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William Wycherley's, The Country Wife, is a play reflective of a new era—the "Restoration"—which followed an eleven-year period of harsh Puritanical rule under Oliver Cromwell. By the start of the Restoration under Charles II, the populace was much more interested in laughing than being persecuted for sinfulness. Generally, a "comedy" at the time showed that good triumphed over evil; however, this is not the case with this play. As the eNotes summary states:
Immensely popular as a stage production, the play itself does not aim for any moral high ground...
The play is a farce: it is a comedy with only a single element of serious plot development found in the relationship that grows between Alithea and Harcourt. The rest of the play is full of wit:
"one-liners" heaped upon other "one-liners," it is the great-great-granddaddy of modern day comedy and late-night talk show monologues.
The play prances around not only Horner's deception, but also the insecurity of Pinchwife, Sparkish's show of apathy regarding his fiancee's fidelity (because it is fashionable), and Fidget's foolish trust of his wife. Except for Alithea, all the women seem just as interested in sexual liaisons as does Horner.
The husbands and Sparkish all appear extremely foolish in the manner in which they treat the woman in their lives, but they are faithful, even while foolish. On the other hand except for Alithea, the women have no morality at all. The play is supposed to be entertaining and funny, and it certainly seems to rise to the occasion. The wives are more intelligent, but not faithful. Lady Pinchwife eventually does pursue Horner, and Lady Fidge, who knows of Horner's deception, plays innocent all the while wanting her shot at Horner as well. These wives are anything but virtuous.
The sexual innuendo may be found in the eNotes summary.
Horner had so far thought of Mrs. Pinchwife as an innocent and a simpleton. Now, her guile only serves to convince him of what Alexander Pope was to have said epigrammatically: “Every woman is at heart a whore!”
Whereas most of the men are foolish in one way or another, the story revolves mostly Horner who wants to convince the world he is impotent so as not to be seen as a threat, so he can then pursue any woman he wants without the worry of a husband.
Except for Alithea, there is very little to plead the case for the women here who are certainly, for the most part, as licentious as Horner. It would seem that the sexual innuendo in the play is that woman are easy and eager marks (immoral and "simpletons"). This is not to say that this is the play's message: I believe The Country Woman is simply a vehicle for entertainment. Ironically, though, as far as the dishonorable Horner is concerned, women cannot be trusted and are no better than prostitutes.
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