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The Comedy of Manners is a genre of theatrical comedy that flourished in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, particularly in Restoration England and early 18th-century France. It is a form of dramatic comedy that satirises the manners and affectations of a social class, often represented by stock characters.

The Comedy of Manners often holds a mirror to society, critiquing the aristocracy while entertaining audiences with its nuanced portrayal of the mores and intricacies of upper-class behaviour. This genre uses satire to expose the social elite’s pretensions, insincerity, and vanity. The Comedy of Manners pokes fun at the importance placed upon wit, reputation, and social standing in high society through exaggerated characters and convoluted romantic entanglements.

Characteristics

Comedy of Manners is characterised by its witty dialogue, clever repartee, and satirical depiction of the manners and conventions of the upper class. The humour often arises from the clash between social pretensions and underlying truths and the absurdity of social rituals and customs.

Themes

Common themes in Comedy of Manners include love, marriage, infidelity, social climbing, and pursuing wealth and status. Plots typically revolve around romantic entanglements, mistaken identities, and social intrigues, often leading to comedic misunderstandings and farcical situations.

Characters

Characters in Comedy of Manners are often archetypes of the social elite, such as aristocrats, socialites, and dandies. They are depicted as witty, sophisticated, and well-educated, with a penchant for wordplay and repartee. Despite their outward polish, they are often revealed to be morally flawed or emotionally shallow. The plots revolve around their romantic escapades and the elaborate rules governing social interaction.

Dialogue

Sharp, clever, witty, fast-paced dialogue is a hallmark of the Comedy of Manners. The wit is particularly aimed at satirising the superficialities and vanities of the upper class. Playwrights employ clever wordplay, double entendres, and irony to convey humour and satire. The dialogue is often characterised by wit, sophistication, and sharp social commentary.

Satire and Social Commentary

Comedy of Manners serves as a vehicle for satire and social commentary, offering humorous critiques of contemporary society and its norms. Playwrights use exaggerated characters and situations to lampoon the vices and follies of the upper class, highlighting the hypocrisy, vanity, and superficiality of social elites. The plays often target the behaviours, customs, and moral shortcomings of the society’s elite, making fun of their pretensions and hypocrisy.

Sexual Politics

Plots often involve complicated love triangles, extramarital affairs, and the negotiation of power between genders within the realm of courtship and marriage.

Repartee

The exchange of verbal barbs and the use of double entendres are standard features.

Key Playwrights

Notable playwrights associated with Comedy of Manners include William Congreve, George Etherege, Richard Brinsley Sheridan in England, and Molière in France. 

    • The Way of the World by William Congreve
    • Love for Love by William Congreve
    • The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
    • The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
    • The Man of Mode by George Etherege
    • The Misanthrope by Molière

Legacy

While the heyday of the Comedy of Manners was in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, its influence can still be seen in modern comedy and satire. The genre laid the groundwork for later comedic forms, influencing playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters for many more years to come.

Despite being rooted in the context of its time, the Comedies of Manners still resonate with modern audiences, as the themes of social pretence and the quest for personal happiness through social manoeuvring are universal. These plays entertain and encourage reflection on societal norms and personal values.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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