Cibber and Vanbrugh: Language, Place, and Social Order in Love's Last Shift


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

"Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted," wrote Ben Jonson, "Language is. It imitates the publicke riot."1 The belief that men's language is a reflex of their moral and social conduct has a long and very varied history, and has been sanctioned by radically different views of the nature and origin of language (and indeed of society). It may (as in Jonson's case) proceed from the belief that human speech is an image of the archetypal language of heaven, having been created by God in order to further a divinely ordained moral order, or it may be quite independent of that belief. To list some well known seventeenth-century examples, the dangers of semantic corruption were urged, in support of profoundly different causes, by Milton, Hobbes, Robert South and Samuel Parker, and John Locke: for Milton, language originated as a divinely instituted system of natural signs; for Parker and Locke it originated in arbitrary social compact, though both (in very differing ways) believed in a naturally validated moral law; South shifted between the two views of language; and Hobbes regarded not only language but (to a large extent) morality as an arbitrary construct, and denied that human speech had any capacity to reflect the divine nature.2 The difference, of course, is that belief in the divine origins of human speech and morality necessitates belief in moral function of language, whereas belief in their purely conventional nature may lead to denial of the power of language to represent and assert binding values; in dismissing moral categories as mere "names" created by convention, the libertines treated language merely as an intangible flatus vocis. I have argued elsewhere that Hobbes' linguistics in part influenced a brief period of extreme linguistic scepticism in Carolean drama, when several leading dramatists denied or greatly limited the capacity of language to correlate individual thought and sensation with any larger, analogical, social, and cosmic orders.3 The period of extreme scepticism was quickly over. Dryden returned to a more traditional view of language in Troilus and Cressida (1679), and of course the conclusion of Absalom and Achitophel (1681) provided one of the period's greatest affirmations of language as an instrument of social and divine order:

Thus from his Royal Throne by Heav'n inspir'd,

The God-like David spoke: with awfull fear

His Train their Maker in their Master hear.4

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