The Country Wife begins with Frank Horner instructing a "doctor" to spread the word around London that Horner is impotent. The impotence, he says, is the result of a sexually transmitted disease acquired in Paris. Horner's purpose in spreading this rumor is to seduce London's high society women. These wealthy women will be caught off guard if they believe him to be impotent, for they will not suspect his intentions to be sexually motivated.
This stratagem actually takes up a very small portion of the play's plot. The consequence of Horne's ploy is really what most of the play is about. Odd as Horner’s scheme may seem, there seems to be a method in his madness. On the one hand, it goes against the grain of male bravado to declare oneself impotent.
The feigned impotence starts a chain of reactions that brings out the lascivious nature of all the upper class city-bred women, lurking meanly behind their aggressive references to morality and virtue. This is a typical Restoration and eighteenth century satirical technique, borrowed from the Roman satirists like Horace and Juvenal. An innocent or a naïf or, someone with a fundamental human defect, is presented to society in a story; and everybody begins to take advantage of him or her with the pretense of helping. Wycherley had borrowed the plot of this play from two French comedies (which, in turn, had Latinate origins) and improvised on them.
In this first act, Horner’s central stratagem sets off a sort of the battle of the sexes. We have scenes in which the men (Horner, Dorrilant, Sparkish and Harcourt) rail away at the so-called ladies of fashion. In another scene, women and men criticize each other for their hypocrisy. In yet another, women talk to each other and criticize men. In all of them, however, the talking point is Horner’s impotency.
Horner’s impotency affects, very differently, two couples—Mr. and Mrs. Pinchwife and Sir Jasper and Lady Fidge. Mr. Pinchwife is the epitome of a jealous husband and is absolutely unwilling to let his wife out of his sight. Despite the rumor about him, Pinchwife does not trust him. This is not the case with Sir Jasper. To Jasper, Horner’s alleged impotency is amusing, making his wife (and other women) safe with the dissimulator. So he rather encourages Lady Fidget to be in the “eunuch’s” presence while he is away keeping important people company. Lady Fidget, however, knows about Horner’s ruse and willingly participates in her husband’s delusion because it suits her licentious interests and yet keeps her virtuous veneer intact. In sharp contrast are the Pinchwifes. Brought here by her husband because his sister, Alithea, is to wed Mr. Sparkish, a caricature of a “London Spark,” or playboy wit, Margery Pinchwife is very curious about her first visit to London, eager not only to visit the playhouses, but meet the city gallants, one of whom, she has been told, is eager to seduce her.
The scene begins with Margery Pinchwife asking Alithea about sights worth visiting in London. But even as Alithea describes them, Pinchwife enters the stage and Margery straight away demands that he show her the sights of London, especially the playhouses. Mr. Pinchwife has to resort to keeping Margery as a prisoner in her own home. He tries to justify his actions by telling his gullible wife stories of male theater goers who lust for young women, and even says to her that there is a man who is angling for her. This only succeeds in making the young wife even more curious about who this man.
Soon Sparkish and Harcourt enter the stage and—as if on cue to Pinchwife’s warning—Harcourt openly flirts with Alithea right in front of Sparkish, Alithea’s betrothed. Not surprisingly, Pinchwife is outraged. Sparkish, however, is amused because a London spark (a colloquialism for a "man-about-town") is not supposed to be jealous of other men admiring his wife. Thus, Sparkish would rather barter his fiancée for a compliment to his wit. He has his laugh, and Harcourt has his woman.
One of the interesting features of The Country Wife is Wycherley’s to-and-fro plot, oscillating between a semi-serious episode of Harcourt and Alithea, and completely nonsensical farce involving the rest. Act II ends with the London ladies, Lady Fidget, Lady Squeamish and her granddaughter, appearing on the stage, demanding Pinchwife to let his new wife go to a play with them. But Mr. Pinchwife will not relent, insisting that she stay home while he goes to the play. As if to balance Pinchwife’s paranoid jealousy, Wycherley gives us Sparkish and Sir Jasper, both of whom are eager that their women spend time with another man, although for very different reasons. As we have already seen, to Sparkish, flirting with one’s wife is a fashion; to Fidget, however, his urging Lady Fidget to be with Horner is his way of protecting her from other sexual predators roaming the London theaters. Besides, he is under the impression that Horner is impotent.
The fact that Lady Fidget knows Horner is not, and pretends to shun his company in public, only to jump into his arms in private, adds to Wycherley’s vicious criticism of women’s morals. He builds up a slow tension between the Pinchwifes, Sparkishes and Fidgets – the fools and the hypocrites – on the one side, and the Horners and Harcourts on the other, men who, though of questionable morals, are at least not two-faced and pretentious.
In the third act, technically the middle of the play, the plot, as they say, thickens. Pinchwife decides to take his wife to the play, but by dressing her up as a man. His ploy of disguising his wife as a man only the young woman look only more attractive. It does not take Horner long to discover that she is a woman, and, taking advantage of the disguise, he starts flirting with Margery outrageously, pretending to make love to “his” sister, the real Mrs. Pinchwife. This drives the jealous husband batty and he thoroughly turns on the innocent Margery Pinchwife. Inevitably, Mrs Pinchwife realizes that this is the man who is supposed to be in love with her and falls in love with him also.
Meanwhile, Harcourt is in love with Alithea and is desperate to knock her off Sparkish. Sparkish participates, unwittingly taking Harcourt’s amorous advances to Alithea as a sporting gesture. Althea, the only woman in the whole play with dignity and common sense, cannot seem to make her betrothed realize that Harcourt is scheming to woo her away. Harcourt’s intelligence and ardent love for her is slowly weakening Alithea’s resolve to remain faithful to the slow-witted Sparkish. She warns him over and over to no avail.
The complex and romantic Harcourt-Alithea “relationship” is probably the only mature aspect of this play. Because Mr Sparkish shows no jealousy towards the flirtatious Harcourt, Alithea is emotionally caught in a bind. On the one hand, she has her honor to defend. She is being forced to choose between her commitment to her brother and Mr. Sparkish, and the interest—and romantic curiosity—she feels for the romantic Harcourt. He has fallen in love with her. She was not a little attracted to his intelligence and amorous advances.
Seemingly, Mr. Sparkish completely trusts Alithea, but that trust is mainly a posture, a modish stance adopted by Restoration playboys. In contrast to Sparkish, Alithea’s determination to reject Harcourt, her heroic effort to remain loyal to the marriage arrangement bartered by Pinchwife and Sparkish for monetary gains, actually makes this play interesting.
Why does Althea resist Harcourt? After all, is he not far more intelligent and interesting than the stupid Sparkish? The answer lies both in a Restoration dramatic convention called the “gay couple,” and, in the plot of this play.
Simply explained, the “gay couple convention” pits...