The Restoration Period in English Literature: Timeline & Overview

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  • 1:03 Political Context
  • 2:44 Philosophical Context
  • 3:33 The Theatre
  • 4:32 Poetry
  • 6:12 Prose & Fiction
  • 7:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

This lesson explores what is known as the Restoration era of English literature, which lasted from 1660 to about 1688. We'll look at the context, themes, and styles that define this period of literature.

What Was the Restoration Period?

One of the most important and interesting aspects of literature is the way that it both responds to and is inevitably shaped by the political context in which it is written. Some of the best examples of this can be found in the Restoration period, which lasted from 1660 to around 1688. The name 'restoration' comes from the crowning of Charles II, which marks the restoring of the traditional English monarchical form of government following a short period of rule by a handful of republican governments.

At the heart of this literature is the attempt to come to terms with the political events that had occurred in previous decades. The writings of this time are both innovative and varied; the style and subject matter of the literature produced during the Restoration period spanned the spectrum from definitively religious to satirical and risqué. In 1688, James II, Charles II's brother, was removed from the throne, which many scholars use to mark the end of Restoration literature.

Political Context

In addition to conveniently providing the title for the period, the restoration of Charles II has a particularly defining influence on the literature that was written in the second half of the 17th century. The political events of the previous decades resulted in tremendous turmoil for the English people.

The divisions between those who supported a more traditional form of government and those who wanted a more republican form of government led to strong tensions throughout England. These tensions led to the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651 and was a particularly brutal experience for many British people. The war culminated with the beheading of Charles I in 1649, and from 1649 to 1659, various forms of republican government ruled Britain.

In 1660, Charles II became king, thereby restoring the English monarchy. After Charles II died in 1685, his brother, James II, took over the throne. Afraid of the policies James II might introduce, William III removed James II in 1688 and took over the English throne in 1689. This act is often referred to as the Glorious Revolution because, relative to the violence of the English Civil War, the transfer of power was not very bloody.

Some scholars use the displacement of James II as one place to mark the end of the Restoration period. As with all periods of literature, this is a somewhat arbitrary date, and as we'll see in the rest of this lesson, not all of the styles and themes common to the Restoration era literature perfectly coincide with this date.

Philosophical Context

The start of the Restoration period roughly coincides with the beginning of what is known as the Enlightenment, which lasted until the end of the 18th century. The Enlightenment was defined by an emphasis on reason and logic; the thinkers of the period, moreover, helped develop the modern science that treats the natural world as a knowable and testable subject.

Although the influence of the Enlightenment on the Restoration period is tremendous, it's important to note the humility towards human reason that is common to much Restoration literature. Many Restoration writers viewed the changes to their government, and the violence that these changes brought with them, as the direct result of those who dogmatically held to their ideology. In this sense, the political events that occurred in England provide insight into the skepticism that is at the heart of Restoration literature.

The Theatre

One of the most significant aspects of Restoration literature is the return of the theatre. As a result of the influence of religious and political leaders who believed it to be sinful, the theatre had been closed for 18 years. Charles II, however, was a big fan of drama and quickly allowed and encouraged the theatre's presence.

This period saw many innovations in theatre, including the important new genre called Restoration comedy. In stark contrast to the humble spiritual themes that were common to the literature before 1660, Restoration comedy was frequently crass, largely sexual, and often focused on the interactions of the elite members of English society. Popular writers of Restoration comedy include John Dryden, George Etherege, and William Congreve. Although Restoration literature is commonly considered to end around 1688, Restoration comedy was written into the 1700s.

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Additional Activities

The Restoration Period - Research and Writing

Further Research:

1. In the lesson, you learned something about the period named The Restoration, a name that is based on the restoration of the British monarchy to the throne of England. Do some further reading about the politics of the time, including some major figures like Charles II, James II, and Oliver Cromwell. Also read about the period called the Interregnum, which is the time between monarchs when England was under the control of politicians rather than the royal family. What was literature like during this period before the Restoration?

2. You learned that there was an explosion of activity in the theatrical world when Charles was restored to the throne. Find an illustration of a theater stage during this time period. Read a play by one of the well-known playwrights of this period like Aphra Behn, William Wycherley, or John Dryden. Imagine how these plays might have been staged.

3. The Restoration Era saw the advent of celebrity actors and actresses, and also the first time women performed on the stage. Read about some of the popular actors of the time like Thomas Betterton, David Garrick, and Anne Bracegirdle. What was a "breeches part"? How were these performers treated by theatergoers?

Writing Projects

1. Read some examples of Restoration poetry. Poetry during this time was often connected to political events of the day. Choose a poem with a political subject and write an essay about how the poet must have felt about the issue on which the poem is based.

2. Read an example of prose fiction from the Restoration period. One of the most popular narratives still studied today is Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. Write a compare and contrast essay discussing how novels from this time are similar to and different from contemporary fiction.

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