Critics have long seen Sir Charles Sedley’s 1687 comedy Bellamira as a throwback to an earlier era, when the English stage was dominated by “sex comedy.” According to this line of thought, the play was out of place in an era with stricter moral standards; hence the objections by “persons of a ticklish imagination” to which Sedley responded in his preface to the first edition.1 But one of these critics, Robert Hume, acknowledges a problem with this view: while “audiences get a lot fussier” from the early to the late 1680’s, there was still wild inconsistency in their taste; those same audiences had no qualms about attending revivals of earlier sexually-oriented comedies. Hume concludes, “To understand why one somewhat smutty play passes without apparent objection while another rouses a storm of criticism appears to be impossible” (Development 371). While earlier critics, such as Hume, have focused almost exclusively on the sexual content of Bellamira, Sedley’s play has received little attention from more recent critics, who have increased our understanding of the comedy of the sixteen-eighties by focusing on the politics of these plays. Sexual themes can certainly be intended as mere entertainment, but sex can also be used to make a political point; even The London Cuckolds, long regarded as pure entertainment, has been shown to have some political content (Dawson 70-1). An analysis of Bellamira in its political context shows that, far from being a throwback to an earlier era, Sedley’s play anticipates what John Harrington Smith called “the change in comedy,” an event he ties to a play that appeared in the season after Bellamira, The Squire of Alsatia by Sedley’s friend, Thomas Shadwell.
Like The Squire of Alsatia and a number of plays written in the next century, most notably The Conscious Lovers by fellow Whig Sir Richard Steele, Bellamira is modeled on a play by Terence. In fact, Bellamira follows its source, Terence’s Eunuchus, more closely than any English comedy had followed a classical model since Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Jonson’s The Case is Altered followed their Plautine sources a century earlier. Why [End Page 21] Sedley would make such a close adaptation of any classical play at this point in his career is puzzling: one is not surprised to see Shakespeare and Jonson adapting Plautus for their apprentice work, but Bellamira appeared nearly two decades after Sedley’s comedy debut with The Mulberry Garden. The political situation provides one possible explanation: as a Whig writing in the reign of James II, perhaps he saw the imitation of a classic as a safe bet. His friend Shadwell was attempting to make a living as a translator of Roman satires, just as Dryden was later to do when his party was on the outs. It is true that by 1687 life had begun to be somewhat easier for the Whigs: James had begun reaching out to dissenters, many of whom were Whigs, in an attempt to gain support for his policy of religious toleration. Still, in the light of the persecution suffered by the Whigs in the previous six years, one cannot blame Sedley for being cautious.
A clue as to Sedley’s motivations in adapting Terence is given in the epilogue to Bellamira. There Sedley contrasts Terence with the political satire that had dominated the English stage in the early 1680’s:
Poets of late with humane SacrificeHave feasted you like Heathen Deities.In every Play they serv’d you up a manNay some at Parties and whole Factions ran?After such fare, how flat must Terence taste?Yet his plain Tales have had the luck to last.While your fam’d Authors, in their life time wast.(ll. 9-13)
Sedley plainly saw Terence as having produced a very different kind of comedy from the satiric comedy that appeared in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis. The plays that “serv’d you up a man” would include Thomas Durfey’s Sir Barnaby Whigg and Aphra Behn’s The City Heiress: Or, Sir Timothy Treat-all; John Crowne’s more comprehensive...