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A comedy is usually a light, rather amusing, play that deals with contemporary life and manners. Such a drama often has a satirical slant, but ends happily. Among the many sub-genres under comedy, one can find the comedy of manners, which originated in France with Moliere’s Les Precieuses ridicules (1658). Moliere saw this comic form as a way to correct social absurdities.
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In England, the comedy of manners is represented by the plays of William Wycherley, George Etherege, William Congreve, and George Farquhar. This form was later classed “Old Comedy” but is now known as Restoration Comedy because it coincided with the return of the Charles II to England. The main goal of these comedies of manners in the period of Restoration is to mock society, or in other ways lift up society for scrutiny, which could cause negative or positive results. In the end, audience will laugh at themselves and society.
The definition of comedy and the background of the Restoration Comedy help to explain the themes that run throughout these comedies of manners. One of the major themes is marriage and the game of love. However, if marriage is a mirror of society, the couples in the plays show something very dark and sinister about order. Many critiques of marriage that we see in the play are devastating, but the game of love is not much more hopeful. Although the endings are happy and the man invariably gets the woman, one can see marriages without love and love affairs that are rebellious breaks with tradition.
This study will focus on two plays of Restoration comedies, William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) and William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), to show how dramatically society has progressed. A dramatic change, in moral attitudes about marriage and love has taken place.
In Wycherley’s Country Wife, the marriage between Pinchwife and Margery represents a hostile marriage between an old (or older man) and a young woman. The couple, Pinchwife, is the focal point of the play, at least as couples go, and Margery affair with Horner only adds to the humor of the play. Horner runs around cuckolding all of the husbands, while he pretends to be a eunuch. This pretension brings the women swarming to him. He is a master at the game of love, though he is emotionally impotent. He cannot love, which makes him an interesting character for analysis. The relationships in the play are dominated by jealousy or cuckoldry, with the exception of the gay couple, Alithea and Harcourt, but they are really pretty boring.
The element of jealousy in marriage seems to be especially prevalent in the play. In Act IV, scene ii, Mr. Pinchwife says, in an aside:
Mr. PINCHWIFE. So, tis plain she loves him, yet she has not love enough to make her conceal it from me; but the sight of him will increase her aversion for me and love for him, and that love instruct her how to deceive me and satisfy him, all idiot as she is.
He insults her, not to her face of course, but he’s serious. He wants her to be stupid, not able to deceive him. But even in her obvious innocence, he doesn’t believe she is innocent. To him, every woman came out of nature’s hands “plain, open, silly, and fit for slaves, as she and Heaven intended ’em.” As he says, “No woman can be forced.” But he also says, in another aside:
Mr. PINCHWIFE. Why should women have more invention in love than men? It can only be because they have more desires, more soliciting passions, more lust and more of the devil.
Mr. Pinchwife isn’t especially bright, but in his jealousy, he becomes a dangerous character. He becomes passionate in his mad ravings, thinking Margery had conspired to cuckold him. Little did he know that he was correct, but if he had known the truth, he would have killed her in his madness. As it is, when she disobeys him, he says:
Mr. PINCHWIFE. Once more write as I’d have you, and question it not, or I will spoil thy writing with this. I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief.
He doesn’t ever hit her or stab her in the play (such actions wouldn’t make a very good comedy), but Mr. Pinchwife continually locks Margery in the closet, calls her names, and in all other ways, acts like a complete jerk (to put it nicely). Because of his abusive nature, Margery’s affair is not a surprise. In fact, it is accepted as a social norm, along with Horner’s promiscuity. At the end, the whole scene with Margery learning to lie is also taking in stride because the idea has already been set up when Mr. Pinchwife voiced his fears that if she loved Horner more, she would conceal it from him. And with that, social order is restored.
In Congreve’s The Way of the World, the trend of restoration continues, but marriage becomes more about contractual agreements and greed, then about love. Millamant and Mirabell iron out a pre-nuptial agreement before they agree to marry. Then Millamant, for an instant, seems willing to marry her cousin, Sir Wilful, so that she can keep her money. It is a battle of the wits; it is not a battlefield of emotions. In that way, “The Way of the World” can be likened to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, where Beatrice and Benedict play at love in their battle of wits.
It’s comical to see the two wits going at it, but, when we look deeper, there is an edge of seriousness behind their words. After they list conditions, Mirabell says:
MIRABELL. These provisos admitted, in other things I may prove a tractable and complying husband.
Love may be the basis of their relationship, as Mirabell appears honest; however, their alliance is a sterile romance, devoid of the “touchy, feely stuff,” which one should hope for in a courtship. Mirabell and Millamant are two wits perfect for each other in the battle of the sexes; nevertheless, the pervading sterility and greed reverberates as the relationship between the two wits becomes much more confusing. But then, that is the way of the world.
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Confusion and deception are the “way of the world,” but compared to The Country Wife and other earlier drama, Congreve’s play shows a different kind of chaos, one marked with contracts and greed instead of the hilarity and mix-up of Horner and other rakes. The evolution of society, as mirrored by the plays themselves is apparent.
1. Drabble, Margaret , The Oxford Companion to English Literature
2. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors, Sixth Edition
3. Abjadian, Amrollah, Dr., A Survey of English Literature (II)
4. Patterson, Michael, The Oxford Dictionary of Plays
5. Abrams, M.H., A Glossary of Literary Term, Eighth Edition
6. William Wycherley, The Country Wife, 1675
7. William Congreve, The Way of the World, 1700
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