Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1881
This play is the epitome of the spirit of the reign of Charles II. The plot is presented with Restoration boldness, depending as it does on the supposition of Horner’s impotence and his amorous adventures with various wives who have been gulled into believing that he is incapable of feelings for the opposite sex. While the main device of the play is frankly indecent, the handling of the theme, particularly in the dialogue, is brilliant. Clever dialogue and the whimsicality of Mrs. Pinchwife’s naïveté save the drama from approaching pornography and raise the play to the realm of art. As a result of the play’s deftness, readers usually find themselves laughing, along with the characters, at the duplicity of the women and their lover.
William Wycherley’s comedies were his contribution to English dramatic literature and in one of them, The Country Wife, the Restoration comedy reached its height. Wycherley’s first play, Love in a Wood, was performed in the spring of 1671 and occasioned the start of a relationship between Wycherley and the duchess of Cleveland, who was mistress to the king. Wycherley was, as a result, brought into the court circle and into the favor of the king. The Gentleman Dancing-Master, his second play, apparently opened at Dorset Garden in the fall of 1672. It was not well received by the Restoration audience, perhaps because of its simplicity and lack of vulgarity. The Plain-Dealer, first produced in December, 1676, has the distinction of being Wycherley’s last play, his most morally ambiguous, and thus the most discussed of the Restoration comedies, with the exception perhaps of William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700). It is from a character in this play that Wycherley received his nickname of Manly from John Dryden.
Wycherley’s third play, The Country Wife, is considered by most critics to be the best of the Restoration comedies. The Country Wife was apparently first produced by the King’s Company at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on January 12, 1675, and was obviously well received by the audiences of the time, for it immediately became a part of the repertory at the Theatre Royal. Its popularity is still apparent in the fact that it is one of the most often revived of the comedies from its period.
The ethos of the Restoration period presumably had its effect on The Country Wife. The theater was being promoted by a libertine, Charles II, who surrounded himself with an equally profligate court. Many aristocrats of the period viewed humanity as depraved and affected a contempt for morality, especially in the form of Puritanism or Republicanism. The bawdiness of The Country Wife seems suited to the temper of its times.
The licentious nature of the play, however, brought it criticism during the Restoration, though perhaps it was that some people did not like their mirrored image. As Richard Steele wrote of Horner in The Tatler of April 16, 1709, after seeing a production on April 14: He “is a good representation of the age in which that comedy was written; at which time, love and wenching were the business of life, and the gallant manner of pursuing women was the best recommendation at court.” Steele also criticized Pinchwife, but again as a representative of the age, “one of those debauchees who run through the vices of the town and believe when they think fit, they can marry and settle at their ease.” Steele in his criticism was contributing to the general criticism of the theater that occurred from about 1695 to 1745 and had reached a high point in 1698 with Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Collier, unlike Steele, was not generous to Wycherley or his characters, calling Horner “horridly Smutty” and accusing Mrs. Pinchwife, Horner, and Lady Fidget of a “Rankness and Indecency of their Language.” Criticism of the play continued into the Victorian period, when perhaps it met its strongest criticism under the pen of Thomas Babington Macaulay in an 1841 essay “The Comic Dramatists of the Restoration.” He said of Wycherley’s comedies: “In truth Wycherley’s indecency is protected against the critic as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome to approach.”
Despite the adverse criticism of the play, it was following, perhaps more strongly than some, the satiric method employed by Restoration comedy, which was to present on the stage characterizations that were true to life—some of them to be emulated and some of them to be avoided. The use of laughter in The Country Wife closely follows Thomas Hobbes’s observation that people laugh because they suddenly recognize their superiority to others. As Hobbes says, “Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own that pleaseth them, or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.” The fact that Wycherley chose to follow these examples is reinforced by his epigraph to The Gentleman Dancing-Master, in which he acknowledges that a great comedy does not merely make the audience laugh; it should say something.
What Wycherley has to say in The Country Wife concerns the lack of deep feeling and selfish motives that permeated the sexual morality of his time. Women are not sought after as wives, or even concubines, but rather as mere strumpets. Once the man’s sexual desires have been gratified, he will go out looking for another encounter. To make his play instructive as well as illustrative, Wycherley conceived three intrigues in his plot—involving Pinchwife, Horner, and Harcourt—that allow the reader to make a value judgment about how well a character is able to drop his pretense and channel his natural desires into constructive results. Thus, Pinchwife exhibits the least desirably imitative character; despite his selfishly motivated, zealous guarding of his wife, Margery, he is cuckolded. Horner, though admirable in wit and clear in an understanding of himself and others, never drops the role of eunuch and its fringe benefits and thus remains a slave to lust and what he terms the “greatest Monster” in nature—affectation. Harcourt becomes the most admirable as a “rake converted” who is able to translate his desires into true love and respect for the woman Alithea and, at play’s end, intends to be a husband to her.
In his concern with the three intrigues of The Country Wife, Wycherley introduces a wide variety of Restoration comedy types. There is the jealous man whose jealousy is reproved, the hypocritical ladies of refinement who wish to protect their honor yet are proved lustful wenches, the trusting man whose trust is proved foolish, the rakes whose sole desire is satiating themselves in pleasure, and the fashionable narcissistic Restoration fop. Within this gallery, Horner is perhaps the central character despite the fact that he does not, as previously mentioned, face a totally happy end. In Horner’s character Wycherley presents aspects to be applauded and condemned. His name suggests what he is—a cuckold maker who gains great satisfaction by awarding horns to betrayed husbands. Wycherley’s idea for Horner’s trick came from Eunuchus (161 b.c.e.; The Eunuch, 1598) by the Roman playwright Terence. In the play, a young man pretends to be a eunuch so that he can be admitted freely into the company of a young girl. However, unlike Terence’s character, Horner does not rape; he uses his disguise only to gain access to willing partners. In this pursuit he is a villain of sorts. Yet in his villainy—cuckolding of husbands and bedding of mistresses—he is to be commended, for he proves that the selfish nature of the foolish men is deplorable, and that the honor of the virtuous ladies is hypocritical. He is also to be pitied, however, because he never rises above base desire. As Horner expresses it, “Ceremony in love is as ridiculous as in fighting; falling on briskly is all should be done on such occasions.”
In The Country Wife the women characters and their social behavior also meet with varying degrees of censure and praise. With Lady Fidget, Margery Pinchwife, and Alithea, Wycherley presents the differing levels of feminine conduct as he saw them in the Restoration period. These levels ranged from those lustful women who were equal to the men in their desires, to those women of true virtue who sought a love based on more than sexual gratification. Although there are other women of “honor” in the play—Mrs. Dainty Fidget and Mrs. Squeamish—Lady Fidget is the most verbal and active and thus more self-incriminating. In her lustful behavior she is little different from a strumpet except for her hypocrisy, which perhaps makes her more damnable. For instance, at the moment she is about to give herself to Horner her train of thought runs thus: “You must have a great care of your conduct; for my acquaintances are so censorious . . . and detracting, that perhaps they’ll talk to the prejudice of my Honour, though you should not let them know the dear secret.” So that his dislike of such hypocrisy is made absolutely clear, by the end of the play Wycherley has had Horner partaking of pleasure with all the ladies of virtue. Contrasting Lady Fidget is Margery Pinchwife, lustful but honest about her lust. As Horner says about the love letter she writes him, “’Tis the first love letter that ever was without flames, darts, fates, destinies, lying, and dissembling in it.” She is perhaps more admirable for her honesty, yet at the end of the play she is taught to lie by the “virtuous” set. The final female character of note, Alithea, is virtuous in all aspects and is heading for a commendable marriage based on a true love and would seem to be, as the opposite of Lady Fidget, the character for emulation.
One of the comic devices used adeptly by Wycherley in The Country Wife is the double entendre. This was the apparatus to which Collier took such offense, writing that “when the Sentence has two Handles, the worst is generally turn’d to the Audience. The matter is so contrived that the Smut and Scum of the Thought now rises uppermost; And, like a Picture drawn to Sight, looks always upon the Company.” Indeed, Wycherley’s double entendres are as powerful as Collier describes them (although one may not react to them in the same manner that Collier did), and in act 4, scene 3—the “china scene”—Wycherley is at his best.
The importance of The Country Wife lies in the fact that it signals the height, and therefore the beginning of the fall, of Restoration comedy. With its adept social satire, telling visions of selfishness and hypocrisy, and the seldom surpassed farcical china scene, The Country Wife stands at the pinnacle of Restoration comedy. However, within the representation of the apparently romantic love of Alithea and Harcourt was the seed of what was to grow within the comedy of that period until it destroyed it. This representation of the ideal in a realistic setting was the chief characteristic of the comedy to come—sentimental or “weeping comedy.”