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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

§ 5. The Mourning Bride

After the triumph of Love for Love at the theatre in Lincoln’s inn fields, Congreve agreed to give the managers a new play every year, if his health permitted, in exchange for a “full share.” In 1697, he produced, not another comedy, but The Mourning Bride, a rash experiment in the later Elizabethan drama. To a modern ear The Mourning Bride is sad fustian. The action, such as it is, is enwrapped in impenetrable gloom. Prisons and burial-vaults are its sombre background. The artifice—disguise—upon which its plot turns is borrowed from comedy, with the simple difference that the wrong man is not married but murdered. In other words, Manuel, king of Granada, personates Alphonso for jealousy of Zara:

  • There with his bombast, and his robe arrayed,
  • And laid along as he now lies supine,
  • I shall convict her to her face of falsehood.
  • Were it not that Manuel is decapitated by his favourite, we might be assisting at captain Bluffe’s marriage with the masked Lucy. But the taste of the time hailed it as a masterpiece. It was heard with enthusiasm, and held the stage for many years. Stranger still is it that Dr. Johnson pronounced the description of the temple in the second act “the finest poetical passage he had ever read.” It is idle to discuss the vagaries of criticism, though few will be found now to mistake the pompous platitude of Congreve for poetry. For the rest, the play opens with one of the oftenest quoted lines in English—“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast”; its third act concludes on a famous tag, the sense of which is borrowed from Cibber:
  • Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned,
  • Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned;
  • and its production was but an interlude in the career of Congreve.