Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*London. Capital and leading city of England. The play depicts fashionable London, in which wives are expected to be ready to deceive their husbands and take lovers and where gentlemen are considered potential or actual rakes. This is a world in which country manners and morals are regularly derided and feminine chastity is associated with lack of London sophistication, except by Margery Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea, who is the play’s true heroine.
Horner’s lodging. London bachelor apartment of Mr. Horner; a key setting in the play, as the place where Horner’s scheme of pretending to be impotent in order to gain access to other men’s wives is announced in the first act. The lodging is later the scene of various seductions and the notorious “china scene,” in which Horner uses the metaphor of “inspecting his china” to describe his conquests of various women. In act 5 the apartment is the setting for the play’s denouement, in which Alithea chooses Harcourt over her naïve suitor, and Pinchwife’s suspicion about Horner’s successful seduction of Margery is refuted by the repetition of the lie about Horner’s supposed impotence, which is reaffirmed by his mercenary doctor.
Pinchwife’s house. Home of the old cuckold Mr. Pinchwife and his young bride, Margery Pinchwife. The house is a virtual prison for Margery, whom Pinchwife is determined to hide from fashionable London and potential seducers. The location also provides a scene for his debates with his sister-in-law, Alithea, who consistently argues that his effort to “protect” Margery from meeting amatory rakes will produce the opposite effect and make her determined to escape from his zealous confinement of her.
New Exchange. One of many fashionable meeting places for rakes and ladies, it is the setting for Margery’s rebellious adventure away from the house, where disguised as a boy, she encounters Horner, which leads to her seduction.
The Country Wife by William Wycherley was published in 1675. It is classified in English literature as a Restoration comedy. To understand what a Restoration comedy is, and to appreciate the play itself, it is necessary to understand (1) the play's historical and social context, (2) the chief literary and social concerns of the period's writers, and (3) the state of the English language when the play was written.
Restoration literature, like the Restoration period itself, was caught between two much greater literary epochs: the metaphysical period of the early- to middle-seventeenth century, and the sophisticated and rational period that followed the Restoration, which Matthew Arnold referred to, somewhat ironically, as "our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century."
The term "Restoration" is a historical one used to indicate the period between 1660 and 1688 when Charles II was restored to the throne of England in 1660, and King William of Orange succeeded to it after James II, Charles's brother, was deposed in 1688.
In 1649, Charles II's father, Charles I, was beheaded by an order of Parliament ruled by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Charles II and his family fled to and sought refuge in Paris. Charles's mother, Henrietta Maria, was the princess of France, sister to Louis XIV. Meanwhile, back in England, despite ten years of rule without a monarchy, the English could not settle on a nonroyal head of state after Oliver Cromwell died. In 1659, Charles II was invited back to England, and with his return, the House of Stuart was restored. Hence, this period is called the "Restoration."
Contrary to expectations, Charles's taste in literature had a distinctly French flavor, something for which the English were decidedly unprepared. And so it fell on the new king to educate...
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1675: The Milieu of The Country Wife
1675 was just past the midpoint of Charles II's reign; he had been king for fifteen years and would be so for another ten. During the first fifteen years of his rule, Charles was able to bring about a radical change in the socio-literary environment of London. Gone were the days of Oliver Cromwell, when plays were banned from the stage and only religious music could be played in public. Under Charles's reign, the two big stages of London—Theatre Royal and the Duke's Playhouse—were full of raucous farces like The Rehearsal, or the bawdy comedies written by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. In general, plays of this period flaunted morality and encouraged illicit love—perhaps a reaction to the puritan age gone by. Present-day scholars of the Restoration, such as Mike McKeon and Susan Staves, however, have pointed out that the "minority was majority" in the sense that a few bawdy intellectual writers were able to dominate the age. Most people, especially the commoners, were not like them.
Politically, 1675 was an extremely unstable year, a year when the Popish Plot was fomenting and many innocent Roman Catholics were tried and executed for their supposed involvement in a bogus plot invented by Titus Oates, a pseudo-doctorate from a Spanish university. This was also the age when John Dryden's famous heroic tragedy Aureng-Zebe was published, shocking and exciting Restoration audiences. In this highly charged literary and political milieu, playwrights such as George Etherege, John Dryden, and, of course, William Wycherley wrote sexually suggestive, smart comedies that wooed blue-stocking women (i.e., well-to-do intellectual women like Aphra Behn and the Duchess...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Harwood, John T. Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. Provides a lucid account of the play in its context of the history and conventions of Restoration drama.
Holland, Norman N. The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Perhaps the most influential account of the play. Takes the Harcourt-Alithea relationship as the moral standard by which the actions of the others are measured.
Marshall, W. Gerald. A Great Stage of Fools: Theatricality and Madness in the Plays of William Wycherley. New York: AMS Press, 1993. The chapter on The Country Wife is contentious and not entirely convincing, but deserves consideration for its impressive scholarship and insight, especially into the relationship of Margery and Pinchwife.
Milhous, Judith, and Robert D. Hume. Producible Interpretation: Eight English Plays, 1675-1707. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Restoration drama. The chapter on The Country Wife provides what is probably the best available introduction to the play and includes a valuable overview of modern critical approaches. A commendatory blend of wit, exemplary scholarship, and common sense.
Zimbardo, Rose. Wycherley’s Drama: A Link in the Development of English Satire. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Argues that The Country Wife is foremost a satire, one against “lust that disguises itself.” Persuasive.