Rule a Wife and Have a Wife

by John Fletcher

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1803

First produced: 1624

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First published: 1647

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Romantic comedy

Time of work: c. 1600

Locale: Spain

Principal Characters:

Leon, a young Spanish gentleman

Don Juan De Castro, a colonel

Michael Perez, a captain

Cacafogo, a fat usurer

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The Duke Of Medina

Margarita, a rich and wanton lady

Altea, her companion

Estifania, her maid

Critique:

From a strictly moral point of view, RULE A WIFE AND HAVE A WIFE leaves a good deal to be desired; Leon wins the beautiful, rich, and wanton Margarita by deceit and transforms her into a dutiful and virtuous wife by bullying her unmercifully. But Fletcher is never much concerned with moral questions. Rather, he is interested in creating comic situations which will give rise to fast-moving action and which will permit the introduction of interesting and humorous characters. These effects he achieves masterfully in RULE A WIFE AND HAVE A WIFE, one of the most tightly knit of his comedies. The main plot, the taming of Margarita by Leon, is carefully balanced against the subplot, the gulling of Michael Perez by Estifania, and the two plots serve to reinforce each other admirably. As a supposedly weak husband asserts and wins superiority over his wife, so a seemingly wealthy and virtuous wife reveals to her husband that she is no better than she should be and makes him like it. The plots are united in their use of dramatic irony, and both are invigorated by a strong and direct language which is saved from vulgarity by its use in broadly comic, sometimes nearly farcical, situations.

The Story:

As they were discussing the gathering of their companies for the Dutch wars, Michael Perez and Don Juan de Castro were interrupted by two veiled ladies, one of whom desired Don Juan to carry a message to a kinsman serving in Flanders. Perez was much attracted by her companion, and the lady seemed equally drawn to him. In spite of his pleas, however, she would not open her veil, although she did instruct him to have his servant follow her to learn the location of her home and to call there later himself. This was done, and Perez was overjoyed to find that the lady, Estifania, was not only lovely but also the owner of a magnificent town house beautifully adorned with hangings and plate. Perez proposed on the spot and to his delight was accepted. Don Juan, meanwhile, was interviewing Leon, a young man recommended to him as an officer. Although he was strong and handsome and had seen previous service, Leon revealed himself to be the most incredible ass. When he showed himself to be both cowardly and immeasurably stupid, Don Juan dismissed him with little encouragement.

In the country nearby, Margarita, a beautiful young heiress, was making preparations to return to town. She had but one object in view—pleasure—and she declared herself not at all adverse to a bit of wantonness if it should come her way. On the advice of Altea, her gentlewoman, she had decided that her reputation could be best protected if she married a foolish and complaisant man who would wink at her infidelities. In fact, Altea had just the man in mind, a fellow who was presentable enough but who had no more brains than an oyster and no sense of honor whatever. The man was Leon. When Margarita interviewed him she found him perfect for the role he was supposed to play, and she decided to wed him at once. She did not hear Leon whisper to Altea that he was a thousand crowns in her debt.

Margarita's sudden appearance in the city was welcomed by all the gallants, but it interrupted the idyllic honeymoon of Perez and Estifania. The soldier was reveling in the possession of his bride's mansion when Margarita and her entourage arrived at the door. Estifania did not seem altogether surprised; she pacified Perez by telling him that Margarita was a poor cousin trying to make the gentleman who accompanied her believe that she was rich in order to have him propose. The scheme made it necessary for Estifania and Perez to move into temporary quarters for a few days so that the ruse could be carried out. After Perez had left, the relationship between Estifania and Margarita became clear. Far from being a poor cousin, Margarita was the mistress and Estifania only the maid. It was Perez who had been thoroughly gulled.

Again in possession of her house, Margarita wasted no time. New hangings were placed in the rooms, couches were arranged in strategic locations, a magnificent dinner was prepared, and a company of gallants, including Don Juan and the Duke of Medina, in whom Margarita was especially interested, were invited to enjoy the feasting and entertainment.

The party was just beginning when Leon appeared, his air of stupidity and fecklessness entirely gone. Proudly he informed the guests that he was Margarita's husband and master and that he intended to protect his honor to the utmost. Margarita was infuriated, but Leon quickly silenced her. The Duke, too, was sorely displeased that his plans for Margarita had gone so suddenly awry, and he angrily drew upon Leon. But the young man was quite ready to fight, and only Don Juan's intercession restored calm and won a grudging apology from the Duke. Don Juan, in fact, was enchanted to see Leon's sudden transformation.

The guests were going fairly amicably in to dinner when Perez burst in. From some women in his new lodging he had heard the truth about Estifania, and he had also learned that he was not the first husband she had cozened. Moreover, she had disappeared with all his possessions.

Having had the women's story confirmed by Margarita, Perez hurried away again, determined to find Estifania and punish her. But when he met her on the street, Estifania was as angry as he; she had attempted to pawn his treasures and had learned that they were all false. In the mutual tongue-lashing that followed, Estifania emerged the winner. Having sent Perez back to Margarita's house again, convinced that it was really his, she began to improve their fortunes by selling Perez's worthless trinkets to Cacafogo for many times their value. She told him that they were Margarita's possessions which her mistress was sacrificing so that she could raise money to escape from Leon.

The Duke had ideas of his own about separating the husband and wife: he had Don Juan deliver to Leon a commission to command a troop of horse and orders to leave for Flanders immediately. When she heard of this plan, Margarita protested, tongue in cheek, that she hardly could bear to be left by her new husband whom she was just coming to love. If only she could accompany him, she sighed, but that, of course, was impossible. At the most ardent point of her discourse she heard the sound of hammers. Leon had checked the Duke's maneuver neatly. He intended to take with him to Flanders not only Margarita but also the complete furnishing of the house so that he could live like a gentleman in the garrison. As a last resort Margarita pleaded that she was pregnant, but Leon calmly reminded her that since they had been married only four days the news was somewhat too sudden to be credible. In spite of the protests of the gallants who were present, Leon remained firm; Margarita would accompany him. In a pique, Margarita gave the house and furnishings to Perez, who had by that time arrived to claim the possessions he believed his own, but Leon was so little troubled by this action that Margarita, almost in spite of herself, was compelled to express her admiration for him. Consequently, the gift was withdrawn, and Perez again was gulled.

Angered beyond measure, he once more sought out Estifania. This time he drew his sword to kill her, but she stopped him by covering him with a pistol. She then took the edge off his wrath by presenting him with the thousand ducats out of which she had gulled Cacafogo. Realizing that there were shortcomings on both sides of the match and that his wife was a great deal cleverer than he, Perez decided that he ought to make the best of his bargain.

Meanwhile, both the Duke and Cacafogo arrived independently to pay suit to Margarita. The usurer was diverted into the wine cellar, where he soon became drunk. The Duke, having gained entry to the house by pretending to be wounded in a duel, soon found a chance to be alone with her, but his passionate speeches were interrupted by Cacafogo's drunken roaring from the cellar, a noise which, at Margarita's suggestion, he took to be a devil haunting him because of his evil purpose. Half afraid and thoroughly ashamed by the lady's virtuous replies, he became utterly discomfited and renounced his suit for good. This development completely satisfied Leon, who had overheard everything that was said. All ended happily as the bride and groom, now completely in love with each other, invited Perez and Estifania to take service with them.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

RULE A WIFE AND HAVE A WIFE is an assured piece of work by a mature craftsman of comedy. A popular play up to our own century, it succeeds through a well-paced and smoothly functioning plot that allows the humor to arise out of the basic situation rather than from farce, witty lines, or an overabundance of puns. Fletcher's knitting together of main plot and subplot is very skillful; the question of who owns and commands the elaborately furnished town house (which comes to serve as a symbol of the wealth and power all strive for) generates much of the later action of the play.

But more interesting to us today, perhaps, than the comic machinations are the attitudes and values common to the age that the work reveals. Most obvious of these is the "taming of the shrew" motif expressed by the title and by the major action. Margarita is a comic figure because she does not behave the way a woman is supposed to behave; not only does she enjoy the company and embraces of numerous men, but, more reprehensibly, she attempts to "rule" them with her ascendant will. This situation is corrected by Leon, an indigent gentleman who, having cheated Margarita out of control of her fortune by marrying her under false pretenses, finally gets her to kneel contritely before him and humbly beg his pardon for "my base self, disobedience, my wantonness, my stubbornness." The socially approved form of obedience, that is, man over women, has been re-established (and at the same time, presumably, Margarita's insatiable lusts have somehow been dissolved by her husband's assertive self-righteousness).

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