The Comedy of Manners is a theatrical genre that was uber-popular during the Restoration period. These comedies were bawdy and dirty, with lots of hilarious (and scandalous) dialogue focusing on sex. Their plot lines revolved around unfaithful wives, cuckolded husbands, and tricky lovers.
These comedies made fun of people… and sometimes entire social classes. Everyone is made to look ridiculous in these plays. People are stupid and gullible, or else they're amoral and exploitative. But it was all done in the name of fun. Audiences went to these plays during the Restoration period to laugh their heads off.
Trickery and sexual deceit are big themes in Comedies of Manners. They're also big themes in William Wycherley's comedy The Country Wife .
William Congreve's Love for Love is a comedy that revolves around love and money.
The Restoration writers couldn't get enough satire. What's the deal with satire? Satire is when we joke or exaggerate in order to point up someone else's flaws. Think John Oliver's Last Week Tonight. Think The Onion. Think generally snarky hilarity.
The Restoration writers developed satire as a genre and a style of writing. These authors loved picking on people—literary rivals, religious figures, even entire social classes—and showing just how ridiculous they all were. Restoration writers mastered the art of poking fun at people.
John Dryden's Mac Flecknoe is a classic satire. It also helped popularize "mock heroic" poetry.
Samuel Butler pokes fun at Puritans in his satirical poem Hudibras.
A heroic couplet is two lines of verse (in ten syllables each), which rhyme. It does not, however, contrary to popular belief, rescue puppies from burning buildings, help old ladies across streets, or untie damsels in distress from railroad tracks.
History time: The Heroic Couplet in English literature was pioneered by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages, but it wasn't until the Restoration came along that the use of this structure in English poetry became widespread. And that was thanks to one man: John Dryden. Dryden was so good at coming up with Heroic Couplets, he singlehandedly helped make them an essential part of English poetry. He's the hero of the Heroic Couplet.
John Dryden is a master of Heroic Couplets. Check out his use of these couplets in his poem "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyrick on His Coronation."
Even though Alexander Pope came after the Restoration writers, he followed their lead in using Heroic Couplets in his poetry. Have a look at these couplets (Quote #1) from his famous poem The Rape of the Lock.
The Restoration writers weren't interested in silly things like nature (ew, dirt), or grand philosophical questions (ugh, boring). They were interested in all the drama that went on in the society in which they lived. Social behavior and social manners, then, are big themes in Restoration literature.
The writers of this period were obsessed with social life: who people fall in love with, who they want to marry, who they sleep with, who they betray, and how much money they have or don't have. It's a literature that focuses on the intrigue that takes place in drawing rooms, in salons, and in—bow chicka bow bow—bedrooms.
William Congreve's juicy Love for Love is all about social class and money worries.
Congreve's The Way of the World is about the wily ways of lovers trying to get married.
The "Restoration" in Restoration literature comes from a political event (the restoration of monarchy in Britain in 1660) so it's no huge surprise that politics, and political themes, are kind of a big deal in this literary movement.
Restoration literature raises big ol' political questions like: What type of government is best for society? What role does government, or monarchy, play in people's lives? What kind of allegiance do we owe to our government? How does politics shape culture? The Restoration period was a time when Britain was seriously re-thinking its political identity. And we'll find that the Restoration writers were also thinking pretty hard about politics in their writing.
John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding was a super-duper-important political tract of the Restoration period, and (bonus importance!) it influenced the American Revolution.
John Dryden was a fan of monarchy as a governmental institution. In "Astraea Redux: A Poem on the Happy Restoration and Return of His Sacred Majesty Charles the Second," he celebrates the restoration of Charles II to the throne. If he was around today, you can bet he'd have a crush on Kate Middleton.
The Restoration period has given us some of the most important religious literature in the English language. John Milton's Paradise Lost—which tells the epic tale of the banishment of man from the Garden of Eden—was published during this period (though Milton himself was a bit of an outsider to the Restoration literary scene, because he identified as a Puritan).
John Bunyan's (no relation to Paul) Pilgrim's Progress , a religious allegory, was also published during the Restoration.
Why were faith and religion such big preoccupation for many Restoration writers? Because this was a period when the country was also going through a lot of religious upheaval. With the Restoration of monarchy, the Puritans were kicked out of power (a bunch of them went to settle in America, btw), and the country reverted back to a less dogmatic kind of Anglicism. There was a lot of religious soul-searching going on during this period, and we see that reflected in the literature.
John Milton's Paradise Lost is an epic poem that features God, Christ, and Satan as characters. Check out these quotations from the poem, which deal with fate and free will.
Samson, a character from the Bible, is the hero of John Milton's Samson Agonistes. Delve into an analysis of this character here.
Once upon a time there was a king called Charles I. He was king of England. Then this guy called Oliver Cromwell came along and, along with his buddies, beheaded the king, and established the "Commonwealth of England" in 1649, which brought about an end to monarchy.
But not everyone was happy with the establishment of this commonwealth. There were many who supported monarchy as the right form of government for England. They were called "Royalists." In 1660, these Royalists finally got their day and re-instituted monarchy in England. Charles II, the son of the executed king, returned from France, where he'd been hanging out in exile, and was "restored" as king of England. The "restoration" of monarchy and the ascendance of Charles II to the throne officially marks the beginning of the Restoration era.
John Dryden was really happy when Charles II was restored to the throne. He was so happy, that he wrote "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyrick on His Coronation" to celebrate the Restoration.
Apparently, one poem celebrating the restoration of Charles II wasn't enough for John Dryden. He wrote a second one, entitled "Astraea Redux: A Poem on the Happy Restoration and Return of His Sacred Majesty Charles the Second."
When the Republicans, under Oliver Cromwell, held sway in England, Puritanism ruled the land. White collars and black clothes for everyone! Cromwell himself was a Puritan. Puritans, we might remember, were a group of English Protestants who wanted to "reform" the religion. They wanted everyone to lead a very moral, upright, upstanding life. They were a pretty uptight bunch of people.
When monarchy was restored in 1660 and Charles II became king, there was a strong backlash against the Puritans. After all, these were among the groups that had pushed for the execution of Charles's father, Charles I. Puritans, therefore, didn't have an easy time in the Restoration period. They were persecuted, they were attacked, and their beliefs and views were ridiculed. Restoration writers—many of whom (though not all) were Royalists (as in, they supported the monarchy)—rejected Puritan ideals. They made fun of Puritans in the literature.
In Hudibras, Samuel Butler lampoons the Puritans as stuck up and, well, Puritanical. Have a look at the poem here.
William Wycherley's The Country Wife is full of sex and bawdy comedy. Like many comedies of the period, it rejected the Puritan emphasis on morality and chastity. Delve into this play here.
The Puritans (like Oliver Cromwell) who fought to abolish monarchy in England didn't like the theaters. They saw them as cesspits that bred all kinds of immoral behavior. Like popcorn, maybe? So they shut them down in 1642. For eighteen long years there were no theater companies or public performances of plays in the land of Shakespeare. Pretty crazy.
When Charles II was restored as king of England in 1660, one of the first things he did was reopen the theaters. All of those playwrights and actors and writers who, for years, had been stifled finally got the green light to do their thing, without having to fear being punished for it. This led to a huge blossoming of theatrical production during this period, and the theaters became full again with audiences.
John Dryden's Marriage à la Mode was a very popular comedy performed after the reopening of the theaters.
Aphra Behn's The Rover was another hit play performed after the theaters reopened under Charles II.
Charles II spent many years in exile in France before he was restored to the English throne. During this period came under the influence of French culture. He not only dressed and styled himself according to French tastes (like big wigs and fancy-shmancy shoes), but he also developed a liking for French literature.
France's influence on the English court during this period was also reflected in Restoration literature. Restoration writers read, and imitated, French writers, especially when it came to drama. Some of the French writers who were especially influential on the Restoration writers were Molière and Jean Racine.
William Wycherley's The Plain-Dealer is based on Molière's French comedy The Misanthrope.
John Dryden is another author who was influenced by French literature. His play An Evening's Love is borrowed from Molière's play The Love-Tiff.