The period from 1660 to 1689 is generally known as the Restoration period in the history of English literature.

Restoration literature is the English literature that corresponds to the last years of the direct Stuart reign in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In general, the term is used to denote roughly homogeneous styles of literature that centered on a celebration of the restored Court of Charles II. It is literature that includes extremes. It encompasses both Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester’s Sodom, the high-spirited sexual comedy of The Country Wife, and the moral wisdom of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Scholars use the term “Restoration” to denote the literature that began and flourished under Charles II, whether that literature was the laudatory ode that gained a new life with the restored aristocracy. This eschatological literature showed increasing despair among Puritans, or the literature of rapid communication and trade that followed in the wake of England’s mercantile empire.

Background of Restoration Period

During the first half of the 17th century, in the reign of Cromwell, English literature was influenced by Puritan religious feelings and the intermittent presence of official censorship; for example, Milton’s Areopagitica. While some of the Puritan ministers of Oliver Cromwell wrote poetry that was elaborate and carnal such as Andrew Marvell’s “Mower” and “To His Coy Mistress.” At the time of the Civil War, poetry was dominated by metaphysical poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace and others. The drama had developed the late Elizabethan theatre traditions and had begun to mount increasingly topical and political plays, for example, the drama of Thomas Middleton. When the theatres opened after 1660, the plays available for performance were those of the late Elizabethan period.

In the 1670s and 1680s, a gradual shift occurred from heroic to pathetic tragedy, where the focus was on love and domestic concerns, even though the main characters were often public figures.

Read About: Introduction to Elizabethan Drama

In the history of the drama, Dryden occupies a peculiar place. He had no great genius for the theatre, and yet he imposed his ideas upon the English play-going world. He was that unique product, a politician with a poetic mind. For a time, he was attached to the Puritans and wrote an ode on the death of Cromwell; but on the accession of Charles II, he found no difficulty in transferring his muse to the royalist party. Towards the end of his up-down life, he became a Roman Catholic.

Dryden’s influence was more significant than would be thought possible from studying any one of his dramas. Of certain of his plays, he said, “I knew they were bad enough to please, even when I wrote them.” He had no sense of the ridiculous nor any conception of a natural, sincere portrayal of human nature. He was the main contributor to the genre of Heroic Drama.

Restoration drama is best known, then, not for its tragedies but for its comedies—the characters in Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676). Congreve’s Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700) are highly amusing in their portraits of love and the social strain of marriage. Wycherley achieved renown for The Country Wife (1675). These comedies, especially The Country Wife, caused great controversy for their passionate subject matter.

Genre in Restoration drama is peculiar. Authors labeled their works according to the old tags, “comedy” and “drama” and, especially, “history,” but these plays defied the old categories. From 1660 onwards, new dramatic genres arose and intermixed very rapidly. In tragedy, the dominant style in the early Restoration period was the male-dominated heroic drama, as by John Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada (1670) and Aurengzebe (1675), which celebrated powerful, aggressively male heroes and their pursuit of glory both as rulers and conquerors and as lovers. Their authors’ histories or tragedies are sometimes called these plays, and contemporary critics call them after Dryden’s term of “Heroic drama.” Heroic dramas centered on the actions of men of decisive natures whose physical and intellectual qualities made them natural leaders.

Renaissance and Restoration drama can be studied in its historical and socio-cultural contexts. Organized thematically, it particularly considers how political events such as the build-up to the English civil wars, the revolution itself, and then the restoration of the monarchy impacted the late 16th- and 17th-century stage. Among the topics explored will be unruly sexualities, violence and eloquence, political pornography, staging London; the court masque; and domestic tragedy. A selection of drama from among the following playwrights would feature on the course: Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Jonson, Heywood, Ford, Massinger, Webster, Middleton, Dekker, Beaumont, Fletcher, Cary, Davenant, Wycherley, and Aphra Behn.

Restoration comedy is famous for its sexual explicitness, a quality encouraged by Charles II and by the rakish aristocratic ethos of his Court. The best-known plays of the early Restoration period are the “hard” comedies of John Dryden, William Wycherley, and George Etherege, which reflect the atmosphere at Court and celebrate an aristocratic macho lifestyle of unremitting sexual intrigue and conquest. The Earl of Rochester, a real-life Restoration rake, courtier, and poet, is flatteringly portrayed in Etherege’s Man of Mode (1676) as a riotous, witty, intellectual, and sexually irresistible aristocrat, a template for posterity’s idea of the charming Restoration rake. Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer (1676) was highly regarded for its uncompromising ideas.

Davenant, Etherege, and Sir Robert Howard had also produced specimens of heroic plays, and by the time The Conquest of Granada reached the stage, these clever gentlemen had grown tired of the species. Compared to Dryden, they were nothing in the literary world. Still, among them, they contrived a hilarious burlesque called The Rehearsal, in which these showy but shallow productions were smartly ridiculed.

Restoration comedy refers to English comedies written and performed in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1710. After public stage performances had been banned for 18 years by the Puritan regime, the re-opening of the theatres in 1660 signaled a renaissance of English drama. The socially diverse audiences included aristocrats, their servants and hangers-on, and a substantial middle-class segment. These playgoers were attracted to the comedies by up-to-the-minute topical writing, by crowded and bustling plots, by introducing the first professional actresses, and by the rise of the first celebrity actors. This period saw the first professional woman playwright, Aphra Behn.

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