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  • Forsaken Justice: Thomas Shadwell’s The Libertine and the Earl of Rochester’s Lucina’s Rape Or the Tragedy of Vallentinian
  • Anne Hermanson

In much of the serious drama produced in London from the mid to late 1670s, expressions of materialism expose underlying skepticism about the existence of moral absolutes. Playwrights from this period regularly raise doubts about the validity of Christian dogma as it relates to the nature of God—God’s traditional attributes of justice, mercy, and wisdom—and God’s relationship with humankind. The Libertine (1675) by Thomas Shadwell and Lucina’s Rape Or the Tragedy of Vallentinian (written 1675/6, but not produced until 1684) by John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester, epitomize this trend. Both plays were fashioned from earlier works. Although they maintain essentially the same plots, by expanding some scenes, adding new characters, and significantly altering others, the revised works project views in stark contrast to those of the original authors. The earlier works uphold the audience expectation that there will be a simple cause-and-effect relationship between both crime and punishment and virtue and reward. The most telling change in the adaptations is that, although evil behavior is eventually punished by death, the evildoers remain defiant: death brings no remorse or repentance. And virtuous behavior brings neither mercy nor justice, despite desperate pleas to a higher power. Both plays discount the existence of a sentient supernatural force amenable to human supplication, a view at the heart of atheism.

Atheism and materialism were highly subversive and topical issues in the 1670s. The ‘sins’ of both were regularly conflated by critics of the period; thus philosophers such as Hobbes, Epicurus and Lucretius (and even Seneca) were grouped together as atheists because of their non-teleological, mechanistic, and materialistic view of nature. To be an atheist, one did not need to deny the [End Page 3] existence of God, but merely to deny the existence of divine intervention, or a “divine economy of rewards and punishments, in heaven and hell.”1 Parliament drew up draft bills on atheism in 1666/7, 1677/8, and 1697: the draft act of Parliament in the 1670s went as far as to criminalize it.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the French philosopher and scientist Pierre Gassendi had re-established interest in the ancient theory of atomic physics. Although he did not agree with Lucretian chance, he wrote numerous treatises and commentaries on atomism and on its ancient proponent, Epicurus. Gassendi’s work was translated into English by Thomas Stanley and incorporated into the third volume of Stanley’s The History of Philosophy, in 1660. The scrutiny of Epicurean philosophy generated an interest in the work of Epicurus’s most prominent disciple, the Roman philosopher Lucretius. Lucretius’s legacy is an epic poem, De rerum natura, which reconstructs Epicurean thought. A portion of the poem was first translated into English in 1656; the first Latin edition published on English soil was in 1675.2

According to Lucretius, Epicurean atomic physics dictates that the nature of reality can be explained in terms of infinitesimally small, indestructible atoms of matter moving randomly within infinite empty space; that the world was formed not by design, but by chance; and the randomness and vain motion of atoms preclude any higher order: “the nature of the universe has by no means been made for us through divine power: so great are the faults it stands endowed with” (II.178–81).3 And, for Lucretius, no ordained and fixed order in nature means there is no divine intervention in men’s lives. The ancient atomists also believed the human soul is corporeal, not immortal; consequently, there is no afterlife. In De rerum natura, Lucretius opposes the use of tales of eternal punishment by priests and poets as weapons to make man fear death.4 “Cerberus…and the Furies and the withholding of light, and Tartarus belching horrible fires from his throat—these neither exist anywhere nor in truth can exist” (III.1011–14). It is not difficult to imagine why Lucretius’s materialistic doctrine of atomism, with its corporeal soul and its infinite nature indifferent to human needs, could be seen as akin...


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