George Etherege

From New World Encyclopedia

Sir George Etherege (1635? – c. May 10, 1692) [1] was an English dramatist, known for his creation of the comedy of intrigue and his Restoration plays. The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown. Among his most popular plays are The Comical Revenge or, Love in a Tub in 1664, She Would if She Could in 1668, and The Man of Mode or, Sir Fopling Flutter in 1676. Although he is not well-known in modern times, he distinguished himself in dramatic poetry and plays as an established writer between the years of 1636 and 1689. His wit and banter in his plays came out in a dull, dark age, which most uplifted and encouraged the people, making him and his plays incredibly popular.

Etherege was one of the early examples of Restoration Comedy, which emerged largely as a reaction to the collapse of the Puritan era. He is often attributed to leading the way for notable playwrights such as William Congreve and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who utilized the comedy of intrigue, which Etherege first displayed in his writings.


George Etherege was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, around 1635, (the exact date is unknown) to George Etherege and Mary Powney; he was the eldest of six children.[2] He was a scion of an ancient and distinguished Oxfordshire family, resulting in a life of luxury and ease. He is said to have attended Cambridge University; [3] however, John Dennis, one of his educators, assures that to his certain knowledge Etherege understood neither Greek nor Latin, thus giving rise to doubts that he actually attended there. In any event, if he attended he left the university before completing his degree, in order to travel to France and Flanders. He probably traveled abroad to France with his father who stayed with the exiled queen, Henrietta Maria. He is thought to have resided in France, making it possible that he witnessed in Paris the performances of some of Molière's earliest comedies; and he seems, from an allusion in one of his plays, to have been personally acquainted with Bussy Rabutin. This not only influenced his life, but his work as well, as is evidenced in some of his plays.

On his return to London he studied law at one of the Inns of Court. His tastes were those of a fine gentleman, and he indulged freely in pleasure, especially drinking, due to his rich circumstances. [4] He then served as apprentice to a lawyer and later studied law at Clement's Inn, London, one of the Inns of Chancery. [5]

Had he been poor or ambitious he might have been to England almost what Molière was to France, but he was a rich man living at his ease, and he disdained to excel in literature. His wealth and wit, the distinction and charm of his manners, won him the general worship of society. His success was not only prevalent within his plays, but extended to his winning personality as well. His temperament is best shown by the names his contemporaries gave him, of "Gentle George" and "Easy Etherege."

Before his last play, he formed an alliance with the famous actress, Mrs. Elizabeth Barry, who unhappily died in her youth. During her life she bore him a daughter, on whom he settled £6000, with her mother. Little else is known about his daughter or his relationship with her mother. After a silence of eight years, solely due to his class, which upbraided him for inattention to literature, Etherege came out with his final and most successful play, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter. After this brilliant success Etherege retired from literature, but his gallantries and his gambling soon deprived him of his fortune. To provide for himself he began to search for a rich wife. In 1683, he met with a wealthy elderly widow whom he intended to marry. She consented to marry him if he made a lady of her. In an effort to fulfill his part of the agreement, he was knighted in 1680, gaining her hand and her money.

After his marriage, he was sent by Charles II on a mission to The Hague, and in March 1685 to Regensburg, Germany, where he was appointed resident minister in the imperial German court. He collected a library at Regensburg, some volumes of which are in the theological college there. Since he was very uncomfortable in Germany, after three and a half years of residing there he moved to Paris, where he died, though the cause and date of death are unknown. It was probably in 1691, for Narcissus Luttrell notes in February 1692 that "Sir George Etherege, the late King James' ambassador to Vienna, died lately in Paris." His manuscript dispatches are preserved in the British Museum, where they were discovered and described by Mr. Gosse in 1881. The find of such manuscripts adds very largely to the knowledge of Etherege's career.


Soon after the Restoration in 1660, Etherege composed the comedy, The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub, which introduced him to Lord Buckhurst, afterwards the earl of Dorset. This was performed at the Duke's theater in 1664, and a few copies were printed in the same year. It is partly in rhymed heroic verse, but it contains comic scenes that are exceedingly bright and fresh, with a style of wit hitherto unknown upon the English stage. The play was a huge success on the stage, but Etherege waited four years before he repeated his experiment. Meanwhile, he gained the highest reputation as a poetical beau, and moved into the esteemed social circle of Sir Charles Sedley, Lord Rochester and other noble wits of the day.

In 1668 he brought out She would if she could, an admirable comedy in many respects, full of action, wit and spirit, but considered frivolous and immoral by the general public at the time. The premise of the play implored that we seem to move in an airy and fantastic world, where flirtation is the only serious business of life, upsetting many. The basis for the play is thought to have been taken from Etherege's own life, which at this point was no less frivolous and unprincipled than those of his own characters, Courtals and Freemen. Even though it was rejected by many, this play was the initial signifier of Etherege as a new power in literature, representing a significant break with the rudeness of his predecessors or the grossness of his contemporaries. The play is also critically acclaimed, as it was the first comedy of manners to attain unity of tone by shedding the incongruous romantic verse element.

After a silence of eight years, he returned with one more play, unfortunately his last. The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter, indisputably the best comedy of intrigue written in England before the days of William Congreve, was acted and printed in 1676, and enjoyed an unbounded success. Known for its wit, his audiences responded with great laughter. Although his repertoire is not typically produced in the modern theater, George Etherege was highly acclaimed and praised during his life for his work, and is still studied in modern times as well.

The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter

The Man of Mode, also entitled Sir Fopling Flutter, after one of the play's main characters, became Etherege's most successful play due to its wit and charm. Part of its success was no doubt due to that fact that it included caricatures of prominent London citizens of the day. Sir Fopling Flutter was based on Beau Hewit, the reigning exquisite of the hour. One of the main characters, Dorimant, drew on the Earl of Rochester, and the character Medley was based on the author himself. Even the drunken shoemaker in the play was based on a real person, who made his fortune from being thus brought into public notice.

Plot Summary

The main theme of the play is the restoration of order in love and marriage. Two of the main characters, Dorimant and Harriet are the two who are most immersed in the game of love. Although it seems evident the couple are destined to be together, an obstacle is placed in Dorimant's way in the form of Harriet's mother, Mrs. Woodville, who has made arrangements for her to marry Young Bellair, a young gentleman who already has his eye on someone else, Emilia. Threatened with disinheritance, Young Bellair and Harriet agree to pretend to accept the idea, while Harriet and Dorimant engage in their battle of wits, which is reminiscent of Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, from 1598.

An element of tragedy is added to the equation as Mrs. Loveit enters the picture, breaking her fans and acting hysterically. She is defenseless against Dorimant's cruel words and in the end she represents the tragic side effect of the game of love. Having long since lost interest in her, Dorimant continues to lead her on, giving her hope, but leaves her in despair.

Her unrequited love only brings her ridicule and scorn, reminding society that if you are going to play at the game of love, you'd better be prepared to get hurt. Indeed, Loveit comes to the realization that "There's nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world. All men are villains or fools," before she parades out.

By the end of the play, we see one marriage, as expected, but it is between Young Bellair and Emilia, who broke with tradition by marrying secretly without parental consent from Old Bellair. The young couple is nonetheless forgiven for their actions. While Harriet sinks into a depressing mood, thinking of her lonely house in the country and the poignant noise of the rooks, Dorimant admits his love to her, saying: "The first time I saw you, you left me with the pangs of love upon me; and this day my soul has quite given up her liberty."

In the end, as is the tradition in comedies, the play concludes with the characters happy in life and in love.


Page: Sir Fopling Flutter, madam, desires to know if you are to be seen.
Lady Townley: Here's the freshest fool in town, and one who has not cloyed you yet.—Page!
Page: Madam?
Lady Townley: Desire him to walk up.
Dorimant: Do not you fall on him, Medley, and snub him. Soothe him up in his extravagance. He will show the better.
Medley: You know I have a natural indulgence for fools, and need not this caution, sir.
Enter Sir Fopling Flutter with his Page after him.
Sir Fopling: Page, wait without. [To Lady Townley.] Madam I kiss your hands. I see yesterday was nothing of chance; the belles assemblées form themselves here every day. [To Emilia.] Lady your servant.—Dorimant, let me embrace thee. Without lying, I have not met with any of my acquaintance who retain so much of Paris as thou dost—the very air thou hadst when the marquis mistook thee i' th' Tuileries, and cried "Hé Chevalier!" and then begged thy pardon.
Dorimant: I would fain wear in fashion as long as I can, sir. 'Tis a thing to be valued in men as well as baubles.
Sir Fopling: Thou art a man of wit, and understandest the town. Prithee let thee and I be intimate. There is no living without making some good man the confidant of our pleasures.
Dorimant: 'Tis true; but there is no man so improper for such a business as I am.

The excerpt shows the frivolousness of Sir Fopling Fluter, demonstrating some of Etherege's technique of making fun of well known people in London. The play itself pokes at Sir Fopling, through the characters Medley and Dorimant, encouraging the audience to do the same. It also demonstrates the comedy of manners which Etherege helped to pioneer in English theater.


George Etherege holds a distinguished place in English literature, and is considered to be one of the "big five" of Restoration Comedy. He inaugurated a period of genuine wit and sprightliness, encouraging others to do the same. In addition, he helped to invent the comedy of manners as well as the comedy of intrigue, which were usually written by sophisticated authors for members of their own coterie or social class. The comedy of manners has historically thrived in periods and societies that combined material prosperity and moral latitude. Playwrights declared themselves against affected wit and acquired follies, satirizing these qualities by creating characters that caricature such follies. In the character of Sir Fopling Flutter Etherege helped to initiate the use of such characters. This method allowed Etherege to pave the way for the masterpieces of William Congreve and Sheridan.

Etheredge's portraits of fops and beaux are considered the best of their kind. His wit is sparkling and frivolous, his style picturesque. Etheredge is noted for his delicate touches of dress, furniture and scene throughout each of his plays. He vividly draws the fine airs of London gentlemen and ladies, setting his plays in a higher caliber milieu than the rest.


  • The Comical Revenge or, Love in a Tub, comedy (ca. 1664; printed 1664)
  • She wou'd if she cou'd, (ca. 1668; printed 1668)
  • The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter, (ca. 1676; printed 1676)


Other works may include two letterbooks which are comprised of official correspondence with the Diet in Ratisbon in 1685, as well as various Love Lyrics which are not accounted for.


  1. Sir George Etherege Britannica Online.
  2. H. F. B. Brett-Smith, The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege. Introduction. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927), xi-lxxxiiii.
  3. W. Oldys, Biographia Britannica, Vol. III, (original 1750, 1841.)
  4. A Defense Of Sir Fopling Flutter, A Comedy. Pamphlet, (London: November, 1722). Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  5. W. Oldys, (1841).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cordner, Michael. The Plays of Sir George Etherege (Plays by Renaissance and Restoration Dramatists), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982. ISBN 0521288797
  • Huseboe, Arthur. Sir George Etherege (Twayne's English Authors Series), Twayne Pub., 1987. ISBN 0805769463
  • McCaic, Frances Smith. Sir George Etherege: A Study In Restoration Comedy 1660-1680, Kessinger Publishing, LLC., 2007. ISBN 1432517503
  • Underwood, Dale. Etherege and the seventeenth-century comedy of manners. Yale University: Archon Books, 1969. ISBN 0208007644

External Links

All links retrieved May 20, 2024.


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