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In a historical context, a rake (short for rakehell, analogous to "hellraiser") was a man who was habituated to immoral conduct, particularly womanising. Often, a rake was also prodigal, wasting his (usually inherited) fortune on gambling, wine, women and song, and incurring lavish debts in the process. Comparable terms are "libertine" and "debauchee".
The Restoration rake was a carefree, witty, sexually irresistible aristocrat whose heyday was during the English Restoration period (1660–1688) at the court of Charles II. They were typified by the "Merry Gang" of courtiers, who included as prominent members the Earl of Rochester; George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham; and the Earl of Dorset, who combined riotous living with intellectual pursuits and patronage of the arts. At this time the rake featured as a stock character in Restoration comedy.
After the reign of Charles II, and especially after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the cultural perception of the rake took a dive into squalor. The rake became the butt of moralistic tales in which his typical fate was debtor's prison, venereal disease, or, in the case of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, insanity in Bedlam.
The defining period of the rake was at the court of Charles II in the late seventeenth century. Dubbed the "Merry Gang" by poet Andrew Marvell, their members included King Charles himself; George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham; John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester; Sir Charles Sedley; Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset; and the playwrights William Wycherley and George Etherege. Following the tone set by the monarch himself, these men distinguished themselves in drinking, womanising, and witty conversation, with the Earl of Rochester outdoing all the rest. Many of them were inveterate gamblers and brawlers. Some were also duelists, but not to the approval of King Charles. Highlights of their careers include Sedley and the Earl of Dorset preaching naked to a crowd from an alehouse balcony in Covent Garden, as they simulated sex with each other, and the lowlight was Buckingham's killing of Francis Talbot, 11th Earl of Shrewsbury in a duel for the latter's wife. In 1682 Thomas Wharton, 5th Baron Wharton, broke into a church at night and relieved himself against the communion table and in the pulpit.
On the whole, rakes may be subdivided into the penitent and persistent ones, the first being reformed by the heroine, the latter pursuing their immoral conduct. Libertinistic attitudes, such as (sexual) licentiousness, alcoholism, scouring and gaming, can be discerned in characters belonging to the satiric norm as well as to the satiric scene. However, only the degree of wit brings the rakish gentleman, the Truewit, closer to the satiric norm, whereas Falsewits are always exploded in the satiric scene. The motivation of a rake to change his libertinistic ways is either hypocritical (falsewits) or honest (truewits). In other words, penitent rakes among the falsewits only abandon their way of life for financial reasons, while penitent truewits ever so often succumb to the charms of the witty heroine and, at least, go through the motions of vowing constancy.
Another typology distinguishes between the "polite rake" and the "debauch," using criteria of social class and style. In this case, the young, witty, and well-bred male character, who dominates the drawing rooms, is in sharp contrast to a contemptible debauch, who indulges in fornication, alcoholism, and hypocrisy.
Still other assessments of the libertine concentrate on the kind and intensity of libertinistic demeanour. Here, the rake falls into any one of three categories: extravagant libertine, vicious libertine, and philosophical libertine.
The extravagant rake is characterised by anti-normative conduct throughout, even though he finally settles down in matrimony. Between 1663 and 1668, examples are Wellbred in James Howard's The English Mounsieur (1663/64), Philidor in James Howard's All Mistaken (1665/1672), and Celadon in Dryden's Secret Love (1667). In the 1690s, Sir Harry Wildair in George Farquhar's The Constant Couple (1699) represents this kind of gentlemanly rake. The extravagant rake is as promiscuous and impulsive as he is wild and frivolous, and he finally finds his match in an equally extravagant and witty heroine. He is, above all, a self-aware character who "is what he wants to be," who delights in those qualities "with which he is endowed," and who provides "carnival release." Thus, the extravagant rake is a comic figure because his actions are exaggerated. But he is never a comic fool.
The vicious rake is invariably presented as a despicable, if wealthy person, who thrives on scheming and intrigue. He is frequently married and abuses his wife (examples are Pinchwife in The Country Wife or Sir John Brute in Vanbrugh's The Provok'd Wife).
Finally, the philosophical rake, the most attractive libertine figure, is characterised by self-control and refined behaviour as well as by a capacity for manipulating others. His pronounced libertinistic leanings are not supposed to contribute anything to the comic development of the plot. Rather, his libertinism is serious, thus reflecting the philosophical principles of the pleasure-seeking, cynical Court Wits. It is this kind of libertinism that has secured the notoriety of, say, William Wycherley's The Country Wife, George Etherege's The Man of Mode, and Sir Charles Sedley's Bellamira: or, The Mistress (see Bellamira (play)). Not only characters like Horner and Dorimant spring to mind but also Rodophil and Palamede in Dryden's Marriage-a-la-Mode, Longvil and Bruce in Shadwell's The Virtuoso and the eponymous heroine in Sedley's Bellamira. These plays are not representative of the average Restoration comedy, however. The reform of the ordinary rakish gentleman is the common pattern for the ending of the play. Similarly, extravagant rakes enter into marriage. However, as soon as the persistence of the rakes remains almost unquestioned, it is difficult to decide whether libertines, no matter of what "colour," play a major part in their authors’ satiric strategies. Although Etherege's Dorimant is "tamed" by Harriet, his conversion at the end is rather doubtful. Similarly, Wycherley's Horner is not punished satirically.
The libertinistic philosophy that the scintillating persistent rakes display seems to rebel against the narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy lurking behind the façade of Puritan honesty and bourgeois moral standards. It has been pointed out that the views of the philosophical libertine were strongly influenced by the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. But then, Hobbes was not necessarily an unquestioned ideal among the court élite, and Hobbesian ideas certainly did not permeate many comedies. Dryden, for one, drew on Hobbesian ideas in his tragedies but these ideas are internalised by villains only.
In his pursuit of pleasure and sensual satisfaction, the philosophical libertine shows hedonistic, Epicurean, and anti-rationalist patterns of thought. In their ideal of life, the libertines of this order may almost be compared to the genius of a somewhat later time: like the genius, the libertinistic rake is anti-authoritarian, anti-normative, and anti-traditional.
It is, above all, the emotional distance from the objects of his desire as well as from the havoc he creates, which renders the persistent rake so frightening. Criticism of the libertine was heard not only in the 1670s when sex comedies were en vogue but also earlier, whenever the male partner of the gay couple was blamed for having indulged in immoral behaviour. One major counter-argument was the call for poetic justice. Thomas Shadwell and Dryden, for example, discussed the necessity of poetic justice to punish dissoluteness in their plays. To reintroduce moral standards, the rake, they demanded, had to be reformed towards the end of the play. If a persistent rake was allowed to propagate his philosophical libertinism, "poetische Ungerechtigkeit" ("poetic injustice") was likely to threaten the norm. Shadwell's Epsom-Wells may be regarded as a chief instigator of an excessive libertinism which is not questioned. The play, significantly, ends with a divorce rather than the standard device of a marriage.
However, the number of persistent rakes continued to grow, together with an upsurge in cuckolding action, and, between 1672 and 1687, not all persistent rakes are punished satirically. Only towards the end of the century did the increasing criticism of dramatic immorality and obscenity make the authors return to more traditional moral standards. In 1688, Shadwell’s Squire of Alsatia initiated the return to a Horatian prodesse in comedy, which had already been put forth in the Preface to The Humorist (1671): "My design was it, to reprehend some of the Vices and Follies of the Age, which I take to be the most proper, and most useful way of writing Comedy" (The Complete Works of Thomas Shadwell, ed. Montague Summers, Vol. I, p. 183).
As a consequence, future emphasis was no longer on libertinistic adventures but on the conversion and domestication of the dashing young men. D'Urfey's' Love for Money (1691) and Cibber's Love's Last Shift (1696) are moralising plays and pave the way for the sentimental comedy of the early eighteenth century.