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Historical Context: The Restoration

The Reign of Charles II
In 1660 Parliament invited Charles II (1630-1685) to return to his kingdom from his exile in France and the
Republic was over. The Restoration of the monarchy was greeted with relief by most Englishmen, who had
felt oppressed in their everyday life by the strict rules of the Puritans.
Charles II’s court was the most immoral in English history, so when the two catastrophes of the Plague and
the Great Fire hit the country, the Puritans interpreted them as God’s punishment for the King’s immorality.
London was struck in 1665 by an outbreak of bubonic plague, during which more than 100.000 people
died. A year later, a fire destroyed most of the city in four days.
Charles II’s brother James II (1685-1688), succeeded him in 1685. He had converted to Catholicism in 1660,
and his attempts to give civic equality to Roman Catholic and Protestant dissenters led to conflict with the
Parliament. In 1688 James’s second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son. Fearing that a Catholic
succession was now assured, a group of protestant nobles appealed to William of Orange, the husband of
James’s older and Protestant daughter Mary. William landed with an army in Devon, while Mary
established as joint Monarchs in 1689 (1689-1702). The Reign of William III and Mary II was a time of
economic progress for England; London was becoming the financial capital of the world and the Bill of
Rights of 1689 which prevented the king from raising taxes or keeping an army without the agreement of
Parliament, represented the victory of parliamentary or constitutional monarchy.
The Glorious or Bloodless Revolution of 1688 was a clash between two contrasting modernization
programmes: one developed by the Catholic James II and heavily modelled on Louis XIV’s France; the other
promoted by members of the Whig party and strongly influenced by the Dutch Republic. While James and
his catholic advisers opposed religious pluralism, William and the Whigs were committed to toleration.
While James tried to increase Britain’s international power through empire and the exploitation of landed
wealth, the Whigs wanted to create a trading nation, using commerce as the route to national greatness.
Both sides wanted a powerful interventionist state, but while James saw this as being directed largely by
the king and his court, the Whigs favoured a contractual participatory model of government.
The Whigs and Tories were members of two opposing political parties particularly during the 18 th century.
Whigs (named after some Scottish Puritan outlaws) wanted Parliament to be stronger than the king. They
hated and feared the Catholics and sympathized with Puritan Nonconformists. Tories (named after Irish
Catholic outlaws) were for the king and believed in Divine right. They were also in favour of the Church of
The Whigs and the Tories were the world’s first political parties and over the years to come they were to
share government and opposition in a dual party system. The Whigs became the Liberal Party and the
Tories became the Conservative Party.

Literary Context: The Age of Dryden

The Restoration brought about a change in tastes and ways of thinking and also marked the beginning of a
new literature, characterized by the decline both of the ideals of the Renaissance and the Puritan beliefs.
Charles II and his courtiers, coming back from their French exile, imported new fashions and set up an
Religious and moral concerns were replaced by worldliness and pleasure seeking behavior. If the Puritan
ideal had been “The Saint”, the new hero was “the man of world”, possessing a refined taste, a brilliant wit
and much more inclined to appreciate the joys of life.
With the Restoration the Theatres were reopened and the new dramas showed no link with the glorious
Elizabethan past; the new playwrights tended to imitate the French models set up by Corneille, Racine and
Molière. Among the best achievements of Restoration we may quote the so-called Comedy of Manners
reflecting the customs of the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie, their gallantry, their tastes and their
cynicism and skepticism.
The imitation of French forms also originated a new style. The elaborated and decorative Elizabethan
language was no longer suitable to the trends of time. The increasing importance of trade required a clear
and concise language.
Another relevant feature of the time was a new logical and rational spirit, encouraging free and critical
activity of mind, which invested the philosophic, scientific and literary fields.
In 1662 the Royal Society of London was founded with the task of promoting studies and enquiries.
The light-hearted spirit of the Court of Charles II and the reaction against the Puritans, can be seen in
satirical burlesque works, such as Hudibras by Samuel Butler (1612-1680). The hero of the poem, Sir
Hudibras, is a fanatic judge of the Peace travelling abouth the country with his squire Ralph. The technique
used in the poem is somewhat reminiscent of Don Quixote by Cervantes. Butler attacks the Puritans for
their religious fanaticism and hypocrisy.
Christian Writers : John Bunyan (1628-1688)
Among the most representative writers of the period there is John Bunyan. He wrote The Pilgrim’s
Progress concerned with the journey of the Christian pilgrim from the City of Destruction to the Celestial
City. The journey symbolizes human life and the hard constant struggle to reach salvation.
Philosophers: Hobbes and Locke
The philosophic tradition set up by Bacon was continued by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke
The philosophy of Hobbes is perhaps the most complete materialist philosophy of the 17th century. Hobbes
believes in the mortality of the soul. He rejects free will in favour of determinism. Hobbes gained a
reputation in many fields: he was known as a scientist, as a mathematician, as a translator of the classics, as
a writer on law, not the least he became notorious for his writings and disputes on religious questions. But
it is for his writings on morality and politics that he has been most remembered.
His most famous work is Leviathan (1651). The Leviathan is a biblical sea monster. The book concerns the
structure of society. Men in a state of nature, that is a state without civil government, are in a war of all
against all in which life is hardly worth living. The way out of this desperate state is to make a social
contract and establish the state to keep peace and order.
Locke developed an alternative to the Hobbesian state of nature, and argued a government could only be
legitimate if it received the consent of the governed and protected the natural rights of life, liberty, estate.
If such consent was not given, argued Locke, citizens had a right of rebellion. Locke’s ideas had an
enormous influence on the development of political philosophy, in particular on liberalism and he is widely
regarded as one of the most influencial Englightenment thinkers and contributors to liberal theory.
The fundamental principles of Locke’s philosophy are presented in his monumental An Essay Concerning
Human Understanding (1690), the culmination of twenty years of reflection on the origins of human
knowledge. All our ideas, simple or complex, are ultimately derived from experience. The consequence of
this empiricist approach is that the knowledge of which we are capable is severely limited in its scope and
certainty. Nevertheless Locke held that we have no grounds for complaint about the limitations of our
knowledge, since a proper application of our cognitive capacities is enough to guide our action in the
practical conduct of life.
Of great importance as a source of information and a picture of the Restoration period are the diaries of
John Evelyn (1620-1706) and Samuel Pepys (1633-1703).
Evelyn was a follower of the Royal Society, who kept a record of his impressions during his journeys to
France, Italy and Holland.
Pepys was a member of Parliament and witnessed great events such as the “Great Plague” and the “Great
Fire of London”.
Comedy of Manners
After the closure of the theatres the public who returned to them was not the same public who had
crowded the theatres in the Elizabethan Age, including a large section of the population. The Puritans
attacked every form o f amusement and the public of the Restoration theatre was limited to the courtiers
and to a group of pleasure-seekers.
The Restoration Comedy, highly influenced by continental fashions and literary patterns, expressed the
most cynical and frivolous aspects of the age: it was satirical without being didactic, as it didn’t aim at
instructing people. The plots generally consisted of amorous intrigues and the new comedy was called
Comedy of Manners as it reflected the tones and ways of life of the Court and of aristocracy in an artificial
setting removed from the everyday reality. The Comedy of Manners expressed a sort of libertine
philosophy. Among the greatest authors we may quote George Etherege (1635-1691), William Wycherley
(1640-1716) and William Congreve (1670-1729).
Heroic Play and Traditional Tragedy
If the Comedy of Manners was the chief glory of the Restoration, the traditional tragedy continued to be
performed, and alongside it a new gentre developed: the Heroic Play. Like the Comedy of Manners, the
Heroic Play reflected the influence of French models, above all Corneille and Racine. The main themes of
love and valour were dealt with exaggeration. Best example was John Dryden.

JOHN DRYDEN (1631-1700)

Dryden was born in 1631 at Aldwinkle All Saints in a family of Puritan tradition. He was educated at Trinity
College of Cambridge. In 1657 he went to London to begin his literary career and soon became famous as a
poet. Arriving in London during the Protectorate he obtained work with Cromwell’s Secretary of State. In
1633 the author turned to the stage and wrote several plays. His success and fame gained him the
appointment of Poet Laureate in 1668 at the Court of Charles II. During the reign of James II, Dryden
converted to Roman Catholicism and after the Revolution of 1688, which brought about the reverse of
fortune to the Catholics, he lost his post as Poet Laureate. He retired from public life and devoted himself to
poetry and literature. Driden died in 1700 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Dryden was a prominent figure as a poet and dramatist. He experimented all literary genres, always
reaching valuable results and high standards of beauty. He created a poetic style, which according to the
trends of the time, appealed more to intellect than to emotions. Also in prose Dryden expressed his
thoughts clearly and in short precise sentences. He can be considered an innovator.
He reflected better than any other writer the conditions of life of the English upper classes and the
Restoration society. Though a successful poet and a playwright, Dryden did not produce a work which could
stand the test of time: it was because he devoted his genius to celebrate events whose interests have
vanished with the causes or controversies that had originated them. He didn’t leave a considerable work
to be regarded as a true masterpiece or as the example of great original poetry.
Early Poems
His works reflect the political changes and events of the time. In 1658 he wrote Heroic Stanzas on the
death of Oliver Cromwell. In 1660 Dryden became an ardent royalist and he celebrated the Restoration of
the monarchy and the return of Charles II in Astrea Redux. With the reopening of theatres after the Puritan
ban, he busied himself with the composition of plays. Annus Mirabilis is a lengthy poem which described
the events of 1666: the English defeat of the Dutch naval fleet and the Great Fire of London.
During the 1660s and 1670s theatrical writing was to be Dryden’s main source of income. He wrote heroic
plays such as The Indian Emperor, Tyrannick Love, The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-Zebe. He also wrote
comedies. The most famous are The Mock Astrologer, Marriage à-la-mode and The Spanish Friar.
Satires and Didactic Poems
In 1681 Dryden reverted to verses and in this period he produced his best works. He proved particularly
endowed in writing political satires. His first satire regarded the struggle between Whigs and Tories on the
question of the succession to the throne. In Absalom and Achitophel (1681) he depicts the events and the
figures of the time, disguised under a biblical allegory.
Critical Essays
Dryden may be considered as the greatest critic of the age; Johnson defined him as “the father of English
criticism”. His critical essays form a consistent body, including both the achievements of the Renaissance
and the new trends towards Neoclassicism. Dryden was the first to realize the true value of poets such as
Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton.