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ELH 68.4 (2001) 795-830

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"Justly to Fall Unpitied And Abhorr'd":
Sensibility, Punishment, and Morality in Lillo's the London Merchant

David Mazella

Introduction: Pull Out Your Handkerchiefs!

When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu discussed the hero of The London Merchantwith her friends, she could not accept any doubt, hesitation, or disagreement on the matter: she was fond of declaring "that whoever did not cry at George Barnwell must deserve to be hanged." 1 An "observing Lady" quoted in the Gentleman's Magazine concurred: "such is the artful Contrivance of this Play; so delicate is the Texture of its Composition, that none, but a common Prostitute, can find Fault with it." 2 According to Montagu and the others, only some kind of monster could view the tragedy of George Barnwell and remain unaffected by it. Any hint of disobedience on this topic, any outward sign of indifference, any failure to respond exactly in the manner of Montagu, betrayed a serious flaw in one's character. Because the only acceptable response to Montagu's tears was more tears, those who failed to produce the requisite response "must deserve" their punishment. In Montagu's desire for her emotions to be mirrored, like can only be answered by like, tears can only be answered by more tears, or else suffer the redoubled pains of punishment and social exclusion.

Yet Montagu's hostility toward the indifferent members of the audience only mirrors Lillo's summary treatment of the villain Millwood, the one character in the play who will not pity the hero Barnwell. In effect, anyone insensible or prejudiced enough to reject Barnwell's pleas deserves no better than Millwood herself, who is literally the "common Prostitute" marched off at the play's end to be hanged. To the extent that Montagu and others could attribute features of Millwood to the play's opponents, Lillo's dramatic strategy seems to have succeeded. Indeed, as the accounts of the play's opening night suggest, Lillo's strategy of circumventing potential criticism seems to have triumphed beyond all expectation: "the play [End Page 795] was very carefully got up, and universally allowed to be well performed . . . [and] in general spoke so much to the heart, that the gay persons [who had brought copies of the old ballad the play was based upon, intending to ridicule the play] confessed, they were drawn in to drop their ballads, and pull out their handkerchiefs." 3

This essay describes how The London Merchantparticipates in, and reflects upon, a number of historical trends that caused an anthropocentric concept of sensibility to emerge from older, more theocentric notions of laws, norms, and society. 4 This broad set of historical transformations is generally grouped under the heading of "The Enlightenment," a term that I will use for the remainder of this essay to describe the international, self-consciously cosmopolitan movement of linked intellectual reconceptualizations and political reforms that overtook British and European culture during the eighteenth century. 5 As the rest of this essay should make clear, such a notion of Enlightenment makes it easier to understand the peculiar role of The London Merchant within both Anglo-British and European culture during this period. 6 At the same time, I will also be calling attention to certain local characteristics of English religious politics--namely, the seventeenth-century disputes concerning Calvinism in and around the Church of England--that heavily influenced Lillo's treatment of punishment and the law in this play. 7

The cumulative effect of these Enlightenment transformations, however, was not to discard the practices of morality and punishment entirely, but merely to recast these practices and concepts into their recognizably modern, more individualized and individuating forms. 8 The rise of eighteenth-century sensibility, if it accomplishes anything during this period, certainly does not eliminate punishment per se but instead helps to create new, more enlightened practices of punishment that are better suited to a "polite and commercial society." 9 Hence, in the play's triumphant final scene--the double hanging of Barnwell...


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