The rise of the libertine hero on the restoration stage
Hileman, James Bryan
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Structured in the style of a printed play of the period (though with only three acts), this study focuses on the proto-libertine hero in the plays of the restored stage of the 1660s and on the plays from whence he sprang. My goal is to revise the thinking about this figure, to cleanse him, and the times that produced him, of centuries of cultural effluvia by taking all these accumulations into account. He attained the zenith of his cultural career during the 1670s; his best representations, outside of the poems and the lives of noblemen such as the Earl of Rochester, are on the stage. In a sense he represents and embodies the last full flowering of the aristocracy before the commercial classes and their characteristic, Idealistic, Christian-humanist, bourgeois modes of thinking came to dominate English culture and to alternately effeminize and demonize this figure as “the Restoration rake.” His Epicurean Materialism also parallels the rise of experimental science, though his fall does not. I examine his practice and the theory that informs him, his emphasis on inductive, a posteriori reasoning, the fancy-wit that combines sensations and ideas in order to create new conceptions, his notion that desire for largely physical pleasure is humanity’s (and even women’s) primary motivation, and his valuing the freedom to act and think contrary to “official,” moral constraint, often in subversive, playful, and carnivalesque ways. This character’s primary dramatic precursors are featured most prominently in the plays of John Fletcher, the most popular playwright of the seventeenth century, but also in those of James Shirley, Sir John Suckling, and Thomas Killigrew. Playwrights of the 1660s, most prominently John Dryden and George Etherege, but also William Davenant, James Howard, Thomas Shadwell, Sir Charles Sedley, and others, under the encouraging patronage of King Charles II, finding him still callow, led the proto-libertine hero, by the end of the decade, to the cusp of being fully-formed and ready to assume the dominant role he would play in the 1670s with the introduction of cuckolding and the addition of formidable judgment-wit and a broader range to his basic type.