Charles II may have been King of England, but John Dryden was King of Restoration literature. He is, by far, the most important literary figure of the period. Not only was he a prolific writer who worked in a bunch of different genres including poetry, drama, and prose, but also he set the bar in terms of literary standards for the period.
One important contribution he made was the popularization of the Heroic Couplet in English poetry. He also played a big part in establishing satire as an important literary mode during this period. No doubt about it; Dryden is your first stop for Restoration-y goodness. What the Beatles are to the British Invasion, Dryden is to Restoration Literature.
Mac Flecknoe is a classic work of the Restoration period. In it, Dryden makes fun of his literary rival: a poet by the name of Thomas Shadwell. The poem is so important because it was written as a "mock epic," a satirical work that used the conventions of the epic genre to talk about trivial things.
The poem not only influenced Dryden's contemporaries, but those who came after him. Alexander Pope, who was a very important figure in the Augustan literature movement (check out the Shmoop module on 18th century/Augustan literature), was influenced by Dryden's poem when he wrote his own very famous mock epic, "The Rape of the Lock."
This is Dryden's most famous comedy. It's set in Sicily, and it involves a number of romantic plotlines. Like a lot of comedies of the period, the play centers around trickery and misrecognition.
The play is so impressive because it reflects Dryden's versatility as a Restoration author. The guy not only wrote some of the most important poetry of the period, he also wrote some of the most important drama and helped set the tone in the theaters of the day.
John Dryden's mock epic poem Mac Flecknoe is a great example of Restoration satire.
Political themes are a big part of John Dryden's writing. His poem "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyrick on His Coronation" deals with the restoration of Charles II to the throne.
William Congreve is a super-important playwright of the Restoration period, and a disciple of John Dryden's. He is known for his comedies, which catered to the tastes of the time: bawdy and full of sexual innuendo. Hmm. That sounds kind of like comedy today. Maybe some comedy themes are timeless?
Congreve's popularity didn't last long, however. By the end of the Restoration period in 1700, audiences were turning away from the "Comedies of Manners" that Congreve specialized in, and the author pretty much much gave up on theater toward the end of his life. We hope he found a new, old people-friendly hobby, like shuffleboard.
Love for Love is a comedy about love and money. It involves a romantic triangle between Valentine, his father Sir Sampson, and the woman they both fall in love with: Angelica. Things get really messy when Sir Sampson, who is mad at his son for wasting so much money, proposes to Angelica.
Uh, yeah. That sounds insanely awkward.
Love for Love is a typical Restoration comedy. In it we find the usual themes of romance, trickery and a focus on social class and social hypocrisy.
This is another comedy whose plot revolves around all sorts of romantic entanglements. The two lovers at the center of the play—Mirabell and Millamant—want to get married, but Millamant's rich old aunt stands in the way. The play focuses on the two lovers' attempts to get around the aunt.
The Way of the World is considered to be Congreve's most accomplished comedy. It was published right at the end of the Restoration period (in 1700), at which point theatrical tastes were beginning to change. Congreve's work fell out of favor soon after this play was performed. It took some time before critics began appreciating the work again.
William Congreve's Love for Love is a classic of Restoration comedy.
William Congreve's The Way of the World deals with themes of social class, money, and romance. Like many works of the period, it focuses on the ins and outs of social life.
John Milton was a bit of an oddball during the Restoration age. That's because he stuck to his Puritanism and Republicanism at a time when politics and society were turning away from both. As we can imagine, he wasn't a very popular guy during this period. Good thing for him he was a literary genius.
Even if John Milton isn't our "conventional" Restoration writer, we can't talk about this period in literary history without talking about him. That's because he produced some of the most important works in English literature, his crowning achievement being, of course, his epic poem Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost is a poem on an epic scale. That's because it's a poem that chronicles man's creation and fall from grace. Adam, Eve, Satan, God, and Christ are all characters in this poem. Yeah, it doesn't get more epically epic than that.
Milton not only set out to write an epic that would rival those of classic writers like Homer and Virgil, he wanted to outdo them. It wasn't enough for him to write about larger-than-life warriors and epic battles, as his Greek and Roman predecessors had done. He went all out and wrote about warrior angels, devils, and the first man and woman: Adam and Eve.
Milton's play is a short tragedy based on the story of Samson in the Old Testament. Samson, we might remember, was a very strong guy who performed incredible feats (such as slaying a lion), all thanks to his long hair. But when a sneaky woman cuts his hair, Samson finds himself in serious trouble.
Milton's play dramatizes Samson's fate after he finds himself prisoner of the Philistines. Like Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes focuses on big biblical themes, adapting stories straight from the Bible.
Faith and religion are huge themes in John Milton's writing. Have a look at these quotations from Paradise Lost, which deal with questions of fate and free will.
Milton's Samson Agonistes is based on a biblical story. Check out these quotations on religious themes.
Not only was Aphra Behn one of the first professional women writers, she also worked as a spy for the British government. Whoa. Way to make Mata Hari look like a second-class wannabe, Aphra.
Besides being one of the coolest people ever, she's also one of the most important writers of the Restoration period… oh yeah, and she wrote across different genres. Is there anything this woman didn't do? Although she's known as a playwright, she's also famous for writing the novel Oroonoko, which deals with slavery.
The Rover was a very popular comedy during the Restoration period. It's set in Italy, and it dramatizes the romantic entanglements of a group of young lovers there.
We'll find many of the characteristics of the "Comedy of Manners" in this play. It contains an emphasis on romance and sex, disguise, and lots of jokes and witty dialogue.
Aphra Behn's novel is one of the earliest examples of "the novel." It tells the tale of an African prince, Oroonoko, who is captured as a slave and taken to Surinam in South America. At the center of the novel is Oroonoko's love for a beautiful woman.
Although we don't know too much about Behn's own life story, it's possible that she herself had spent some time in Surinam after it became a British colony. Some scholars believe that the book is inspired by her travels there. Dang, Behn: are you a cool author, or the coolest author?
Aphra Behn's Comedy of Manners The Rover was a huge hit when it was first performed in 1677. Check out the play's themes of love and trickery here.
In the novel Oroonoko, Aphra Behn takes on the heavy theme of slavery—an institution that was spreading at the time. Check out the novel here.
William Wycherley spent part of his life in France, and ended up being super-influenced by French literature (and probably was a member of the Big Wig Fan Club). Although he was supposed to train as a lawyer, he was obsessed with theater, and devoted his time to writing plays when he was actually supposed to be studying the law. Procrastination paid off for Willy, and now he's considered most of the important playwrights in Restoration literature.
Wycherley specialized in Comedies of Manners. His two most famous plays are The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer. Read more about these two below.
The Country Wife is Restoration comedy at its most scandalous. It's a play full of sexual intrigue and sex jokes and, well, just a whole bunch of people being very naughty. These characters deserve lumps of coal in their stockings, and that's a fact.
At the center of the play is Horner, a man who pretends that he's impotent so that he can have affairs with married women. A secondary plot involves Margery Pinchwife, a wife from the country who comes to London and is seduced by all that London has to offer… and we mean all.
The Plain Dealer is a comedy about a sailor (Captain Manly) who falls in love with a woman only to have her ditch him for his friend. It tells of Captain Manly's attempt to gain revenge on his ex-lover and her new man.
Like Wycherley's other work, The Plain-Dealer is full of sexual innuendo and lots of laughs. It's partly based on the play The Misanthrope by Molière, who was a French playwright that influenced a number of Restoration writers.
Like many of his contemporaries, William Wycherley's writing was influenced by French literature. His play The Plain-Dealer is based on The Misanthrope by the French playwright Molière. Delve into The Plain-Dealer here.
William Wycherley's The Country Wife is one of the most famous comedies of the Restoration period. Ready for some fun? Well then jump right into the play here.