- Theatre and Culture in Early Modern England, 1650–1737: From Leviathan to Licensing Act
Theatre and Culture in Early Modern England showcases exciting new work on canonical and noncanonical theatrical texts produced during the long Restoration. The collection explores the relationship between political and dramatic developments over a period of eighty years, as the influence of Thomas Hobbes’s social contract yielded to John Locke’s “theories of equality” (2), and as the erratic and untidy censorship regime of the early 1660s gave way to more formal, systematic licensing legislation. The chapters treat a wide range of writers, examining them in relation to topics such as gender, class, and politics, and offer opportunities for comparative study, whether between the historical periods of the Renaissance and Restoration (for example, Restoration adaptations of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays) or between cultures (for example, Spanish influences on English plays). Other essays attend to specific character types, genres, socio-political contexts, or sexual politics in the plays from this period. Although the collection’s focus is fairly diffuse, its individual essays are thought-provoking [End Page 307] and well-argued, offering localized insights into developments taking place in dramatic writing between 1650 and 1737.
Taken together, the essays demonstrate that drama was directly influenced by changing notions of the individual’s place within society, and by shifts in political power and literary taste. Moreover, many are linked by shared concerns. Focusing on character types, for example, Paddy Lyons charts changes in master–servant relationships (chapter 1), while María José Mora and Manuel Gómez-Lara examine the progress of the rake hero (chapter 9). Investigating transformations in repertoire and context, Jorge Braga Riera accounts for Spanish influences on Restoration drama (chapter 6), while Sandra Clark (chapter 4) and Warren Chernaik (chapter 5) examine how a changed political context shaped adaptations of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays. Fiona Ritchie explores the cultural impact of female spectators (chapter 8), while Jane Milling examines the contributions of female writers (chapter 7). This focus on gender is further interrogated in Jacqueline Pearson’s essay on dramatic representations of male and female reading (chapter 2). And Juan Prieto-Pablos enlarges Pearson’s focus on leisure activities by exploring the fascinating relationship between coffee houses and Restoration drama (chapter 3). Coherent within their own terms and placed in productive dialogue with one another, the individual essays reveal that the field of Restoration and eighteenth-century drama is thriving.
In her brief introduction, Gill claims that Leviathan and the Licensing Act “each . . . [had] a major impact on literature” (1). She begins with a summary of Hobbes’s ideas, noting that his political theories were echoed in plays “that give consideration to the social contract” (1), and she cites earlier forms of censorship as a point of contrast to the 1737 act. In chapter 1, Lyons offers a fascinating, fact-filled essay on dramatic representations of servants, prompting us to reconsider the importance of secondary characters. In outlining what servants are imagined to know in plays produced before and after 1700, he identifies a move “away from universalizing and egalitarianism towards particularization and differentiation” (13). This change, he argues, may be explained by a shift from Hobbesian to Lockean influence.
Pearson’s essay in chapter 2 offers a nuanced, well-evidenced analysis of changing views of gendered reading. She notes that anxiety over female reading, prevalent in plays produced before and after 1660, “decreases in intensity” after 1700, while concern over male reading tends to augment (49). The latter is linked, she suggests, to the way reading was increasingly associated with effeminacy and pedantry at the turn of the eighteenth century; the “real man” ought to be well-read, without “diplay[ing] his reading” (50).
In chapter 3, Prieto-Pablos demonstrates that, although presented in a positive light in eighteenth-century texts, coffee houses were initially portrayed by dramatists and pamphlet writers in a derogatory manner. He shows how representations of coffee houses evolved between 1660 and 1700, beginning in the...