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The Male Character in Restoration Drama

10 Nov 2017Essay Samples

The Male Character in Restoration Drama: The Sophisticated and the Unsophisticated Male

Introduction

The modern concept of the “nerd” is not such a new phenomena, for classic British literature defines and describes this type of individual as being an outcast in a world dominated by heroes. The period of Restoration Drama, for example, contains frequent references to such characters, as well as the roles played by more dominant and extroverted men and women. Through investigating the roles played by both men and women, the reader can perceive that such conceptions of the strong and popular male who achieves his goals and gains the attentions of the women has always been sharply contrasted against the figure of the unsophisticated “country bumpkin.”

The Characters of the Sophisticated and the Unsophisticated Male

In three novels from the era of Restoration Drama, the characterization of the male figure can be broken into either the sophisticated gentleman or the unsophisticated country rube. The three novels in question are The Country Wife, The Way of the World, and The Rover.

In The Way of the World (1700) by William Congreve, the character of Mirabell is the very manifestation of those traits that set the sophisticated gentleman apart from his peers: Mirabell is all but a pauper, but he is extremely blessed in terms of cunning and wit. Mirabell’s sophistication is not reliant on finances, however, and he is both savvy to the workings of his society and how he can manipulate his position within this society: While it is evident that Congreve is asking the reader to accept the love that Mirabell professes for Millamant, one does have to pause and question whether he would be quite so passionate about her were she not so extremely wealthy. Through his treatment of Millamant and Lady Wishfort, Mirabell manages to eventually convince the community of his “birthright” to both Millamant and her fortunes – The reader is convinced that a character as radiant and as motivated as Mirabell should possess fame, fortune, and high society. In contrast, the character of Sir Wilfull Witwoud is presented to demonstrate exactly how passionate and intelligent Mirabell really is: Despite his title, Sir Wilfull Witwoud is the stereotypical image of the “country bumpkin” in this novel, where this character utterly lacks the sophistication that would mark him as a gentleman. Indeed, the only potentially noble attribute maintained by Witwoud is his sense of honor, which is lacking in the majority of characters in this drama.

In Aphra Behn’s classic work, The Rover; or The Banish’d Cavaliers (1677), the author presents the perspective of a female author on traditional themes from the period of Restoration Drama. Of note is the concept of the “taming” of the sophisticated male, where the character of the woman Hellena meets the “rover” Willmore and they enter into a dramatic series of exchanges: The most prominent of these is when Hellena overhears Willmore confess that he slept with a whore after telling Hellena that he loved only her, and when Hellena confronts Willmore he is so cunning in spinning his lies that Hellena finds that she forgives him despite knowing the truth. Willmore is essentially the perfect image of the sophisticated male: women adore him and are willing to fight for him, and his sense of self- esteem is so very high that he believes that all women as his for the taking. However, as Hellena “tames” Willmore in the end through getting him to marry her, this might indicate that the sophisticated woman has more power than her male counterpart.

In The Rover, the concept of the country bumpkin is not so well- developed as is found in The Way of the World. There are indeed characters that are more naïve than others, especially that of Blunt, but to some large degree it could be argued that every male character in this play save for Willmore fills the role of the country bumpkin. When contrasted against Willmore, the other male characters are simply inadequate. It is undeniable that each has their charms and their place within society as a whole, but the characters of Don Pedro, Don Antonio, and Belvile simply do not come across as having sophistication as does Willmore.

Oddly, however, the character then manages to combine the traits of both the sophisticated and the unsophisticated males are embodied in William Wycherly’s character of Horner. Horner, a central figure in The Country Wife (1675) is bound and determined to achieve a position as a prominent ladies’ man, and wishes to be renowned as a successful seducer of the married women of the area. Indeed, many of Horner’s statements reflect an innate tendency towards a type of jaded sophistication in his relationship with women: For example, at one time he remarks: "Mistresses are like books. If you pore upon them too much, they doze you and make you unfit for company, but only for a night and away, to taste the town better when a man returns." However, Horner’s plan through which he expects to achieve his goal of seduction is incredibly naive in its origins, for he has decided that only through making himself unthreatening can he achieve his desired ends. This process is achieved through Horner’s intentional self-depreciation where he literally sacrifices his manhood in the public eye. With the help of a doctor, Horner convinces his social circle that he has lost the ability to use his manhood in foreign parts to an unspecified disease. In doing so, Horner does manage to convince the local men to perceive him as being unthreatening to their wives, but he has also permanently damaged his reputation where no one could ever possibly consider him to be “manly” ever again. Thus, Horner is both representative of the cunning and intelligent sophisticated gentleman, and is also a completely foolish unsophisticated and undesirable country bumpkin.

Conclusion

Through investigating three pieces of Restoration Drama, it can be seen that the character of the sophisticated male is contrasted in some way against the image of the “country bumpkin”. For both The Way of the World and The Rover, this type of treatment essentially aids the authors in creating the perfect sophisticated male: When the sophisticated male is placed in contrast against the less refined and more garish “country bumpkins”, it can easily be seen that these supporting and bumbling characters are completely out of their depth. The exception is found in The Country Wife, where both the image of the sophisticated gentleman and the “country bumpkin” are condensed into the same character. This technique allows the author William Wycherly to attack the assumption that the sophisticated male is immune. It is without a doubt that an individual as cunning as Horner would be able to achieve his goals without having to have gone to the drastic step of demolishing his reputation among his peers. After all, the characters of Willmore and Mirabell achieved similar goals without their having to jeopardize their position in society, even when issues of gender change through roll- reversal were introduced. 

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