“All injury’s forgot”: Restoration Sex Comedy and National Amnesia


This essay revisits the question of libertinism’s political meaning, with particular attention to John Dryden’s Marriage a la Mode and William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. Turning away from the more familiar debates about libertinism as radical or conservative, misogynistic or liberating, I argue that libertine plays speak not only to individual negotiations of pleasure, but to broader problems of family, community, and nation raised by the revolution and the restoration of Charles II. In the eyes of its critics, libertine behavior, which drew particular attention from Restoration playwrights, threatened the foundation of national strength by undermining the consolidation of powerful families. Sex comedies do not so much track the rake’s reformation as they offer, with varying degrees of cynicism, strategies for forgetting about sexual transgression that minimize its potentially destructive force. While later sentimental comedy would embrace the power of memory, Restoration sex comedies, like the monarch’s response to the drama of revolution, relied on the strategic forms of amnesia.

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