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The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th ed., J. A. Cuddon (ed.),
London 1998:
Restoration Comedy
That kind of drama which prevailed between the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660
and the advent of sentimental comedy early in the 18th c. It is also referred to as artificial
comedy or comedy of manners and was chiefly concerned with presenting a society of
elegance and stylishness. Its characters were gallants, ladies and gentlemen of fashion and
rank, fops, rakes, social climbers and country bumpkins. Witty, urbane and sometimes
licentious, it dealt with the intricacies of sexual and marital intrigue and therefore also with
adultery and cuckoldry.
Sentimental Comedy
Also known as the drama of sensibility, it followed on from Restoration comedy and was a
kind of reaction against what was regarded as immorality and licence in the latter. […]
Sentimental comedy was rather anaemic by comparison and is seldom produced now. It arose
because a rising middle class enjoyed this kind of drama, in which, as Goldsmith put it, ‘the
virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed, and the distresses rather
than the frailty of mankind…’. The characters, both good and bad, were luminously simple;
the hero was ever magnanimous and honourable and hypersensitive to the sensibilities of
other people.
The term became popular in the 18th c., when it acquired the meaning of
‘susceptibility to tender feelings’; thus, a capacity not for feeling sorry for oneself so
much as being able to identify with and respond to the sorrows of others – and to
respond to the beautiful. This quality of empathy was probably a reaction against
17th c. stoicism and Hobbes’s theory that man is innately selfish and motivated by
self-interest and the power drive. In sermon, essay, fiction and philosophical writing
(in the early 18th c.) it was averred, on the contrary, that man was innately
benevolent and thus wished others well. […] By mid-century such feelings were an
accepted part of social ethics and public morality. It was a sign of good breeding and
good manners to shed a sympathetic tear…