The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy

By Kathleen M. Lynch | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE TREND OF REALISTIC COMEDY FROM JONSON TO SHIRLEY

A T THE outset of the seventeenth century the task of releasing comedy from its "romantic entanglements"1 still remained unfulfilled. It was Ben Jonson's distinction to create a new realistic comedy and to build up in its behalf a stout defense of dramatic theory. Jonson's method persisted with his disciples, more and more directed, however, by, important new motives and principles which Jonson could hardly have foreseen. Without its Elizabethan background, it would be hard to visualize Restoration realistic drama. Whatever other influences played an important part in its evolution, Restoration comedy owed much, after all, to the realistic pattern of comedy, with its steadily expanding social emphasis, developed within the Elizabethan tradition.

It must not be forgotten that in the two decades before the beginning of Jonson's dramatic career, John Lyly was already writing a new kind of comedy, which often suggested, but never realized, the program of comedy of manners. The Euphuistic habit of speech, with all its ingenious tricks of style, afforded a novel social language for comedy. Deities, kings, philosophers, courtiers and court ladies, servants and clowns all exist, in Lyly's plays, for the pleasurable diversion of Euphuistic fencing. Wit counts for everything, humanity for nothing. Lyly gives a special prominence to artificial courtship scenes, in which the nimble-witted contestants exchange facile arguments in love casuistry. The same arguments appear in a more elaborated and

____________________
1
A. H. Thorndike, "Ben Jonson," in Cambridge History of English Literature, VI, p. 15.

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