unmistakably ‘subversive comedy’. This is because it does promote the idea that, contrary to what were the provisions of the political ideology of Restoration, there was in fact an irreconcilable existential gap between the intellectually advanced/liberated but strongly cynical representatives of British ‘old school’ aristocracy, on the one hand, and the greed-driven/intellectually shallow but pretentiously religious Protestants (Puritans), on the other (Malcolm, 309).

As Canfield noted in his book The Broadview Anthology of Restoration and Early Eighteenth Century Drama: “Subversive comedy tends to focus on… centrifugal energy. Sometimes this energy strains the seams that hope or pretend to stitch together a superficially homogeneous ruling class out of the heterogeneous elements of a tenuous oligarchic coalition” (121).

The validity of this statement can be well illustrated in regards to a number of comedy’s scenes, which ridicule the ‘virtuous gang’ members’ tendency to remain strongly committed to leading ‘morally sound’ lifestyles, as the foremost proof of their de facto bestiality. [This is just an introductory statement – it implies that its validity will be illustrated in the paper’s consequential parts].

For example, while explaining his rationale to adopt the posture of a sexually impotent man, Horner states that it is specifically the targeted ‘virtuous’ women’s observable repulsion towards sexually-incapacitated males, which should serve him as the actual indication that, despite being ‘morally uptight’, they nevertheless strongly crave for an adulterous sex.

Hence, the discursive significance of Horner’s suggestion that: “I can be sure, she that shows an aversion to me loves the sport (sex) as those Women that are gone, whom I warrant to be right” (The Country Wife Act 1. Scene 1. Lines 30-31). As Hynes noted: “Presumably, the women who make the greatest fuss about honor, virtue, and chastity are in fact the most lustful and therefore the most promising subjects” (175).

Apparently, having been a rather wise individual, Horner was perfectly aware that one’s adherence to the moralistic dogmas of a particular religion does not make the concerned individual less of an animal, in the biological sense of this word.

This implicitly promoted idea was meant to reveal the sheer hypocrisy of how overly religious ‘commoners’ used to address life-challenges, while assuming that the objective laws of nature did not have any effect on them. [This is just my personal interpretation, which is why there is no need to cite any source, in order to confirm the interpretation’s validity].

Another subject of the Wycherley comedy’s societal criticism was the fact that, despite praising the Christian values of ‘love and tolerance’, the male-representatives of the newly emerged social class of bourgeoisie nevertheless could never bring themselves to recognize the basic humanity of women.

This is because the sheer strength of these people’s commitment to generating a commercial income (according to the Protestant doctrine, one’s financial well-being is the foremost proof that he or she is in favor with God) created objective preconditions for them to refer to women in terms of a soulless commodity (Weber, 35).

For example, it is not only that one the comedy’s main characters Jack Pinchwife (representing country-commoners) [The play’s context suggests that the character of Jack Pinchwife is a commoner] used to deny his wife Margery the liberty of being able to socialize with others, but he in fact was quite comfortable with the idea disfiguring her physically, as the ultimate confirmation of his ‘possession’ of this woman.

There is a memorable scene in the comedy, when Jack forces Margery to write a letter to Horner, while threatening to ‘punish’ her would-be-disobedience with a knife: “Write as I bid you, or I will write ‘Whore’ with this knife in your Face” (The Country Wife Act 4. Scene 2. Line 79).

By having this scene included in the comedy, Wycherly wanted to show that, despite having attained a social prominence, the representatives of London’s ‘new money’ bourgeoisie never ceased to remain ‘animals’ on the inside – not just irreconcilably alienated from the ideals of a courtly gallantry, but utterly incapable of understanding what the notion of a behavioral decency stands for.

It is quite clear that the comedy’s exposure of these people’s actual ways was meant to undermine even further the integrity of the officially upheld ideology of a ‘national unity’. [This is because the comedy shows that, psychologically speaking, aristocrats and commoners differ from each other rather drastically].

Nevertheless, it would not be fully appropriate to discuss the subversive subtleties of The Country Wife, as being solely concerned with exposing the ‘fissures’. After all, it is not only that Wycherly succeeded in revealing the sheer pretentiousness/shallowness of the comedy’s ‘morally virtuous’ characters, such as Jack Pinchwife and Lady Fidget, but he also showed the actual roots of their hypocritical attitudes.

Hence, another important aspect of the comedy’s ‘subversiveness’, as such that subtly promoted the idea that, regardless of the amount of the received education, natural-born commoners are simply incapable of matching the aristocrats’ cognitive-perceptual sophistication. As Knapp pointed out: “The gallants in The Country Wife place a high priority on witty conversation and object to the witless Sparkish’s interference with it” (454).

The full soundness of this statement can be well explored in regards to the comedy’s scenes, in which Horner mocks Mr. Sparkish’s outright stupidity – despite the fact that the latter continues to remain fully convinced that he is indeed a sophisticate individual: “No gad, he’ll never let her (Margery) come amongst us good fellows. Your stingy country Coxcomb keeps his wife from his friends as he does his little Firkin of Ale for his own drinking.

Ha, ha, ha, gad, I am witty” (The Country Wife Act 4. Scene 3. Lines 184-187). In this respect, Wycherley’s message is clear – one’s consciously adopted posture in life has very little to do with what the concerned individual really is, in the de facto sense of this word.

This message’s discursive implications are also quite apparent – people’s strive to gain a social prominence cannot be discussed in terms of a ‘thing in itself’, as it is only the inheritably noble (and therefore, intelligent) individuals, who are being naturally ‘preordained’ to exercise a political authority within the society.

Thus, by mocking ‘piggish commoners’, Wycherley’s comedy in fact undermined the Restoration’s conceptual legitimacy, as such that occurred due to the involved parties’ willingness to reconcile – even though that they never truly believed in the reconciliation’s long-lastingness.

Discussion

Whereas, Wycherley’s comedy clearly aimed to undermine the discursive provisions of Restoration [that is, this comedy aimed to expose the earlier mentioned ‘fissures’], as the event that contrary to its formal significance, legitimized the British bourgeoisie’s continual dominance in the country’s public life, Aphra Behn’s The Rover had the opposite agenda – convincing viewers that, despite their rather flamboyant lifestyles, British exiled nobles were in fact the nation’s integral part. This, was meant to provide citizens with yet another reason to think of the Restoration, as having been fully justified.

Therefore, The Rover can be well discussed in terms of a ‘social comedy’, because it does adhere to the Canfield’s definition of this particular dramaturgical sub-genre: “Social comedy socializes threats against hegemonic culture… Good nature and generosity replace wit and energy as the supreme values… – even as bourgeois morality becomes an ethic of sentiment, of benevolence, providing the rationale for patronizing the less fortunate, less civilized” (XVII). [This is how the page, containing Canfield’s definition, is numbered].

After all, the themes and motifs [concerned with advancing the cause of Restoration], contained in this particular comedy, do serve the purpose of convincing viewers that there was indeed a very little rationale for them to think of formerly exiled loyalists (‘banish’t Cavaliers’), as having been psychologically alienated from the rest of British ‘common’ citizens. [This is an interpretative statement, supported by the following citation].

In this respect, one hardly disagree with Beach: “The fact that the play was embraced by the court suggests that The Rover expresses a pro-Stuart ideology, yet its position was moderate and flexible enough to allow its survival beyond its historical moment” (2). The legitimacy of the earlier suggestion can be shown in relation to the following ideological aspects of Behn’s comedy:

First, The Rover promotes the idea that, contrary to what contemporaries used to think of exiled gallants, there was nothing ‘effeminate’ about these people’s postures in life (Beach 7).

The character of Willmore is especially illustrative, in this respect. It is not only that he never tries to avoid fighting with the numerically superior Spanish, but also he always ends up chasing them away in the end, while usually commenting their ‘retreats’ in a rather sarcastic manner: “A plague upon your Dons, if they fight no better they’ll ne’er recover Flanders.- What the Devil was’t to them that I took down the Picture?” (The Rover Act 2. Scene 2. Lines 201-203).

As it can be well seen from the above-quotation, it was a customary practice for Willmore to refer to his Spanish competitors with utter disrespect, due to their cowardly attitudes. There is even more to it – the second part of Willmore’s remark implies that, as compared with the British, the Spanish are differently ‘brain-wired’.

Whereas, the Spanish are ‘emotion-driven’, the British are ‘rationale-driven’ – hence, the key to the existential superiority of the latter. Apparently, Behn was trying to advance the idea that there was nothing accidental about the fact that, regardless of what happened to be the actual form of the British government (monarchy or republic) in the past, Britons never had a problem, while subduing their Spanish counterparts.

It is needless to mention, of course, that there is a strongly defined nationalist sentiment to it, which in turn implies that, while working on The Rover, Behn wanted to prompt viewers to think that it is not their class-status that matters, but rather their national affiliation. [This is an interpretative statement, supported by the earlier provided line of argumentation].

Second, The Rover promotes the idea that, even though the exiled British ‘cavaliers’ did not have any other option but socialize with Catholics, there was nothing ‘treacherous’ about it, as the gallants in question never ceased recognizing the apparent fallacies of Catholicism.

For example, after having listened to Hellena’s plans of becoming a nun, Willmore exclaims “A Nun! Oh how I love thee for’t! there’s no Sinner like a young Saint” (The Rover Act 1. Scene 2. Lines 70-71). Obviously enough, this Willmore’s remark was meant to expose him as a rationally minded individual, highly skeptical of the Catholics’ tendency to follow the dogmas of their religion, regardless of how nonsensical the latter might have been.

This, of course, was intended to provide the audience members with a yet additional reason to believe that, despite the Restoration’s formally ‘reactionary’ nature [monarchy is the discursively outdated form of government], there was nothing truly reactionary about it, as it is one’s endowment with the sense of ‘Englishness’ which reflects upon his or her social value, and not the concerned person’s religion (Beach 8).

Hence, yet another justification for our earlier suggestion that The Rover does in fact belong to the sub-genre of a ‘social comedy’ – this play subtly argues that it is specifically the governmental officials’ ability to maintain the society’s structural integrity, which should be considered the main indication of their professional adequacy.

Third, Behn’s comedy shows that the Britain’s eventual transformation from being ruled by ‘nobles’ to being ruled by ‘merchants’ was bound to occur – regardless of the aristocrats’ attitude towards it. This [‘What?’ what?] is the true significance of the motif of prostitution, explored throughout the comedy’s entirety.

There is another memorable scene in The Rover, where Angelica tries to enlighten Willmore, as to the fact that there is nothing fundamentally different between women ‘renting’ their bodies to make a commercial profit, on the one hand, and men marrying women ‘in good faith’ for essentially the same purpose, on the other: “Pray, tell me, Sir, are not you guilty of the same mercenary Crime? When a Lady is proposed to you for a Wife, you never ask, how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is; but what’s her Fortune – which if but small, you cry – She will not do my business – and basely leave her…?” (The Rover Act 2. Scene 2. Lines 105-109).

There is a strongly defined discursive overtone to this Angelica’s remark (with which Willmore agrees) – Behn wanted to advance the idea that, since the relations between men and women can be well conceptualized in terms of commercial transactions, there is nothing wrong about the process of the 17th century’s British society becoming ever more ‘commercialized’.

After all, men and women comprise just about any human society. [This is the common sense knowledge]. As Szilagyi noted: “Angelica’s prostitution… is, in principle, foundational for all the socio-political contracts between individuals in public life” (449).

In other words, by prompting readers to adopt an intellectually flexible attitude towards the notion of prostitution, in general, Behn was simultaneously trying to enlighten them on the discursive connotations of socio-economic dynamics within the British society, in particular – hence, patronizing them to an extent. [The validity of this statement is confirmed by the above-quotation and by what are the interpretative implications of the earlier deployed line of an argumentative reasoning].

By doing it, she undoubtedly contributed towards the process of British formally monarchist government striving to set the country on the path of cultural and technological progress.

This, of course, once again confirms the validity of the earlier suggestion that The Rover may indeed be discussed in terms of a ‘social comedy’. [The reason for this is apparent – as opposed to what it happened to be the case with ‘subversive comedies’, The Rover does not strive to expose the ‘centrifugal energy’ within the society, but rather to conceal it. This is also the example of an interpretative statement, so I do not quite understand why I am being required to provide any reference-sources].

Conclusion

I believe that the deployed line of argumentation, in regards to what should be considered the extent of each of the analyzed plays’ consistency with Canfield’s definitions of ‘subversive’ and ‘social’ Restoration comedies, fully correlates with the paper’s initial thesis. [There are no Canfield’s ‘terms’ per se, but only his highly subjective (pretentiously sophisticate but rather unintelligible, I may add) visions, as to what the concepts of ‘subversive’ and ‘social’ comedy stand for.

Therefore, I am not in a position to provide universally applicable explanations to these ‘terms’ (I will be asked for ‘sources’ again), since the very essence of the discussed subject matter denies such a possibility. We do not talk nuclear physics here; there are no scientific formulas involved. The points made earlier, do expose the discursive difference between both comedies. If these points are not clear to you, I will be able to highlight them for your convenience].

Works Cited

Beach, Adam. “Carnival Politics, Generous Satire, and Nationalist Spectacle in Behn’s The Rover.” Eighteenth-Century Life 28.3 (2004): 1-19.Print.

Behn, Aphra 1677, The Rover. PDF file. 31 Mar. 2013. <https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/719/rover.pdf?sequence=1>

Canfield, Douglas. The Broadview Anthology of Restoration and Early Eighteenth Century Drama. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.

Canfield, Douglas. Tricksters and Estates: On the Ideology of Restoration Comedy. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Print.

Hynes, Peter. “Against Theory? Knowledge and Action in Wycherley’s Plays.” Modern Philology 94.2 (1996): 163-189. Print.

Jones, James. “Liberty secured? Britain Before & After 1688.” Canadian Journal of History 28. 2 (1993): 295-305. Print.

Knapp, Peggy. “The ‘Plyant’ Discourse of Wycherley’s ‘The Country Wife’.” Studies in English Literature 40.3 (2000): 451-472. Print.

Malcolm, Joyce. “Charles II and the Reconstruction of Royal Power.” The Historical Journal 35.2 (1992): 307-330. Print.

Szilagyi, Stephen. “The Sexual Politics of Behn’s Rover: After Patriarchy.” Studies in Philology 95.4 (1998): 435-455. Print.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge, London, 2001. Print.

Wycherly, William 1675, The Country Wife. PDF file. Web.




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