Rule a Wife and Have a Wife

by John Fletcher

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The premise of John Fletcher’s comedy is that the proper social order is a male-dominated hierarchy; by extension, a successful marriage will be one in which the husband “rules” and the wife obeys. In the process of supporting this idea, however, the playwright also raises considerable doubt as to the concept’s validity. Almost all of the characters are schemers who do their best to manipulate the others so they can get their own way. The audience can delight, meanwhile, in the wily, clever female characters’ undermining the males’ expectations.

At the end, it seems that Leon is properly established as a dominant husband, and his wife, Margarita, has seen the error of her ways. However, she fervently advocates her notions of female rights, including her plan to continue pursuing “lust” after marriage; the inclusion of such dialogue in a strong female character leaves the play open to diverse interpretations. In addition, the machinations of several female characters directly lead to the plot resolution. The “trickster tricked” theme recurs throughout. Leon believes that he is fooling Margarita into believing he will be a docile husband. Nevertheless, it is his sister Althea who makes the scheme succeed. In the other couple, Michael Perez believes that he has deceived the wealthy Estifania into thinking he is the wealthy one and therefore a good catch. Later he learns that she is a maid, not an heiress; together, she and her mistress, Margarita, have pulled off the scheme that has lured Michael.

Because the play is a comedy, Fletcher’s exaggeration of the ideas of role reversal is acceptable where it probably would not have been in a drama. The audience is encouraged to laugh at the women’s schemes, confident that proper social and oral order will be restored at the end. The men can likewise seem foolish when the audience assumes that their legitimate dominance will ultimately be asserted.

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