Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy

Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy

Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy

Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy


Granting that literature delights, Harwood addresses the moral questions that have been hotly debated by critics for the 300years since Restoration comedy flourished: "In what way does literature teach? How do beliefs about its effects on audiences shape critics' responses to and judgment of literature?"

Harwood begins with a survey of the "major rhetorical strategies by which many critics transform themselves, at least momentarily and perhaps unconsciously, into moralists when they deal with restoration comedy."

Then he places various moral responses in a broader critical context by analyzing ways in which critics have traditionally handled aesthetic problems, which inevitably entail an ethical assessment of literature.

Third, he analyzes the moral dimensions of four controversial Restoration comedies: William Wycherley's Country Wife; Edward Ravenscroft's London Cuckolds;Thomas Otway's Souldiers Fortune;and Thomas Shadwell's Squire of Alsatia.


Restoration comedy has been a bête noire for literary critics and historians for several centuries. No other literature seems as likely to propel its critics either into paroxysms of moral indignation or rhapsodies of lyrical praise. The vigorous and contentious dispute about the moral issues raised by the comedies is especially interesting, for in the last three centuries critics have argued vehemently for or against such diverse theses as: 1) Restoration comedy exposes the reader to the infectious disease of moral turpitude with which the dramatis personae are terminally ill; 2) Restoration comedy is entertaining (or boring) but nothing more; 3) Restoration comedy is a bracing tonic, a healthful and stimulating criticism of sterile and repressive social conventions; 4) Restoration comedy allows the reader to enter a rarefied world of gallantry and rococo manners--such an escape from the mundane world is salutary; and 5) Restoration comedy is a treasure chest for the historian who wants an accurate picture of late seventeenth-century social conditions, values, and mores in England. The first four theses pertain directly to the moral effect of imaginative literature, in this case Restoration comedy, on the reader; the fifth attempts to avoid the moral issue by focusing entirely on the sociological and historical relation of drama and society, though few of these "neutral" critics can avoid waffling on the moral issue. But despite the abundance of moral judgments about the comedy, no critic has examined closely the critical and moral assumptions behind other critics' ethical responses or, more broadly, has analyzed thoroughly the assumptions behind an ethical judgment of litera-

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