The major themes of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, according to prominent scholars of Restoration comedy, are marriage, love, and sex. To this, we also must add the social order of Restoration England, particularly the relationship between authority and language.
Readers need to recall that when Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, he brought with him a large entourage of the sons of aristocratic English families dispossessed by Oliver Cromwell during the Puritan revolution (see the section on "Historical Context" for more information). Having spent the previous ten years in fashionable French societies, these men, now restored to their peerages and dukedoms, set up as court wits and gallants. As members of the House of Lords and Parliament (British counterparts of the Senate and House of Representatives in the United States), they had authority to govern. Because property was returned to them upon their return, they were wealthy. And, following in the king's footsteps, they were given to a disproportionate amount of womanizing—in other words, they were, literally and ideologically, phallocentric.
As wine and women flowed, so did the literature of which Charles was a great connoisseur and patron, as were the many lords of the court. The king brought with him a taste for heroic literature, mock heroic poetry, satire, and comedies. Restoration writers such as Aphra Behn, William Congreve, John Dryden, George Etherege, and William Wycherley obliged. They wrote comedies ostensibly to satirize hypocrisy, but more often than not, they ended up celebrating libertinism and devaluing marriage.
Charles II was married to Catherine of Braganza of Portugal. She was childless, and, apparently, with the excuse of not fathering a son with his queen, the king indulged himself with many other women—ladies of aristocratic families, the Queen's chamber women, and singers and actresses. A few of them actually gained the title of Royal Mistress. The other courtiers followed suit. Within less than a year, the strict Puritanical attitude to marriage in London, hallmark of the Cromwellian regime, was stood on its head. Marriages were not just compromised; it became fashionable to berate and belittle this institution, and portray wives as shrews if they were virtuous and hypocritical libertines if they were compromised into sleeping with other courtiers. Since love is an essential ingredient of marriage (or, at least, it is supposed to be), the theme of love in Restoration comedies was also brought into question. Likewise, the third dimension of marriage—sex—was blown out into the open. Unfettered by marriage vows, and with a less-than-romantic approach to love, Restoration comic dramatists discussed sex in their plays openly and raucously. The writers themselves were often famous rakes, such as Lord Buckingham and Lord Rochester. The Restoration rake as a literary figure was born.
It is against this background that Wycherley wrote The Country Wife, a play about how a Restoration man of wealth and wit, a confirmed bachelor who shunned marriage, fakes impotency to dupe gullible husbands and seduce their wives. Thus one of the principal themes of The Country Wife is not so much marriage, love, and sex, but how various kinds of authority—including language—were used by playwrights in late-seventeenth-century London, in the name of satire, to sabotage social institutions like marriage.
Characters carry forward the plot of the play, the play itself being a vehicle for the playwright's themes to be expressed. In The Country Wife, the male characters Mr. Pinchwife and Sir Jasper Fidget represent stupid husbands who are either too jealous (Pinchwife) or too trusting (Fidget); they do not have the slightest idea as to the...
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