Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Congreve's Comedy Heroine: Progress toward Self-Awareness

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Congreve's Comedy Heroine: Progress toward Self-Awareness

Article excerpt

Nowhere in the history of English comic drama prior to William Congreve's seventeenth-century play, The Way of the World, has a reader encountered a more complex and independent comic heroine than Congreve's Millamant. She is a far cry from the simple character types who preceded her. She is fully aware of her own precarious position and is staunchly determined to define her role and gain control of her life in a libertine and skeptical world much like our own. We cannot help but identify with and relate to this seventeenth-century woman as we readers, both men and women--especially women--find ourselves struggling to redefine our own roles and gain control of our lives in a world that is not so much unlike that of Millamant. In this play, not only does literature reflect life, but it also seems to out-pace it by advocating major changes in the way society views women. His characterization of the strong female protagonist thus served as a prototype for the modern female heroine that would follow in later contemporary drama, and it played a major role in shaping the way modern society came to treat women. After summarizing the traditional images of the comic heroine before the Restoration, I will attempt to show different aspects of the Restoration heroine's new self-awareness, especially as exemplified by Millamant to show how different she is from earlier character types and how closely she resembles people today.

Congreve evolved his heroines out of a long tradition of English comic heroines stretching back to the Middle Ages. At the earliest stages, women were portrayed as crafty or nagging shrews in an enduring tradition of anti-feminism. They showed little complexity and were mostly a farcical element in satire. The stereotype of Noah's stubborn wife who refuses to board the ark (as mentioned in Chaueer's The Miller's Tale) was often used in Mystery plays (Abrams, 374). The shrewish nagging housewife continued to be a popular image throughout the Middle Ages, but she was counterbalanced by the patient, constant, and faithful maiden who was tested for her love of a man. Chaucer in his The Clerk's Tale, gives us a classic example of the patient and suffering woman, Griselda, who became the stereotype of the patient maiden throughout much of the Renaissance comedy (Abrams, 172). For this maiden, marriage was supposed to be a blessed reward to be earned and achieved.

Shakespeare's comedies introduced the witty bantering young woman. To one critic's thinking, Shakespeare brought the beginning of "the imaginative realization of woman's role as a positive one" (McDonald, 13), where there existed a deep intellectual as well as emotional relationship between men and women. The sophisticated banter, as witnessed between Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, replaced the earthy and coarse humor between shrew and husband of the earlier comedies. Yet even the society which governed the lives of Shakespeare's characters caused no concern for possible conflict or apprehension over the stability or glory of marriage (McDonald, 6).

Other Elizabethan and Jacobean heroines of comedy were basically subject to ridicule. Authors made games of their learning and pretensions by making them objects of social satire. In Volpone, Ben Jonson used an aging female philosopher to attack the pretensions of women who only use learning to attract men or to obtain their own ways (McDonald, 28). There were some authors who treated the learned woman understandingly, such as John Fletcher. In The Wild Goose Chase, the educated women Rosalura and Lillia discuss prospective lovers candidly and honestly in a conversation that reveals their knowledge of the world:

    Ros. They say, he is a wencher too.
   Lil. I like him better; A free touch or two becomes a gentleman, and
sets
   him seemly off: ... I would not marry a man that must be taught, and
   conjured up with kisses; the best game is play'd still by the
best
   gamesters. … 
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