MetadataShow full item record
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractThis study of sixty-seven Restoration comedies demonstrates that the ethical system by which the comic playwrights distribute praise and blame to their characters is a contractual one: those characters who learn to respect contract--the social acknowledgment of another's equality and autonomy--are those who win the dramatic prizes, whether money or marriage. Those characters who attempt to subvert or pervert the contractual ethic, whether through ignorance or design, generally defeat their own aims. Critical opinion has not often favored this thesis because it assumes that contract and trust--the latter a quality many critics now see as important in these comedies--are mutually exclusive. But legal history and legal theory show instead that they are mutually dependent, that an act of trust is a priori an act of contract, and the intellectual milieu of the seventeenth century provided the comic playwrights with ample reinforcement for this idea. Two of the three prerequisites for contract, agreement and consideration, take the same definition in comedy as in law. The third, however, constitutes the major difference between contracts in life and contracts in comedy: what the law calls identity or personality. This quality, explicitly defined in law, is less so in comedy, but it must nevertheless be present if we are to recognize any character as a responsible social being. Furthermore, that character must possess, in addition to this requisite identity, the awareness that personal contract--a private, self-enforcing agreement--is both ethically and practically superior to legal or illegal manipulation or force. Once possessed of both identity and a willingness to contract--of both individual and social integrity--that character earns the right to enjoy the emotional and material wealth which so happily rewards those upholding the comedies' moral vision, a moral vision that sees the contractual ethic as a testament to man's respect for and trust in his fellows.