Some 250 English comedies are set in London between circa 1600 and 1737. Three clichés about them remain current. First, “Jacobean city comedy” performs serious sociopolitical work. Second, the social level of the protagonists rises in the “comedy of wit” or “comedy of manners.” Third, “low” and “satirical” forms of comedy gradually gives way to “sentimental” and even “exemplary” comedy. None of these claims is more than very partly true. Throughout this span of time we find topical (City Politiques) and topographical (Covent Garden) comedy, social satire (The Provok’d Wife), ideological argumentation (The Country Gentleman), and ambivalent or ironic presentation of conflicted or unstable values (The Man of Mode). London can be fun (The Shoemaker’s Holiday), glamorous (The Lady of Pleasure), wicked (Friendship in Fashion), low (The Roaring Girl), ugly (The Wives Excuse), or allegorical (Albion and Albanius). The degree of realism varies drastically. The plays exhibit far greater diversity of attitude and are much more difficult to interpret with confidence than most critics have been willing to admit. We do well, therefore, to take them on a case-by-case basis, acknowledging that some are ambiguous, internally contradictory, or just plain opaque.

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