*London. Capital and leading city of England. The play depicts fashionable London, in which wives are expected to be ready to deceive their husbands and take lovers and where gentlemen are considered potential or actual rakes. This is a world in which country manners and morals are regularly derided and feminine chastity is associated with lack of London sophistication, except by Margery Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea, who is the play’s true heroine.
Horner’s lodging. London bachelor apartment of Mr. Horner; a key setting in the play, as the place where Horner’s scheme of pretending to be impotent in order to gain access to other men’s wives is announced in the first act. The lodging is later the scene of various seductions and the notorious “china scene,” in which Horner uses the metaphor of “inspecting his china” to describe his conquests of various women. In act 5 the apartment is the setting for the play’s denouement, in which Alithea chooses Harcourt over her naïve suitor, and Pinchwife’s suspicion about Horner’s successful seduction of Margery is refuted by the repetition of the lie about Horner’s supposed impotence, which is reaffirmed by his mercenary doctor.
Pinchwife’s house. Home of the old cuckold Mr. Pinchwife and his young bride, Margery Pinchwife. The house is a virtual prison for Margery, whom Pinchwife is determined to hide from fashionable London and potential seducers. The location also provides a scene for his debates with his sister-in-law, Alithea, who consistently argues that his effort to “protect” Margery from meeting amatory rakes will produce the opposite effect and make her determined to escape from his zealous confinement of her.
New Exchange. One of many fashionable meeting places for rakes and ladies, it is the setting for Margery’s rebellious adventure away from the house, where disguised as a boy, she encounters Horner, which leads to her seduction.
The Country Wife by William Wycherley was published in 1675. It is classified in English literature as a Restoration comedy. To understand what a Restoration comedy is, and to appreciate the play itself, it is necessary to understand (1) the play's historical and social context, (2) the chief literary and social concerns of the period's writers, and (3) the state of the English language when the play was written.
Restoration literature, like the Restoration period itself, was caught between two much greater literary epochs: the metaphysical period of the early- to middle-seventeenth century, and the sophisticated and rational period that followed the Restoration, which Matthew Arnold referred to, somewhat ironically, as "our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century." The term "Restoration" is a historical one used to indicate the period between 1660 and 1688 when Charles II was restored to the throne of England in 1660, and King William of Orange succeeded to it after James II, Charles's brother, was deposed in 1688. In 1649, Charles II's father, Charles I, was beheaded by an order of Parliament ruled by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Charles II and his family fled to and sought refuge in Paris. Charles's mother, Henrietta Maria, was the princess of France, sister to Louis XIV. Meanwhile, back in England, despite ten years of rule without a monarchy, the English could not settle on a nonroyal head of state after Oliver Cromwell died. In 1659, Charles II was invited back to England, and with his return, the House of Stuart was restored. Hence, this period is called the "Restoration." Contrary to expectations, Charles's taste in literature had a distinctly French flavor, something for which the...
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English were decidedly unprepared. And so it fell on the new king to educate his subjects, especially the poets and playwrights of his time. The most important characteristic of Restoration literature under Charles II was satire. Critics have provided many explanations for why satire became predominant, but the best explanation is perhaps the one that addresses the rift between two important segments of society at that time: those who arrived from France with the king and generally behaved as irresponsible rakes; and those who had held power during the Interregnum (the period between 1649 and 1659 when England had no king) but were later out of favor and persecuted. Each side regarded the other as a hypocrite. Hypocrisy, it seems, is a chief provocateur of satire because it suggests an immediate dichotomy between what people pretend to be and what they actually are. So satirical literature—be it a novel, a play or a poem—shows the “real nature” of people by “unmasking” their hypocritical ways. The literary technique, in terms of language-use, most often used to write satires in this period was irony, which presents the opposite meaning of what a statement is supposed to mean. In the Restoration period, social satires poked fun at social mores and behaviors, as Wycherley’s The Country Wife so clearly and brilliantly does. Let us now briefly discuss what the term "comedy" means in literature. A comedy may be defined as a work that shows a protagonist's successful quest for happiness. For example, happiness in a comedy may be the overcoming of an older generation (usually represented by the father), acquiring an estate, or marrying the woman one desires. In The Country Wife, the older generation, supposedly the representatives of the Puritans under Cromwell’s regime, are shown as despotic as well as hypocritical, especially in terms of love and sex. The younger generation, represented by the protagonist, is depicted as openly rakish; they are portrayed as men (and sometimes even women) who make no apology for their sexual appetites. They are not hypocrites like their fathers; neither, however, are they moral. In fact, precisely because of the older generation's constant harping on sexual morals and their aggressive references to chastity, morality was seen as necessarily hypocritical. We now come to the final aspect of The Country Wife: its language. Those who are accustomed to reading the plays of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, or even Ben Jonson will immediately notice the difference in language of The Country Wife. Gone are hyperboles, the constant overstatement, and the poetic language. In their place is colloquial English, full of homely phrases, and—most importantly—utterances that come directly to the point. What brought about this difference is Charles II’s insistence that literary language should be no different from the everyday language of the educated upper class.
1675: The Milieu ofThe Country Wife 1675 was just past the midpoint of Charles II's reign; he had been king for fifteen years and would be so for another ten. During the first fifteen years of his rule, Charles was able to bring about a radical change in the socio-literary environment of London. Gone were the days of Oliver Cromwell, when plays were banned from the stage and only religious music could be played in public. Under Charles's reign, the two big stages of London—Theatre Royal and the Duke's Playhouse—were full of raucous farces like The Rehearsal, or the bawdy comedies written by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. In general, plays of this period flaunted morality and encouraged illicit love—perhaps a reaction to the puritan age gone by. Present-day scholars of the Restoration, such as Mike McKeon and Susan Staves, however, have pointed out that the "minority was majority" in the sense that a few bawdy intellectual writers were able to dominate the age. Most people, especially the commoners, were not like them.
Politically, 1675 was an extremely unstable year, a year when the Popish Plot was fomenting and many innocent Roman Catholics were tried and executed for their supposed involvement in a bogus plot invented by Titus Oates, a pseudo-doctorate from a Spanish university. This was also the age when John Dryden's famous heroic tragedy Aureng-Zebe was published, shocking and exciting Restoration audiences. In this highly charged literary and political milieu, playwrights such as George Etherege, John Dryden, and, of course, William Wycherley wrote sexually suggestive, smart comedies that wooed blue-stocking women (i.e., well-to-do intellectual women like Aphra Behn and the Duchess of Newcastle) and the sophisticated male wits of London.
The City (London)London, or "the City" as it was called by most people during this period, was the center of everything important: the king lived there, and it was the seat of Parliament. Perhaps most significant, it was the center for commerce and the arts.
With Charles II's return, the puritan severity of Cromwell was replaced by a taste for the good life, full of magnificence and opulence, and the city flourished. London showed off what is known as the Restoration style, and customs hitherto English were supplanted by the glittering flamboyancy of French tastes. In aristocratic houses, walnut furniture replaced oak; the exotic replaced the mundane. The wealthy dealt in gold and silver.
All this was made possible by the English war effort and the conquering of new lands in Asia and Africa. In addition, the establishment of the British East India Company in 1600 brought to England almost unspeakable wealth. Seventy-five years later, when The Country Wife was written and performed, even middle-class English people were reaping financial benefits, not to mention the aristocracy's significant increase in wealth. Burnished silver and glittering porcelain dazzled in drawing rooms such as those described in Wycherley's play. Ladies ventured into the Mulberry Garden and St. James's Park, and for close walks, they visited the New Exchange, as Alithea advises Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife.
Some not so flattering characteristics of London also seep into The Country Wife. The Whitehall (i.e., the king's palace and the seat of famous mistresses such as Nell Gwynn and Moll Davis), playhouses, sexually transmitted diseases, card games, drinking, musical entertainments, masking, and loose women all find a place. Those sort of minute details of London life solidly anchor the play.
The Country Of course, readers must remember that one of the play's protagonists, Margery Pinchwife, is in fact a country wife. Throughout the play, the country and the city are compared and contrasted by Margery and her husband. Horner's city-bred friend, Dorilant, uses the metaphor of the country when recommending that a mistress should be like "a country retreat, not to dwell in constantly." It is interesting that Margery should come from Hampshire as she speaks of a "Hampshire gallant." Hampshire is actually quite close to London and, therefore, not all that insulated from city superficiality. The fact that Margery slyly participates in the cuckolding of her husband may be Wycherley's own joke about the so-called country morality.
The city/country dynamic also allows Wycherley to challenge the morals of characters in each setting. Essentially a comedy, the play uses the country, represented by Margery Pinchwife, to ridicule the superciliousness of the city ladies; the city, represented mainly by Horner, is used to criticize country hypocrisy. Indeed, one might even say that had the city/country dynamic not been exploited, The Country Wife would have been a less interesting and engaging comedy.
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.