Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
Returning from France, and with the collusion of Dr. Quack, Horner has it rumored that he has lost his manhood. Thinking their wives safe in Horner’s company, Sir Jasper Fidget, Mr. Pinchwife, and others allow them to pursue whatever harmless pleasures are left to them. One by one the ladies are told the truth; their reputations, if not their honor, are safe. But Mrs. Pinchwife, newly brought from the country and anxious to enjoy all the pleasures of the city, naively threatens to expose the hoax. The ladies and the husbands, forced for their own reputations’ sake to cover up the trick, let Horner get away with the wholesale cuckolding.
Restoration comedies of this kind claimed an instructive value, on the grounds that spectators seeing their follies exposed on the stage would avoid them in the future. In actuality, much of the enjoyment of The Country wife lies in the titillation of the situation, the double entendre of the language, and the then innovative practice of using women actors in female parts. The play provides for modern readers a rich source of information regarding the foppish habits of the time, the idleness of the idle rich, and the preoccupation with fine clothes (by men and women), a by-product of the French influence on English life-styles after Charles II’s return from exile in 1660.
The play caused an uproar in English post-Puritan circles; criticism of its blatant sexuality led eventually to a more sentimental and moral drama in the 18th century.
Harwood, John T. Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. Provides a lucid account of the play in its context of the history and conventions of Restoration drama.
Holland, Norman N. The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Perhaps the most influential account of the play. Takes the Harcourt-Alithea relationship as the moral standard by which the actions of the others are measured.
Marshall, W. Gerald. A Great Stage of Fools: Theatricality and Madness in the Plays of William Wycherley. New York: AMS Press, 1993. The chapter on The Country Wife is contentious and not entirely convincing, but deserves consideration for its impressive scholarship and insight, especially into the relationship of Margery and Pinchwife.
Milhous, Judith, and Robert D. Hume. Producible Interpretation: Eight English Plays, 1675-1707. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Restoration drama. The chapter on The Country Wife provides what is probably the best available introduction to the play and includes a valuable overview of modern critical approaches. A commendatory blend of wit, exemplary scholarship, and common sense.
Zimbardo, Rose. Wycherley’s Drama: A Link in the Development of English Satire. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Argues that The Country Wife is foremost a satire, one against “lust that disguises itself.” Persuasive.