The comedy of manners is a genre of comedy that flourished on the English stage during the Restoration period. Plays of this type are typically set in the world of the upper class, and ridicule the pretensions of those who consider themselves socially superior, deflating them with satire. With witty dialogue and cleverly constructed scenarios, comedies of manners comment on the standards and mores of society and explore the relationships of the sexes. Marriage is a frequent subject. Typically, there is little depth of characterization; instead, the playwrights used stock character types—the fool, the schemer, the hypocrite, the jealous husband, the interfering old parents—and constructed plots with rapid twists in events, often precipitated by miscommunications. The roots of the comedy of manners can be traced back to Molière's seventeenth-century French comedies and to the “humours” comedy of Ben Jonson; indeed, certain characteristics can be found as far back in time as ancient Greek plays.
Critics agree that the masters of the comedy of manners were George Etherege (1635-1692), William Wycherley (1640-1716), John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), William Congreve (1670-1729), and George Farquhar (1678-1707). Etherege's The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub (1664) and She Wou'd If She Cou'd (1668) are often seen as inaugurating the genre of the comedy of manners, and his characters, including Sir Frederick Frollick and Sir Fopling Flutter, were favorites with audiences and became standard character types.
Wycherly's comedies are pointed and relatively harsh. The Country Wife (1674) deals with the jealousy experienced by an old man, Bud Pinchwife, married to a young woman, Margery. Margery's affair with another man, and her concealment of it, is accepted as proper and understandable in light of Bud's abusiveness. (He threatens repeatedly to stab his wife.) Wycherley's masterpiece, The Plain Dealer (1676), is based on Molière's Le Misanthrope and follows the relationship problems of a sea-captain, Manly.
Congreve is considered by many critics to have been the greatest wit of the dramatists writing in this vein; William Hazlitt declared Congreve's dialogue brilliant and his style perfect. The Old Bachelour (1693) was a great popular success, as was Love for Love (1695). His last comedy, The Way of the World (1700), is now considered his masterpiece but was not successful upon its premier. Although marriage is at its center, the preoccupation is with contracts and negotiation of terms, not passionate love.
Vanbrugh's The Relapse: Or Virtue in Danger (1696) has two plots, only slightly connected, and includes seduction, infidelity, impersonation, and the attempt to gain another's fortune. Vanbrugh's masterwork, The Provoked Wife (1697), became notorious because it was given special attention by critic Jeremy Collier in his case against the immorality of the stage. In keeping with the plays of the time, the names of the characters often reflect their type: Heartfree, Sir John Brute, Constant, Lady Fanciful, and Colonel Bully.
Farquhar's comedies were written at the end of the period and serve as a transition to later comedies, noticeable in their greater sensitivity to characters as individuals rather than types. The Recruiting Officer (1706) makes fun of some of the foibles of military heroes, while The Beaux' Stratagem (1707) includes a remarkably modern-style divorce, due to the couple failing to make each other happy.
While they wrote in the latter portion of the eighteenth century, after the Restoration period, and after sentimental comedy had become the dominant comedic form, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith composed plays that revived and renewed the comedy of manners genre. Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777) and Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1773), in particular, received popular and critical acclaim when first produced, and have been continuously staged to the present day.
Because the comedy of manners so readily presents a view into the attitudes of society of the past, scholars find its study rewarding. Newell W. Sawyer has traced the development of the genre and relates it to the changes occurring in society at large. John Palmer has focused on the changes in comedy wrought by Collier, whose criticism of what he deemed moral lapses in certain plays affected what playwrights produced thereafter. Attitudes toward youth and old age have been examined by Elisabeth Mignon, who noted the comedy of manners' reflection of society's preoccupation with aging. Margaret Lamb McDonald and Pat Gill have analyzed the comedy of manners for what it reveals about attitudes toward women, particularly in regards to their intelligence, independence, and sexuality. Not all critics have devoted their time solely to its treatment of society's mores; some, such as David L. Hirst, have performed close readings of the texts themselves in order to judge the comedies on their merits as comedies.