Congreve: The Most Elegant, Subtle Writer of His Time

The Works of William Congreve

edited by D.F. McKenzie, prepared for publication by C.Y. Ferdinand
Oxford University Press, three volumes, 2,200 pp., $495.00

Shortly after the opening of John Vanbrugh’s comedy of 1697, The Provoked Wife, two ladies discuss what they would do if they discovered their husbands were unfaithful. The first lady declares that she would pay him back in his own coin, but the second protests that we are taught to return good for evil. On thinking this over, the first lady remarks, “That may be a mistake in the translation.” The new independence of women could affect even biblical criticism.

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Granger Collection
William Congreve, circa 1709, from the studio of Godfrey Kneller

This registers an important change in the relation of the sexes. Women could now openly claim the same entitlement to sexual pleasure that had always been taken for granted by men. Nowhere is this shown so clearly as in the English comedies of the last quarter of the seventeenth century—perhaps because women were at last permitted to be seen on the stage. It is not until the accession of Charles II in 1660 that female parts were taken by actresses (in Shakespeare’s time, even Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth were played by boys or young men.) Now some male parts were often played by women and the practice was very popular (one could appreciate female anatomy better in male attire than in the ladies’ robes then current).

William Congreve comes late in the development of a new kind of comedy with a much more open treatment of sexual matters. The new edition of his works, edited by D.F. McKenzie, does him full justice. It identifies and explains every topical allusion and informs us of every word that has slightly changed its meaning during the intervening centuries. All that Congreve wrote is printed in an accurate text, and everything written or said about him during his lifetime is made available. His debt to his predecessors, including Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, is acknowledged and displayed.

Of all the British writers of his time, Congreve was the most elegant, complex, and subtle; but without the frank grossness of many of his contemporaries, he would not have been able to achieve his original strokes. The most important of his immediate predecessors is William Wycherley. The play where Wycherley deals with a delicate problem—sexual impotence—with an admirable lack of delicacy is The Country Wife (1675). Jack Horner (i.e., cuckold-maker), returning from abroad, pretends to have become a eunuch so husbands will leave their wives alone in his company with complete confidence. His plan works splendidly—only too well, in fact, until it threatens to explode when Horner invites Lady Fidget to see his collection of “china.” She locks the door behind them, and her husband, Sir Jasper Fidget, arrives. He wants to know if there is another way to get into the room. The scene continues and builds to a grand climax; here is a much abridged version:

Mistress Squeamish: Sir Jasper, your servant; where is the odious beast?
Sir Jasper: He’s within, in his chamber …

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