Restoration Comedy refers to English Comedies written during the Restoration period from 1660-1710. The re-opening of the theatres in 1660 after public stage performances had been banned for 18 years by the Puritan regime signalled a renaissance of English drama. Restoration comedy is notorious for its sexual licentiousness, a quality encouraged by Charles II personally and by the rakish aristocratic ethos of his court. English Drama witnessed great changes during Charles II reign. Women were introduced on stage for the first time and they were paid for the same, and theatre as a mode of entertainment and recreation was made fairly accessible to all. As a result of which, the theatre productions received a heterogeneous audience with non just aristocrats but their servants, hangers-on and a substantial middle class segment too. This period saw a flourish in comedies and also the emergence of the first professional woman playwright, Aphra Behn.
Charles II was an active patron of drama. Soon after he came to the throne, he gave exclusive play staging rights to the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company headed by Thomas Kiligrew and William Davenant, who were his mates during exile. The audience of this period was not particularly courtly, but was quite small and could barely support two companies. There was no untapped reserve of occasional playgoers. Ten consecutive performances constituted a smash hit. This closed system forced playwrights to be extremely responsive to popular taste. Fashions in the drama would change weekly as each company responded to the offerings of the other, and new plays were urgently sought. The King's Company and the Duke's Company were neck to neck with one another for audience favour, for popular actors, and for new plays. In this hectic climate the new genres of heroic drama, pathetic drama, and Restoration Comedy were born and flourished.
Variety and dizzying fashion changes are typical of Restoration comedy. With Charles II on the Throne, Restoration drama on the whole went through various changes. Comedies were known for licentiousness and this could be understood in terms of His Highness’ own life and being within and outside the court, when he came back to the Throne, he got with him French influences, which also resulted on introduction of women on stage for the first time, as professional, paid actors. Esther Lombardi quotes in her essay, Game of Love: Restoration Comedy, “Comedy is usually a light, rather amusing, play that deals with contemporary life and manners. Such a drama often has a satirical slant, but ends happily.” The Comedy of Manners, which originated in France with Molièr's "Les Precieuses ridicules" (1658) is one such sub-genre of Comedy, which according to Molièr was a way to correct social absurdities. This form was later classed as "Old Comedy" but is now read and understood under Restoration Comedy because it coincided with Charles II's return to England. The main purpose of these comedies was to mock society and to lift up society for scrutiny.
The Restoration was a time of both political and social uncertainty and transformation. The rise of a merchant middle-class and its aspirations of social mobility threatened social hierarchies. The bourgeois values of personal acquisition, private judgment, and subjective self-assessment began to filter into the society and the literature of the period. Individual self-expression became an increasingly popular value among educated men and women, and there was a growing awareness of the problems of arranged marriage. The Restoration comedies of manners both dealt with many of these new issues yet "the search for novelty, the ready resort to laughter, the conscious reducing of the significance of traditional codes" also helped the audience to evade them (Wilkinson, 57).
The character of the rake-hero is a creation of Restoration society. Taking their cue from the activities and ideas...