‘There’s nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world. All men are villains or fools’
Mrs. Loveit, The Man of Mode
One of the most curious developments on the British stage occurred during the 1670s. The character of the Rake appeared. With the arrival of actresses and the burst of talented new writers, the reopening of the theatres in 1660 had, quite literally, set the stage for something progressive. However, the emergence of a character that was so decidedly different to anything that had gone before prompted many members of the audience to complain that he ‘taught people not to burn like heroes… (but) love like beasts’.
This new hero was sexually charged to the point of violence, witty to the point of manipulation, and insincere to the point of deceit… yet thoroughly charming. He lived, in his early and rawest form, for an incredibly short space of time, correlating with Charles II’s reign. His way of life was measured by his sexual endeavours, his approach to females was largely in sexual terms, and he was often sexually ambiguous. The Rake used wit and charm to move about in a depraved society; tools that were presented as an ideal.
Clearly, the male pursuit of women was not a novelty on the British stage. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare can attest to this. The real novelty for the audiences during the reign of Charles II arose from the sexual approach that the traditional romantic lead took in his pursuit of women. John Barnard describes the character of Dorimant in George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676) as a ‘figure of the wild man, sexually and morally unconstrained by society’s restrictions… [who] clearly echo’s libertine aspirations’. Dorimant appears at all times to be in control of his sexual endeavours. During the course of the play he manages to cast off one mistress, Mrs Loveit, in favour of her friend, Belinda, has dealings with a prostitute and also succeeds in gaining the hand in marriage of a wealthy heiress, Harriet.
The character of Willmore in Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677) seems to take the sexual and moral licence one step further. Whilst remaining a comedy of almost farcical proportions, Willmore is violently predatory towards women until he meets his ‘match’ in the character of Hellena. With a scene where attempted rape is turned into farce, what make The Rover particularly exceptional is that it was written by a woman. William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) further emphasises the Rake’s predatory sexual appetite in the character of Horner. Pretending to be impotent in order to have greater success in his sexual conquests, Horner (pun definitely intended), proceeds to fondle and seduce most of the female character’s with little regard to their consent.
When it comes to women, the Rake is a master manipulator, morally ambiguous, and harbours violent tendencies. When he does meet his ‘match’ it is unconvincing. Although the female lead is often headstrong and witty she has another desirable asset attracting the Rake such as money or chastity.
From 1685 onwards the Rake, on stage at least, began to degenerate and by the accession of William III had lost many of his more profound character attributes. Taking the remnants, William Congreve created his central character ‘Mirabell’ in the play The Way of the World (1700) – a character that was more delicately portrayed and less forceful than his predecessors. Following this, tastes and sensibilities changed. The Country Wife was deemed too dissolute to be performed onstage and the original was banned from 1753-1924. The Rake was not to be seen again on stage – in his fullest form – for nearly two hundred years, when Oscar Wilde breathed life back into his carcass.
How and why did the Rake become so popular during this short period of time? This will be explored in the next post.
 Anonymous, Reflexions on Marriage and The Poetick Discipline, (London, 1673) p. 26.
 Etherege, George, The Man of Mode, ed. John Barnard (London, 1979) p. xxvii
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© Rebecca Rideal