1. Examine the literary presentation of political/religious events in the text you have chosen. I have chosen Thomas D’Urfey’s, Sir Barnaby Whig. Whilst there is no direct formula for a restoration comedy, there are certainly identifiable themes and characters that tend to appear often and with particular purpose.
Holland describes the genre thusly “[Restoration comedies] are about the conflict between “manners” [i. e. social conventions] and anti-social “natural” desires. “1 This is certainly reflected in the adulterous intentions of most of the cast of Sir Barnaby Whig, since it is the desperate and farcical attempted seductions that provide the strongest elements of humour in the piece.
Though we may observe an incisive and vicious wit such as Mr Sneer in Sheridan’s The Critic, or indeed Wilding in Sir Barnaby Whig, the seductive figures of Townly and Benedick providing the images of both carnal obsession that are easily identified with post interregnum comedy, and the enforced and constant wit that was served to highlight a return to aesthetic concerns of taste. In short they were the figures of Charles II’s court that represent a return to style and elegance in opposition to the strict regime imposed by Cromwell.
Yet in the case of this play by D’Urfey, it is the obviously satirical figure of the title character Sir Barnaby Whig that provides the most poignant political commentary in this text. The Whigs, a collective noun for the political party of the Earl of Shaftesbury which dominated the three parliaments from 1679 to 1681, in opposition to the prospect of a Catholic ruler in James II2 are here given a voice, but such a blustering, overweight and ineffectual character that D’Urfey’s position is evident from our first meeting with him.
However whilst this is an extremely political figure, and one that is will be personal to D’Urfey, I intend to show that it is in fact the concept of politics in drama that D’Urfey is commenting on, whilst still making a strong political attack. The political event that seems the basis for this plays obsession with fidelity, either to a partner or a set of political and religious ideals, is that of the shifting political allegiances of Anthony Ashley Cooper, by 1672 the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury.
It is Shaftesbury and likeminded versatile political chameleons that D’Urfey is parodying in the form of Sir Barnaby. This play coming as it does in the year that Charles dissolved the 1981 parliament, could easily be construed as a declaration of solidarity and loyalty to the monarchy, since in 1676 the Duke of Ormonde presented D’Urfey to Charles II after a production of his play Madam Fickle3. This began a long and healthy relationship between the playwright and the crown, serving as he did successive monarchs until his death in 1723, as well as many powerful patrons.
Taking this into account, we can see where his allegiance lies from the outset, and so a loyalist perspective is both expected and well executed, since it seemed that D’Urfey’s self-deprecating humour is what drew Charles to him in the first place4. However the actions of the Whig party would appear not only in opposition to D’Urfey’s political views but also, in the playwright’s opinion, to anyone who is not consistent in their beliefs regardless of the shifting political currents.
Shaftesbury’s history presents us with reasons why D’Urfey would seek to ridicule him, since his own loyalties alter as quickly as he could. Having taken his support away from the crown during the civil war in 1644, he then left Cromwell’s circle in 1654 when his faith in autocratic rule faltered. His concerns of tolerance when dealing with the regicides after 1661 disappeared when religion clouded the issue of the succession and James’ coronation appeared imminent, forcing him to advocate the Test Act in 16735, restricting the offices that could be held by Catholics.
Subsequently he committed the final irredeemable act in supporting the Duke of Monmouth’s claim to the throne over James, leading to his enforced flight from England and refuge in Holland. This constant political manoeuvring is visible clearly in both the manner of speech we observe in Sir Barnaby, stuttering and disparate, but also in the reactions of his fellow cast members. Townly may appear to be an inconstant lover, who thrives on the intricacies of courtly relationships, his pleasure at Millicent’s envy; “My new Mistress!
“-Jealousie-good” (Act 3 Sc 1)6, but it is one of his comments that damns Sir Barnaby, Shaftesbury, and the Whigs, in Sir Walter, “I never desert the person that has first ingaged me: I never change parties not I” (Act 2 Sc 2). This sly dig at the inconstancy of the Whig party remains a theme throughout the play, and it is this that eliminates any hint of shock at the arrest and assault on Sir Barnaby. This incident seems absurd, to have the title character, certainly the receptacle for all of D’Urfey’s ire at Shaftesbury and his ilk’s attempts to eliminate the sovereign rights of the King, arrested before the conclusion of the play.