chapter
Rochester, John Wilmot, Earl of (1647–1680)
Pages 10

Rochester is a figure of sexual carnival who transgressed as brilliantly in letters as in life. The only issue of a Cavalier father and Puritan mother, he came of age following Charles II’s restoration to the English throne, the emptiness behind whose rich court facade Rochester delighted in satirically skewering both by his actions and in his poems. A portrait of him crowning a monkey (rather than a bust of Aristotle or Virgil, as a philosopher or man of letters was traditionally depicted doing) demonstrates iconographically his genius for satiric self-fashioning and cultural deconstruction, a genius applied in numerous recorded events. Disguised as a London merchant, he lived for several days in bourgeois society, where he joined in reviling the licentious behavior of the court, especially his own. On another occasion he dressed as a physician newly arrived in town who, as one memoirist of the period reports, achieved great success in the treatment of women’s venereal diseases. So sharp was his sense of the theatrical illusion of social life that through his coaching, his mistress, Elizabeth Barry, became one of the premier stage actresses of the age, and he himself earned dramatization as Dorimant in his friend George Etherege’s Man of Mode. Even his 1680 deathbed repentance, made famous in a narrative published by Gilbert Burnet, later bishop of Salisbury, is liable to have been a piece of theater.