Restoration Tragedy

Written By Dipen Bezbaruah

 The Restoration period (1660-1700), which is termed because of the Restoration of monarchy, began immediately after the enthronement of Charles II in 1660 as the monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland. Restoration literature is known mainly for drama. However, Restoration drama is sharply different from those of the Elizabethan age and the early seventeenth century. The grandeur, thematic vastness and popularity that marked English drama in the Elizabethan age and the early seventeenth century are missing the Restoration theatre. No Shakespeare is found in the Restoration age. Similarly, no Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were produced in the Restoration theatre. But one should not ignore the fact that the Puritan Government in England had stopped performance of drama in September, 1642 (Daiches, 1998). Drama was restored only in 1660 after a gap of eighteen years. When English drama was finally restored, the dramatists discovered a totally different kind of English society and audience with a totally different taste. It was perhaps a compelling influence of the time to produce comedy and tragedy to suit the taste of the period.

“Restoration tragedy” is a term commonly used to imply all types of tragedies written during this historical period. Heroic tragedy is at the centre of all kinds of tragedies written in this period. There are also some plays which were written under the influence of the Elizabethan dramatists.  A new type of drama known as she-tragedy or pathetic tragedy also evolved in this period.

Heroic Tragedy

The heroic tragedy deals with the conflict between love and honour or love and duty. Such conflict is a characteristic phenomenon of the 1660’s and 1670’s. The heroic play demands heroic characters without fatal flaws. They are daring and passionate lovers. When they are trapped in the irreconcilable conflict between their passion as lovers and their honour as friends or rulers, they give vent to their emotions and agonies in high declamatory speeches or highly stylized meditations on life and death before meeting their spectacular end. The world of high passion, of high-flown declamation, of valiant heroes and beautiful heroines torn between conflicting emotions, is far removed from the actual life. But in Restoration England this type of drama ‘certainly answered some desire in the audience to see love and honour treated in a grand manner on an unreal scene’ (Evans, 1990:120).

The fashion of writing this type of drama was certainly under the influence of French Tragedy. John Dryden, also a master of mock-heroic poetry, was the main practitioner of this type of drama. French classical drama, especially the works of Corneille and Racine, was a source of inspiration for Dryden. Besides, Davenant’s play The Siege of Rhodes, is said to have much bearing on Dryden’s introduction of heroic tragedy. Much that is interesting in Dryden’s essays is concerned with heroic tragedy. For Dryden the ‘heroic play’ is a tragedy ‘with a noble theme and noble expression’ (ibid:121)). As said by Dryden in An Essay on Heroic Plays, ‘a heroic play ought to be an imitation of little of the heroic poem’. According to him, ideally the play should be constructed with a single theme and if possible with the preservation of the three unities.

Heroic tragedy was first popularized by Sir Robert Howard and Dryden himself. Dryden was, however, the most successful practitioner of this type of drama. George Cartwright, with his play The Heroic Lovers, published in 1661, pioneered the species. Roger Boyle, the Earl of Orrery, attempted heroic tragedy in his Henry V (1664) and The Black Prince (1667). At the same time Dryden and Howard produced The Indian Queen (1664). The play was successful and was immediately followed by The Indian Emperor (1665). Then in 1670 came the most expansive and fanciful of all the heroic plays, The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards in ten acts. This play expressed Dryden’s confidence that heroic tragedy was the most erudite and elegant of all forms of drama produced in any ages.

In 1675 Dryden composed Aureng-Zebe, the most sober and the last of his contributions to this type. The scene is set in India. The play shows the nobleness of Aureng-Zebe as he struggles against the faithlessness of his father, his brothers, and indeed of all around him. The play shows that Dryden was growing tired of the composition of grandiose heroic tragedies in rhymed verse.

After Dryden the most successful writer of this kind of play was Nathaniel Lee. Of course, Lee’s plays could not maintain artistic control compared to those of Dryden. His plays had greater verbal violence. Some other writers also attempted to write heroic tragedies. These were Johne Crowne, Thomas Southerne (he wrote in blank verse and mingled the sentimental and the moral with the heroic), Elkanah Settle and Thomas D’Urfey. All of them failed to produce any real literature of significance. However, one important name is Thomas Otway. His Don Carlos, Prince of Spain (1676) is a good example of the species.

In the history of England the Restoration period was not at all a heroic age. Hence the conception of heroism was so artificial and inflated (Daiches, 1998:550). Most of its heroic tragedies are bizarre to a modern reader. The ideal of life presented in heroic plays also seems to be strange and excessive. Moreover, the spirit of such plays is far away from actual life.

Restoration Tragedy under the Influence of the Elizabethan Dramatists   

Though in the history of the Restoration theatre heroic plays are found to supersede tragedies, Restoration tragedy under the influence of the great Elizabethans cannot be ignored. The blank verse is the dramatic medium of Restoration tragedy and hence it is also known as the Blank Verse Tragedy.

Dryden is the architect of Restoration tragedy. His All for Love (1677) can be exemplified first in this regard. It is a play with a tone and a feeling very unlike that of the characteristic heroic a play on the Antony and Cleopatra theme. Daiches (552) calls it as a ‘rewriting’ of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The whole theme, according to him’ is narrowed down and concentrated on the conflict between love and honour. Shakespeare’s moving and orderly blank verse is exchanged for a rather rhetorical and occasionally sentimental blank verse. Moreover, his tragedy is classical in structure and follows the principles of three unities. He indulges in no slavish imitation of Shakespeare’s play, though the composition shows again Dryden’s admiration for Shakespeare.  The play also marks his return to blank verse. All for Love, of all Dryden’s plays, is the one in which the Restoration motives of love and honour are subordinated and their place taken by suspicion and jealousy.

Elizabethan in another way are the later tragedies of Thomas Otway. The Orphan (1680) is pathetic rather than tragic; the blank verse is decidedly Fletcherian, and there are also echoes of Webster and others. But Otway’s masterpiece is Venice Preserved (1682), also written in blank verse (Daiches, 1998:552). It is not a heroic play though it has elements in common with that species of play. The conflict between love and honour is here complicated both morally and psychologically. These plays come closer to Domestic tragedy to which Shakespeare’s Othello and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi belong. Otway’s tragedies are also written blank verse, but they are less complex, less declamatory and more disciplined than what is seen in Dryden. IN fact, there is seen no tragic dramatist, in this period of Otway’s power except Dryden. Of course Otway’s earlier plays Alcibiades and Don Carlos are somewhat stilted and less dreary in effect, although the latter drama was quite popular with the Restoration audience.

Besides Otway, there are seen two other authors in the age. These dramatists are Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Southerne. Lee is noted for several blank verse plays—–The Rival Queens or TheDeath of Alexander, The Great, The Force of Love or Theodosius, The Princess of Cleve, The Massacre of Paris, Mithridates etc. Southerne’s plays include The Fatal Marriage or The Innocent Adultery and Oroonokeror The Royal Slave. Both Southerne and Lee lack the fineness of Otway and their plays are full of declamatory passages, sensual imagination and melodramatic situations. Finally Congreve’s The Mourning Bride (1697), a blank verse tragedy has the echoes of the tragedies of Ford and Webster.




‘She-tragedy’ or ‘Pathetic tragedy’ is a new kind of tragedy which evolved in the Restoration period. Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), an English dramatist, was the first to use the term ‘she-tragedy’.  It focused the distress of exalted women characters (Connor). In such plays the heroine comes to usurp the prominent position of the hero. John Blanks with The Rival Kings, or, The Love of Oroondates and Statira (1677), The destruction of Troy (1678), The Unhappy Favourite, or, The Earl of Essex (1681), The Death of Mary, Queen of Scotland (1684) and The Innocent Usurper or The Death of LadyJane Gray (1694) is found to lead this kind of tragedy.

         In this way, Restoration tragedy can be marked with three different kinds of tragedies. But, Restoration tragedy never achieved the literary perfection of the best of the Restoration comedies, nor was it related to the social life of the time in such a direct way.


Works Cited

  • Connor, M. (n.d.). he Seventeenth Century: Major Concepts and Genres. Retrieved October 13, 2018, from Restoration Drama: New “Types” of Drama:
  • Daiches, D. (1998). A Critical History of English Literature, Vol-III. New Delhi: Allied Publishers.
  • Evans, B. I. (1990). A Short History of English Drama. Kalyani Publishers.


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