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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 4. Love for Love

With all good faith, Dryden adjured Congreve to maintain his post: “that ’s all the fame you need.” In Love for Love, his next comedy, Congreve did far more than maintain his post. He travelled one stage further towards the final triumph of The Way of the World. In 1695, Betterton and the best of his colleagues, having a just quarrel with the patentees of Drury lane, and being empowered by the king’s licence to act in a separate theatre for themselves, opened the famous house in Lincoln’s inn fields with Love for Love. The success of the play was without precedent and well merited. At each step, Congreve approached nearer to life as to the summit of his art. It is true that the pure comedy of Love for Love is intricated with a farce, in which Prue and Young Ben play their parts. It is true, also, that the hoyden’s nurse had been a convention upon the stage ever since the performance of Romeo and Juliet. But she affords a relief to the brilliant flash of Congreve’s wit, and, as for the sailor, if he be not “accounted very natural,” he is “very pleasant,” as Dr. Johnson observed long ago. For the rest, it may be said that at last Congreve has entered into his kingdom. In every scene, he shows himself a perfect master of his craft. The exposition of the plot is perfect. Jeremy, although he speaks with Congreve’s voice, is the best servant in the whole range of comedy. You will search in vain for a truer picture of a curmudgeon than Sir Sampson Legend, compact of humour and ill-nature, whose “blunt vivacity,” as Cibber calls it, was marvellously portrayed by Underhill. Foresight, that “peevish and positive” old fellow, with an absurd pretence to understand palmistry, astrology, physiognomy, dreams and omens, was familiar to all frequenters of the theatre in those days of occult and half understood superstitions. When the two meet to discuss the marriage of Ben and Angelica, they vaunt their excellence in alternate strains.

  • “But I tell you,” brags Foresight, “I have travelled, and travelled in the celestial spheres, know the signs and the planets, and their houses … know whether life shall be long or short, happy or unhappy, whether diseases are curable or incurable. If journeys shall be prosperous, undertakings successful; or goods stolen recovered, I know——”
  • Sir Sampson’s riposte is magnificent:
  • “I know,” thus he interrupts, “the length of the Emperor of China’s foot; have kissed the great Mogul’s slipper, and rid a hunting upon an elephant with the Cham of Tartary.—Body o’ me, I have made a cuckold of a king, and the present Majesty of Bantam is the issue of these loins,”
  • a valiant boast, the repartee to which,—“thou modern Mandeville! Ferdinand Mendez Pinto was but a type of thee, thou liar of the first magnitude!”—seems singularly ineffective.

    But it was upon Valentine, the lover of Angelica, that Congreve lavished all the resources of his art. There is a nobility of phrase and thought in Valentine’s encounters with his father, Sir Sampson, which may be called Shakespearean in no mere spirit of adulation. In these passages, Congreve rises to a height of eloquent argument, which gives a tragic force to his work.

  • “Why, sirrah,” asks Sir Sampson, “may n’t I do what I please? are you not my slave? did I not beget you? and might not I have chosen whether I would have begot you or not? ’Oons, who are you? whence come you?… Come, uncase, strip, and go naked out of the world, as you came into ’t.” “My clothes are soon put off,” replies Valentine; “but you must also divest me of reason, thought, passions, inclinations, affections, appetites, senses, and the huge train of attendants that you begot along with me.”
  • Still better, as diction or invention, are the speeches of the mad Valentine, who speaks with the very voice of Hamlet.
  • Alas, poor man! his eyes are shrunk, and his hands shrivelled; his legs dwindled, and his back bowed, pray, pray for a metamorphosis. Change thy shape, and shake off age; get thee Medea’s kittle and be boiled anew; come forth with labouring callous hands, a chine of steel, and Atlas shoulders.
  • But all is not on this high plane. Ben and Prue, Tattle and Scandal carry us away to the lower slopes of farce, and when Mrs. Frail meets her sister, Mrs. Foresight, it is a contest always of gaiety. No scene in Congreve’s plays is touched with a lighter hand than that in which Mrs. Foresight asks Mrs. Frail where she lost her gold bodkin: “O Sister, Sister!” And Mrs. Frail demands in answer, “if you go to that where did you find this bodkin? O Sister, Sister! Sister every way.”