Imaginary Plots and Political Realities in the Plays of William Congreve
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A study of the political and social milieu that informs William Congreve’s writings

William Congreve was deeply involved in the events of his turbulent times. That involvement reveals itself in works which have sometimes been regarded as entirely unengaged with the realities of his society. This book attempts to read Congreve’s plays and his novella, Incognita, against the political and social upheaval of the period initiated by the rebellion of 1688. A strong supporter of the new world ushered in by William III and Mary, Congreve fought against the reactionary politics of the Jacobite opposition.

Acknowledgements; List of illustrations; Foreword; Chapter 1, The politics of love, marriage and scandal in Congreve’s world; Chapter 2, Incognita and some problems in morality and epistemology; Chapter 3, The “fashionable cutt of the town” and William Congreve’s The Old Batchelor; Chapter 4, Political and moral double-dealing in Congreve’s The Double Dealer; Chapter 5, Foresight in the stars and scandal in London: Reading the hieroglyphics in Congreve’s Love for Love; Chapter 6, The failure of perception in Congreve’s The Mourning Bride; Chapter 7, Politics and Congreve’s The Way of the World; Afterword; Works Cited; Index.



Publié par
Date de parution 30 juin 2020
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781785273742
Langue English

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Imaginary Plots and Political Realities in the Plays of William Congreve
Figure 1 Portrait of Congreve, Richard van Bleeck (1715). Leuven, Stedjick Museum
Imaginary Plots and Political Realities in the Plays of William Congreve
Maximillian E. Novak
Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
This edition first published in UK and USA 2020
75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK
or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA
Copyright © Maximillian E. Novak 2020
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-372-8 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78527-372-8 (Hbk)

This title is also available as an e-book.
List of Illustrations
1. The Politics of Love, Marriage, and Scandal in Congreve’s World
2. Incognita and Some Problems in Morality and Epistemology
3. The “Fashionable Cutt of the Town” and William Congreve’s The Old Batchelor
4. Political and Moral Double Dealing in Congreve’s The Double Dealer
5. Foresight in the Stars and Scandal in London: Reading the Hieroglyphics in Congreve’s Love for Love
6. The Failure of Perception and Politics in Congreve’s The Mourning Bride
7. Politics and Congreve’s The Way of the World
Works Cited
1 Portrait of Congreve, Richard van Bleeck (1715). Leuven, Stedjick Museum
2 Details. Richard van Bleeck’s Portrait of Congreve. Leuven, Stedjick Museum. (a) Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife . (b) Volume of the Philosopher George Berkeley
3 Valentine Pretending Madness in Congreve’s Love for Love . Detail of a painting by Robert Smirke (1753–1845). Maugham Collection, Holbourne Museum, Bath
4 Elizabeth Barry Acting in the Role of Zara in Congreve’s The Mourning Bride . National Trust, Smallhythe Place, Tenterden
Much of the research on this book was done in rare book libraries in the United States and Great Britain. I wish to thank the staffs of the following: the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, the Young Research Library, and Special Collections, all of UCLA; the British Library, the Bodleian Library, Oxford; and the Beinecke Library of Yale University. I held a William Andrews Clark Memorial Library Professorship while completing some of the writing and research, and an annual grant from the UCLA’s Committee on Research helped with other parts. Through these grants, I received help from a variety of assistants: Joseph Serrano, Jacob Klein, Charlotte Alleyne Kelly, Stephanie Centeno, Jorge de la Cruz, and Rhiannon Wilson. I am grateful for their help.
This book represents the accumulated thinking about Congreve over years of teaching and research. My first book on Congreve, William Congreve (1970), had the benefit of requiring relatively clear readings of Congreve’s texts. After I had published that work, I resolved to provide a more complex exposition of this brilliant playwright. As I worked on other dramatic writers of the Restoration and eighteenth century, including John Dryden, the comic playwrights of the 1670s, and Thomas Southerne, I continued to consider various aspects of Congreve’s plays against the political and social background, which to my eyes they so clearly reflected. Occasionally I published some of these thoughts in the form of essays. Several of the chapters in this book appeared in very different form in a variety of publications. Sections of Chapter 1 appeared in a seminar paper published by the William Andrews Clark Library. Most of Chapter 3 appeared under the same title in a Festschrift for Philip Harth, edited by Howard Weinbrot. Again, a large part of Chapter 5 appeared in a volume titled From Renaissance to Renaissance , edited by Laurie Fink and Robert Markley and published by the Bellflower Press. I want to thank the publishers of these essays for their permission to republish this material.
In 1988, when the three hundredth anniversary of “The Glorious Revolution” of 1688 was to be celebrated in Great Britain, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the event. Admittedly, a few modest exhibitions were started during this period of the year, but certainly no grand celebration. Edmund Burke had presented this revolution as a mere adjustment in the English political scene—an event entirely different from the French Revolution, even before its frightening executions. There was no parading of a supposedly charming queen such as Marie Antoinette on to the scaffold. No, James II had attempted to leave, had been brought back to London, had hung about for a short time, and then simply left without anyone bothering too much about it. He did attempt several comebacks—in Ireland (he lost the Battle of the Boyne), through a possible invasion—but nothing, it seemed, very effectual. The result was a degree of ambiguity, well encapsulated in the dialogue between Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim in Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy , published in separate volumes between 1759 and 1767. In presenting a vivid description of the battle of Landen, Uncle Toby waxes enthusiastic over the courage of King William III. Corporal Trim is caught up by Uncle Toby’s fervid pronouncement, “Brave,! brave by heaven! […] he deserves a crown,” by shouting, “As richly, as a thief deserves a halter.” Uncle Toby decides that there is no question about Corporal Trim’s loyalty and refuses to pursue any objection to this questionable analogy. But as loyal as Corporal Trim might be, we know that he was wounded in his knee at the battle of Landen, left on the battlefield, and suffered excruciating pain in his recovery. For all his loyalty and his love for Uncle Toby, then, there is clearly an unconscious process of association that suggests a degree of ambivalence and resentment toward William III.
And if the history of Congreve’s time failed to arouse enthusiasm, its literary history fared even worse. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century of Congreve and his time, Hippolyte Taine concluded that all their literature was “abortive,” and that they left nothing behind but the memory of corruption. In addition, during the decades preceding the celebration of the Revolution of 1688, there had been something resembling a neo-Jacobite movement. What if Dutch William had not invaded? Might not England have been better off? Might not a different tradition of native Englishness have flourished? A somewhat utopian air of alternative history might be found in some quarters.
In 2009, 20 years after this dismal show, Steve Pincus published his book, 1688: The First Modern Revolution . Pincus refused to accept the notion that this rebellion reflected a gradual growth of Whig ideas from the time of the Interregnum. And so far from being an anachronism, James was in the forefront of European Catholic thought. The Glorious Revolution was not a peaceful transition but an event involving considerable violence. And it involved a revolution in economics and society, “a bourgeois revolution in a social and political sense,” as Pincus described it, with cultural currents that were irresistible to writers such as Congreve. The 1690s were also a time of complicated philosophical and political ideas. Certainty, complete conviction was nearly impossible to achieve. Jonathan Swift was to compose his Tale of a Tub during the later years of this decade, forcing his readers’ minds to make attempts at reconciling concepts that were irreconcilable. Congreve did not have as complex a mind as Swift, but he was able to create a series of plays that reflected some of the same difficulties perplexing his fellow Irishman.
Chapter 1
John Dryden, who specialized in poetry involving elaborate and occasionally exaggerated encomiums, praised William Congreve as a playwright who might equal Shakespeare. Commenting upon Congreve’s second play, The Double Dealer , Dryden argued that Congreve’s writings appeared to have the “strength” of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights combined with the “skill” of the writers of the Restoration.

Thy first attempt an early promise made;
That early promise this had more than paid.
So bold, yet so judiciously you dare,
That your least praise is to be regular.
Time, place, and action may with pains be wrought,
But genius must be born, and never can be taught.
This is your portion, this your native store;
Heav’n, that but once was prodigal before,
To Shakespeare gave as much; she could not give him more. 1
Congreve certainly had a major reputation during his lifetime. But no modern literary historian has suggested naming any part of the period in which he lived “the Age of Congreve,” in the way such a designation has frequently been assigned to his contem

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