Introduction

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

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.

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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.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3265

Act I
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...

(The entire section contains 3664 words.)

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