Last Updated September 5, 2023.
John Fletcher’s Jacobean comedy Rule a Wife, Have a Wife focuses on the power dynamics of two couples. Set near Medina in Spain at the time of the kingdom’s wars with the Dutch republic, the play begins with an encounter between Perez, an officer of the Spanish army, and Estifania, a mysterious veiled lady to whom he is very much attracted. On discovering that she owns a large and well appointed house and is therefore rich as well as attractive, Perez proposes to Estifania, and is accepted by her.
Meanwhile, Perez’s friend Don Juan was busy interviewing candidates to be officers in the Spanish army. He came across Leon, a strong and experienced soldier who was nonetheless highly stupid and incompetent. This makes him perfect for Margarita, the plays fourth principle character, a rich and beautiful heiress from a nearby town whose primary requirement in a husband is being foolish enough to miss her infidelities.
Leon and Margarita’s courtship takes them to the door of Estifania’s house, where the latter is enjoying a wonderful honeymoon with Perez. While Perez is angered by the interruption, his wife informs him that Margarita, who is her cousin, is trying to trick Leon into believing she is richer than she is so that he will marry her. She convinces him that they both should leave the house temporarily so that the deception can take place.
With Perez out of the way, Margarita reveals that she, in fact, owns the house, and she proceeds to organize and deliver a lavish party to which she invites a great many men, including the Duke of Medina. However, Leon reappears midway through the feast, having shed his air of stupidity, roaring to anyone who will listen that he won’t tolerate his wife’s behavior. A fight almost ensues between the duke and Leon at this point, the former being angered by the foiling of his plans with Margarita.
Perez, having found out about his wife’s true identity, then comes storming into the feast hall, complaining that she has stolen all his possessions. After Margarita admits the truth of this, Perez sets off to punish Estifania for her deception. When he finds her, however, Estifania convinces him that Margarita’s house is indeed his, and that he should return their to claim it.
With Perez gone again, Estifania turns her attention to selling her husband’s various possessions which, while worthless, she is able to sell for good money to a usurer called Cacafogo. Her strategy in achieving this is to convince the usurer, who is in love with Margarita, that they are Margarita’s possessions, and that any money raised will go toward liberating her from Leon.
Meanwhile, the duke seeks to get Leon out of the way by commanding him to go to Flanders as a cavalry officer. Margareta likes this notion, but she makes a show of being upset, bemoaning that she can hardly endure being separated so soon from her husband. Leon, however, checks the duke by arranging to have his wife and all her property brought with him to his post, at which point Margarita panics, claims unconvincingly that she is pregnant, and then bequeaths her property to Perez in a show of spite—though by this point, Leon, as her husband, is able to stop her from doing so.
Perez, foiled again and now angrier than ever, chases Estifania with a sword, intending to put an end to her, but she threatens to shoot him and he backs down. On being shown the money she has obtained in exchange for his possessions, he realizes how intelligent she is...
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and decides to make the best of a bad job in his marriage.
Meanwhile, the Duke and the unfortunate Cacafogo arrive at Margarita’s house to seduce her. Cacafogo wanders into the wine cellar, where he becomes very drunk, and begins bellowing loudly. Margarita tricks the Duke into believing that this bellowing is the sound of Satan coming to claim him as punishment for his wanton deeds. Ashamed and scared, the duke brings his pursuit of Margarita to an end.
The play has a happy ending of sorts, with both couples having found a dynamic which works for them, Margarita submitting to Leon and Perez to Estifania. Nonetheless, Fletcher’s skeptical asides throughout the play suggest that such arrangements are not quite to the playwright’s liking.