Lovers and Liars

Lovers and Liars : A David Garrick Double Bill

18th Century Ettiquette & Expectations


Definition of Etiquette: “The customary code of polite behaviour in society or among members of a particular profession or group that delineates expectations for social behaviour according to conventional norms”

Whilst conducting research into this period, I identified the themes within the play and then investigated these specific areas and the ettiquettes attached to them. These included gender behaviour, conventional norms (fashion, theatre, military), class/hierarchy of said groups and marital expectations i.e. cuckoldry & chastity…


Gentlemen (married or not) were expected to look out for unattached ladies so that they could ask if they’d like to dance. Before this could happen though, formal introductions had to be made. By the 18th century the custom of doffing one’s hat to a person of higher social status was gradually falling into disuse because outside in public areas, such as busy streets, it was often difficult to tell who was of a higher rank. A slight inclination of the head or wave of the hand was used instead when greeting a stranger. If there were ever a circumstance when harassment, threats, coarse comments or other violent behaviour were displayed, whoever was acting in this manner would be told to leave. The same would apply to anyone under the influence of alcohol or drugs.


Low necklines were common for ladies of the time (something that 21st Century actors may be uncomfortable with) but additional coverage was often offered by adding lace, accessories or a panel called a ‘fichu’. Low necklines were seen as a natural statement of femininity and was a way a lady could express her gender. Original audiences would however, have been far more shocked to see skirts that revealed the leg or even trousers/shorts. To criticize another for their clothing or fashion was out of the question for an 18th Century lady or gentleman and would have been greatly frowned upon. This is most interesting in Act II of Miss in Her Teens, as Fribble, (a young, feminine male) critcises Biddy’s appearance and tries to advise her on how to dress – clearly an uncommon and unexpected characteristic of a male suitor.  Fashion in the period 1700–1750 in European countries is characterized by a widening silhouette compared to the tall, narrow look of the 1600s. Wigs remained essential for men of a high status, and were often white. When wigs weren’t used the natural hair was powdered white instead.


In order to gain admittance to a  play in an 18th Century London theatre, it was necessary to arrive at least an hour before the house opened. There were no decorous queues in those days, and no individual numbered seats, so the rush, especially for the cheap bench seats in the pit, sometimes resulted in fights and serious injury. The cheapest seats were in the topmost gallery, known as the ‘gods’, followed by the pit, closest to the stage. More wealthy members of the audience sat in boxes that encircled the pit. Before the introduction of gaslight in the 19th Century, theatres were illuminated by candles and oil lamps and the auditorium was as brightly lit as the stage. This fostered an intimacy between actor and audience, but also encouraged people to chat instead of concentrating on the play. Theatrical entertainments were also a feature of fairs such as Bartholomew Fair. People could come for half price towards the end of the evening, to see the short after-pieces that followed the main play. Going to the theatre proved your social standing. ‘Subscribers’ were people who rented boxes for a season at the theatre and could include society types like the Prince of Wales, and other important people like the Duke of Gloucester. “Playing for points” was common: getting applause and doing an encore after particular speeches; as you can imagine, this wasn’t very realistic.


The British Army in the 18th Century was commonly seen as disciplined, regimented and harsh. Camp life was dirty and cramped with the potential for a rapid spread of disease and punishments could be anything from a beating  to a death sentence. Many men who wished to become officers had to purchase their commission (approximately £450). A large percentage of officers in the British army purchased their commissions as it was a respectable profession for a wealthy individual to pursue. Some fathers would buy their sons an officer rank when they reached maturity. It also gave them an opportunity to increase their wealth, especially if they were involved in the capture of an enemy town or fort and the subsequent sacking of it. From this they might be able to purchase an area of land in England that came with a seat in Parliament and with it power, which again would add to their wealth. John Cookson suggests that serving with the army did command a certain respect, and those men that became the holder of an office “could lay claim to the title of being a gentleman”. Therefore, self-interest, respect and status were enticing prospects for many who were to join the army.

One of the more common offences that required excessive punishment was desertion. A man could be branded with a “D” if captured, and if he re-offended could face execution. Death sentences were not all that common, with hanging normally reserved for murderers, and death by shot employed for those who were repeat offenders. One such case involved Joseph Stoakes who, between 1728 and 1730, deserted his regiment three times, and upon being captured for the third time was sentenced by court martial to death. This is particularly relevant when analysing the revelation of Flash’s desertion in the final act and the dishonor attached to this. According to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, the term “redcoat” was a derogatory one, used as a “name of contempt for a soldier” with the word “soldier” itself being described as “one who serves for pay”. It was entirely possible for a regular soldier to support his family on his wage and through any extras he picked up along the way; many regiments had a whole seperate “army” of women and children that would accompany their husbands and fathers around from battle to battle.

Social Hierarchy: 

There was very little democracy in 18th Century society compared to that of today. There were definite social classes which could be recognised by what a person wore, their speech and behaviour and these groups rarely mixed. As well as in the details of body language, 18th Century England was also innovative in its use of words and concepts to describe society; the word ‘class’  began to glide into the English dialect. Status was laid upon a person at birth or by marriage. Although society in many parts of Europe was evolving, English society still favoured traditional respect for rank and order in a hierarchy. However, despite this sense of knowing one’s place there was certainly no ‘rank struggle’ or ‘rank conflict’.

Marital Expectations:

Women and men of the upper classes in the 18th Century did not marry for love. Instead, they tended to marry strictly for financial and social motives.  A gentleman of high rank would not consider marrying a woman from a poor family because she would not possess the social graces and dowry required to marry into society. Even worse, rumours could be conceived that the match had only come about that he had gotten a girl ‘in the family way’ – a humiliation to both him and his family name. The middle class on the other hand could marry whomever they liked. It wasn’t sensible for a middle-class women to marry a poor man since her children would be raised in poverty, yet if her happiness depended upon it, her family was unlikely to intervene. There was no need to marry for social status or wealth since the middle class did not possess either. The dominant household figure was typically the father who decided whether or not his wife could work outside the home or whether or not his children were to attend school. Divorce was extremely rare since women who left their husbands had no viable means of  survival. Because of this, a woman would seldom question her husband’s decisions and instead, simply live by his rules.


Johnson, Sophie, (1873). A Manual of Etiquette, with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding. Philadelphia: David Mckay


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