King's College London
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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

The virtuoso

Dramatis personae and opening scene of Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso in The dramatick works of Thomas Shadwell, Esq.; volume the first. London: printed for J. Knapton, and J. Tonson, 1720 [Rare Books Collection. PR3671.S8A1D20]Dramatis personae and opening scene of Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso in The dramatick works of Thomas Shadwell, Esq.; volume the first. London: printed for J. Knapton, and J. Tonson, 1720 [Rare Books Collection. PR3671.S8A1D20]Thomas Shadwell (1640?-92), playwright and poet, had The Virtuoso performed in May 1676. It remained popular for nearly thirty years. It exploits that rich vein of satire presented by the Royal Society which was mined by Addison and Swift. The Fellows were often seen as ridiculous eccentrics whose pastimes had no practical application to anything, a view which Charles II shared, despite his having granted the Society its Royal Charter in 1662.

Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, the ‘virtuoso’ of this piece, appears to be a composite of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. He has bottled various kinds of air, has performed blood transfusion experiments on dogs, and is fascinated by microscopy. He makes his first appearance when practising swimming on land.

As he explains: ‘I seldom bring any thing to Use; ‘tis not my way. Knowledge is my ultimate End’. When Hooke saw the play, he was certain that he was being satirised: ‘Damned Doggs. Vindica me Deus [God grant me revenge]. People almost pointed.’

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