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First published in 1676, The Virtuoso set a standard for theatrical satire. It was the most extensive dramatic treatment of modern science since Jonson's The Alchemist and took as its target no less than the Royal Society of London. Shadwell's barbs hit their targets often and cleanly. In 1689 he became Poet Laureate of England, a position he held until his death in 1692.
The virtuoso of the title is Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, who like many after him confuses the extent of a collection with the depth of a science. Sir Gimcrack is fascinated by the geography of the moon, the worlds in his microscope, and the possibilities of human flight. More seriously and-for Shadwell's audience-more comically, his obsession with his arrays of worms and spiders proceeds at the expense of his wife and two beautiful nieces.
The play also introduces Sir Formal Trifle, a pedantic ciceronian orator and coxcomb. His character established thereafter the theatrical type of the know-it-all blowhard. Famous for its wit and high-speed changes, The Virtuoso is also a display of the prestige of modern science and the pomposity of its ameteurs.