Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

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The first of three satiric comedies by William Wycherley, Love in a Wood shows brilliantly the playwright’s genius. Wycherley gained his insights into high society as an intimate of high-ranking individuals on both sides of the English Channel. It was this play that gained for the young author the king’s favor and the love of the king’s mistress, the duchess of Cleveland.

As Wycherley uses the phrase, “in a wood” means “confused”; such a description might apply as well to the audience and to readers of this play as to the characters in it, for by the end there are no less than five marriages, one accomplished and four in prospect. The unusually large quantity of couples, the complicated intrigues in which they indulge, and the various unravelings that are required keep the play bustling with physical and dramatic movement. It is, however, a movement less controlled than in the playwright’s later satiric masterpieces, The Country Wife (pr., pb. 1675) and The Plain-Dealer (pr. 1676).

Love in a Wood contains many of the motifs of deception that were to become standard in Restoration comedy—disguises, mistaken identity, hiding, and overheard and misinterpreted conversations, all of which create confusion between appearance and reality. Valentine, for instance, hears an apparently compromising report of Christina and concludes that she is unfaithful, Gripe frantically attempts to maintain the pretense of Puritan piety and respectability, and Sir Simon poses as a clerk and then discovers, to his consternation, that Martha refuses to believe he is a knight. Critics have pointed out that Wycherley uses the metaphor of light and darkness to dramatize social reality and inner reality; it is significant that most of the crucial revelations take place in darkness, where the truth can safely come out.

The characters are standard types: a fool, a hypocrite, a fop, a lecherous widow, and a wench, who make up the “low” plot, and a set of “realistic” lovers and a set of “ideal” ones, who make up the “high” plot. Wycherley skillfully uses Mrs. Joyner on one hand and Vincent on the other to serve as go-betweens for the various characters and to lend coherence to the many strands of the action. Of course, Mrs. Joyner, the functionary of the low plot, helps only to increase the confusion, in accordance with the dictates of her financial interest; Vincent, in contrast, with his earnest regard for the truth, does his best to clear up misunderstandings. The high-plot characters profit by the unraveling, while the others, despite the prospect of their marriages, succeed only in duping themselves or in making the best of bad bargains.

Like other Restoration comedies, Love in a Wood creates a highly realistic and immediate sense of contemporary London: Scenes unfold in real places, such as Mulberry Garden and St. James’s Park, and the dialogue is peppered with contemporary allusions and jokes. Like other comic dramatists of the period, Wycherley treats love as a battle between the sexes (metaphors of war and hunting abound), with women usually having the upper hand. Wycherley is distinctive, however, in his caustic wit and his cynical attitude toward human relationships. Aggression, lust, greed, and mistrust seem to be the main drives governing the behavior of his characters. Dissimulation is accepted as the norm, so the complicated intrigues of the plot are as much an indication of the necessary condition of life as they are an indication of the development of a comic drama.

The marriages of the low-plot characters are motivated by either financial interest (and, in the case of Sir Simon and Lady Flippant, a mistaken view of financial interest) or revenge. Lydia and Ranger seem to be on firmer ground, but the jealousy of the one and the philandering of the other are not, despite Ranger’s protestations of reform, very reassuring. Only the marriage between Valentine and Christina, which is based on genuine love and honesty, seems to have any hopeful prospects; the couple’s relationship, however, seems too idealized (note Wycherley’s choices of names) to be credible in this setting. Thus the exception only proves Wycherley’s rule about love and marriage in Restoration London.