The Country Wife by William Wycherley was published in 1675 and premiered the same year at the Theatre Royal in London. It is classified in English literature as a Restoration comedy.
The term “restoration” refers to a historical period in England from 1660 to 1700, marking the era when monarchy was restored to England after ten years of rule by Parliament. The term “comedy,” as a subgenre of drama, refers to a play in which the protagonist vanquishes, morally and financially, his opponents. The opponents are "bad guys" and represent the previous generation's decrepit values and hypocrisy. By contrast, the new generation is younger and more progressive. The happy ending of these plays is also supposed to be a restoration of order from the chaos and confusion fostered by the older generation’s dishonesty and greed.
It would, however, be wrong to claim that The Country Wife realizes all of the above characteristics of a Restoration comedy. Immensely popular as a stage production, the play itself does not aim for any moral high ground: the bad guys remain bad; the protagonist does not appear to change a bit. The play's only resolution is that the Fidgets end badly, leaving an unrepentant Mr. Horner triumphant over his foes: he has seduced Margery Pinchwife, the simple country wife; mission accomplished.
The Country Wife’s place in English literature is more relevant to the history of drama than to the literary canon itself. Full of banter and repartee, it is fun to read, but the play is most remembered for a particular kind of influence it has over present-day British and American comedies.
The Country Wife makes fun of people’s manners as they behave in public. According to Wycherley, people from urban societies were “naturally affectatious,” which means that they put on airs without even consciously trying to do so. Wycherley commented on such traits with one-liners that induced laughter from the audience. He then often explained the line with another witty remark, provoking more laughter.
That is what Restoration comedies ultimately gave to the dramatic comedies that followed them. One can follow the genealogy of one-liners all the way from Restoration comedies to the works of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Neil Simon. Brilliantly started by Wycherley and fellow Restoration playwright William Congreve, one-liners even continue to this day on late-night talk shows by hosts such as David Letterman and Jay Leno.
Act IThe 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...
(This entire section contains 3265 words.)
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.Act II 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.
Act III 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 a sophisticated and intelligent man against a brilliant and witty woman. (The term “gay” is being used not in the contemporary twentieth-century sense, but in the seventeenth-century mode, when “gay” meant jovial, smart, and witty. According to this convention, Harcourt and Alithea are a gay couple.) They feel strong attraction to each other, but instead of being drawn toward each other, for a while they repel each other, usually through jovial and witty banters. Toward the end of the play, they bury the hatchet, admit to falling in love, and marry.
Plotwise, it is puzzling why Alithea so fervently rejects the passionate Harcourt and remains loyal to her promised husband. She remains faithful to Sparkish out of respect for the financial trust, but at the same time is strongly attracted to Harcourt’s romantic witticisms, and the fact that he makes no secret of wanting to marry her. This was not the fashion among the sophisticated Restoration male intelligentsia. Alithea must have known that and hence must have been all the more attracted to this man. A woman of sound practicality and common sense, she also respects the business deal that her brother had struck with Sparkish by joining the properties of the two families together. Thus, Alithea's agitation has to do with her decision to keep her promise to Sparkish rather than follow her heart. Understanding this fully, Harcourt argues that a marriage without love, built solely on a financial trust, is as unfavorable an alternative as infidelity.
Indeed, it is the Harcourt-Alithea episode that rescues the play from being a complete farce. The methodical and deliberate outcome of their relationship that Wycherley engineers ultimately delivers the play.
Act IV This act begins with a discussion between Alithea and her maid servant, Lucy. Lucy is puzzled that Alithea will give in to Harcourt’s sincere advances, and Alithea explains to her why. Alithea talks about the merits of prudence whereas her servant, Lucy, cautions her about too much practicality. She extols the virtues of love and passion. Their conversation is interrupted with Sparkish coming in, ready for the wedding. He has brought a parson with him, except that the parson is Harcourt himself in the disguise of a parson.
Much mirth follows at Harcourt’s insistence that he must marry Alithea, the pun being on the word “marry” as a ritual that priests perform in weddings and its more common meaning of a husband taking a wife. Alithea sees the through the trick, but is unable to convince her soon-to-be-husband. Since Harcourt is not a licensed parson, any wedding performed by him will not be valid and so the couple would not be legally married. The three of them go back and forth while the wedding hour approaches. Pinchwife meanwhile arrives at the scene with his own wife dressed as Alithea. That is when the truth comes out. Sparkish is devastated. Harcourt is delighted.
The scene changes to Pinchwife’s house. Mr. Pinchwife is furious that Margery spent some time alone with Horner and harasses her to own up to the amorous things Horner must have said to her. After much coaxing, coercions and threats she tells him of their dialogue, the sensual manner that he had kissed her, and about the amorous rendezvous that he requested of Mrs. Pinchwife. Mr. Pinchwife is distressed. He resolves that Margery should write Horner a letter in which she will tell him in no uncertain terms that she does not appreciate his advances that he has made to her through her brother, and that she will by no means keep the appointment. Margery, who by now is head over heels in love with Horner does not want to. She slyly writes a different letter from the one that Pinchwife dictated to her. Pinchwife arranges to deliver Horner the letter, locks up his wife and leaves.
In the next scene, we see Horner and the Quack (the doctor) discussing the largely successful effects of the impotency trick. So that the Quack will see for himself, Horner conceals him as he engages in one witty conversation after another with the ladies of London. It is quite apparent to everyone witnessing this scene that Lady Fidget is well aware about the real condition of Mr. Horner and is quite eager to play along with him. At one point, Fidget and Horner embrace, thinking there was no one near; but almost immediately, her husband enters the room and catches them embracing. However, it does not take long for Lady Fidget to manufacture a ridiculous excuse, an excuse that her husband seems to have no trouble believing. The Quack is pleasantly appalled.
However, presently other London ladies also come in and it is soon evident that to each of the women that Horner has told the same story: that he has duped all the men in London to believe he is impotent so that he can sleep with her. Now, it is Horner’s turn to be found out. However, the ladies do not seem to mind Horner’s double-crossing too much, and accept their situations with him rather sportingly, if very cynically. They drink to each other’s health. The Quack, again, is pleasantly appalled.
It is striking that this elaborately cynical portrayal of women should follow the ones in which Margery’s innocence and Alithea’s intelligence is described. Wycherley gives us three kinds of women in his play: the debauched, the simpleton and the intelligent.
The last part of this act has Horner discover that Margery has deceived her husband into writing a different letter from what the husband thought she had written. Instead of refusing his advances, as Pinchwife had bidden his wife to write, Margery asks Horner to rescue her from her husband and marry her. 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!” Horner resolves to debauch Margery. Now he could do so without guilt. The act ends with Margery’s love letter to Horner being discovered by her husband. Is she caught? For the moment, at least, Pinchwife believes he is cuckolded.Act V The fifth act begins with another new intrigue. This time it is Margery Pinchwife who has been pushed into a corner, because her husband discovers her writing a love letter to Horner in which she begs him to rescue her from her husband. Pinchwife’s intervention happens just when she was about to sign the letter. Cleverly, Margery signs off with Alithea’s name thereby throwing her husband completely off guard. In one swift, artful minute, Margery Pinchwife makes the letter look like it is Alithea who is intriguing with Horner, not she. By his own admission, Pinchwife’s head was spinning.
Margery tells her husband that Alithea made her write the letter because should Horner reject her passionate plea to save her from Sparkish and threaten to expose her to the world, Alithea could then always deny that she wrote the letter. It was not her handwriting. There is only one problem with Margery’s lie. When Pinchwife wants to talk with Alithea regarding her interest in Horner, Alithea is not at home. Quickly, Margery intervenes saying Alithea was so upset with her near marriage to Sparkish that she is refusing to talk to anyone. She offers to bring Alithea along so that Pinchwife could take her to Horner. Margery has already decided that she would disguise herself as Alithea. She suggests that she goes upstairs and brings Alithea along so that Pinchwife could take her to Horner. But, she says, that he must promise not to try to talk to her. She is so upset that she does not want to be recognized and does not want to talk. She will accompany Pinchwife in a mask. Incredibly, Pinchwife agrees to all this. He is already thinking of joining his property with Horner’s. Pinchwife is going to lock up his wife again, but she artfully gives him the slip and follows her husband, pretending to be Alithea.
The scene changes to Horner’s house. Horner and the Quack discus cuckoldry and its effects both on the cuckold and the predator. This is typical Restoration comedy talk about adultery and illicit relationships.
Presently, Pinchwife comes with Margery disguised as Alithea. A comic dialogue follows since Pinchwife and Horner are referring to different women—Alithea and Margery respectively—while pointing to the same woman. Margery indicates to Horner that she wants to speak to him in private. They go in and Pinchwife goes to look for a priest to marry Horner and Alithea.
Just as Horner is about go inside with Margery Pinchwife, Sir Jasper Fidget comes in and requests Horner to host Lady Fidget and her friends in Horner’s house. He agrees just to get rid of Sir Jasper and hurries to his assignation with Mrs. Pinchwife: “I’m going to a private feast!”
Pinchwife tells Sparkish that Alithea now wants to marry Horner, information that leaves Sparkish extremely puzzled, because Horner has never entered his mind. Harcourt he could perhaps understand, but not Horner. Pinchwife also informs Sparkish that his marriage to Alithea is not valid because the parson was a fake. Sparkish is utterly confused. Pinchwife is, too, but he does not know it.
At this point the real Alithea walks in with her servant, Lucy. She sees Horner and Harcourt as well as Sparkish. Sparkish confronts her for her duplicity and Alithea, to her dismay, finds out that someone has bracketed her with Horner for his or her own benefit. She is also amazed to see Sparkish not only jealous but downright mean. Alithea welcomes the opportunity to call the wedding off.
The next scene takes place back in Horner’s house. He is obviously done seducing Margery Pinchwife and is getting ready to entertain Lady Fidget and her friends. What follows is a raucous affair, drenched with alcohol and wit. Horner’s feigned impotence is found out, but what is worse, each lady at the party also finds out that Horner had told her that she was the only one who knew of Horner’s trick, so that no one would suspect her of adultery with him. Amidst jokes, jeer and banter Horner is hung out to dry. The ladies get their frolicking revenge.
The last part of this act is given to solving the mystery of who loves whom: Margery Pinchwife loves Horner and wants to marry him; Alithea loves Harcourt and wants to marry him. The problem is that Mr. Pinchwife is the most deluded man in the whole play, constantly duped by all. Thus, when Horner is forced to tell the truth about Alithea, he is only able to do so by betraying Margery, which his honor forbids him to do. As is usually the case in Restoration comedies, the servant girl, Lucy, comes to the rescue by confessing it all: she was behind the ruse played out by Margery. Now it is Pinchwife’s turn to be the cuckold and he seeks revenge by threatening to kill his wife or Horner or both. Lives and reputations are saved when as a last resort the Quack comes back and announces once again, the lie: Horner is impotent. The announcement heals all the social wounds. Pinchwife is let off the hook. Only the ladies, including Margery Pinchwife, know the truth. But they keep quiet to maintain their own virtuous veneers.