Monarchs, Morality and English Nationalism in the Comedies of Etheredge, Steele and Sheridan

By Geriguis, Lora | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Monarchs, Morality and English Nationalism in the Comedies of Etheredge, Steele and Sheridan


Geriguis, Lora, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


The playwrights who asserted English merit on the stage during the Restoration and eighteenth century joined the struggle of English kings, soldiers, and merchants who endeavored to defeat England's rivals in the courts, on the battlefields, and over the waters. The Cromwellian colonial expansion of the 1650s had increased England's prestige and self-image. "This new 'place' of England in the European world [served to develop the] international personality" (Lowenthal 7) of Englishness that extended beyond the Restoration to include the revolutionary period at the end of the eighteenth century as well. The portrayal of English identity on the stage was impacted by the country's rise in the eighteenth century as a political, military, and economic presence in the world. In early modern construction, "Englishness [was] defined by a conjuncture of territorial boundaries, topographical features and historical continuities that included language, characters and physical attributes. Ideas about nation and race occupied overlapping if not identical cultural and political terrains" (Wilson 55). Playwrights, as well as explorers, probed this ideological territory. With their comedies, George Etherege, Richard Steele, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan increasingly commented in moralistic terms upon a growing sense of English superiority over her European, particularly French, neighbors. Taken as a representative group, Etherege's The Man of Mode (1676), Steele's The Conscious Lovers (1722), and Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777), can be used to trace the critical rising action of competitive English nationalism during this pivotal century in Britain's colonial history.

Leonard Welsted, prologue poet for The Conscious Lovers, described Steele's reforming agenda as serving "To chasten wit, and moralize the stage I . . . And judge politely for your country's fame" (prologue/325). Although their views of Englishness varied, influence as they were by different circumtances Etherege, Steele, and Sheridan all engaged in nationalistic commentary. Just as their styles of comedy swung through the illicit, the innocent, and the ironic, so too did their expressions of nationalism shift. However, continuities can be traced in the way all three playwrights wrote and lived in an atmosphere directly impacted by royal influence and observation, sought or otherwise. While Daniel Defoe attempted, in "The True-Born Englishman" (1703), to forge an Englishness that could embrace King Williams foreignness and legitimize his sovereignty, so not did Etherege, Steele, and Sheridan define Englishness in ways that were relevant to their differently challenged monarchs, Charles II (1660-85), George I (1714-27) , and George III ( 1 760- 1 820) , each of whom faced their own crisis of national identity, contributed to the conversation concerning morality and national identity that infiltrated Etherge's, and Sheridan's works, respectively, Steele's functioning as both patrons and patterns, for the playwrights. Jessica Munns has argued that a change in the theatrical representation of the monarch, from "redeeming [to] romantic," occurred at the end of the Restoration period, when "the dramatizations of the monarch spiraled out to include personality, religions, politics, family life and sexual habits" (124). In their comedies, Etherege, Steele, and Sheridan related to, reinvented, or rejected their corresponding monarchs in terms relevant to each one's national identity construction. The Restoration sensibilities regarding masculinity and nationality embodied in Etherege's work, ostensibly rejected by Steele, and far removed from Sheridan, in fact reverberate in all three men's works, particularly as embodied in the image of the monarch as moral and authentically English. According to Kevin Gardiner, the "rampart of national identity," employed by Steele to overwhelm, "his anxiety with nationalism" (55), is, I will assert, a technique employed by Etherege and Sheridan at opposite ends of the period as well. …

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