William Wycherley

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W. Gerald Marshall (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Marshall, W. Gerald. Introduction to A Great Stage of Fools: Theatricality and Madness in the Plays of William Wycherley, pp. 1-18. New York: AMS Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Marshall defines the historical context of theatricality and madness in Wycherley's plays.]

With few exceptions, commentaries on the four plays of William Wycherley are superficial in nature and do not offer a unified vision for the dramatic canon produced by the greatest of the Restoration comic playwrights. Traditionally, the plays have been defined as comedies of manners or of wit, with either approach vastly limiting our understanding of the plays' depth and complexity.1 Even very recent studies have tended to be narrow and stereotypical, discussing only the sexual aspects of Wycherley's drama. For instance, Robert F. Bode suggests that the central theme of The Plain Dealer is ambiguity in sexual relations, while Richard Braverman argues that Wycherley's plays simply discuss the inherent selfishness involved in the rakish sexual practices of most characters.2 In fact, only a few scholars actually go beyond the rather archaic approach to the plays which treats them as comedy of manners or mere sex comedy. Norman Holland examines the plays' concerns with social pretense and appearances versus nature. In his Language in Wycherley's Plays, James Thompson explores ways in which linguistic structures reveal character traits; central figures in the plays may be praised or condemned in terms of ethical and moral standards by the nature of the language in which they engage. Finally, Peter Holland explores some historical connections between actual actors of the period and their roles in Wycherley's plays, a situation which presents us with Wycherley's masterful handling of irony and parody.3

There is, however, a much deeper concern which lies at the heart of Wycherley's drama and gives unity to the four comedies. This overriding theme provides depth and complexity which far surpass that which is discernible through other approaches to the works, and it allows Wycherley to become a satirist not merely of “manners and morals,” but of the often twisted and perverted ways in which man is actor on the world stage, and of ways in which the imaginative faculties may perversely “cast” others in bizarre roles. A careful thematic and historical examination reveals an overriding concern with theatricality, itself; not with mere social pretense, but with the ancient topos of theatrum mundi, with various and often abnormal ways in which one may become “playwright,” “director,” and “audience” on the great world stage, and with the very nature and structure of dramatic forms and audience expectations of those forms. In varying degrees of complexity, then, Wycherley's plays are metatheater, and herein lies their true substance and meaning, as well as their most innovative contributions to the development of English comedy. One particular element often enhances the theatrical theme. Within a framework of plays-within-plays and roles-within-roles, Wycherley frequently presents characters in dramas of madness, a depiction found in Renaissance drama, but one which is greatly developed by Wycherley.4 Characters appear in play-worlds of illusory perceptions which reflect emerging Restoration concepts of insanity. Such use of theatricality serves to satirize certain characters and their attitudes, and to be a foil to more positive and generative uses of theatricality by others, i.e., ritualized drama, including rites of passage; and masking that does not disguise a negative personality trait, but actually symbolizes an inner and positive reality—a character trait finding expression through the mask that has become direct symbol and expressive vehicle.

In order to initially substantiate such a reading of the plays, as well as to provide...

(This entire section contains 5439 words.)

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a general framework for my approach, a brief historical and theoretical context needs to be established. Maximillian E. Novak has suggested that in the Restoration and eighteenth century, “metaphors of disguise and mask are so pervasive [that] they tend to condition the terms by which people think. …”5 Novak goes on to say that playwrights of the period “regarded disguise and role playing as parts of the mixed benefits of civilized life … wits play their parts better than the villains and win both the ladies and the fortunes … ladies [in the comedies] were able to dissimulate while remaining virginal, an idea that many moralists of the eighteenth century thought impossible” (p. 3).

While the metaphor of life as play and disguise was certainly prevalent in the Restoration, it appears to be an obsession in the thinking of William Wycherley, as a brief perusal of his poems and letters will indicate. In “To a Vain Young Courtier …,” Wycherley writes:

Why are harsh statutes 'gainst poor
Players made,
When Acting is the Universal Trade?
The World's but one wide Scene,
Our Life the Play
And every Man an Actor in his way.(6)

In another poem, Wycherley says that “Well might the various World be call'd a Stage, / And Life a Play in every Turn of Age … [A Man] May a Spectator from an Actor grow: / May so himself, not others, entertain” (IV, 212). In Wycherley's perception of things, the element of theatricality most certainly may be observed in the ministers and priests of Restoration England, a thought he conveys with his usual biting satire in the poem, “To an University-Wit. …”:

You Wit, in your Poetic Fury have,
Since you for the Stage wou'd for the Pulpit leave;
.....Church-Fictions too, will go off, with more ease,
Than the Profane, in crouded Play-Houses
Since Faith i'th' Church, is more, as Reason less

(III, 69).

In “To an Affected, Painted Mistress …”, theatrical images abound, as in this representative passage: “Leave off thy Mask of Paint, which only does, / Like Masks, thy Shame, hiding thy Face, expose … / Does Curiosity, not Love incite … / For Shame, leave your old Mask of Colours off / Since your Face were, without it, well enough” (III,142). While describing courtiers in “An Heroic Epistle,” Wycherley presents the typical politician as engaging in various forms of disguise and role playing to attain court favors:

The Courtier acts, the Man of Business too;
That he, for two at once, may Bus'ness do;
To gain Ears, Hearts, a True Friend must appear;
To work on Passions, a Philosopher;
To have his King's Ear, a Bold Orator;
Be dumb in Love, to speak his Passion more


Finally, in a letter to Alexander Pope, Wycherley presents both Houses of Parliament as engaging in a type of perpetual act or show: “The two great Playhouses of the Nation, that of the Lords and that of Commons” (IV, 234). It would appear that Wycherley's interest in human theatricality tends to condition the very way in which he perceives all levels of society—from beaus and wenches, to courtiers and Parliamentarians, all are engaged in various forms of acting and disguise.

This fascination with the dramatic becomes the paramount concern for all of Wycherley's plays, for it is inherently the dramatic medium, itself, which permits full exploration of the ancient topos of theatrum mundi and the theatrical implications surrounding such a society as that found in Restoration England. In the four plays, Wycherley envisions the world as a stage in ways which reflect traditional, Renaissance uses of the metaphor, as well as innovative perceptions of man as player which give new depth and complexity to this ancient concept. Briefly, and by way of introduction, here are the essential points to be discussed in regards to Wycherley's dramatic canon. In this discussion, we can begin to see not only the specific manifestations of theatricality in Wycherley's own plays, but also ways in which he transforms theatrical conventions of his day which appear in the works of such writers as William Congreve, George Etherege, George Villiers (Duke of Buckingham), Thomas Killigrew, and Thomas Duffett.

In recent years, the most controversial discussions involving Restoration drama have focused upon the important Restoration concept of Divine Providence and its applicability—or lack of it—to comedies of the period, an approach to the plays introduced by Aubrey Williams. It is within such a frame of reference that we shall explore Wycherley's first play, Love in a Wood (1672), a work generally brushed aside in critical commentary as being insubstantial. A persistent theatrical motif serves to depict all of the major characters in their own plays-within-the-play; and it is the particular patterning of each play-world which must be perceived in order to appreciate the deeper, providential aspects of the performance. At this point, however, it would be helpful to briefly note how other comic dramatists of the period utilize the theatrical motif; we will then be able to see how Wycherley both differs from his contemporaries in his own use of the metaphor, as well as how he transforms existing, contemporary interests in the play motif in his first play.

Theatricality in Restoration comedy ranges in complexity from the commonplace use of deception and pretense in order to have sexual affairs, to more extensive and developed uses of the metaphor in such works as Killigrew's The Parson's Wedding (1664), Buckingham's The Rehearsal (1671), and Duffett's The Mock Tempest (1674). In Killigrew's fascinating comedy, theatricality extends to the characters “becoming” elements of the dramatic form, itself, as when Wild exclaims that “I am Epilogue.”7 This phenomenon, it seems to me, has the effect of collapsing play and character, form and role; Wild's “life” is much like theater, and the play is merely an extension of his highly deceptive character. In The Rehearsal, the form being parodied becomes the actual structuring device for Buckingham's play, itself, all in an effort to satirize conventions of the rhymed play as developed by John Dryden. Indeed, the dramatist being satirized seems to have been so concerned with bombast and creating heroic elements, that he has forgotten the core of the play: “The play is at an end, but where's the plot? / That circumstance our poor poet Bayes forgot.” Similarly, Duffett's The Mock Tempest, as the title clearly indicates, has fun with a number of Shakespearean commonplaces, such as the use of the supernatural (i.e., Ariel and Prospero's magic in the Shakespeare play) and the whole idea of the comic romance. Duffett's play opens with the following stage directions: “A great noyse heard of beating Doors, and breaking Windows, crying a Whore, a Whore.” And Ariel ends the play with this line: “Where good ale is, there suck I.8

Wycherley's first play, however, utilizes two manifestations of theatricality not often found in playwrights of the period: it transcends commonplace pretense in its depth and structuring, and it reveals Wycherley's innovative use of parody in relation to dramatic form and genre, since the parody is for serious and substantial reasons (unlike such plays as The Mock-Tempest, which is mere farce), and the dramatic form being parodied often appears as a play-within-the-play—not as the very form of Wycherley's own production. More specifically, the characters create “plays” which have a formal structure, one which implies more than surface pretense: within the dramatic script created by each character there is a dark and secret scheme which is inevitably revealed or discovered just at the moment characters believe their “acting” has been most successful; and then there is a “poetical” justice which occurs and has the effect of reversing all of the secret scheming. The characters are left rather dazed at the timing of the intrusions into their play-worlds. As we shall see, this pattern represents much more than the mechanical use of worn-out dramatic commonplaces and expected comic reversals: the play's particular use of language, its depiction of a select group of “discoveries,” its use of time, and, finally, its particular demonstration of justice—all find direct parallel in contemporary Anglican apologetics which deal with God's Providential direction (His role of Divine Dramatist) over the great stage of the world; the plays of the characters create a theater-world which mirrors, in interesting detail, the greater stage of the world as seen through the perspective of contemporary providentialist writings. But, once again, it seems to me that such a case could be made in relation to Restoration comedy only if the parallels to contemporary theology are striking and direct, as they are in this play; otherwise, we simply have the repetition of traditional comic elements (ironic reversals, mistaken identity, etc.).

Intensifying the play's sense of theater, Wycherley draws upon a number of dramatic forms to reflect the essential natures of his characters. As we have noted, writers of the period sometimes create a play whose very form is held up for amusement (The Rehearsal is a bombastic, heroic play; The Mock Tempest is clearly, in its very form and content, a parody of a Shakespearean romance). Wycherley creates a variation of this, presenting only isolated and select characters within various dramatic genres; all of this occurs within the overriding comic form, of course, so that the genre being utilized appears as a distinct playworld. The most corrupt characters—those such as Gripe who are punished within the providentially-ordered scenario—are depicted within a satiric parody of the morality play, while the most virtuous—those such as Christina who are rewarded by the play's implied ordering principle—are imaged in the world of the pastoral romance. Gripe is thus seen as being “condemned” by the high moral standards inherent in the very genre to which he is compared, and Christina is depicted as sharing in the virtues and the joy found in the romance tradition. Overall, Wycherley's use of theology, as well as his blending of various dramatic forms, creates fascinating and innovative dimensions for the comic mode, itself.

In The Gentleman Dancing-Master (1673), Wycherley concentrates solely upon social aspects of human theatricality and uses of dramatization; in its fascinating representations of various sorts of plays-within-plays and roles-within-roles, this play becomes one of the most intriguing works to emerge from the Restoration theater world. The central character, Hippolita, frequently is connected with a theatrical metaphor in order to suggest that she is engaged in a formal rite of passage from adolescence to womanhood, the accomplishment of which—from primitive to modern times—always has involved various forms of play-acting and masking (a phenomenon discussed by a number of contemporary anthropologists). Wycherley had readily available to him a number of Shakespearean plays which treat the notion of rites of passage in positive ways, unlike most Restoration playwrights who make comic and ironic use of this ancient concept, reserving it for women who become victims of a male dominated society. Shakespeare's most notable example of a rite of passage is Prince Hal of Henry the Fourth, Part One, who clearly moves from “boyhood” (his playful association with Falstaff, the staged robberies, etc.), to manhood and the taking on of a serious military role and acting like the true heir-apparent. At the center of this passage, we find the important staging of the new role first, as in the tavern scene when Hal pretends to be king and scolds Falstaff for his immoral activities. In The Tempest, characters are often involved in deeper passages. In describing this element of the play, Norman Holland says that “People being put to sleep, being made to wander through a maze on the island, being, in effect, blindfolded … being made to do unpleasant tasks … shown miraculous, dreamlike visions … isn't this an initiation ritual [paralleling] Stone Age times when the young men who were to be initiated into the tribe were … made to undergo various ordeals … and brought back to the tribe as fully accredited members.” As Holland suggests, the ultimate aim of treading the mazes in the play is the “acquiring of new understanding, finding one's self,” as when the former political conspirators against Prospero come to themselves and repent, and when Miranda can begin to fulfill herself as a woman and be joined with Ferdinand.9 In Restoration comedy, however, rites of passage are generally comic and ironic. In William Congreve's Love for Love, Miss Prue is at that delicate age of transition, attempting to move out of her state of girlhood innocence and start to meet young men. But at this critical time, Tattle comes along and begins to mold the girl into his own, private mistress, directing her never to “kiss and tell” and never to “speak first” when he is instructing her, and to “make love” to him. All of this causes Prue's “nurse” to exclaim: “Miss Prue … What has become of the child?”10 This hardly represents a positive growing-up experience, but rather an initiation into the constant sexual intrigues, the dark affairs of the town. Other characters attempt to pass from a state of innocence to experience in a slightly different, but nonetheless negative and ironic way: from a childhood in the country to womanhood in the city, where we might expect them to attain adult insight, control, and peer respect. A perfect example of this would be Wycherley's own character, Margery Pinchwife, who leaves her country innocence with Pinchwife, passes into the world of a married, adult woman, but never experiences any adult sense of freedom due to her husband's rigid control and the constant efforts of city rakes, such as Horner, to seduce her and only pretend to love her. The only “playacting” of a new role is the farcical dressing-up in male clothing which Pinchwife directs, so that his wife will not be flirted with when they go downtown! Hippolita represents an interesting, positive variation from this typical Restoration depiction of young women who are growing up. As we shall see, she is able to attain some deeper sense of self such as that found in Shakespeare.

Like all traditional rites of passage, however, Hippolita's does involve some sort of testing and trial, but her case reflects the unusual difficulty of an insane father who is lost in his own drama of madness. Through the efforts of B. Eugene McCarthy, we now know that Wycherley developed a close friendship with John Locke11—a relationship which may have heightened Wycherley's own interests in the workings of the mind. Moreover, there are indications that Wycherley envisioned around him a mad society, as suggested in his poem, “To Nath. Lee, in Bethlem”:

Heroes and Lovers, stark mad are
.....Mad likewise is each Crack'd brain'd Prodigal
.....Each Heroe, like a Tom of Bedlam too
.....Each antic Courtier, Mad for pride, we hold
.....The Men of Bus'ness should for Madmen go
.....The Roaring Churchmen, seem but Madmen too
.....In fine, the whole World's giddy, running round
So Light-heads in it only can be found

(III, 233).

And in The Gentleman Dancing, we find a fascinating treatment of the mind's ability to create various illusions, all of which helps to generate the fundamental madness which emerges in some of the main characters, such as Hippolita's father, Don Diego.

In order to understand the madness which Hippolita is up against, let us briefly consider some historical perspectives. Even in a society as complex as that of late seventeenth-century England, we find some sort of societal norm regarding sanity. A prominent medical historian, George Rosen, provides a healthy reminder regarding the extreme importance assigned to reason in the period, “reason” being understood as the ability to follow customs of the “existing social order,” to follow a generally moral, balanced attitude toward all aspects of one's life as determined by the greater part of society (Rosen is careful to explain that Restoration society, in general, did not hold to the morals and values so often found in comedies of the period, works which reflect the possible values of a small court-society). One striking example Rosen offers involves the case of a teenage girl who was institutionalized because she did not attend church regularly with her parents—thus violating established religious behavior.12 Though such ideas will be discussed later in greater depth and detail, we can see that both Don Diego and Paris are certainly depicted as being at odds with any sort of established, reasonable norms for behavior. Both Don Diego and Sir Paris are presented in intense play-worlds of illusory perception, dramas which reflect emerging Restoration notions of madness. Our discussion will reveal that each character manifests a mental “hobbyhorse”: Paris and his obsession with anything French, and Diego with the idea of anything Spanish; these ideas allow the characters to transform objective reality into play or illusion, to see everyone and everything as either French or Spanish. Wycherley directly states in one of his poems that the mind may create delusions as the result of a single obsession: “And by the proud Deliriums of the Mind, / Ourselves to one unceasing Slav'ry bind” (IV, 210). In reflecting such monomania, the two characters represent an interesting transformation of the traditional humors character. Madeline Doran, in her book The Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama, explains that the humors character may manifest one dominant mood (such as Hamlet's melancholy), or “an idiosyncratic trait constantly exhibited,” such as appears in Elizabethan and Renaissance comedy.13 An example of the latter would be Jonson's character, Morose (in Epicoene), who constantly reacts nervously and violently when there is too much noise. Moliere's Alceste, in The Misanthrope (the source play for The Plain Dealer), is primarily depicted as suffering from a problem regarding mood, since everything, he says, “fills me with depression.” He is not depicted in any type of playworld and, unlike his counterpart, Manly, he is not involved in a constant pattern of imaginatively transforming objective reality into fiction.14 Like the traditional humors character, Congreve's Foresight, in Love for Love, manifests a deep idiosyncrasy in the area of portents and astrology. For instance, in order to insure good luck he “got out of bed backwards this morning.”15 Etherege's Sir Fopling Flutter certainly bears some similarities to Wycherley's Sir Paris, as both are French fops. But Sir Fopling is depicted in terms of eccentric action: everyone comments on the way he dresses, sporting “The pantaloon … very well mounted … The tassels … a coat” which, he says, “makes me show long-waisted.” Sir Fopling can still tell, however, that he is actually English and that English women are not French, for he says that he desires to have fun “with some of our English ladies.”16 Each of these characters manifests obsessive behavior or mood, while Wycherley's characters are satirized not only for unusual actions and dress, but primarily for an obsessive imagination which, through a twisted perceptual/imaginative framework, perceives and defines everyone and everything in only one way. Whereas the humors character is concerned with obsessive mood manifestation or compulsive action, Wycherley's characters essentially depict a warped imagination which sees the entire world in one, obsessive way. For example, Sir Paris actually believes that he is French and that all the Englishmen around him are French! This is a step beyond a character such as Sir Fopling Flutter.

In all of the major roles, Wycherley enhances the theatrical motif by drawing upon important aspects of the commedia dell' arte scenari, deepening the sense that the characters are in their own, private play-worlds. Ultimately, the play contrasts two types of possible theatricality: one which leads to normal growth and development (Hippolita); the other which is based on exaggerated egotism and leads only to greater and greater illusion and ridiculous fantasy (Diego and Paris). The tension between these two types of dramatization creates the play's overall sense of the comic, and offers the audience a most interesting display of human theatrics.

In the creation of his third play, The Country Wife (1675), Wycherley produced the greatest of all the Restoration comedies. In this work he explores dimensions of theatricality in ways which go far beyond those found in Love in a Wood and The Gentleman Dancing Master. Drawing upon Restoration concepts of madness, Wycherley explores bizarre problems of sexual identity (Pinchwife) and their relation to various forms of disguise, masking, and “directing.” With Pinchwife, Wycherley also reveals an interesting innovation concerning the stock character of the cuckold, for Pinchwife not only worries about being cuckolded; indeed, through his sick imagination, he perceives all people as either cuckolds or cuckold-makers, even when this perception denies obvious reality. With Sparkish, Wycherley depicts the popular Restoration social type, the wit, and explores the madness which may result from a total preoccupation with one's own appearance, cleverness, and fondness for constantly “showing-off” at plays. Going beyond the standard depiction, however, Sparkish is presented in an intense drama of madness in which romance and normal sexuality have been precluded by his obsession with a fictive and dramatic role and by his casting of all those around him into an image of his own theatrical self. With Horner, the theatrical motif is quite intense and provocative. Horner persistently plays the role of a eunuch, but this role is symbolic of a deeper problem. With this character, Wycherley offers his most intriguing uses of the theatricality/madness motif, combining both traditional and contemporary Restoration notions of madness to suggest that Horner, in his obsession with sex, is a perverse dramatist who constantly sets “stages” upon which women can play roles which are less than human, roles which force them to descend the chain of being from the proper and natural role assigned to them by a “Divine Dramatist.” Ultimately, Horner is presented as an impotent creator, an impotent dramatist who would negate or uncreate the play of life as it is seen by the “eye of Heaven” to which the play refers; hence, the purpose for the many Satanic references which surround him in the play. With Harcourt, Wycherley offers a most fascinating and positive use of theatricality, especially through his wearing of the priestly disguise and his speaking in religious language. Constantly, Restoration audiences were conditioned to see a total separation between mask and reality, but in Harcourt's performance we have the fragile moment in which language and heart are one, mask and inner nature are united. There is a priestly dimension to Harcourt, manifested by his near-religious faith in Alithea's goodness and innocence which have come under attack, and in his ability to perceive the spiritual dimension to human nature. Mask and drama, the play suggests, have the potential to be mirrors of one's nature and true representatives of a role which one is at least trying to attain. The ironies and the tensions between the play's various roles and disguises contribute to The Country Wife's sense of the comic, and give to the play a depth and richness which have not been perceived.

In The Plain Dealer (1676), Wycherley explores new ways in which drama manifests itself in Restoration society, particularly in the constant theatrics of flattery, as found in Plausible, whose obsessions lead him into a drama of madness; and in the Widow Blackacre's fondness for the law, which becomes an obsession which leads her into one of the most complex and fascinating mad dramas to appear in Wycherley's plays. Manly is a malcontent whose total lack of faith in human nature becomes so intense as to lead him into a play-world of illusory perception which reflects Restoration concepts of madness. Undoubtedly, one of the most intriguing characters to emerge from the Restoration stage is Olivia, whose use of theatricality allows her to become a mirror of madness, to actually play the roles in which various deranged characters have cast her in order to satisfy their obsessions and secure their money and praise.

All of these things, however, represent only one level of the play' sense of theater, for there are a number of dramatic genres represented within the overall comic form; a full understanding of the tension between these dramatic elements can help to solve some of critical problems which The Plain Dealer has long presented. Of course, Wycherley has called the play a comedy, and Olivia, with her manipulative abilities and shrewdness, intensifies the fact that we have before us a truly Restoration comedy, complete with intrigue and deception. At the same time, Fidelia emerges directly from the world of a pastoral romance, harkening back to Christina in Love in a Wood. In her use of sexual disguise, she also reminds us of Shakespeare's Rosalind in As You Like It. At the same time, we have seen a number of very intense dramas of madness operant in the play's world. We will see that all of the dramatic energy seems to be moving toward a very negative ending, one in which Manly's madness triumphs, thus making the final form of the play a drama of madness, one in which all comic expectations, all romantic expectations, have been consumed by Manly's inability to have any relationship with Fidelia. But suddenly, at the very end, Manly is “shocked” out of his obsessive thought patterns, and is able to recognize true friendship and to make some movement toward social integration. This final act redeems the play from utter madness, and permits a comic ending to emerge. Nevertheless, the audience's full expectations for the romance and the comedy are not met; Manly's final “sane” act still has some connections with his earlier aberrant thinking; since he is the only one of Wycherley's characters to break out of a drama of madness, his sudden rationality seems to be somewhat artificial and, as we saw earlier, it is something which he can suddenly lose. Though we finally have the emergence of the comic form, we have been brought face-to-face with the encroachment of the mad drama as form, itself, not as the metaphor in which it appears in the earlier plays which remain so decidedly comic.


  1. For such approaches see Willard Connely, Brawney Wycherley (New York: Nonesuch Press, 1930); Thomas H. Fujimura, Restoration Comedy of Wit (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1952), particularly pp. 127-32; and Robert D. Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. 139 and 278-79.

  2. “A Rape and No Rape: Olivia's Bedroom Revisited,” Restoration (fall, 1988), 80-6; “Libertines and Parasites,” Restoration (fall, 1987), 30-9; “The Allegory of Sex: A Study of Wycherley's The Country Wife,Panjab University Research Bulletin (April, 1985), 53-9.

  3. Wycherley's Drama: A Link in the Development of English Satire (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1965); Language in Wycherley's Plays (University: University of Alabama Press, 1984); and The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979). See also Norman Holland, The First Modern Comedies (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 38-113.

  4. The general idea of connecting madness with theatricality appears in two major dramatic works which were in the active theatre repertory of the Restoration—Hamlet and Volpone. As Anne Righter explains, Hamlet utilizes a spectrum of dramatic language which consists of words such as “act,” “perform,” “prologue,” “show.” As she suggests, such language intensifies the fact that Hamlet is in his own drama of supposed madness: “Caught in a maze of deceiving appearances, he takes refuge in an illusion of his own devising. He becomes an actor and, from the vantage of his ‘antic disposition,’ watches and bides his time.” See Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962,) pp. 160-1. In Jonson's Volpone, there are statements throughout Volpone's constant and intricate scheming to acquire wealth is not only madness, but his own drama of madness: his role of mountebank is set upon a “scaffold stage” on which he is “disguised,” and he compares himself to an “actor” in “so celebrated a scene / At recitation of our comedy.” References to the play are from the edition of Alvin B. Kernan (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 189, 76-7, and 125.

  5. English Literature in the Age of Disguise (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977), p. 2. Further references appear in the text.

  6. Montague Summers, ed., The Complete Works of William Wycherley (New York: Russell and Russell, 1964), IV, p. 241. Subsequent references to the poems are from this edition and appear in the text with appropriate volume and page references.

  7. Comedies and Tragedies by Thomas Killigrew (London: 1664; re-issued 1967 by Benjamin Blom, Inc., New York), p. 115.

  8. The Rehearsal in Restoration Plays, ed. Brice Harris (New York: The Modern Library, 1953), p. 57; and The Mock-Tempest, in Shakespeare Adaptations, ed. Montague Summers (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1922), pp. 111 and 173.

  9. Norman N. Holland, The Shakespearean Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1964), p. 312.

  10. William Congreve: Complete Plays, ed. Alexander C. Ewald (New York: Hill and Wang, 1956), pp. 230-31.

  11. William Wycherley: A Biography (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 117-19. McCarthy discusses, “for the first time,” this friendship, and displays correspondence.

  12. Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1968), pp. 151-71. For similar ideas in the eighteenth century proper, see Christopher Fox, ed., Psychology and Literature in the Eighteenth Century (New York: AMS Press, 1989).

  13. The Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1954), p. 232.

  14. The Misanthrope, trans. John Wood (New York: Penguin Classics, 1959), p. 27.

  15. William Congreve: Complete Plays, p. 216.

  16. Restoration Plays, pp. 194-95.


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William Wycherley 1640?-1716

English dramatist, poet, and aphorist.

The following entry presents criticism of Wycherley's career published between 1993 and the present. For earlier appraisals on Wycherley, see LC vols. 8 and 21.

Recognized as one of the most influential dramatists of the Restoration, William Wycherley is renowned for his brazen satire and witty dialogue. His social commentary, particularly condemning hypocrisy, pretense, and avarice, has created much critical attention and controversy, especially with regard to his frank treatment of moral and sexual attitudes.

Biographical Information

Wycherley was born at Clive Hall, Shropshire. Tutored by his Royalist father until the age of fifteen, he was then sent to continue his education in Angoulême, France, where he could escape the strict Puritan educational system under Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate. There Wycherley studied under the Marquisse de Montausier and her circle of intellectuals and, like many who followed the Stuarts to France, converted to Roman Catholicism. Upon his return to England in 1660, however, he reverted to Protestantism. Arriving just before the inception of the Restoration, Wycherley briefly studied law before enrolling in Queen's College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy but left before completing his degree. He then entered the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court of which his father was a member, intending to revive his pursuit of legal studies. However, he soon realized his greater passion for literature and left. Scholars are unsure of Wycherley's activities over the following few years but speculate that he was involved with the military and that he probably participated as a naval officer in the Dutch War. It has also been suggested that Wycherley took part in a diplomatic mission to Spain with Sir Richard Fanshawe.

His first work, the poem Hero and Leander was published anonymously in 1669. His distinction as a dramatist began, however, when his first play, Love in a Wood; or St. James's Park made its appearance on the stage in 1671 at the Theatre Royal in London, attracting the attention of Charles II's mistress, Barbara Villiers Palmer, the Duchess of Cleveland. Soon becoming Wycherley's own mistress, she introduced him to court circles in which he became an immediate sensation. Though his second play, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, was not well received upon its performance at Covent Garden in 1672, his popularity did not diminish; The Country-Wife and The Plain-Dealer, first performed in 1675 and 1676 respectively, were great successes.

Wycherley fell ill in 1678 and Charles II subsequently sent him to Montpellier, France, to recuperate. Upon his return, he was appointed tutor of Charles's illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. Before he took on his post, Wycherley fell in love with and secretly married Lady Laetitia-Isabella, Countess of Drogheda. Neglecting his duties at court, he quickly fell out of favor with the king, who revoked his position. Soon thereafter in 1681, the Countess died, leaving Wycherley responsible for the dispersion of her large estate and beleaguered with expensive litigation. He fell increasingly deeper into debt, resulting in his ultimate destitution and incarceration in debtors' prison. Upon hearing of his plight in 1686, however, King James II reconciled Wycherley's debts and secured him a pension, which remained in place until the king abdicated the throne two years later. In 1704, Wycherley published his first edition of Miscellany Poems, which caught the interest of English poet Alexander Pope. With Pope's assistance, Wycherley revised his verse and in 1728-29 a significantly improved collection of his poems, along with aphorisms and correspondence, was published. A mere eleven days before his death, Wycherley married Elizabeth Jackson. Speculations on his motives have included preventing his nephew from inheriting his estate, the payment of outstanding debts with Jackson's wealth to be reimbursed with an inheritance, and outright confusion or entrapment, for Wycherley's memory appeared to have been failing at that point. Wycherley died January 1, 1716 as a Roman Catholic, having converted again, and was buried at St. Paul's, Covent Garden, London.

Major Works

Though Wycherley dabbled in poetry, anonymously publishing the mock-heroic burlesque Hero and Leander and his later Miscellany Poems, he is best known for his canon of drama. His four plays conform to many Restoration conventions, particularly in the use of sexual intrigue and mistaken identity. Unsympathetic to hypocrisy, materialism, and pretense, he remorselessly directs his wit at their greatest offenders in his works. His first drama, Love in a Wood; or St. James's Park, is a satiric ridicule of pastoral romance and its idealization of humanity. Overtly mocking the popular tale The Faithful Shepherdess by John Fletcher, Wycherley puns the contradiction inherent in the storyline even in his title; the word wood signifies not only a forest, but the Restoration definition of madness or confusion. His subsequent work, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, was published just a few months later but lacked the ingenuity of his first drama. Following the contemporary traditional comedic formula, Wycherley creates a very simple plot based on Spanish dramatist's Calderon's El Maestro del Danzar. Flat characters and uninspired dialogue compose a narrative in which love ultimately rectifies all transgressions. Wycherley's brilliant technique reappeared in his third drama several years later in 1675. The Country-Wife has been dubbed the classic “Restoration Comedy,” for while it is not overtly humorous, it is replete with wit. Using Juvenal's Satire Six as inspiration, Wycherley employs an assortment of characters to express his warnings against lust and sexual exploitation. His final drama, The Plain-Dealer is his most classic satire and yet, in its brutal honesty, also the darkest. For its dourness, critics have found it difficult to categorize as a Restoration comedy and note instead its similarities to Le misanthrope by French dramatist Molière. In creating a satiric commentary on satire itself, Wycherley makes poignant observations about hypocrisy and meaninglessness as he criticizes conventional ideals of the era.

Critical Reception

Wycherley's first two major works, Love in a Wood and The Gentleman Dancing-Master, have elicited limited commentary since their publication. Love in a Wood was an early success with contemporaneous audiences, who praised its complex and dynamic plots and subplots. Little has changed in its criticism through the centuries, and it is still regarded as representative of Wycherley's promise as a great dramatist. The Gentleman Dancing-Master initially disappointed expectant spectators with a somewhat tedious plot, and has faded into relative obscurity over time. The Country-Wife, however, was an extremely popular play in the seventeenth century, deemed a hilarious comedy for its jeers at adulterers who claim virtue. The work was nevertheless censored in the eighteenth century. During this time of changing values and social norms, it was judged offensive and dissolute. In 1766 David Garrick's subdued adaptation, The Country Girl, replaced the original onstage and remained there through the end of the nineteenth century. Changing views on how drama affects audiences changed the reception of Wycherley's plays. A play that in the eighteenth century exposed audiences to instances of immoral behavior, offering such behavior up to denounce it, was seen in the nineteenth century as providing audiences immoral behavior to emulate. Today critics remain distressed with the morality of the play, but with different rationale. With central characters that seem to exemplify the vices of lust and hypocrisy, the reader questions exactly what values Wycherley was condoning at the time of publication and against what the satire is actually directed. However, other critics maintain that the work was not meant to be read into too deeply and should be interpreted simply as an amusing farce. The Plain-Dealer is particularly distinguished for its extreme pessimism and bitterness, unmatched in classic satire. Of all his works, Wycherley was particularly extolled for this drama by seventeenth-century critics, commended by his contemporaries for appropriately chastising society for its transgressions of hypocrisy and pretense. Modern critics, conspicuously less enthusiastic about this play, have remarked on its contradiction, asserting that in his righteousness, Manly damns all others, perhaps descending to their level of sin and inhumanity. While most modern scholars feel that The Plain-Dealer is overall more cynical than requisite for its intention, Wycherley became known among his contemporaries as the “Plain Dealer” himself, not only for occupying the role of exemplary moral satirist, but perhaps as well for sharing much of the same perspective as his title character, Manly.

Derek Cohen (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Derek. “The Country Wife and Social Danger.” Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research 10, no. 1 (summer 1995): 1-14.

[In the essay below, Cohen examines the tension and energy inherent in the social situation presented in the play The Country Wife.]

The Country Wife is a play which is carried by the energy of constant present danger. The threat of social collapse, which a single simple exposure implies, is omnipresent. What if, we are constantly thinking, the ruse is exposed as a ruse? What consequences would ensue from such exposure? Like many another farce, the results of exposure would produce tragedy in one or many forms. Those characters who have carefully and, in one or two cases, almost deliberately, insulated themselves from the knowledge of the truth surrounding Horner and their wives, would be compelled by the full force of public humiliation to depths and degrees of self knowledge heretofore avoided. Self-knowledge would, in the more egregious cases of Pinchwife and Sir Jasper, produce a choice based on nothing so much as that fragile structure of male ethics which have determined the direction and the values of the social organism. These men, if forced to face the fact that they have been cuckolded and gulled by another man would have to choose, quite simply, between behaving like brave men or cowardly men. No other option exists. Brave men would, by tradition or precedent attack and, hopefully, kill Horner. Cowardly men would remove themselves from the scene and agents of their cuckoldry with, probably, a consequential punishment of their transgressing wives. The use of the law against Horner or their wives, tradition again dictates, would be perceived within this society as a form of cowardice. It is my object here to explore the way in which the feelings of men, the brutality of men to women, and the self-serving asseveration of masculine values in the play are the bases and the courses of male vulnerability and weakness.

Patriarchy, tyrannical though it can be towards women, is a chief cause of its own weakness; the tyrannical element of patriarchy is its own self-protective means of re-establishing itself in the face of its permanently imminent collapse. The violence and brutality that issue, apparently inevitably, from patriarchal structures are the primary, perhaps the only, means by which it can restore itself. Wycherly's The Country Wife exposes the fragility of male-induced structures of social and individual conduct and reveals the world as a strange unreal place where men plunge about in a kind of darkness; they are held together socially by mores of competitiveness, violence, suppression, and repression which derive inevitably from the profoundly isolated place that they have made for themselves. Friendship among the men in the play is entirely conditional on an acceptance of the hierarchy of sexual success. Those in the know, like Harcourt, have to accept Horner's sexual superiority to themselves if they wish to be accepted as his friends. Those not in the know, foolishly, but accordingly, make the assumption, of their own sexual superiority to him. The world of men is a world of continuous sexual contestation. This powerfully individualistic value produces a sense of profound loneliness in each of the males—more profound in some than others, of course—which can only be addressed or healed by resort to the same value. Men who seem to feel lonely cope with that feeling by reference to their sexual adequacy or inadequacy in terms of other men. The result seems inevitably to be more and increased isolation and misery. The scapegoat for male loneliness is always women. By contrast to male values of sexual competitiveness in the play, the women seem to recognize and act on feelings of community, mutuality and sympathy. They tend to support and tolerate each other, to help and conspire with each other almost by what seems to be “nature,” and also because of the socially received perception of men as their enemies. They share the plight of underprivileged despite the fact that they belong in a firmly upper middle-class stratum of society.

The dramatically complementary scenes of the play which demonstrate the dichotomy most vividly are the so-called drinking scene—in which the women agree to act drunk and speak as truthfully among themselves as if they were drunk in real earnest—and the last vivid moment of the play when Horner is left alone but surrounded by both the women he has had sex with and those he intends to seduce. Each of these scenes has a symbolic suggestiveness which powerfully sustains the idea of an essential difference between men and women. As dramatic spectacles, the scenes point to the deep incompatibility of the values of community and individuality. Each of these two scenes alludes to a transgression of sexual or gender codes. A female drinking scene is itself transgressive and subversive. Horner's plight in the last moments of the play portrays him as a man's idea of a woman—weak, foolish, used, usable, and trapped in his sexuality which he denies only at his social peril. He is of no use or value except to women as a convenient phallus.

Eunuchism is a curious and ambiguous state. Writing about the plight of eunuch slaves in Byzantium and Imperial China, Orlando Patterson describes the simultaneous loathing and fear in which eunuchs occasionally were held. Because eunuchs could not reproduce themselves and because they were held in such social disdain, even among other slaves, their cynical masters recognized their potential as wielders of power who were not likely to try to usurp them. Eunuchism is associated very largely with slavery and the harem. Eunuchs were used to guard the harem because it was naively held that because men were eunuchs they were incapable of giving sexual pleasure to women. Their guardianship endowed them, however, with a certain if limited authority. Eunuchs, writes Patterson, are always regarded as freaks and regarded with horror: “In typically human fashion the sense of horror does not induce pity, but rather disgust and fear.”1 These reactions arise from some fanciful and some demonstrated physical peculiarities resulting from castration. Patterson cites some so-called “authorities” on the subject who held that eunuchs “stank not only from incontinence but from excessive perspiration, [while] others claimed that they ceased to sweat from their armpits after castration. They were supposed to be intellectually superior … but morally degenerate. …”2 Lady Fidget's remarkably cruel reaction to the news of Horner's eunuchism is somewhat mitigated by dramatic irony and subsequent events and the way it reflects on her, while it follows this nearly universal pattern of callousness, disgust and horror:

O filthy French beast! foh, foh! Why do we stay?
Let's be gone. I can't endure the sight of him.


It is Horner's self-imposed lot to have to endure such treatment in the interest of a higher objective. He takes on himself the universal scorn reserved for eunuchs while he is careful to let those he respects know of its unfoundedness. But it is in the closing moments of the play that we perceive Horner rather more aware of the consequences of his ploy than he seems in the beginning. It is likely that the audiences of Wycherley's source play—Terence's The Eunuch—for whom eunuchs would have been a more familiar feature of everyday life, would have found the spectacle of the artificial eunuch funny in different and more real ways.

Horner's last lines are a statement of bravado; but how they comport with his near exposure and the spectacle of his self-imposed life sentence is more ambiguous.

Vain fops, but court, and dress, and keep a pother
To pass for women's men with one another;
But he who aims by women to be prized,
First by the men, you see, must be despised.


To accept being despised by the men, as the drama vividly shows, is best accomplished by first despising the men—who reveal themselves with perhaps one exception to be an impressively despicable lot. Horner's position at the end, however, by its very ambiguity—is he the winner or the loser?—directs all concentration to his genitals. He is the public eunuch and the private stud. His standing is perceptible on two discrete and irreconcilable levels. He looks trapped, very much like the sex toy of a potentially endless stream of unsatisfied women. He has, however, created the trap and stepped into it with his eyes open. He has what he wanted. What is unclear is whether, now that he has it, he still wants it or believes that it was worth it. The spectacle leaves us in doubt about his happiness, though in no doubt about his success. The drinking scene introduces the dilemma.

During that scene Horner is found surrounded by women who are deeply and essentially unhappy. For this reason Horner must be seen as the very opposite of a Don Juan. The idea of a woman as a sexual trophy carries with it related ideas, chief amongst them being the notion that the greater the woman, the more happy, secure, satisfied and settled, the more universally desired she is, the greater the accomplishment of her illicit lover for seducing her. The best known such woman in English writing is, of course, Clarissa. Unlike the women Horner conquers, Clarissa is a prize because she is happy, beautiful, and virtuous. She can live without the likes of Horner who offers simple and uncomplicated sexual enjoyment as a gift. It takes little imagination to consider how Clarissa Harlowe would have reacted to the blandishments of a John Horner. Horner's plan, then, revolves around the social, political, and sexual unhappiness of women and also the sexual anxiety of men. These are, of course, the by-products of a system of gender and sexual relations and marriage which are bound to produce misery in women who seek happiness in marriage and find only disappointment—as has occurred in the cases of Lady Fidget and Margery Pinchwife, and will have occurred in other women who find themselves in the circle. The plight of womankind as described in the drinking scene and, especially, in the drinking song, is a predictably miserable and pleasureless marriage. Sadly enough, this does seem in fact to be the plight or future plight of each of the harassed women in the scene who are eternally connected to men they despise or, like the apparently unattached Mrs. Squeamish whose grandmother watches her, who seem to associate authority with tyranny.

Before the women's drinking scene, there is an intriguing little bit of dialogue among the men on the subject of women drinking. It contains the usual vapid generalizations that pass for wit in much Restoration comedy. The subject is women and drink and the relation of the one to the other:

Yes a man drinks often with a fool, as he tosses with a marker, only to keep his hand in ure. But doe the ladies drink?
Yes, sir, and I shall have the pleasure at least of laying 'em flat with a bottle, and bring as much scandal that way upon 'em as formerly t'other.
Perhaps you may prove as weak a brother amongst 'em that way as t'other.
Foh! drinking with women is unnatural as scolding with'em. But 'tis a pleasure of decayed fornicators, and the basest way of quenching love.


It is interesting that this Harcourt who seems to participate in the anti-female badinage with a zest equal to that of any of the men has had such a good press from the critics. The dialogue is not particularly vicious, but it clearly locates women as opposite and inferior to men, rather than as their complement or equal. The construction of women as bad company and poor drinking companions alludes to something slightly insidious about women—they are the evil that stands between men and their manly pleasures, also translatable in the context as freedom.

An intriguing element of the female drinking scene is that it provides the spectacle of women behaving like men. The women imitate the only real model available to them in the context of a drinking bout, and yet, it seems, despite this need to imitate, it is in this scene that something benign surfaces almost independently of their determination to ape their male counterparts. The husbands of this play, who in the drinking scene are represented as typical, are clearly afraid of their wives, though not in the same way that the wives are afraid of their husbands. Wives fear husbands because it is part of their function to please them, though the opposite is not true. The wifely function seems clearly to endure—in the worst case—and enjoy—in the best—the use of their bodies by their husbands. According to the drinking song, husbands tend not to be the most adequate lovers, while it is the wife's duty to acknowledge, usually by a kind of tacit complicity, that her husband is an adequate lover. For a wife to express sexual dissatisfaction is for her to offer the very worst insult a wife can offer a husband. Thus, in the married world of the play, wives must be accomplished liars or risk incurring the wrath and displeasure of men who have considerable power over their simple physical mobility.

Horner has garnered three lovers by the commencement of the drinking scene, Lady Fidget, Mrs. Squeamish, and Mrs. Pinchwife, who hides in his closet while the other women are visiting him. The other female visitor is Mrs. Dainty Fidget who has not yet been initiated into the fold. The song itself is interesting; though it is as well to remember that it is a song with the predictable veracities and hyperboles of songs:


Why should our damned tyrants oblige us to live
On the pittance of pleasure which only they give?
We must not rejoice
With wine and with noise.
In vain we must wake in a dull bed alone,
Whilst to our warm rival, the bottle, they're gone.
Then lay aside charms And take up these arms.


'Tis wine only gives 'em their courage and wit
Because we live sober, to men we submit.
If for beauties you'd pass
Take a lick of the glass:
'Twill mend your compexions, and when they are gone
The best red we have is the red of the grape.
Then, sister, lay't on,
And damn a good shape.


This song and the play more generally allude to a grave political issue—the crisis of authority. In the world of The Country Wife, authority is known only as tyranny. The singer of this song and the women who concur in its message agree that they are political subjects of a male order. They are hostages to marriage which is itself a transfer from one familial subjection to another. The song, like thousands of others on the same subject, uses comic lamentation to make its subversive point. Husbands are the enemy of wives. They are tyrants, the pleasure they give is a “pittance”; they prefer wine to women; the bottle is the wife's rival. Wine which encourages men can offer comfort to women; it can make them feel attractive and it can give them the illusion of equality—“Because we live sober, to men we submit.” The potential pathos of the song is displaced by the persona of the singer, a thoroughgoing harridan. The drinking song has analogies in tavern songs throughout the world in which men lament the imprisonment of marriage. Like those, this song counsels revolt—“damn a good shape” encourages the subversion of the male value of female physical attractiveness which is one of the cornerstones of a patriarchal agenda. A “good shape”—has to do largely, though not entirely, with female conformity to the masculine notion of femininity.

The truly dangerous element of the song, however, is its honesty. It exposes married life and love as shams. The social requirement that women lie to protect their husband-tyrants is implied in the song and taken farther into the scene up to the last stunning revelation of Horner's true identity. In the dialogue that follows the song the women admit to behavior that directly violates the cannons of patriarchal control. Squeamish's admission, for example, that “for want of a gallant, the butler is lovely in our eyes,” (49-50) is a flagrant acknowledgement of the existence of female sexual desire and, more important, is a statement about the artificiality of class differentiation that strikes at the heart of the system of political control which the men naively seem to believe their wives accept. The statement openly situates sexual desire as a primary force which lies behind the mask of social conformity to the male order. The threat, moreover, of a woman taking a lover from a lower class seriously questions the value of the social order to which these women are tied.

The dialogue also constructs the world of men in a far more trenchant and accurate fashion than the converse construction. Where men seem to see women as a necessary nuisance in their pursuits of pleasure, the women here reveal a perception of men that is incisive and accurate, and which is validated by the behavior of most of the men in the play:

Our bashfulness is only the reflection of the men's.
We blush, when they are shamefaced.


The male bashfulness may be translated as simple feelings of sexual inadequacy, exemplified in the play by the anxiety expressed by Sir Jasper and Mr. Pinchwife in particular, but, according to this exchange, it is a common phenomenon.

As subjects, the women can only represent their feelings and beliefs as dreams, as states of consciousness and ideality which they cannot hope to realize in their lives. Thus, on the subject of love, the cynical and unlikely spokesperson for generous behavior is Squeamish, who declares, “love is better known by liberality than by jealousy.” (151) The statement wins an endorsement by none other than the hard-bitten Lady Fidget who agrees, saying, “For one may be dissembled, the other not.” (152) While it would be entirely out of place to sentimentalize these two speakers—tough birds in their own rights—there is no escaping the conclusion that the dissatisfaction of these women derives from their having to live in a world whose rules are made by their masters. The women, that is, possess the common plight of individuals in inferior and dependent positions, and it is this subjection which seems to make them sensitive to the moral and social failure of the rule of men. One of the few positive things to emerge out of the morass of cynicism and cruelty in their world is an alertness to the plight of each other. On the other hand, their reaction to Horner's alleged eunuchism reveals a kind of vicious, Hobbesian pleasure in their recognition of a plight that is more unfortunate than their own.

The revelation that caps the scene is a female version of sexual boasting; and yet, despite its imitativeness, the difference from male boasting is manifest. Men boasting about their sexual conquests refer directly or implicitly to the number of women they sleep with either concurrently or consecutively—that is, the number of women they are simultaneously able to betray—the number of times they are able to have sex within a given period, and the magnitude of their genitals. Most of these criteria of boasting apply to Horner. The women are more modest in their pretensions. Having one adequate lover at a time seems sufficient for each of them; and adequacy is defined partly by the sheer unlikeness of the lover to the husband. When My Lady Fidget claps Horner on the back in a remarkably possessive gesture which nicely reverses gender roles, she declares him her “false rogue.” (155) The possession of a lover is the great fact. What is noteworthy is that when Squeamish and Dainty lay equal claim to Horner, the women quickly agree to sharing him. Having foresworn jealousy in love, the women are each of them as good as their word. Lady Fidget speaks for the group: “Well, then, there's no remedy; sister sharers, let us not fall out, but have a care of our honour.” (169-70) I find it hard to imagine men coming to an agreement of this kind without hearing accusations of betrayal and the cry of whore ringing across the stage. (In the Hollywood movie, Boys Night Out in which four men share the services of Kim Novak—an undercover sociology student studying the sexual habits of married men—the sharing is precisely based upon the equal payments each husband makes monthly. Kim Novak skillfully keeps her virginity and the married men all fall in love with their wives again.) The moment of revelation in the play is, thus, rife with danger. The revelation of Horner's betrayal of these women raises the possibility of a social explosion. And, of course, had the women lived by the morality of hierarchy or the patriarchal structures of power and possessiveness, danger and calamity would necessarily have followed. The greatest such danger would have been the jeopardisation of secrecy and a burgeoning social disturbance.

The last scene of the play, that in which the game is almost given away, portrays a society on the brink of disintegrating while it simultaneously supplies a strong sense of the fragility of a world held together by tenuous ideological forms. Wycherley shows here how one misspoken word is capable of rending the fabric of patriarchal dominance. The tension of the scene lies in the way the dramatist skillfully carries the characters to the brink of discovery and destruction. Tragedies of this and the previous eras should have made us alert to some of the ways in which female sexual betrayal is regarded by patriarchally determined social groups—women get killed. The refined wit and smooth verbiage of The Country Wife should not disguise the fact that the stakes are high in this play. Exposure of any of the women in the play as Horner's illicit lovers carries severe danger for any of them. This danger is probably most vividly and seriously expressed in the scenes between Pinchwife and Margery. He feels secure, apparently, in locking up his wife and, more gravely, in drawing his sword on her and threatening to cut her face with his knife—“I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief.” (IV, 2, 113) Pinchwife's phallic violence represents a frequent response to female marital infidelity. But this is a play that refuses to recover order through a male consensus about female virtue, as so often happens in tragedy when the men unite around the body of the dead chaste woman and proclaim her matchless virtue or around the body of the unchaste and unfaithful woman and proclaim her danger to society.

This play proposes deception as a social norm. Lying is the chief power women have in this world. Their cynicism and dishonesty are inevitable concomitants of their oppressed status. Female honesty is synonymous with surrender to and complicity with men: in this world it is foolish weakness. In short, the play exposes the most basic moral norms as fraudulent means of social control. Honesty is valued by men because it reduces the need for surveillance of the women. If they can be trusted they don't have to be spied upon. Female honesty, morality or sexual fidelity, in other words, are not essential ethics in the world of the play but, rather, are practical methods of maintaining male control. The conspiracy of women in this scene, the almost literal breathing together, the whispered warnings, all these are indices of the failure of men to enforce female compliance with their world order. Women will, like men, plot and conspire. They will, in other words, imitate the example rather than the precept of the men who control the world they live in. In a sense, this fact and the accompanying practice supply a profoundly pessimistic vision at the end of the play. The world is trapped by the contradiction of moral theory and the immoral practice whose purpose is to sustain the life of that theory. In short, the existence of the theory as theory is universally regarded as more important for the maintenance of social order than the practice by which it is constantly, predictably and normally violated. There is no way out except larger lies and more collusion amongst victims—male and female—of an unrealisable ethos.

The action of the play is brought to the brink of exposure with an exchange in which the “keepers”, Sir Jaspar, Pinchwife, and Old Lady Squeamish are beginning to face the fact that they have been gulled by Horner:

I tell you again, he has whored my wife, and yours too, if he knows her, and all the women he comes near. 'Tis not his dissembling, his hypocrisy, can wheedle me.
SIR Jaspar:
How! does he dissemble? Is he a hypocrite? Nay then—how—wife—sister, is he an hypocrite?
OLD Lady Squeamish:
An hypocrite, a dissembler! Speak, young harlotry, speak, how?
SIR Jaspar:
Nay then—Oh, my head too!—Oh thou libidinous lady!
OLD Lady Squeamish:
Oh thou harloting harlotry! Hast thou done't then?
SIR Jaspar:
Speak, good Horner, art thou a dissembler, a rogue? Hast thou—


There is no mistaking the panic in these lines. Something serious is at stake. On the one hand it is the chastity of the suspected women. But more important, the panic has to do with those social values which are imperilled by that lost chastity. None of the speakers acknowledges that a moral issue is at stake. It is appropriate that to the weakest character, Sir Jaspar, should fall the task of beseeching Horner to reassure him, to lie about his real sexual power. The horror of the speakers is manifest. If their suspicions are justified then the whole social fabric unravels. A vast tissue of socially permitted lies and deceptions, all connected to one another and all connected especially to the great article of female chastity, must be exposed as lies. The pillars and props of social stability, these women who carry the responsibility for the moral firmness of Society—that exemplary institution by which social behavior is regulated—are standing on sand. Their rescue is only a way of pointing to the fact that this is where they always stand; the possibility of calamity is an omnipresent feature of their lives as long as duplicity and contradiction determine the ideological formations of social existence. An apparently impossible code of ethics, rather than drawing individuals closer to compatible social behavior, tends to drive them farther from its unrealisable demands.

The rescuer in this case is Alithea's maid, Lucy, an interesting figure in her own right. What it is that prompts Lucy to help the women maintain their lie is not as simple as it looks. Sheer habit teaches us to pass over the question: Lucy seems to belong to that tradition of clever servants who possess the key to social survival. But her action of saving the bacon of the subversive group of women and Horner raises some important issues. Lucy is a female servant to Alithea, the one woman who is not directly involved in the conspiracy to undermine the patriarchal tyrants of the action. All that she has obviously in common with the women she rescues is the fact that she is a woman. They are her social superiors, they give her her job; that job is to take orders from them and to serve them deferentially. Her social interests are far from the rarefied drawing rooms of society. What is happening amongst the plotters has no potential or actual consequences for her—her position is not threatened. And yet Lucy sees fit to intrude on the scene and supply an escape from the crisis. Her intervention can be explained as the simple product of affection for Alithea and Mrs. Pinchwife, or even as a quite reasonable detestation of the violent brute, Pinchwife.

But there is also, surely, a less personal political dimension to the actions of Lucy in these last moments. She identifies with the illicit and subversive interests of the women of the drama in sabotaging the oppressive system of male control. It is, in a way that is somewhat remote from the play, this very system that accounts for and determines Lucy's own locus on the social scale. Like the other women of the play, she is necessarily submissive to domination. And yet, anomalously perhaps, in identifying with the women by saving them from the wrath of their husbands and preventing social disaster and tragedy, Lucy—and all the witty servants like her in drama—are in fact helping to sustain the very system that oppresses them. Patriarchy survives the play: the lies that it depends on, the structure of lying by which it is maintained, prop it up. Its managers, the men who control its direction, are exposed as both self-deludingly stupid as well as utterly determined to maintain their power. The Lucys of this world, the Jeeveses and other witty trickster servants of comedy who are endowed with ultimate power to preserve and protect their masters, must always be read ambiguously. Their protector role involves them in a politics of collaboration with the very system that oppresses them—that keeps them servants, in other words—despite their obvious and innate intellectual superiority to those masters. They do not seem to desire the kind of social change that would reward the likes of them and place them in control of the moral and intellectual nincompoops to whom they are obliged to defer. Instead, they help to sustain the inequity of their own positions. In so accepting and perpetuating their own inferior status, characters like Lucy are made to conform to an essentially conservative construction of a world where merit and ability are subordinated to birth and acquired social position. Such servants, almost more than any other characters, appear to accept the patriarchal politics of differentiation. They are not discontented with their lots, but rather do what is in their power to preserve the system of class. Trickster servants, in other words, are comedy's most reliable agents of social conservatism.

The most visible symbol of the fragile lies that sustain the structures of domination and difference is Horner himself. The artificial eunuch is an agent of subversion. By publicizing himself as a eunuch Horner has identified himself, presumably forever, as the detritus of patriarchy. He is relegated to the position of a woman. In his first encounters with the husbands and keepers of women in the play Horner is treated like a woman—a useless social ornament with a grotesque sexual deformity. His triumph is to have used the ambiguity of patriarchy against itself. If the bullying men of this world insist on regarding women as essentially flawed in ways that threaten their rule, then Horner's strategy of identifying himself as one of them is a dramatic and spectacular recognition of that ambiguity. And it is Horner's recognition that itself supplies a glimpse into the open cavern of the future that lies beyond the play. When the play ends Horner is both trapped by his disguise and liberated by it from the constraints of sexual conformity. Only at the greatest peril can he ever reveal his trick; he has only just begun on a series of seductions that will increase until he is finally exhausted and humiliated. But each seduction implies another husband to contend with, another danger, another secret. Horner's power lies his alertness and his ruthlessness: he knows that the institution of marriage is normally a failure and a sham, that it produces animosity and mistrust; and he is ruthless about mining that mistrust for personal gain.


  1. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 31.

  2. Ibid.

  3. My quotations are from the New Mermaids edition of The Country Wife, edited by James Ogden (A & C Black: London, 1991).

Principal Works

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Hero and Leander in Burlesque (poem) 1669

Love in a Wood; or, St. James's Park (drama) 1671

The Gentleman Dancing-Master (drama) 1672

The Country-Wife (drama) 1675

The Plain-Dealer (drama) 1676

Miscellany Poems (poetry) 1704

The Posthumous Works of William Wycherley, Esq., in Prose and Verse (poetry and aphorisms) 1728

*The Posthumous Works of William Wycherley, Esq., in Prose and Verse, Vol. II (poetry, aphorisms, and letters) 1729

The Complete Works of William Wycherley. 4 vols. (dramas, poetry, aphorisms, and letters) 1924

*This work contains revisions of some poems included in the earlier Posthumous Works of William Wycherley, Esq., in Prose and Verse which were undertaken by the editor.

Aspasia Velissariou (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Velissariou, Aspasia. “Patriarchal Tactics of Control and Female Desire in Wycherley's The Gentleman Dancing-Master and The Country Wife.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37, no. 2 (summer 1995): 115-26.

[In the following essay, Velissariou discusses examples of sexual control in Wycherley's plays.]

Sexuality in Wycherley's dramas has long received much critical notice. Gender, desire, and the characters' positions in the face of it, especially in The Country Wife, have become the central preoccupations of recent criticism while attention has also been drawn to sexual relationships as a terrain for the exercise of power.1 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her perceptive reading of the play, sees in it the deployment of a symbolic system of exchange between men with women as its object. Heterosexual relationships are significant, not in themselves, but only to the extent that they serve a male strategy of acquiring bonds with and control over other men.2 Sedgwick offers an important perspective on the dialectics of power and gender in Wycherley, demonstrating women's passive, but nonetheless instrumental position in the construction and reproduction of male bonds of allegiance and power.

However, it is also worth emphasizing the historical interdependence between the forging of male relationships through the exchange of women and what Foucault has called “the deployment of alliance,” that is, of “a system of marriage, of fixation and development of kinship ties, of transmission of names and possessions.”3 As Foucault notes, as early as the seventeenth century, but particularly from the eighteenth century onward, a new mechanism of circulation of sexual partners develops, superimposing itself on alliance although not completely obliterating it. The deployment of sexuality differs substantially from that of alliance not only in its subtle and multiple forms of control but, significantly also, in its concern with the body, its sensations and pleasure as such.4

My argument is that Wycherley's two plays, The Gentleman Dancing-Master and The Country Wife, register a critical point in the transition from the system of alliance to that of sexuality. They dramatize the tensions deriving from the discrepancy between forms of sexual control specific to alliance and emerging notions of sexuality that clearly challenge the assumptions on the basis of which such control operates. Wycherley focuses on women's uneasy position vis-à-vis marriage as mediators for the consolidation and reproduction of alliance. For the same reason, he draws attention to their sexuality as a factor potentially subversive of patriarchal arrangements and insists on the self-determination of female desire outside such arrangements. By demonstrating women as desiring subjects who refuse to take up, or retain, their allotted positions in alliance, he moves away from a problematic of sexual legitimacy, as demarcated by the practices of alliance, to a problematic of the body and its desires.5 In this context, women's sexuality becomes important for Wycherley, as it represents the object par excellence of prohibitory operations. Precisely because the validity of interdiction is explicitly denied, the dramatist condemns those patriarchal practices that rely exclusively on repression and discipline. In the figures of a father (Don Diego) and a husband (Pinchwife), he attacks patriarchal power that treats the daughter (Hippolita) and the wife (Margery) as mere means of self-consolidation. Wycherley exposes the self-destructive character of strict disciplinary policies but also suggests, conversely, that the effectivity of any power is amplified when it takes into account and accommodates contrary forces. In this sense, The Country Wife, in particular, far from enacting the collapse of masculine influence and the “liberation” of female desire from its constraints, through Horner offers a substantial possibility for its continuity. Horner's willingness to sacrifice the aggressive spectacle of a blatantly phallic masculinity is inscribed in the same game of control. The main difference lies in his recognition and inclusion of female pleasure.

For this reason, Horner appears as an oppositional force to oppressive forms of male power while, in fact, he suggests a viable alternative to that power. The sexual exchange of women among men is still in operation under Horner, but this is effected as a result of their own consent. It is precisely women's consent to the free disposal of their sexual selves that arises as an important need in the two plays. Both demonstrate, in Hippolita and Margery, the ways in which female desire is constituted as the object of patriarchal control. At the same time, they point out the disarticulation, not of male sovereignty as such, but of its more overtly oppressive practices. By concentrating on the power techniques employed in these practices, I shall show that the result of their failure lies in achieving the opposite of that for which they aim: instead of screening Hippolita and Margery from the knowledge of men other than those for whom they are supposedly destined, these power techniques, in fact, produce their very knowledge. In circumventing control, the two women finally construct themselves as subjects of their own desire.

Female sexuality as a problem of patriarchal power raises a number of issues concerning the reproduction of the latter as well as its safeguarding against potential threats. Central to the inscription of sexual relationships in its logic and practices is marriage as a system for the regulation and transfer of names and property. Women's position is crucial for the smooth operation of this system because of their mediating role in the generation and preservation of a legitimate line of heirs to the familial property and status. Hence the intense social concern with sexual practices that might jeopardize legitimacy and inheritance, a concern that makes female chastity instrumental in their protection, whence the urgent need to control and regulate the flow of female desire inside and outside of marriage.6 In England, arranged marriages for interest, until well into the middle of the eighteenth century, arose as a major mechanism for the circulation of wealth among the propertied and moneyed classes. However, patriarchal control over the marriage of children comes under increasing attack especially from playwrights and artists.7 These attacks focus on the “barbarous” disposal of daughters in marriage for class and/or financial interests.

The Gentleman Dancing-Master registers a critical moment in the slow transition from patriarchal marriage arrangements to the children's right to decide. In calling for affectional choice as the proper basis of marriage, it anticipates the larger historical shift in the family from kinship relations of loyalty to the companionate marriage with its emphasis on conjugal love. However, Wycherley does not problematize here the unsettling idea that women's choice of love over duty might represent yet another form of entrapment into the same circuit of male power, as he does in The Country Wife. He concentrates on the conflict generated from Hippolita's wish to dispose of herself freely in marriage and her father's interest in the preservation of his domestic authority. In the figure of the pseudo-Spaniard Don Diego, Wycherley takes care to present patriarchy in its most regressive form by connecting it with kinship and alliance.8 Paternal despotism, emphatically associated with strict Spanish codes of honor, underscores the oppressive character of patriarchal practices in the family and especially in the father-daughter relationship.

Don Diego's obsessive preoccupation with the chastity of Hippolita's body is closely related to his interest in the consolidation of his sovereignty in the family. In this respect, the major source of Don Diego's anxiety is the potential challenge that Hippolita's sexuality may pose to his building of an alliance under his absolute control. His marrying Hippolita to Monsieur, his sister's son and the owner of a fortune, is ideal, and not solely from a financial point of view. This match, as an introverted form of alliance, de facto reinforces his paternal influence given the frivolous character of Monsieur. Therefore, the containment of sex and money alike within the borders of an extended family with Don Diego as the patriarchal head arises as a crucial move in a strategy of power preservation. Hippolita's acceptance of her role as a passive mediator in the extension of patriarchal power is of vital importance. It is imperative that her desire be prevented from escaping the confines of the family insofar as it is already destined for one of its members. At the same time, vigilance over Hippolita's body becomes even more urgent because of her high price as an heiress on the marriage market. Her uncle's bequest to her, which, according to her, is the reason why her father “keeps (her) up so close” (II.i.197-98),9 increases not only her value but also the possibility of self-determination against paternal command; therefore, it enhances control.

In Pinchwife, the need to control Margery's and to a lesser extent Alithea's sexuality is also linked to the preservation of power. For him, alliance serves primarily as a means of safeguarding his position within his own marriage. Deceived by Margery into believing that Alithea has invited Horner to elope with her, he regards a possible alliance with him as a convenient move in retaining control over his wife.

MR. Pin.
I'd rather give him my Sister than lend him my Wife, and such an alliance will prevent his pretensions to my Wife sure,—I'le make him of kinn to her, and then he won't care for her.


In Pinchwife's preference for Horner, his fortune (equal to Sparkish's) and “extraction” (better than Sparkish's) are taken into account, but, as he puts it, the chief reason is that “[he]'d rather be of kin to him by the name of Brother-in-law, than that of cuckold” (V.i.77-78). His including of Horner in the family would considerably lessen the danger that Horner represents to Pinchwife's status by putting it under his immediate control. Thus, the marketing of Alithea is dictated by his need to ensure his mastery over Margery and, consequently, his masculinity in the eyes of other males. Conversely, these same interests determine his attempt to exclude his wife from that very circulation to which he has subjected his sister.

However, the “right” positioning of wife outside and of sister inside sexual exchange proves difficult for Pinchwife insofar as it involves female desire. His perception of his maleness is contradictory and, thus, a source of permanent anxiety. On the one hand, he thinks that men are women's “Politick Lords” and “Rulers” (IV.iv.38). On the other, women, by their very nature as sexual commodities, cannot be safely bound to their allotted positions in the circulation.10 “Wife and Sister …,” Pinchwife muses, “are equally, though differently troublesome to their keeper; for we have as much a doe to get people to lye with our Sisters, as to keep'em from lying with our Wives” (V.i.99-103). As Robert Markley observes on this passage, Pinchwife reduces wife and sister to “counters in the masculine game of patrilineal succession.”11 In this game, cuckolding represents the point of intersection of female desire and the male line of legitimacy and inheritance. Horner embodies precisely a threat to patrilineal succession in that he can potentially father heirs to other people's property.12

However, Pinchwife's peculiar horror of cuckoldry mainly springs from his accurate perception of what is, in fact, a sexual act committed by a man on another man.13 That his symbolical emasculation, though “performed” by another man, can only be effected through Margery's body, renders the guarding of her chastity the precondition for the maintenance of his own sexual “integrity.” Insofar as her “honor” overlaps with his own, it becomes his obsessive concern. In this sense, Pinchwife resembles Don Diego, whose excessive allegiance to a set of patriarchal values built around “honor” serves, in reality, the expediences of his male ego. As we shall see later, both of them, as pretenders to a male authority that does not acknowledge female desire outside its operations, are made to appear ridiculous. Suffice it to say now that Hippolita's and Margery's success in circumventing control definitely points out the inefficiency of precisely the power that is exercised exclusively on the basis of deprivation.

Don Diego's and Pinchwife's tactics have the same objective: to forbid the sexual knowledge that daughter and wife might acquire outside the circumscribed area of patriarchal control. Knowledge of men, and of the pleasure deriving from such knowledge, represents a potential challenge to the power game that ensures female passive complicity in it. Hippolita's ignorance of men and of the world is repeatedly underscored, and, confused with “innocency,” constitutes an important attraction in Gerrard's eyes. However, she is well aware that the reverse side of idealistic notions of female innocence is the ruthless keeping of women in discipline. For Don Diego, discipline can ideally be guaranteed by his daughter's reduction to a state of total ignorance. His paranoia that all knowledge is inherently conducive to her seduction makes him suspicious of whatever practices might break that state. Although Hippolita's words, “Indeed Father, you have kept me in universal ignorance” (III.i.222-23), may be ironical, since she has already “known” Gerrard, yet they do not lose their poignancy as a statement of female passivity through enforced ignorance.

In The Country Wife, Pinchwife plays on the biblical sense of the verb “to know” (II.i.133-34). The old whoremaster's recurrent motif is that he knows the Town, by which he implies the knowledge of its women, as well as of the norms dictating sexual practices there. Trapped in a past of debauchery, he sees sexuality in terms of a polarity between “knowledge,” inherently suspect for being associated with corruption, and “ignorance,” that is, “innocence.” Cuckolding is dreaded because it represents a dangerous form of knowledge to which wives must, on no account, have access. In his main argument to Horner for having married a “fool,” Pinchwife's choice of an ignorant wife arises as an important precautionary move in securing his domination and honor (I.i.363-64, 382-84). His conflating of ignorance and innocence, while making him vulnerable to Margery's deceit, also underscores his own essential misrecognition of the workings of desire. His close policing of her desire for Horner, so that she retains her ignorance, simply triggers it by constructing Horner as its object.

In both plays, the deployment of patriarchal power follows the same pattern of oppressive techniques and, significantly, of failure. These techniques aim at barring access to a forbidden knowledge through confinement and surveillance. In The Country Wife, moreover, they involve interrogation as a means of extracting the truth of that knowledge. Hippolita opens The Gentleman Dancing-Master with the verb “to confine,” defining herself as its object, thus setting the angle from which we are invited to perceive her situation. She identifies her aunt and father as the “barbarous” and “unnatural” agents of her confinement (I.i.1-6). She then lists all those forbidden pleasures making up what she calls “the innocent liberty of the Town” (I.i.296). However, it is precisely her guard's opposite attitude to the same space, the Town, that dictates the need for her confinement. For Caution, the liberty of the Town, far from being “innocent,” is conducive to debauchery insofar as no distinction may be held between innocent and corrupt pleasures. Hippolita's exposure to life outdoors would be tantamount to her being exposed to the uncontrollable effects of pleasure. The Town, as the space of uncalculated risks par excellence, must necessarily be out of bounds if her chastity is to be preserved. Control, though, requires discipline, and discipline enclosure, usually conceived as “the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself.”14 Here though, Hippolita's confinement does not take place within a heterogeneous space. Don Diego's house retains the properties of a house. Yet, it has turned into prison because it also functions as an enclosure for one of its members. This contradictory character of the house as an inherently private space that, however, is inscribed in the “logic of enclosure,” is embodied in the figure of Caution. She acts as a guard, but she has been assigned this task precisely because she is Hippolita's aunt. In her double role as a guard/ian, Caution functions as Don Diego's substitute, thus representing the repressive and prohibitory face of alliance at its extremes. As the holder of the key to the door, she draws the borderline between the outside (the forbidden) and the inside (the allowed). The mapping of her normative notions of space onto her niece's body posits imprisonment as the absolute condition for the maintenance of female virginity and familial honor. As Caution says, Hippolita's husband may thank her one day (I.i.254-55) for having held the keys to the house, and to her body.

In The Country Wife, the same perception of the Town as the locus of pleasure and sex also dictates Pinchwife's prohibitory policies. These, similarly, rely on confinement, but a confinement that is adopted only after Margery has already been exposed to the Town, in the theater. Therefore, locking her up serves the need both to repress and to arrest an already acquired knowledge. Margery starts to perceive her situation in terms of imprisonment when she first hears of the Town entertainments, ironically, from her husband. Interestingly, it is the very same Pinchwife who actually constructs the theater, for Margery, as the locus of the exciting game of sight and desire. Thus, her persistent demand that she go “abroad,” specifically to the theater, is, in fact, an implicit demand for pleasure of a sexual kind. The theater as a place of public display is threatening to Pinchwife, who correctly recognizes its inherent eroticism. Not only does the theater turn the actors' bodies into objects of sight, and of desire, but it also exposes the audience to the gaze of others to the same effect. It is in the theater that Margery first learns how to distinguish between her old husband and the young, handsome actors. It is there that she also attracts Horner's gaze, and finally it is to a play that she wants to go in the hopes of seeing him. Moreover, Pinchwife's attempts to keep Margery out of sight are further complicated by an additional dimension to the inside-outside polarity. While his shutting her in may stop her from seeing other men, it does not prevent the “lewd Libertines of the Town” (II.i.128) from entering his lodgings. The shifting of the inside-outside dichotomy onto the interior of the house intensifies Pinchwife's confinement policy. Margery will not simply be confined in the house but she will be repeatedly thrust in and locked inside her room. But, as Alithea points out (III.i.73-74), keeping her concealed from Horner is precisely what incites him to visit her while further involving her in the energetic pursuit of sexual knowledge. Thus, the degree of her confinement is in direct proportion to her demand for pleasure in the same way that, as Margery says, Pinchwife's prohibiting her from going to a play increases her desire for it (II.i.92-93).

In both plays, confinement is supported by surveillance that reinforces control by submitting its object to the scrutiny of the eye. Caution represents an all-seeing, ever-present power exercised on the basis of constant and meticulous watching over its object's moves, attitudes, and gestures. As Don Diego's substitute eye, she positions Hippolita in a state of permanent visibility that makes it impossible for her to see a man other than Monsieur (II.i.15-17, 47-49). Therefore, she must always be in sight so that men would be out of her view, and she out of theirs. However, sight, the area par excellence of surveillance, belies control by becoming the very locus of desire. The window of Hippolita's room, as a liminal space between inside and outside, destabilizes prohibitory policies of absolute deliminations. It is through that window that she and Gerrard first caught sight of each other and through it that Gerrard broke into her room. Confinement, therefore, betrays Don Diego by exposing, rather than concealing, Hippolita's body. The two lovers' dance, by turning their desire into a spectacle and him into its spectator, makes a mockery of his claim to an all-seeing, ever-watching authority. His blindness is sharply contrasted with Caution's accurate detection of her niece's desire. Like the ancient seer, Cassandra, she saw and told the truth (of Hippolita's desire) but was never believed, “till the Town was taken, rumag'd and ransak'd, even, even so” (IV.i.450). Hippolita's closely supervised body was “taken,” ironically, in full view of Don Diego. For all his pretensions to a better sight than Caution's, it is he who needs spectacles, for his sight has been damaged by fantasies of male authority.

Similar visions, though, do not blind Pinchwife to the actuality of Margery's desire for Horner. His tremendous insecurity has sharpened his view of the sexual game, leading him, as a result, to more sophisticated methods of surveillance. Keeping her close to him makes his own presence the visible source of a power that permanently watches, judges, and prohibits. However, the visibility of power is not sufficient in itself. Pinchwife moves from a conception of power identifiable with presence, which has to be constantly shown so as to impose itself on its object, to a power that controls on the basis of its invisibility.15 His peeping behind the door increases the efficiency of his control by exposing its object, Margery, unawares to his view. Moreover, his threat to her not to go near the window because he has a spy in the street (IV.ii.196-97) is a further step in the direction of a subtler exercise of power. It is irrelevant whether there is such a spy. The important thing is that Margery will be induced into self-discipline under the impression that she is constantly under watch. Her awareness of being exposed to an invisible eye guarantees the automatic function of a power that draws its authority from its own invisibility.16

The internalization of power relationships by the subject amplifies control through the displacement of the origin of power that it entails: though exercised from without, it is experienced from within. Interrogation and confession are paradigmatic in this respect. Recognition by the guilty person of the truth of the deed may be the result of external compulsion, but it takes the form of an avowal originated in, and authorized by, himself or herself. Pinchwife, from a position of interrogator-confessor, demands that Margery confess the truth of her desire. Interestingly, he is less concerned with confession as the truth in question than with the meticulous articulation of the exact forms of that desire. He justifies his compulsive hearing of “the ungrateful story” of her sexual encounter with Horner as a procedure whereby he double-checks its truth through the detection of possible inconsistencies in every new recounting (IV.ii.3-5). Yet, as Margery correctly points out, he takes an obvious pleasure in hearing the story told endlessly, in all expressive details concerning the exact body postures, the movement of the lips, and the words spoken. Pinchwife's pleasure is, however, reciprocated by Margery's own enjoyment in repeating her story “an hundred times over” (IV.ii.2). What is enacted here is a subtle interchange between knowledge and pleasure: “a knowledge of pleasure, a pleasure that comes of knowing pleasure.”17 Thus, Pinchwife's relish in the knowledge of Margery's pleasure is not simply the result of a masochistic sexual displacement. It is mainly derived from his exercising a power that scrutinizes and questions, continuously reinscribing its object in its area of control.

However, Pinchwife is incapable of sustaining power tactics that require no rigid constraint. Because his masculinity needs constant reassuring, its emphatic display becomes a compulsive need. His violence toward Margery, often verging on the physical, is only partly disciplinary. It primarily serves the spectacularization of a power essentially unsure of itself. Thus, his drawing on his wife, as well as his threat to stab her eyes out with a penknife, offers the spectacle of an aggressive masculinity with a barely concealed inherent insecurity.18 Sparkish's comment on his offering to draw on Margery is very revealing of the thinly disguised mechanism of sexual displacement under operation: “What draw upon your Wife? you shou'd never do that but at night in the dark when you can't hurt her” (IV.iv.44-45). Violence, as a substitute for sexual potency, compels Pinchwife to engrave his masculinity upon Margery's face with his penknife. Yet his threatening to write the word “whore” on her face exemplifies the self-destructiveness of his tactics. Her degradation to the level of a “whore” simultaneously brings about his own reduction to that of a pimp.19 Thus, the very same gesture meant to assert control over her symbolically marks her entry into the sexual exchange ironically instigated by Pinchwife himself.

The same “ironic pattern of self-destruction”20 is fully displayed in yet another male area of control, that of writing. Pinchwife dictates to Margery a letter to Horner by which she would put an end to his sexual advances. In practice, however, he teaches her not only how to articulate her desire but also how to circulate it. Therefore, instead of writing off her desire, she inscribes it in language structuring herself as its subject. The improvement of her writing style from the first, primitive letter to her second one points out her increasing sophistication both in language as such and in the verbal expression of her sexuality. Female writing, which in the play appears as the object of men's control or simply irrelevant to their game (Sparkish has never seen Alithea's handwriting), becomes the locus of female appropriation. Margery appropriates Pinchwife's pen and language in order to voice the autonomy of her desire. Insofar as the pen functions as a phallic substitute for him, her use of it to her own ends marks a reversal of gender positions. Margery as the possessor of the pen (phallus) symbolically emasculates her husband by freely circulating her own letter of desire. Finally, his delivering first of her letter and later of Margery herself to Horner's hands completes Wycherley's sarcastic description of the self-defeating character of patriarchal authority.

From both plays, there arises a common conclusion as to the failure of those tactics that depend on prohibition. Lucy, the maid, spells it out at the end of The Country Wife: “Any wild thing grows but the more fierce and hungry for being kept up, and more dangerous to the Keeper” (V.iv.385-86), an idea that is also made explicit in Gerrard's words to Don Diego: “Well, … if you had not kept up your Daughter, I am sure I had never cheated you of her” (III.i.593-94). As has often been noted in Wycherley, “wary fools,” like cuckolds, are the makers of their fortune, their punishment exemplifying the very thing they want to prevent. Pinchwife's watching his wife being kissed by Horner before his very eyes is reminiscent of Don Diego's “supervising” of Gerrard making love to his daughter in the dance scene. Both of them are savagely ridiculed by being made to watch daughter and wife constructing their own sexual identities outside the circumscribed area of patriarchal interest. That this process is effected despite, and against, their control pinpoints a shift in the power relations organizing, so far, their respective positions. In The Gentleman Dancing-Master, this takes the form of a “comic inversion of authority within the family,”21 as Hippolita makes clear in her closing couplet: “When Children marry, Parents shou'd obey, / Since Love claims more Obedience far than they” (V.i.706-07). In The Country Wife, the dance of cuckolds grotesquely illustrates the far more pernicious erosion of the husband's power from within. Pinchwife will continue to be cuckolded by Margery's future lovers. However, she will also have to suffer her “musty” husband for the years to come. Therefore, no prospect of liberation from patriarchal constraints is envisaged at the end of The Country Wife. The dance of cuckolds simply offers the paradigmatic punishment of those pretenders to a power that draws its legitimacy from notions of direct control and the concomitant disciplinary practices. Male authority remains intact, ironically, in the “maimed” figure of Horner, his stratagem symbolically pointing to the viability of less oppressive and far more subtle tactics of control. The Country Wife demonstrates the impossibility of a “liberated” sexuality, while pointing toward the reaccommodation of female desire, in particular, into more flexible forms of sexual exchange and control emerging in the modern period.


  1. These issues in The Country Wife, in particular, have drawn much critical attention. See David Vieth, “Wycherley's The Country Wife: An Anatomy of Masculinity,” Papers on Language and Literature 2 (1966): 335-50; Anthony Kaufman, “The Shadow of the Burlador: Don Juan on the Continent and England,” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan: Change and Continuity in the English and European Dramatic Tradition, ed. A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986), 239-43; William Freedman, “Impotence and Self-Destruction in The Country Wife,English Studies 53 (1972): 421-31; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Sexualism and the Citizen of the World: Wycherley, Sterne, and Male Homosocial Desire,” Critical Inquiry 11 (1984): 226-45; and Harold M. Weber, The Restoration Rake-Hero: Transformations in Sexual Understanding in Seventeenth-Century England (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 49-69. For a valuable analysis of gender roles in Wycherley, see Robert Markley, Two-Edg'd Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 138-94.

  2. Sedgwick, 226-38.

  3. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Allen Lane, 1979), 106.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid., 108.

  6. For female adultery, see Roger Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America: A Comparative Study (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), 169-74; Peter Earle, The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society, and Family Life in London, 1660-1730 (London: Methuen, 1989), 200-01; Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979), 501-07; Alan MacFarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction, 1300-1840 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 239-44.

  7. Stone, 274-81. MacFarlane notes that while parental consent to the marriage of children was not “legally necessary” in England for its validity, rich parents retained strict control over the marriage decision. Thus, a major conflict between love and interest was generated from the later fourteenth to the end of the nineteenth century, a conflict largely reflected in literature (124-37).

  8. Stone has demonstrated that lineage and kinship had lost their power by the middle of the seventeenth century, though not among all social classes (7). Parental control over the marriage of children lasted longer in rich and wellborn families (184, 190, 271) while being increasingly challenged after 1600 (180). However, as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, alliance was still an important objective of marriage among the rich, though clearly coming under attack by more individualistic and affective notions of marriage (279).

  9. William Wycherley, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, in The Plays of William Wycherley, ed. Arthur Friedman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979); all further references to Wycherley's plays will be to this edition and will be included in the text (act, scene, and line number).

  10. For the circulation of women in The Country Wife as a means of establishing homosocial bonds among men, see Sedgwick, 229-31.

  11. Markley, 170.

  12. Ibid., 164.

  13. Sedgwick, 228.

  14. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 141.

  15. For the exercise of power in its relationship to visibility, see ibid., 187-89.

  16. See Foucault's analysis, in ibid., 200-10, of the Panopticon as an architectural figure exemplifying the disciplinary effects of a power that is exercised on the basis of its invisibility, while its object is exposed to compulsory visibility.

  17. Foucault, History, 77. For examination, interrogation, and investigation as mechanisms of power that also involve the pleasure of the parties implicated in them, see Foucault, History, 44-45.

  18. For Pinchwife's hostility toward women as an expression of his sexual inadequacy, see Norman Holland, “The Country Wife,” in Restoration Drama: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. John Loftis (New York: Oxford University Press 1966), 83-84; Kaufman, 241-42; and Katharine M. Rogers, William Wycherley (New York: Twayne, 1972), 66-67.

  19. James Thompson, in Language in Wycherley's Plays: Seventeenth-Century Language Theory and Drama (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1984), argues that Pinchwife's general belief in the efficacy of words is exhibited also in this instance. It is by calling Margery a whore (and by treating her as one) that he brings about his own cuckolding (86).

  20. Freedman, 427.

  21. Markley, 158.

Further Reading

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Holland, Peter. Introduction to The Plays of William Wycherley, pp. ix-xvi. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Contains a bibliographic essay.

McCarthy, Eugene B. William Wycherley, A Reference Guide. Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 195 p.

Annotated bibliography of criticism of Wycherley's works, from early assessments to twentieth-century evaluations.


Connely, Willard. Brawny Wycherley. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1930, 356 p.

Early biography of Wycherley.


Bacon, Jon Lance. “Wives, Widows and Writings in Restoration Comedy.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31, no. 3 (summer 1991): 427-43.

Examines the “women-as-text” motif as portrayed in Wycherley's The Country Wife and The Plain-Dealer and works by later English dramatists.

Berman, Ronald. “Wycherley's Unheroic Society.” English Literary History 51, no. 3 (fall 1984): 465-78.

Examination of Wycherley's late works.

Ford, Douglas. “The Country Wife: Rake Hero as Artist.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 17, no. 2 (fall 1993): 77-84.

Probes Wycherley's exploration of the playwright-audience relationship and authorial anxiety.

Holland, Norman. The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959, 274 p.

Discusses Wycherley's brilliant comedic style and compares him to contemporaries.

Markley, Robert. “‘All Interruption and no sence between us’: The Language of Wycherley's Plays.” In Two-Edg'd Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve, pp. 138-94. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988.

A multifaceted analysis of Wycherley's comic style. Focuses on style as a means of individual expression, as the adaptation of works by predecessors, as a reflection of contemporary speech and behavior, and as social commentary.

Marshall, W. Gerald. A Great Stage of Fools. New York: AMS Press, 1993, 121 p.

Examines perceptions of insanity in Restoration England and the use of madness as a theatrical metaphor.

Nakayama, Randall S. “The Sartorial Hermaphrodite.” ANQ 10, no. 1 (winter 1997): 9-11.

Brief discussion of the historical basis for references to cross-dressing, hermaphrodites, and impotency in The Country Wife.

Nelson, T. G. A. “Stooping to Conquer in Goldsmith, Haywood, and Wycherley.” Essays in Criticism 46, no. 4 (October 1996): 319-39.

Describes the Restoration rake and his relationship with women.

Niederhoff, Burkhard. “Some Echoes of John Taylor's ‘A Bawd’ in the Dedication of William Wycherley's The Plain-Dealer.Notes and Queries 45, no. 4 (December 1998): 452-53.

Points out several close parallels between The Plain-Dealer and John Taylor's mock encomium “A Bawd.”

Payne, Deborah C. “Reading the Signs in The Country Wife.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 26, no. 3 (summer 1986): 403-19.

Examines the systems of interpretation that the characters in The Country Wife use to gain knowledge of one another.

Rogers, Katharine M. “Fatal Inconsistency: Wycherley and The Plain-Dealer.English Literary History 28, no. 2 (June 1961): 148-62.

Judges the effectiveness of the satire in The Plain-Dealer.

———. William Wycherley. New York: Twayne, 1972, 167 p.

A biographical and critical introduction to Wycherley's works.

Additional coverage of Wycherley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1660-1789; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 80; Discovering Authors Modules—Dramatist Module; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 8, 21; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2.

Helen Burke (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Burke, Helen. “Law-suits, Love-suits, and the Family Property in Wycherley's The Plain Dealer.” In Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater, edited by J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne, pp. 89-113. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Burke examines the internal and external contexts of The Plain Dealer that determine the structure of its plot and subplot. Burke argues that the play's full subversiveness is noticeable only when its cultural context is recognized.]

The realm of the proper … the general cultural heterosexual establishment in which a man's reign is held to be proper.

—Hélène Cixous

What is emphasized or downplayed in the history of commentary on a literary text, or what is perceived to be a “problem” or a “failure” in a text, is often as much an effect of the critical tradition in which this text has been received as it is an effect of the literary work itself. At least this is so, I suggest, in the case of William Wycherley's The Plain Dealer (1676). Two marked tendencies in the tradition of commentary on this play—the tendency to treat the text almost exclusively in terms of character analysis and the habit of overlooking one of the play's two plots—grow out of the humanist tradition of critical thinking that has until recently governed textual interpretation. The reification of the experience of the (male) subject that is characteristic of this tradition has led to a preoccupation with the character of Manly, the “Plain Dealer” of the play's title, a preoccupation that translates into the desire to establish Manly's psychological and ethical motives.1 But this desire, as Derek Hughes points out in a recent appraisal of the play, is constantly frustrated by the elusive character of the hero. “Variously interpreted as a dupe, a hypocrite, and a moral paragon,” Hughes writes, Manly “refuses to be cramped into any single category” (315). The perceived difficulty in categorization is then equated by at least one critic with an aesthetic weakness; the failure of the work of art to answer the critical demands made of it—in this case, its failure to maintain a stable male subject and a coherent moral viewpoint—is defined by K. M. Rogers as a “fatal inconsistency” (148-62).2

The failure to address the Blackacre plot3 is also symptomatic of a humanist ideology that sees the individual as self-determined and autonomous and that consequently fails to locate the private drama (as I suggest Wycherley does) within the broader social drama. The lack of attention to the plot that provides the larger ideological context to the Manly plot is consistent with the critical perspective of those critics who insist that Restoration comedies are not culturally or intellectually significant. John Harwood, for example, warns us against treating the comedies “as sociological treatises and the dramatists as forerunners of Margaret Mead and Vance Packard” (xii), while Robert Hume, deploring the claims of what he calls the “profundity-zealots,” argues that Restoration plays “almost without exception … aim more at entertainment than at deep meaning” (Development 30-31).4 In keeping with this belief, Hume examines only the surface content of Wycherley's plays and is led to conclude that this writer's works are “not really ‘drama of ideas,’” since they do not question values or challenge the audience's worldview (“William Wycherley” 413).

When attention is paid to the internal and external contexts that structure meaning in a play such as The Plain Dealer, a very different reading of Wycherley's work emerges, as I propose to demonstrate here. The components of the play, I will suggest, work relationally to construct an image that undermines the liberal notion of the naturalness or autonomy of the subject. The Blackacre plot, a drama of family property and law, provides the semiotic framework within which the Manly-Olivia love plot, a story of betrayal and deception, finds its significance. The central crisis of the play is the crisis of disappropriation suffered by the male subject, a crisis that unfolds along a double register: the anxiety about male property at the individual psychosexual level is duplicated by an anxiety about property at the broader social and economic level. But again it is only in the context of still larger signifying systems—signifying systems that exist outside the text—that this double plot structure means. The play as a whole also functions relationally, as the articulation of broader economic and sociosexual discourses that were under stress in the immediate historical moment in which Wycherley was writing. The full subversiveness of The Plain Dealer is apparent only when the play is culturally contextualized.

To argue for the cultural relevance of this text is not, however, to suggest that the play simply mirrors some exterior phenomenon. “Cultural reality” is understood rather in the Althusserian sense of a structure that is “an absent cause”: as that which the text can neither evade nor simply reproduce but that is nevertheless a constitutive force. The critical methodology resulting from such a theoretical position is thus neither purely formal nor “historical” in the traditional use of the term but follows the deductive operation formulated by Althusser and Macherey that Jameson describes in his discussion of political interpretation: the analysis “involves the hypothetical reconstruction of the materials—content, narrative paradigms, stylistic and linguistic practices—which had to have been given in advance in order for that particular text to be produced in its unique historical specificity” (Political Unconscious 57-58). In the case of The Plain Dealer, such an analysis requires the reconstruction of the play's economic, social, and sexual ideologies, ideologies that are the product of both an immediate and general cultural context.

The late seventeenth century in England was a period of profound destabilization for a particular economic class, the class that included both the gentry and the aristocracy.5 This class traditionally achieved and maintained its power, its hierarchical status, through what Michael McKeon describes as an “aristocratic ideology,” an ideology that asserts “that the social order is not circumstantial and arbitrary, but corresponds to and expresses an analogous, intrinsic moral order” (131). There is a natural congruence, this ideology suggests, between the gentleman's property and what is proper to him—his right to power, respect, and privilege. External goods, the result of birth, thus become the mark of internal worth. However, several circumstances in the seventeenth century, some of them economic, some demographic, served to expose the fictionality of this seemingly natural equation between birth and worth, resulting in what McKeon calls a “crisis of status inconsistency” (150-75). Throughout the century, for example, members of the newly wealthy merchant class could and did increasingly buy their way into the aristocratic or gentry class, resulting in what Lawrence Stone calls “the inflation of honours,” the widespread selling of aristocratic honors, titles, and genealogies to newly wealthy subjects (Crisis 65-128). The demographic crisis of the late seventeenth century also made it necessary to absorb into the aristocratic and gentry class subjects who by birth did not belong there. To maintain the illusion of patrilineal descent during a time of a falling birthrate, there was greater recourse to surrogate heirship and to name changing, the deceit of which was acknowledged in at least one legal term of the period: the use of the term fictive tail male to describe the husband of a daughter or niece who had adopted the family name to preserve the illusion of male descent (McKeon 153-54). These legal fictions and strategies of patrilineal repair, implemented to maintain the existing power structure, had also the effect of demonstrating the artificiality of the very socioeconomic system they were designed to protect.

The Plain Dealer reproduces this double effect, asserting aristocratic ideology only to demonstrate its fictionality, proclaiming traditional values only to undermine them in the very act of assertion.6 In this play, however, the focus is on gender and not class, bringing to our attention another source of the contemporary threat to aristocratic property. The destabilization of social classes at this period was only one expression of a broader cultural shift that also made itself felt in the area of sexual privilege, a shift that had equally problematic social and economic implications for the ruling elite. Throughout the seventeenth century, traditional notions of marriage came under attack. The Civil Marriage Act of 1653 and the Interregnum transfer of jurisdiction over marriage from the ecclesiastical courts to the state created significant changes in how marriage was viewed. These legal changes represented a move away from a sacramental concept of marriage to the concept of marriage based on civil contract, thus unsettling received ideas about man's natural authority in the family and introducing a new perception of the woman as a subject in her own right (Staves, Players' Scepters 111-18).

Though these Interregnum laws were overturned by Charles II, there is evidence to suggest that the attack on patriarchal power continued, as least as far as can be determined from legal documents pertaining to property. In the Restoration period, Stone argues, the curbing of male privilege was felt in the new kinds of marriage property settlements that were being arranged, an area in which the sexual and economic domains clearly overlapped. The property arrangement known as “strict settlement,” for example, acted, on the one hand, to preserve the family patrimony, but it also had the legal effect of guaranteeing each family member his or her share of the property and of protecting family members from the arbitrary control of the father. (The powers of the current owner of an estate were reduced to that of life trustee, since the owner had willed away his rights to his future children in a settlement drawn up before his marriage.) Marriage settlements during this period also seem to have been more concerned about preserving the rights of the wife, who increasingly managed to keep more of her own property under her own name. Of particular interest in the context of Wycherley's play is the fact that widows, at this time, were managing to secure more of their property for their own use by vesting their property in separate trustees before undertaking a second marriage (Family 166-68).

As in the area of class, the ruling elite went to work to recuperate its losses, attempting, to the greatest degree possible, to effect a return to the status quo. Susan Staves's recent study Married Women's Separate Property in England, 1660-1833 documents this recuperative process. A substantial gap, Staves demonstrates, existed between legal theory and practice, between the new rules asserting women's rights to property and the enforcement of these rules.7 Through litigation, and with the aid of a judicial system that remained deeply attached to a paradigm of patriarchal sexual and economic power, male family members continually managed to negate the property rights of their mothers, wives, and sisters. The Plain Dealer, in the Blackacre plot, dramatizes the struggle Staves describes, representing the conflict between a woman and her son over the family property. Insofar as it reinscribes the defeat of this woman, the play would seem to align itself with the historical victors, taking up the ideological position of the contemporary judicial system that sought to restore the rights of the governing elite. However, because this play also clearly reveals the process by which these rights are established, because it displays the constructedness of privileges hitherto considered to be “natural,” it also destabilizes the very ideology it reproduces, much as the contemporary multiplication of elaborate laws to counter women's rights signaled the very tenuousness of the property they were designed to defend.

The unsettling effect of this strange play, which so many of its critics have noted, can thus be attributed to a radical destabilization in the economic and sociosexual realm. The immediate historical context is not, however, the only determining factor. In giving form to a particular historical tension, the play also represents an unresolved antagonism in the broader psychosexual discourse that underwrites the sociosexual discourse of that age. The Plain Dealer, I suggest, recognizes, as Hélène Cixous does, that “the realm of the proper, culture, functions by the appropriation articulated, set into play, by man's classic fear of seeing himself expropriated, seeing himself deprived … by his refusal to be deprived, in a state of separation, by his fear of losing the prerogative, fear whose response is all of History” (486). The connection between the public and private domain is most overtly established in the Blackacre plot, where the male subject's fear of social and economic deprivation is shown to be inseparably linked to his fear for his manhood. But the structure of the play itself contains the most interesting formulation of this insight. The double plot structure constructs a Lacanian image of the male subject who is driven by the fear of expropriation, one whose experience is constituted in the mediation between an individual and collective experience.8 Manly and Jerry Blackacre create a complex figure of this split subject who plays out his drama along a double register, re-creating in the adult sexual domain the experience first encountered in the family domain. The play, of course, never makes an explicit connection between Manly's drama and Jerry's, nor does it assert the primacy of Jerry's experience. At the deep structural level of the play, however, there is an implicit recognition of their relationship. Manly, I will argue, is functionally identical to Jerry, the one marked by the familial drama that establishes identity as “lack in being” (Rose, introduction to FS 40-44). The repressed or concealed connection between the two dramas then itself takes on the force of a statement about the condition of the subject at the level of the symbolic: the subject who, like Manly, never recognizes at the level of conscious or articulated knowledge its own origin in lack (the fact that it is constituted in the anxiety of castration). In the analysis that follows, I attempt to disengage Wycherley's complex picture of this subject haunted by the fear of disappropriation, a subject who articulates both a historically specific and larger psychosexual anxiety.

The first conversation between Manly, the hero of the love plot, and the Widow Blackacre, the central figure in what I am calling the law plot, establishes the interconnectedness between the two strands of action. In the exchange between the returned sea captain and the widow in the first act, the term “Love-suits” becomes confused with the term “Law-suits” (I, 402),9 as each character confounds the other character's interests with his or her own. Manly is inquiring about his “suit” with Olivia, his fiancée, but the widow assumes he is speaking of the legal suit in which she wants to engage Manly as a witness. The notion that the love interest cannot be divorced from the legal interest is reinforced again shortly afterward by the conversation between Freeman, Manly's friend and confidant, and the widow. Freeman, who is a “Gentleman” of “broken Fortune” (I, 387)—thus already a type of the disappropriated male—decides to court the widow for her money. In the exchange between them, the wordplay centered on the term “business” makes the same complex point about the nature of sexuality and its relation to broader social structures: one cannot talk of love, it is implied, without also talking about law. Freeman's “sweet business” (his courtship of the widow) and the widow's “Westminster-Hall business” (her legal affairs) are inextricably interrelated (I, 404). What the play makes evident here in these conversations is elsewhere implied through the simultaneous “play” of the Blackacre plot and the Manly-Olivia plot. The text makes its statement by the interceptions and overlappings of these two strands of action. For purposes of discussion, however, I will separate out the two lines of action, but with the acknowledgment that in so doing I am inevitably simplifying and homogenizing the text's workings.

From the outset, it is clear that the situation in the Blackacre household represents a threat to the patriarchal order in general, and to the patrilineal system in particular, which encodes these rights. Rather than allowing herself to be the “gift,” the precious object that is traditionally exchanged by men to ensure the social order,10 the Widow Blackacre has appropriated the male property, the patrimony. Her control of the legal deeds to her husband's estate, the “Writings” that she carries around with her in her bag (III, 453), dramatizes her unusual position in relation to the traditional order. She is constituted as a social and legal subject in her own right, as the one who controls the goods: her own sexuality, the Blackacre estate, and the male heir. The widow, as the play recognizes, is thus a problem and an anomaly in the world in which she is constituted. As Freeman states, she is a woman “at Law and difference with all the World” (I, 401), a woman who is, by her own definition, “no common Woman; but a Woman conversant in the Laws of the Land” (III, 445). Her sexual independence is her guarantee of her power in law, as she herself clearly recognizes when she refuses Freeman's marriage proposal: “I that am a Relict and Executrix of known plentiful Assits and Parts, who understand my self and the Law: And wou'd you have me under Covert Baron again? No, Sir, no Covert Baron for me” (II, 437).

In thus portraying the widow as an antagonistic force, Wycherley, it can be argued, is giving expression to the negative perception of such women in his society. Widows in the seventeenth century, Barbara J. Todd points out, inspired contradictory and anxious feelings among men. An ungoverned woman was felt to be a challenge to the social order, and her very presence served as an unpleasant reminder to men of their own mortality (55). Todd's study also shows that remarriage of widows became increasingly less common in the seventeenth century (54-83), a phenomenon that must have added to the already perceived psychological threat of these women. But the Widow Blackacre also represents the more specifically economic threat posed by married women at this time because of changing property doctrines. She is the embodiment of the contemporary patriarchal nightmare, an image of the newly empowered female subject who, it was feared, by resorting to law, wrested property titles away from helpless male heirs. This female subject, like the Widow Blackacre, was often portrayed as controlling property for her own selfish ends. The interests of women, Staves notes, were frequently considered by the contemporary legal system to be the interests of individuals in direct competition with the interests of “family,” a term that effectively designated the interests of the male heir (Married 203). In the play the widow's son, Jerry Blackacre, expresses the fears of “family” in relation to this sexual upstart. As the play makes increasingly clear, he feels the widow is endangering both his manhood and the Blackacre estate.

When we first meet Jerry, he is suffering from a crisis of identity that is clearly a result of the unprecedented status of his mother. The refusal of the mother to play her assigned role in the patriarchal game leads to a reduction of the male role to that of reflexive signifier, the traditional devalued role played by “woman” in the homosocial contract (Rubin 171-85). Dressed in a barrister's robes and with a green bag in hand, Jerry forms a mirror image of the widow; in his behavior, he imitates her, parroting her legal jargon, accommodating himself to her desire. When she urges that they leave to take care of “our business,” he agrees—“I, forsooth, e'en so let's” (I, 404)—apparently identifying her “business” with his own. However, this compliance toward the mother scarcely disguises Jerry's increasing anxiety about his ability to secure either her or his estate, both of which he clearly sees as his property. Noting Freeman's interest in his mother, Jerry seems, at first, to assert his confidence in his own powers of securing her: “Ay, ay, Mother, he wou'd be taking Livery and Seizen of your Jointure, by digging the Turf; but I'll watch your waters” (I, 404-5). The phrase “watch your waters,” Gerald Weales notes, is particularly appropriate here as a way of saying “I'll watch out for your interests”; it alludes to the biological body (to watch the urine for complications) and to the body of land (to guard the water rights of one's property), thus recognizing the dual nature of the Widow Blackacre as a sexual and legal property (523-24). But the phrase could also be read as an expression of a doubt on Jerry's part about his ability to control his property. As Weales suggests, citing Blackstone, water is a difficult “body” to claim: “[I]f a body of water runs out of my pond into another man's, I have no right to reclaim it” (523-24). The widow, Jerry may be tacitly admitting, is just such a difficult “body,” just such a fluid and unstable resource.

As the play unfolds, this problem of how to control his rights both in his mother and in his estate becomes more and more central for Jerry. The young man imagines with horror the loss of his property if his mother remarries, envisioning the sold “old gilt Plate,” the “mortgag'd Apostle-Spoons, Bowls, and Beakers,” and the felled “Trees,” what he calls the “havock of our Estate personal” (II, 437). He also imagines his loss of property rights in his mother as an equal and related catastrophe. Explaining his problem to Freeman, he says: “Then wou'd she marry, too, and cut down my Trees: Now I shou'd hate, Man, to have my Father's Wife kiss'd, and slap'd and t'other thing too, (you know what I mean) by another Man; and our Trees are the purest, tall, even, shady twigs, by my fa—” (III, 450). The desire evident here to retain all rights in the mother is complicated by Jerry's awareness that the widow also represents an obstacle to the gratification of his desires. “My Curmudgeonly Mother wo'nt allow me wherewithall to be a Man of my self with,” he complains to Freeman (III, 450), by which he means, as he later explains, his mother's refusal to give him money or to allow him to go near the garret where the maidservants are sleeping (IV, 473). As a site of ambivalence, the widow is a classic representation of that nightmare figure, the phallic mother, the imaginary mother who is presumed to have power over identity and meaning and is thus desired and feared (Gallop 113-31). At the same time, the widow is also an effective figure of a real sociosexual tension. Jerry's relation to his mother can also be read as a troping of the conflicted relation between male heirs and the women of their own class whom they both needed and resented. On the one hand, of course, the whole patriarchal system could not have continued without the reproductive contribution of women, a debt that was tacitly acknowledged in the provision of the jointure that the Widow Blackacre enjoys. But on the other hand, this kind of economic settlement and the increasing property rights assigned to women by law were felt to encroach upon male privilege, a sentiment that Jerry, in his hostility to his mother, clearly expresses.

In this play, however, the disappropriated subject, like the sexual subject in the Lacanian drama and like the aristocratic subject in the seventeenth century, does not easily tolerate his state of tension and works to resolve it through various fictions, one of which is the fiction of the “Law.” To regain control of his threatened property, Jerry invokes this solution of the “Law.” Only by going to “Law” with their mothers, he notes, did other men make “Men of themselves”: “[T]hey went to Law with their Mothers; for they say, there's no good to be done upon a Widow Mother, till one goes to Law with her” (III, 450). “Law” in this play thus represents the aristocratic social ideology that assigns the property (the estate, the maidservants, and money) to the male inheritor of the estate, the ideology that maintains the gentleman in his place of privilege. There is, moreover, no pretense that this “Law” is fair. Freeman's advice to a fellow rival for the widow is as follows:

If you Litigious Widow e'r wou'd gain,
Sign not to her; but by the Law complain:
To her, as to a Baud, Defendant Sue
With Statutes, and make Justice Pimp for you.

(II, 438)

The historical relevance of his advice is borne out by Staves when she concludes that much of her study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century married women's property “might be regarded as a study of effective avoidance practices and of judicial sanction of avoidance practices” (Married 208). Freeman's real contemporaries were very skillful at making justice “pimp” for them.

In playing this role, “Law” is also a dramatization of the Lacanian notion of the process that disrupts the mother-son relationship and that gives the boy his male identity, a process Lacan also equates with “Law” and with the concept of the father. “The father is a function and refers to a law,” Rose explains, “the place outside the imaginary dyad and against which it breaks” (39). In this play, Freeman represents this function of father. As the mother's suitor and potential second husband, he is Jerry's rival and a threat to his “estate,” both sexual and economic, but he also offers to compensate the boy for his loss in return for his cooperation in Freeman's affair with the mother. The bargain struck here between the two men thus effectively represents the bargain that determines the whole sociosexual contract. Rubin describes the compensatory logic of this contract as follows: “[T]he boy renounces his mother for fear that otherwise his father would castrate him (refuse to give him the phallus and make him a girl). But by this act of renunciation, the boy affirms the relationships which have given mother to father and will give him, if he becomes a man, a woman of his own. … [T]he boy exchanges his mother for the phallus, the symbolic token which can later be exchanged for a woman” (193).

An identical logic determines the exchange that takes place in act 3 of The Plain Dealer. In return for his allegiance, Freeman gives Jerry gold to buy the books that the young man craves (St. George for Christendom and The Seven Champions of England), books of heroic deeds that, earlier in the play, were denied to him by his mother (III, 448). This acquisition represents Jerry's entry into the homosocial order, the order in which the male (and not the female) is the hero, the instigator of the action. The young man's appearance in “Red Breeches” shortly after this (IV, 472) and his statement in relation to Freeman that he will “do any thing he'll have me, and go all the World over with him; to Ordinaries, and Baudyhouses, or any where else” (IV, 472) are further assertions of his “manhood.” The newly acquired access to women that Freeman guarantees him is the price of the exchange of the mother. In recognizing Freeman as “Guardian and Tutor” (IV, 472), thus recognizing the “Name of the Father,” Jerry subscribes to the economy of the return, the economy of what Lacan calls the “inviolable Debt” that is the basis of the “Law”: “the guarantee that the voyage on which wives and goods are embarked will bring back to their point of departure in a never-failing cycle other women and other goods, all carrying an identical entity” (Language 42).

What this exchange represents also, of course, is the reassertion of the old aristocratic order with its valorization, as suggested by the books and by Jerry's swaggering gait, of romance and chivalry.11 In this order, the woman no longer functions as the active subject, a recognition that the play encodes by now reducing the widow to a state of helplessness. With Jerry's passive cooperation, Freeman steals the deeds of the estate from the widow, a change that symbolizes the displacement of one sexual economy by another. Since it is Jerry now who is in possession of the “Writings,” it is he who can “Sign, Seal, and Deliver,” a change in power that the widow recognizes, as she weeps for the loss of her property (IV, 473). However, the widow's change in function—that she is now established as “lack” (or the one with the lack) in this economy—is most clearly dramatized by the figurative rape performed on her by Oldfox (another pretender to the “Name of the Father” in that he, too, is a suitor). Throughout the play, Oldfox has been trying to impress the Widow Blackacre with his writings, which he calls “the fruits of my leisure, the overflowings of my fancy and Pen” or “my parts” (IV, 470). To each of his proffered writings, however, the widow counters with her own (legal) writings, so that, much to Oldfox's frustration, there is no discourse between them: “O Lady, Lady, all interruption, and no sence between us, as if we were Lawyers at the Bar!” (IV, 471). In the final act of the play, however, Oldfox prepares to force his “parts” upon her:

Acquainted with your parts! A Rape, a Rape—What will you ravish me?
[The Waiters tye her to the Chair, and gag her; and Exeunt]
Yes, Lady, I will ravish you; but it shall be through the ear, Lady, the ear onely, with my well-pen'd Acrostics.

(V, 507)

Oldfox never gets to carry out his “ravishment” because of the arrival of Freeman, Jerry, and the bailiffs, but the defeat of the mother is nevertheless ensured. The widow's arrest “in the King's Name,” at the suit of her son and his adopted father, Freeman (V, 507), is the imaginative assignment of the woman to her place in the family plot, a punishment for her boldness in assuming the male prerogative of manipulating the law. The widow's crime in forging signatures to property deeds and in using professional false witnesses is a necessary defense against the subterfuges, the legal “pimp[ing]” (II, 438), that men like her potential husband Freeman use to acquire women's separate property, as she herself argues:

Well, these, and many other shifts, poor Widows are put to sometimes; for every body wou'd be riding a Widow, as they say, and breaking into her Jointure: they think marrying a Widow an easie business, like leaping the Hedge, where another has gone before; a Widow is a meer gap, a gap with them.

(V, 506)

But, as the action of the play demonstrates, this legal move by the woman is not allowed. The “Settlement” (Freeman's “Writings,” which she is compelled to sign [V, 509]) strips her of a substantial part of her property and renders her virtually powerless, an imaginative expression of the implicit violence done both to woman in the contemporary social and economic power structure and to women in the psychosexual order. In both structures, woman is required to function as the lack that guarantees the fullness of the male property, the “Other” who is “excluded by the nature of things which is the nature of words” (Lacan, FS 144).

On the one hand, then, the Blackacre plot seems to reassert the old power plot, seeming to guarantee once more the traditional “realm of the proper.” However, the phallic and aristocratic victory is not unproblematic, as the ending of the play reveals. The social and economic instability the play reveals is not successfully erased by its closure, as we see, for example, in the problematic nature of the illegitimacy issue that the widow raises as one of her last resorts in her battle against Freeman and Jerry. When it is clear that she no longer has any control over her son and thus stands to lose control of the estate, the widow stuns her listeners by announcing that Jerry is a bastard and has, therefore, no claim over the Blackacre estate. Freeman tries to make her back down from this assertion by pointing out the social implication for her own honor, but the widow tells him, in no uncertain terms, to “Hang Reputation”; she is, she says, more concerned to “save her Jointure” than her “Honour” (IV, 475). As we have seen, this refusal by the widow to subscribe to a belief in the value of feminine chastity proves to be only a temporary setback for Jerry and Freeman, as the two men later blackmail her into complying with their wishes. Nevertheless, the implied threat of the widow's disavowal of “reputation” cannot be dismissed so lightly. The social and economic ramifications of the threat of the gentlewoman who says “Hang Reputation” are obvious. The whole system of patrilineage is predicated on the notion that a man knows who his son is, thus the importance of the woman buying into a belief in sexual fidelity as a value. J. Douglas Canfield has convincingly demonstrated the ideological importance of this belief during this period in the tragicomic romances that thrived in Restoration theaters in the 1660s and 1670s. These tragicomedies, which emphasized the values of loyalty and constancy, had the ideological purpose, Canfield argues, of reaffirming feudal aristocratic values grounded in patrilineage, values that were coming under stress from precisely the kind of social and economic pressures I outlined at the beginning of my essay. Wycherley's representation of a gentlewoman who publicly flaunts her dishonor to further her own economic ends is thus an implicit commentary on the fictionality of these romances, an acknowledgment of the fragility of the whole system on which social privilege is based.

The revelation that the mother can deceive also threatens to undermine the broader psychosexual fiction of paternal privilege. “Any suspicion of the mother's infidelity,” Gallop writes, “betrays the Name-of-the-Father as the arbitrary imposition it is. The merest hint of the mother's infidelity threatens to expose what Lacan calls the symbolic (the register of the Name-of-the-Father), which is usually covered over, sutured, by the representations of what Lacan calls the imaginary, the imaginary of chivalry, the woman's presumed honour” (48). The widow's refusal to play her assigned role thus constitutes an exposure of the phallic conceit, an exposure most apparent in the final “Settlement” that resolves the Blackacre conflict. Unlike the traditional comic plot that reaches its resolution through a marriage, the Blackacre plot ends with a kind of divorce. The contract between Freeman and the widow is based on “Separation,” on an agreement that they will find sexual pleasure “elsewhere” (V, 509). As the widow notes, she is designated by this agreement as “a kind of a sine cure,” an office in name only (V, 509). For Wycherley, as for Lacan, recovery of male privilege is, then, underwritten by loss, by the recognition that the jouissance of the woman is somewhere “beyond the phallus” (FS 145). The men regain their privilege on the basis of an empty contract.

The drama of Manly takes up this drama of the subject at another stage and replays the whole crisis on another, more explicitly sexual register. Manly is the subject caught up in what Lacan calls the “closed field of desire” that the sexual relation occupies, a field constituted by the endlessness of the return of the demand. Despite the fact that the subject's entry into the symbolic order is predicated upon loss, the subject persists in his belief that somewhere there is satisfaction, a certainty that a member of the opposite sex, in later life, seems to guarantee. Manly's drama, in Lacanian terms, is thus the return into the adult sexual field of the demand made in the primordial mother-child relation or the family plot, a demand that is doomed to repeat the originary drama of presence and loss, to signify desire, or the impossibility of fulfillment, twice over (FS 81). Like Jerry, Manly both loses and regains his property, but his final triumph too is a patent fraud.

When we first meet him, Manly, like Jerry at the beginning of the Blackacre plot, is absorbed in the fantasy of the woman whose interests he seems to believe are identical with his own. His relationship with Olivia, as he describes it to his friend, Freeman, is a reflexive one; he loves her, he says, because she mirrors his own image back to him, thus verifying his truth, which becomes “all truth”: “She is all truth, and hates the lying, masking, daubing World, as I do; for which I love her, and for which I think she dislikes not me” (I, 406-7). Much later in the play, Novel and Lord Plausible, two of Olivia's other suitors, recognize and describe the fantasy that the woman in this dynamic guarantees, the fantasy of satisfying the self: “[F]or, as Freeman said of another, she stands in the Drawing-room, like the Glass, ready for all Comers to set their Gallantry by her: and, like the Glass too, lets no man go from her, unsatisfi'd with himself” (V, 479). But insofar as Olivia still satisfies Manly's “truth” at the beginning of the play, her illusionary nature is not yet admitted. She is, rather, “this miracle of a Woman” (I, 408) who constitutes his full value, a function that is dramatized by Manly's act of entrusting her with his fortune.

Manly, at the beginning of the play, is thus re-creating what Lacan would term the “mirror stage” of subjectivity, the dyadic economy of the Imaginary, in which the one is preoccupied with the other as a guarantor of the unity of the self.12 As the one with the property (his jewels and money), Olivia, like the widow in relation to Jerry, is the fantasized object that guarantees the self's security. In asking us and Freeman, as he does at the end of the first act, to “come along with me, and believe” in Olivia (I, 408), Manly is therefore asking us not only to believe in “The Woman” but also in himself, “The Man,” or what is Manly. But with Manly as with Jerry, the seeming confidence that both sexual and real properties are safe is undercut by what are, at first, scarcely articulated expressions of doubt. In his initial discussion with Freeman, when he is asserting his faith in his own integrity as a “Plain Dealer,” he admits that signs do not always correspond to worth: “'[T]is not the King's stamp can make the Metal better, or heavier: your Lord is a Leaden shilling, which you may bend every way; and debases the stamp he bears, instead of being rais'd by't” (I, 394). The privileged signifier (“the King's stamp”)—like the phallus—is a fraud, Manly acknowledges, because it is not equated with what he calls “intrinsick worth” (I, 394; cf. James Thompson's contribution to this volume). That he has doubts about the “miracle of a Woman” is also clear from his actions in giving Olivia his money and jewels to keep her faithful. To play her role as “all truth,” to keep her where he wants her, he knows that she is in need of a supplement:

Yes: for she is not (I tell you) like other Women, but can keep her promise, tho' she has sworn to keep it; but that she might the better keep it, I left her the value of five or six thousand pound: for Womens wants are generally their most importunate Solicitors to Love or Marriage.

(I, 407)

The woman, for Manly, is thus simultaneously conceived of as “all” and “not all” (or wanting), a representation of what Lacan believes to be the paradoxical situation of woman in the phallic order (FS 167). To guarantee his own identity, the man has to believe in the woman, but he also recognizes at an unconscious level that as a guarantor of his identity she is not to be trusted. “If the unconscious has taught us anything,” Lacan says, “it is firstly this, that somewhere, in the Other, it knows” (FS 158).

The crisis for Manly begins when he is made to confront what he, in one way, already knows about the “Other,” when he is made to recognize the illusionary nature of the “truth” that is meant to secure his property. What Manly encounters when he goes to visit Olivia is the ironic reversal of the Odyssean paradigm of the return, the return that guaranteed, in the traditional epic, the recognition of the lost hero and the reinstatement of his sexual and social power. When Manly, the great sea captain and war hero, secretly arrives at his lady's dwelling, he observes a faithless Penelope, an Olivia flirting with her suitors (Novel and Lord Plausible) and abusing his name. Her laughter at his “heroic Title,” her mocking “Panegyrick” of the “Martial Man” (II, 426-27), constitute a further debunking of the manly, epic hero and of the concept of manliness that Manly so clearly embodies. Olivia's revelation that she has married and has given away his “Jewels” (II, 429) actualizes this verbal violation. She no longer is the keeper of his property and is thus the site of both her own and his lack.

The full ironic implication of this discovery is only apparent, however, in the context of the play's double plot structure. What Olivia's unfaithfulness clearly demonstrates is the illusionary nature of the compensation guaranteed by the “Father,” by the “Law,” in the family plot. The heroic narratives and the “Wenches” (Jerry's compensation for the loss of the mother) are always already empty signifiers. This consciousness of a lack of signification pervades the center of the play, a lack that is represented at the broadest level by the image of a debased and meaningless “Law.” That this collapse in meaning is instigated by the infidelity of the woman is signaled by the dominance of the widow in Westminster Hall, the ascendancy of the woman who will later assert her infidelity to the “Father.” Under her sign, under the aegis of the rebellious “Woman,” the “Law” is reduced to nonsense, its function as a conceit revealed. Working for the widow, the lawyer Quaint demonstrates how he will cause chaos in the court:

I will, as I see cause, extenuate, or examplifie Matter of Fact; baffle Truth, with Impudence: answer Exceptions, with Questions, tho, never so impertinent; for Reasons, give 'em Words; for Law and Equity, Tropes and Figures.

(III, 444)

This exposure of the “Law” as a “Trope,” the exposure of social and sexual privilege as a “figure,” lies at the center of The Plain Dealer. If, as Lacan notes, “it is in the name of the father that we must recognize the support of the Symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law” (Language 41), then the emptying out of this “name,” the detraction from the father's authority, results in the collapse of the whole edifice of signification. We see such a collapse in the third act, a reduction of signs to a flow of meaningless signifiers. Earlier on in the play Manly had described society as “Bays's grand Dance,” where people “tread round in a preposterous huddle of Ceremony to each other, whil'st they can hardly hold their solemn false countenances” (I, 398). In act 3, this nightmare vision is translated into action in the parade of corrupt lawyers and public officials who follow each other across the stage in an economy in which empty figures circulate in a meaningless flow.

Against this backdrop of an empty “Law,” the love drama collapses, becoming instead the drama of a man and woman who “want.” Manly's sudden recognition that he is “an Hypocrite” (III, 439) can be translated as the recognition of a failure of signification, as a consciousness that he, too, is not what he seems, that he lacks. This recognition is given figurative representation in his relation to economic property, which he now knows to be lost. As “a Man without Money” (III, 439), he has no worth—“I am not worth a shilling in the World” (IV, 462)—a loss that he equates with the refusal by the woman to return what he is owed. When, in the last act, Freeman suggests that Manly, whose financial state is now desperate, should borrow money from one of his female acquaintances, Manly replies:

Dam thee! how cou'dst thou think of such a thing? I wou'd as soon rob my Footman of his Wages: Besides, 'twere in vain too; for a Wench is like a Box in an Ordinary, receives all peoples Money easily; but there's no getting, nay shaking any our again: and he that fills it, is never to keep the Key.

(V, 496)

The frustration expressed by Manly at his failure to “keep the Key” is an expression of the instability of his own sexual identity, an instability he clearly relates to the nature of “the Box,” the woman who does not guarantee an adequate return.13

This image of the woman who does not guarantee the return of the male investment because she “wants” something else or something more dominates the play from the fourth act onward. The hero is finally made aware, first in listening to the account by Fidelia of Olivia's pursuit of her (IV, 464-68) and then in watching Olivia actually chase Fidelia (IV, 481), that the love he sought is a fantasy, an illusion, and that the woman is occupied elsewhere. In pursuing her own elusive object (Fidelia), Olivia represents the pursuit by the woman of her own pleasure, the jouissance that is not “proper” to the phallus (Lacan, FS 145), a revelation that leaves the man also wanting, “not satisfi'd” (IV, 483).

But if Manly is forced to acknowledge finally that women do not pay “just Debts” (IV, 470), the play does not end in the overt consciousness of male expropriation. Wycherley, like Man in History as described by Cixous, seems in the final scenes to reinstate the economy of the return:

Everything must return to the masculine. “Return”: the economy is founded on a system of returns. If a man spends and is spent, it's on condition that his power returns. If a man should go out, if he should go out to the other, it's always done according to the Hegelian model, the model of the master-slave dialectic.


Manly's proposed rape of Olivia (by pretending to be Fidelia) would effect the reimposition of this dialectic and thus the return of the woman to her role as complement to the male: “Yes, so much she hates me,” Manly explains to Fidelia, “that it wou'd be a Revenge sufficient, to make her accessary to my pleasure, and then let her know it” (IV, 484). As “accessary” to Manly's “pleasure,” Olivia would find herself in her assigned place within the symbolic order, which is to be the support of the male subject: the rape would guarantee that the resistance offered by the woman would no longer figure.

And according to one reading of what happens in act 4, this plan is indeed carried out. As Percy G. Adams notes, one interpretation of what both Manly and Olivia say after Manly emerges from Olivia's bedroom would suggest that Olivia has, in effect, been duped by Manly and has had sex with him, thinking that he is her lover, Fidelia (179-83). Manly's sexual victory would then seem to be completed by his economic victory, when he recovers his jewels and money (Olivia, thinking Manly is Fidelia, gives him the “Cabinet” that contains the goods [V, 511]). Manly's final discovery of Fidelia, the faithful woman who loves him, would seem to constitute a further restoration of this “realm of the proper.” Fidelia's emergence is the restoration of woman into the rational structure of a courtly love framework, a framework in which, Peggy Kamuf argues, the disturbing elements of sexuality are negated and neutralized (xv). Fidelia, as her name suggests, is a figure of the faithful lady who is prepared to abnegate her own subjectivity in the name of love. “Believe me, I cou'd dye for you, Sir,” she tells Manly early on in the play (I, 399), and this necessary death of woman in her own right now restores order. Fidelia's “virtue,” Manly states, saves him from his near madness, “reconcile[s]” him, makes him “Friends with the World” (V, 515).

However, the problem with this final restoration of the status quo is that it is not entirely convincing in its ability either to master disorder (as represented by Olivia) or to assert order (as represented by Fidelia). It is characteristic of this play that we never really know, for example, whether the rape of Olivia takes place. We are never sure whether the rebellious woman has been subjected to the Manly will. Adams, for example, notes that everything that is said after Manly emerges from Olivia's bedroom could also support the reading that Manly did not rape her (176-79).14 The play affords no closure on the question of the sexual relation, a deferral of satisfaction that anticipates the interrupted “ravishment” of the widow in the next act. What we do know is that even if Manly did “it,” Olivia was no “accessary” to his pleasure; Manly asserts his phallic power under cover of darkness in the full recognition that he is not who he is supposed to be and that Olivia's desire is located elsewhere. The situation thus once again inscribes what Lacan argues is the absence at the basis of phallic privilege and the subsequent necessity of the phallic signifier playing its role “veiled” (FS 82).

The Fidelia solution is equally ambivalent, equally unsatisfactory as a means of shoring up disorder, clearly signaling, as many critics have recognized, its own artificiality as a closure device. Fidelia herself seems to have stepped out of an older romantic world, an Arcadian world glaringly at odds with the bleak and sordid world of The Plain Dealer. The conventional happy marriage ending that she is instrumental in creating is likewise unconvincing. To cite Anne Righter, the lovers' agreement is “extra-social, romantic, artificial and almost impossible to believe in”; it is a “victory of excess,” which undercuts its own credibility (85-86). The disclosure that Fidelia is not only a faithful lover but also an heiress serves as the clearest example of this undermining excess. While the revelation of her wealth would seem initially to add to Manly's triumph (Fidelia brings to the marriage the two thousand pounds a year she has inherited from her father), it serves finally only to underscore the inadequacy of the initial Manly property, signaling the lack at the basis of this property by pointing to the necessity of still further supplementation. The Derridean formulation of the double nature of the supplement thus applies to this ending: “[I]f it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence.” And most important, as Derrida says of the supplement, “it provides no relief” (145).

To conclude, then, it could be said of The Plain Dealer that it operates through a kind of negativity, producing ideologies only to disclose their limits, asserting values only simultaneously to cancel and deny them. Ronald Berman is correct in saying that the play is situated at the point where “satire gives up,” where it becomes “incoherent and incommunicative” (477). Wycherley, Berman suggests, is “more interested in breaking mirrors than in exposing vices” (466).15 But breaking mirrors is only a problem if the viewer wants a unified image reflected back. The play's incoherence, its inconsistency, is dismaying only if there is a desire to re-create the theater of the identical, to reinscribe “Law.” As it stands, the play provides a useful corrective to a kind of legal and social history that has been intent on providing this kind of therapeutic reinscription, a history that has been guilty of ignoring the material reality behind its optimistic progressive myth. Historians of the law, Staves points out, continually identify with the perspective of the male heir (Married 204) and, in their pleasure at an evolutionary functionalist model of legal history, consistently ignore the discrepancies between the legal gains made by women and their unchanged economic condition.16 In constructing the story of the rise of the “egalitarian family,” social historians similarly ignore the complex social factors that ensured that little actually changed in women's lives. Indeed, rather than serving to liberate women, Susan Okin argues, the sentimentalism, described by historians as a positive feature of this new family, acted “as a reinforcement for the patriarchal relations between men and women that had been temporarily threatened by seventeenth-century individualism” (74).17

In its disclosure of the reactionary function of romantic myth, The Plain Dealer anticipates Okin's insight. As the play acknowledges, behind the consoling image of a Fidelia, Manly's “little Volunteer” (V, 512), who willingly sacrifices her property to male interests, there is the harsh reality of a Widow Blackacre and an Olivia, the reality of the contemporary female subject who, by physical or mental coercion, is frequently “kissed or kicked” out of her legally acquired property (Staves, Married 34). Adorno's formulation of the unique relation of art to society is particularly relevant here: art, Adorno writes, “negates the conceptualization foisted on the real world and yet it harbors in its own substance elements of the empirically existent” (7). The Plain Dealer shows us not only the constructedness of the dominant social and sexual ideology but also the material costs of maintaining the dominant group in power, the economic reality that sustains what is presented as natural privilege. I will add, however, this insight is accessible only to an epistemological structure that is itself open to history: one that is no longer governed by what could be called the “Manly agenda,” by the desire to impose on reality its own curative, identitarian logic. To disengage the complexity of The Plain Dealer, an “Other” kind of criticism is required, a criticism that is not “proper.”


  1. For an overview of the many different critical positions on Manly and on the play's moral standpoint, see Chadwick 133-34 and Hughes 315. For a discussion of the general muddle surrounding Wycherley criticism, see Hume, “William Wycherley.”

  2. A number of recent studies of The Plain Dealer, however, see this “inconsistency” as a mark of the play's complexity rather than of its failure. See Markley, Holland 170-203, and Hume, “William Wycherley.” Hume, for example, suggests that “to do worthwhile interpretive work on Wycherley we must first accept a kind of uncertainty principle” (415); he does not, however, see any connection between this “uncertainty principle” and Wycherley's ideology, which he takes to be conservative.

  3. See Bode 2 for a review of the dismissive treatment of the Blackacre plot in the criticism of this play. In his discussion of this plot, Bode argues, as I do, that an understanding of the Blackacre plot is essential to an understanding of the play, but his argument, which emphasizes the ethical and normative function of this plot (the widow's crookedness acting as a foil to Manly's “plain dealing”), is very different from mine.

  4. Hume acknowledges that the plays are “full of social and political commentary,” but he dismisses any argument for their complexity on the grounds that the ideas the plays present are no more than “commonplaces” (30). For a discussion of what she terms this “antiintellectualism” in the criticism of Restoration drama, see Staves, Players' Scepters xv-xvi.

  5. To avoid getting into the taxonomic controversy that has so engaged historians of this period when they try to label different social and economic groups, I am here adopting J. H. Hexter's position that the aristocracy and the gentry form one economic class in that both groups drew the larger part of their income from land (cited in McKeon 161).

  6. The tenuousness of social privilege must have been particularly acutely felt by the playwright himself because of the legal challenge to the Wycherleys' social privilege around the time the play was being written. Between the years 1676 and 1679, a search was made on the claim of Daniel Wycherley (the playwright's father) to the rank of gentleman. Daniel was accused of assuming arms “by a false and erroneous Pedegree with arms and quartering.” The search successfully established the Wycherley claim to bear arms (McCarthy 3).

  7. By changing the common-law rules that gave husbands almost total power over their wives' property, equity practices of the eighteenth century, Staves agrees, did prepare the way for the greater degree of property control married women have today. However, such equity doctrines were not, as legal historians claim, an unambiguous gain, since these doctrines also effectively dismantled women's dower rights, the common-law rights a woman had to one-third of all the lands ever owned by her husband during the marriage (Married ch. 2). It is also possible, Staves argues, that these new settlements, which robbed women of the security of land, had the effect of making it easier rather than harder to manipulate women out of their property. Women rarely had the legal expertise to protect themselves against the increasingly complex conveyancing techniques that were developed during the eighteenth century, a legal structure that, it could be argued, was specifically designed to undermine any real changes in property ownership (Married ch. 3).

  8. See Lacan, “The Meaning of the Phallus” and also “The Phallic Phase and the Subjective Import of the Castration Complex” in Feminine Sexuality, a collection of Lacan's essays (cited hereafter as FS). For an excellent analysis of these difficult texts, see Rose's introduction to FS. For a discussion of Lacan's mediation between the individual and the collective, see Jameson, “Imaginary and Symbolic.”

  9. All quotations are from Weales's edition. The numbers in parentheses refer to act and page numbers respectively.

  10. For the notion that marriage is the most basic form of gift exchange, see Lévi-Strauss's influential study The Elementary Structures of Kinship, particularly 115-16 and 481.

  11. For a discussion of the relation between romance and aristocratic ideology, see McKeon 150-59.

  12. See Wilden's commentary for a helpful discussion of the “mirror phase” (Lacan, Language 159-77).

  13. The phallic nature of the image Manly uses does not have to be labored; we only have to think of Freud's interpretation of Dora's dream: “‘Where is the key?’ seems to me to be the masculine counterpart to the question ‘Where is the box?’ They are therefore questions referring to—the genitals” (117).

  14. The initial ambiguity arises from Manly's statement when he emerges from the bedroom: “I have thought better on't, I must not discover my self now, I am without Witnesses” (IV, 485). The problem is with the “it,” which could refer to the sexual act or to the disclosure of the act. As Adams's reading shows, subsequent statements by Olivia and Manly can be read to support either interpretation.

  15. Berman argues, as I do, that Wycherley is concerned with the status of heroic society and that the incoherence of this play derives from the experience of a social and epistemological crisis. However, Berman identifies Manly's heroic ideology with a moral norm that Wycherley endorses, an identification that leads him to conclude that Wycherley's “harshness and misanthropy” are “understandable”; that if his satire is “either incoherent or incommunicative,” it is “natural” (477). I would suggest that only if one believes that male aristocratic privilege is natural do Manly's fears become understandable.

  16. For a discussion of the masculinist bias of legal historians, see Staves, Married 202-5. For a discussion of the celebratory nature of legal history, see 9-10 and 32-33. Staves attributes the “adaption theory” of legal history to Robert Gordon, who states that behind legal history is the assumption that “the natural and proper evolution of a society … is towards the type of liberal capitalism seen in the advanced Western nations …, and that the natural and proper function of a legal system is to facilitate such an evolution” (cited in Married 9-10).

  17. The rise of the “egalitarian family” in the eighteenth century is a thesis supported by Trumbach. Stone develops a similar idea when he argues that the development of the “companionate marriage” during this century resulted in an amelioration of the condition of women (Family, ch. 8). This kind of analysis has come under attack from a number of sources recently as being implicated in the very capitalist ideology that this thesis was designed to promote. See, for example, Staves, Married 222-28, and Pollak's discussion of the myth of passive womanhood throughout her Poetics of Sexual Myth.

Works Cited

Adams, Percy G. “What Happened in Olivia's Bedroom? or Ambiguity in The Plain Dealer.Essays in Honor of Esmond Linworth Marilla. Ed. Thomas Austin Kirby and William John Olive. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1970. 174-87.

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. London: Routledge, 1984.

Berman, Ronald. “Wycherley's Unheroic Society.” ELH 51 (1984): 465-78.

Bode, Robert F. “‘Try Me, at Least’: The Dispensing of Justice in The Plain Dealer.Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 2nd ser. 4 (1989): 1-24.

Canfield, J. Douglas. “The Ideology of Restoration Tragicomedy.” ELH 51 (1984): 447-64.

Chadwick, W. R. The Four Plays of William Wycherley. The Hague: Mouton, 1975.

Cixous, Hélène. “Castration or Decapitation?” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1989. 479-91.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1982.

Harwood, John T. Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy. Carbondonale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.

Holland, Peter. The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

Hughes, Derek. “The Plain Dealer: A Reappraisal.” Modern Language Quarterly 43 (1982): 315-36.

Hume, Robert D. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

———. “William Wycherley: Text, Life, Interpretation.” Modern Philology 78 (1981): 399-415.

Jameson, Fredric. “Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, and the Problem of the Subject.” Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 338-95.

———. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1981.

Kamuf, Peggy. Fictions of Feminine Desire: Disclosures of Heloise. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.

Lacan, Jacques. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton, 1982.

———. The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Anthony Wilden. New York: Delta-Dell, 1968.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. 1949. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Markley, Robert. “Drama, Character, and Irony: Kierkegaard and Wycherley's The Plain Dealer.Kierkegaard and Literature. Ed. Ronald Schleifer and Robert Markley. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1984. 138-63.

McCarthy, B. Eugene. William Wycherley: A Biography. Athens: Ohio UP, 1979.

McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.

Okin, Susan Moller. “Women and the Making of the Sentimental Family.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 11 (1982): 65-88.

Pollak, Ellen. The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Righter, Anne. “William Wycherley.” Restoration Theatre. Ed. John Russell and Bernard Harris. 1965. New York: Capricorn, 1967. 81-86.

Rogers, K. M. “Fatal Inconsistency: Wycherley and The Plain-Dealer.ELH 28 (1961): 148-62.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna Reiter. New York: Monthly Review P, 1975. 157-210.

Staves, Susan. Married Women's Separate Property in England, 1660-1833. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.

———. Players' Scepters: Fictions of Authority in the Restoration. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1979.

Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

———. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. Abridged ed. New York: Harper, 1979.

Todd, Barbara J. “The Remarrying Widow: A Stereotype Reconsidered.” Women in English Society, 1500-1800. Ed. Mary Prior. London: Methuen, 1985. 54-83.

Trumbach, Randolph. The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Academic P, 1978.

Wycherley, William. The Complete Plays of William Wycherley. Ed. Gerald Weales. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1966.

Barrie Hawkins (essay date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Hawkins, Barrie. “The Country Wife: Metaphor Manifest.” Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research 11, no. 1 (summer 1996): 40-63.

[In the essay below, Hawkins discusses Wycherley's use of language and imagery in The Country Wife.]

L. C. Knights has famously charged that metaphoric density is precisely what Restoration Comedy lacks. Its language, he claims, is impoverished, its “idiomatic vigour and evocative power” is lost, and the plays are not so much immoral as “trivial, gross and dull.”1 James Thompson's book-length analysis of Wycherley's “densely packed imagery”2 has answered this Olympian judgement and P. F. Vernon claims that The Country Wife is “more metaphoric than any other comedy in English.”3 Others have claimed that Restoration Comedy is uniformly refined, restrained and static. David Vieth suggests:

the Elizabethan and Jacobean idea of a play as essentially a series of dynamic, developing actions would be misleading if applied to The Country Wife. Most Restoration plays are comparatively static … the plot is primarily an illusion of movement designed to bring issues and characters into friction.


But this emphasises only the moral-frictional pattern, and The Country Wife is not a parade of fleeting frictions. It is driven by vital entries which change events and impel action on stage and off, a dynamic shunting of cause and effect leading to purposeful change. This has been well illustrated by Peter Malekin. Its masquing conventions and use of the stage depth to expose a dialectical tension has been magnificently exposed by Jocelyn Powell. Acknowledging this, I shall explore the relationship of the play's metaphoric density to its action and visual groupings in the treatment of women by men and the metaphoric use of the stage and theatre space itself.

The language of The Country Wife is savage and subtle, and profoundly metaphoric. It is so dense with metaphor that speakers fall into the grip of the sentient power of its imagery and the stage achieves a rich, cohesive virtuality recalling the Jacobean stage. “Metaphors are fleshed out and words return with ironic significance so consistently as to suggest that words are invested with a curious power that often seems to reside outside the speaker” (Thompson 85). Metaphoric threads run the length of the play, a polyphony of iconic language, close to plot and theme. Stage action moves in extended support of verbal metaphor and often creates independent images with a force of their own. The menagerie of animal reference mutates from scene to scene but cumulatively it descends to a deviant farmyard. There is no temporary use of image for wit's sake, yet a sword-play vitality predominates. Sense is countered in its making, before it is complete: a ‘stop-hit.’ Figurative attack is accepted and turned back: a ‘prise à feu.’ The ‘flèche,’ or running attack, of the cuckolds lays them open to be hit from all sides when they miss and rush past. Horner and Pinchwife duel in metaphors. Horner besieges him with figurative language and masters him by defeating his metaphors. Speeches are unpredictably long, have the cadence of real conversation and are sharply interruptive,5 so that we never settle into listening to one speaker and complacent prediction, but are forced to attend closely to all interlocutors and what takes place between them. Language becomes an actional force, tied always with gesture, travel and social intention. They duel in action too.

The Country Wife is largely about the relation between men and women as factions, about sex and the arranged marriage. Horner may be hero or villain, a “life force triumphant,” or a “gigantic emblem of vice.” The play may be a satire on hypocrisy or “an anatomy of masculinity.”6 None of these readings precludes this essential definition of its subject matter. Its verbal imagery and visual attack are about the discourse, or the lack of it, between men and women. Nor is it partisan. The shock waves of satirical attack expose both men and women to criticism. “Unlike Congreve, Wycherley is writing of a world in which there is little rational commerce between the sexes.”7 Since men dominate socially, it is mainly about the treatment of women by men. Horner uses women; Pinchwife abuses them. Horner's figurative attack on them satirises Pinchwife's treatment of them. It is also his disguise. In the first scene audacious metaphoric themes are minted: sex, women and marriage as sickness, disease, hunting, animals, gambling and the market place. Pinchwife sets his agenda with a savage reduction: “I must give Sparkish tomorrow five thousand pounds to lie with my sister” (I.i.341).8 He means ‘pay her dowry’ but in his mouth it sounds like a siring fee. He treats women like his farm animals, chattels to be bought and sold, and he must buy an ignorant ‘animal’ to keep her submissive and faithful. The Wits steal his farmyard imagery and turn it back on him: love's disease, the clap, infects his countryside; his women are horses for sale, unruly soldiers who can be bought; his wife's “breeding” is learning about sex; his country wives are “foul feeders,” his marriage a lottery in which he plays with himself, since he is too old to make “lusty stakes.”

Such chameleon iconography cannot everywhere be concretised. Its variety is too great for actional fact. But the net effect is to make Pinchwife's house a farmyard in the town, a stable, where animals are locked up, in human terms, a prison, a place of sexual repression and sexual failure. When he takes his women abroad he takes them in disguise, first taking manic guard against a mating, then to make an arranged coupling. In contrast, Horner's lodgings are a symbol of sexual excess, a brothel where wild humans are free to indulge. Horner's “impotence as disguise” opposes Pinchwife's “impotence as fact.”9 Horner also runs a stable but it is a covering yard where willing volunteers in heat come for a siring, even Margery. But what underpins this imagery, running parallel or in engineered contrast to it, is a physical staging prescribed by the text. From single puissant actions, like Pinchwife and Sparkish threatening their ‘wives’ with swords, to the most complex floor plots in scenes where men and women act in indulgent gangs and hunting packs, and women are put on show like animals for sale. These scenes are crowded with significant groupings and movement whose actional pattern vindicates, ironises and interacts with its own verbal metaphoric texture. The audience must read the aural metatext through this visual staging pattern: metaphor is manifest in action.

Pinchwife's mouth is as full of violence as animal imagery. Both become actional fact. Four times he stables his wife, locks her up in front of our eyes, and each time with violence. In Act II, afraid even to let his possession be seen, he “Thrusts her in” and “shuts the door” (II.i.121). Off stage, she is sustained within the virtual world of the play, imprisoned, as we watch Sparkish, in contrast, foist his own fiancé on Harcourt. When the Virtuous Gang, Lady Fidget, Lady Squeamish and Dainty Fidget, arrive to release her, Pinchwife is forced to play goaler, puts himself between door and visitors and is driven into an ignominious retreat. In Act IV his threats of spies and metaphors of a fortress under siege are embedded in his physical act of prisoning her. His military metaphors become fact when he “draws his sword” (IV.iv.39) on his own wife and he crowns his abuse by dragging his ‘sister’ through the night for illicit sex with Horner. These are not off stage happenings but physical facts. He “is violent in word and deed” (Powell 140). His prisoning, playing gaoler, threatening with swords, dragging women through the streets and his crazed search for Margery at the New Exchange are integral with the oral metaphoric thread. They do not usurp its power but supply a rock bed of reaction for the verbal comedy since, for us, his words are always at variance with his actions.

At his covering yard Horner treats the women-who-will as mating material. He “simply spreads the rumour and waits for his victims to break cover.”10 His horns are well disguised but like a stag at rut he takes his pick. Douglas Duncan claims: “That favourite Restoration metaphor of the sexual hunt, was never more vividly dramatised than on the two occasions when Horner singles out his victim from a herd of females being led across the stage by their keeper” (300). For Dainty Fidget he “herds with the wits” yet she and the Virtuous Gang form the herd before our eyes, already corralled and with a “keeper.” They are accented as a ‘conventional grouping.’ They enter and exit together, stand in solidarity on the forestage addressing the audience, react as a group chorus and always at a distance to the men. It takes their keeper, Sir Jasper, to prize out Horner's choice. “Gamesters may be rude with ladies you know,” and he drags Horner to his wife. “Come, for my sake only. You shall have your liberty with her” (II.i. 495,503). The game is ‘started’ by the game keeper. The split-stage grouping and active floor plot of choosing from the herd is a paradigmatic metaphor.

Horner's next hunt is active and out of doors: the New Exchange, III.ii. This time the herd is Alithea, Lucy and Margery. Their keeper, all jealous protection and entirely out manoeuvred, is Pinchwife. In a tour de force contrast with the interior scenes, Wycherley opens the stage out and invites in a manic but cohesive action. Groupings change often, characters enter at frantic pace and in alliances as yet unseen. Arrivers clamor to exit. The masque-like parade with which the play began has broken down, the last traces of its formal spectacle totally disrupted. The force of the gathering plot drives the action on stage and out of our sight, extending our sense of the City beyond the scenery. The language, rich and risqué, begins with sex as drink, appetite and gambling, moves to the bulls, stags and rams of the eating houses which Margery cannot visit and mutates, as always between Harcourt and Alithea, to the language of ‘souls, heaven and faith.’ Finally, the dialogue engages images of disease, torture and whoredom which itself colours gesture, gait and stance. In sustained contrast, the complex floor plot points a physical metaphor: the pack hunt with Horner as pack leader. Pinchwife takes charge of his flock, “coming between Alithea and Harcourt: This gentlewoman is under my care.” Harcourt circumvents him to pay his respects, but Pinchwife pulls her towards the exit, where Dorilant and Horner enter. He is trapped. Pinchwife, Horner complains, has turned “wild and unsociable, and only fit to converse with his horses, dogs, and his herds.” So, explicitly, ‘a herdsman.’ He makes to escape and Horner allows it, “Well, you may go on,” steps sharply between them, “but this pretty gentleman,” and “Takes hold of Mrs Pinchwife.” Harcourt and Dorilant step into position opposite “the lady … And the maid …” (III.ii.358,372,376). Stage directions masquerading as dialogue. Such economy. Margery is cornered by Horner and, like sheep, they all return to pick up their missing lamb. Pinchwife grabs his wife and tries to get her away. They must be close together and distant from the pack because they exchange asides. Horner intervenes and succeeds since Pinchwife must detach himself to share his aside with us, which also tells us about Margery's position—near Horner now—and her stance: “How she gazes on him! The devil!” She has become an Eve and Horner horned. Verbal and visual metatexts interweave.

Pinchwife indicates that Margery is held by the men: “Come, pray let him go.” Horner concedes, addresses Margery directly, and presents his “humble service.” Till now she has strutted like a man but “in her blissful confusion does she bow or does she curtsy?”11 Or both? His ‘service’ is made fact: “give her this kiss from me.” Twice he kisses her and invites the Wits to kiss her. And she is passed from hand to hand. She is no prostitute but this is in public and she does get paid. The oral imagery turns to torture. Horner plans to “torment” him and Pinchwife confesses aside: “I am upon a rack!” But when they kiss, he roots the imagery in contagion: “How! do I suffer this? Ten thousand ulcers gnaw their lips” (III.ii.460). So she palpably catches the London disease directly from their lips. His corporeal language triggers a strong gestural pattern which is yet inhibited by fear of unmasking. The pack feign leaving, make a return raid, capture Margery and leave, “haling away Mrs Pinchwife” (III.ii.470). In their leaving and return J. L. Styan detects twelve salutations (141). Formal and-or modified by present context, they define, with Pinchwife's comings and goings in confusion, a passage of such dazzling comic interplay that the dialogue is momentarily reduced to a confirmatory caption to the social gesture defined by the action.

There are serious implications in his hauling her away and the struggle which follows. The women are forcibly prevented, socially abused, but there is certainly no street rape. In calling her “robust creature” and “strapper” Dorilant suggests that he finds the struggle with Lucy unequal. And even here Harcourt, the only male to try rational discourse with women, tries verbal persuasion. His jealous paroxysm drives Pinchwife off stage twice, until he stops, “out of breath and coloured.” His desperate attempts to find his lost lamb run in parallel and contrast with oral images of disease, superseding Horner's in intensity and so holding the comic action and social significance of the scene in a balanced tension. What makes the physical images consequent with Horner's debased oral imagery is the exquisite deviance apparent to us in Horner kissing Margery in public, in front of her husband and that she is dressed as a male. Horner relishes kissing this “little gentleman” in public. Pinchwife's Eve returns “with her hat full of oranges” (so Horner does pay) and presents him with one. Pointedly not Eve's apple. The orange, voluptuous, exotic and sour-sweet, is a sexual symbol via Nell Gwynn and her sisters. Horner has been “nibbling at [his] forbidden fruit” (IV.iii.90) and Pinchwife sums up the off-stage action: “You have only squeezed my orange, I suppose, and given it me again.”

Throughout, the basic floor plan has depicted handling a flock and shedding the healthy animal: Margery. The reluctant herdsman has paraded his flock. Animal imagery, pervasive before this, leaves the dialogue and migrates into the visual tapestry exclusively. From his first images, marriage as a mating he must pay for and women as horses, Pinchwife's verbal imagery has become actional fact and returned to plague its inventor. Oral images of appetite and disease, enriched by torture, have been set in contrast and counterpoint with a floor plot of rounding up sheep and a rustlers' raid. At the last, Pinchwife rubs his forehead and implies that he has grown a cuckold's horns. Animal images, pointedly absent while manifest in the actors' feet, reassert themselves in the oral iconography, underlined by his gesture. Wycherley signals his intent by explicitly bookending the scene with reference to the pervading aural metaphor and expunging it in between, a jagged exercise in sensory deprivation, and under his express directions, extends animal metaphor in the actor's feet, turning attention to the projected performance. The floor plot acts as an independent metatext which signals the underlying theme. We are alerted to the significance of one sign by its contrast with another and by its sudden absence. This visual-verbal syntax is fashioned by oppositional contrast and dramatic withholding, difference and deferral. The two channels of meaning cohere via a shared degradation. How firmly the mechanism of this metaphoric clash is realised on stage is open to ‘interpretation.’ Some directors might, with difficulty, try to suppress it, others to develop it, but it is as clearly flagged as the oral imagery and as significant.

Since women are not socially ascendant they cannot abuse men as they are abused by men but they are objectified in the Virtuous Gang as hypocritical and prurient. Their exposure reaches its climax in the Vizard Scene, V.iv. It parallels the slovenly carousing among the men in Act I, itself a social-bench mark for ‘proper’ behaviour exclusive to relations among men. We read the second scene through the first. The women take the initiative, unfolding in the privacy of a locked room a direct critique of themselves. What makes their actions so shocking is that they behave like men. “As the bumpers go round and Lady Fidget roars out a drinking song and damns a good shape, Wycherley scores a double hit against male mores, which accept this behaviour in the male sex, and at the hypocrisy of the women who pretend to be above such behaviour” (Malekin 34). Intimate conviviality among women proves as crude and excessive as with men, and demonstrably not unique to men. The rapid decline of the men's high ideal of “Good fellowship and friendship” which are “lasting and manly pleasures” down to “those glorious, manly pleasures of being drunk and very slovenly” (I.i.193,219) is exactly matched by the women. And what underlies it is a parallel actional image of sex as appetite. They arrive armed with booze and determined to take the game to Horner. Like the men, they offer rival toasts and promise to speak “the truth of our hearts”: “Dear brimmer! Well, in token of our openness and plain dealing, let us throw our masks over our heads (V.vi.43-4). This literal unmasking in private is visually dramatic, a very theatrical gesture. The social convention of wearing masks, an indication of women with delicate morals and of prostitutes advertising their wears, transferred itself straight from the streets to the theatre. Their action is also a perverse parody of the male drinking custom of throwing an empty glass over the shoulder. But despite their descent into depravity, their position is equivocal still. Squeamish begs, “Let me enjoy him first,” but foists her glass onto Horner with, “Drink, eunuch” (V.iv.50). So she keeps up the pretence about Horner's impotence, as do the others. It is alcohol which finally loosens their tongues and truly unmasks them. Their talk becomes sluttish and full of sensual, gesture-provoking language but there is little sign of changing stage positions. Why need there be when they are at table? Powell speculates that the image of these elegant women “huddling over their brimmers and cuddling them like lovers is magnificently perverse,” Horner in the middle, “crowned as it were with wine and roses.” It is a kind of tableau vivant, “like a Hogarth morality—at once intimate, observed and significant” (142-43). Yet in all this Horner is notably ignored until asked specific questions. Even here he seems to observe from the outside, like ourselves, and yet he is the victim, though very willing victim, at this sensuous lunch.

The movement plot jumps to life with Lady Fidget's confession: “Come, here's to our gallants in waiting, whom we must name, and I'll begin. This is my false rogue. Claps him on the back” (V.iv.147-48). What follows, two close asides, seems to suggest in their privacy and speed that Squeamish and Dainty stand on either side of Horner and pull at him. Till now he has been drooled over like a turkey basted for the table. Now he is squabbled over and forcibly pulled at like a choice cut. Under Wycherley's overarching control Horner predicts no less:

LADY Fidget:
Pray tell me, beast, when you were a man, why you rather chose to club with a multitude in a common house for an entertainment than to be the only guest at a good table.
Why, faith, ceremony and expectation are insufferable to those that are sharp bent. People always eat with the best stomach at an ordinary, where every man is snatching at the best bit.


They are “sharp bent,” he is their “best bit” and they are “falling on briskly.” Visual and verbal metaphor work in tandem. But the predominant verbal imagery is of the market place. They malign their sisters as “common and cheap” commodities, see themselves as “richest stuffs”—commodities too. In contrast the metaphor which is pictorially fulfilled in this sensual tableau is sex as appetite: “another man's meat.” They have taken the lids off their own dishes and now Horner, sat at the dining table, becomes ‘another woman's meat’ and tasted by all three “sister sharers.” The two metaphoric threads run simultaneously, occasionally in parallel but substantially in ironic contrast, until, finally, they re-converge, and it is sex, not love, which surfaces with a shocking ferocity as a metaphor of appetite in both oral and visual text.

The dialogue of The Country Wife is suffused with images of commerce and usury. This has been neglected critically, perhaps overshadowed by sexual imagery. It is the “jade” in “Smithfield jade,” the ‘horse’ not the market place, which is remarked but it is marriage broking as horse trading, examining the stock and paying the required fee, which is dramatised for satirical analysis. All three cuckolds treat their partners as possessions, and the floor plot largely moves in ironic support of the male attitude that women are property. Pinchwife's actions are the clearest examples. He is crude and brutal, calls women “slaves,” prisons his wife and threatens her with cold steel. His explosive physicality provides much of the play's visual dynamic. But the richest examples are revealed in Sparkish's attitude towards Alithea as a mere accoutrement to his pretension and slavery to the mode. The projected action is no crude duplication of the verbal imagery but moves in active counterpoint to it. Wycherley might easily emphasise Alithea as a horse for sale or an exhibit, a form of male jewelry, something at a dog show, the more to aggrandise the owner, but both and more are accomplished.

In the first of these scenes, II i, Pinchwife, who has locked up his ‘animal,’ is set to the side of the stage where he remains to interrupt and mediate for us. He spices every impropriety with his moral outrage. The floor pattern is established at once: Pinchwife wide at the side door he has just locked; Alithea, the exhibit, isolated down stage, thrust upon the audience's attention; Harcourt close to Alithea till he presses her ‘aside.’ So Sparkish must stand between the couple-to-be and Pinchwife, to prevent him from intervening. This enables Sparkish to miss vital actions made by Harcourt to Alithea. A picture is formed making all faces and gestures available to the audience but not to Sparkish, who appears to conduct the entire action but who is crucially ‘blinded’ because he cannot see to both sides at once. And it is not static. Sparkish especially must be free to travel as he holds off Pinchwife and urges the couple to be ‘intimate’ on his other side—or in front, if the image is created in diagonal depth. Deixis changes often within speeches according to the target listener. The actors must turn and turn to make sense of it. First, Sparkish addresses Harcourt, “Do you approve of my choice …” then Alithea, insisting that she bid Harcourt “welcome to what you and I have.” Sparkish's feigned disinterest is a disguise. He is ostentatiously “unjealous”12 to be affectedly à la mode. Pinchwife's manic interruptions throw this into visual relief. Ironically, his presence here “objectifies Sparkish, and also demonstrates Pinchwife as a reasonable being” (Powell 134).

Sparkish shows off Alithea as his possession, a demeaning ‘display for the judges.’ He even instructs her how to stand: “Nay, dear, do not look down; I should hate a wife of mine out of countenance at any thing.” His dialogue defines what Alithea is doing and Harcourt's facial gesture: “How dost thou like her? Thou hast stared upon her enough to resolve me … Nay, i'gad, I am sure you do admire her extremely; I see't in your eyes.—He does admire you, madam.—By the world, don't you?” (II.i.133,150) It also illustrates the frequency of deixic changes and the concomitant body turns, advances and retreats, required to make sense of its socially directional quality. Sparkish urges Harcourt to “go with her into a corner and try if she has wit.” Alithea's anger prompts Sparkish to drive them into further intimacy: “let me have earnest of your obedience or … go, go, madam”: “Harcourt courts Alithea aside” (II.i.201). Both grouping and gesture are defined. Immediately Pinchwife attacks from behind: “He shall not debauch her. Be a pander to your own wife … thrust 'em into a corner together!” Sparkish clearly turns and opposes him: “Nay, you shall not disturb 'em; I'll vex thee, by the world,” and he “Struggles with Pinchwife to keep him from Harcourt and Alithea” (II.i.204). Powell claims that this “must be formalised and pictorial. … Any kind of naturalistic scrap would be clumsy.” But he also insists that “the picture is held—not frozen, but sustained in a breathing, listening attitude” (135). Vieth claims that it does so “as in a tableau” (345). Why then the word “struggles” and an active floor plot leading into it? Malekin's logic is inexorable: “Again a visually satisfactory contrast is provided between the comparative repose of Harcourt and Alithea and the commotion of Sparkish and Pinchwife struggling together” (35). Certainly the action needs to be shaped if the metaphoric contrasts are to be exposed. Vieth rightly claims that “the proper degree of jealousy is defined visually as a mean between two extremes”: Pinchwife and Sparkish. But the stage action also embodies the social objective of the entire scene, since in contrast on the other side of the stage, Harcourt and Alithea define the poles of passionate desire and obdurate duty to the marriage contract. In the projected deployment of its actors, their major movements and gestic actions, the scene's satirical comment on jealousy and marriage is made concrete. Its key moral tableaux come to life, and walk about the stage.

In the absurd misunderstandings which follow, Harcourt must turn to direct his speech in different directions at great speed to make sense of the dialogue. In her “corner,” Alithea is so pressured that she unlocks herself and steps across the stage to contact Sparkish directly and defend Harcourt from Sparkish's sword. ‘Rigorously artificial’ or not (Powell 134), actors do not speak through one actor's body to another and if they do not move this is what they must do. The script suggests a rapidly changing floor plot. This deserves as much to be obeyed as the static formality of choral audience address which it suggests elsewhere, and it implies that the play is written in a deliberate mélange of contrasting styles. It is the object of abuse, Alithea, who sets the metaphoric agenda: marriage as “business.” Harcourt's jibe, that Sparkish is “bribing” her, brings the scene to its climax and points the metaphor: women as chattels and the marriage of convenience as a business deal. Instantly, metaphoric language crowds in to support the point. Harcourt claims: “Marriage is rather a sign of interest than love, and he that marries a fortune, covets a mistress, not loves her.” “Interest” is doubly ironic, signalling a lack of passion and a source of income in her dowry. The scene ends in violence, albeit contrived and inept. Three dialogue signals and a stage direction indicate its form. First, Sparkish says, “I may draw now, since we have the odds of him! Offers to draw. … I'll be thy death,” but Alithea intervenes with “Hold, hold!” And finally: “I'll ask thee pardon,” when he must ‘put up’ (II.i.270-288). The action may be constrained and formal or dramatically demonstrative, but since Pinchwife waves a naked blade in his wife's face13 and explicitly “draws his sword” on her in IV.iv., we may assume that Sparkish does, at least, get it out. It is an ideal weapon to signal sexual failure and previously sustained use of action as metaphor gives Sparkish good reason to signal his drooping withdrawal with a fallen sword. Harcourt's passion-assault wins the day and Alithea. Sparkish asks him to “lead her down.” He has shown off his possession. Now, she is led away like a prize horse. Alone on stage, Pinchwife underlines the metaphor. Sparkish, he confides, is one of the “true town fops, such as spend their estates before they come to 'em, and are cuckolds before they are married.” The “silly wise rogue” sees that Sparkish uses her as his property but believes his only mistake is to do so before his time.

When this constellation meet again at the New Exchange, III ii, Sparkish is still disposing of Alithea but the absurdity is notched higher still in a “hilarious conversation à trois” (Berman 52) and the visually theatrical conception of Wycherley is at its most brilliant. Harcourt's wit is defined by his ability to convey one meaning with the generality of his words and another by combining a gesture with his final words so as to twist the entire message. Sparkish must be in a position to observe Harcourt's address and yet remain ignorant of the second meaning. He has only Alithea on whom to ‘lay off’ his eye contact and he might stand between them but deeper. His obdurate mind-set enables the trick but it convinces theatrically only if Sparkish turns at the critically moments to Alithea, which deixis is specifically cued, and mistakes Harcourt's body language, leaving Alithea and ourselves to see the final gesture and other meanings. The mechanism is deft and driven by dialogue and stage directions in tandem. Alithea “walks carelessly to and fro” ignoring Harcourt's pleas. Sparkish continues to correct her behaviour: “Look you there; hear him, hear him, and do not walk away so” (III.ii.257,259). Harcourt insists that she must not cast herself away “upon so unworthy and inconsiderable thing as what you see here. Clapping his hand on his breast, points at Sparkish” (III.ii.264). For Sparkish “his meaning is plain.” Looking to Alithea he understands only the clap on the breast and Harcourt as “unworthy” but Harcourt's simultaneous pointing leaves us in no doubt about who is the “inconsiderable thing.”

Immediately, he pulls a variation of the same trick. He hopes that Alithea will not “fall so low as into the embraces of such a contemptible wretch, the last of mankind—my dear friend here—I injure him,” and ends by “Embracing Sparkish.” Sparkish sees the embrace and “my dear friend—I injure him” as a rhetorical question, meaning ‘it would be impossible.’ We understand the possibility that the embrace identifies Sparkish as the “contemptible wretch.” Sparkish moves to prevent Alithea from leaving and continues to conduct what he does not understand. His aside brings him forward or takes him up stage. Either way it is properly artificial and within the marshalled complexity of the non-naturalistic convention. Each time a specific deixis draws his eyes away (301,303,306) from a physical realisation which affords an audience fuller knowledge. Verbal and visual codes are in mutual opposition; they fractionate the literal and metaphoric. A cluster of misunderstandings arise from the same mechanism, ending:

Who loves you more than women, titles, or fortune fools. Points at Sparkish.
Look you there, he means me for he points at me.


Harcourt hits the metaphoric nail on the head with “titles” and “fortune.” Sparkish takes the general meaning and misses the gesture making him ‘fool.’ The timing of Harcourt's gesture and the direction of Sparkish's gaze clinch the split meaning. Harcourt's ‘pointing’ and ‘clapping his breast’ are explicit. The ‘blinding’ of Sparkish by stage grouping is partly explicit and otherwise logical. This comic mechanism is tightly engineered by the dialogue and stage directions working together. It is certainly possible to play variations on this physical device, indeed, essential to the freedom of an actor's performance, but the fundamental guide lines are laid down by the text. The whole episode exposes the way rapid, interruptive dialogue draws our attention towards all characters concurrently, to action and situation. The physical mechanism depends on the rapidly changing deixis and vital directions which lead him to look away at critical times and miss what is evident to an audience, to Alithea and, deliciously, to Pinchwife too. And this is true whatever the presentational style of theatre adopted. The apparent order of the text projects a chaos beyond itself into performance which is the opposite of naturalistic yet it is deeply ambiguous.

Much has been made of the intimate relationship of actor with audience in Restoration Comedy. The Country Wife in particular is stuffed with highly artificial asides which break the autonomy of the stage which separates stage from auditorium and makes of the theatre itself, stage and house, a temporarily augmented reality. In Wycherley the mechanism makes for an especially ironic and intense relationship. It has generated much scholarship about which actor first played which part and so twisted the ironies further than we can re-experience. There is just such a self-reflexive moment in Mrs Wyatt's playing of Squeamish when, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Virtuous Gang on the forestage, she inveighs against “men of parts” for spending “themselves and fortunes in keeping little playhouse creatures, foh,” (II.i.239-40)14 obliquely referring to herself and probably addressing her words to that part of the house where the Keepers gathered. Lady Fidget's turreting condemnation of women keepers is especially ironic since the author of her words was himself kept by Lady Castlemain. Their plaint is made before the very people they describe. But this reflexive intensity is only one of a kaleidoscope of techniques with which Wycherley continually changes the relationship of audience to stage and makes of the implied space an independent and telling metaphor.

The size of the fictive space changes radically, that is, what defines the metaphoric and active stage area. It becomes bigger and smaller, acquires a single or multiple focus in rapid succession. One moment the physical focus is placed in the auditorium but includes the stage and the metaphor is the theatre itself as stage and the audience as players, as with Mrs Wyatt's public confidence. Next, the audience is excluded, the focus moves exclusively to the stage and a pretence that the audience does not exist. Then to behind the scenery where secret acts take place, so that the on-stage actions reflect what we are avid to see. Unseen, the backstage area changes to Horner's bedroom or the streets of Convent Garden and a diegetic world extends away from us. Then the stage is turned inside out and these private happenings are brought on stage for public view and our previously accessible space is locked out, making us acutely aware that we should not be seeing what we can see. Often the stage space is sandwiched between two unseen spies: the audience in front and Quack or Pinchwife “peeping behind,” our private experience piquantly mediated in their reactions. Sparkish puts the stage itself on the stage. There is no simple change in locale. Rather, the position from which the audience view the action is altered. We occupy the same seats in the auditorium but the social and moral locus and our level of complicity in the action changes radically. The chameleon stage is freighted with an independent metaphoric power in a dynamic relationship with the dialogue.

The Country Wife is set in London and the stage always represents some part of the city, and Wycherley plays wickedly upon this pretence. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where it played originally, was co-extensive with the city brothels. Whenever the scenery is penetrated it is always to a living fiction, so that the imaginary play-world is never violated but feels contiguous with what we project beyond the setting. At its apogee are Pinchwife's hectic forays off stage to find his wife and Horner, who are hidden in this real-but-imaginary labyrinth which the audience create for themselves. More pervasively, in interior scenes, the convention of up-stage entrances leading always into the streets is maintained and indeed Sparkish's very first exit is to the theatre—the place in which the audience sit. Real taverns, eating houses and shops are named and known. Wycherley gives a convivial lesson in social geography, guided tours provided gratis by Alithea, Sparkish, the Wits and the stage itself.

At the New Exchange Sparkish puts first the audience on stage and then the stage on the stage. The Wits, fresh from Lewis's, meet Sparkish who is not long from “the new play.” At Drury Lane? Action continues away from the stage situation because Sparkish confronts Harcourt with news that Alithea alleges that Harcourt has been making “fierce love” to her at the play. To counter attack, the Wits metaphorically make of him the typically pretentious playgoer who does not go to laugh at the poet's wit but at his own. Amazingly he agrees, takes on that role and puts himself on stage, speaking via the Wits out to the house, “louder than the players” because he believes “we speak more wit.” He admits the poets have already put him on stage and satirised his kind by such “a hocus-pocus trick … they make a wise and witty man in the world a fool upon the stage, you know not how” (III.ii.89,108). He must try to capture in his actions the “hictius doctius, topsy-turvy” trick with which the poets manage to make him seem a fool—and fail. They draw him out: ‘why should he be afraid of being in a play when he exposes himself every day in the playhouses?’ It is precisely what he is doing, of course: “Tis but being on the stage, instead of standing on a bench in the pit” (III.ii.124). We glimpse in this the rowdy theatre of the 1670s and how hard actors might work to hold the audience. But Sparkish hates the poets, unlike the painters “the silly rogues” paint him pox and all. The Virtuous Gang's confidences and the Wits boasts make the audience complicit but leaves them in their seats and extends the virtual world out into the house. Sparkish, thrown into relief by a stage position between two audiences, the Wits and the house, takes a spectator out of the auditorium and puts him on the stage itself. Wycherley picks up the theatre like a magician's box and turns it in Sparkish's hands to find how the conjuration is accomplished.

Margery's seduction in Covent Garden, V iii, takes place a step away from the theatre. When Horner hails her away “into the house next to the exchange,” he is moving her to the infamous red light district. The ‘China Scene,’ IV.iii., in Horner's lodgings, also capitalises on the actuality which lurks beyond the playhouse. Why should it not be a brothel like any other house in the area? Dare we watch what takes place in his covering yard? The stage activity is a metaphoric reflection of the reality off stage, itself different for each on-stage character and reliant on the imaginings of everyone in the audience. Its metaphoric power does not rely on the geography of Restoration London but is entirely supplied by the text. We return to the opening setting, Horner's lodgings and the complicit pair who have set up this experiment in social science: Quack and Horner. Quack, our representative, steps “behind the screen there,” to play gooseberry and to be astonished for us. Wedged between us and Quack, we are led to expect that Horner will perform the act with Lady Fidget right in front of us, the most private act in the most public place. She is embracing him when her husband arrives. In keeping with the artificial style, which paradoxically creates a kind of believability, she does not release him quickly and so condemn herself, but turns to us: Aside. “O, my husband—prevented—and what's almost as bad, found with my arms around another man—that will appear too much—what shall I say?”(IV.iii.75-77) A sustained picture is implied with Lady Fidget caught in the act. The moment is deliberately stretched. Time stands still. Her escape line: “I am trying if Mr Horner were ticklish, and he's as ticklish as can be” (IV.iii.78-80), cues her tickling and his reaction to it. She exits and pointedly “locks the door.” She locks herself in and us out.

So we do not see the act performed. Instead, we project their actions into the off-stage area, the fictive bedroom where Horner takes no rest. Now, every word and action on stage is a cue to what might be happening off stage. The visible characters mediate for us. All off-stage action cueing is achieved through them and yet each has a different scenario about what is happening—as do we. Finding the door locked, Horner predicts Lady Fidget's actions and his own: “Now she is throwing my things about, and rifling all I have … but I'll get into her the back way, and so rifle her for it” (IV.iii.123-25). And as he exits “at t'other door,” he vows that he will “ferret her out.” Who is he talking to? He is apparently speaking to Sir Jasper but, given the convention and the situation, he looks to the house and directs his speech loudly to Lady Fidget ‘off.’ In terms of speech act theory it is a complex intention, since Sir Jasper does take a rational meaning from his words. For Sir Jasper, Horner must pursue a suitable version of his misogynist disguise, closing on him angrily to indicate that it is all his fault for encouraging his wife. Hands are needed for this and for “rifle” and “ferret.” But his words to Sparkish are also an arousal game addressed to Lady Fidget and an aside to the audience. Eyes, facial gesture, turning away, a splayed intonation and extra volume to address the audience and Lady Fidget, off, are the tools of his split message. However restrained the production the actor must take some action to achieve this before he exits. Any unitary decision about his speech act would be a gross simplification of what the actor must attempt. Crucially, leaving us to construe what Horner means by such words, Wycherley places the imaginative and moral responsibility with us. It is yet another device to engage our collusion in both.

Now, Sir Jasper and Lady Fidget take over the role of creators of virtual reality—she consciously and he, as ever, completely unconscious of his deadly metaphoric power:

SIR Jasper:
Wife! My lady Fidget! Wife! Wife he is coming into you the back way!
Sir Jasper calls through the door to his wife; she answers from within.
LADY Fidget:
Let him come, and welcome, which way he will.
SIR Jasper:
He'll catch you, and use you roughly, and be too strong for you.
LADY Fidget:
Don't trouble yourself, let him if he can.


Much of Horner's exit time is taken up with Sir Jasper's repeated cries, “Wife! My Lady Fidget! Wife!,” so he may have joined her by “which way he will,” certainly by “Let him if he can.” Her speech will be modified to project his physical arrival, his touching her. What she does off stage to make a reality of our imaginings may not be clear but it is implicit. Quack's brief appearance with: “This indeed I could not have believed from him, nor any but my own eyes,” deepens our complicity. Exquisitely complicit we are, but Horner's misuse of women is also so thoroughly objectified by now that we, the audience, and Wycherley have also long since displaced Horner in the function of satirist—as Zimbardo rightly observes.15

This salacious running commentary is cut into by the arrival of Squeamish—looking for Horner. She picks up Sir Jasper's “she's playing the wag with him” and warns: “He'll give her no quarter, he'll play the wag with her again, let me tell you” (IV.iii.147). Her speech act is ‘warning’ and her wagging finger becomes, “hictius doctius,” thoroughly suggestive on the repeat of “wag.” In trying to ‘rescue’ Lady Fidget she finds herself locked out, like us, and like us realises that the focus of excitement lies in the next room. Her anger reveals her distrust of her confederate as well as Horner and deepens the significance of the locked door. While we are held in this state of excitement, which parallels the one we project for those off-stage, she searches for them via the down stage doors. Old Lady Squeamish, a tainted moral cavalry if ever there was one, arriving to look for her daughter, develops the irony of Horner's rumoured emasculation further, for as he is in the very act next door, she alleges him “a snake without his teeth” and “as harmless a man as ever came out of Italy with a good voice” (IV.iii.174). With this fabulous device, which alleges the opposite of the truth in its present and clearest enactment—yet quite unseen, Wycherley draws out a metaphoric use of the evident stage space to infer a virtual world of unbridled sexual pleasure just one step from the stage. But only and entirely in our minds. By the time Lady Fidget emerges to announce that she has “been toiling and moiling for the prettiest piece of china,” our self-made awareness is at such a pitch that the piece of china in her hand is invested with comic significance “whatever its shape and however she may hold it” (Duncan 300). An independent metaphoric density returns abruptly to the aural sphere and, “hictius doctius,” Wycherley turns “china,” the word, from a generic for sex to a penis, to the sex act, to Horner's potency, to sex, and finally to semen. But Wycherley, is “working through the eye as well as the ear” (Ibid.). Lady Fidget brandishing her china splinters the verbal parallels still further with its shape. Squeamish may even try to grab it for herself but she fails and the imagery collapses once more into the black hole of a debased bestiary. She claims Horner instead and this time it is he who becomes a prize horse. Squeamish “pulls him by the cravat”: “Come sloven, I'll lead you, to be sure of you.” Old Lady Squeamish signals its force: “Alas poor man, how she tugs him!” (IV.iii.212-13)

Despite the notoriety and sleight-of-sight, metaphoric power of this scene it is not the private affair we might have witnessed. Apart from the impossibility of our being allowed to see the sex act in public, Wycherley deliberately holds back the most private spectacle till last, in the Vizard Scene. He consummates our experience by turning the stage inside out. In the China Scene Lady Fidget locks herself in, us and the world out. In the Vizard Scene Horner pointedly locks the world out and so locks us in to eavesdrop and this radical alteration of our relationship to the stage lends the scene its climactic and “shocking power” (Berman 54). In his stepped development of audience's changing perspective Wycherley has literally locked us in and out of many scenes until we are at last invited to witness at first hand the ultimate exposure of the hypocrisy of the Virtuous Gang. Not only does our distance from events alter as we are enticed into and objectified from the action of entire scenes but aggressively histrionic asides produce a similar jagged effect within each scene. Even the most unsympathetic characters assume our sympathy and take us into their confidence in self justification. Embedded in the most artificial of theatrical gestures, the public aside, has been that deepest of reasons for its presence: to reveal the inner motivation for an outer attitude. Pinchwife, whom Duncan calls “a doomed loser of Oedipal dimensions” (229), is so because he is constantly admitting in his asides to a self-aware engagement consonant with that depth of victimisation. Far from being the crude device of the failed technician, every aside has been sharply placed in the semiotic structure—and each time differently. There are secret asides, like those of Harcourt and Alithea, or the Virtuous Gang among themselves, in order to exclude a third party but where we, the audience, are complicit. Extra vocal intensity, a twist of the head and rejected eye contact to alert our awareness of who should not hear, articulate such an aside. It is a finessed deixis. No stage travel is needed. In another form the three cuckolds specialise in the public boast aside, which means that they must come forward to inform us of their intention, as for example with Sir Jasper's “I'll play the wag with him” and “I'll plague him yet” (I.i.67-8)—which he signally fails to do. In each case it is the abrupt deixic change after the aside which captures and intensifies the social switch in the audience's relationship to the stage.

Supremely, it is the confessional asides which draw us into the individual predicament and renders the inner action a tangible reality, lending psychological depth to one dimensional characters. They are thoughts out loud. When Sparkish shows unusual moral decision and draws on Harcourt, we know why: “I may draw now, since we have the odds of him! ‘Tis a good occasion, too, before my mistress” (II.i.272-73). When, in Act V, Horner is bemused by the consequences of his own ruse, his string of asides objectify the entire plot. At the other end of the subjective-objective spectrum lie Pinchwife's abject confessionals. From his early disclosures, “Death! Does he know I'm married too?”; “I'll keep her from your instructions, I'll warrant” (II.i.337,369), whose instant by-product is to ascribe to Horner near supernatural powers, to his paroxismic outbursts at Covent Garden, he punctures the audience contact even more radically than Horner, since he bares his own soul, not other people's pretence. Margery's early ingenuousness is so profound her every utterance parallels the vulnerability of Pinchwife's asides but when, at last, she learns the duplicitous ways of the town, she is awarded two marked asides (V.iv.386,398). Our moral equilibrium is constantly disturbed in a muscular process of drawing the audience in and shutting them out from the action. It is a rocky social and moral ride with an attendant kinesthetic sense of participation.

Peter Holland's attempt to make the status of the actor in Restoration Comedy “the reverse of Brecht's approach” is doomed. Brecht did not wish to eliminate “the direct intervention of the actor as individual” or see him as “a sentimental corruption” (56). The plays of Wycherley are “sprinkled with reminders that we are in a theatre”16 and in The Country Wife this is pervasive and crucial. The subversive and mordant quality of continual asides and the battery of objectifying devices employed disrupt the spectacle at a deep level. Holland claims that “the reality of the actor, emphasised by his spatial connection with the audience, functions as evidence that the action of the play is at least analogous to reality” (56). This is exactly the relation engendered by Brecht's plays which rely on our awareness that they share a “spatial connection” with the actor and insist that the performance is “analogous to reality.” Certainly, there is “controlled fragmentation of the dramatic illusion” (57) but it is an exaggerated reality not, as Holland suggests, “a Naturalistic style.” Like Brecht's direct address, Wycherley's asides, “while they continually objectify the action, they demand collusion and agreement in the comment made upon it” (Powell 128). Many characters demand our sympathy in the very act of losing it. In being both an objectifying device, a force for Brechtian control, and a subjective revelation of the individual psychology, these asides make the audience accomplices and perpetrators of the drama as well as its victims: satirists and satirised.

Clearly, the script of The Country Wife is more than a play of words. The evidence in the text for action, posture and gesture is prolific, highly organised, metaphorically freighted and playwide. The script projects a physical staging and this is not simply a pop-up book illustrating key moments from the plot, or even a rolling visualisation of current aural metaphor but an independent channel of meaning, extending metaphor, often at a tangent and in ironic disjunction with the dialogue. This is clearest and crudest where Pinchwife's explosive actions are set in inherent contradiction of his utterance. Often, he is patently not doing what he claims, nor does he ever achieve what he tells us he will. It is, perhaps, richest in the elaborate extension of ironic objectivity of the moral tableaux of Act II scene ii. And when metaphor is consummately carried by the floor plot, as with Homer's rustler's raid, and physical action is freighted with sole responsibility for the central metaphor, it is deliberately eliminated from the oral fabric, a self-aware manipulation of the visual dynamic. A reader must project some kind of mise-en-scène, however general, to make social common sense of the play, leave alone understand the extended possibilities which the visualised text offers. Paradoxically, the actional pattern becomes autonomous of the dialogue which gives rise to it and conspires to form a third channel: the two in interaction. And this opens up many possibilities of how the text can be made to mean, rather than leading to a single correct staging. At times, as with sharply changing deixis mid-speech on a crowded stage, Wycherley has signalled turning and advancing via the dialogue alone. Even these pinpoint changes allow performative freedom, since the actor can ‘point’ an interlocutor with gesture or a turn, towards or away, at the start or end of a speech, etc.—as long as the action indicates the change of interlocutor and thus makes social and dramatic sense. Generally, action has been engendered by a convergent conspiracy of dialogue and stage directions combining in a galvanic process which is sometimes instructional and precise, and sometimes more generalised but highly suggestive. In pantomimic passages these devices are detailed, specifying the machinery of comic interplay and causing local ironising contrast. More often Wycherley has goaded the actor/reader direct from the text to extend his metaphoric agenda with an imaginative stage action and supplies useful pointers about how this might be done, creating a generous freedom in developing stage-wide visual metaphor. The carefully engineered ‘moral tableaux’ which form a key part of the play's visual architecture are certainly suggested by the dialogue, but they become a metaphoric extensions of it, themes objectified, given satirical shape and tension, whereas the dialogue is often restricted to character-centred subjectivity. Most significantly for this analysis, flowing and complex stage action has been used throughout as a mechanism for sustained ironic contrast and subverting rival metaphoric agendas. Wycherley's script projects different acting conventions to suit each scene, tightens and loosens its grip on the stage action, driving imaginatively from behind towards broad areas of metaphoric exploration and regulating locally to pinpoint comic contrasts, as appropriate to the changing playing style.

In The Country Wife the semiotic density of the performance is built up in layers. To the metalanguage of the aural text with its kaleidoscope of reference and splayed ambiguity we must add the fundamental metaphoric power of the actional text, its floor plot, gestural pattern moral tableaux and matched contrasts which reveal Wycherley's essential thematic intention. In their clash and convergence is the key to that sense of momentum we experience in watching the play in action, our kinesthetic sense of taking part, both objectifying and creating the performance ourselves, the sensation of being a player in the drama. We read the implications of the language through the medium of the action and if we are unaware that this is taking place because the language of action is read below the conscious level, it does not mean that it is not inferred by the text. It clearly is. But we must also add to this the macro-dynamic of the chameleon stage, and its changing social significance, acting as an independent metaphoric force. Aural and actional metaphor are read from radically changing points of view as we are drawn into dangerous levels of collusion. Our loyalties are challenged by the mirror surfaces of painful asides whose intensity begs us to reply from the auditorium while denying us the right to do so. We are reduced to dumb participant. And the Russian doll experience of some scenes reveals, because we will it, things we should not be privy to. It is the attitudinal buffeting we receive by being wrenched into challenging relationships with the stage space which makes that experience tangible and exhilarating. And it is available to our present understanding. The information needed is patent in the body of the text and in its implications for performance, especially in its organisation of significant stage groupings. As a result our enjoyment and proper appreciation of the central themes of The Country Wife do not depend on an esoteric or reconstructive knowledge of Restoration Theatre but on the susceptible reader or an engaged audience who will see significance in the actors' feet as well as in their mouths.


  1. L. C. Knights, ‘Restoration Comedy: The Reality and the Myth,’ Essays in Criticism 7, 56-77, pp. 132, 149.

  2. Douglas Duncan, ‘Mythic Parody in The Country Wife,Essays in Criticism 31, 229-312, 1981 p. 308.

  3. James Thompson, Language in Wycherley's Plays, (Alabama: Alabama Univ. Press, 1984) p. 73, writing about Vernon's overall assessment: William Wycherley: Writers and Their Work, no. 79 (London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1965).

  4. David M. Vieth, ‘Wycherley's The Country Wife: An Anatomy of Masculinity,’ Papers in Language and Literature 2, 1966, 335-50, p. 337.

  5. The incidence of abrupt rejoinders, that is, the percentage of short starts—one to three words—to stopped complete sense, is four times as high as in The Man of Mode and twice as high as in The Way of the World. Acts I, III, IV and V contain twice as many of these short starts as long ones and Act II three times as many.

  6. “Life force triumphant,” V. O. Birdsall, A Wild Civility, p. 156; “gigantic emblem of vice,” Zimbardo, Wycherley's Drama, p. 96. ‘An Anatomy of Masculinity’ is the title of Vieth's essay. It has been called “a kind of critical Rorschach:” (Weales trans., Introduction, p. xi).

  7. Ronald Berman, ‘The Ethic of The Country Wife,’ Texas Studies in Language and Literature 8, pp. 47-55, 1967, p. 49: “The great difference in The Country Wife is between men and women—this may seem painfully obvious but insistence on it cannot too strongly be made.” However, scenes like the parallel drunk scenes and the “affectation” of both tend expose them not as different but alike. But the schism he points is clear.

  8. I.i. 101. All lineation refers to The Country Wife, ed. John Dixon Hunt, (London: Black, 1973). This feeds off all previous annotated editions and a well attested original set of quartos. It is readily available and its punctuation notably carries the dramatic, interruptive quality of the dialogue (see note 5).

  9. Peter Holland, The Ornament of Action, (Cambridge; Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978), p. 49.

  10. R. W. Bevis, English Drama: Restoration and Eighteenth Century, 1660-1789, (London: Longman, 1988), p. 83.

  11. J. L. Styan, Restoration Comedy in Performance, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 141.

  12. Norman N. Holland,. The First Modern Comedies, (1959), rpt. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1967), p. 81.

  13. IV. ii., 88: “I will write whore with this pen-knife in your face,” and IV. ii., 105: “(Holds up the penknife) I'll stab out those eyes that cause my mischief.”

  14. Styan, op. cit., p. 91, refers to Mrs Wyatt's self reflexive moment but he spreads his treatment of the proximity of the playhouse to the red-light district over three unrelated references: the “haling away” of Margery and Sparkish's salacious “sign” joke under, ‘The Playhouse and Performance’ and Mrs Wyatt's ironic aside under ‘The Actress.’ All three are referred to as salacious in-jokes rather than fundamental metaphoric pointers.

  15. Rose A. Zimbardo, Wycherley's Drama, a link in the development of the English Stage, New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1965.

  16. The Complete Plays of William Wycherley, ed. Gerald Weales. (Garden City, New York, 1966), intro p. xiv.

Peter Hynes (essay date November 1996)

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SOURCE: Hynes, Peter. “Against Theory? Knowledge and Action in Wycherley's Plays.” Modern Philology 94, no. 2 (November 1996): 163-89.

[In the following essay, Hynes describes how Wycherley's protagonists use knowledge to gain the upper hand.]

The foundation of comedy, wrote Richard Steele, lies in “happiness and success.”1 Not so much a provocation to laughter as a conventional plot structure, comic drama is a form in which protagonists make their way from exile to integration, both adapting to and mastering the social world. Validation is its stock in trade; hence Steele's attention to “success.” Given this emphasis on acceptance and inclusion, comedy might well be expected to thematize the “how-to” of social action, and one of the ways it traditionally does so is by suggesting that effective action springs from knowledge about how society works. The standard premise of the “outwitting” plot is the astuteness of the hero, the heroine, or a tricky accomplice in circumventing the opposition of a series of “blocking” characters—typically, a malign papa—in order to reap rewards both sexual and monetary.2 While Providence or luck may have something to do with the happy ending, these protagonists' success is usually more explicable in worldly terms: heroes are intellectually acute, smart interpreters of the social scene. In other words, comic protagonists may also be theorists.

There are, of course, smaller and greater indulgences in theory. I want to explore the relationship between theoretical knowledge and action in the very restricted oeuvre of William Wycherley—four plays, only two of them of much continuing interest—in order to show how, in a dramatic context where a high premium is set on skill and intelligence, it is possible to represent an extremely complex array of congruences and disjunctions between what social actors know and what they do. Wycherley, I shall argue, predictably celebrates the social success of the socially clever, but he does so in ways which subtly qualify the claims of theoretical knowledge both to reflect the world and to govern happy action. His plays demonstrate the utility—perhaps the indispensability—of theory even as they find room to show a concomitant and necessary provisionality of knowledge, whatever its sources and results. In a brief conclusion I speculate that this effect roughly confirms some ideas of contemporary neopragmatism about the relationship between theoretical self-consciousness and the concrete practice of knowing. In a well-known argument Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels have inveighed “against theory,” taking to task the foundationalist project of mastering practice from the outside. The scope and consequences of their skepticism about discursive theory may well be clarified, I think, by seeing that dramatized theory can display both how theory works and how it can fall short.3

Restoration comedy has been frequently and persuasively marketed as the “comedy of wit.”4 Its heroes have to be clever as well as ambitious, and their cleverness, more often than not, is directly relevant to their social success. In William Congreve's The Way of the World (to take the most canonical of examples) Mirabell outfoxes both old Lady Wishfort and Fainall in order to safeguard Millamant's (and his) fortune. He achieves this not because God or chance takes his side, but because he is slier than his opponents. Wycherley typifies this ethos; he, too, likes to show the victory of Wit over folly. In the early Love in a Wood, for instance, the witty Lydia successfully engineers the return of her straying lover, and Dapperwit cheats Addleplot of a fiancée. Two crafty lovers, led by the precocious Hippolita, evade an obstructive parent in The Gentleman Dancing-Master. Horner, in The Country Wife, deludes a series of bumbling husbands to gain sexual access to the wives, while his clever friend Harcourt “bubbles” Sparkish of his mistress Alithea. The Plain Dealer, although atypical in its darker tone and the parodic exaggeration of its ending, still features a subplot where Freeman can skillfully corner Mrs. Blackacre's money without actually marrying the egregious widow.

In Wycherley's plays, then, the clever are both successful and happy. His world also involves a complex assembly of different kinds of knowledge, each with its own source, its own range of reference, and its own degree of reliability. In what follows I will make a threefold distinction among these kinds: empirical knowledge, interpretive rules or maxims, and the reflexive self-scrutiny of Wit. In each case I hope to establish that the given mode both pays its way and goes in for a certain self-questioning. There are many forms of knowledge in Wycherley; they are all good in their fashion, but they are also slightly out of focus.


What sorts of knowledge organize and structure the world of Wycherley's plays? A good place to start, given the ambient empiricism of late seventeenth-century thought, is with knowledge furnished by the body—the solid evidence of the senses. However specious the facade constructed by hearsay and rumor, the witness of the eyes or the touch unveils social truth. This amounts to a theory of empirical verification: protagonists should be aware that direct experience guarantees the well-foundedness of knowledge.

Experience does get a very good press in Wycherley's drama. His rakes and heroes realize how essential it is to test prejudices against the concrete world, and by and large their hardheadedness translates into worldly advantage. Horner, the enterprising seducer of The Country Wife, relies on the fiction of his impotence to get near the women he covets, but he does not expect a merely verbal retraction to convince them that he is “fit” after all. His blandishments to Lady Fidget, for example, stress the immediate and rigorous proof of the senses: he assures her that he is capable of sex but adds, “I scorn you shou'd take me at my word; I desire to be try'd only, Madam.”5 Lady Fidget appreciates this readiness: “Well, that's spoken again like a Man of honour, all Men of honour desire to come to the test” (2.1.535-36). This trust in the senses applies to other characters as well. Doctor Quack, Horner's initial confidant and a neutral commentator, remains skeptical about the likely effectiveness of the impotence ploy until, secretly spying on the notorious china scene, he sees for himself how “women of honor” act in private. Only the evidence of the eye can validate Horner's previous boasts. Afterward, Quack can exclaim that “I will now believe everything he tells me” (4.3.225), implying a reestablished faith in the disembodied word. But the verbal, to renew its credibility, must first have passed the test of physical perception.

These brief examples help define the relationship between sensory knowledge and comic success. Capable protagonists know how to separate illusion from reality, appealing to the physical, the testable, as a condition for successful social action. Their astuteness may be more precisely gauged by contrast with the way their inferiors—the stock coxcombs and fops of the Restoration stage—fall foul of the empirical. Typically, Wycherley's clods are too stupid to trust their senses, with the consequence that their senses mislead them. Horner's amatory success in The Country Wife depends on getting the gulls to trust words, to accept the lie that he is impotent even in the face of the most damning proof of the contrary. Sir Jaspar Fidget, for example, is easily mollified by the brilliant but improbable improvisations of the china scene, preferring to believe what he is told rather than what he has actually beheld. As for the play's outstanding coxcomb, Sparkish, the premise of his preemptive cuckolding is that he sees everything and understands nothing. Harcourt undisguisedly courts Alithea under the fop's very nose: no matter, thinks Sparkish, it is merely “what we wits do for one another, and never take any notice of it” (2.1.258). When Harcourt pretends to be his own twin, a clergyman, in order to interfere with Sparkish's wedding, Sparkish registers clearly enough that the two men are identical but, despite everything Alithea can urge to enlighten him, insists that the priest is indeed Harcourt's brother. After all, the two are “in a Story,” are they not (4.1.116)? Again and again Sparkish lets assertion, habit, and prejudice overrule the evidence of his senses, and so he deservedly loses Alithea to his cleverer rival.

A more complex development can be found in The Plain Dealer. Vernish discovers his wife Olivia in a compromising situation with a young man. The interloper, desperate to escape, tries out an explanation which ought to deflect the husband's anger: “I am a Woman, Sir, a very unfortunate Woman” (4.2.360). This, as it happens, is true: “he” is really Fidelia, Manly's unlikely love and the unwilling go-between in the hero's vengeful entanglement with Olivia. To Fidelia's mind a few words ought to “satisfy” Vernish about her identity: “Now, Sir, I hope you are so much a Man of Honour, as to let me go, now I have satisfi'd you, Sir” (4.2.365-66). This gives rise to some unseemly punning: Vernish turns her diction back on her, rejecting her verbal account in favor of a more earthy version of proof: “When you have satisfi'd me, Madam, I will” (4.2.367). To know who Fidelia really is Vernish must undress and effectively ravish her. Feeling her breasts supplies some of the “witnesses” he needs, and he threatens worse: “Well, Madam, if I must not know who you are, 'twill suffice for me only to know certainly what you are: which you must not deny me. Come, there is a Bed within, the proper Rack for Lovers; and if you are a Woman, there you can keep no secrets, you'll tell me there all unask'd” (4.2.378-82).

This speech abounds in complexities. On one level it means simply that if he can penetrate her body Vernish will know whether or not Fidelia is a woman. Although the breasts will not suffice, an essentially similar line of tactile inquiry should furnish more trustworthy results. To find out the truth one merely has to be a determined empiricist.

On a slightly different plane, however, the threat compounds a physically conclusive action with a troubling infusion of words.6 The rack, for example, tortures the physical body not for the sake of self-evident spectacle or sense experience but in order to extort truthful speech. Vernish does think that intercourse will be both a pleasure and a proof, but he extends his requirements to include further verbal statements concerning who Fidelia is. This interference of the linguistic with the empirical is intensified by his choice of vocabulary: ‘deny’ and ‘tell,’ for example, do duty on both the physical and verbal registers. Like ‘satisfy,’ they may allude either to the assurance of words or to bodily experience. To deny is both to resist with force and to say no; to tell is to give away one's nature and to confess.

Vernish does not seem to be unduly worried by these mild interferences, but more problematic examples lead him to serious confusion. Two expressions stand out: “cry out” and “squeak.”7 Now both may refer to paralinguistic sounds of ecstasy: they accompany orgasm and are therefore physical proof that the examined creature is a woman. The utterances are not language; their connection to reality is indexical rather than conventionally symbolic. This point is reinforced for Vernish because he can see the noises themselves as a preponderant element in what is still, for him, an empirical proof. Not only Fidelia's penetrability but also her cries will show—independently of organized speech—that she is female.

The trouble is that, although they are not elements of articulated language, orgasmic noises are nonetheless semiotic phenomena. The immediately physical here is necessarily tied to an already representational form, a “sign,” and signs of any sort proffer themselves for interpretation; indeed, they force choices among different and perhaps mutually exclusive meanings. This is certainly the case with cries and squeaks, where relatively minor changes in context can transform their significance entirely. Most notably, they can be an assault victim's appeal for help rather than signs of overwhelming delight. And even then the ambiguity opened up by the alternatives of pleasure and distress is compounded by the semantic instability of female cries for help themselves. How to respond to them? Seventeenth-century theatrical convention plays the “no means yes” card frequently and without remorse, taking a woman's protest to be a face-saving acquiescence. But sometimes—as in the case of Fidelia—the negative is genuine, and encroaching males must somehow tell the difference.8The Plain Dealer dramatizes the difficult by having Vernish's attempt interrupted by his servant, who announces a visitor at the very moment when Fidelia is shouting semiarticulately for assistance (“Oh! Oh!”). Vernish damns this meddling as inept interpretation: “You saucy Rascal, how durst you come in, when you heard a Woman squeak? That should have been your Cue to shut the door” (4.2.396-97). But the servant's reaction merely responds to necessity. Whatever action he might take would be based on an interpretive decision, not on the empirically self-evident. Squeaks may well furnish a “cue,” but a cue for what? Rescue or discreet withdrawal?

Empirical proof, on this showing, is not an easy or straightforward thing. Corroboration for such a view comes from another source. Discussing Vernish's quandary with Olivia, her cousin Eliza speculates that the young man (as she assumes Fidelia to be) could quite plausibly have passed for a woman if “his” previous exertions in Olivia's bed had sexually exhausted him. “'Twas a sign your Gallant had had enough of your conversation,” she says, “since he cou'd so dextrously cheat your husband, in passing for a Woman?” (5.1.112-14). Once again the sign muddles the import of a physical fact, this time pointing to Fidelia's supposed satiety. Eliza, comfortable enough with the range of possibilities offered by this sign-rich context, implies that performance rather than anatomy determines one's sex, and while she is unspecific about what kind of further test Vernish might have carried out on the body of Fidelia, she does apparently imagine that no physical proof, no touch, can really settle a question of sexual identity.

As a final sequel to Fidelia's near-rape, Wycherley stages a conversation in which Manly tells Vernish that it was he who was with Olivia the night before. This claim sets up a furious dilemma. Who or what was really in Olivia's bedroom the previous evening, Manly or the mysterious “woman”?9 Despite his social confidence and the near-confirmatory evidence of his senses that Fidelia was a woman, Vernish remarkably allows himself to be shaken by Manly's purely verbal assertions to the contrary. On first hearing the bad news he falls back on a cliché to defend his self-respect; Manly is spreading a nasty rumor as revenge on Olivia's infidelity. But Manly persists, and Vernish is urged ever further into an interpretive context where the senses seem less and less relevant to truth, and where discursive factors—signs and meanings, maxims and rules of construction—encroach more and more. Surely the fact that Olivia “rails” against Manly suggests that she has not had sex with him. Not so, retorts Manly: “Never trust, for that matter, a Womans railing; for she is no less a dissembler in her hatred, than her love: And as her fondness of her Husband is a sign he's a Cuckold, her railing at another Man is a sign she lies with him” (5.2.272-75). The suspicious husband who sets out to trust his senses finds himself confronted with a baffling profusion of signs: the signs of Fidelia's problematic identity, the signs of Manly's narrative at table, the signs of Olivia's duplicitous response to accusations of perfidy. It does not matter whether Vernish has actually caught someone in his wife's bedroom or not; to determine the truth of his apparent discovery he still has to deal with a host of nonempirical claims to knowledge which Manly is very well prepared to manipulate.

Vernish's trouble, then, proceeds from two related causes: the force of even the most unmediated empirical proofs can be argued away, and the inseparability of the semiotic from the physical means that he will always be obliged to deal with the sign. That the female body, a physical object as well as the origin of ambivalent performances, squeaks, and cries, should be a generator of signs exposes it to the possibility of multiple meanings. There is, unfortunately, no such thing as a univocal world of pure, self-evident perceptions.

Vernish gives up in confusion, but he does know one thing: “I am distracted more with doubt, than jealousie” (5.2.342-43). This doubt, interestingly enough, provokes him to search further for definitive proof. He devises a dramatic recognition scene, pretending to leave town and returning home at the hour when Manly has told him he has a second assignation with Olivia. This way he will really see if Olivia is unfaithful. The eventual verification turns out to be double-edged: although a return to methods and principles which have already shown their uncertainty, it does confirm Olivia's cheating as well as the identity of Fidelia.10 But this proof hardly consoles Vernish; the price of knowing the truth is his social disgrace.

The play's conclusion is also interesting because the reunion of all the characters at Olivia's house is designed to serve not one but two structurally similar projects of verification: Vernish's plot to find out if Olivia is adulterous, and Manly's to publish her privately validated shame to the world. Manly, intent on proving that Olivia is a whore, has satisfied himself of her treachery by sleeping with her under the guise of Fidelia. This ought to be a definitive act, but Manly insists on repeating the encounter in front of witnesses. The elaborate public display he ultimately requires looks a little like an admission that the direct testimony of the senses will not suffice on its own. His revenge, to be complete, must move beyond empirical satisfaction to the establishment of a shared network of public meanings. These meanings, to be sure, are ratified by the persons on the scene, and therefore do not constitute a negation of empirical knowledge. Everyone's eyes must attest the truth of Olivia's crimes. But the elaboration of proof does represent a kind of qualification. Taken along with Vernish's problems, Manly's repetition of his experiments suggests the double function of empirical evidence in The Plain Dealer: it both asserts its worth and hints at the blurring to which it is always subject.

A further point: Wycherley's intelligent sensualist can exploit this kind of doubleness because he knows the limitations as well as the value of empiricism. At the highest level, wits deploy both the knowledge of the senses and a critical awareness of where its boundaries lie. Both species of knowledge enhance the hero or heroine's social adaptability. Horner's test pays off when he can verify his women's sexual responsiveness by touching them, but he, Harcourt, Manly, and other canny theorists can effectively take advantage of the indeterminacy which troubles empiricism to put a different mode of inquiry into play. Sparkish, it is true, is a witling and a ready gull; but he also demonstrates that the way of the senses does not always in principle lead to knowledge. The same may be said for Vernish's desperate attempts to be a good empiricist. Their difficulties show that the senses require interpretation, and that interpretation moves one beyond the purely physical to a world where language, signs, and all their polysemous baggage must be taken into account.


But empirical knowledge is not the only avenue to truth in Wycherley's plays, and the theory that celebrates its value is not the only theory around. In a world where such knowledge is constantly threatened with investment by the sign, his characters also rely on a collection of interpretive rules which, however unsystematic, reduce the social context to some form of intelligibility. These rules take many shapes, from the carefully extrapolated principle to easy maxims and proverbs. For clarity's sake I will restrict myself to examples of the last kind of rule: the interpretive maxim. Explicit and compact guides to reading the world, maxims usually prove reliable enough to guarantee comic success to those who understand and apply them.11

I begin with a straightforward case. The major subplot of The Plain Dealer presents the entirely mercenary pursuit of Widow Blackacre by Freeman, Manly's lieutenant. The widow is no easy catch: her litigious humor insulates her from the temptations of love, and her widowhood assures her a financial independence which she is too cagey to sacrifice to the first impecunious young man who happens by. Freeman makes no progress until he hatches a plan to turn her foolish son Jerry against her, in hopes of creating a suitable opportunity for blackmail. The tactic works: arrested for suborning witnesses and for claiming that Jerry is a bastard, she is at Freeman's mercy and must purchase her release by awarding him a fat annuity for life.

This subplot nicely exemplifies the triumph of a not particularly scrupulous comic intelligence over a number of personal and social difficulties. But Freeman's success is doubly interesting because, unlike many heroes, he acts self-consciously, submitting his course to theoretical guidance. His difficulties excite a great deal of reflection and talk, most of it involving the trying on of a variety of aphoristic generalizations about the best way to ensnare a widow. The lieutenant especially prizes Manly's advice, and he gets plenty of it: “Thou hast taken the right way to get a Widow,” he is told, “by making her great Boy Rebel; for, when nothing will make a Widow marry, she'll do't to cross her Children” (3.1.442-44). And, on a later occasion: “He that is a Slave in the Mine, has the least propriety in the Ore: You may dig, and dig; but, if thou wou'dst have her Money, rather get to be her Trustee, then her Husband; for a true Widow will make over her Estate to any Body, and cheat her self, rather than be cheated by her Children, or a second Husband” (lines 459-64).

Manly's advice, as these examples show, leans heavily on the maxim as a means for assimilating a social and interpretive challenge to a set of theoretical propositions about “a true widow,” with occasional forays into the frankly proverbial (“He that is a Slave in the Mine”). Freeman himself knows how to grasp practice from the outside by calling upon maxims to help him; indeed, the most pithy and apposite saying of them all is his own proverb: “Steal away the Calf, and the Cow will follow you” (3.1.390). As things work out, “stealing” Jerry is precisely the way to capture the “cow.” For these two intelligent plotters, then, the correspondence of maxim and social reality paves the road to happiness and success.

Maxims work in other, less ruthlessly practical instances as well, serving understanding as much as they help characters get ahead. Unconvinced by her cousin's railing, Eliza tells Olivia that pretense serves no real purpose in The Plain Dealer's age of disguise: “In what sense am I to understand you?” she asks when faced with a particularly extreme statement of Olivia's supposed “aversion” to the world and everything in it. The answer, most reasonably, is that “I'm sure you dissemble” (2.1.88). This accusation leads to some general advice: “But methinks we ought to leave off dissembling, since 'tis grown of no use to us; for all wise observers understand us now adayes, as they do Dreams, Almanacks, and Dutch Gazets, by the contrary: And a Man no more believes a Woman, when she sayes she has an Aversion for him, than when she sayes she'll Cry out” (2.1.90-95). Wise observers, in other words, understand women by converting social appearances into their opposites in order to calculate the truth. Hence the procedure of “understanding by the contrary.”

Understanding by the contrary is a widespread and respected rule in Wycherley's world. Eliza's sentiments are closely echoed by Harcourt in The Country Wife: “Most Men,” he explains to his friends, “are the contraries to what they wou'd seem” (1.1.250). Harcourt's companions supply illustrations of the maxim: it is true that bullies are in fact cowards; doctors, assassins; clergymen, closet atheists, and so forth. The soundness of the “contraries” maxim is ratified not only by perceptive characters like Eliza and Harcourt's group but also by much of the action in the plays. During the same conversation in which Eliza enunciates the principle, Olivia's reactions demonstrate that, for her, “aversion” really does mean liking. The reversals she executes are comically exaggerated, of course: after disparaging affected hairdos Olivia turns to the mirror to inspect her “tour,” and after disclaiming any interest in male visitors she falls over herself to let Novel into the house. This fast-paced, local confirmation of Eliza's correct understanding is replayed in more leisurely fashion throughout the rest of the play. Olivia's professed aversion to sex is disproved by her lust for Fidelia, while Vernish illustrates at length Manly's subrule that “no Man can be a great Enemy, but under the name of Friend” (1.1.588-89). Such instances attest to the pervasiveness of hypocrisy in the world, and validate the maxim which shows how to interpret and unmask it.

Or so it seems, most of the time. I want, however, to develop two further points: one, an example showing the inadequacy of the contraries maxim and, two, a couple of variations which justify the rule to a large extent while at the same time probing its relevance in unexpected ways. One of the strangest features of The Country Wife is its juxtaposition of two rather different cuckold plots: the main line of action charting the success of Horner's claim to be impotent, the second dealing with his seduction of Margery Pinchwife. This second amour marks a complete contrast with the first; Margery does not know of Horner's supposed incapacity and is impelled by straightforward, untutored lust. Directness is her comic trademark from the very first scene where she blurts out her admiration of the actors at the theater to the conclusion where she must be prevented from testifying to Horner's virility. The play, to be sure, takes a wry attitude toward her country bluntness, but if her behavior serves no other purpose it does show that some characters at least are interpretable exactly as they present themselves. To trust surfaces is to read Margery aright: here the contraries rule obviously does not apply.

Such possibilities place an extra burden on would-be interpreters. Not only must they work through the details of converting appearances into their opposites in particular cases, they must also judge when this approach is relevant and when it is not. This is precisely the problem faced by Horner in The Country Wife. Starting from a state of affairs where the application of the contraries rule remains uncertain, Horner must develop a supplementary hermeneutic which both generates its own maxim and recasts the whole question of how these little theories are invented and put to use. Rakish young men, as Horner sees it, face a difficult interpretive task. For efficiency's sake they would like to know beforehand which women will be most receptive to their advances. But Restoration etiquette makes this hard to do, for two rather contradictory reasons. First, one must deal with prudes, assertive “women of honor” who are officially off-limits. Now this should be no obstacle for those who are armed with the contraries rule; presumably the women who make the greatest fuss about honor, virtue, and chastity are in fact the most lustful and therefore the most promising subjects. The Country Wife goes a long way toward justifying this presumption. In the banquet scene in act 5 Horner claims to the assembled ladies that he never dared approach them in the past because he was put off by their chaste reputations. His friends quickly disabuse him. As Lady Fidget puts it: “Why should you not think, that we women make use of our Reputation, as you men of yours, only to deceive the world with less suspicion; our virtue is like the State-Man's Religion, the Quakers Word, the Gamesters Oath, and the Great Man's Honour, but to cheat those that trust us” (5.4.98-103). On their own admission, the women are embodiments of contrary psychology; the trouble is that Horner has failed for some reason to apply the correct interpretive rules. Even though the contraries maxim is ready to hand for him and a perfectly appropriate tool for his circumstances, he is effectively baffled by prudery.

The second obstacle to the rake's success derives from a similar cause but takes a very different surface form. “Women of Quality are so civil,” Horner says, “you can hardly distinguish love from good breeding, and a Man is often mistaken” (1.1.150-51). Not all women are prudes; but “civil” women are equally inaccessible to the aspiring seducer because their relaxed and friendly behavior looks so much like dissolute invitation. A process of social homogenization has leveled the distinction between politeness and lust. For the reader of the social scene such phenomena pose grave difficulties, because they render the contraries rule almost entirely useless. Consequently Horner decides to fake impotence in the belief that a woman who dislikes a eunuch must be hungry for sex. His strategy works in an interesting way: he does not persuade his targets to admit directly that they want men (Wycherley, as we have seen, reserves Margery Pinchwife for that contrastive function), but he does get around their contrarian affectation of “honor” by provoking direct, unequivocal statements of revulsion at the idea of a eunuch. There is no need to apply the contraries rule to learn that Lady Fidget or Mrs. Squeamish detests an impotent man. Horner's gambit, then, presents a fascinating confirmation of the contraries rule at the same time as it shows a way of dispensing with it. The women's day-to-day self-presentation is actually based on hypocrisy, but since those close to them are unable to discover this, a detour from “contraries” thinking is necessary.

More relevant to my specific discussion, Horner's ploy is itself epitomized in a maxim: “She that shows an aversion to me loves the sport” (1.1.152). The truth and utility of this fresh rule are demonstrated by Horner's success with Lady Fidget and her entourage. Lady Fidget, in fact, is a textbook case. On first hearing of Horner's impotence she shows an aversion, denouncing him pungently as a “filthy French Beast” and “a filthy Man” (1.1.102, 112). As things turn out she indeed loves the sport, taking advantage of Horner's eventual confidence to engage in a physically satisfying but perfectly safe intrigue. On this showing, the new aversion rule proves an effective means of social interpretation. It serves Horner and his women very well: in no instance does it backfire, and while sometimes it is immaterial to a given pursuit, such small exceptions do not cancel its general utility. By and large this rule tidily replaces the contraries maxim. It explains conduct and motive, justifies predictions about character, and prepares the way for Horner's sexual success. Although this maxim is seldom inapplicable or false, three peculiarities of its nature and the circumstances of its use seem to me worth noting. First, it is a deliberate creation, a novelty; second, it is erected on a substructure of fiction; and third, it works by enforcing a kind of exaggerated simplification on its objects.

In most cases proverbs and maxims are anonymous and available, as much a part of the preexisting social repertoire as the behavior they purport to explain and master.12 Horner needs a new and more productive rule of interpretation because the social facade has become complex and difficult to penetrate. This implies the exhaustion of all the hitherto effective rules and strategies for rakes. Interpretive maxims, like other traditional resources, no longer give leverage on their analytical object. Innovation is evidently necessary if the hero is to thrive in this entropic universe. Horner's aversion rule is designed to meet this challenge: it is a personal creation, an experimental maxim. Everyone in the play notices this. Remarkable enough in the sheer audacity of its premise, the impotence ploy is a source of constant surprise both to its dupes and to an initiate like Quack who is privy to Horner's plans from the beginning. Horner boasts of his “new, unpractis'd trick” (1.1.47), and Quack's responses stress the uniqueness of this “new design” (4.3.1). “You are the first,” he tells Horner, “wou'd be thought a Man unfit for Women” (1.1.31-33); or “Your process is so new, that we do not know but it may succeed” (1.1.161-62). New maxims may be very effective, of course. This one certainly is. The very requirement of novelty, however, draws attention to the inadequacy of previous forms. This is no good news for the power of maxims generally, and in some measure subverts the basic definition of the maxim as a public and traditional device.

My second point concerns the relation between truth and fiction established by Horner's rule. The new maxim elicits truth but is based on an untrue supposition: Horner is not really impotent. In a sense this is merely an irrelevant detail. A true eunuch would provoke outbursts of aversion and prove the validity of the maxim. But to what purpose? His acquaintance with female lust must remain empty knowledge, a profitless form. The Country Wife actually explores this possibility obliquely. Although Horner's first incursions into the world of the “virtuous gang” yield knowledge aplenty, this does seem to be miscellaneous and beside the point: the main fruit of his privileged observation is familiarity with the ladies' drinking habits. Information on this topic impresses Quack, and the revelations of the banquet scene do establish a thematic link between alcohol, lust, and truth, but on the whole the play insists on the incompatibility of wine and women—“Oil and Vinegar,” as Horner puts it (1.1.215-16). Implicit in Horner's discovery that the women drink and talk bawdy is a certain wistfulness about disinterested knowledge; one has to be disinterested to secure access to it, but one's very disinterest renders it pointless. Horner's use of the aversion rule, of course, is the very opposite of disinterested. To be fully operational, then, the maxim must be the tool of a deceiver, must be based on a lie. Discovery proceeds by invention, not just in the sense that Horner must be creative in order to break through the social crust but also in the sense that a social truth cannot be produced without the aid of rank fiction. A useful lesson, perhaps, in the logic of discovery, this process nonetheless places the function of the maxim in a suspect light.

Finally, Horner's active production of knowledge seems to diminish the people he deals with. Many rules and maxims may be applied without further meddling in the social process; they do not always require significant activity on the part of their users, nor do they alter their objects. Unlike the simple application of a rule, however, Horner's ploy (as we have seen) consists of contrived solicitation. Since truth is not just waiting to be skimmed off the surface of women of quality, some subterfuge is needed to make them betray themselves and behave as they would not do under normal circumstances. Horner's strategic intervention suggests an important thing about the generation of knowledge. To interpose an interpretive fable between reality and usable truth is to make explicit a certain simplification of that truth. Horner's maxim operates as a filter, his experimental process a molding of his subjects. Left to themselves, his repressed women would remain complex, variegated, unreadable. In the light of the aversion maxim, however, they are clear enough, but no longer complex or individual; the truth of Horner's knowledge is purchased at the cost of its range and sensitivity. In its cost the aversion rule might be seen as reinstating the false economy which led to trouble with contraries in the first place. Perhaps this is why the female community established in the banquet scene is not entirely happy or cohesive. The women make a pact to be “sister sharers” but in that good-spirited gesture lies a regret: their admission that each is Horner's mistress reduces each to an illustration of a general rule, held to the group by a uniform lust for the man they now dub “Harry Common” (5.4.170).13

My concluding example provides a very different perspective on the contraries rule. The Plain Dealer's Olivia is a wicked yet capable reader of the people around her, so her way with maxims is worth a close look. Her most important challenge is to understand Manly well enough to be able to cheat him. Her basic approach in dealing with him is a species of the contraries principle; as she explains to Fidelia, “He that distrusts most the World, trusts most to himself, and is but the more easily deceiv'd, because he thinks he can't be deceiv'd” (4.2.201-3). A perfect little maxim, the saying holds that someone who appears suspicious is in fact naive. Tactical application of this insight, however, requires many adjustments. The main point to make about Olivia is that although she suspects Manly's surface pretensions she is never so crude as to urge that he is a simple hypocrite. Her rule—that the suspicious interpreter is most easily duped—makes an interesting double construction of the contraries maxim. It is, to begin with, the foundation of her analysis of Manly's character. He does affect suspicion but he is a pushover for the friend and the lover who can play on his foibles. But part of the maxim's utility in this case is to reveal that Manly is paradoxically manipulable precisely as a subscriber to this very principle; he “distrusts,” that is, he never relies on social exteriors to judge character and motive. Olivia's control, then, would also depend on knowing the limitations of a contraries principle; she correctly infers that an interpreter who uses this means will make mistakes. One can concoct a ruse to exploit such mistakes. Her pose with regard to Manly involves adopting a fake similarity of character: “I knew he lov'd his own singular moroseness so well, as to dote upon any Copy of it; wherefore I feign'd an hatred to the World too, that he might love me in earnest” (4.2.206-8). Manly must mistake her for a kindred spirit, an embittered, distrustful railer, in order to trust her as he does.

A corollary to this finding is that Olivia knows better than to interpret Manly purely in terms of the contraries principle. A real person may be expected to be inconsistent, to resist enclosure within the tidy confines of aphoristic wisdom. To fasten on “moroseness” as a leading trait, for example, or to use feigned similarity of outlook to activate Manly's latent credulity, shows just how sensitive Olivia's perceptions are. To construe Manly's ruling passion as his “spirit of contradiction” (2.1.613), a self-regarding desire to stand out from the crowd, is not the same as to see him as contrariety incarnate. Olivia's understanding is always nuanced. From her superior vantage, she can gauge how much the rule holds of a character who lives unconsciously within its boundaries, and she can exploit Manly's subjection to an over-strict binary system of interpretation. The real Manly—her Manly—is more than the gull who mistakenly believes he “knows the world and the town.” That broadly comic role had been superbly drawn in Wycherley's Pinchwife; The Plain Dealer, more somber and problematic, does not stop at the mechanical exposition of a farcically limited point of view. Manly, a finally sympathetic protagonist, escapes the grid of determination to become a complex and puzzling figure. Olivia, his best reader, follows him along the way.

There is a final twist to this dialectic of understanding. Olivia uses the contraries principle to begin dissecting Manly's personality, and then forges beyond the limitations of her initial premise to fashion a convincing account of her former lover's penchants and motives. But is Olivia's account itself complete? The larger structures of the play confirm that the hero's humor is drastically simplified by the label “distrust”; they ratify the direction taken by Olivia's subsequent thinking. She serves as a model for an approach to interpretation that sustains an increasing delicacy of register, an expanding yet ever more particular scope. Such an approach, of course, must always remain open to the possibility and the desirability of its own supersession. Olivia's own conclusions, then, ought to be transcended by hints drawn from elsewhere. And indeed they are: a point most forcibly made in that Olivia, a supremely competent reader of her victim, is not ultimately rewarded. The strength and ingenuity of Manly's vindictiveness finally defeat her, leaving a sense that her understanding of him has fallen short in crucial respects. Perhaps her most telling omissions concern positive aspects of Manly's character. Both the title of the play and much of Manly's own self-advertisement make sense of the epithet “plain-dealing”: he nobly says what he thinks, no matter what the consequences. Olivia's own method is repeated and extended by the dynamic of the play as a whole: just as she takes up a maxim, applies it, and then leaves it behind in favor of more subtle and particularized investigations, so too does The Plain Dealer both validate and supersede her own hermeneutic procedures. A useful springboard, perhaps, the contraries maxim permits social understanding to begin, but it is limiting to pretend that it can lead to fully satisfactory results on its own.14

What conclusions may be drawn from this survey of the function of maxims as instruments of interpretation and tools for comic success? First and most obviously, they work. But, as the examples of Horner's aversion rule and Olivia's reading of Manly suggest, they do not always work in a straightforward or unqualified manner. Horner's invention yields a sturdy resource, but the circumstances of its production and application highlight the difficulty of synchronizing maxim and truth as well as the impoverishment inflicted by the method on the victims of his understanding. Olivia's tactic—paradoxically, more liberating—shows how a process of mediation leads from the acceptance of the maxim to a more complete and fine-grained understanding of the social scene, a more adequate knowledge in some ways devoted by its very particularity to a stance beyond reflection or method. Not reducible in principle to a system of canons, interpretation is an infinite and infinitely varying task, always one step ahead of the theory that explains it.


Empiricists, users of maxims, or free-ranging hermeneutic spirits, Wycherley's characters are always and everywhere close to theory in some form. I have shown that their practice of interpretation edges toward self-consciousness because, whatever theory they espouse, it must be deliberately applied to their immediate field of activity. The general rule, the theory that attempts to outflank practice, then imposes a certain distance between its subscribers and their circumstances. This distance is accentuated when comic heroes pause to analyze the nature of their interpretive maneuvering and the fit between theoretical intelligence and society as a whole. Such discussions tend to focus on one central term: “wit.” I will now take up some instances of such analysis and then pursue the reflexivity it entails into a particular corner: the place of dramatic criticism in opening up the function of wit to a conscious, enlarged, but not entirely unproblematic self-understanding.

Nearly everyone in Wycherley has something to say about wit. A banal example will show the pervasiveness of the topic. In Love in a Wood, Dapperwit, described in the list of characters as a “brisk, conceited, half-witted fellow of the town,” offers a complete anatomy of the intelligentsia: “There are as many degrees of Wits, as of Lawyers; as there is first your Sollicitor, then your Atturney, then your Pleading-Counsel, then your Chamber-Counsel, and then your Judge; so there is first your Court-Wit, your Coffee-Wit, your Poll-Wit or Pollitick-Wit, your Chamber-Wit or Scribble-Wit, and last of all, your Judg-Wit or Critick” (2.1.239-44). He proceeds to detailed descriptions of each class of wit, culminating in the portrait of the supreme “Judg-Wit”—a class in which Dapperwit includes himself: “Your Judg-Wit or Critick, is all these together, and yet has the wit to be none of them; he can think, speak, write, as well as the rest, but scorns (himself a Judg) to be judg'd by posterity; he rails at all the other Classes of Wits, and his wit lies in damming all but himself; he is your true Wit” (2.1.273-77).

This analysis is not, of course, to be taken seriously, but it does show that in Wycherley even a halfwit must come up with a general account of knowledge.15 Cleverer actors, not surprisingly, are deeply involved in both the practice and the theory of wit. In The Country Wife, Horner's group defines the difference between true wit and mere pretension through confrontation with Sparkish. Restoration protagonists, it goes without saying, can exercise their talents for disparagement on victims guilty of any number of different follies. Pinchwife is goaded on the sensitive point of his fear of becoming a cuckold. The case of Sparkish is especially instructive because his characteristic folly is to imagine that he is clever. To take him down, then, the rakes must engage his predominant humor, and that means thinking and talking a great deal about the real meaning of intelligence.

To Sparkish, to be a wit is the supreme ambition, “the greatest title in the World” (1.1.299). The opportunity to consort with accredited intellectuals like Horner and his friends is worth more to him than invitations to dine with peers; similarly, he thinks that his proper place at the theater is in the “Wits' Row” of the pit, not in the stuffy box with his fiancée (1.1.324). Impervious to ribbing on almost any other score, he is stung into at least tentative violence when Harcourt casts aspersions on his brain power (2.1.274). The rakes' handling of Sparkish's comic ambition takes several forms. On his first appearance Sparkish is given a chance to expose his incapacity by telling a bad joke. His quip about the new “sign” in Russell Street—Horner is “a sign of a man,” and he lives there—is feeble enough, and Horner derisively tells him so: “The Divel take me, if thine be the sign of a jest” (1.1.290). More cutting than direct contempt, perhaps, the wits register their disapproval by refusing to laugh, hurting Sparkish about as much as his inherent insensibility will allow. Presented with an egregious example of false wit, they both directly and by implication theorize about the real thing.

Sparkish's opinions about writing and plays provide a further occasion to dissect wit. In act 3 his companions induce him to express ever more fatuous views about literature, making room for them to declare and imply that they know much more about it than he does. Sparkish affects scorn for writing, but admits that he has committed verse for the very bad reason that “every body does it” to impress women (3.2.93-97). He finds fault with satirical authors because they expose fops like himself on stage, and his egotism is further revealed when he insists that he brings his own wit with him to the theater or to the reading of a book in order to avoid instruction from insignificant others. Horner and his friends make short work of these idiotic pretensions. They are not writers themselves, but their gentlemanly distance from mere professional scribbling does not prevent them from valuing poets and playwrights over the witless Sparkish. Harcourt speaks for propriety and common sense in supposing that Sparkish “had gone to Plays, to laugh at the Poets wit, not at your own” (3.2.80-81), while Dorilant shows that he understands the theory of imitation when he justifies satirical playwrights: “Blame 'em not, they must follow their Copy, the Age” (3.2.113). The Country Wife uses these and other examples of true and false wit to articulate a fairly clear hierarchy of values. Wit is better than stupidity, and an important aspect of wit is its capacity to analyze itself coherently, to generate a top-level theory about theorists. Successful performers are witty in action, but they also have a better understanding of intelligence than their social rivals do.

The Plain Dealer is more searching on this score. Reflection on wit, however comic the form, is a salient concern of the play, surfacing in a number of discussions about the nature and varieties of humor, intelligence, and so forth. The most concentrated of these occurs in act 5, when Novel, Plausible, Freeman, Oldfox, and Manly engage in a fairly acrimonious debate about the subject. Novel, a shallow coxcomb, defends the view that talking a lot is “a mark of Wit” and that “Railing is Satyr, you know; and Roaring, and making a noise, Humor” (5.2.208-9). His idea of an intelligent and witty action is to break windows. Against him Oldfox argues with almost equal obtuseness that “quibling” constitutes true wit, and Manly, who has been appointed “judge” of the debate by Novel, is forced to denounce both their houses in order to end the altercation. What is actually settled during this exchange? For one thing, the limitations and silliness of Novel's and Oldfox's views are roundly criticized. No, railing is not satire, breaking windows is not humor, quibbling is not wit. Manly himself is an appropriate judge, limited, perhaps, by his personal interest in distinguishing between satire and ill temper, but certainly qualified to referee a quarrel of fops. And the issues themselves have an importance beyond the spiteful edge given them by the discussants; the play as a whole grapples with the differences between irascibility and moral concern, empty chatter and genuine intelligence. While it is not easy to spell out all its implications, this exchange does seem to contribute something substantial to the understanding of understanding. Theory, on this view, is not carried on in vain.

But to grasp the full value and ambiguity of the debate, the conversation must be set in context. The arrival of the crowd of fops who launch the discussion interrupts two important pieces of business: first, Manly has been on the verge of telling Vernish the story of his night with Olivia, but is unable to complete it; and second, Vernish is sent to borrow money from Olivia, and he returns only after the debate has more or less run its course. In the first case, discussion of theory appears to be a nuisance, an interference. Manly, who has been yearning to unburden himself to Vernish, is furious: “Dam 'em! A Man can't open a Bottle, in these eating houses, but presently you have these impudent, intruding, buzzing Flies and Insects, in your Glass” (5.2.154-56). In the second instance, Vernish's departure, the debate may function as mere filler, since it is possible that Wycherley introduced and prolonged it simply to offset Vernish's necessary absence from the scene. Such a possibility is reinforced by the role of Freeman. By no means averse to discussing ideas—his disagreements with Manly about how to manage social intercourse occupy much space in act 1—Freeman is strangely silent here, his perfunctory contribution amounting to four brief statements in all. This seems to be because he is so busy with the action: at the opening of the scene he appears “backwards,” vainly trying to keep the fops out of Manly's room; he leaves with them on Vernish's return, and when he comes back he receives important instructions about the forthcoming setup at Olivia's. Such details highlight a central facet of Freeman's character: always with his eye on the main chance, he is unlikely to be drawn from his purpose by extraneous talk. All of these circumstances conduce to a common effect: they show a kind of incompatibility between action on the one hand and the discussion of knowledge on the other. The fops' colloquy is thematically crucial to the play, but the complications of its place and tone induce a certain haziness of purpose. To get on with the action, it is implied, to tell one's stories, fill one's pockets, and track down one's widows, one cannot afford to be patient with theory. In a drama that otherwise shows the comfortable fit between knowing and doing, this scene is expressively incongruous.


It will be recalled that Dapperwit's classification of the wits had ended in praise of the Judg-Wit or Critick, the highest form of intelligence available. Wycherley is not chaffing here: for him, one of the most refined and important functions of wit is to read literature, particularly plays. A consideration of drama, then, ought to be a central part of any investigation of the role of theory in this writer's world; and indeed, the theatrical experience figures prominently in some of Wycherley's most difficult thinking on this subject. Strongly metadramatic in theme and detail, his work explores criticism both as a measure of his protagonists' intellectual skill and as an occasion to deal with one of the most taxing accompaniments to theoretical knowledge—the problem of reflexive self-awareness.

A lot of playgoing does go on in these comedies. Horner first spots Margery at the theater, a “pretty Country-wench” hidden by Pinchwife in the “eighteen-penny Place” (1.1.430-31). Later Horner escorts Lady Fidget to plays as semiofficial chaperone, while his friend Harcourt pursues Alithea there. More important, response to theater serves as a touchstone, permitting a graded classification of fools and wits. Margery, taken by Pinchwife to the theater for the first time, demonstrates her naïveté by ignoring the play while rhapsodizing about the beauty of the actors (2.1.20-21). Although he is an assiduous denizen of the pit, Sparkish, as we have seen, does not quite grasp what theater is all about; his friends, on the other hand, have a finely developed sense of criticism. Jerry Blackacre will settle for a play at the bookstall if he cannot get a copy of The Seven Champions of Christendom, but his mother squelches that idea: “No, Sirrah, there are young Students of the Law enough spoil'd already, by Playes: they wou'd make you in love with your La[u]ndress, or what's worse, some Queen of the Stage, that was a La[u]ndress; and so turn Keeper before you are of age” (The Plain Dealer, 3.1.303-6). Both attitudes—the son's coarse eagerness and the mother's exaggerated fears about the corrupting effects of playgoing—are held up for evident satire.

Since country naturals and fops-about-town prove to be bad dramatic critics, wits deserve credit for understanding drama as well as they understand everything else. This, at least, is one implication of The Country Wife. Other aspects of the play's engagement with drama, however, suggest a different alignment of values. For one thing, even the wits often take a cavalier and inattentive attitude to theater. If Margery is satirized for focusing on the good looks of the actors, there is little hint of criticism directed at Horner for doing practically the same thing; he treats the theater largely as a hunting ground where he can scout beautiful women. Harcourt's time in the audience is spent “making fierce love” to Alithea, not absorbing the show (3.2.65). Sparkish's ignorance is betrayed by his glee at the attention given to Horner's impotence in the wits' row, but it is clear from Harcourt's earlier comment about how foolish Horner looked “in the Box amongst all those Women, like a drone in the hive” (3.2.10-11), that even for the true critics the main event is uninteresting compared to the sideshow of Horner's discomfiture. Busy people, it appears, have better things to do at the theater than attend to the felicities of dramatic wit. Here, as in the fops' debate in The Plain Dealer, action and theory seem to be at odds.

The Plain Dealer takes up the metadramatic question in a striking way. With an eye possibly on Molière's Critique de l'Ecole des femmes, Wycherley engineers a critical discussion of The Country Wife. The participants are Eliza, Olivia, and Plausible; at stake is the problem of female modesty. This is both a moral and an interpretive issue: modest women exemplify a virtue, but they also embody a particular approach to knowledge. The topic arises because Miss Trifle was seen at a performance of The Country Wife far enough into the play's first run to know it was a salacious piece. To Olivia, attending in spite of such knowledge is proof of immodesty. Lord Plausible counters, excusing Trifle on the grounds that she did not even pretend to be shocked by the play; that is, her true modesty is shown by the fact that she does not understand smut. Olivia, in contrast, thinks that modesty consists of actively noticing filth and then loudly denouncing it. Eliza intervenes more or less on Plausible's side, arguing that “all those grimaces of honour, and artificial modesty, disparage a Woman's real Virtue, as much as the use of white and red does the natural complexion; and you must use very, very little, if you wou'd have it thought your own” (2.1.396-99).

I say “more or less” because Eliza's commentary throughout this exchange raises extremely complex problems: part of the reason for aligning her views with Plausible's, I think, is precisely to dramatize the distinctions between his rough version of an argument and her own refined one. Not that existing criticism of the scene is especially sensitive to its ambiguity; most readers regard Eliza as clearly winning the debate, and there are good reasons for thinking so.16 Eliza's credentials are convincing: she is morally upright but also a woman of the world, and she is, after all, arguing with the play's consummate hypocrite. Olivia, everyone knows, does not really object to sexy talk; in fact, she is lustful, even prurient, and surely on that score an unreliable critic of The Country Wife. These considerations are compounded by the unlikelihood that a dramatist would set out to disparage his own work, so that Eliza's concluding puffery seems to be the last word on the subject: “All this will not put me out of conceit with China, nor the Play, which is Acted today, or another of the same beastly Author's, as you call him, which I'll go see” (2.1.446-48).

Wycherley, however, does not leave the matter there. In the most remarkable turn in the debate Olivia, who to the detriment of her modesty picks up every innuendo and double meaning, proves a much better reader of The Country Wife than Eliza. Of course the name of Horner harbors a “clandestine obscenity” (2.1.412); of course Horner's randy punning with Lady Fidget “has quite taken away the reputation of poor China itself, and sully'd the most innocent and pretty Furniture of a Ladies Chamber” (2.1.435-36). To anyone who has read or seen the antecedent play, Olivia's perceptions will strike home while Eliza's defense of the comedy's moral integrity must look partial and strained.

Why should Wycherley be giving the best lines here to his villain? To understand this we need to look closely at Eliza's speech concerning “artificial modesty.” At issue, I believe, is a distinction between nature and art which creates complications because Wycherley wants finally to endorse a self-conscious version of artifice which more or less successfully hides its traces and converts itself back into nature. Trifle's imputed innocence may serve here as a limit case. To Plausible at least, she unreflectively preserves her modesty because she simply does not see what is wrong with The Country Wife. In other words, this is a purely natural innocence. Eliza is in a much more ticklish position. The very fact that the debate about double meaning and smut is taking place means that she cannot go home again, cannot unknowingly inhabit an interpretive sphere where certain meanings just do not arise. But Eliza is quite resolute in her refusal to detect the erotic connotations of the china scene. This ought to locate her in a higher state of innocence, but both the logical exigencies of her situation and the details of the speech in which she explains her view indicate that such an achievement is impossible. Why, for instance, does Eliza complicate her reference to makeup by avoiding the obvious alternative between “red and white” and a naturally unadorned complexion? Instead, she talks of “a little, a very little” paint, with the implication that some artifice may be desirable. Even here the artifice is justified as a rendition of nature (“your own”) which, rather than subsisting on its own terms, pays its way by imposing on society (“if you would have it thought”).

Whatever its larger worth, Eliza's analogy fits her stance as an interpreter of drama very well. Somewhere between Miss Trifle's beatific blindness and the scurrilous knowledge of Olivia lies a tempered innocence which should encompass ignorance, awareness, and a conscious self-suppression. Eliza's goal is to achieve a satisfactorily limited understanding of The Country Wife. On the moral plane, she makes do with what is theoretically and practically inadequate in exchange for a ratification of her modesty. This, however, is not moral worth construed in anti-intellectual terms as a retreat from the interpretive task as such; it precisely demonstrates her moral worth as an interpreter, a theorist. One can, she urges, be in the fullest sense a “good” interpreter while setting fairly drastic limitations on one's range. On the theoretical level, modesty is interesting because it requires strenuous epistemological gymnastics of its practitioners. Here one must trust one's perceptions as a kind of natural knowing even as one consciously schools them; one must embrace an impossible reflexivity, both knowing and denying that what one knows is hedged and incomplete. In a word, the effect of Eliza's argument about understanding plays is to make a virtue of missing the point.

Missing the point of drama, we may conclude, is subject to complex evaluation in Wycherley. In principle he defends the pertinence and worth of plays, associating their proper appreciation with social intelligence, with true and responsible wit. But, as always, he hedges his bets. On the crudest level, his wits do not uniformly let a concern for dramatic criticism get in the way of their ruthless attention to comic success. These two activities may be mutually exclusive rather than complementary. The metadramatic discussion in The Plain Dealer puts a dazzling spin on this implication. While gently furthering the sentimental point that it is better to be good than to be bright, the discussion also subverts that point and, in doing so, highlights a fraught relation between the self-consciously knowing subject and the object of knowledge which is, I think, relevant to understanding some of the problems of contemporary theory.


It would be false to my argument to conclude that Wycherley's plays project a skeptical hermeneutic (or, better, a skepticism about hermeneutics?) that dispenses with even the most authoritative and reliable rules for interpreting oneself and one's surroundings. His world, rather, is a stable enough place where established prejudices and procedures justify themselves both intrinsically and in the way they further the triumphs of the comic wits. Nonetheless, each field of knowledge put in play throughout Wycherley's work has its interesting ragged edge, a zone of doubt which hints at its failure to be absolutely valid, absolutely true. The evidence of the senses does offer the possibility of a last touch if not a last word, but it loses precision when language and interpretation begin to sully its pure effect. Maxims and similar rules of social interpretation work well, allowing astute practitioners to fulfill their ambitions and to make succinct sense of the world around them, but these maxims and rules are not always unmediated or undistorted reflections of the real. Finally, thinking about theory yields powerful insight into the shapes and social functions of intelligence, but it must also come to grips with the most difficult kind of self-awareness—the consciousness of its own provisionality.

It is here that Wycherley's affinities with neopragmatism should become apparent. In Richard Rorty's critiques of foundationalism as well as in other strands of poststructuralist thought, a philosophical awareness of the limits of knowledge is comfortably joined to a continued satisfaction with intellectual business as usual. By “business as usual” I mean a continued trust in current knowledge. Despite the absence of any transcendental grounding, our knowledge imposes itself reliably on us both because it is ours and because, in the subtle acceptance accorded the word by pragmatist thinkers, it “works.” This, as I hope to have shown, is one of the lessons of Wycherley's plays. We could, indeed, take his outlook as a particularly raw version of the idea that truth is confirmed not by its correspondence to the real but by its social utility. What for Rorty is the careful, even anodyne, proposition that “a given vocabulary works better than another for a given purpose” becomes in Wycherley the near-certainty that if you manipulate the contraries rule well enough you will get the girl, the money, and a chance to humiliate your enemies.17

Being aware of the limits of knowledge is another matter. Sensitive to the awkwardness of rejecting absolutist epistemology while remaining entangled in its ground rules and vocabulary—since assertions such as “There is no transcendental truth” are bound to sound transcendental themselves—pragmatist writers frequently express a wish that the bad old problematics could simply be set aside, freeing us to do other, more interesting things. Hence the groan that “theorists should stop trying” or the suggestion that “conversation” should replace system building as a cultural and philosophical goal. Intellectuals should ignore the past and just do it.18

Unfortunately, this liberation is not readily achieved. A residual interference from epistemology means that problems will continue to be posed in the creaky, inadequate terms of knowledge, method, and truth. Self-consciousness about these subjects, supposedly a forgettable relic of the past, is currently a genuine imperative. This is why Rorty's “edifying” philosophers are given two jobs: as creators they invent “abnormal discourse,” refreshing the culture and keeping conversation alive; but as “therapeutic” thinkers they must also perpetually deconstruct the claims of grand theory, working parodically and parasitically to ensure that normal science, normal talk, never gets the upper hand.19 Theory appears here as somehow impervious to exorcism; at the very least, one must say that it is still alive.

The effects that I have been trying to describe in Wycherley's drama take account of both versions of knowledge. The plays show how different types of knowledge achieve truth by “working,” by leading theorists to happiness and success. They also show, by dramatizing minor slippages in each field, that the rules are mutable, that knowledge is not fully grounded. And finally, they show that the conjunction of these two versions produces the dilemma of methodological self-consciousness, where reflexive agents must both inhabit the limitations of their knowledge and criticize them from an impossible, yet apparently conceivable outside.

Not to give the last word here to the moderns, we may return to Pinchwife's excruciating accommodation at the end of The Country Wife. Confronting the probability that he has been cuckolded, he makes an effort to believe that Horner is impotent. The compliance is reluctant but sincere: “For my own sake fain I wou'd all believe. / Cuckolds like Lovers should themselves deceive” (5.4.410-11). Like Eliza at the play, that is, cuckolds and lovers perform the impossible: they believe in what they simultaneously know to be a fiction. At once inhabiting a world of bad faith and carrying on a reflective critique of that faith, they exemplify a dilemma whose comic embodiment in the seventeenth-century repertoire of rakes and cuckolds does not cancel its relevance to the contemporary critic and theorist.


  1. Richard Steele, preface to The Conscious Lovers, in The Plays of Richard Steele, ed. Shirley Strum Kenny (Oxford, 1971), p. 299.

  2. Compare Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N.J., 1957), pp. 163-86.

  3. Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 723-42.

  4. A notion effectively launched in Thomas Fujimura, The Restoration Comedy of Wit (Princeton, N.J., 1952). See also Jocelyn Powell, Restoration Theatre Production (London, 1984): “At the Restoration, comedy of manners is really quite as much comedy of ideas” (p. 35). Although her terms of reference and vocabulary are very different from Fujimura's and Powell's, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's recent discussion of the rake's “cognitive control of the symbolic system that presides over sexual exchange” still presents The Country Wife as a contest between those who possess knowledge and those who do not. See her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York, 1985), p. 51.

  5. William Wycherley, The Country Wife, in The Plays of William Wycherley, ed. Arthur Friedman (Oxford, 1979), act 2, scene 1, lines 533-34. All references to Wycherley use this edition and cite the text according to act, scene, and line.

  6. The importance of language and especially of “signs” in Wycherley has been underlined in a number of recent studies. See, e.g., Deborah C. Payne, “Reading the Signs in The Country Wife,Studies in English Literature 26 (1986): 403-19; Michael Neill, “Horned Beasts and China Oranges: Reading the Signs in The Country Wife,Eighteenth-Century Life 12 (1988): 3-17; and James Thompson, Language in Wycherley's Plays (University, Ala., 1984).

  7. “Cry out” is used several times in the play; “squeak,” once. In The Gentleman Dancing-Master Hippolita jokingly refers to the possibility that she might “cry out” if Gerrard should try to carry her off (2.1.186-91). The vocabulary is given an even more frankly comic turn in the sexual education of Congreve's Miss Prue: Tattle explains to her how she should threaten to cry out when he makes advances, but should in fact say nothing; however, when matters reach a climax he promises that “Then I'll make you cry out” (Love for Love, 2.1.667). A celebrated instance of a woman's passage under erotic stress from articulate speech to noise as well as of the conventional association of danger and pleasure is Aubrey's anecdote about Sir Walter Raleigh (Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. Oliver Lawson Dick [London, 1949], pp. 255-56). Friedman notes a comparable use of “squeak” in Sir Robert Howard's The Surprisal (p. 482).

  8. Vanbrugh's The Relapse offers a particularly compressed example of the possibilities. At the end of 4.3, Loveless carries Berinthia off to bed after she has declared, “I will not go.” As she is being forcibly removed she calls out for help, “very softly,” according to the stage directions: “Help, help, I'm ravished, ruined, undone! O Lord, I shall never be able to bear it.” Authentic resistance is displayed by Amanda when Worthy—an attractive suitor on most counts—makes a similar attempt: cajoling, forcing, pulling, and holding onto her skirts prove futile, so Worthy renounces his lewd ambition. A noble soliloquy, in which Worthy marvels that “the coarser appetite of nature's gone” (5.5.175), cements this decision. In its range of implications the play serves well as a summary of period attitudes to seduction and/or rape.

  9. One of the curious details of Wycherley criticism is the controversy surrounding this very point. The debate has been rehearsed and clarified in Percy G. Adams, “What Happened in Olivia's Bedroom? Or Ambiguity in The Plain Dealer,” in Essays in Honor of Esmond Linworth Marilla, ed. Thomas Austin Kirby and William John Olive (Baton Rouge, La., 1970), pp. 174-87. The latest word on the problem comes from Robert F. Bode, “A Rape and No Rape: Olivia's Bedroom Revisited,” Restoration 12 (1988): 80-86. Bode argues that the interpretive difficulty arises not so much from the ambiguity of Wycherley's text as from critics' hasty reliance on some rather sloppy predecessors.

  10. Readers confused about the difference between men and women will be happy to know that the conclusive revelation about Fidelia comes when, in the course of the scuffle which ends act 5, her peruke falls off and her natural hair spills out.

  11. Robert D. Hume has remarked on the frequency of Wycherley's use of proverbs in “William Wycherley: Text, Life, Interpretation,” Modern Philology 78 (1981): 404. See also Archer Taylor, “Proverbs in the Plays of William Wycherley,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 21 (1957): 213-17; and the annotations to Friedman's edition of the plays.

  12. An effective confirmation of this point may be found in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, where Lovelace's uncle, Lord M, is presented as a great lover of proverbs. These he characterizes as “the wisdom of whole nations and ages collected into a small compass” ([London, 1962], 2:322) but his reliance upon them as universal guides for interpretation is satirized as an inability to think freshly or independently about anything.

  13. Discussion of the banquet scene oscillates between the view that here the women really create a space of freedom and the gloomier opinion that the continued need for secrecy vitiates whatever advantages might derive from erotic sisterhood. For the former view, see Derek Cohen, “The Revenger's Comedy: A Reading of The Country Wife,Durham University Journal 45 (1983): 31-36; and Harold Weber, “Horner and His ‘Women of Honour’: The Dinner Party in The Country Wife,Modern Language Quarterly 43 (1982): 107-20. Opposing opinions are expressed by Rose Zimbardo, Wycherley's Drama: A Link in the Development of English Satire (New Haven, Conn., 1965), p. 160; W. R. Chadwick, The Four Plays of William Wycherley (The Hague, 1975), p. 102; and Katharine Rogers, William Wycherley (Boston, 1972), p. 62.

  14. Plain Dealer criticism represents a kind of extended rewriting of this process. A central preoccupation has always been Manly's character: is he a rough barbarian, deserving our contempt, or an unsullied hero caught up in a corrupt environment? A useful summary and reading are provided in Ian Donaldson, The World Upside Down: Comedy from Jonson to Fielding (Oxford, 1970), pp. 99-118.

  15. W. T. Craik has argued that at this point Dapperwit steps grossly out of character, becoming sensible and perceptive for once. See his “Some Aspects of Satire in Wycherley's Plays,” English Studies 41 (1964): 171.

  16. For Thompson, Eliza is “an exemplum of right thinking” (p. 92), and Olivia's interpretation of The Country Wife represents “anarchy,” a distortion of the play's “innocent words” ([n. 6 above], p. 109). Derek Hughes complains of the “private and eccentric meanings” Olivia infers from the play (“The Plain Dealer: A Reappraisal,” Modern Language Quarterly 43 [1982]: 330). Norman Holland (The First Modern Comedies [Cambridge, Mass., 1959]) does not pronounce emphatically for one or the other side, but his covert sympathies evidently lie with Eliza: Olivia, for him, is speaking “hypocritically” (p. 100). The fullest and best discussion of the debate is found in Peter Holland, The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 193 ff.

  17. Richard Rorty, “Method, Social Science, Social Hope,” in Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980 (Minneapolis, 1982), p. 193.

  18. Knapp and Michaels (n. 3 above), p. 742. See also Stanley Fish, “Consequences,” Critical Inquiry 11 (1985): 433-58.

  19. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, N.J., 1979), pp. 360-77. The difficulties of remaining edifying—or of deciding whether a given philosopher belongs in one or the other camp—are suggested in Rorty's “Is Derrida a Transcendental Philosopher?” in his Essays on Heidegger and Others, Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 119-28.

Douglas Young (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Young, Douglas. “The Play-World of William Wycherley.” In The Feminist Voices in Restoration Comedy, pp. 85-157. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

[In the following essay, Young offers brief synopses of Wycherley's plays, a discussion of society in Wycherley's time, and an examination of women's roles in the plays.]

William Wycherley was a contemporary of Sir George Etherege and, like Sir George, was a well-known figure in the real beau monde of the Restoration aristocracy. Recent research has established 28 May 1641, “as the most probable date” of his birth (Cook and Swannell, eds., Introduction xvii). Wycherley died on New Year's Eve 1715, and was buried at St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, “a stone's throw from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane” (xxvi), and a “spot of a walk past Will's Coffee House” (Connely 335). Wycherley was born at Clive Hall near Shrewsbury, the eldest child of Daniel Wycherley who managed the estate of the marquis of Winchester. The marquis was a Royalist supporter who was imprisoned by the Puritans during the Commonwealth. Daniel Wycherley acquired large tracts of land and established himself as a prosperous and ruthless gentleman with a passion for litigation (Rogers 19).

When young Wycherley was fifteen, his father sent him to France to avoid a Puritan education and to join the Royalist faction exiled there. William was sent to the southwest provincial town of Angoulême where he remained for five years. Presumably, Wycherley received his basic education under a tutor there. According to biographer Willard Connely, the majority of the tutors available were Jesuits, which would explain Wycherley's conversion to Catholicism during this time (17). The young Wycherley also became familiar with the French language, manners, and culture due mainly to his introduction to the salon of the Marquise de Montausier, wife of the governor of the province and daughter of Madame de Rambouillet, one of the leaders of Parisian society (Rogers 20). It was in this cultural atmosphere that young Wycherley developed his taste for the arts and courtly society.

In 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne of England, Wycherley returned from France and was admitted as a student to the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court in London. He also spent a brief period at Oxford, long enough to convert his religion back to Protestantism (21). The Inner Temple offered Wycherley a convenient location for observing the fashionable life of London under the restored King. Wycherley had little love for the legal profession. Instead, he spent most of his time involved in the life surrounding the Inner Temple. This included attending the theatre, frequenting the coffee houses and taverns, and seeing and being seen at Whitehall or in St. James's Park. The people that Wycherley observed and the places where he spent his time all became a part of his play-world.

Though the evidence is not conclusive, Wycherley's biographers believe that he may have been sent to Spain in 1665 as attache to Sir Richard Fanshawe, ambassador to Spain (24; Connely 48). Wycherley's tour of Spain acquainted him with the plays of Calderon, the source of at least portions of the plots for his first two plays (Holland 41 and 65; Rogers 37 and 52).1 Like most of the fashionable courtiers, Wycherley served in the navy in the Dutch war over trade and maritime rights when he returned to England in 1665.2 Wycherley's first known publication was the long, comic poem in rhyming couplets entitled Hera and Leander in Burlesque, published anonymously in 1669 (Cook and Swannell xviii-xix). It was after the publication of this poem that Wycherley is believed to have started the first of his four plays. Holland concludes that Love in a Wood; or, St. James's Park was completed sometime in 1670 (38), but it was not entered in the Stationers Register until 6 October 1671 (Cook and Swannell xix). The London Stage indicates that the date of the first performance is not known, but is believed to have been 7 March 1671, and produced by the King's Company at the Theatre Royal (1: 181). Wycherley's other three plays in order of production are The Gentleman-Dancing-Master (1672), The Country Wife (1675), and The Plain-Dealer (1676).

Wycherley's first play gained him fame among the courtiers as well as a mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland. The Duchess of Cleveland was Barbara Palmer, the lady with whom Charles II spent his first night as the restored King. According to John Downes, Wycherley's second play, The Gentleman-Dancing-Master was “liked indifferently” (qtd in The London Stage 1: 181). Wycherley's third play gained him both plaudits and controversy, and ranks as one of the classics of the Restoration period. His last play, The Plain-Dealer, was considered by Dryden and other contemporaries to be better than The Country Wife (Holland 96), but most modern critics disagree with that assessment.3

In 1678, Wycherley contracted a fever and during his illness had the “high Favour” of being visited at his lodgings by King Charles. According to John Dennis, King Charles was very much affected by Wycherley's weakened condition and gave him five hundred pounds to go to France to a noted health resort (2: 411). Wycherley returned to England in the spring of 1679 and appeared to be fully recovered. But Katherine Rogers conjectures that Wycherley's fever was encephalitis, “an acute inflammation of the brain which often leaves permanent scars with loss of specific mental functions.” Rogers concludes that Wycherley suffered loss of memory and the ability to organize or concentrate long enough to produce an effective literary or dramatic composition (99-100).

The same year he returned to England Wycherley married the Countess of Drogheda, a relationship that was to cause him much difficulty. King Charles did not approve of the match and Wycherley was no longer favored at Court. Wycherley also became entangled in litigation involving the estate of the Countess, and the Countess herself proved to be shrewish by nature, “an insanely jealous virago” (103). The Countess died in 1681, leaving Wycherley with her lawsuits and his own creditors and, the following year, he was arrested for debt and placed in Newgate Prison.

On 14 December 1685, King James II attended a performance at Court of The Plain-Dealer which pleased him and called to his attention Wycherley's plight. The King paid Wycherley's debts and he was released from prison. Wycherley also received a pension until James lost the throne of England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Wycherley's father, who considered his son a spendthrift and ignored Wycherley's incarceration at Newgate, left his estate to Wycherley's nephew. To his son he left only a small income which allowed him to manage a precarious existence as an elder wit at Will's Coffee-House, his reputation securely established by his dramatic efforts (112).

Eleven days before his death, Wycherley married a young woman named Elizabeth Jackson. His purpose in marrying her was to disinherit his nephew. Following Wycherley's death, Elizabeth Jackson did win Daniel Wycherley's estate through litigation, then promptly married Captain Thomas Shrimpton, the man who had arranged her marriage to Wycherley and who had been her lover.4 Such a matrimonial intrigue might well have come out of Wycherley's play-world. Had he lived to see this turn of events and had the benefit of esthetic distance, the “old lion in satire” (Connely 305) might well have been pleased, if not particularly amused, with the way he had recorded human nature in his play-world.


William Wycherley, like Etherege, set his plays within the beau monde but the attitudes of the two authors toward that world are distinctly different. When critics discuss Etherege they are likely to mention his “light, cool, easy” prose, or to describe him as a “brilliant butterfly” of “extraordinary charm” (Kronenberger 54; Dobree, Restoration Comedy 58). The critical view of Wycherley is quite a different one. Historian G. N. Clark calls Wycherley “a coarse, powerful, downright portrayer of folly, affectation, and vice” (The Later Stuarts 354), while critic Clifford Leech, referring specifically to Love in a Wood, sees Wycherley as having a “tougher temper” than Etherege and an “under tone of sharpness” (“Restoration Comedy: The Earlier Phase” 179). But Bonamy Dobree offers the most appropriate description of Wycherley's style: “His weapon was rounded at the point; he used, not a rapier, but a bludgeon” (82).

Virtually all critics agree that Wycherley is subject to “violent extremes” in his satire, yet some see him as the “great Puritan” of Restoration drama. Rarely is a character in a Wycherley play free from some kind of tainted excess; rarely does a character escape his stinging satire, whether lady, gentleman, or fop. Indeed, even the so-called heroes in plays are destructive to others or to themselves as Wycherley sets out to expose human folly and failure. Wycherley's perspective of his beau monde is a dark one, and one filled with ambiguities.

Only the character of his virtuous woman remains untainted, but often at her own peril. She is threatened with destruction by those around her, often by the gallants who pursue her. They would deceive her for their own ends, or else they are incapable of understanding her or believing in her. Their flaws impair their vision of the lady and the ideals for which she stands. The result is that the virtuous woman stands apart from the other characters in the beau monde and she is in conflict with their appearances, attitudes, and value systems. Wycherley plays a different sort of love-game with his principal characters. Though his conclusions about the status of women are similar to those found in the Etherege plays, his approach is very different and often far more abstract and idealistic. The roles of the virtuous women in Wycherley's plays are best understood by exploring the value systems of the other characters with whom they are in conflict.


Wycherley's first play, Love in a Wood, begins the process of establishing the conflict of values between the virtuous lady and the other characters in the play. Except for the virtuous Christina, all the characters involved in Wycherley's love-game of disguise, trial, and darkness attempt to present themselves as better than they are and, as a result, deceive themselves. Self-deception and, in Valentine's case, self-righteousness, prevent the characters from differentiating between truth and what is the appearance of truth. Wycherley uses this inability to discern truth to cast some dark shadows over the beau monde that “easie Etherege” either never knew or else did not choose to relate.


Wycherley, like Etherege in his first play, uses a multiple plot structure in Love in a Wood. Though his single low plot has little to do with the main action of the play, Wycherley does manage to integrate the actions and characters of his high and middle plot successfully. The middle plot involving the gallant Ranger and his lady Lydia cannot be differentiated from the romantic conflict in the high plot involving the gallant Valentine and his lady Christina. Only Ranger and Lydia participate in a repartee that is similar to the traditional love-duel as seen in the Etherege plays. The high plot has no love-duel between gallant and lady, but is more akin to the courtly romance in the high plot of The Comical Revenge.

The plot revolves around the traditional comic motif of mistaken identity, but in this play the serious flaws in character do not offer much in the way of comic relief and the final discovery of true identities is less than mirthful. The gallant Valentine is guilty of excessive jealousy and Ranger, of pride and self-deception, while Lydia lacks the necessary wit and restraint in her pursuit of Ranger. Only Christina is unblemished, yet she becomes the victim of the flaws found in the other characters.

At the opening of the play we learn that Valentine has been banished because of a duel he fought to protect Christina's honor. During his absence Christina has cloistered herself from the world to await his return. Ranger, however, mistakes a masked lady in St. James's Park for Christina and pursues her. The masked lady is really Lydia who has been following Ranger to insure his constancy to her. The result of all of this is that Valentine, who returns from exile unexpectedly, accuses Christina of inconstancy in spite of her pleas of innocence, while Ranger, who has been rebuked by Christina, accuses her falsely of having an affair with him. Efforts by another gallant, Vincent, to mediate the tangled affair and exonerate Christina are unsuccessful.

In the darkness and confusion of St. James's Park, there is a reconciliation in which true identities are revealed and the proper couples finally matched. Wycherley, however, leaves the certainty of a future harmonious relationship between Valentine and Christina in doubt. Since Christina is the character of the virtuous woman in the play, this is a matter of some concern. To clearly understand Wycherley's purpose for her in the play, we must first look at the gallants he has matched her with in the play-world.


Since Valentine and Ranger are involved in romantic affairs with ladies, presumably they would qualify as traditional restoration gallants. But, as shall be seen, neither measures up and both create considerable difficulty for Christina.

Valentine is an uneasy reminder of the character of Colonel Bruce in the romantic plot of The Comical Revenge. His excessive jealousy is much like Bruce's concept of honor and valor. It is so strong that, as Vincent observes, he is in danger of “turning the daggers point on yourself” (2. 4. 47).5 As with Aurelia's secret love for Bruce, Valentine's jealousy of Christina approaches a disease that “only Death the jealous eyes can close” (50).

Valentine arrives at Vincent's lodgings unaware that Clerimont, the man he has dueled, is now out of danger of death. But Valentine's concern is not over Clerimont's life or even his own. It is the welfare of his mistress at the hands of “her relations” (47) which has made him risk return from exile. Vincent indicates that Valentine's fear is needless as far as Christina is concerned:

… how cou'd Clerimont hope to subdue her heart, by the assault of her honour?
Pish, it might be the stratagem of a rival, to make me desist.
For shame, if 'twere not rather to vindicate her, than satisfie you, I wou'd not tell you, how like a Penelope she has behav'd her self in your absence.


Vincent relates to Valentine how Christina has shut herself away from the world as if in mourning to await his return.

… I say she put her self into mourning for you—lock'd up her self in her chamber, this month for you—shut out her barking Relations for you—has not seen the Sun, or face of man, since she saw you—thinks, and talks of nothing but you—sends to me daily, to hear of you—and in short (I think) is mad for you …


At this point Ranger arrives and, with Valentine concealed, reveals that the woman he has followed from the park is Christina. When Ranger leaves, Vincent cannot convince Valentine that the gallant has made “some gross mistake” (50).

The next day (act four, scene three), Vincent tells Valentine that he has visited Christina's maid and has been assured that the lady has not left her house since Valentine's hasty departure following his duel. But Valentine will not believe him:

My ill luck has taught me to credit my misfortunes and doubt my happiness.
But Fortune we know inconstant.
And all of her Sex.
Will you judge of Fortune by your experience, and not do your Mistress the same justice: Go see her, and satisfie your self and her; for if she be innocent, consider how culpable you are, not only in your censures of her, but in not seeing her since your coming.
If she be innocent, I shou'd be afraid to surprize her, for her sake; if false, I shou'd be afraid to surprize her, for my own.
To be jealous, and not inquisitive, is as hard as to love extreamly, and not be something jealous.
Inquisitiveness as seldom cures jealousie, as drinking in a Fever quenches the thirst.

(4. 3. 81).

Valentine places Christina in a generalized category “of her Sex,” and makes no effort to relate her to the reality of his experience, or what sort of woman he knows her to be. He is as misguided as the character of Alderman Gripe in the low plot, who has hidden his lecherous instincts behind his cloak of self-righteousness.

Ranger arrives at this point to report the letter he has received from Christina in which she requests a rendezvous with him. This is a counterfeit letter Lydia has written in Christina's name in order to test Ranger's constancy to her. Ranger, of course, has arranged to meet Christina at Vincent's lodgings. Unfortunately, Christina arrives there at just the wrong time, having just heard from her maid of Valentine's return. For some reason, not clear in the script, Wycherley allows Ranger to leave Vincent's lodgings long enough to set up the confrontation between Valentine and Christina. Valentine threatens to leave, for “I wou'd not make a man jealous” (86). He concludes that Christina has “not the least of love” for him, and that she is guilty of “desimulation.” Christina's tears lead Vincent to conclude that she is innocent: “her tongue, and eyes, together with that floud that swells 'em, do vindicate her heart” (86).

Ranger's return forces Valentine to retire behind the door and conceal himself again. Ranger confronts Christina with the letter which she denies writing: “The Paper is a stranger to me, I never writ it; you are abus'd” (88). In order to “justifie my self” and not be laughed at, Ranger lies, declaring that he spent the preceding night in the lady's chambers. The false accusation is denied by Christina, but not before Valentine has drawn his sword:

If he lies, I revenge her; if it be true, I revenge my self.


Vincent sees Valentine draw his sword and “thrust him back, and shuts the dore upon him before he was discover'd by Ranger” (89). To add to the confusion, Lydia appears disguised as Christina to keep the rendezvous she had set up in the counterfeit letter. She sees Christina and believes herself victim of a counterplot involving her. Lydia leaves quickly and Valentine disappears as well. Later, in St. James's Park, Vincent finds Valentine and attempts to explain the circumstances of the counterfeit letter. He urges Valentine to forget his jealousy:

Open but your eyes, and the Fantastick Goblin's vanish'd, and all your idle fears, will turn to shame; for Jealousie, is the basest cowardize.

(5. 1. 101).

But Valentine seems bent on not opening his eyes, and he thus must learn the truth of the matter in the darkness of the park. Christina, mistaking him for Ranger, pleads her cause and the injustice Ranger has done her. Valentine hears a reprise of the events as the audience knows them and is brought from darkness into light, or so it would appear:

Come, dear Christina, the Jealous, like the Drunken, as his punishment, with his offence.


Apparently, Valentine's repentance is not convincing to Christina, for as he holds her by the hand she “seems to struggle to get from him,” Wycherley notes in the stage direction following Valentine's speech.

This is Wycherley's only notation regarding Christina's reaction. She has no lines, and the action moves quickly to another part of the park to present a similar scene of mistaken identity involving Lydia and Ranger. Indeed, the two are given only one more exchange that results in a very uneasy reconciliation:

Come, dear Madam, what yet angry? jealousie sure is much more pardonable before marriage, than after it; but to morrow, by the help of the Parson, you will put me out of all my fears.
I am afraid then you wou'd give me my revenge, and make me jealous of you; and I had rather suspect your faith, than you shou'd mine.

(5. 2. 111).

Perhaps Valentine means that a parson will protect him from his own vice of jealousy. But Christina doesn't understand it in that way, and neither do we. To be trusted, Christina must have the “help of a Parson.” There is no question of Valentine's virtue, but Christina sees that in his eyes she remains under suspicion and that suspicion may carry over into marriage in which Valentine would seek retribution. In short, here at the end of the play Valentine places himself in the position of judging Christina once again. Since he has misjudged her before, Christina fears that in their marriage he might do it again. “I had rather suspect your faith, than you shou'd mine.” The result here is an uneasy truce between the two as they face the prospect of matrimony with Christina seeking from Valentine an assurance of faith and trust. She seeks the kind of faith and trust that all along she has exhibited for him which he could not see because of his jealousy and self-righteousness.

Valentine, then, lacks qualities usually associated with the typical Restoration gallant. His self-righteousness and excessive jealousy are atypical for the traditional gallant in pursuit of a lady. Valentine is never amused, never detached. He is a victim of his excessive passion which prevents him from discerning reality from the appearance of things. In the end these flaws make it difficult for Christina to give him her full trust and confidence. The last words spoken by Valentine do not seem to indicate, as Rose Zimbardo contends, that Christina “manages to cure the jealousy of Valentine” or that Valentine necessarily “learns to trust his mistress” (Wycherley's Drama 38). Instead, they indicate that Valentine's excessive jealousy may continue to be a problem in their relationship and Christina's final lines make it clear that she is well aware of that.


The other candidate for the gallant, Ranger, is more in the tradition of the Etheregean hero, a Sir Frederick or a Courtall. But Ranger lacks the intellectual detachment of either, and his relationship with Christina is proof of this. In the first scene of the play, however, Ranger gives every indication that he will qualify as the libertine-gallant. Women are treated by Ranger in an off-hand, detached manner, setting up our presumed hero for that woman who will not allow herself to be treated in such a way:

But she [Lydia] is more troublesom than a wife that lies in, because she follows you to your haunts; why do you allow her that priviledge before her time?
Faith, I may allow her any priviledge and be to hard for her yet; how do you think I have cheated her to night? Women are poor credulous Creatures, easily deceived.
We are poor credulous Creatures when we think 'em so.

(1. 2. 21).

Ranger's inconstancy with Lydia is a characteristic familiar to the Etheregean gallant. What is different in Wycherley's play is that Ranger's flippancy is allowed to be undercut by Vincent's response to it, and it is Vincent who is to be Wycherley's spokesman and commentator on the action of the play. This bit of dialogue also introduces Lydia. It is an unflattering glimpse of her as a lady who pursues her gallant, indicating both a lack of self-restraint and of wit. It is not the sort of strategy one would expect from a lady engaged in a battle of wits with a gallant.

In the same scene, we also get a view of Dapperwit, a pretender of wit, in the low plot. As Vincent notes, it is Dapperwit who is “still betraying your best friends” (22) in order to gain a woman. Vincent's comment may apply just as well to Ranger, for it is Ranger who becomes the cause of Valentine's jealousy. Even when Ranger is made aware of the fact that he is obstructing the romance of a fellow gallant, he continues his pursuit of Christina. It is in act two, scene four that Ranger learns this. Vincent advises him not to attempt to see Christina again, that it is “not fairly done to Rival your friend Valentine in his absence,” and that considering the fate of Valentine's other rival, Clerimont, it is dangerous: “I would not advise you to attempt it again” (2. 4. 49). But Ranger ignores both the danger and the duty to friendship.

Ranger is quite willing to believe the counterfeited letter from Lydia suggesting a meeting between himself and Christina, even though Vincent, when he reads it, questions it as “the stile of a woman of honour” (4. 3. 83). This leads us to questions of probability in the play-world: would Ranger be so foolish as to believe a letter from Christina that is written in a style unbecoming to a lady? Would Lydia, who is also presumed to be a lady, attempt to counterfeit a letter written in an unbecoming style? Wycherley, the novice writer attempting his first play, must be faulted here for his clumsiness. But at least his purpose remains clear in spite of the improbability: Ranger should have recognized as Vincent does that the letter is counterfeit:

I must confess, I have none of the little letters, half name, half title, like your Spanish Epistles Dedicatory; but that a man so frequent in honourable intrigues, as you are, should not know the summons of an impudent common woman, from that of a person of honour.
Christina is so much a Person of Honour, she'l own what she has writ, when she comes.


But when Christina does arrive at Vincent's lodgings seeking Valentine, she denies the letter. Vincent repeats Ranger's own words and Ranger, out of fear of being laughed at, commits a most ungallant act:

Christine is a Person of Honour, and will own what she has written, Ranger.
So, the Comedy begins, I shall be laugh'd at sufficiently, if I do not justifie my self; I must set my impudence to hers, she is resolv'd to deny all I see, and I have lost all hope of her. (Aside).


You will deny, too, Madam, that I follow'd you last night from the Park, to your lodging, where I stay'd with you till morning; you never saw me before I warrant.


Both Vincent and Valentine know this is a lie and that Ranger could not have spent the night with Christina. Ranger appeared at Vincent's lodgings just after his first meeting with Christina. It was at that time in his conversation with Vincent, overheard by Valentine, that Ranger admits being “turn'd out of doors” (2. 4. 48) by a lady whose name he does not know. Indeed, he must ask Vincent who the lady is.

The effect of his statement is to motivate Valentine to draw his sword and, in the excitement of the moment, Lydia appears and becomes aware of Ranger's falseness and quickly exits. Ranger is revealed to all as false and, moreover, becomes a violator of the gentlemanly rules governing the relationship of the Restoration gallant with a lady. The true gallant would never reveal to others a “kindness” from a lady. Only fops and fools reveal to others their amours with ladies of their own class. The gallant will protect the honor of the lady, as does Courtall with Lady Cockwood in She Wou'd if She Cou'd and Dorimant with Bellinda in The Man of Mode.

Ranger's failure to protect Christina's honor and the way he is easily deceived by appearances, whether they be masks, disguises, or letters, indicates that he lacks the attributes and qualities of a successful Restoration gallant.

In act five, scene one, Ranger, who has been indiscreet and ungentlemanly in his conduct, commits a distressing act. It occurs when he encounters Lydia in St. James's Park. Again, he is fooled by darkness and a mask, mistaking Lydia, who does not speak, for Christina. Ranger's repentance and confession in the scene are negated by what amounts to a physical attack on the presumed Christina. Ranger's confessed “natural inconstancy” (5. 1. 106) turns to uncontrollable anger provoked by the silence of the lady:

But, Madam, because I intend to see you no more, I'le take my leave of you for good and all; since you will not speak, I'le try if you will squeak—(Goes to throw her down, she squeeks).
Mr. Ranger, Mr. Ranger—
Fye, fye, you need not ravish Christina sure, that loves you so.


Vincent is confused by the darkness as well, believing Ranger to be Valentine, and Lydia, Christina, but he is not confused by the action he sees: a man about to “ravish” a woman. Ranger's frustration at the silence of the lady has made him lose his self-control. Clearly, Ranger is a seriously flawed gallant, lacking in detachment and judgment.

Wycherley has now established in his play-world principal gallants who are both tainted and flawed by their excesses. What, then, of the ladies they pursue?


We have already noted some serious inadequacies in the character of Lydia. Much like the Widow Rich in The Comical Revenge, she over-commits herself to her gallant to the point of following him to his “haunts.” Indeed, she spies on Ranger to discover his faithlessness when she goes to St. James's Park in mask. However, she vows not to let Ranger know that she has discovered his inconstancy: “… the discovery of my anger to him now, wou'd be as mean as the discovery of my love to him before” (3. 2. 67). Though Ranger is aware of her pursuit (she is “more troublesom than a Wife”), he is not aware of this specific incident in the park. Thus, the park incident offers an opportunity for a repartee as each tries to prove the other was in St. James's Park the previous evening when Ranger chased the masked lady to Christina's house. Wycherley does not disappoint us, for this is a clever repartee, a true battle of wits between gallant and lady. Unfortunately, it is the only scene in the play that bears any resemblance to a traditional love-duel.

Indeed, Cousin, besides my business, another cause, I did not wait on you, was, my apprehension, you were gone to the Park, notwithstanding your promise to the contrary.
Therefore, you went to the Park, to visit me there, notwithstanding your promise to the contrary.
Who, I at the Park? when I had promis'd to wait upon you at your lodging; but were you at the Park, Madam?
Who, I at the Park? when I had promis'd to wait for you at home; I was no more at the Park than you were; were you at the park?
The Park had been a dismal desart to me, notwithstanding all the good company in't; if I had wanted yours.
Because it has been the constant endeavour of men to keep women ignorant, they think us so, but ‘tis that encreases our inquisitiveness, and makes us know them ignorant, as false; he is as impudent a dissembler as the widow Flippant … (Aside).


Neither denies being in the park, but neither confesses. Lydia seems to express in her “aside” the convictions of the virtuous woman. She sees herself as equal to her man, and she knows that the more men try to keep knowledge from women, the more women will seek knowledge and show men to be not only ignorant but false. This is her finest moment in the play. Unfortunately, it is short-lived, for as soon as Ranger departs she who has “dissembled well” is persuaded by her maid, Leonore, (the latter has materialized on stage without a direction from Wycherley) [Weales 122n], to put Ranger “to his tryal” (69). Lydia will counterfeit a letter from Christina to Ranger proposing an assignation. It is the same strategy used by Lady Cockwood in She Wou'd if She Cou'd and as unbecoming of Lydia as it was of Lady Cockwood. The difference is that such a strategy would be expected of Lady Cockwood but not of Lydia, particularly after she has handled herself so well in her confrontation with Ranger. Like Valentine, Lydia is obsessed by jealousy. The scene closes with Leonore's and Lydia's observations about that obsession:

What care the jealous take in making sure of ills, which they, but in imagination, cannot undergo.
Misfortunes are least dreadful, when most near. 'Tis less to undergo the ill, than fear.


When Lydia goes to Vincent's lodgings to note the outcome of the assignation she has attempted with her letter, she finds Ranger with Christina. Ranger has failed his “love tryal.”

She [Christina] deserves no envy, who will be shortly in my condition; his natural inconstancy, will prove my best revenge on her—on both.

(4. 3. 89).

Lydia has her retribution, for Ranger is a tattered gallant after his confrontation with Christina concerning the letter. As a result, he repents in a soliloquy at the end of the scene:

Lydia, triumph, I now am thine again; of Intrigues, honourable or dishonourable, and all sorts of ramblings, I take my leave.


But Ranger's reform has little to do with the actions of Lydia. It is based on his rejection by Christina and his being proven false in his effort to disgrace her. It is Lydia who provides the mechanism for reform, but it is Christina's virtue and honor that provide the impetus for his reform.

When true identities are revealed in St. James's Park, both face each other at a disadvantage. Both are in weak positions and are guilty as accused by the other. When explanations are finally made, Ranger goes to take Lydia's hand:

Come not near me.
Nay, you need not be afraid, I wou'd ravish you, now I know you.
And yet, Leonore, I think 'tis but justice, to pardon the fault, I made him commit? (Apart to Leonore, Ranger listens).
You consider it right, Cousin; for indeed, you are but merciful to your self in it.
Yet, if I wou'd be rigorous, though I made the blot, your over-sight has lost the game.
But 'twas rash womans play, Cousin, and ought not to be play'd again, let me tell you.

(5. 1. 197-98).

It is Lydia, not Ranger, who has “lost the game,” for she gives into him and allows herself to be rebuked by him, and ultimately to be ruled by him. Though Lydia wins this tarnished gallant, she does not gain either equality or mutual respect. She is accused of “rash womans play” by Ranger and warned by him never to do it again. This, in spite of the fact that he has attempted to “ravish” her in the park.

Like Bellinda in Etherege's The Man of Mode, Lydia has an awareness of her situation. She recognizes the need for restraint and wit in dealing with her gallant, but does not have the capacity to employ either. She is too jealous of her lover, and counters his inconstancy with masks and intrigues rather than wit. These strategems only serve to diminish her position in her relationship with her gallant. In the end, she is neither his equal nor in command, but is rebuked and placed in a subservient position.


This brings us, almost by a process of elimination, to Christina, a character who seems to belong in a courtly romance. She loves perfectly and remains faithful while being tested almost beyond endurance by her jealous lover. She does not seem to be a product of the beau monde. In the beginning she is cloistered like a nun awaiting a savior. Her mourning and contemplation are interrupted by the intrusion of the beau monde in the characters of Lydia and Lady Flippant. They force their way into her house, just as Ranger does in search of a face behind a mask. As a result of her encounters with Lydia, Flippant, and Ranger, Christina is drawn out of her protective shelter into a different sort of world. This world is a dark one, a defective one that is full of conflict, jealousy, and self-deception. In either world, Christina is the only one who seems to know the truth. As she tells it, the original cause of the duel was “not Valentine's vindication of my honour, but Clerimont's jealousie of him” (2. 2. 20).

Christina, then, has been forced to cloister herself because of an act in the courtly world by rivals for her affection. She has no part in this, for it is clear that her interest is in Valentine. Now she is being forced out of the cloister by another act, this time in the beau monde of which she again is innocent and has no part. In this case, only she is certain of her innocence. Vincent attempts to perceive the truth and tries to convince Valentine and Ranger, but only Christina really knows what is true.

In this defective and mannered world that Wycherley creates, no one accepts the truth, and innocence is forever being threatened literally and figuratively by darkness. Since virtually all the important scenes in the play occur at night or in darkness, it seems clear that Wycherley has a symbolic intent that contrasts sharply with the merry often bright beau monde created by Etherege. Indeed, Ranger loves the darkness and masks, both of which can make things appear to be what they are not. And in the darkness, he notes, women can roam freely and incognito:

And now no woman's modest, or proud, for her blushes are hid, and the rubies on her lips are died, and all sleepy and glimmering eyes have lost their attraction.

(2. 1. 30).

On the other hand, Christina is thrust into that darkness where innocence is at the mercy of its “veil.” Wycherley creates a polarity between the veil of darkness and the light of innocence that, as Rose Zimbardo observes, is the core of satire:

Satire bears as its core a contrast between the vision of corruption it presents and the ideal existence, usually some golden lost age of innocence, for which it longs

(Wycherley's Drama 23).

Christina is Wycherley's representative of that “lost age of innocence” that is found in that “ideal existence.” He has designated her as the one who is to bring the light of truth to the dark world, and to attempt to bring that truth to a lover who is the victim of unwarranted jealousy.

This is hardly the same concept of the virtuous woman as developed in the plays of Sir George Etherege. Wycherley has created a different sort of play-world for his women. To be sure, his plays have the flavor of the Town, but the brilliance and gaiety Etherege saw in the beau monde are seen through Wycherley's looking glass darkly. The fashionable society is flawed and its mannered deceptions are measured against the innocence and truth of the virtuous lady. In three of Wycherley's four plays, such a lady will appear and be juxtaposed to the ladies and gentlemen of deception who bear the brunt of Wycherley's satire. This is Wycherley's dramatic method and purpose. Most agree, however, that Love in a Wood is an imperfect example of that method and purpose.


The imperfection that critics cite most often in Wycherley's first play is the ending. Critics have difficulty in understanding the abrupt transformation of the characters of Lydia and Ranger. Why does Wycherley allow such flawed characters to look forward to apparent wedded bliss? A look at the final passages in the play may be helpful in dealing with the problem. Ranger, in his first speech, has followed Christina's line of reasoning. Christina says to Valentine that after their marriage she fears that he will seek revenge and try to make her jealous. She says in this tenuous reconciliation with Valentine that she would rather suspect Valentine's faith than have him suspect hers. Ranger then follows this up:

Cousin Lydia, I had rather suspect your faith too, than you shou'd mine; there fore let us even marry tomorrow, that I may have my turn of watching doging, standing under the window at the dore, behind the hanging or—
But if I cou'd be desperate now, and give you up my liberty, cou'd you find in your heart to quit all other engagements, and voluntarily turn your self over to one woman, and she a wife too? Cou'd you away with the insupportable bondage of Matrimony?
You talk of Matrimony as irreverently, as my Lady Flippant; the Bondage of Matrimony, no—
The end of Marriage, now is liberty,
And two are bound—to set each other free.

(5. 2. 111-12).

Critics have varying interpretations of the meaning of this final couplet. Birdsall concludes that there is to be no change in the gallant following marriage: “A defier of conventional morality to the end, Ranger continues to champion the cause of his own freedom and pleasure” (120). Holland sees the couplet as “cynical,” and that the marriage of Ranger and Lydia “more likely will represent a freedom outside the [social] form” (44). It may be “more likely,” but there is no conclusive evidence to indicate that the marriage will follow such a path. Moreover, how does the couplet support “cynicism”? Would not merriment rather than cynicism be the more appropriate description? Is Ranger serious when he catalogs his spying efforts: “watching, doging, standing under the window at the dore, behind the hanging …”? Is he not simply making fun of Lydia's earlier actions, or of Valentine's and Christina's real fear, or of jealousy itself? Kathleen Lynch's idea that the couplet is simply “flippant raillery” (165) is no solution to the problem since “raillery” in the Restoration sense has a double-barreled meaning: it is both congenial and cynical (Sharma 276).

A reading of the couplet “straight up” indicates neither cynicism nor potential inconstancy or ambiguity. Ranger states that no, marriage is not bondage, that now the end of marriage is liberty, and that together in wedlock the two are bound to set each other free. The couplet seems to indicate the Hobbesian position of a merger between the social world and the right of nature. In short, Ranger seems to be complying in this final couplet with the Hobbesian idea that man's nature compromises with the social system to create order.

The curious mix of reactions to the end of the play is caused by Wycherley's failure to present characters who fit the premise of the couplet and the happy ending it presumes. We are not satisfied that any of the characters deserve such a happy resolution, and this may be the reason for a cynical response to it. There has been little to admire in the actions of Ranger, Lydia or Valentine, and one might wonder why Christina would continue to be attracted and willing to marry Valentine since there is such a potential for an uneasy marital relationship.

The problem is that Wycherley is much more interested in exposing the vice and hypocrisy of the social world than the bringing together of these couples. A look forward to The Country Wife and The Plain-Dealer makes that apparent. Wycherley is a satirist and his preoccupation is the exposure and punishment of vice and folly. His method is to contrast it with what should be, or the ideal as represented by the character of the virtuous woman. In Love in a Wood, Wycherley has tried for a comic resolution that does not fit the objective of the piece: the exposure of the jealous, envious, and hypocritical social world represented by flawed gallants and ladies who lure innocence (Christina) into their dark world and threaten it. The actions of Ranger, Lydia and Valentine are reprehensible and it is difficult to accept their “reform” and potential for happiness at the end of the play. Indeed, Wycherley himself seems unsettled about the matter when one considers the last lines he gives Christina. They reflect doubt on the prospects of a happy marriage with Valentine if he cannot give her mutual respect and faith without the assurance of a “Parson.”

In this first play, then, Wycherley's traditional comic ending fails to mesh with the actions of his characters in his play-world. In his later plays, which are riddled with vice and hypocrisy, Wycherley will match the appropriate character, that of the virtuous lady, with a gallant who will ultimately be worthy enough to pursue the ideals she represents. As with Christina, Wycherley will use the lady as a contrasting figure who is placed at her peril against the forces of appearance and disguise who will dominate the foreground of the play. Often she will even be made to seem naive and foolish by dissemblers and deceivers in the foreground of the action. But by the end of the play, the indestructible ideals and values of the virtuous lady will prevail and she wins her objective. On this last point, Christina's victory in Love in a Wood seems doubtful or, at best, tentative. The issue of Valentine's obsessive jealousy is not satisfactorily resolved, and it would appear that Christina is confined forever to the role of proving her virtues to him. Wycherley in Love in a Wood has established an ideal for his virtuous lady, but has been ineffective or, at the very least, unclear in determining her interaction with the corrupt social world he wishes to expose. By his third play, The Country Wife, Wycherley achieves that interaction which provides in clear terms the contrast between the ideals and values of the virtuous lady and those of the corrupt social world.


Wycherley's second play, The Gentleman-Dancing-Master, is the only one that places the love-duel of the virtuous lady and her gallant in the foreground of the action. It contains only a few hints of that dark, misanthropic spirit found in Love in a Wood. Indeed, much of the action takes the form of a mannered farce (Weales 126), involving James Formal, father of the virtuous lady, Hippolita, and Nathaniel Paris, Hippolita's intended. Formal, who takes the name of Don Diego, because of his fetish for Spanish clothing, customs, and habits, has lengthy debates with Paris, who has a fetish for French fashion and takes the name of Monsieur De Paris. These overextended debates between the two over the virtues of each country's fashion, as opposed to English fashion, may have proved tiresome to Wycherley's Restoration audience. At any rate, The London Stage indicates that the play had only a six-day run and was seldom repeated (1: 192).


The plot concerns the efforts of 14-year-old Hippolita to extricate herself from a commitment to an arranged marriage her father has made for her with Monsieur De Paris. Pretending a joke, Hippolita persuades De Paris to invite the young gallant, Gerard, to break into the house so that she might meet him. Gerard succeeds and it is love at first sight for the young couple. In order to continue seeing each other, Hippolita arranges for Gerard to pose as her dancing master. Through Hippolita's cleverness and deception, she is finally able to assert her will over her father, Don Diego, and Mrs. Caution, the woman who has been assigned to watch over her. A marriage between Hippolita and Gerard is a certainty by the end of the play. De Paris, on the other hand, ends up “keeping” Mrs. Flirt, a whore with whom he has had an affair during his courtship of Hippolita.


The Gentleman-Dancing-Master was first performed only four years after Etherege's She Wou'd if She Cou'd, and matches Sir George's presentation of the love-duel of gallant and lady. There are two principal differences in Wycherley's presentation of the couple. The first is that Wycherley's virtuous lady at fourteen is much younger than Sir George's Gatty, though at times she appears to be just as saucy. Like Gatty, Hippolita would enjoy being out on the Town:

To confine a Woman just in her rambling age! take away her liberty at the very time she shou'd use it! … to shut up a poor Girl at Fourteen, and hinder her budding. …

(1. 1. 130).

As indicated in an earlier chapter on marriage bargaining, fourteen was not an unusual age in Restoration society for a young woman to be out in the world and married. In this play, however, Wycherley chooses to emphasize Hippolita's tender age as well as her innocence on a number of occasions. Rose Zimbardo sees Hippolita as anticipating the frank virtue and modesty of Alithea, the virtuous lady in The Country Wife, indicating that Wycherley thought that old-fashioned virtues might still be possible even in a corrupt age (53).

There is certainly some basis for this comparison but, as shall be seen, Wycherley uses these qualities in these two characters for very different purposes. For instance, Hippolita uses her innocent virtue in part for wit and dissembling. This is something Alithea will never do. Alithea's virtue and modesty are based on knowledge rather than innocence and not the adventuresome qualities that are derived from such innocence, as seen in the characters of Gatty and Hippolita.

A second principal difference is Wycherley's presentation of the gallant in The Gentleman-Dancing-Master. Gerard is something less than a libertine. To be sure, he is presented with all the qualities associated with an aristocratic gentleman, but unlike Sir Frederick, Courtall, or Dorimant, Gerard is not involved in any intrigue with one or more mistresses. In his only encounter with other women in the play, Gerard has little use for Flirt or Pounce, the women who solicit a relationship with him and his fellow gallant, Martin. He is a contrast to the foppish De Paris who is an easy victim for Mrs. Flirt, succumbing to her lascivious charms the day before he is supposed to marry Hippolita. Except for the tavern scene in act one, scene one, Gerard is shown only at the home of Hippolita and in her presence.

What is known of Gerard is presented to Hippolita in the first scene of the play. He is described by De Paris as “a pretty man,” “Tall,” “handsom.” Hippolita asks the crucial question next: “Has he wit?” (1. 1. 133). It is the same question Dorimant asks in regard to Harriet in Etherege's The Man of Mode. De Paris's answer to this important question is that Gerard is “witty, brave and be bel humeur and well-bred” (133).

According to Monsieur De Paris, Gerard's only defects are that he has an English tailor, an English valet, eats at English eating-houses, can't dance a step, sing a French song, or swear “a French oatè” (133).

But Gerard's greatest fault is that he can't stand De Paris. It is this last fault that assures Hippolita that Gerard is, indeed, a gentleman. That Gerard cannot dance a step is especially amusing since Hippolita will have him pose throughout much of the play as her dancing master in order to disguise from her father the fact that he is her gallant.


Though Hippolita is capable of dissembling her father, Mrs. Caution, De Paris, and even Gerard, Wycherley emphasizes that quality so obvious in the character of Christina in Love in a Wood: innocence. The difference is that Christina was a mature woman, but innocent of the dark and guilty world of appearances and disguises, whereas Hippolita is youthful and lacks the experience of love or the world. Both are cloistered for a time from the world, but it is Hippolita who is the spirited and perceptive one and being cloistered has made her more sensitive and observant than her counterpart in Wycherley's first play. Because of this, she has no lack of awareness of the world about her, including its appearances and disguises. Hippolita's world, however, is not a dark one, only one she has not experienced fully. Her opening lines with Prue, her maid, indicate this:

Not see a man!
Nor come near a man!—
No, Miss, but to be deny'd a man! and to have no use at all of a man!—
Hold, hold—your resentment is as much greater than mine, as your experience has been greater. …


Hippolita recognizes her limitations in regard to experience with the opposite sex. Still, she shows herself to be an astute observer when she asks Prue a question about her fiance of three days: “Is he a man?” Prue's answer reflects her knowledge of the world of appearances: “No, faith, he's but a Monsieur” (131). Prue's assessment is what the observant Hippolita had guessed from the beginning. She has concluded that Monsieur “debases” love as well as “Civility” and “Good Breeding more than a City Dancing-Master” (131). This is a clever bit of irony Wycherley has planted, for it will be Gerard's misfortune to pose as one of those debasers of civility and good-breeding.

Hippolita also establishes her independence of thought which will lead later to independent action. Wycherley's idea here would have been embraced by few in the Restoration society of 1672, the right of a woman to make her own choice of a mate:

He'll [De Paris] be your husband, if your father come tonight.
Or if I provide not my self with another in the meantime! For Fathers seldom chuse well, and I will no more take my Fathers choice in a Husband, than I would in a Gown or a Suit of Knots.


The seed of rebellion has been planted, but Hippolita must accept her father's choice unless she can provide another through her own ingenuity. Prue would have her go ahead and accept De Paris as a husband. Her experience in the world reflects the society's tolerance of inconstancy as a release from the bondage of an undesirable marriage:

… Methinks he's a pretty apish kind of Gentleman, like other Gentlemen, and handsom enough to lye with in the dark; when Husbands take their priviledges of a Wife.
Excellent Governess, you do understand the world, I see.
Then you shou'd be guided by me.
Art thou in earnest then, damn'd Jade? Wou'dst thou have me marry him? well—there are more poor young Women undone and married to filthy fellows, by the treachery and evil counsel of Chambermaids, then by the obstinacy and covetousness of Parents.


This is hardly innocent talk. It reflects wisdom beyond young Hippolita's years. It is the language of the idealist, but an idealist who must, in the end, face a practical world. By what means may Hippolita achieve her independent ideals in regard to husband and marriage and avoid a “protestant Nunnery”?

What if you did know any man, if you had an opportunity; cou'd you have confidence to speak to man first? But if you cou'd, how cou'd you come to him, or he to you? nay how cou'd you send to him? for though you cou'd write, which your Father in his Spanish prudence wou'd never permit you to learn, who shou'd carry the Letter? but we need not be concern'd with that, since we know not to whom to send it.


In the real world, as we have noted, the extent of education afforded a young lady in the Restoration period was governed by the father. Limiting the education of ladies was, in the comic sense of the play, “Spanish prudence,” but in the real world it was social tradition. Whether intentional or not, Wycherley here voices the practical difficulties of a young woman trying to make her way with limited means at her disposal. His solution to the problem, unfortunately, is one limited to the comic play-world. Gerard will come to her by breaking through the window of her chamber, an incident that throughout the play no one discovers. The incident is clumsy and improbable, but enables Wycherley to deal with the basic thesis of the play: how Hippolita will maintain the integrity of her idealism and still gain her desires in the world of the play.


In her first encounter with Mrs. Caution, Hippolita is once again a figure much like Gatty in Etherege's She Wou'd if She Cou'd. She tells Mrs. Caution that she “would take all the innocent liberty of the Town, to tattle to your men under a Vizard in the Play-houses, and meet 'em in Masquerade” (138). But the purpose of this encounter is quite different from that between Gatty and Ariana in Etherege's play. Sir George is introducing Gatty and Ariana to the audience, as well as differentiating between the two personalities. He is also mapping out the activities that may be expected from these two and indicating their “wildness” within the framework of the social system.

Wycherley's scene between Mrs. Caution and Hippolita, however, is designed to show a contrast between the two characters, highlighting Hippolita's virtue and wit as opposed to Mrs. Caution's lewdness which is disguised by Puritan prudishness. The subject of the conversation is dreams. Hippolita baits Mrs. Caution by telling her she dreams of a man. To Mrs. Caution, dreams are fine and a “Widow's comfort” (138). But Hippolita says she did more than dream, and Mrs. Caution is quick to accuse her of “young Harlotry.” But since she has the keys to all the rooms in the house, Mrs. Caution wonders how Hippolita could do more than dream. Hippolita indicates that she means she only enjoyed her dream. This is fine, says Mrs. Caution, for dreams are typical of a “modest young Woman.” But it was a “naughty dream,” says Hippolita:

… but to be delighted when we wake with a naughty dream, is a sin, Aunt; and I am so very scrupulous, that I wou'd as soon consent to a naughty man as to a naughty dream.
I do believe you.
I am for going into the Throng of Temptation.
There I believe you agen.
And making my self so familiar with them, that I wou'd not be concern'd for 'em a whit.
There I do not believe you.


I know you wou'd be masquerading; but worse wou'd come on 't, as it has done to others, who have been in a Masquerade, and are now Virgins but in Masquerade, and will not be their own Women agen as long as they live. The Children of this Age must be wise Children indeed, if they know their Fathers, since their Mothers themselves cannot inform 'em! O the fatal Liberty of this masquerading Age. …


The contrast between these two is obvious: Hippolita baiting and teasing her keeper, but also expressing a natural curiosity and desire, while Mrs. Caution seems especially nasty in her prudish condemnation of the age in which she declares women so promiscuous they cannot identify the father of their children. Throughout the play, Mrs. Caution is inventive in her efforts to turn anything that smacks of normal human behavior into something lewd and unnatural.

The affair between Hippolita and Gerard begins on a love at first sight basis. Even though Gerard has been summoned through Hippolita's trick on Monsieur De Paris, Hippolita equalizes her relationship with Gerard quickly. Gerard believes her to have the “Innocency of an Angel” (2. 1. 154). Hippolita sees immediately that his impression of her will be useful to her design. Her wit tells her that “the mask of simplicity and innocency is as useful to an intriguing Woman, as the mask of Religion to a Statesman. …” (154), certainly a precocious observation for a 14-year-old girl. Hippolita's strategy at this first meeting is to discredit Gerard, calling him a “dull, dull man of the Town … as dull as a country squire” (157) while, at the same time, affecting to gain his interest. She tells him that she has wealth which is her own, independent of her father, a twelve-hundred pound dowry. This is a deliberate ploy, and she will use it again later to test his constancy.

Gerard's efforts to take Hippolita from the house immediately are interrupted by the home-coming of Don Diego. In order to avert the suspicion of her father, Hippolita makes her gallant into a dancing master hired by De Paris to teach her. Because Mrs. Caution is so certain Gerard is not a dancing master, Don Diego feels compelled to insist the opposite, setting up a comic duel between the two. The effect of the comic duel is to provide the necessary lies that enable Gerard to hide his true identity:

… Sir, What's your Name? answer me to that, come.
His Name, why 'tis an easie matter to tell you a false Name, I hope.
So, must you teach him to cheat us.


Hippolita prevents the discovery of Gerard's identity and the fact that he cannot dance a step by using strategies to force her father, Mrs. Caution, and Monsieur De Paris to leave the room during the feigned dancing lessons. In act two, scene one, she tells them it is her first lesson and that she is not confident enough to learn and perform before others. Her strategies allow them to be alone. At the end of their first encounter, they arrange to meet again, but before that time Gerard must attempt to prove his love by learning some rudimentary dancing steps so that he may instruct his “sweet Miss.” He vows to rise to the occasion: “Love indeed has made a grave Gouty Statesman fight Duels … the Lawyer a Poet, and therefore may make me a Dancing-master” (167).


Like Etherege, Wycherley uses “asides” and soliloquies as well as songs as theatrical devices. The song at the end of act two in The Gentleman-Dancing-Master comments on the problem explored within the play. It deals with the question of the status of women in society, particularly as it pertains to love and marriage:

Since we poor slavish Women know
Our men we cannot pick and choose.
                    To him we like, why say no?
          And both our time and lover lose.
.....                    When opportunity is kind,
          Let prudent Woman be so too;
          And if the man be to your mind,
Till needs you must, ne'er let him go.
The Match soon made is happy still,
                    or only Love has there to do;
          Let no one marry 'gainst her will,
But stand off, when her Parents woo.
                    And only to their suits be coy,
          For she whom Joynter can obtain
                    To let a Fop her bed enjoy,
          Is but a lawful Wench for gain.


The key word in the song is “Love,” as opposed to a financial arrangement in marriage which, in effect, makes the female partner a “lawful Wench for gain,” or a whore with a marriage license. The song reflects the trap in which women found themselves in the seventeenth century, the same trap that Hippolita finds herself in at the moment, where love plays no role in the choice of her mate. She has found love so why can she not pursue it instead of being chained to a “Fop” by a “Joynter”? “When opportunity is kind, / Let prudent Woman be so too,” the song indicates.

Wycherley would in no way advocate such license to women, as suggested in the song. This is clearly seen in his treatment of Pounce and Flirt whom he lists in the “Persons” in the play as “common women.” Again, the key word is “Love,” or honor, or esteem, as illustrated and practiced by the virtuous women in his plays. Without exception, Wycherley's libertine women are always chastised or satirized.

But at this moment in this play, this song is for Hippolita like a call to arms or a resolution of defiance. Her statement at the end of act two indicates this as she reflects over the song's meaning and laments the “slavery” of women, first by their fathers and then by their husbands:

Our Parents who restrain our liberty,
But take the course to make us sooner free,
Though all we gain be but new slavery;
We leave our Fathers, and to Husbands fly.


Hippolita's defiance will be tempered by prudence when the time comes to consider putting the song's message into action. Gerard proposes at the end of act three that they elope in a “coach and six,” and Hippolita's first reaction is to be thrilled by the idea:

What young Woman of the Town cou'd ever say no to a Coach and Six, unless it were going into the country: A Coach and Six, 'tis not in the power of a fourteen year old to resist it.

(3. 1. 186).


In this speech Wycherley emphasizes Hippolita's youth and her anticipation of adventure. Of course, such an elopement for love would also fulfill the aspirations expressed in the song. But in act four, scene one, when the idea of the elopement becomes a reality and a distinct possibility, Hippolita must weigh her desires against the reality of her situation. This requires a maturity beyond her years, but allows her finally to assert true independence. In the process, she also establishes her equality with her gallant who, simply because of the circumstances, has the upper hand at this point.

Thus far, Hippolita has managed matters well in arranging for the gallant's presence and sustaining his interest. But to elope with Gerard at this point would only insure his complete ascendancy and superiority over her. It would be Hippolita who would be taking all the risks, sacrificing the protection and sanction of both guardian and father, fools though they may be. The second risk is even greater, the possible sacrifice of her honor as well as any real assurance of equality and independence in her new relationship.

This second risk has been amplified by expressions of doubt between the two regarding the methods of each in arranging the elopement. There is a hesitancy and distrust for a brief moment when they search each other out for motives. Wycherley turns this moment into a delightful repartee between the lovers. The doubting begins when Hippolita asks the naive Monsieur De Paris to step out and hold the door so that her father and Mrs. Caution will not enter. De Paris assumes, of course, that Hippolita does not wish the dance lesson to be interrupted, but actually his mission is to prevent the discovery of the elopement. He is quite willing to perform his duty since he thinks it is all a bit of fooling. Gerard's line following the departure of De Paris is a musing over his own part in the treachery. But indirectly, it is also a reference to the perpetrator of the action, Hippolita. Hippolita senses his uneasiness, and becomes uneasy herself that he would go along with “so treacherous a thing.” But the real question for Hippolita at this point is her position of dependence:

So, so, to make him hold the door, while I steal his Mistress is not unpleasant.
Ay, but wou'd you do so ill a thing, so treacherous a thing? faith 'tis not well.
Faith I can't help it. Since 'tis for your sake, come, Sweetest, is not this our way into the Gallery?
Yes, but it goes against my Conscience to be accessary to so ill a thing; you say you do it for my sake?
Alas, poor Miss! 'tis not against your Conscience, but against your modesty, you think to do it franckly.
Nay, if it be against my modesty too, I can't do it indeed.
Come, come, Miss, let us make haste, all's ready.
Nay, faith, I can't satisfie my scruple.
Come, Dearest, this is not a time for scruples nor modesty; modesty between Lovers is as impertinent as Ceremony between Friends, and modesty is now as unseasonable as on the Wedding night. …

(4. 1. 204).

Whether conscience or modesty, there is a seed of distrust within the mind of Hippolita which has taken root in the haste of the situation. As a result, Hippolita decides to resort to coyness and dissembling. As Anne Righter says, this seed of distrust had been planted earlier in act two, scene one, motivated as well by the expediency of the situation (75). In that scene Gerard pleads for time to “know me and my heart” (2. 1. 166).

I am afraid, to know your heart, would require a great deal of time, and my Father intends to marry me very suddenly to my Cousin [Monsieur] who sent you hither.


The dilemma that Hippolita faces is that she has no time and, therefore, must depend entirely on her wit and instinct. In act four, both are placed on guard and Hippolita takes the risk of losing the man she loves. That Hippolita would take such a risk shows that she has great confidence in herself and in the decision she is about to make. It is at this point that she gains ascendancy over Gerard. In such a crucial situation when she is likely to lose him, she puts him to the test. She denies her “natural Innocency” and dissembles:

Methinks you might believe me without an Oath: you saw I cou'd disemble with my Father, why shou'd you think I cou'd not with you.

(4. 1. 205).

Hippolita lies to Gerard to test his love. She denies her wealth, claims she is no heiress, and calls herself a “lying Jade” (206). Gerard, not being the typical or most practical Restoration gallant, passes the test and would carry her away “since you are twelve hundred pounds a year light …” (206). He picks her up, but Prue, who has observed this scene, senses her lady's unwillingness and summons the family. Gerard is angry and would give the game away, but it is Hippolita who is in command now: “… For Heaven's sake for this once be more obedient to my desires than your passion” (208).


Gerard's love for Hippolita has its real test in act five. He has been instructed to return the next day and to bring with him some friends disguised as musicians. Gerard fears a final humiliation and public ridicule at the hands of what he thought was a “Sweet Miss” of “natural Innocency.” Nonetheless, Gerard does as he is told, only to find Monsieur De Paris gloating over the fact that he has been led “into a Fools Paradise” (5. 1. 213) by himself and Hippolita. De Paris recites the fashionable canon of the day:

… women first fool their Fathers, then their Gallants, and then their Husbands; … and when they come to be Widows, they would fool the Devil I vow and swear.


De Paris continues to taunt Gerard until finally the gallant draws his sword. By the time Hippolita and Prue enter, Gerard is making De Paris play a game of jump rope, the rope being Gerard's sword swishing about Monsieur's legs. When De Paris has finally been dismissed from the room, Hippolita tells Gerard that he has passed all the tests of a “true Lover”:

Well, Master, since I find you are quarrelsom and melancholy, and wou'd have taken me away without a Portion, three infallible signs of a true Lover, faith here's my hand now in earnest, to lead me a Dance as long as I live.


The tone of the speech is one of self-assurance on the part of Hippolita, but Gerard is now skeptical. He fears being abused after marriage since it is clear that she has gained the upper hand. Specifically, he fears his future wife will try to make him jealous. But that is not the sort of relationship Hippolita envisions for their marriage:

Hold, Sir, let us have a good understanding betwixt one another at first, that we may be long Friends; I differ from you in the point, for a Husbands jealousie, which cunning men wou'd pass upon their Wives for a Complement, is the worst can be made 'em, for indeed it is a Complement to their Beauty, but an affront to their Honour.


Hippolita has graduated from “natural Innocency” to intellectual superiority and independence, and Gerard is quick to recognize this. He addresses her as “Madam” for the first time, rather than “sweet Miss.”

Hippolita's statement about jealousy recalls the ending of Love in a Wood. Valentine also expressed doubts over the constancy of Christina after wedlock. Hippolita would call such a doubt an “undervaluing of himself to overvalue her” (219). This could be an appropriate rationale for determining Valentine's behavior. Unfortunately, Wycherley does not provide him in that first play with a virtuous woman with the wit and cleverness to allay such doubts. Hippolita's message on jealousy in marriage is one Valentine might well have taken to heart just as Gerard does in this second play. It is a healthy view and shows a greater insight on Wycherley's part regarding the matrimonial relationship:

So that upon the whole matter I conclude, jealousie in a Gallant is humble true Love, and the height of respect, and only an undervaluing of himself to over-value her; but in a Husband 'tis arrant sauciness, cowardice, and ill breeding, and not to be suffer'd.
I stand corrected gracious Miss.


By the time Hippolita speaks these words, she has tested Gerard's love and constancy and he has passed her test. She has ascended to a position of superiority in the relationship. The time for dissembling is over; it is time now for “plain dealing.” Hippolita sets down some ground rules with her gallant for their marriage. For Gerard to be jealous of her in marriage would be “an affront to” her “Honour” (219) and would not be proof of love. Indeed, the implication is that his jealousy would produce imbalance in the relationship and destroy mutual trust. Hippolita insists that if there is equality and mutual trust in the relationship Gerard may “lead me in the Dance as long as I live” (218). Gerard must “stand corrected” for his misconceptions about their relationship and follow the lead of his virtuous lady who has set down the rules for what promises to be a compatible relationship in which both are equal and independent and very much in love. It is a concept for a marital relationship seldom found in the real world of the Restoration.

Wycherley has one further statement on the social relationships between the sexes in this play and it is a serious one, though it is presented to us comically. It has to do with the relationship of De Paris and Mrs. Flirt with whom De Paris has had an affair. For her “kindness” she demands “separate maintenance” and “a Coach apart, as well as my Bed apart” plus other “Articles and Settlements” (230). To avoid marriage, De Paris accepts this extravagant proviso. Through Hippolita, Wycherley offers his views on such arrangements and indicates the focus of his future plays:

I am thinking if some little filching inquisitive Poet shou'd get my story, and represent it on the Stage; what those ladies, who are never precise but at a Play, wou'd say of me now; that I were a confident coming piece I warrant, and they wou'd damn the poor Poet for libeling the Sex; but sure though I give my self and fortune away franckly, without the consent of my Friends, my confidence is less than theirs, who stand off only for separate maintenance.
They wou'd be Widows before their time, have Husband and no Husband. …

(5. 1. 220).

What Hippolita has done, Wycherley says, would not be a favorable portrait of the fairer sex for the Town where “separate maintenance” is more desirable than love. The wicked Town could not accept or believe in the consummation of what promises to be an ideal relationship, based on the equality and freedom of both parties rather than on a bargained settlement or separate maintenance. The final couplet in the play offers advice to parents who would thwart the kind of relationship that Hippolita and Gerard have in favor of the bargaining table:

When children marry, Parents shou'd obey,
Since Love claims more Obedience far than they.


But Wycherley has little faith that his audience will learn from his example. Flirt, Hippolita's opposite, has the final say in the Epilogue:

Our poet sending to you (though unknown)
His best respects by men, do's frankly own
The character to be unnatural;
Hippolita is not like you at all. …

(Epilogue 235).

Flirt then invites the gentlemen in the pit to the “tyring-room” for business as usual, to play her role in the play-world in real life.

Into the Pit already you are come,
'Tis but a step more to our Tyring-room.



In Love in a Wood, Wycherley's first play, he has experimented with a virtuous woman who has her roots in the courtly love tradition. In The Gentleman-Dancing-Master, his lady reflects a new concept of virtue that has been presented at its best by Wycherley's contemporary in She Wou'd if She Cou'd. In his third play, Wycherley will change the focus of his work, away from this “unnatural” character, and toward the aristocratic ladies and gentlemen who fill the pit and the boxes. Wycherley's statement concerning ladies “who are precise but at a Play” will be expanded to a critical appraisal of the entire beau monde. His appraisal of them is a savage one as he bludgeons both ladies and gentlemen. They become Wycherley's preoccupation at some expense to his virtuous woman. Nonetheless, somewhere within the misanthropic shadows, she is always there, and one does catch a glimpse of her shining through. He names her Truth.


Wycherley's third play, The Country Wife, is considered by virtually all critics as his best and one of the best social comedies to come out of the Restoration period. It is in The Country Wife that Wycherley settles on the role he wishes his virtuous woman to have. Unlike the two principal female characters in his earlier plays, she will not be shut off from the world. Christina's seclusion from the world was self-imposed out of her loyalty to Valentine. Hippolita's seclusion was imposed upon her by her father. Christina was forced out into the world by the subterfuge of others, while Hippolita through her own subterfuge arranges her escape into the world and to her gallant.

From the beginning Alithea, though a victim of a proposed marital arrangement, is a part of the beau monde and is as knowledgeable as any other woman of fashion, but Wycherley utilizes her as a direct contrast with the other ladies and gentlemen who reside in that world. At the same time, his interest in her as a character seems less, since the thrust of the play is to satirize those who out of self-interest make a mockery of honor and virtue. Alithea, then, is often pushed into the background of the play, but she remains always the reference point for the audience to judge the true from the false.


It is the character of the gallant Horner who holds center stage in the foreground of the play, for his ruse with Dr. Quack on the beau monde is the key to Wycherley's satire. Wycherley uses him to illustrate the hypocrisy and deception of the fashionable world in its marital relationships. We may judge Horner if we wish from a moral point of view, but Wycherley seems more interested in exposing those who embrace Horner's machinations for their own dark purposes. Horner is Wycherley's tool for unmasking the Restoration social world as hypocritical and depraved, devoid of honor. We, of course, do not admire Horner's deeds, but can't help but be amused by his ingenuity and wit. He remains detached once the ruse of impotency is broadcast to the fashionable world and his lodgings are flooded with ladies and gentlemen, all of whom are bent on pursuing their own self-interest and appetites at the expense of others. All the ideals of honor and reputation, so much a concern of the characters in the play, are merely appearances, and Horner serves as the tool to reveal this.

Significantly, Horner has no role in the love-duel. He does not pursue the virtuous woman in the play. Wycherley does use him as a tool to ensure the success of the duel, but Horner has no personal stake in its outcome. His role is the central one in unmasking and exposing the deceitful and self-serving intrigues of the beau monde.

W. R. Chadwick sums up Horner's role best when he indicates that Wycherley is not focusing on a hero or, if one prefers, an anti-hero, but rather on the “corrupt world through which he moves. … Wycherley's main attack [is] on the sham of the prevailing attitude towards love and marriage, and his exposure of the dishonesty, artificiality and misery they entail” (119).


Wycherley paints this dark picture of the fashionable world in the foreground and places it center stage. Somewhere upstage left in the background stands his virtuous woman. As is the case in Wycherley's other plays, the virtuous woman is the single character who sets the standard by which we may judge others. The lady is Alithea and the name is suggestive of her moral character for it is the English rendition of the Greek word meaning “truth.” David Morris notes that Wycherley uses the word “honour” eighty-six times in the play (“Language and Honor” 3), which suggests a purposeful devaluation of the word's meaning. We may judge the true meaning of the word by following the actions of the characters who use it. As the play progresses it becomes clear that only when Alithea uses the word “honour” does its true meaning become apparent. So while Horner exposes the hypocrisy and shame of others, Alithea reveals the true ideal and meaning of honor. Wycherley's preoccupation is with the tarnished meaning of the word that is being played out for us center stage. Nonetheless, Alithea is the playwright's standard-bearer for truth in the play even though she is often confined to a position outside the focus of the main action. At times, Alithea may seem naive to us, but Wycherley makes her ever-constant to her name-sake and his ideal.


The plot of The Country Wife consists of three triangular relationships, with Horner at the apex of two of these. Horner has feigned impotence. As a result, he is considered a safe male companion for displaced wives such as Lady Fidget, or innocent ones, such as Margery Pinchwife. In the first case, the triangular relationship involves Lady Fidget, Horner, and Sir Jaspar Fidget. In this relationship, Horner maintains an active role of pursuit, with extra-curricular efforts involving Lady Squeamish and Mrs. Dainty Fidget.

The second relationship involves the innocent awakening to worldly pleasure of the country wife, Margery Pinchwife, and includes Horner, and Margery's elderly husband, Mr. Pinchwife. Pinchwife is excessively, sometimes violently, jealous of his young wife. But his efforts to convince Margery of the wickedness of the Town only serve to stimulate her interest. When Margery learns that one of the most notoriously wicked gallants (Horner) has expressed an interest in her, she is determined to pursue him. In this relationship, Horner is passive as Margery pursues him, falls in love with him but, in the end, cannot win him.

The third relationship, and the principal interest here, involves the virtuous lady, Alithea, her foppish intended, Sparkish, and the gallant, Harcourt. As indicated earlier, Horner is not directly involved in this triangle, nor does he at any time in the play make any advances toward Alithea. Unfortunately for her, however, she is drawn into Horner's world, and like Christina in Love in a Wood, finds her virtue and honor threatened by the masked appearances of the beau monde. Alithea gets caught in the middle because she attempts to honor her commitment to Sparkish and her impending marriage to him. In her insistence on honoring that commitment, she fails to see that both her intended and the institution of marriage have been corrupted.

All of these triangular relationships focus on the abuse of marital relationships in which there is no honor and no esteem. Horner is the catalyst that brings all this corruption to light, at least for the audience, but not before Alithea's honor has been threatened by that corruption. Ultimately it is her light of truth which will shine above them all, but not before Wycherley, using Horner as his guide, has explored and exposed the hypocrisy and deception of marital relationships in the fashionable world.


Sir Jaspar Fidget treats his wife like a piece of property, shuttling her about to others. He is all business and has no time for love and pleasure. Sir Jaspar is Wycherley's portrait of a new brand of entrepreneur just emerging in seventeenth-century England who, because of his wealth, is beginning to make an appearance in the social world of upper-class society. Marriage is a front maintained for social purposes or for the promotion of business. Sir Jaspar's single fear is a common one in Restoration comedy. He does not wish to be cuckolded and made a source of ridicule and laughter. For that reason, he passes his wife off to one who is presumed impotent so that she may be diverted and “employed,” while he pursues his own interests.

Sir Jaspar is not necessarily indifferent toward sex, for he takes special pleasure in chiding Horner about the gallant's supposed impotence. His indifference is toward his wife. Only in act four, scene three, when there is some indication that he may have been cuckolded, and thus a figure of humor in the eyes of society, does he show some concern about her (4. 3. 325-26).

Pinchwife, on the other hand, is consumed with jealousy over his pretty and innocent country wife, Margery. He tries to keep her from the Town's view by either locking her in her chamber or else dressing her up as a young boy while, at the same time, tempting her with what he considers the wicked news of the Town and its depraved gallants and ladies. He goes too far when he brings her news that a gallant has seen her and found her attractive:

I tell you then, that one of the lewdest fellows in Town, who saw you there [at the playhouse], told me he was in love with you.
Indeed! Who, who, pray who wast?
I've gone too far, and slipt before I was aware; How overjoy'd she is! (Aside).

(1. 1. 276).

Horner describes Pinchwife as a “whoremaster” and “one that knew the Town so much, and women so well” (1. 1. 269). Pinchwife has married Margery to take advantage of her innocence and satisfy his lust. He knows that she has no real reason to be faithful to him and his jealousy requires him to use forceful means to keep her away from rivals.


Pinchwife, unfortunately, is the brother of Alithea and is responsible for arranging her engagement to the foppish gallant, Sparkish. It is a financial arrangement and nothing else in Pinchwife's view. As he crassly states it, Sparkish is receiving “five thousand pounds to lye with my sister” (1. 1. 268). Sparkish is much like his two counterparts, Sir Jaspar and Pinchwife, though he is neither a merchant nor a country gentleman. He is a member of the beau monde and is the traditional fop of Restoration comedy. His treatment by Wycherley, however, is in sharp contrast to Etherege's treatment of his comic figure. In The Man of Mode, Sir Fopling Flutter is more an entertainer than a fool. There is a benevolence, tolerance, and good humor afforded Sir Fopling not to be found in Wycherley's treatment of Sparkish. Sparkish's attempts at merriment are discredited as foolishness and stupidity. In his relationship with Alithea he is at first foolish, then dishonorable. Wycherley indicates his disdain for the character just prior to his first entrance in the play when he allows Horner, Harcourt, and the gallant Dorilant to describe him. Horner is provided the most vivid description:

… one of those nauseous offerers at wit … Such wits as he are so far from contributing to the play [gambling], that they only serve to spoil the fancy of those that do. … A pox on 'em, and all that force Nature, and wou'd best ill what she forbids 'em; Affectation is her greatest Monster … the greatest Fop, dullest Ass, and worst Company as you shall see.

(1. 1. 265-66).

Given such an introduction Sparkish has little hope of redemption. And when he is paired with Alithea in act two, scene one, he proves himself out. Sparkish has come to call on Alithea and has brought his friend, Harcourt. The apparent purpose of his visit is to show off Alithea to Harcourt: “Here, Harcourt, do you approve my choice?” (2. 1. 276). Harcourt's reply has one meaning for Alithea and another for Sparkish:

So infinitely well, that I cou'd wish I had a Mistriss too, that might differ from her in but her love and engagement to you.


Sparkish fails to see what is apparent to Pinchwife who is also present during this scene. Harcourt has been smitten by Alithea and is courting her and being encouraged in the process by Sparkish. Sparkish is heaping praise on Harcourt as the “honestest, worthyest, true hearted Gentleman—a man of such perfect honour, he would say nothing to a lady, he does not mean” (277). Alithea is skeptical of Harcourt's praise of her, while Pinchwife is appalled: “… insensible Fop, let a Man make love to his Wife to his face” (Aside) (278).


Sparkish, in his effort to show that Alithea has wit and that Harcourt has honor, thrusts the two off to themselves in a corner, much to the distress of Alithea: “Sir, you dispose of me a little before your time” (279), but Sparkish would have “obedience” from his bride-to-be. The two, then, are thrown together where Harcourt reveals the truth about Sparkish, and Alithea reveals the truth about herself:

The writings are drawn, Sir, settlements made; 'tis too late, Sir, and past all revocation.
Then so is my death.
I wou'd not be unjust to him.
Then why to me so?
I have no obligation to you.
My love.
I had his before.
You never had it; he wants you see jealousie, the only infallible sign of it.
Love proceeds from esteem; he cannot distrust my virtue, besides he loves me, or he wou'd not marry me.
Marrying you, is no more sign of his love, than, bribing your Woman, that he may marry you, is a sign of his generosity: Marriage is rather a sign of interest, than love; and he that marries a fortune, covets a Mistriss, not love her: But if you take Marriage for a sign of love, take it from me immediately.


Harcourt gives his view of the world in this exchange. He says that Sparkish does not love Alithea because he has forced them off to a corner without either suspicion or jealousy. But Alithea views the matter quite differently. Her view is that “Love proceeds from esteem,” and because of this, Sparkish could not distrust her virtue. Indeed, she says, Sparkish would not marry her if he did not love her. As Harcourt well knows, this is not the view of marriage shared by the society: “Marriage is a sign of interest, than love.” Sparkish, he indicates, covets the five thousand pounds that will be Alithea's dowry. Harcourt contends that only he is worthy of Alithea's concept of what love and marriage should be.

Alithea is not convinced of Harcourt's devotion, but she is hard-pressed in this scene and throughout the play in her efforts to convince Sparkish that Harcourt is his rival because of Sparkish's incredible stupidity and his desire to show-off for the benefit of his friends. At the same time, Alithea, unlike the worldly Harcourt, is convinced that jealousy is not a sign of love. She feels that Sparkish is incapable of jealousy because of his “esteem” for her and respect for her virtue. Harcourt's answer to this from the real world of law and custom in Restoration society does not impress her. Alithea will be steadfast to her ideal.


Alithea might appear to be a hold-over from the courtly tradition, similar to a Graciana or Aurelia in the high plot of The Comical Revenge. But Wycherley gives clear indications that his character is a woman of the Town and that she enjoys the pleasures of fashion as well as the playhouse. Indeed, Pinchwife accuses Alithea in act two, scene one, of being a wicked, worldly influence on Margery. She, of course, is not the source of any wickedness, but like Gatty and Harriet in the Etherege plays, she enjoys Mulberry Garden, St. James's Park, and “close walks” to the New Exchange. She has as much disdain as the Etherege heroines for the country life: “… a Country Gentlewomans leasure is the drudgery of a foot-post; and she requires as much airing as her Husbands Horses” (2. 1. 273).

Alithea would be “civil” and a part of the wit and raillery of the Town. In her first encounter with Harcourt's flattery, she accuses him of being one of the “Wits and Raillieurs” (2. 1. 277). Pinchwife accuses her of keeping company with “Men [of] scandalous reputation” (2. 1. 274):

Where: Wou'd you not have me civil? answer 'em in a Box at the Plays? in the drawing room at Whitehal? in St. James's Park? Mulberry Garden?


And it is Alithea who recognizes that the more Pinchwife tries to shut Margery away from the Town, the more curious about the Town Margery will become. Certainly Alithea is not so naive about the world as some critics have contended (see Leech “Restoration Comedy: The Earlier Phase” 180; Birdsall, 141). It is her ideals that remain sacred to her, and she sees in Harcourt's advances a betrayal of the man whom she feels has placed such a noble trust in her. She also sees the foolishness of breaking off her impending marriage at the last moment because another gallant has appeared on the scene. To win her trust, Harcourt must come forth with much more evidence of his own worthiness.

As for Sparkish, Alithea feels that though he may be less than ideal, he does esteem her and has no reason to be jealous of Harcourt. What she fails to realize is that his show of trust is not related to his esteem for her, but rather a desire for self-esteem in the eyes of others. Sparkish is the typical fop who sees himself only as he would have others see him. His love of Alithea is dependent on the approval of others. Such an attitude dictates how Sparkish will treat his bride-to-be. In act two, scene one, he leaves Alithea with Harcourt in the boxes at the play while he roams with the gallants about the pit. In act three, scene two, he indicates that he values his friend's esteem more than that of a wife when he says to Harcourt: “… and I'll be divorced from her, sooner than from thee. …” (299).


The sex antagonism and love-game as it involves Alithea in The Country Wife is unusual since it is a triangular affair rather than the traditional verbal confrontation between lovers. This unusual contest involves Alithea, Sparkish, and Harcourt and is Wycherley at very nearly his best, for the scene offers some wonderful opportunities for theatrical humor. Harcourt has attempted to make love to Alithea both before Sparkish and while at the play when Sparkish is absent in the pit. Alithea has rejected his attempts decisively, and now Harcourt has approached Sparkish in order that he might gain a reconciliation. But in this reconciliation scene Harcourt continues to woo Alithea while deceiving and defaming his friend. Alithea's efforts to make Sparkish see this are futile and she becomes increasingly disenchanted with her presumed partner in marriage:

So much I confess, I say I love you, that I wou'd not have you miserable, and cast your self away upon so unworthy, and inconsiderate a thing, as what you see here. (Clapping his hand on his breast, he points at Sparkish).
No faith, I believe thou woud'st not, now his meaning is plain: but I knew before thou woud'st not wrong me nor her.
No, no, Heaven forbid, the glory of her Sex shou'd fall so low as into the embraces of such a contemptible Wretch, the last of Mankind—my dear friend here—I injure him. (Embracing Sparkish).
Very well.
No, no, dear Friend, I knew it Madam, you see he will rather wrong himself than me, in giving himself such names.
Do you not understand him yet?
Yes, how modestly he speaks of himself, poor Fellow.
Methinks he speaks impudently of your self, since—before your self to, insomuch that I can no longer suffer his scurrilous abusiveness to you, no more than his love to me.

(3. 2. 302).

Sparkish sees little relationship between love and matrimony, a view that Alithea sees as the opposite from her own:

… But with what kind of love, Harcourt?
With the best, and truest love in the world.
Look you there then, that is with no matrimonial love, I'm sure.
How's that, do you say matrimonial love is not best?
Gad, I went to far e're I was aware: But speak for thy self Harcourt, you said you wou'd not wrong me, nor her.
No, no, Madam, e'n take him for Heaven's sake.
Look you there, Madam.
Who shou'd in all justice be yours, he that loves you most. (Claps his hand on his breast).
Look you there, Mr. Sparkish, who's that?
Who shou'd it be? go on Harcourt.
Who loves you more than Woman, Titles, or Fortune Fools. (Points at Sparkish).
Look you there, he means me still, for he points at me.


At this point Harcourt knows that there is no use continuing the ruse, that Sparkish will refuse to recognize the obvious. For that reason he begins speaking directly to Alithea as a true gallant:

Who can match your Faith, and constancy in love.
Who knows, if it be possible, how to value so much beauty and virtue.
Whose love can no more be equall'ed in the world, than that Heavenly form of yours.
Who in fine loves you better than his eyes, that first made him love you.
Ay—nay, Madam, faith you shan't go, till—
Have a care, lest you make me stay too long—
But till he has saluted you; that I may be assur'd you are friends, after his honest advice and declaration: Come pray, Madam, be friends with him.
You must pardon me, Sir, that I am not yet so obedient to you.


This scene is the traditional love-game with a new twist: the intrusion of a third party who happens to be the intended partner of the lady in question. Though Alithea remains aloof, she has been impressed with Harcourt's efforts to woo her: “Have a care, lest you make me stay too long.” Even though she must reject Harcourt, she is not married yet and intends to maintain her independence from Sparkish until she is: “You must pardon me, Sir, that I am not yet so obedient to you.”

But the real difference between Alithea's words and her decision in this scene and those of other virtuous Restoration women in the comedies is the fact that she is not dissembling or trying to outwit the gallant. She is rejecting him because of her previous commitment to Sparkish. This is made clear in act four, scene one, when Alithea speaks in private with her maid, Lucy:

… I will ask you the reason, why you wou'd banish poor Master Harcourt forever from your sight? how cou'd you be so hard-hearted?
'Twas because I was not hard-hearted.
No, no; 'Twas stark love and kindness, I warrant.
It was so; I wou'd see him no more, because I love him.
Hey day, a very pretty reason.
You do not understand me.
I wish you may your self.
I was engag'd to marry, you see, another man, whom my justice will not suffer me to deceive, or injure.

(4.1. 312).

Alithea has made her commitment, her “word and rigid honor” above her “heart” (312-13). Her word and honor are with Sparkish, and she believes that he has the same esteem for her: “'Tis Sparkish's confidence in my truth, that obliges me to be so faithful to him” (313). It is Alithea's dilemma that though she loves another, she cannot violate Sparkish's trust, though that trust seems unmerited. But it is clear that she intends to keep her commitment even in act four, scene one, when Harcourt's disguise as a parson fools no one but Sparkish. She says as much to Harcourt as he poses as his parson “brother”:

Let me tell you sir, this dull trick will not serve your turn, though you may delay our marriage, you shall not hinder it.


This contest for Alithea between the knowing Harcourt and the foppish, socially dependent Sparkish is played against the two other triangular plots: Horner's posing as an eunuch in order to have access to ladies of the Town willing to violate their “honour,” and Horner's involvement with the country wife, the latter unwittingly outwitting her jealous husband to awaken and gratify her sexual and social desires.

Significantly, Wycherley allows deception to win the day in both these plots involving Horner, but deception fails for Harcourt. To gain Alithea something else is required. Obviously, neither Sparkish nor Harcourt can match Alithea's virtue. Harcourt is as guilty as was Ranger in Love in a Wood in his deception of a fellow gallant. The difference between the two is to be found in their opponents: one whose gallantry is never questioned, though he is guilty of excessive jealousy; and the other, a superficial crowd-pleaser, a fool playing at gallantry. From the audience's point of view, Harcourt's deception is less provocative than Ranger's: Ranger is deceiving a passionate man, while Harcourt is deceiving a fool.

But Harcourt can never win Alithea either by wit or dissembling. His courtship of Alithea must move to a level beyond the ideals of the fashionable world which Wycherley treats so contemptuously. Harcourt is given that opportunity near the end of the play when Alithea's honor is threatened by a forged letter and a false accusation.


Wycherley sets up the threat to Alithea's honor through a careful merging of the actions and characters of the triangular plots. Margery Pinchwife, who has become a precocious dissembler in her efforts to gain admittance to Horner's bedchamber, disguises herself as Alithea in mask and, accompanied by her husband, goes to Horner's lodgings. Margery has convinced Pinchwife that Alithea is in love with Horner and would prefer to marry him instead of Sparkish. She has persuaded her husband that he should attempt to arrange such a marriage. Pinchwife, out of fear of being cuckolded, is easily duped by Margery. He would rather lose a sister to Horner than his wife. The outcome of this is that Pinchwife will deliver Margery, disguised in Alithea's clothes, directly to Horner's bed.

In the following scene (5. 3.), Pinchwife encounters Sparkish and shows him the amorous letter Margery claims was written by Alithea to Horner. This false evidence is sufficient to convince Sparkish of Alithea's infidelity in spite of her denial. Alithea learns quickly that Sparkish's “esteem” for her is not so high at all, and never had been:

… I never had any passion for you, 'til now, for now I hate you, 'tis true I might have married your portion, as other men of parts of the Town do sometimes, and so your Servant, and to shew my unconcernedness, I'le come to your wedding, and resign you with as much joy as I would a stale wench to a new Cully, nay with as much joy as I would after the first night, if I had been married to you, there's for you, and so your Servant, Servant.

(5. 3. 347).

There is some relief in the fact that Alithea is at last rid of this leech of fashion. Nonetheless, in scene four, the reputation of Alithea is on trial before a licentious jury, all of whom are prepared to condemn her. It is Horner who knows the truth and who provides the most conclusive evidence. Acting as the fashionable gallant, he is forced to sacrifice Alithea to save a mistress who has been “kind,” namely, Margery Pinchwife. His “asides” during the interrogation by Pinchwife indicate the wrong he is doing Alithea, but also his knowledge of the way of the world:

Now must I wrong one woman for anothers sake, but that's no new thing with me; for in these cases I am still on the criminal's side, against the innocent. (Aside).


Ay, pray Sir do, pray satisfie him [Pinchwife].
Then truly, you did bring that Lady [Alithea] to me just now.
How Sir—
How, Horner!
What mean you Sir, I always took you for a man of Honour?
Ay, so much a man of Honour, that I must save my Mistriss, I thank you, come what will on't. (Aside).

(5. 4. 355).


It is at this point that Alithea turns to Harcourt, and in the face of all the evidence against her, Harcourt becomes the protector of innocence, honor, and the ideal:

O unfortunate Woman! a combination against my Honour, which most concerns me now, because you share in my disgrace, Sir, and it's your censure which I must now suffer, that troubles me, not theirs.
Madam, then have no troubles, you shall now see 'tis impossible for me to love too, without being jealous. I will not only believe your innocence my self, but make all the world believe it.


Alithea's innocence finally is revealed to all by the appearance of Margery in Alithea's clothes, and all the reputations of the ladies are “saved,” at least for appearance's sake, by the lying Dr. Quack. The good doctor re-affirms Horner's contention that he is impotent. Lucy, Alithea's maid, also confesses that she has been using Margery in a plot to arrange a match between her mistress and Harcourt. But Harcourt has defended Alithea's honor before these events occur. Now he has stepped up several levels above witty courtship and dissembling. He has ignored what appears to be factual evidence to affirm his belief in Alithea's innocence.


As has been noted, Harcourt receives no encouragement or gratification of his desires when he dissembles. Only when he professes Alithea's innocence and his faith in her virtue does it reflect that true “esteem” for her, a quality she previously had valued so highly and mistakenly in Sparkish. It is this ideal that is so at odds with the world that Wycherley has created to surround Alithea. Until Harcourt gives Alithea the esteem she values so highly, she stands alone as a contrast to every character in the play. She represents an ideal of what love and marriage should be. The essence of both love and marriage is the esteem each party holds for the other. Alithea gives to Sparkish that esteem, but he rejects it. In turn, Harcourt gives to Alithea that same pledge of esteem when he ceases dissembling and commits an act of faith that in the end makes him her equal. The expectation is that Harcourt and Alithea will marry and will continue to share that equality and esteem in their marital relationship.

Clearly, Wycherley has made Alithea the ideal figure that others must be measured by, but she is a very different sort of virtuous woman from those found in the Etherege plays. Unlike them, Alithea is not the predominant female figure in The Country Wife. The emphasis in the play is on characters who corrupt marital relationships through hypocrisy and deception and who show no emotional attachment or concern for their mates beyond that of jealousy. These are the Fidgets and Pinchwifes among others. Wycherley's interest and his disdain is more for those who either reside in or who invade the beau monde rather than the couple involved in the love-game. In contrast to Etherege, Wycherley erases any illusion of elegance and brilliance associated with the code of the beau monde. For Wycherley, that world of fashion is a tarnished one, and he shows it for what he believes it to be.

The character of Alithea is his foil to that tarnished world and becomes the ideal for the play. Harcourt is the character who must meet her standards both socially and morally. Alithea's virtues reach beyond the fashion of manners and wit, though she is endowed with both. She plays at something more serious than a love-game. Her virtues include honor, for which she would willingly sacrifice herself; and though she would not sacrifice her liberty, she would bring to marriage those qualities of the ideal: “faith, and constancy in love,” qualities that are nowhere to be found in the other characters in the play-world.

The problem, of course, with Alithea is that Wycherley has too often placed her too far in the background of the dramatic action. Clearly, Wycherley is much more interested in the machinations of the clever Horner and their results. Consequently, it is difficult to argue with critics who see Alithea and finally Harcourt as “peripheral to the play's major concerns” (Weber 67), or who conclude as Robert Hume does:

If Harcourt and Alithea are supposed to represent a high moral norm in the play and make us view Horner with disapprobation, then Wycherley made a mess of things. For in practice one is benevolently indifferent to the couple during the play and scarcely remembers them in it afterwards

(The Development of English Drama 101).

We might quarrel with Wycherley's method of presenting his character of the virtuous woman, but it is more difficult to quarrel with his purpose in presenting her. That purpose is consistent in all of his plays with his presentation of a female character who acts as a contrast to the rest of the fashionable world. As has been shown, the Alithea-Harcourt-Sparkish plot line is a good deal more than “for necessary fullness and variety” in the play, as Hume suggests.

As for Horner, he is the exposer of the sham of marriage as practiced in the fashionable world, showing, as has been indicated, its “dishonesty, artificiality and misery” (Chadwick 174). With Horner as our guide, that is what we see and, as P. F. Vernon says, we are never invited to view Horner from a moral angle (“Marriage of Convenience” 385).

Alithea stands as the one character who is a contrast to all that Horner has shown us and is the representative of Wycherley's moral ideal. Further, as in all of Wycherley's plays, his standard-bearer for his ideal is also a guide to her male counterpart, making him reach up to her level, teaching him a different path from that taken by all the other characters in the play. But only in The Gentleman-Dancing-Master does Wycherley make his virtuous woman the most predominant character in the play. Front and center are the characters who are to be exposed for their dishonor and deception. As was said in the beginning, characters in Wycherley's plays are destructive to others and to themselves. Only his virtuous women, though threatened, remain untainted, and always they stand for something: Christina, Alithea, Fidelia. They represent a wholly different value system from the other characters, one that the playwright would have his audience embrace, else there would be no reason to have them there. Though we may not all approve of how Wycherley presents his virtuous woman, we at least know why she is there.


“Faith, and constancy in love,” these are the ideals that Fidelia lives by in Wycherley's final play, The Plain-Dealer. In this play, the virtuous woman is disguised as a man who serves the gallant, Manly, both as a sailor at sea and a confidant on land. By the end of the play, however, Fidelia evolves from servant into teacher and guide to the man she loves. It is Fidelia, the faithful, who will lead Manly toward an understanding of the ideal. But The Plain-Dealer is a different sort of play from The Country Wife. In The Plain-Dealer Wycherley's cup of wrath runs over. He can no longer control his sense of outrage at the world around him. Bonamy Dobree has the appropriate image that succinctly describes the play:

This play is a strange, thorny monster, tearing the flesh of life wherever it touches it, as it were deliberately, to reveal the skeleton; an ungainly monster, sprawling all over society

(Restoration Comedy 88).

Wycherley uses the character of his hero, Manly, to unleash one scathing attack after another against the false world he sees. But his method in using his central character is quite different in this play. In The Country Wife, Wycherley uses Horner to manipulate and control much of the action in the play as he exposes the hypocrisy and deception of the beau monde. In The Plain-Dealer, it is Manly who is often manipulated and controlled by others who would deceive and destroy him. Even as he exposes and rages against the enemies of truth, Manly comes very close to being the victim of actions contrived by others. What saves him in the end is the guidance of the virtuous woman, Fidelia, who, by example, merges Manly's plain dealing in the real world and balances it with his desire for an ideal world. By the end of the play, Manly's rage has been tempered enough so that he may recognize true friends as well as faithful love. In the process, however, Wycherley has used Manly in exposing a vice-ridden fashionable world whose corruption goes beyond the social and marital relationships which was the main thrust of Wycherley's satire in The Country Wife. The attack on social and marital relationships continues in The Plain-Dealer, but Wycherley's satire in this last play is more wide-ranging and includes such issues as corruption of the law and graft in government.


If the roles Wycherley assigns his gallants in the last two plays are different, so are those assigned to his virtuous women. Both women are often victimized by the beau monde, yet maintain their ideals. In Alithea's case, she is placed in the position of defending her ideals and honor after they have been challenged. Fidelia, on the other hand, usually has knowledge of the events that threaten, but she cannot defend herself or effectively use her knowledge until very near the end of the play. Throughout the play, she tries to impart her knowledge and instruct her gallant, but her efforts fail and her instruction goes unheeded.

It should be noted at this point that there is a great deal of disagreement among critics as to which character in The Plain-Dealer best suits Wycherley's concept of the ideal. Norman Holland concludes that there is no ideal figure in the play, that “two wrong ways” of this world are presented so that the audience may infer a “right way” (109). Thomas Fujimura picks Eliza as “the most important figure in the play,” Wycherley's “beau ideal” (150). Kathleen Lynch says that Eliza and Freeman set the “comic standard” of the play as “intelligent compliers with Restoration fashions” (170), while Alan Downer believes that only Freeman, “the Restoration ideal,” represents Wycherley's standard of “reasonable behavior” (208).

Allardyce Nicoll sees Fidelia as the one “pure character” (A History of English Drama 1: 239), while Rose Zimbardo calls her the “example of virtue” who stands in opposition to the corruption of others (Wycherley's Drama 143). P. F. Vernon sees Fidelia as representing her namesake “faithfulness” and the right way of doing things (William Wycherley 35).

My choice for Wycherley's representative of the ideal and his virtuous woman in the play is Fidelia, as I have already indicated. Since Wycherley has chosen a hero who denounces the fashionable world at every turn, it seems unlikely that he would be seeking as his ideal “intelligent compliers with Restoration fashions” or characters who represent the “Restoration ideal” of “reasonable behavior.” From what we have seen of Wycherley's work it seems clear that he would choose a character for his ideal who stands in opposition to the prevailing standards of the fashionable society. Nonetheless, the diverse critical opinion on this question requires more discussion.


There is certainly no disagreement about which character in The Plain-Dealer is the dominant one. The main action of the play focuses on Manly as the gallant with absolute moral standards who is the target of abuse and deception by the fashionable set. Manly is a sea captain who returns to London with the idea that he will leave the civilized world in favor of an island in the Indies. Manly has fought bravely in battle for his country and his ship has been severely damaged. For that reason Manly sinks it so that it will not be given away to some profiteering lord favored by the King, which was Charles II's custom in the real world with ships damaged or taken out of service (Weales 520n and 521n). From the beginning it is evident that Manly sees the whole society as base and corrupt from lords to ladies to lawyers. For that reason, he trusts only two individuals, his mistress, Olivia, and his best friend, Vernish, overlooking his faithful follower and confidant, the disguised Fidelia.

In the end, both Olivia and Vernish betray him and try to dupe him. Throughout only Fidelia stands by Manly, even as he commits one folly after another. Finally, Manly discovers the deceit of his presumed friends and dishonors both. He also discovers the true identity of Fidelia as a woman and as his only true friend and devotee, who is as uncompromising as he is in her devotion to the ideal.

Manly is depicted as the uncompromising hero from the beginning of the play. In the opening scene, at his lodgings, he is with Lord Plausible along with two sailors from his ship. Lord Plausible is a man who would speak well of all men, whether before them or behind their back. In short, he is a flatterer and a pretender and Manly deplores both:

… but know that speaking well of all mankind, is the worst kind of detraction; for it takes away the reputations of the few good men in the World, by making all alike: Now I speak ill of most men, because they deserve it; I that can do a rude thing, rather than an unjust thing.

(1. 1. 390).

Manly becomes thoroughly insulting to Lord Plausible, but Plausible refuses to acknowledge the insults and almost refuses to leave. Wycherley's stage direction here is for Manly to exit, “thrusting out my Lord Plausible” (391).

The sailors now have a scene in which they help establish for the audience Manly's dedication to principles. Manly sank his ship so that the Dutch would not have her and so that men like Lord Plausible would not turn a profit by salvaging her. But his willful sinking of the ship cost him “five or six thousand pound of his own, with which he was to settle himself somewhere in the Indies. …” (392). Manly, it is revealed, was determined never to return to England. The ship was to return under the command of Manly's lieutenant, while Manly remained forever on an island in the Indies:

… he was resolved never to return again to England.
So it seemed, by his fighting.
No, but he was a weary of this side of the World here, they say.
Ay, or else he wou'd not have bid so fair for a passage into t'other.


The implication is that Manly was a brave fighter who willingly risked death to defend his country, even though he planned never to return to it. Rough as he is with his sailors, Manly commands their respect.

The audience is next introduced to Freeman, Manly's lieutenant and fellow-gallant of the sea. Freeman admonishes Manly for dismissing Lord Plausible so unceremoniously. A fool is like a good bottle, he says, who “wou'd make you merry in company” (394). But Manly responds by noting that he would “weight the man, not the title,” and that Lord Plausible is nothing but a “leaden shilling, which you may bend in every way” (394).

Throughout this lengthy conversation between Manly and Freeman, whatever the subject, Manly's object is plain dealing. Opposed to this is Freeman's cynical and pragmatic view that a certain amount of compromise is necessary in order to get on in the world:

Why, don't you know, good Captain, that telling the truth is a quality as prejudicial, to a man that wou'd thrive in the World, as square Play to a cheat, or true Love to a Whore! Wou'd you have a man speak truth to his ruine? You are severer than the Law, which requires no man to swear against himself. …


Indeed, Manly's strict principles, Freeman notes, have the “World” thinking him “a mad-man, a brutal” (397). What is Manly's plain dealing and tactless honesty worth? Manly has a long, idealistic, but pragmatic answer for Freeman:

Why, first your promising Courtier wou'd keep his word, out of fear of more reproaches; … Your lawyer wou'd serve you more faithfully; for he, having no Honour but his Interest, is truest still to him he knows suspects him: … the praying Lady wou'd leave off railing at Wenching before thee … [and] shou'd love thee, for thy plain-dealing; and in lieu of being mortif'd, am proud that the World and I think not well of one another.


Instead, Manly says, men “tread around in a preposterous huddle of ceremony” bowing to each other in “solemn false countenances.”

Well, they understand the World.
Which I do not, I confess.


It seems clear in this exchange that Wycherley has given Manly the better arguments. Freeman would accept the compromises of the world, while the surly Manly lashes out at them. Manly argues for the way things ought to be, but the world simply does not operate by his kind of logic.


Fidelia, in spite of Manly's indifferent treatment of her, adds further to Manly's stature in this opening expositional scene when she tells him she loves him as much “as you do Truth, or Honour” (399).

… Fame, the old Lyar, is believ'd, when she speaks wonders of you; you cannot be flatter'd, Sir, your Merit is unspeakable.


Suspect me of any thing, Sir, but the want of Love, Faith, and Duty to you, the bravest, worthiest of Mankind; believe me, I cou'd dye for you, Sir.


Manly has a way in his rhetorical rages of dismissing all who would seem to curry favor, offer friendship, or practice love. He accuses the faithful Fidelia of flattery worse than her “Cowardice.” She is hardly a match for his bravery in battle. He, of course, is unaware that his faithful follower is a woman disguised in man's clothing:

Well, I own then I was afraid, mightily afraid; yet for you I wou'd be afraid again, an hundred times afraid; dying is ceasing to be afraid; and that I cou'd do sure for you, and you'll believe me one day.


But Manly is interested in actions, not words. Fidelia, obviously not trained for combat, has flinched in battle. Manly rejects her and says she will not go to sea with him again. He offers her gold pieces as friendship, if she is as friendless as she claims, and sends her on her way. Manly's brusque dismissal and condemnation of all save Olivia and his as yet unidentified friend, Vernish, is excessive. Yet Manly is eloquent in his dismissal of appearance in favor of truth and plain dealing. Even in condemnation, his sailors grudgingly admire him; Plausible owns that Manly is too strong for him; Freeman would fight for him and speak well of him before his enemies, and Fidelia would love him.

Clearly Wycherley wishes his audience to place Manly on the side of the angels. Wycherley never suggests that the brusque, excessive Manly is to be treated as an object of either ridicule or satire. Manly is described in the dramatis personae as “honest, surly, nice humor” (whatever “nice” might mean in such a context), who “procur'd the Command of a Ship, out of Honour, not Interest” (387). Compare this with the description of Novell, “a pert railing coxcomb,” Lord Plausible, “a ceremonious supple, commending coxcomb,” the Widow Blackacre, “a petulant litigious Widow, alwayes in Law,” or even Freeman, “a Gentleman well Educated but of a broken Fortune, a Complyer with the Age.”

In act one, Manly's attacks on the likes of Plausible, the Widow Blackacre, and others are valid. Plausible would treat all causes and persons kindly, whatever their merit. The Widow's fetish for litigation and her son's senseless mouthing of the legal terms of his maternal teacher are, indeed, foolish and comical.

On the other hand, though Fidelia may well have been a coward in war, there is a high seriousness in her loyalty to Manly which he fails to perceive. Wycherley makes sure that we understand this blind side of his hero by providing Fidelia, and only Fidelia, with a soliloquy that expresses her loyalty and love, her true motives. The soliloquy makes it clear that we are to look to Fidelia when we seek the truth:

She [Olivia] has told him she lov'd him; I have shew'd it, And durst not tell him so, till I had done, under this habit, such convincing Acts of loving Friendship for him that through it He first might find out both my Sex and Love.


This soliloquy contrasts with what has gone before. It inserts a different kind of idealism into the play from Manly's rude and rough-edged, plain-dealing approach. In the process, Fidelia also refutes Manly's judgment of her and promises herself that she will redeem herself in his eyes. The soliloquy adds a romantic dimension and provides a sharp contrast to an otherwise crass beau monde setting and group of characters.


Following Fidelia's soliloquy, attention moves to Olivia in a conversation between Freeman and Manly with Freeman posing the question: “What strange charms has she that cou'd make you love?” (406). Manly answers with a tribute to Olivia's “Beauty” and “Virtue.” “She is all truth, and hates the lying, masking, daubing world, as I do” (406-07). Against the will of her parents, Manly says, Olivia has sworn to follow him to the Indies. Freeman questions whether or not Olivia will keep her oath. She is not like other women, Manly says, and would keep her promise. Yet to insure it Manly has left her “five or six thousand pound: for Womens wants are generally their most importunate Solicitors to Love, or Marriage” (407).

At this point, Olivia has not been introduced to the audience. The evidence we have of her beauty, virtue, and faithfulness has been presented only by Manly. Just as Wycherley used Fidelia's soliloquy to make clear her purpose in her relationship to Manly, he now uses the pragmatic man of the world, Freeman, to question Manly's judgment of Olivia. The judgment Freeman makes is not based on Olivia herself, but rather on the gallant's judgment of the world around him. Here the first seeds of doubt are planted in the minds of the audience regarding Manly's ability to judge others:

And Money summons Lovers, more than Beauty, and augments but their importunity, and their number, so makes it the harder for a Woman to deny 'em. For my part, I am for the French Maxim, if you wou'd have your Female Subjects Loyal, keep 'em poor; but, in short, that your Mistress may not marry, you have given her a Portion.
She had given me her heart first, and I am satisfi'd with the security; I can never doubt her truth and constancy.
It seems you do, since you are fain to bribe it with Money.


… if your weak faith doubts this miracle of a Woman, come along with me, and believe, and thou wilt find her so handsom, that thou, who art so much my friend, wilt have a mind to lie with her, and so will not fail to discover what her faith and thine to me. When we're in love, the great Adversity, Our Friends and Mistresses at once we try.


So Manly, who would not trust Freeman either for advice or friendship, allows his own view of Olivia to go unchallenged. Freeman doubts that Olivia is the paragon that Manly has imagined her to be. Freeman's doubts, as indicated, are based on his knowledge of the Town and the way of the world. They undercut Manly's idealism, just as at the opposite pole, Fidelia's idealistic soliloquy undercuts Manly's cynical understanding of her. There is a growing sense that no matter how much Manly, the ethical plain dealing giant, may be admired in the larger world, he is naive about the small world in which he must live. Verification of this must await act two, for Wycherley ends the first act of the play here, and opens the next act with the first appearance of Olivia.


The first scene of this second act, in effect, reproduces the opening scenes of the play, except that this time Olivia rather than Manly is railing against the ills of society. The juxtaposition is neatly arranged for at once the audience is aware of the affinity between Olivia and Manly. There is, however, one crucial difference: up until the time of Fidelia's soliloquy, Manly's allegations against the world are supported by the actions of the characters he meets. But from the beginning, similar tirades and “aversions” against the world offered by Olivia are challenged and questioned by Olivia's cousin Eliza.

Some critics attach a greater significance to Eliza's role in the play than may be merited. Norman Holland suggests that Eliza is a representative of a sane middle course that is to be contrasted favorably to Manly's extremism (96-113). Thomas Fujimura sees her as “a mouthpiece for the author” (150). Certainly Eliza's point of view is a sane one, but Wycherley specifically casts her in opposition to Olivia, not to Manly. As for Fujimura's suggestion, Eliza makes only infrequent appearances, usually with Olivia, and she has only a peripheral relationship with Manly. Eliza as a character has the potential to be matched with Freeman or even Manly in a love-duel, but Wycherley does not choose this course. Eliza is a functional character whom Wycherley uses to expose the hypocrisy and folly of Olivia (Donaldson, “‘Tables Turned’” 307). She helps to establish the contrast between Olivia and Manly that makes Manly a stronger more attractive figure. This is the extent of Eliza's participation in the play. Such a limited role in the play would rule her out as Wycherley's representative of his ideal.

In this opening scene of act two, Olivia has an “aversion” for everything in the world; for example, “rich Cloaths”:

Ay, 'tis because your Ladyship wears 'em too long; for indeed a Gown, like a Gallant, grows one's aversion by having too much of it.
Insatiable Creature! I'll be sworn I have had this not above three dayes, Cousin, and within this month have made some six more.
Then your aversion to 'em is not altogether so great.

(2. 1. 409).

Eliza considers Olivia's “aversions” as mere dissembling, and she concludes that “a Man no more believes a Woman, when she sayes she has an Aversion for him, than when she sayes she'll cry out,” and if anything be “a Woman's Aversion, 'tis plain-dealing from another woman: and perhaps that's your quarrel to the World” (411).

Wycherley has allowed the character who is to expose Olivia's hypocrisy to present here a very unflattering view of women, certainly a contrast to the ideals and actions of his own virtuous women. But these are the women Wycherley sees in the real world, not the idealized women he creates in his play-worlds. He has shown us this before in the female characters in The Country Wife and with Pounce and Flirt in The Gentleman-Dancing-Master. In any case, Eliza's view of her sex in this comment is a cynical one: that women resent honesty and plain dealing both in their affairs with men and in their dealings with each other.

The arrival of Lord Novell is convincing evidence, Eliza is aware, of Olivia's hypocrisy. Olivia pretends not to know him and considers the fact that he always “affects Novelty” as one of her “aversions.” Then she proceeds to do the very things she had condemned earlier in her raillery. Eliza's comments expose Olivia's hypocrisy:

Well, but Madam, d'ye know whence I come now?
From some melancholy place I warrant, Sir, since they have lost your good company.
From a place, where they have treated me, at dinner, with so much civility and kindness, a pox on 'em, that I cou'd hardly getaway to you, dear Madam.
You have a way with you so new, and obliging, Sir.
You hate flattery, Cousin! (Apart to Olivia).


The opening scene of act two is overly long and even includes a critique of the controversial The Country Wife in which Eliza champions the play and Olivia condemns it as obscene. Wycherley bludgeons the point: Olivia is a coarse, hypocritical woman, skilled in raillery and affectation.


Finally, Manly appears unnoticed and is treated to Olivia's raillery against him:

… I alwayes lov'd his Brutal courage, because it made me hope it might rid me of his more Brutal love.


… then shall I be pester'd again with his boistrous Sea-love; have my alcove smell like a Cabin, my Chamber perfum'd with his Tarpaulin Brandenbrugh, and hear vollies of Brandy sighs, enough to make a fog in ones Room. Eoh! I hate a lover that smells like Thame-street.(6)


An ugly scene follows in which Manly and Olivia exchange charges and imprecations. Manly promises Olivia that just as he has been constant in his love, he will now “despise, condemn, hate, loath, and detest you, most faithfully” (428). Manly now has discovered that his idealization of Olivia has been unjustified and he abandons his love for her, if not his lust. As for Olivia, she further enhances her villainy by courting the favor of the “agreeable young Fellow” who has come with Manly. She is referring to Fidelia who, along with Freeman, would speak for Manly's lost estate which has been placed in the hands of Olivia. These are the jewels, which Fidelia claims, “have no value in themselves, but from the heart they come from” (429). Here Olivia adds the final insult to Manly's constancy: she has a husband (not named) whom she says would be jealous if he were to learn where and how she had obtained the jewels.

… he could conclude you never wou'd have parted with 'em to me, or any other score, but the exchange of my Honour: which rather than you'd let me lose, you'd lose I'm sure your self, those Trifles of yours.


As Manly notes, this is “Triumphant Impudence!” and a volley of imprecations follows from his lips, but none tops Olivia's own curse at her exit line:

… may the Curse of loving me still, fall upon your proud hard heart, that cou'd be so cruel to me in these horrid Curses: but Heaven forgive you.


Olivia's curse is all the more deadly for its being the truth. Characteristic of Wycherley's comedies, this is the dark element that provides what A. M. Friedson calls “the inciting incident for the revenge” (195), but, as shall be seen, that desire for revenge on the part of Manly is weak. The dark element is really the ambivalence in Manly's mind concerning Olivia's rejection of him. He is torn by his desire for revenge and his continued longing for her. This dark element is tempered for the moment by the entrance of the Widow Blackacre with her son, Jerry, “laden with green Bags” (legal documents).


There is a quick shift in focus to the humorous, though sanguine, efforts of Freeman to outwit Major Oldfox, “an old impertinent Fop,” and the Widow herself in order to gain her jointure. In the rivalry that follows in this secondary plot, the Widow, fully aware of their intentions, rejects them both out of hand. The Widow exits with son, jointure, and green bags intact, but neither man is discouraged:

… I'll get her by Assiduity, Patience, and long-sufferings, which you will not undergo; for you idle young Fellows leave off Love, when it comes to be Business; and Industry gets more Women, than Love.
Ay, Industry, the Fool's and Old Man's merit; but I'll be industrious too, and make a business on't, and get her by Law, Wrangling, and Contests, and not by Sufferings. …


“Industry gets more Women, than Love.” Matrimony for both men in their separate ways is a business. Oldfox will use his “Industry” in love-making. Freeman will use his “Industry” to get her by “Law” and “Contests.” For both it is an affair with the Widow's jointure, not her heart, and Freeman's course, as he advises Oldfox, is to “make Justice pimp for you” (438). Again, this is a reflection of the Restoration upper-class society's view of marriage where one seeks a fortune, not a wife. As has been shown with both Etherege and Wycherley, this is the playwright's view of the real world, but clearly not an endorsement of that view.


Act three of The Plain-Dealer offers much wit and humor, but does not do much to advance the action. The scene is Westminster Hall and Manly and Freeman have come there to take part in one of the Widow Blackacre's suits after an unwilling Manly has been subpoenaed. Manly continues to desire Olivia, though he conceals this from Freeman. Fidelia's tenacious loyalty to Manly makes her his only confidant in his desperate ambivalent love-hate relationship with Olivia:

Go flatter, lie, kneel, promise, anything to get her for me: I cannot live, unless I have her. Didst thou not say thou woud'st do any thing, to save my life? …
But, did you not say, Sir, your honour was dearer to you, than your life? And wou'd you have me contribute most infamous, most false, and—
And most beautifull—(Sighs aside).
Most ungrateful Woman, that ever liv'd; for sure she must be so, that cou'd desert you so soon, use you so basely, and so lately too: do not, do not forget it, Sir, and think—
No, I will not forget it, but think of revenge: I will lie with her, out of revenge. Go, be gone, and prevail for me, or never see me more.

(3. 1. 442).

It is clear at this point that Manly has been undone by Olivia. His inclination toward revenge is weak; his desire for her love, still strong. His final words to Fidelia are “strive to alter her, not me” (442). But Fidelia, in carrying out Manly's mission, faces a dilemma, as she indicates in the soliloquy that follows Manly's orders to her. She is “forc'd to beg that which kills her, if obtain'd; / And give away her love not to lose him” (443).


The action shifts abruptly to the business of Widow Blackacre and her many lawyers and various suits. The motive for the Widow's love of law is either to seek gain or to gain revenge. In her devotion to the law she is as excessive as Manly is in his devotion to absolute morality. Both have rigid principles entailing great sacrifices. The difference is that Wycherley does not consider Justice by the rule of law as an appropriate moral absolute for, after all, as Freeman notes at the end of act two, Justice can be made a “pimp.” Wycherley takes a dim view of the Widow's legalistic excesses and arranges it so they lead to her downfall. He resolves this secondary plot in act five, scene two, by having the Widow tripped up by Freeman in her own legal maneuverings. The result is that the gallant Freeman, in a most ungallant act, forces the Widow to marry him and award him her jointure. Wycherley uses Manly's day at Westminster in act three to emphasize his disdain for the legal profession. He closes the act with Manly's comment on the Widow's obsession and the way in which lawyers feed on it: “… the Lawyer only here is fed: / and, Bully-like, by Quarrels gets his Bread” (464).


In the first scene of act four, Fidelia reports to Manly on her success with Olivia as his messenger of love. All through the scene Fidelia tries to make Manly see that his efforts with Olivia are futile, that he is “as nauseous to her, as a Husband on compulsion” (4. 1. 465). Indeed, Fidelia says, “I spoke to her for you, but prevail'd for my self” (466). This scene shows the giant Manly about to topple as a result of his desire for Olivia. Significantly, his fall occurs before Fidelia. The faithful will know his heart inside and out, and if she cannot save his love, she will attempt to save his “Honour.” But Manly is unmoved. His love and lust for Olivia will be shown in the guise of revenge: “Well, call it Revenge, and that is Honorable” (468). Manly's honor is further tarnished by the news that Fidelia has become his rival. Fidelia's answer to this is pivotal to the eventual outcome of the play when these two are joined into one world:

There is nothing certain in the World, Sir, but my Truth, and your Courage.


Certainly Manly's truth, if not his courage, has been colored. He is torn by ambivalence. He wants revenge; he wants love. He would tear off her lips with his teeth; he would kiss those lips. Two passages illustrate Manly's tortured emotions at this point in the play. Wycherley makes this a dark and serious moment for his character:

Damn'd, damn'd Woman, that cou'd be so false and infamous! And damn'd, damn'd heart of mine, that cannot yet be false, tho' so infamous! What easie, tame, suffering, trampled things does that little God of talking Cowards make of us! But—
So! it works I find as I expected. (Aside).
But she was false to me before, she told me so her self, and yet I cou'd not quite believe it; but she was, so that her second falseness is a favor to me, not an injury, in revenging me upon the Man that wrong'd me first of her Love. Her Love!—a Whores, a Witches Love!—but, what, did she not kiss well, Sir? I'm sure I thought her lips—but I must not think of 'em more—but yet they are such I cou'd still kiss,—grow to—and then tear off with my teeth, grind 'em into mammocks, and spit 'em into her Cuckolds face.


Manly vacillates between an awareness of self and heart in the first passage, and a giving over to his passion in the second; a passion that turns from love to anger, and finally a mix of hatred for Olivia and self-hatred at the idea of cuckoldry. Manly becomes as much his own torturer as does Olivia. Significantly, no man or woman sees this developing emotional struggle other than Fidelia, for Manly hides it from all others who are themselves world-weary. Only Fidelia remains and persistently reminds him of an ideal: “Faithless Love” can be healed “by loving another, and making her happy with the others losings” (469).

The practical movement of the plot has been forwarded in this scene by Fidelia's announcement that she was able to leave Olivia's company only if she returned within the hour. Manly arranges to go with Fidelia to Olivia's lodgings and in the darkness, act in her stead: “I'll go with you, and act Love, whil'st you shall talk it only” (468).


Scene two of act four takes place in darkness at Olivia's lodgings. Vernish, Olivia's husband and Manly's supposed faithful friend, makes his first appearance in this scene. His deeds have been dark, and he arrives in darkness, surprising Olivia as she awaits her rendezvous with Fidelia. Olivia covers her surprise and Vernish's suspicion by occupying him with the news of Manly's return and his need for his money. She persuades Vernish, she thinks, to go and hide the money in a new and secret place.

Olivia admits that she has never loved Manly, but only his money: “I had a real passion for that” (4. 2. 483). Even in calling Manly a “snarling brute” and charging that “a Masty Dog were as fit a thing to make a Gallant of” (482), she has revealed earlier to Vernish a certain grudging respect for him. Such an admission before the man Olivia thinks would know Manly best is revealing: “I have us'd him scurvily, his great spirit will ne'r return” (480). “Great spirit” can be read as nothing short of a tribute even in this context. The same is true of Vernish's plan to meet Manly later and “lead the easie honest Fool by the Nose, as I us'd to do” (480). Villainous deeds and plans are mixed with grudging words of tribute to a trusting soul who has become their trusting victim.


In spite of Fidelia's plea, Manly is determined to have revenge on Olivia and make her “accessary to my pleasure, and then let her know it” (484). He will enter Olivia's chamber in darkness, pretending to be Fidelia, and without a word satisfy both his lust and his revenge. But when Manly returns he has “thought better on't, I must not discover my self now, I am without Witnesses (4. 2. 485).

There is some confusion at this point as to whether or not Manly did commit a sexual act with Olivia. Norman Holland concludes that he did not and that Manly lies to Vernish in act five, scene two, when he tells him that he has committed the act (106). It should be noted that Manly tells Vernish this, still believing that Vernish is his friend and before he learns that he is Olivia's husband. Zimbardo's view is similar to that of Holland. She believes Manly failed to commit the act and lies “in the hope of gaining another's admiration” (Wycherley's Drama 87). Bonamy Dobree concludes that the act was committed and calls it a “rape” (Restoration Comedy 88), and Donaldson concurs with that view (318).

Percy G. Adams deals specifically with this question and argues convincingly for both sides: that Manly did commit the sexual act with Olivia, but decided not to reveal himself so that he might have witnesses the following night; that he did not commit the act, and did not reveal himself for the same reason. Adams argues that the line: “I have thought better on't, I must not discover my self now, I am without Witnesses” can be taken either way, concluding that Wycherley deliberately intended to make the issue ambiguous. He notes that both Manly and Olivia have ample opportunity to clear up the ambiguity concerning the bedroom scene, but fail to do so (183-84). Adams says that Wycherley had an eye to the audience when it came to this particular scene: just as they were “titillated and hypocritically aghast at the china scene” in The Country Wife, they would also be “horrified publicly, and titillated privately” over this event in The Plain-Dealer (185).

Perhaps ultimately, the answer to the question must be determined in performance by the director. But, as has been noted all along, Wycherley has structured the action of the play so that Fidelia and only Fidelia has an ear to Manly's truth. She is his confidant and she is the only one who knows of Manly's ambivalent struggle within himself concerning his feelings for Olivia. Wycherley has been absolutely consistent in this. For that reason, we may expect that Manly will always speak the truth to Fidelia and conclude that Manly had no sexual encounter with Olivia. If this is true, then the immediate question becomes: Why does Manly lie to Vernish in act five, scene two, since our assumption is that Vernish is still to be trusted by Manly at this point in the play?

Wycherley offers no clear-cut answer to that question, hence, the critical dilemma about Wycherley's intentions. Perhaps if we put the pertinent scene before us there might be some clue to his intentions. First, Manly informs Vernish that Olivia has been false to him, something, of course, Vernish already knows since he is the culprit. Then Manly begins a railing denunciation of Olivia and Vernish gleefully joins him. She is “jilting,” “Traytrous,” “Base,” “Damn'd,” “Covetous,” and finally from Vernish, a “Mercenary Whore.” Manly picks up on the last bit of invective and embellishes on it:

Ay, a Mercenary Whore indeed; for she made me pay her, before I lay with her.
How!—Why, have you lay'n with her?
Ay, ay.
Nay, she deserves you shou'd report it at least, ho' you have not.
Report it! by Heav'n, 'tis true.
How! sure not.
I do not use to lie, nor you to doubt me.
Last night, about seven or eight of the clock.

(5. 2. 498).

We could surmise that Manly may be saying he has paid Olivia prior to his going to sea and this is his return: that Olivia “first cuckolded me in my Money” (498). But Manly is very specific in telling Vernish when the incident occurred: “Last night, about seven or eight of the clock.”

At one time or the other, Manly has to be lying, but Wycherley never tells us which time. The only thing we have to go by is his consistency in making Fidelia Manly's confidant to whom he has always told the truth as he believed it. In this first meeting with Vernish, there is much angry invective against Olivia, most particularly and sincerely from Manly. We have experienced Manly's excessive anger before as well as his ambivalence toward Olivia. In one of Manly's darkest moments, quoted earlier, Manley calls Olivia's “love” “a Whores, a Witches Love!” (467). If then, there is a choice, it seems clear that we must assume that Manly would continue to be consistent in telling the truth to Fidelia and would lie to Vernish. We know that Manly at this point is in a dark and vengeful mood in his relationship with Olivia, and Vernish has fueled his anger (“mercenary Whore”). No doubt this contradiction will continue to puzzle critics, but if we keep in mind Wycherley's consistency in making Fidelia Manly's ear for truth juxtaposed with Manly's inconsistencies in judging the other characters in the play, we may safely conclude that Manly decided against a sexual encounter with Olivia and that he lies to Vernish in act five, scene two.


Prior to Vernish's appearance at the tavern, Fidelia tells of her perilous adventure with Vernish (act four, scene two). Fidelia has managed to escape Olivia's efforts to coax her to her bedchamber only to run into Vernish, who forces Fidelia to reveal herself as a woman and then attempts to ravish her. Vernish's attempt is interrupted by a caller. Ironically, the caller is an alderman who has brought Manly's money so that Vernish may find a new secret place for it. Fidelia is locked in a bedchamber for the future satisfaction of his lust, but escapes by tying window curtains to the balcony and sliding down them to the street and safety. In relating these events to Manly, Fidelia, of course, does not reveal the fact that Vernish has discovered that she is a woman. Manly's reaction is to propose still another assignation with Olivia. Fidelia reluctantly complies and sets out to arrange it.

The meeting of old friends Manly and Vernish becomes one of revelations and deceptions. Manly embraces him, then reveals he has cuckolded the unknown husband of Olivia. Vernish deceives Manly, still calling himself friend and not admitting his treachery in marrying Olivia and stealing his money. Through “asides” the audience becomes aware of Vernish's thoughts which now center on his own “vengeance” against Olivia. Manly now reveals his plan for the evening; and a confused Vernish, not knowing who might be trusted, plans to surprise all.


Scene three of act five is once again set in the darkness of Olivia's chamber. As in act four, Olivia and Fidelia are present, along with Manly who is hidden in the darkness. Vernish is heard from without, and in her panic, Olivia picks up Manly's money, hands it to him thinking he is Fidelia and begins tying curtains together to escape by way of the balcony, a repeat of Fidelia's performance in act four. But she is too late. Vernish breaks down the door and charges Manly with his sword. Manly throws down Vernish and disarms him. Olivia, believing that her defender is Fidelia, embraces Manly. At this moment, Freeman, Plausible, Novell, and the Widow and her son, along with sailors carrying torches, enter. In the light, Olivia discovers it is Manly she is embracing, that he has his jewels and money back, and that all that is left for her is her “shame.” Manly discovers that the man he has disarmed is Vernish. But the greatest discovery is Fidelia, who in aiding Manly in his struggle against Vernish, has lost her “Peruke.” Manly recognizes her now as a woman and his “Volunteer in love” (5. 3. 512).

The key to Fidelia's reason for her disguise is, of course, her love for Manly and the fear of being reproached by him for that love. But a more important reason for Fidelia's loyalty to Manly is his “constancy”:

I must confess I needed no compulsion to follow you all the world over, which I attempted in this habit, partly out of shame to own my love to you, and fear of a greater shame, your refusal of it: for I knew of your engagement to this Lady, and the constancy of your nature; which nothing cou'd have alter'd, but her self.


Fidelia has recognized in Manly that sense of total commitment, whether it be in battle or in love. The “constancy” of Manly's nature, “which nothing cou'd have alter'd,” is both Manly's virtue and at the same time his undoing. Rightly or wrongly, Manly is incapable of breaking his commitment until he has proven to himself that he is irrevocably wrong, and until the violator of his “constancy” has been exposed. Nonetheless, the virtue of commitment has brought Manly perilously close to treachery and vengeance, hardly qualities to be admired.

From the beginning, virtually all of Wycherley's gallants have had one foot in the world of the dark. They have lacked that libertine-gallant virtue of self-awareness, that cool detachment, that arch humor that allows them to accept the world on its own terms, while manipulating it to fit their own needs. Both Ranger and Valentine lacked that detachment, particularly in dealing with the virtuous lady in Love in a Wood. Even Gerard in The Gentleman-Dancing-Master becomes virtually helpless and, in the final analysis, finds himself manipulated completely by Hippolita. Only Horner in The Country Wife has the traditional gallant's self-awareness and detachment, but again, Horner is Wycherley's tool in probing the dark side of the beau monde, and has little to do with Alithea, Wycherley's representative of the ideal.

Manly, like Wycherley's other gallants, has a foot in the dark. His commitment negates detachment and the capacity to manipulate. It invites excessiveness and, in his desire for moral absolutism, rejects appearances and compromise. Manly's absolutism forces him to reject the ways of the world and makes him fail to see or perceive a way that his desires might be achieved. Fidelia perceives, just as Olivia and Vernish do, that such a plain, blunt, unvarnished view of life makes Manly an easy prey for intrigues that give the appearance of having virtue. It is Fidelia, then, who must guide Manly not only to an understanding of the real world, but also to that ideal world that he longs for.


The word “world,” mentioned countless times in the play, is one of the keys to the meaning of The Plain-Dealer and to the understanding of Manly. Jon Donaldson describes multiple worlds in which the characters in The Plain-Dealer live (304-21), but in essence there are only two worlds, the Indian or ideal world that Manly longs for, and the fashionable beau monde, represented by the other characters in the play-world. For Manly, and obviously for Wycherley as well, the beau monde is dark and corrupt and thrives on deception, dishonesty and faithlessness. This sort of world is intolerable to Manly: Justice is a “pimp,” love is faithless, friendship is traitorous. That other world, the ideal or Indian world, is represented by Fidelia, uncompromising in her faithfulness and devotion to Manly; constant in her desire to preserve his honor and, ultimately, his guide toward an understanding of both worlds, the one he must live in and the one he desires.

Nothing has changed in that world Manly lives in: Plausible grasps for Olivia's “pendants”; Novell, a “locket”; the Widow, a new law suit; Olivia, revenge; while Vernish retreats “doggedly” at the mercy of a “World of Fortune.” But there is a contrast to this real world, and that is the ideal world that has as its symbol Fidelia.

Significantly, the rage in Manly against the real world subsides when fortified by an awareness of that ideal or Indian world represented by Fidelia. It must be remembered that those who would hold Manly accountable for either compromise or hypocrisy, or even moral weakness, presume him to be the representative of the ideal. But Manly is not Wycherley's representative of the ideal. He only strives for the ideal. That he becomes the world's victim removes any assumption that he might represent the ideal.


Fidelia's role as the ideal also may be misunderstood. She is hardly the answer to “social corruption,” which is how P. F. Vernon measures her as a failure (William Wycherley 35). And, as virtually all critics agree, she hardly fits the realistic framework of the play. Fidelia may well be an ill-conceived character who strikes “an utterly false note in the comedy” (35), but whether she is convincing or not, she does what Wycherley wished her to do: she makes his audience and his principal character aware of a different set of values.

As in two of his other plays, Wycherley employs a virtuous woman to represent his concept of the ideal. Only in the character of Hippolita in The Gentleman-Dancing-Master does Wycherley employ such a woman in the same fashion as did Sir George Etherege in his plays. In the other three plays, Wycherley's virtuous women take on symbolic values and the names of the characters are keys to those values: Christina, Alithea, and Fidelia. As a satirist of the mores of his society, Wycherley invariably placed the social follies in the foreground, for that is the object of his satire, and his ideal in the background as a contrast and as an alternative, as was seen in the case of Alithea in The Country Wife.

In The Plain-Dealer, Fidelia acts as an instrument for Manly but, at the same time, she is his warning device. She bids him think of his honor: “Sir, your Honour was dearer to you, than your life” (3. 2. 442). She is also the observer and commentator as she sees Manly slowly drift away from his convictions, a victim of the follies he abhorred. Finally, at the end of the play when the treachery is revealed, her constancy reveals to him his own folly. At this point, his world and the “Indian world” of the ideal are united. Wycherley does not try to correct the follies he has exposed in his play-world, but instead offers an alternative. His alternative in this final play has less to do with social and marital issues than it does a moral concern. Fidelia symbolizes that concern through her “faithfulness” in both love and friendship to the values espoused by Manly.

I will believe, there are now in the World Good-natur'd Friends, who are not Prostitutes, and handsom Women worthy to be Friends; Yet, for my sake, let no one e're confide in Tears, or Oaths, in Love, or Friend untry'd.

(5. 3. 515).

In The Plain-Dealer, Wycherley creates a different sort of hero for his virtuous lady. Manly can shape the truth with such searing verbal fire, but he can also be deceived and make false judgments. In spite of his ambiguity as a character and the perverseness of some of his actions in the play, Wycherley makes him constant in his disdain of appearances and his desire for moral absolutes. Throughout the play, only Fidelia recognizes Manly's constancy and moral desires. She makes no effort to compromise his values and suffers many perils to protect them. It is her faithfulness that reveals to him his own follies. At the same time, Fidelia's faithfulness is based on the recognition of the worth of Manly's moral constancy.

In his last two plays, then, Wycherley sees the projected marriages of Alithea and Harcourt and Fidelia and Manly on a symbolic level. It is the merging of ideals as much as it is the genuine love of the couples involved. Significantly, it is the virtuous woman in each play who is Wycherley's guide for the gallant hero toward the ideal that culminates in the traditional marriage ceremony. Wycherley makes it plain that marriage in his play-world is to be a contrast to his observation of marital relationships in the real world, that beau monde that he repeatedly exposes.

It is also important to recognize that Wycherley's virtuous women are not like those long-suffering heroines in the later sentimental comedies. Wycherley's women do not accept the world as it is; they make demands on it. They have a knowledge of their social world and if what they observe does not please them, they seek to change it. Harcourt will never have Alithea until he makes the kind of commitment that will gain her esteem. Harcourt learns from Alithea's example exactly what that commitment must be.

Fidelia makes it possible for Manly to realize the ideal he longs for is not on some far-flung Indies island, but here and now. Her constancy and commitment to him are symbolic of that. But it is more than symbolic, for Fidelia has played an active and positive role in proving that the ideal is real. She has become Manly's teacher and his guide toward that ideal world which is before them at the end of the play. What she does as a character may not be realistic, but that is not the issue here. The point is that Wycherley's virtuous women, though they indeed do suffer and are often victimized, are as responsive and as active as the Etherege or Congreve women in their social world. They are of different types, but each one values herself and proves herself either equal or superior to her male counterpart, and each offers to the audience in the real world of Restoration society a more desirable mode of conduct and ideal.


  1. The plot of Love in a Wood is based on Calderon's Mananas de abril y mayo and the plot of The Gentleman-Dancing-Master on El Maestro de Danzer. For a detailed discussion of the source of Love in a Wood see James U. Rundel's “Wycherley and Calderon,” PMLA 64, 4:701-07. Wycherley looks to Moliere L'Ecole des Femmes and the character of Agnes for his model for the character of Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife.

  2. For an account of the Dutch wars, see Ashley, England and the Seventeenth Century 121-36.

  3. John Dryden called The Plain-Dealer “the most bold, most general, and most useful satires, which has ever been presented on the English stage.”

  4. For different accounts of Wycherley's late marriage and the court revelations that followed Elizabeth Jackson's lawsuit, see Cook and Swannell, The Country Wife, xxvi, and Rogers, William Wycherley 132-33.

  5. All quotes from all the Wycherley plays are taken from the Gerald Weales's edition, The Complete Plays of William Wycherley, Garden City: Doubleday-Anchor, 1966. Since Weales does not designate line numbers, page numbers will be used instead.

  6. Thame-street was noted for its foul odor, making Olivia's “insult a penetrating one.” (Weales 526n).

Peggy A. Knapp (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Knapp, Peggy A. “The ‘Plyant Discourse’ of Wycherley's The Country Wife.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 40, no. 3 (summer 2000): 451-72.

[In the following essay, Knapp examines the language of The Country Wife for evidence of then current social practices and attitudes. She maintains that this play would have been understood differently by various groups of the time.]

In a spirited defense of the excellences of Restoration culture, John Dryden praises King Charles II for having awakened “the dull and heavy spirits of the English, from their natural reserv'dness; loosen'd them, from their stiff forms of conversation; and made them easy and plyant to each other in discourse. Thus, insensibly, our way of living become more free: and the fire of the English wit, which was before stifled under a constrain'd, melancholy way of breeding, began first to display its force: by mixing the solidity of our Nation, with the air and gayety of our neighbors.”1 The king may indeed have set a tone in court that counteracted recent Puritanical curbs on speech, but it was the Restoration stage that allowed and popularized the art of ingenious conversation and encouraged the habit of “easy and plyant” discourse. Clearly, Dryden links linguistic habits to behaviors and displays his political and cultural commitments to a “way of living” both “more free” and more closely resembling that of the rest of Europe.

Writing about discourse in novels rather than in conversation, Mikhail M. Bakhtin concurs with Dryden's assertion of a link between language and society and the possibility of social change: “these processes of shift and renewal of the national language that are reflected by the novel do not bear an abstract linguistic character in the novel: they are inseparable from social and ideological struggle.”2 He also insists that the memory of past struggles persists “as congealed traces in language.”3 This slant on semantic and social history is particularly telling in consideration of the relatively recent (if indeed yet complete in the 1670s) consolidation of London's dialect as the national language of England, which was so aggressively sought by Elizabethan policy. It follows that the vocabulary of a text can be examined for “congealed traces” of social practices and attitudes across generations, and I would like to subject William Wycherley's The Country Wife to just such scrutiny.

I want to make use of Dryden's term “plyant” in a couple of different ways. It was no doubt intended to register approval of liveliness or resiliency, and I will rely on this usage later. But I also want to take advantage of a sense of pliant unintended by Dryden. Some of the words in Wycherley's play are pliant in that they belong to two or more ethical and social systems. One result of this fact is that the play was understood differently by various groups in its own time, and another is that critical commentary on The Country Wife has reached little consensus about certain interpretative issues even now; Helen Burke refers to its “notorious resistance to interpretation.”4 Its textual features have seemed so pliant to interpretation over the years that the genre of the play has seemed to oscillate between satire and romantic comedy, and its central character, Mr. Horner, between brilliant spokesman for the satiric mode and sinister predator, himself the object of dismissive critique.5 Laura Brown counts this interpretative impasse as an intended effect of the play: “Wycherley maintains a complete disjunction between social and moral judgment.”6 This essay does not dispute that openness to interpretation, but it will, I hope, highlight the serious and contentious social consciousness on which that openness is based and which the play can still, though under different circumstances, suggest.

It would not be difficult to see the textual pliancy of The Country Wife in the guise of postmodernity, especially in its generic instability, equivocation about moral norms, and linguistic slippage. One of my students responded to it just that way, remarking, “This play is so modern,” and likening it to certain recent dramatic fare. Her comment impressed me because I had had the same reaction to the production I saw at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario in 1995. Douglas Campbell, the director of that production, found a brilliant strategy for staging the two-sidedness of the play: throughout the opening dialogue, a very handsome Horner speaks to Quack as he dresses for the day, covering a naked chest scarred by sores (presumably syphilitic) with sumptuous clothing. Nothing further was said or done during the play to revive the metaphor, but, of course, it exerted its influence nonetheless. The oblique reference to AIDS is striking and adds another overtone to my student's observation about the play's modernity.

I am, of course, always pleased when students (and directors) can, as Hans-Georg Gadamer frames it, reach across “temporal distance” to appropriate a text as part of our world, but the point of this essay is that the indeterminacy of the textual effects of The Country Wife results from specific seventeenth-century historical conditions, the record of which may be traced out from its vocabulary.7 Unlike the searcher for an original, stabilized reading of the text, I am seeking historically situated difference within the play's earliest reception, especially difference registered in changing linguistic understandings, and, at the same time, suggesting what I think is a richer context for our own reading of the play. Perhaps it is time for particulars.

Several often-repeated words in The Country Wife are construed differently by different characters in the play (and also by various readers and critics). The most obvious instance of such paronomasia is of course in the justly praised “china scene,” a perfect example of calling a thing (a sexual encounter) by the name of another thing (a china cup). Effects are achieved inside the play: Horner and Lady Fidget deceive Sir Jasper while indulging their desire to refer to their “secret.” They are also achieved outside: for the audience—which is party to the “secret”—lines like Horner's “I cannot make china for you all” are simultaneously sobering and funny.8 But the effects I am even more interested in here are subtler and rooted in broader social concerns than the English rage for chinoiserie. The text of the play takes remarkable advantage of the verbal equivocation inherent in the English language of the seventeenth century. Plays on the words virtue and honor are, like the china scene, immediately readable as puns, and they serve as markers of the verbal self-consciousness of both the play and the age to and of which it speaks.9 Attention to some less obviously bifurcated words—I have selected conversation, pinch, kind, silly, honor, virtue, and wit—reveals the remarkable verbal intricacy which in part accounts for the widely divergent readings the play has received since its first productions.

To sketch in some of the diversity in its earliest audiences' ideological commitments and structures of feeling, I will rely heavily on Dryden's “Defence of the Epilogue: Or An Essay on the Dramatic Poetry of the Last Age” (1671) and Isaac Barrow's sermons, especially Sermon 14, “Against foolish talking and jesting.”10 The relevance of Dryden's criticism is obvious; his attempts “to determine upon principles the merit of composition,” as Samuel Johnson put it, make up some of the earliest systematic criticism in English. His contemporary, Barrow, an Anglican divine and Cambridge don, gave voice to equally informed and coherent attitudes toward language and ethics. Dryden and Barrow do not define the opposing poles of English thought in this generation—much harsher polemics could be cited from the “libertine offensive,” on the one hand, and the Puritan camp, on the other—but they do demonstrate different structures of feeling within the segment of society to which the play is addressed.11 Barrow was a Cambridge-educated Royalist whose family's fortunes had declined “on account of adhering to the king's cause” and who had spent much of the Interregnum in Europe. Although no friend of the theater, he was said to be “addicted” to poetry. When Charles II made him Master of Trinity College in 1672, he announced he was appointing “the best scholar in England.”12 The different stances of these two “Royalists,” both writing on wit, should perhaps modify our sense of a univocal Royalist position in the late seventeenth century. The sharp contrast between their views is often directly relevant to problems involved in interpreting The Country Wife, and suggests a varied and fluid mix of social perspectives within Wycherley's audiences.13 My point is not that members of the earliest audiences of the play consciously weighed the implications of the words I will discuss, but that those words would have certain unmediated resonances for those of Dryden's persuasion and others for those of Barrow's. Two quite distinct historically situated readings emerge from the contrasting systems of valuation registered in these semantic histories.


Conversation is both the subject and the medium of The Country Wife. James Thompson comments on the extent to which all four of Wycherley's plays are made of conversation and claims that if “these plays are absorbed by language, so is the society for which they were performed.”14 He points out that a current meaning for conversation is “mode of life,” rather than “talk” alone. In both senses, the theater bore particularly great weight in forming the tastes and habits of the segment of society of and to whom it spoke, as Dryden's argument for conversational wit, which began this essay, suggests. Barrow also valued conversation and was a valued conversant himself. He wrote that speech was given us “as an instrument of beneficial commerce, and delectable conversation.”15 Like Dryden and Wycherley, he was fascinated by quick-witted speech which was “answerable to the numberless rovings of fancy and windings of language,” and found it an “innocent pleasure … to raise our drooping spirits,” as game playing recreates our bodies.16

The gallants in The Country Wife place a high priority on witty conversation and object to the witless Sparkish's interference with it: Harcourt complains that “the rogue [Sparkish] will not let us enjoy one another, but ravishes our conversation” (I.i.236-7). Horner, in his attempt to convince Dorilant and Harcourt of his impotence in spite of his having been seen with women, says, “Because I do hate 'em, and would hate 'em yet more, I'll frequent 'em; you may see by marriage, nothing makes a man hate a woman more than her constant conversation. In short, I converse with 'em, as you do with rich fools, to laugh at 'em and use 'em ill” (III.ii.16-20). For his on-stage fellows, this reference to “constant conversation” is a clever, misogynist reply. They likely interpret it by combining the older sense “way of life” with its rather new and very fashionable sense “talk,” first invoked in Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1580). For Dorilant and Harcourt, the trouble imputed to wives is that they are always hanging around and, of course, always talking.

But, for the audience, who know that Horner is, in fact, the virile fellow he always was, conversation may well suggest its widely current seventeenth-century meaning: “sexual intercourse or intimacy.”17 The sexual sense is found as early as 1511 and theater people might think of Richard III's accusation against Hastings for “his conversation with Shore's wife” in William Shakespeare's play.18 A legal dictionary as late as 1809 defines adultery as “criminal conversation.”19 That meaning is also consistent with something we know about Horner's amorous proclivities. Once he has seduced a woman, he quickly loses interest in her: “next to the pleasure of making a new mistress is that of being rid of an old one,” he tells Quack (I.i.138-40). His liaisons with women provide, presumably, sexual pleasure, but the emotional satisfaction Horner experiences has more to do with successful competition with the men than any connection with the women involved, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued.20 Horner achieves his victories over men through disguise and verbal dexterity.21 His are the arts of playful and extravagant conversation, praised by Dryden and, as he saw it, forsworn by the “constrain'd” discursive styles of the previous era.

If the king sponsors this new pliancy, as Dryden suggests, the stage is an agent for indulging and teaching those habits of social exchange that reject the Puritan curbs on discourse and behavior during the Interregnum. An elite, sophisticated circle of adepts would release England from its isolation from Europe, a Europe the king understood through his “gallant and generous education” abroad.22The Country Wife may play a role in this cultural reorientation, for it is on record that Charles II saw three performances of the play during its first run.23 One of the most important resources of this new mode of conversation is the sophisticated management of just such bifurcated words as conversation. But where does the play weigh in on the issue which its self-conscious use of language introduces? Comedy has always needed paronomasia; what is different here is not equivocation itself, but the damage done to the gaiety and naturalness (of which more later) of sex in the play if Horner is taken to mean that sexual conversation with a woman leads a man to hate her—that, and the play's stubborn refusal to mark Horner's cynicism unequivocally as “wrong.” Barrow would read the gallants' self-congratulatory display of wit admired by Dryden as a blamable overvaluing of it as “a brave or fine thing … a transcendent accomplishment.”24 Norman Holland's interpretation of Wycherley's ethical structure as a reliable, readable map of “right-way-wrong way” language and plotting will not, I think, explain the fluid comic effects of the play.25

No matter which sense of Horner's conversation is accepted, his pronouncement on it is altogether dismissive of women and marriage. If staging presents him as the hero of the play—flawed but smarter and more self-aware than the others—the play itself must be seen as attacking not only the hypocrisy of pretended marital faithfulness such as Lady Fidget's, but also the plausibility of Alithea's presumably straightforward desire to remain faithful after marriage (I.i.81, IV.i.45). If, on the other hand, the courtship of Harcourt and Alithea is taken as the admired image of love and marriage, Horner, the Fidgets (all of them), and the Pinchwifes (both of them) are dismissed morally even as they inhabit the center of the comedic action. This is not an impossible dramatic structure, but it is unstable and, as Northrop Frye argues in discussing Volpone, creates an uncomfortable dilemma for audiences.26 Within the framework Dryden sets out, the age has made such a praiseworthy advance in civilized accomplishments that “Our Ladies and our men now speak more wit / In conversation, than those Poets writ.”27 The cynical conclusions which this wit might signal scarcely matter.


Pinch is another nicely bifurcated word. Mr. Pinchwife is at the most obvious level a caricature of the dull, heavy, and constrained Puritanism of the cultural style Dryden castigates in the previous generation—except that Horner alleges from the beginning that Pinchwife's obsession with sexual purity applies only to wives, that he is a libertine who only married to keep a whore to himself (I.i. 433). Pinchwife is also, again quite openly, the often satirized well-off citizen who attempts to protect his wife from idle aristocratic gallants. As it applies to both the debased Puritan and the self-protective citizen, pinch will suggest excessive frugality, a usage which extends back to the Middle Ages, but which was particularly associated with the overvaluation of thrift by Protestant ethics. The term pinchpenny was already current when the play was first produced. Part of the same cluster of associations for the word included the early modern sense “to compress, confine, or restrict narrowly,” as in Barrow's “That doctrine which pincheth our liberty within so narrow bounds.”28 Pinchwife's continual attempts throughout the play to lock Margery in a room give this sense a particular relevance. His characterization may thus be seen to revolve around guarding a woman's sexual actions as possessions which might be pilfered by another man to the husband's loss of both capital and respect, connecting Pinchwife's concern for Margery's “innocence” to the cultural theme of entrepreneurial citizen pitted against indolent aristocrat.

For some members of Wycherley's audiences, however, the word may suggest more extreme venues. Pinching in Mary's and Elizabeth's day referred to the use of red-hot pincers to tear flesh from a suspect or informant. When Caliban fears pinching as punishment, he is alluding to that cruel practice.29 Nor was that sense unfamiliar to William Taylor's readers as late as 1799.30 Margery fears something more than erotic playfulness when she warns Horner in a postscript to her letter “let him not see this, lest he should come home and pinch me, or kill my squirrel” (IV.iii.278-9). Although her husband has threatened mutilating violence—slashing her face with his knife and blinding her—none is actually carried out in the play. But pinching (with hands, not tongs) was a common form of spousal abuse in this period, as records of divorce hearings suggest. Catherine, countess of Anglesey, for example, gave evidence that her husband had pinched her so that her arms bore the black and blue prints of his thumb and fingers, at one time so severe that they required a doctor's attendance.31 My point is that the name Pinchwife places the character in two quite different positions in relation to the plot. To read pinch as “strait-laced, anal” places him as the citizen, capitalist, and debased Puritan who cannot compete with the suave gallants of Horner's circle. To read it as “ready to torment by pinching” places him as at least potentially a wife abuser, the focus of a quite different problem, one which aroused great public interest in connection with highly publicized divorce trials.32

Again, we must ask what the design of the play makes of this equivocation. In any view, Margery is the virtual captive of a potentially abusive man. In a frame that privileges witty language, her cleverly conducted seduction by Horner may be seen as a release from this captivity, however brief, and her sexual compliance as a “natural” inclination brought to the surface by the events of the play. On the other hand, Horner's cynical victory over Pinchwife carries with it enormous potential harm to Margery, and the play scarcely projects a quiet future for her in either the country or the town. Those who make the harsher interpretation of Mr. Pinchwife's name, connecting it to the contemporary divorce trials or the older regime of state torture, cannot return him to the familiar comic role of cuckold-who-deserves-his-fate, and the tone of the play is darkened.


Wycherley's use of kind is another significant equivocation. Kind as the adjective “beneficent” came into its own as an early modern expression. It was a sense available but not common in Middle English usage, which ran strongly to kind as the noun “nature,” related to “kin” and closely connected with racial stock, sex, and sometimes semen. “Love of kynde” is a common expression for sexual activity. In the sixteenth century, the epithet “cruel fair” or “fair unkind” for the beloved of the sonnet tradition wittily exploited the paronomasia “natural”/“beneficent.” So does Hamlet in his biting reply to Claudius's “cousin Hamlet,” “A little more than kin and less than kind,” obliquely suggesting incest between Claudius and Gertrude.33 In The Country Wife, Lucy struggles to evade Dorilant's advances, and he persuades (or threatens): “Thou shalt not stir, thou robust creature; you see I can deal with you, therefore you should stay the rather and be kind” (III.ii. 506-7). Lucy should be nice to him and/or show herself a natural (sexually inclined) woman. The equivocation here is balanced, but it tilts sharply toward the carnal in Pinchwife's little warning poem addressed to Sparkish: “Hows'e'er the kind wife's belly comes to swell, / The husband breeds for her, and first is ill” and in Mrs. Squeamish's confession that “the demureness, coyness, and modesty that you see in our faces in the boxes at plays, is as much a sign of a kind woman as a vizard-mask in the pit” (V.i.81-2, V.iv.104-6). Most of the instances of kind in the play concern the “virtuous gang.” These women use the equivocation themselves and hear it used to characterize them. Indeed, it becomes something of a leitmotiv for them. In this case, the irony of the play is straightforward, for these women are satiric targets from the beginning.

Kind is also used between the men in the story claiming to be beneficent to one another, when the audience knows they are actually plotting elaborate competitions. Sparkish, Harcourt, Pinchwife, and Alithea all use the word to describe Harcourt's address to Alithea, and each understands the kindness being offered in a different way (II.i.172-6). The comic point of the bitter exchange between Pinchwife and Horner in act IV is similarly based on misrecognition (iii.267-87). The interesting questions connected with kind are posed in the thematic layers of the play; in association with silly and wit, the play insists on asking what is natural (innocence or indulgence) and what is sophisticated (chicanery or self-control). Margery is either liberated into the “natural” exercise of her sexual freedom or robbed of her “natural” modesty and inducted into a fallen urbanity.34 Both alternatives are contradicted by some features of the play, and the whole issue is, of course, linked with (but not stabilized by) the overarching binary opposition between country and city.35


Silly is important to the play because of its repetition. There are ten instances of its use to describe Margery Pinchwife scattered through the play; it becomes and remains a leitmotiv for her.36 A second, less frequent, set of instances concerns Sparkish's disparagement of “silly poets” who write the plays which he attends and talks throughout.37 I would be surprised to find another Restoration play with so many instances of the word; there is certainly no earlier play with more than two.

The conversation between Sparkish and Horner on “silly poets” is one of those self-reflexive riffs with which many Restoration plays abound. Sparkish insults the professional playwrights, whose offerings are attended only so the gallants can carry their own wit to the theater and fault the play for bawdry while they themselves speak “nothing else” (III.ii.96-7). So far, silly just means “foolish, contemptible,” and the poets are spared because Sparkish himself is the very embodiment of folly. Horner even gets him to admit that he too writes poems because the age demands it, that his poems were ridiculed by the “silly poets,” and that he resents the way the stage lampoons knights.38 This exchange reminds us of the ways in which both poetry and theater were integrated into the lives of the class for which Wycherley's work was first performed.39

But the case is different when silly refers to Margery. Early modern silly is the spelling given to Middle English sely or cely, a term used positively and respectfully for women, especially for saints and the Virgin Mary. Its oldest uses meant “happy,” “fortunate,” and especially “spiritually favored, carrying blessing.”40 Saintly Custance in The Man of Law's Tale, martyred Virginia in The Physician's Tale, and patient Griselda in The Clerk's Tale are all referred to as sely in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. That usage faded quickly under pressure from the more this-worldly concerns of vigorous, self-determined early modern Protestantism. Between Chaucer and Wycherley, sely or silly became associated with helpless animals, especially sheep, in pastoral settings; Shakespeare has fun with this convention in phrasing Proteus's reply to a servant: “a silly answer, and fitting well a sheep.”41 Yet the medieval sense, only slightly weakened, is heard on the stage in 1680 in Thomas Otway's The Orphan and must have been current enough to be understood there.42

Some critics regard Margery as worthy of that older sense when she is called silly. They regard her straightforward self-disclosure as the opposite of and antidote to the rampant hypocrisy and scheming of the other characters. Thompson calls her a “Restoration Eve,” defining one pole of the thematic interest in linguistic deceptiveness (often through metaphor) versus (literal) simplicity. He points out, however, that the plot does not carry out a neat link between complete honesty and moral rectitude, since no one, not even Margery, avoids duplicity altogether.43 For Charles Hallet, Margery represents Thomas Hobbes's “state of nature,” which, although it emphasizes her innocence of intention, is not the valorized moral position of the play.44 Alan Roper alleges that Margery “has no difficulty with words, uses them indeed, quite fearlessly” to describe things and events—what she does not grasp is the relevance of those things and events to issues, like her husband's reputation.45 Although these three assessments were generated from different claims for thematic contrast in the play, they converge on an insight important to Margery's characterization: innocent (sely) normally has two potential opposites: “guilt” and “experience.” At the beginning of the play, Margery is both guiltless and inexperienced. At the end, she is neither.

Finally acknowledging that he has a wife, Pinchwife describes her to the gallants as “too awkward, ill-favored, and silly to bring to town,” in order to avoid inviting competition (I.i.368). Horner takes his silly as “witless,” and wonders why Pinchwife has married her (I.i.385); Pinchwife declares her so inexperienced as not to notice his forty-nine years as disabling. Horner replies that she will then expect as much from an older man as she would from a younger, using the sense inexperienced, but assuming a kind of untutored knowledge as well. Pinchwife goes on to reveal that he wants a wife not just innocent, but stupid (I.i.402). He blames personified “love” for ruining women, whom nature and heaven intended to be “plain, open, silly, and fit for slaves” (I.ii.50-1). Pinchwife values both inexperience and witlessness in his wife, equating that combined sense of silly with sexual innocence (medieval), social foolishness (early modern), and a will subservient to command (sheeplike).

It is not so much Margery's lack of experience, but her apparent helplessness that tempers Horner's enthusiasm for bedding her. He calls Pinchwife's “kindness” into question because “she's a silly innocent” and says that though “the poor creature [is] willing, she is silly too” (V.ii.24-5, 27-8). Of course these lines may signal his fear that Margery's lack of worldly acumen will get him into serious trouble—this is another choice point for directors and actors. Later, Horner finds Margery only too apt in lovemaking itself; it is her lack of citified sophistication that makes her silly, “foolish,” in not attempting to cover up her adultery (the urban women are never called silly). In the final scene, his comment that a “silly mistress is like a weak place, soon got, soon lost” acknowledges the practical difficulties of making love to a woman who brings little tough-minded discretion to the affair, and, in this scene, he refers to Margery as “changeling” and “idiot” (V.iv.214, 280, 328).46 At the end of the play, he is presented with a serious dilemma: exculpating Alithea will mean implicating Margery and himself. His decision shifts the word innocent, elsewhere in the play associated with Margery, to Alithea, who is, in fact, sexually innocent: “in these cases, I am still on the criminal's side, against the innocent,” Horner says (V.iv.224-5).

As with the alternative senses of pinch, the play is darkened if Margery's innocence as sely-ness is added to the equation. Reading her husband merely as the stock jealous fool and Margery's silliness as merely a lack of laudable sophistication allows consideration of Margery's sexual adventure with Horner as an inevitable move in an elaborate competition between men. But, if Margery's innocence is valued by giving silly a trace of its older meaning, it becomes less clear that Horner's lovemaking has provided any desirable liberation for her. She is decidedly undervalued by Pinchwife, but Horner undervalues her too. Horner's jaunty “soon got, soon lost” indicates his short-lived commitment to her, even if we had forgotten that to him a woman's “constant conversation” (which Margery certainly promises her “second husband”) only produces hatred. Holland excuses Horner from any injury to Margery because she does not feel that she has been harmed, but what the audience knows and Margery does not is that her “naive assumption that because he wants to cuckold her husband he must therefore want her, threatens the very basis of his [Horner's] strategy,” as Sedgwick puts it.47 The final scene cannot fully turn to comic ends the unease the play has produced concerning Margery's fate.


The bifurcation of the word honor in Renaissance usage is a sign of the vacillation in seventeenth-century thought and feeling between a shame culture in which one's moral identity rests on public esteem or disgrace and a guilt culture which stresses inward awareness. Wycherley's uses for honor have been discussed at length by others.48 The ironies produced when the “virtuous gang” speak of honor in its public, social sense, as “reputation,” but expect to be understood as meaning a more personal and intimate ethical probity are deliberately exposed by Horner in his role as satirist. As he presents his disguise scheme to Quack, it is based on his observation that “your women of honor, as you call 'em, are only chary of their reputations, not their persons … Now may I have, by the reputation of a eunuch, the privileges of one” (I.i. 153-6). In the logic of the play, he is, of course, right about this, as Lady Fidget confirms to him in an aside: “poor gentleman, could you be so generous, so truly a man of honor, as for the sakes of us women of honor, to cause yourself to be reported no man” (II.i.525-7). When Horner assures her that he is unimpaired and asks to be “tried,” she replies: “Well, that's spoken again like a man of honor; all men of honor desire to come to the test” (II.i.535-6). Her reference to “the test” strongly recalls the medieval trial at arms, which, sometimes in practice and often in romances, settled legal disputes through combat, adjudicating ethical questions through a highly public performance. In this exchange, both conversants understand the delicious pun on public and private meanings of honor and types of trial the two of them have conspired to construct.

Later in the play, his acuity about Lady Fidget and her circle makes Horner a merciless (and hilarious) deconstructor of their hypocrisy: “If you talk a word more about your honor, you'll make me incapable of wronging it. To talk of honor in the mysteries of love is like talking of Heaven or the Deity in an operation of witchcraft, just when you are employing the devil; it makes the charm impotent” (IV.iii.42-6). In this scene, he seems to insist on a sort of confession from Lady Fidget before he will perform his services as a lover. Here he comes closest to filling out the role of satirist to unmask affectation; he even risks offending her and losing his erotic opportunity, so confident is he of her love of “the sport.”

For Margery, at the opposite pole in the nature/culture binary, such verbal equivocation is, until near the end of the play, literally unthinkable. She never utters the word honor that looms so large in the discourse of all the others (there are over fifty instances of the word honor in The Country Wife). She leaves “nauseous” and “loathed” out of the letter Pinchwife makes her write because they do not seem consonant with her direct experience of Horner's “sweet breath,” and besides, they are “filthy words,” suggesting that she holds herself to a rigorous standard of truth-telling. None the less, rather than send the dictated letter to Horner, she devises a substitution that has the same effect as the various verbal miscues of the more sophisticated characters: Pinchwife thinks she has said one thing in the letter; Horner knows she has said another. Margery's straightforward use of language, then, does not align her with a culture of guilt; rather, it places her as yet another kind of deconstructor of the language games everyone else is playing.

The more complicated case of Alithea is well described by Thompson, who argues that she has the most trouble with the concept of honor because she takes it most seriously.49 She does, of course, overvalue the keeping of her publicly-given word, and she does misunderstand Sparkish's lack of concern with her inner qualities as generous trust. Lucy calls Alithea's “rigid honor” a “disease in the head, like the megrim, or the falling sickness, that always hurries people away to do themselves mischief” (IV.i.29-31). But Alithea's attention to her public image is not entirely without justification in her own world (however just Lucy's assessment may seem as a comment on world history). The matrimonial system which validates keeping one's word (or one's father's) rather than following one's heart is very much in force, and the plot does not demand that Alithea abandon Sparkish until after his public repudiation of her. The play situates Alithea as a mediation point between the public and private meanings of honor, creating in her the potential victim of a society divided between two versions of ethical reasoning.


The fissure between public and inward assessments of morality is also involved with Wycherley's use of virtue. In Horner's conversation with Lady Fidget in act I, he accuses her of merely affecting virtue. The frank confession of Lady Fidget in act V underlines that strand of humor: “Our virtue is like the statesman's religion, the Quaker's word, the gamester's oath, and the great man's honor—but to cheat those that trust us” (V.iv.100-3). But the semantic history of virtue is linked with the plot device of Horner's pretended impotence to produce a further irony. Throughout the Middle Ages, virtue bespoke “power” far more often than “goodness.” Its derivation is from the Latin vir, “man,” and by extension, “manly powers,” “efficacy.” Current usage retains this sense in the phrases “by virtue of” and “the virtue of this herb,” and its prevalence was greater in the seventeenth century than it is now.

What makes the term such a powerful participant in the language games of the play is that it is precisely Horner's virtue in the old sense on which the comic turns of the plot revolve. Horner devises to trade public recognition of his manly virtuosity for private sexual and competitive satisfactions. (There may be a further irony in this for the seventeenth-century stage: as Kristina Straub argues, acting itself, putting the male body on display, brought with it suspicion of effeminacy in an era of changing gender economies.)50 When the “virtuous gang” believes Horner to be potent as a man, they secretly value him because they love the sport, and the rest of the world thinks him impotent, “a privileged man among virtuous ladies,” as Jasper Fidget taunts (II.i.439). He is, of course, more “privileged” than Jasper knows, since he can be virile (virtuous in the old sense) without challenging the reputation of his mistresses for virtue.51 The witty play with virtue, calling up both its old sense “power,” which describes Horner directly, and its new sense “goodness,” which describes Alithea directly and the other women ironically, produces almost dizzying equivocation.


The word wit takes us back to the issues raised in discussing conversation, as well as to the overarching ethical and social themes of the play. In fact, if any word, idea, or ethical concern has a chance of stabilizing the diverging sympathies the play arouses, it is wit. All the characters in the play admire wit (except Pinchwife, who deplores it in a wife and distrusts it in general) and all of them attempt to display it (except Margery, and she does display it under duress).52 In one reading of the play, wit rather than goodness is rewarded, and the characters are arranged in a readable economy of wittiness. It may not be easy to see who represents rectitude in this play, but it is easy to see who controls witty discourse. To read the play this way is to evoke a specific cultural configuration: Dryden's “freed” and “wakened” English spirit, instructed by king and court to live up to the elegance of Europe, writing and reading books and treatises on witty conversation, learning from plays. But Barrow, although he recognized the acceptability of witty speech and mentioned paronomasia specifically, inveighed against its overvaluation in his “pleasant and jocular age,” or its substitution for the greater projects of “reason and virtue.”53

Wit is, of course, a word with two distinct senses, one older than the other. The old one derives from Old English witan, “to know,” and refers to mental capacities in general, including “wisdom, good judgment, discretion, prudence” and the like.54 This sense survives and, by the eighteenth century, has deepened into what William Empson, discussing Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism, calls “the high sense of wit.”55Wit as “quickness of intellect or liveliness of fancy, with capacity of apt expression; talent for saying brilliant or sparkling things, especially in an amusing way” does not turn up until John Lyly uses it in Euphues in 1579, but that was certainly its fashionable sense during the Restoration.56 Thompson recognizes the split in the significance of the word wit, but declines to discuss the alternatives open to Wycherley. He quotes with approval Dryden's definition, “a propriety of thoughts and words; or, in other terms, thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject.”57 My position is that The Country Wife manages its instances of wit most elegantly, not to suit one thought to its proper word, but often expressly to equivocate between two systems of thought. The word is often adapted, in its different senses, to more than one character's discourse, or to more than one social or ethical stance available to the audience.

The earliest instance of wit in the play—Horner's description of Sparkish as “one of those nauseous offerers at wit”—brings up a meaning which continues to be drawn on throughout the play (I.i.228). Its class-specific social situatedness in the environs of the court and the theater is clear from the gallants' discussion, as they distinguish between Sparkish, that “pert rogue of a wit,” and themselves in a series of metaphors which demonstrate their own sparkle (I.i.259). Rudely as they deal with him, Sparkish seems to prefer their company to that of his (alleged) friends at court: “wit to me is the greatest title in the world” and necessary to the enjoyment of dinner (I.i.303 and 317). (Barrow could be speaking about Sparkish when he castigates those “addicted” to wit, who do not “affect or prize any thing near so much; all reputation appearing now to veil and stoop to that of being a wit.”)58 This long conversation ends in the naming of a recognized group of wits, who, like Sparkish, sit in the “wits' row” at plays. This self-reflexive phrasing serves as a reminder that the gallants too are “offerers of wit”; unlike the well-off citizen Pinchwife and even Sir Jasper, both of whom have business to conduct, the gallants seek pleasure and justify their wealth by their clever conversation within their social circle. And similarly, theater itself offers wit and justifies its claim on social attention by valuing amusing “liveliness of fancy,” with apparent success, to judge by King Charles's return visits.59

Horner claims to value wit in woman: “methinks wit is more necessary than beauty,” which may explain his reluctance to sleep with Margery (whose resourcefulness he is largely unaware of) when the opportunity presents itself (I.i.395). Some of Horner's funniest dialogue is shared with the “virtuous gang,” who keep up the verbal competition with him pretty well without actually winning. Harcourt also values wit in women, and Sparkish is eager to convince him of Alithea's. The joke in act II is that Alithea demonstrates plenty of wit in the sense the play has so far established; her verbal dexterity is equal to that of any other character. The problem is that both she and Harcourt have included in their expectation of wit, the older meanings “judgment,” “discernment,” and “prudence.” Alithea cannot listen to Harcourt's protestations of love without responding as if he means something life changing by them, nor does he want her to respond differently. When she sees that he is serious and yet insists on her prior commitment, Harcourt replies to Sparkish's query, “has she not wit?” with “Not so much as I thought, and hoped she had” (II.i.245-50). He hoped she could not only speak cleverly, but see the error of persisting in her marriage promise to the monumentally unwitty Sparkish. This weightier sense for wit is continued in Alithea's conversation with Lucy in act IV, when she clearly indicates that she understands Harcourt's greater claim to wit. Harcourt's disguise as the chaplain who will marry the affianced pair gives him a showcase for his witty equivocation, aimed at proposing to Alithea while keeping Sparkish in the dark. His “soul,” “heavenly,” and “divine,” good evidence to Sparkish that he is “canonical,” are of course also the familiar currency of the sonnet love style, as Alithea shows her wit by discerning.

Once the two senses of wit have appeared in the play, the conflict between them can be staged. The verbal facility of Horner, which has entertained the audience for the duration of the play, is taxed beyond its capabilities when he must decide whether to protect Margery or Alithea. He chooses lying, just as he has chosen it from the beginning of the play. Harcourt's claim to wit at this moment contrasts sharply with Horner's; his trust in Alithea, without the support of his friend, suggests wisdom, while Horner's lie underscores his ingenuity. (Many of the contrasts on which the plot depends come together here, including that between male bonding and the courtship of women. Harcourt chooses his future household in spite of his old friendship.) Lucy, heiress of the clever servant role in Roman comedy, saves the rest of them from disaster and confirms the rightness of Harcourt's trust. Although the word wit is not used of her, the garland for it belongs to her in this scene.


To return to the related questions of Horner's role and the genre of the play, we might consider Ronald Berman's “Is it too much to suggest that, protected and emboldened by this magical disability, Horner is really an analogue of the satirist himself?”60 Horner has made us laugh at nearly everyone else, primarily by his nimble wit. He is exposed to the audience in the last scene, but not to his most relevant rivals—the cuckolded husbands. He gets the last word, and, with it, praises his clever plot: “But he who aims by women to be priz'd, / First by the men, you see, must be despis'd” (V.iv.410-1). Horner regards the action of the play as a victory for him, and the back cover of the Nebraska Regents edition advertises him as “The resourceful hero … the scourge of stupid husbands and the hope of unhappy wives.” A director can, by choosing certain inflections for conversation, pinch, kind, silly, honor, virtue, and wit, produce that satire, aligning Horner himself with satiric unmasking. In this mode, Alithea's loyalty to her promise is merely outdated (“bankrupt” is Robert Markley's term), delivering no serious moral censure on the world of the play.61 Dryden may well have seen the play in this light; its freedom from the melancholy brooding of the pre-Interregnum playwrights would have confirmed his pronouncements in “Defence of the Epilogue.” The immediate and continuing (until the 1750s) success of the play in performance suggests an audience which could appreciate its intellectual sparkle and ethical detachment.62 Such readings locate Horner clearly at the center of the play and the play at the far satiric end of the continuum between satiric and romantic comedy.

Barrow's position, however, can produce an equally coherent reading of the play. “Facetiousness is allowable, when it is the most proper instrument of exposing things apparently base and vile to due contempt. It is many times expedient, that things really ridiculous should appear such, that they may be sufficiently loathed and shunned; and to render them such, is the part of a facetious wit.”63 Had he deigned to see or read the play, Barrow could have interpreted it as an exposé. Horner, in this view, is not “worthy” of Margery's sexual favors simply because Pinchwife is unworthy of them.64 Such a reading enables a centering of the festive potential of the bond between Alithea and Harcourt, displacing the detached Horner, who “alas, cannot” be a husband, in favor of Harcourt, who is “impatient to be one” (V.iv.386, 383). This performance would stress romantic comedy, a plot that “brings hero and heroine together [and] causes a new society to crystallize around the hero” usually by the formation of a new family.65 Alithea is appropriate for this ethically central role because she has rejected the promiscuity and duplicity of the others all along, and Harcourt because he has renounced them in choosing her. The play itself may be said to invoke a structure of feeling which shares Barrow's view of wit without rejecting the theater: this is the subject position inhabited by Alithea. Barrow uses the phrase “innocent pleasure” to characterize just those aspects of playfulness and curiosity Alithea defends as “the innocent liberty of the town” (II.i.42).66 Neither of them renounces the city or verbal sophistication; both insist on ethical ends for wit. In this reading, the balance in weighting bifurcated words would shift; honor would imply more than “reputation” and wit more than “apt expression.” Pinch would have some force as actual violence, for older viewers political torture, for younger the domestic violence of the scandal sheets on divorce cases. Silly would suggest a valuable innocence as well as risible foolishness. Although these semantic inflections construct a weightier ethical universe, they enable a more festive concluding scene centered on an appropriate marriage.

I have attempted to ground two competing readings of The Country Wife in positions on society and language available in the late seventeenth century. Current debates about the effects of television on our cultural landscape rely on some of the same oppositions we have noted in the contrast between Dryden's views and Barrow's. In raising serious questions about the uses of wit and play in public discourse, Wycherley's play addresses “our own” concerns directly. But his practice is even more relevant in the balance and oscillation it achieves between the claim that wit is entertaining and enlightening in its own right and the notion that it exposes the follies and vices of an age to “due contempt.”67

Campbell's production at Stratford emphasized all the heady, sophisticated wit the text of the play so amply provides, but his initial metaphor, Horner's scarred chest under his elegant clothes, lingered in memory, darkening its world. Watching it demanded a split subjectivity, which simultaneously enjoyed the triumph of Horner's witty immorality and counted its personal and social costs. This “postmodern” effect is produced neither by the predictable, because universal, structure of the human condition nor by the inevitability of verbal slippage, but rather serves as an example of how socially symbolic forms can be “reappropriated and refashioned in quite different social contexts,” how a formal message encoded for urbane seventeenth-century English theatergoers may be resituated.68 The “postmodern” effect is also not the one I am positing for Wycherley's original audiences, who were likely to have seen either a Drydenesque witty unmasking of hypocrisy or Barrow's exposure of the devotees of wit to “due contempt.” Historical scholarship allows us to see those competing readings in the “congealed traces” of the linguistic record.


  1. John Dryden, “Defence of the Epilogue: Or An Essay on the Dramatic Poetry of the Last Age,” in Dramatic Works, ed. Montague Summers (London: Nonesuch Press, 1932), 3:175.

  2. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 67-8. Robert Markley also identifies Bakhtin's theory of language as appropriate for the study of the drama of this period, see his Two-Edg'd Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 26.

  3. Bakhtin, p. 66.

  4. Helen M. Burke, “Wycherley's ‘Tendentious Joke’: The Discourse of Alterity in The Country Wife,ECent 29, 3 (Fall 1988): 227-41, 239.

  5. Ronald Berman asks, “Is it too much to suggest that, protected and emboldened by this magical disability, Horner is really an analogue of the satirist himself?” (“The Ethic of The Country Wife,TSLL 9, 1 [Spring 1967]: 47-55, 55). Bonamy Dobrée went furthest in the sinister predator direction, calling Horner “a grim, nightmare figure” (Restoration Comedy: 1660-1720 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924], p. 94). Genre is not offered here merely as a formal category, but as a clue to the situation or horizon of understanding—in this case, a divided one—which can be shown to characterize the writing and reception of a particular social formation. Fredric Jameson's contention that genre is “essentially a socio-symbolic message” and that “form is immanently and intrinsically an ideology in its own right” suggests that the genre markings of The Country Wife can be read to illuminate seventeenth-century social and cultural conditions (The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981], p. 141).

  6. Laura Brown, English Dramatic Form, 1660-1760: An Essay in Generic History (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), p. 51.

  7. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Univ. of California Press, 1976), p. 19.

  8. Wycherley, The Country Wife, ed. Thomas H. Fujimura (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965), IV.iii.195. Hereafter, all references will be to this edition, cited parenthetically in the text.

  9. James Thompson stresses the legal and ideological force of words in terms of the seventeenth-century's many loyalty oaths, whose phrasing was hotly debated. He writes, “The Restoration was a world in which civil and ecclesiastical appointment depended upon one's willingness to speak specified words” (Language in Wycherley's Plays: Seventeenth-Century Language Theory and Drama [University: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1984], p. 115). See Markley's second chapter for a view of late-seventeenth-century language theory that stresses division and controversy over theory itself as well as over specific verbal formulations (pp. 30-55).

  10. By “structures of feeling,” I mean “characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone … not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought … a structure … with specific internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension” (Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977], p. 132).

  11. The term “libertine offensive” is Maximillian Novak's in “Margery Pinchwife's ‘London Disease’: Restoration Comedy and the Libertine Offensive of the 1670s,” SLitI 10, 1 (Spring 1977): 1-23.

  12. Isaac Barrow's life, written by Abraham Hill in 1683, is included in the first volume of his Works, 3 vols. (New York: John C. Riker, 1845), p. xiii.

  13. I was led to think about Dryden in this connection by Novak's essay and about Barrow by Thompson's references to his works.

  14. Thompson, p. 1.

  15. Barrow, 1:186.

  16. Barrow, 1:151.

  17. OED, sense 3.

  18. William Shakespeare, Richard III, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), pp. 708-64, III.v.30.

  19. OED, s.v. “adultery.”

  20. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Sexualism and the Citizen of the World: Wycherley, Sterne, and Male Homosocial Desire,” CritI 11, 2 (December 1984): 226-45, 232-3. Such homosocial involvements are, of course, nothing new on the English stage; displayed quite openly, for example, is Volpone's exultant response to deluding the Scrutineo about his fraud and attempted rape: he is taken with his victory “more than if I had enjoyed the wench: / The pleasure of all woman-kind's not like it” (Ben Jonson, Volpone, ed. Philip Brockbank [London: New Mermaids, 1968], V.ii.10-1).

  21. As Thompson argues, “Horner gains ascendancy over others by appropriating and exploiting their words” (p. 74). He is right, in the main, about his mastery of men, but Horner wins women the old-fashioned way, by being “dangerously attractive,” as John Harold Wilson (Six Restoration Plays [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969]) calls Charles Hart, the first actor to play the role, and by giving them his admiring attention, albeit briefly.

  22. Dryden, 3:175.

  23. See Robert D. Hume, “William Wycherley: Text, Life, Interpretation,” MP 78, 4 (May 1981): 399-415, 402.

  24. Barrow, 1:159.

  25. See Norman N. Holland, “The Country Wife,” in Restoration Drama: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. John Loftis (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 82-96.

  26. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 165. Exposure and disgrace “make for pathos, or even tragedy” in a case like Volpone's, but Horner's destructive nature is exposed only to the audience, as they watch him fraudulently sacrifice Alithea's good name in act V. Most of the characters do not understand his gesture. Nor is he disgraced within the world of the play for it.

  27. Dryden, 3:174.

  28. OED, sense 11.

  29. Shakespeare, The Tempest, in The Riverside Shakespeare, pp. 1606-38, I.ii.328, II.ii.4.

  30. William Taylor, “That blacksmith, / Who on his wall had drawn the devil's picture, / And us'd to pince at it with glowing tongs” (OED).

  31. Paula R. Backscheider, “‘Endless Aversion Rooted in the Soul’: Divorce in the 1690-1730 Theater,” ECent 37, 2 (Summer 1996): 99-135, 121. The countess's husband, a nail-biter, testified he could not have left such marks, p. 112.

  32. Even wives with clear grounds for separation from their husbands feared the public humiliation that attended their pleas, feared becoming, in the countess of Anglesey's words, “a deplorable spectacle” (quoted in Backscheider, p. 110). Because such cases had to be argued before Parliament, they did make their participants spectacles, but drama rarely presented abuse as comic spectacle. The Taming of the Shrew does dramatize the violence and humiliation of a wife; more often, such violence is threatened, as in Corvino's treatment of Celia in Volpone. It should be noted that the conclusion of the play removes Celia from Corvino's power, while Margery remains under Pinchwife's control at the end of the play.

  33. Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Riverside Shakespeare, pp. 1135-97, I.ii.63-5.

  34. Dryden is notably unclear about what is “natural” to the English. Their “dull and heavy spirits” result from “their natural reserv'dness,” but their “fire” was in earlier generations “stifled under a constrain'd, melancholy way of breeding,” suggesting that “fire” too was natural before it was culturally liberated in his generation.

  35. Francis Beaumont, writing to Jonson in verse, claims that, by being in the country, “the litil witt I had is lost” (Jonson, Works, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926-52), 2:375.

  36. See instances at I.i.368, I.i.384, I.i.390, I.i.393, III.ii.381, III.ii.382, IV.ii.51, V.ii.25, V.ii.28, and V.iv.214.

  37. See instances at III.ii.96, III.ii.99, and III.ii.132. Sparkish also uses the word to disparage Pinchwife, and Alithea to accuse Pinchwife of being like the confessor who taught the “silly ostler” to grease the horse's teeth by forbidding him to do it (II.i.202, III.i.20). In one instance, Pinchwife uses “silly” on himself. When Margery appears in public disguised as a boy, he is not pleased that she carries off the deception “so sillily,” but cannot break in lest he “should be more silly to discover it first” (III.ii.381-2).

  38. One thing that any reading of the play notices about Sparkish is his earnestness about wit. Barrow makes a point that could be a comment on this scene when he writes: “if we must be venting pleasant conceits, we should do it as if we did it not, carelessly and unconcernedly; not standing upon it, or valuing ourselves for it” (1:160). In this formulation, Barrow resembles Baldassare Castiglione and his admiration for the courtier's sprezzatura.

  39. The pervasiveness of poetry writing by both men and women and the way it made up a kind of conversation through answer poems and satires is the subject of Arthur F. Marotti's Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995), esp. chap. 1, pp. 1-73.

  40. MED, s.v. “silly.”

  41. Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, in The Riverside Shakespeare, pp. 143-73, I.i.81.

  42. Thomas Otway, The Orphan, II.310.

  43. Thompson, p. 74.

  44. Charles A. Hallet, “The Hobbesian Substructure of The Country Wife,PLL 9, 4 (Fall 1973): 380-95, 384.

  45. Alan Roper, “Sir Harbottle Grimstone and The Country Wife,SLitI 10, 1 (Spring 1977): 109-23, 118.

  46. Pinchwife has called her “changeling” earlier, when she misunderstands his accusation that she was complicit in Horner's flirtation with her (IV.ii.42).

  47. Holland, p. 85; Sedgwick, p. 232.

  48. See Curtis Brown Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960) and Thompson, pp. 75-80. Markley suggests that Horner is a “walking pun,” his name identifying him both as the “chief cockold-maker of his society” and playing upon the corruption of ‘honour’” (p. 159).

  49. Thompson, p. 76.

  50. Kristina Straub, “Actors and Homophobia,” in Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater, ed. J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne (Athens and London: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1995), pp. 258-80.

  51. A closely related semantic bifurcation occurs in the word honest, as it is used in the play. When Lucy assumes that Alithea will be honest in her marriage, she clearly means “chaste,” as when Hamlet asks Ophelia if she is honest (IV.i.54). That is what Horner means too, but with a glance at “truth-telling” he responds to Lady Fidget's “you were so notoriously lewd” with “And you so seemingly honest” (V.iv.120-1).

  52. Pinchwife upbraids Sparkish thus: “Be a pander to your own wife, bring men to her, let 'em make love before your face, thrust 'em into a corner together, then leave 'em in private! Is this your town wit and conduct?” (II.i.198-201).

  53. Barrow, 1:160.

  54. OED, senses 1-6.

  55. William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1967), p. 91.

  56. OED, sense 7.

  57. Thompson, p. 128 n. 20.

  58. Barrow, 1:150.

  59. I am, of course, suggesting here a self-critical form of satire. The most obvious satiric targets are those who are not as good at being witty as Wycherley is; but, by the end of the play, this sense of wit, however pragmatically successful, is thoroughly interrogated.

  60. Berman, p. 55.

  61. Markley, p. 169.

  62. Novak presents the case for the comedies of the 1670s as advocates for libertine ideals.

  63. Barrow, 1:152. This is, of course, a traditional defense of comedy, available in Lucian, Jonson's favored classical writer, and in Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry.

  64. Volpone tells Celia that she has “in place of a base husband, found / A worthy lover,” but no one reads the play as suggesting that Celia should buy that logic (Jonson, Volpone, III.vii.186-7).

  65. Frye, p. 163. Shakespeare wrote a good many of such comedies, but Jonson, the more popular playwright on the Restoration stage, tended to omit or downplay the final marriage.

  66. Barrow, 1:151.

  67. Barrow, 1:160. The long-running television situation comedy Seinfeld replicates this emotional structure. The characters are all eccentrics and hypocrites, in various degrees celebrated for their witty self-absorption, while the character of Jerry Seinfeld himself is only a little cleverer and slightly more detached than the others, enabling a reading of his as the satirist's voice. The viewer often finds humor in suggestions normally appalling (George's not-quite-expressed smile at the announcement of his fiancée's death, for example), forcing the audience member into a “postmodern” split subjectivity.

  68. Jameson, p. 141.

John A. Vance (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Vance, John A. “‘Plagues and Torments’: The Country Wife.” In William Wycherley and the Comedy of Fear, pp. 81-129. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

[In the excerpt below, Vance discusses Wycherley's varied portrayals of fear and weakness in The Country Wife. As portrayed by Wycherley, the male's primary fear is the loss of sexual potency, while the female's is perpetual incarceration.]

Coming fresh from a reading of The Gentleman Dancing-Master, one may detect a seamless transition to The Country Wife. That is, Wycherley takes us from the courtship phase (Hippolita and Gerrard) to the married state (the Fidgets and Pinchwifes) and displays the male's greatest fear (the loss of manhood) made manifest in Pinchwife's experiences and that of the women (perpetual incarceration) both surmounted in Lady Fidget and realized in Margery Pinchwife.1 And then there is the continued attention the playwright's gives to ironic notions of male potency—now resting in the paradox of Horner's decision to move from a state of virility to one of “sterility.” By assuming the pose of an emasculated male—that ultimate state to which other males, himself included, attempt to push their brothers—Horner cleverly attempts to defuse the explosive possibility of being successfully assailed by others.2 Horner's gesture is moreover a concession to the fact that in Wycherley's world women are destined for ascendancy—that is, those women who have escaped incarceration and have been able to exercise the freedom necessary to display their power. Horner may well realize that such a state of impotence is inevitable, whether it be the immediate after-effects of a rake's spirited sexual relations or the indignities of the superannuated “Disabled Debauchee.” He simply wishes to subvert the pattern by beginning at the end, with an overt concession to the inevitable. He is perceptive enough to realize that the best way to avoid being peppered in the battle is seemingly to retire from the field as a casualty.

As Horner's only confidant, the Quack believes that he has gone out and “undone” Horner “for ever with the Women” by spreading the word of his sexual debility (I.i.5)—the irony stemming from the town's assumption that a Quack often stages “miracle cures” for maladies such as impotence:3 “Well I have been hired by young Gallants to bely 'em t'other way; but you are the first wou'd be thought a Man unfit for Women” (32-33).4 The Quack fails to perceive that instead of making him less attractive to men and less threatening to women, Horner's status as eunuch will do just the reverse—make him less threatening and thus more attractive to men (who would wish to torment one they can now wholly “trust”) but far less pleasing to women because he would have no virility to offer.5 Horner is typical of those characters in Wycherley who strive for uniqueness and separate themselves as much as they can from the average gamesplayer, while nevertheless being a slave to the game itself. Horner in essence uses the unchanging realities of human behavior and motivation, while others—particularly Pinchwife—struggle mightily against them. Although he may be applauded for pushing the ritual in a radical direction, it is ritual still.

Horner's reaction when he hears that “two Ladies and a Gentleman” are coming up is quite telling: “A Pox, some unbelieving Sisters of my former acquaintance, who I am afraid, expect their sense shou'd be satisfy'd of the falsity of the report” (50-52). The reader may immediately recall Gerrard's discomfort at the announcement of Flirt and Flounce; accordingly, an acquaintance with The Gentleman Dancing-Master encourages skepticism of Horner's status as successful rake-hero. Although his concerns are somewhat allayed as the “formal Fool” (Sir Jaspar), his wife, and sister arrive, Horner is not immune to the fear of discovery and of the curiosity and power of such women. Sir Jaspar Fidget may well stand for the playwright's more blithe manifestation of the negative male force (Pinchwife the more malicious and therefore more captivating), but even though he is preoccupied with “business,” Jaspar clearly delights in another male's humiliation and is more than willing to inflict further pain on the now sexually “helpless” figure before him, punctuating each figurative blow with the laugh of derision: “Hah, hah, hah; I'll plague him yet” (72). Jaspar is moreover stimulated by the image of the “emasculated” Horner as a Tantalus in Tartarus, reaching vainly for the fruits (Lady Fidget and perhaps Mrs. Dainty Fidget) just without his reach. Warming to new thoughts of his relative potency (publicly, at least, he is the husband of a highly sexual woman) measured against Horner's impotence, Jaspar inadvertently pimps for his own wife—the first indication that here Wycherley will focus more intently on that self-destructive impulse so often characteristic of male relationships. Jaspar is therefore no mere “gull'd gentleman,” but rather a man prompted by darker impulses, one who expresses both a sadistic joy in humiliating another male and a fear of his wife's sexual proclivities: “'Tis as much a Husbands prudence to provide innocent diversion for a Wife, as to hinder her unlawful pleasures; and he had better employ her, than let her employ her self” (117-20)—a remark suggesting that he has at least a modicum of common sense and perception.6

Horner and Sir Jaspar therefore evaluate males using the same criterion: sexual potency.7 We have long judged Horner's motivation in the play as the consummation of his lust, but his initial stimulation seems more the result of the destructive male impulse: “if I can but abuse the Husbands,” rather than its complement, “I'll soon disabuse the Wives” (I.i.137-38). Even in a remark of relative “innocence,” we find Horner creating a disturbing image of sexual substitution: “I will kiss no Mans Wife, Sir, for him, Sir” (70-71). He is aware that the grandest expression of power over other men, not over women, is in sexual conquest: as a eunuch, he tells his confidant the Quack, he may “be seen in a Ladies Chamber, in a morning as early as her Husband; kiss Virgins before their Parents [particularly the father], or Lovers” (I.i.157-59). Although the males in such instances would be oblivious to Horner's virility, he would eventually and most assuredly encourage a revelation of the truth, providing him the added pleasure of seeing the husbands, lovers, and fathers consciously beaten and their greatest fears realized.

Undoubtedly, Lady Fidget (and to a lesser extent her sister-in-law, Mrs. Dainty Fidget) may be termed a blatant hypocrite, crying “Honour” and “Reputation” while panting for sexual gratification—a fact that has led several generations of critics to call her everything from mildly offensive to completely repulsive, from an object of satire to the one character Wycherley truly hates. I would argue instead that Wycherley finds her an attractive and irresistible character, an even more memorable and “classic” version of Lady Flippant or a mature Hippolita, a woman keenly aware of the need for propriety yet undaunted in her sexual appetite, an energetic presence who is far more appealing than the sterile males in the play. The vigorous disdain she evinces for Horner once Sir Jaspar informs her that he is “in fact” a eunuch is prompted not by concerns for her “reputation,” but rather by her overt disgust now that he is sexually useless to her. Horner's famous observation—“your Women of Honour, as you call 'em, are only chary of their reputations, not their Persons, and 'tis scandal they wou'd avoid, not Men” (I.i.154-56)—seems to place the emphasis squarely on female hypocrisy and to urge our reading Horner as a satiric agent (although the directness of the satiric thrust is blunted by his addressing the remark to the Quack and not to Lady Fidget). But it is evident that he has an incomplete understanding of why avoiding scandal is important to these women. “Reputation” is another of those checks on totally unbridled expressions of pleasure—which the women understand would be detrimental to the health of the individual and to a needed sense of social order.8 Besides, we might wonder who in society views Lady Fidget as virtuous? Her husband only?

As a volatile sexual creature knowledgeable of Horner's former proficiency, Lady Fidget loathes males who cannot appreciate (physically want) her—a fact Horner accurately perceives: “You do well, Madam [to go], for I have nothing that you came for: I have brought over not so much as a Bawdy Picture, new Postures, nor the second Part of the Escole de Filles: Nor—” (86-88). Her aggressive passion demands many forms of satisfaction—from the sex act itself, to metaphoric intercourse and fondling, to representative sexuality in erotic pictures and literature.9 Surely, Lady Fidget is made uncomfortable by Horner's having brought matters so close to the dreaded truth, but she is also likely aroused by the visual delights he portrays—a form of erotic prelude to sexual activity. At heart, Horner is neither active satiric agent nor misogynist;10 instead, he is a man intrigued, despite an occasional “severe” riposte, by Lady Fidget's sexual aura, to which he feels compelled to respond.

When Lady Fidget asks Horner—after he has called her “virtue” an affectation—“wou'd you wrong my honour?” he answers, “If I cou'd,” a reply that piques her interest, as it suggests the possibility of forthcoming passionate activity.11 But Sir Jaspar's intrusion (interruption) and assurance that Horner is but a “meer Eunuch” disgusts her again, and this time most seriously: “O filthy French Beast, foh, foh; why do we stay? let's be gone; I can't endure the sight of him” (102-03). Whereas she might admit that Horner's wit is still potent, this quality does not begin to make up for what he lacks. And later, when she is with Mrs. Dainty Fidget and Mrs. Squeamish, the women's rejection of Horner is once more owing to an innate revulsion at his reported weakness: “Stand off”; “Do not approach us. … You are very obliging, Sir, because we wou'd not be troubled with you” (II.i.410-11; 437-38). And in the “China Scene,” Jaspar reflects on this point by observing that Horner's “wants make his form contemptible” to women and that Lady Fidget had observed that “a proper handsome Eunuch, was as ridiculous a thing, as a Gigantick Coward” (IV.iii.136-39). Sensing that sexual vitality is both life-sustaining and attractive, the virile man or woman loaths its opposite, a form of sexual death, fearing that such impotence might well be catching.12

Of course Horner seems the sophisticated strategist—as he envisages his ploy as a way to “be rid of all [his] old Acquaintances, the most insatiable sorts of Duns”; “And next, to the pleasure of making a New Mistriss, is that of being rid of an old One” (I.i.139-42). But other than an air of rakish irresponsibility, Horner's words reveal an uneasiness at the persistence of those insatiable women he has been unable to control and may not have been able to satisfy. Moreover, his claim that his ruse would “rid” himself of old acquaintances is ridiculed by the Fidgets' earlier visit and by the subsequent arrivals of Harcourt and Dorilant, Sparkish, and Pinchwife. Indeed, we never actually see him as a successful lover (although so much criticism assumes his frequent and successful sexual activity), dominating a relationship with an equally attractive, vibrant, or sophisticated female. He either seduces the easier mark (the country wife) or is swept up by the tide of sexuality begun by a Lady Fidget. He seeks refuge behind the notion and metaphor of gamesmanship, in which indirection is rewarded with self-praise and admiration. Although he comprehends that women have an instinctive desire for sexual expression, whether in mere word or action—“now I can be sure, she that shews an aversion to me loves the sport” (152-53)—even this perception suggests a basic hesitation, the need for a sign before he can act.

Though highly sensitive to the hidden motivations of males, and clever enough to subvert and use them for his own purposes, Horner is not free from the same impulses and fears that plague everyone else—a factor that should prevent us from evaluating his relationship with Harcourt and Dorliant as an example of a healthy fraternity.13 Rather, it is a curious relationship that says more about the male habit of “bullying” (two or three against one) than it does about the loyalty and comfort of brotherhood. Horner asks upon their arrival if the women have pitied his new condition, to which Harcourt readily answers, “What Ladies? the vizard Masques you know never pitty a Man when all's gone, though in their Service,” and Dorilant adds the following of the “Women in the boxes” whom Horner would not pity “when 'twas in [his] power” (emphasis added): “I dare swear, they won't admit you to play at Cards with them, go to Plays with 'em, or do the little duties which other Shadows of men, are wont to do for 'em” (175-83). Dorilant portrays more graphically the image of the “Shadows of men,” that perverse fraternity to which Horner is now reputed to belong: “Ay your old Boyes, old beaux Garcons, who like superannuated Stallions are suffer'd to run, feed, and whinney with the Mares as long as they live, though they can do nothing else” (187-89). Not some witty rhetorical commonplace, Dorilant's comment reveals undisguised delight at Horner's “condition” (the admired rival Lothario now seemingly out of commission) and at the image of this particular “Shadow” of a man—both men ignoring the relevance to themselves (time will eventually superannuate them as well) and, like Sir Jaspar, concentrating instead on the pleasurable comparison of their own relative strength with the impotence of such pathetic creatures.14 What is particularly frightening in this portrait is not merely the prospect of virulent time sapping youth and vitality but of the impotent male exercised, fed, and allowed some expression (by women, the vision implies) though unable to display his virility because he no longer has it—the secret of his humiliation safe from no one.

Neither Harcourt nor Dorilant feels confident that Horner could prosper in their world with anything less than an erect phallus—talk, wit, and drink are insufficient substitutes: “Perhaps,” Harcourt warns Horner, “you may prove as weak a Brother amongst'em that way, as t'other,” to which Dorilant adds that “drinking with Women” is but “a pleasure of decay'd Fornicators, and the basest way of quenching Love” (III.ii.31-35). And Harcourt's words hardly suggest one trying to ease the torment of a man in Horner's reported condition: “Sir, before you go, a little of your advice, an old maim'd General, when unfit for action is fittest for Counsel; I have other designs upon Women, than eating and drinking with them; I am in love with Sparkish's Mistriss, whom he is to marry to morrow, now how shall I get her?” (III.ii.45-49). Later, when Sir Jaspar again invites Horner to entertain Lady Fidget, Dorilant wishes that one as virile as he or Harcourt had been given the opportunity to fit Jaspar with a pair of horns—“what a good Cuckold is lost there, for want of a Man to make him one”—and Harcourt replies, again with more glee than sympathy I would argue: “Ay, to poor Horner 'tis like coming to an estate at threescore, when a Man can't be the better for't” (III.ii.549-50, 552-53).

Clearly, for every bit of shared “brotherly” advice there are several vivid reminders of Horner's impotence, the allusion to the “Disabled Debauchee” figure only exacerbating Horner's “pain.” And Horner too cannot suppress the antifraternal instinct as he informs his “friends,” “I converse with [women], as you do with rich Fools, to laugh at'em, and use'em ill” (III.ii.18-20). Here we see the men moving around each other, firing off shot after shot—the ridicule perfectly reflecting the interaction of the male sex. That Harcourt and Sparkish end this scene by vowing their fraternity (“dear Friend”) simply puts the proper ironic exclamation mark on the matter (154-64). Even when Harcourt asks Horner for advice on how he might win Alithea, he knows full well that Horner cannot help being reminded of the sexually potent world he no longer inhabits. And Horner's disappointment at the prospects of the Alithea-Sparkish match may only in part be due to his wish that Harcourt have her—“I am sorry for't … 'tis for her sake, not yours, and another mans sake that might have hop'd. … Poor Harcourt I am sorry thou hast mist her” (IV.iii.365-72)—for we should be hesitant in ascribing this reaction to the feelings of a loyal friend.15 Horner displays little loyalty or sincerity in his dealings with other males, and therefore the likelihood exists that his primary motivation in this matter is not the felicity of Harcourt but the disappointment of both Sparkish and Pinchwife (the latter having orchestrated this incomprehensible match).16

To the intelligent Horner, letting Harcourt and Dorilant in on his deceit would only invite betrayal; accordingly, his observation that although he cannot “enjoy” women any longer, he shall enjoy his friends more, for “good fellowship and friendship, are lasting, rational and manly pleasures” (I.i.191-93) is of course a deliberate mockery.17 Horner tells them that “'tis hard to be a good Fellow, a good Friend, and a Lover of Women, as 'tis to be a good Fellow, a good Friend, and a Lover of Money” (203-5). Even in the witticism, Horner suggests that in matters of sexual conquest masculine “friendship” is of secondary concern. And regarding women, the “friends” next indulge in witty simile, Dorilant adding to Harcourt's disrespectful and telling comment that “Mistresses are like Books” (“if you pore upon them too much, they doze you”) his view that “A Mistress shou'd be like a little Country retreat near the Town, not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away; to tast the Town the better when a Man returns” (I.i.197, 200-202). (Again, for all such boasting we never see in Wycherley any male assume successfully such a posture before the young woman.) Dorilant's image implies that women are more easily controlled outside the confines of the city, that liberating environment where they are freer to express themselves naturally—in ways with which the males have difficulty coping. The simile is moreover significant in its planting in the reader's mind the connection between the country and masculine stability and power. Dorilant's glib comparison is therefore an effective introduction to Margery Pinchwife, establishing one more reason why Horner would be attracted to her and a primary motivation for her husband's desire to keep her safely in the country.

Sparkish's visit provides further evidence of pervasive masculine antagonisms and the protective aspects of the ego: “he can no more think the Men laugh at him, than that Women jilt him, his opinion of himself is so good” (I.i.223-24). Moreover, Sparkish strives to ascend in company, as Horner tells us, with his “nauseous” attempts at wit. Hardly alone among playwrights, Wycherley implies that false-wit and fastidiousness are “effeminate” qualities, but such men as Dapperwit, Monsieur de Paris, and Sparkish see these “qualities” as something one can escape into, something that cloaks the fear of being emasculated and abused by others. But Sparkish will inevitably break from his rhetorical sanctuary and respond more aggressively in his dealings with his male competitors, although at this point the bantering with the men barely hints at the kind of deeper nastiness of which he is capable. Other than suggesting “Spark” or “Spruce Spark,” his name offers a clue that he may be a potentially dangerous commodity, a spark that may at any time ignite into something more deadly.18 Since the false wits the men revile are males, the creation of males, assailed by males, and emblematic of male weakness, they and the fops serve as signifiers of the internecine nature of masculine relationships. Even in Sparkish's comical defense of the wits, Wycherley embellishes the theme of male conflict and division: “the reason why we are so often lowder, than the Players, is, because we think we speak more wit, and so become the Poets Rivals in his audience: for to tell you the truth, we hate the silly Rogues” (III.ii.84-87). Men categorize each other, constantly breaking down the fraternity into cliques to be compared with and then found superior to. Groups band together only to attack an individual or another group—ironically making males more vulnerable to the manipulations of women: “Women, Women, that make Men do all foolish things” (93-94). Harcourt reflects further on this matter: “Most Men are contraries to that they wou'd seem; your bully you see, is a Coward with a long Sword; the little humbly fawning Physician with his Ebony cane, is he that destroys Men” (I.i.250-52). Present in both examples is a phallic prop—one to cover the inadequacy, the other to suggest that a destructive power may often lie beneath the veneer of impotence—whether it be Sparkish or Horner. And as another illustration of the larger irony, we find that the more males separate themselves from their brothers, the more they are shown to be alike, regardless of physical appearance, social grace, or public reputation.

Sparkish evinces his malicious side in constant references to Horner's emasculation and the humiliation that comes from public awareness about it: as he said to several ladies, “did you never see Mr. Horner: he lodges in Russel-street, and he's a sign of a Man, you know, since he came out of France, heh, hah, he” (287-89). The women laughed so hard, Sparkish informs Horner, that they “bepiss'd themselves”—certainly a frequent physiological reaction to excessive laughter but moreover a suggested reference, in its scatology, to their total disdain for Horner—their defilement of him. To his mind, Sparkish has scored often and severely on Horner, and the others' attempt to thrust him from the room seems less a gesture of loyalty to Horner than a reflection of anger and discomfort that their supposed inferior could so rise to the occasion. For even though Horner is quite adept at ridiculing Sparkish's manhood: “but hast thou a Mistriss, Sparkish? 'tis as hard for me to believe it,” Sparkish always repays in kind: “we were some of us beforehand with you to day at the Play: … did you not hear us laugh?” (III.ii.74-75, 78-79). As a result, the victorious Sparkish insists that they all dine together—gluttonous for another opportunity to study and disgrace Horner19—and even though his offer is rejected, he still manages to score a palpable hit: “I'll go fetch my Mistriss” (I.i.324-25), a final reminder of what he believes Horner lacks and may never have again—all the work of a far more shrewd, subtle, and diabolical creature than his overt demeanor would lead us to believe.20 Here, then, Horner stands as the baited bear, snapped at by those who torment him with constant reminders of his impotence (Sir Jasper, Harcourt, Dorilant, and Sparkish) and who—while they also turn on each other (Harcourt and Dorilant versus Sparkish and later Pinchwife)—are all in fact united by a common goal of reminding Horner of his debility, and by extension of their own now “exclusive” sexual vigor.

Having established the destructive framework of masculine relationships, Wycherley pushes out Jack Pinchwife, once a cavorter with Horner (so he says and others believe, but to what extent we cannot know) but now apparently a morose and suspicious “country gentleman.” The relative neglect or underestimation of Pinchwife in so many critical studies is nothing short of surprising, for he is a character of significance at least equal to Horner.21 To all appearances he is the stock puritanical boor, a ruffian, misogynist, insufferable fool, insensitive dolt, and jealous cuckold, who indeed gets just what he deserves. But he is moreover an important extension of Wycherley's interest in the instinctive fears and reactions of males, of those who incarcerate out of fear—an extensive fine tuning of Don Diego, now given a wife instead of a daughter, but a wife who seems as much a daughter as a wife. He certainly “pinches” his young Margery—a gesture signifying pain as well as suppression—binding her to him, hoping to nip her vitality and sexual desire. All powerful in the country he believes (we recall Dorilant's simile), Pinchwife feels himself weakening rapidly now that he is in the more emancipating environment of London.22 In his bluster and penchant for violence, Pinchwife seconds Hobbes's position that the best way one can “secure himself” is through “Anticipation”: “that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him.”23

That late seventeenth-century law, custom, and practice provided the husband with seemingly boundless power over a wife only underscores more emphatically the irony that Pinchwife fears having his marriage made known to Horner and the others. Wycherley and his characters appreciate that natural human inclinations do not change nor are instinctive fears allayed because of custom and law.24 Pinchwife accepts that he will be laughed at by members of his own sex who see the marriage state as a visible signification of lost male power, not the increase of it. And although a husband, Pinchwife's age difference with Margery (he is forty-nine; she probably at most eighteen or nineteen) and his aggressive determination to protect her suggest that his function is also that of a father defending his daughter's purity—and thus his own interests. In addition, he serves as father to his sister Alithea (who may be twenty-two to twenty-five), who certainly views him more as an intimidating parent. The darker side of the family relationship Wycherley unveiled through Gripe and Don Diego finds another expression in this play: “I must give Sparkish to morrow five thousand pound,” Pinchwife tells the others, “to lye with my Sister” (I.i.335-36)—his preoccupation evident in his choice of this tasteless phrase rather than “to wed my sister.” Is he simply helping Alithea to the altar—getting her out of his and Margery's way—by making all financial burdens disappear? Or might the presentation of money be a means by which to control his sister, a representative of her sex?

Horner of course relishes the opportunity to harass Pinchwife about his recent marriage: “the next thing that is to be heard, is thou'rt a Cuckold” (I.i.341-42). Surely, the impetus for this remark is destructive, touching as it does the heart of masculine fear.25 And Horner's subsequent observation, “But I did not expect Marriage from such a Whoremaster as you, one that knew the Town so much, and Women so well” (344-45), speaks little to Pinchwife's former proficiency as a libertine, for without question Horner's comment is heavily sarcastic, a malicious reminder to Pinchwife of what he could not be. Horner understands, as do the others, that Pinchwife never mastered whores or any other kind of woman, and Horner's articulation of Pinchwife's knowing the town and women “so well” also ridicules, because Pinchwife's erotic “knowledge” is restricted to that which stems from contemplation, observation, and fantasy, rather than from experience, as in the proverbial “Biblical sense” of “knowing” a woman—being as well a derisive reference to Pinchwife's pet expression, “I know the town.” In an attempt at retaliation, Pinchwife assures Horner that he has married “no London wife” (346)—an image personified in the undaunted and sexually demanding Lady Fidget. In arguing for similarities between country and city women, Horner further rattles the foundation of Pinchwife's security—the belief that city and country are antitheses. Distinctions, dichotomies, and contrasts are to Pinchwife like rooms without windows, in which he hopes to hide from what he dreads but cannot, owing to the clear view others have of his fears.

Still, Pinchwife makes the attempt to shut the casements by asserting that country girls are indeed easier to control, voicing the faulty assumption that the woman's power is nothing instinctual but environmental. Remove the woman from the city and she is, like Antaeus off the ground, more easily beaten: “At least we are a little surer of the breed there, know what her keeping has been, whether foyl'd or unsound” (351-52).26 Metaphor provides Pinchwife another means by which to secure power and control, as here he transforms the vibrant and threatening image of the young woman into a domestic beast, a “breed” country gentlemen have always mastered with minimal effort.27 And well knowing how a beautiful and sexually eager woman can stimulate and perplex a man, Pinchwife insists on portraying his wife as asexual or almost hermaphroditic, not simply to deter Horner but to assure himself that she could never destroy him: “No, no, she has no beauty, but her youth; no attraction, but her modesty, wholesome, homely, and huswifely, that's all” (357-58). Suggesting his participation in the ritualistic slaughter of the fellow male, Harcourt believes such an awkward wife should be brought to town “to be taught breeding”—the reference continuing Pinchwife's comparison of Margery to something bovine, but now making “breeding” an image disturbing to Pinchwife rather than comforting.

Instinctively “ganging up,” Dorilant and Harcourt attempt to turn Pinchwife's pattern of logic on its head: safe in the city, in peril in the country, where there is, as Harcourt tells him, “Open house, every Man's welcome” (374). Dorilant and Harcourt gleefully pepper him by assailing those who have “alwayes coarse, constant, swinging stomachs in the Country”; “Foul Feeders indeed” (370-72)—in this context employing the mid-century military tactic of the “caracole” (each rank riding up, firing their pistols, and then whirling away). (But one should moreover appreciate that in their attempts to bombard Pinchwife with these sexual allusions, they are also—consciously or no—blasting the “incapacitated” Horner as well.) Pinchwife reacts with predictable agitation: “good Wives, and private Souldiers shou'd be ignorant” (363-64). Ostensibly, he means to keep Margery from Horner's private “instructions,” but his real concern is that she might come to desire the freedom of sexual expression and the sorority of city women (who would offer her consolation and encouragement) and then to discover an occasion to respond more naturally to any erotic proclivities. Horner's growing interest in the country wife can be attributed in part to the attractive portrait Pinchwife paints despite himself, but actually it is Pinchwife who presents the challenge, not Margery. And we might then ask why Horner does not inform Pinchwife that he is a “eunuch.” Does he wish to have Margery in the “conventional” way, or is he aware that, unlike the other males of his acquaintence, Pinchwife would refuse to believe Horner's disclaimers? And if so, would Pinchwife's awareness be the result of a pervasive fear of being cuckolded, or in this case a healthy skepticism the other males do not apparently possess?

More than being insufferably imperious in his repeated efforts to transform Margery into the village idiot—“because she's ugly, she's the likelyer to be my own; and being ill-bred, she'l hate conversation; and since silly and innocent, will not know the difference betwixt a Man of one and twenty, and one of forty” (I.i.381-84)—Pinchwife is so obviously troubled, seeking comfort in these perverse Pygmalionesque fantasies, with his allusions and comparisons de-feminizing his wife (animal, country idiot, homely country waif) and later changing her, with a disguise, into an effeminate male. (And his terms of “endearment” for her—from “Minx” to “Baggage,” but never “Margery”—also reveal a wish to reshape her into something he may more easily control, linking him with other “creative” male characters—Don Diego, Horner, and Manly particularly.) But the truth shakes Pinchwife from such reveries, prompting an unexpected and open articulation of his fears: “what is wit in a Wife good for, but to make a Man a Cuckold?”;28 “my Wife shall make me no Cuckold, though she had your help Mr. Horner: I understand the Town, Sir” (I.i.391-400). Maliciously more than playfully, Horner sees to it that Pinchwife remains highly vulnerable to meer suggestion: “what is worse [than actually ‘clubbing’ with another man], if she cannot make her Husband a Cuckold, she'l make him jealous, and pass for one, and then 'tis all one” (395-97).29

The exact nature of Pinchwife's sexual relations with Margery is anyone's guess, even though we are sorely tempted to assume that he has been unsatisfactory in the performance of his conjugal duties, which Horner may well consider as he reminds Pinchwife of his “whoring” days. And in good “bullying” fashion Dorilant picks up the cue: “Ay, ay, a Gamester will be a Gamester, whilst his Money lasts; and a Whoremaster, whilst his vigour” (413-14).30 Should Pinchwife claim, to himself or the others, that he is no longer a whoremaster, he would in effect admit to his impotence. Now he stands as the baited bear, swatting at the curs who come to gnash at his flesh: “you may laugh at me, but you shall never lye with my Wife, I know the Town” (419-20). Yet Pinchwife does break down under the constant badgering and ceaseless disparagement and shockingly admits to his own past failures as a “whoremaster”: “A Pox on't, the Jades wou'd jilt me, I cou'd never keep a Whore to my self” (423-24). Although one tends to find this admission amusing—in its corroborating the assumption of Pinchwife's sexual debility—it more importantly depicts a tormented man revealing openly what any other male would fight desperately to keep concealed: the direct admission of sexual failure. But Horner and the others have applied the irons so masterfully that Pinchwife seems unable to control himself and out of duress voices the unthinkable.

Not satisfied with Pinchwife's embarrassing confession, Horner notes that he has indeed seen the “pretty Country-wench” (431). His accomplices (a more apt word than “friends”) aid in the identification, and Pinchwife seems emotionally flogged to the point of distraction: “Hell and damnation, I'm undone, since Horner has seen her, and they know 'twas she” (440-41). And indeed his inquisitors will allow no escape: “Nay, you shall not go.” It is difficult to see how all of this can be characterized as poetic or comic justice, for Wycherley is depicting the more uncomfortable verities about human nature and masculine interaction. Are we to believe that had Pinchwife been more moderate and decorous he would have been less vulnerable or been spared such treatment by these men? Pinchwife will soon understand that only an expression of primitive violence will serve him faithfully against the likes of Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant, whose motives in this exchange were not to administer justice but to indulge their power and cruelty against the perceived weaker male.31 The odds being three-to-one only facilitates their efforts by making them more confident and secure from reprisal. And whereas the men earlier rejected Sparkish's (he who had aggravated them with allusions to Horner's weakness) offer to dinner, pushing him out the door, here they wish to deter Pinchwife (who makes them feel superior)—“Come you shall dine with us” (448).

With our first glimpse of the country wife, Wycherley reintroduces the voyeuristic motif featured so prominently in The Gentleman Dancing-Master, for lurking behind the door, “peeping” in on her, is the husband/father, Pinchwife. Although less formidable than Hippolita, Margery's restless energy is, like the heroine of the earlier play, impossible to suppress.32 Indeed, Margery's initial words evince her natural desire to escape the kind of sluggish and restricted world Pinchwife has fashioned for her: “Pray, Sister,” she says to Alithea, “where are the best Fields and Woods, to walk in in London?” (II.i.1-2). Her reference to movement and city delights does not obscure her insecurity, however, in that the fields and woods signify her more familiar environment, something that gives her at least some confidence in exploring the unknown. She intuitively seeks comfort and assistance from Alithea (“will you ask leave for me to go a walking?,” [24]), who knows much of the town and the freedom it may provide a married woman. In her own way, then, Pinchwife's sister may be said to “know the town” even better than her brother, and she serves a “sisterly” function by providing Margery with the names of places to visit and by warning her of Pinchwife's possessiveness: “He's afraid you shou'd love another man” (II.i.10). For instance, Alithea teaches Margery a careful bit of propriety after the country wife complains that her husband will not let her go abroad, “for fear of catching the Pox”: “Fye, the small Pox you shou'd say” (30-32). She moreover understands a woman's metamorphoses in the country into common animals: “a Country Gentlewomans leasure is the drudgery of a foot-post; and she requires as much airing as her Husbands Horses” (25-27).33 Pinchwife seeks to defy the natural dynamic by placing restraints on Margery in the liberating city, and we should judge that accordingly his cause is doomed—she will have to be dragged back to the country to be adequately controlled.

Margery Pinchwife cannot walk alone; she cannot be too far from her husband; she cannot wear what she wants. Even Pinchwife's taking her to the play (an action with clear self-destructive implications) is a form of suppression, for Margery had to sit “amongst ugly People,” not being allowed to “come near the Gentry.” But her infectious spirit will not be contained by such restrictive measures, and the city, far from corrupting, only provides her with the opportunity to act on basic inclinations. We note how excited she is by the image, as her husband tells her (again self-destructively), of those “naughty Women” at the playhouse, whom the men “tous'd and mous'd”: “but I wou'd have ventur'd [down there] for all that,” she tells Alithea (II.i.16-18). That this adventuresome, curious, sexual creature should see London first at the playhouse seems of course most appropriate, not only because the Restoration playhouse was the environment in which women were truly celebrities (as actresses or royal mistresses) but also because within its confines inhibitions were frequently shaken off. To Margery the playhouse was an even more erotic locale in which she too sought the release of her pent- and penned-up spirit: “I was a weary of the Play,34 but I lik'd hugeously [a plausible entendre] the Actors; they are the goodlyest proper'st Men” (20-21). That Margery is inclined to follow her instincts is nowhere better evident than in her response to Alithea's advice that she “must not like the Actors”: “Ay, how shou'd I help it, Sister?” (23). But the Country Wife has yet to appreciate the dangers of open expression in a world that demands indirection and frequent overtures to propriety. She is still to learn that all the world is not a stage, even though one must indeed learn to play her part.

Pinchwife reacts to his wife's initial enthusiasms as we would expect, by hurling at her a derisive “You're a Fool,” and by lecturing his sister about her influence: “What you wou'd have her as impudent as your self, as errant a Jilflirt, a gadder, a Magpy, and to say all a meer notorious Town-Woman?” (II.i.35-40). His misogynistic conclusions, the misshaping of complex feelings through generalizations and labeling, help Pinchwife stem some of his eroding masculinity, and we note his concern that Margery will become “impudent” and in other ways like a “Town-Woman,” through the efforts of his meddling and highly dangerous sister: “Hold, hold, do not teach my Wife, where the Men are to be found; I believe she's the worse for your Town documents already; I bid you keep her in ignorance as I do” (44-45, 55-57).35 It is clear that Alithea's apparent self-confidence, assertiveness, and protection of her fellow woman are influenced by her residing in London; as Margery notes, Alithea is able to “go every day fluttering about abroad” (III.i.3). Since Pinchwife cannot frighten his sister with threats and demands, he will be forced to consider other methods to keep her, as well as his wife, under control.

Becoming increasingly aware of her surroundings, Margery soon understands the reciprocal requirements of sisterhood—“Indeed be not angry with her Bud” (II.i.58)—and she is able to release both frustration and impatience by admitting that she asks about the town (and men) “a thousand times a day” (59) and by being playfully direct in reply to her husband's question “but thou lik'st none better than me?”: “Yes indeed, but I do, the Player Men are finer Folks” (70-71). But she also covers herself by lying boldly: “Dear, I hate London: our Place-house in the Country is worth a thousand of't, wou'd I were there again” (61-62)—and by deliberately forwarding a persona of the innocent and ignorant country girl.36 She cannot help revealing her exuberance, even while demonstrating a natural duplicity (survival instinct), and she has not learned that in the city that exuberance must always be publicly muted. She moreover shows herself adept at hiding behind the half-truth to both rile and confuse: “I did not care for going [to the playhouse]; but when you forbid me, you make me as't were desire it” (92-93). And Alithea picks up on the extension of the reference to sexual activity in the pronoun it: “So 'twill be in other things, I warrant” (94). Stimulated by the delicious visions of handsome actors and gallants, Margery further (though thinly) disguises her interests with a whisper of modesty: “What, a homely Country Girl? no Bud, no [actor or gallant] will like me”; “Ay, but if he [Horner] loves me, why shou'd he ruin me? answer me to that: methinks he shou'd not, I wou'd do him no harm” (104-5, 119-20). Perhaps delighting as much from the pleasurable vision as from the momentary control over her husband, Margery exploits Pinchwife's fear that she will indeed end up like those nefarious “Town Women, who only hate their Husbands, and love every Man else, love Plays, Visits, fine Coaches, fine Cloaths, Fidles, Balls, Treates, and so lead a wicked Town-life”: “Nay, if to enjoy all these things be a Town-life, London is not so bad a place, Dear” (76-80). And Pinchwife's plea is almost pitiable: “But you love none better than me?” (72). All that's left to Pinchwife here is the familiar primitive gesture at the arrival of Harcourt and Sparkish: he “Thrusts” his wife into the next room.37

The Alithea-Harcourt relationship has been the subject of much analysis to the effect that they represent a romantic or moralistic norm by which to judge the actions of Horner and the others, that they are Wycherley's most positive statement that the world is not thoroughly corrupt, and that successful marriage is indeed possible, even in a world of cuckolds and whores.38 I would argue instead that their relationship reflects none of these views but is rather one more constructed and influenced by fear and insecurity.39 Initially, Sparkish's motives in foisting Harcourt on Alithea (and vice-versa) stem from a wish to make Harcourt confront intimately what he cannot have intimately—the beautiful, not so much the virtuous, Alithea. As a result, we find ourselves uncomfortably on Pinchwife's side as he casts aspersions at Sparkish for his “generosity”: “they [other men] shall know her, as well as you your self will, I warrant you … Praising another Man to his Mistriss!” (II.i.133-34, 154). Here and throughout the play, we often find ourselves uncomfortably confronting Pinchwife, often walking briskly (or running) away from him, but then at other times standing next to him or behind him as a gesture of support. And Sparkish enjoys afflicting Pinchwife—as well as Harcourt40—by offering his “trust” and by physically preventing the Country Husband from putting an end to the highly irregular courtship Harcourt has begun: “Nay, you shall not disturb'em” (II.i.209-10). In addition, the creative and theatrical Sparkish participates vicariously in the courtly ritual, playing the role of voyeur and director (in the Don Diego mold), teeming with perverse excitement at the prospects of Harcourt's romantic interests: “I am sure you do admire her extreamly, I see't in your eyes.—He does admire you Madam”; “go, go with her into a corner,41 and trye if she has wit, talk to her any thing, she's bashful before me” (156-58, 196-97). In an attempt to flatter Alithea, yet reflective of his less-than-ideal role in the play, Harcourt admits that he feels comfortable admiring the “whole Sex”—a not-so-subtle reminder to Pinchwife that he is in danger himself from the likes of Harcourt.

Alithea's reaction to this peculiar activity is more intriguing than admirable. Initially, she “looks down” as Sparkish praises her before Harcourt (II.i.139-40). Is this a gesture (one employed by Lucy Crossbite) based on natural shyness or practiced coyness? Genuine embarrassment over being so highly praised? Or discomfort over Sparkish's blatant foolishness or over her immediate warmth for Harcourt—that is, to an awakened sexual stimulation? She naturally doubts Harcourt's motives: “you are an Enemy to Marriage, for that I hear you hate as much as business or bad Wine” (165-67). And such comments as “you look upon a Friend married, as one gone into a Monastery, that is dead to the World” (171-73) testify to her understanding of the male penchant for ridiculing a fellow male and the articulated belief—in male company, where posturing is vital—that a sincere and open commitment to a woman means sacrificing one's masculinity. Sensitive to the restrictions placed upon women by law and custom, Alithea is shrewd, intelligent, humane, assertive, and egotistical—and not above exercising what power she has over men. Her tone in this scene may be morally, though annoyingly, aloof, but it is important to note that it is not consistently so. Her emphases shift constantly, which only keeps her elusive and formidable. She playfully encourages and playfully betrays Harcourt (“your Friend here is very troublesom, and very loving” [236])—wending her way dexterously through Sparkish's vanity and Harcourt's ego. Harcourt might expect (as would we) her easy capitulation to him—seeing the alternative—but this expectation she only frustrates. She provides him openings that quickly close—though not entirely, so that he may at least determine that he has a chance. Harcourt can only strengthen himself through sarcasm: “[She has not] so much [wit] as I thought, and hoped she had” (254)—being left with only the possibility of some physical confrontation with Sparkish to vent his growing frustration. Alithea plays the benign despot to Harcourt, controlling, agitating, and pleasing, without wishing to destroy or humiliate him. Figuratively, Harcourt is on bended knee before her, absolutely no threat in this context to her femininity or liberty—a major contributing factor to her growing more fond of him.

But Alithea's seeming loyalty to Sparkish has served for many as the most vexing aspect of this play. Her “I wou'd not be unjust to him” (II.i.215) sounds simply incredulous, implying a simple-minded, masochistic, or at least insufferably moral character42—one who would sacrifice her vibrant “self” to remain faithful to a promise (one she herself had little to do with making—her brother having set up the match). Surely one is more vexed than pleased at her announcement to Harcourt here and later assertions to the effect that she will marry Sparkish because her “honour is engag'd so far to him” and that “if he be true, and what I think him to me, I must be so to him” (III.ii.498-500). But her honorable pronouncements are really a masterful bit of indirection and ambiguity and, as far as she will allow it, an encouragement for the now-suffering Harcourt to continue on his course, needing at this point only a few crumbs to fall from her table. (And, as she assumed, her gloomy qualifying does anything but deter the anxious suitor.)43

Harcourt's aggressiveness in refuting Alithea's arguments in favor of honor precipitates the end of their initial conversation; she is obviously too uncomfortable with the truth and instinctively turns from it: “Nay, now you are rude, Sir” (II.i.235)—and she speaks up for Sparkish, although clearly without enthusiasm, as Harcourt attacks him further.44 On one hand, she is both confrontational and manipulative, encouraging discord between the men, hoping, it appears, for some kind of explosive moment that will clear the air of the unsettling feelings within. And later she quickly turns from “devoted protectress” of Sparkish's reputation to his antagonist, bullying him into clarification: “How's that, do you say matrimonial love is not best?” (III.ii.289). Surely, Alithea controls the scene as might a mythic deity, leading the mortals to the point of confrontation (Sparkish draws, cowardly assuming that he will have Pinchwife's assistance) and then putting a halt to the hostilities, shifting from the voice of honesty to one of deception: “Hold, hold, indeed to tell the truth, the Gentleman said after all, that what he spoke, was but out of friendship to you” (II.i.285-86). It may be that she finds this chaotic moment a happy portent for a marriage—a dolt of a husband, easily outflanked yet encouraging of her effect on other males, and a lover such as Harcourt, one who places her in a clear position of superiority—all this while paying tribute to honor, reputation, and the other necessary components of order—in short, practicing the discourse and behavior of the liberated London wife.

Whereas “Honour” should be both admirable and desirable, especially in an environment that apparently displays little of it, in this context it is something more foreign and inimical—something more disturbing than even Lady Fidget's use of the term. But there is no requirement on our part to read Alithea's actions as angelic and as a result unbelievable; we ought instead to consider her motivations and the deep-seated emotions that prompt them. Initially, her keeping the engagement between her and Sparkish paramount in the conversation allows Harcourt to continue his flattery and overtures toward her, for she knows that while her status is indeed a barrier between them, her being engaged still (and ironically) provides the young man the kind of security he would not find if she were as free as Etherege's Harriet. That is, Harcourt's masculinity is spared the ultimate humiliation of being rejected by an available woman. She would of course understand that being “taken” increases the confidence of one such as Harcourt, who knows that she could not be physically attracted to the unappetizing Sparkish. And when she tells Sparkish “I hate him because he is your Enemey; and you ought to hate him too, for making love to me, if you love me” (III.ii.195-96), we find that she has cleverly encouraged Sparkish to admit his own (as well as Harcourt's) antifraternal sentiment and masculine weakness while at the same time flattering her pulchritude and virtue: “That he makes love to you, is a sign you are handsome; and that I am not jealous, is a sign you are virtuous, that I think is for your honour” (III.ii.203-5).

It is not difficult to envisage Alithea enjoying the posturing and head-butting (an actress has only to wear a mischievous smile)—as well as the physical tussling between Sparkish and Pinchwife—while Harcourt is courting her. Without question, she consciously stimulates such activity while at the same time keeping her hand disguised with such saccharine replies as, “But 'tis your honour too, I am concerned for” (206). This “Machiavellian” Alithea is quite antithetical to the virtuous and self-effacing character many have praised, but such an Alithea seems more representative of Wycherley's world. And her platitudes about “Love proceed[ing] from esteem,” Sparkish's love for her, and the necessity of guarding her reputation (II.i.222-31) seem highly insincere and unpalatable, especially when recalling her comments and advice to Margery earlier in the play—for she truly could not be so naive a logician to accept the conclusion she gives Harcourt: “besides he loves me, or he wou'd not marry me” (223). No doubt the audience and reader share Harcourt's conclusion, “No, if you do marry him, with your pardon, Madam, your reputation suffers in the World, and you wou'd be thought in necessity for a cloak” (232-33).

Rather than unadulterated virtue, Alithea's protestations of loyalty may reflect in part Hobbes's position on vows and oaths: that there is an egotistical glory or pride in keeping and a fear in breaking them—fear from those who might be offended.45 But more important is the possibility that she would indeed allow herself to marry Sparkish—not out of affection or duty, but out of that pervading fear that marriage to a powerful man will deny a woman freedom and destroy her spirit. She must judge Sparkish (that is, as she perceives him now) as a fool who, in his preoccupation with masculine warfare, flaunts her as a representation of his manhood, paradoxically encouraging her freedom as a way to puff his vanity. Such a husband would be easy to manipulate, thus allowing the kind of freedom she stated as desirable in her initial appearance with Margery, the kind of freedom known to a Lady Fidget, though we assume Alithea would not behave in the same lustful manner. And what would make such a motive paramount in her mind, even as she might struggle with her affections for Harcourt?46 Quite simply, the example of her brother, who has attempted to control her and to imprison her sister-in-law. She will hear, for example, Pinchwife threaten Margery with something “worse than the Plague, Jealousy” (III.i.50). The platitudes about honor and promises are her way of dealing indirectly with those fears, of transforming the complexities she feels within to something more concrete and comprehensible.47 Alithea is not simply testing Harcourt's sincerity and stamina, but also Sparkish's claim to be free from the dreaded emotion: “You astonish me, Sir, with your want of jealousie” (III.ii.228)—the point being that if Sparkish cracks and admits that he is normal in this regard, she would have just “cause” to discard him, since he would then have failed to live up to the terms of their “contract.”

Alithea's somewhat peculiar (or seemingly perverted) sense of decorum and “honor” demands that Sparkish be the one to open the door from which she may escape: “I can't fire him; he's got to resign.” As she says to Harcourt, “[Sparkish] only, not you … can give me a reason, why I shou'd not marry him” (III.ii.498-99). Because of her fears, Alithea is in a perilous position, and certainly the “finality” of her comments to Harcourt in the scene at the Exchange, “Pray, let me go, Sir, I have said, and suffer'd enough already” and “I will never see you more. … Good night, Sir, for ever” (490, 493, 560) might in part be a reaction to Harcourt's physical imposition on her person here, but her words moreover appeal for assistance (as in “I really wish I could be with you, but I don't think I can”). And like a skilled cross-examiner, Alithea uses logic, emotional appeal, and other forms of subtle and direct pressure to trick the witness (Sparkish) into impeaching himself: “I tell you then plainly”; “Do not you understand him yet?”; “Ridiculous!”; “Are you not afraid to loose me?” (III.ii.218, 238, 266, 301). And she knows how to threaten Sparkish with all the power a woman possesses: “Have a care, lest you make me stay too long—” (III.ii.317). Her problem until the end of the play is that this witness's demeanor, with a few exceptions, is implacable. Truly at one point, Alithea seems, much to her chagrin, convinced that Sparkish is exactly what he claims: “I am satisfied, 'tis impossible for him to be jealous” (IV.i.53). And Sparkish's intransigence prompts even an unadorned emotional response from Alithea: “Monstrous!” (III.ii.232)—interestingly, an epithet she shares with her brother (see III.ii.323).

Moreover, part of Alithea's “immoveable” position is shaped by her own healthy ego: “'tis Sparkish's confidence in my truth, that obliges me to be so faithful to him” (IV.i.50-51)—quite a flimsy reason, of course, for sacrificing love. Alithea is tangled in her own promises—her pride forcing her to argue a rational though ludicrous position. Like her brother, she stands baited; but her antagonists are both without (Lucy, Harcourt, and Sparkish) and within (her pride, vanity, and fears). That she is so very wrong about Sparkish's capacity for jealousy only undermines her image as the exalted paragon but at the same time buttresses her standing as a real, complex, and therefore more attractive human being. Such assertions as “I was engag'd to marry, you see, another man, whom my justice will not suffer me to deceive, or injure” (IV.i.17-18) ring as hollow as Wycherley intended them to sound. And in this instance Lucy is correct to call it “rigid honour”—for it is rigid as in “intractable,” “stiff,” and “death-like” (30). That she does not play well as an “ideal” is all the more reason to argue that she is not as totally open and sincere as her words imply. Besides, who so far in Wycherleys's plays has been?

Because she knows that a woman can maintain a good measure of freedom if she weds one with an unthreatening temperament,48 Alithea accepts that if Harcourt can prove worthy by showing that he will have no demands on her—that he is respectfully subordinate to her—she would, because she is attracted to him physically, consider marrying him. And certainly at this point, Harcourt has paid proper court to her vanity. Yet, she may also rationalize that if Sparkish remains immune from the “green-eyed” horror, he would make a practical, if not ideal, match—one that would not encroach on her freedom but rather encourage it. She tells Lucy, “I own [Sparkish] wants the wit [attractiveness] of Harcourt, which I will dispense withal, for another want he has, which is want of jealousie, which men of wit seldom want” (IV.i.43-45). And yet, despite her apparent certitude (part of her public pose), the lioness Alithea paces about waiting for Sparkish to manifest a clear sign of his jealousy so that she may then pounce and be done with him. And always there are the important qualifiers served up as delicious hints to whom she hopes is a perceptive suitor: “but if he [Sparkish] be true, and what I think him to me” (emphasis added; III.ii.499-500). She understands, as Lucy does not,49 that her freedom would be curtailed, much as Margery's has been, if she weds one as inclined as her brother toward physical gestures of dominance: “Jealousie in a Husband,” she argues in her most important speech, “Heaven defend me from it, it begets a thousand plagues to a poor Woman, the loss of her honour, her quiet, … nay, her life sometimes; and what's as bad almost, the loss of this Town, that is, she is sent into the Country, which is the last ill usage of a Husband to a Wife, I think” (IV.i.54-63).50 Alithea's words are crucial; they must not be interpreted as a simple commonplace assault on making a poor marriage—for they reflect her greatest fears and are the key to understanding her seemingly strange virtue. As does “Cuckold” with her brother, “Jealousie” terrifies and intrigues Alithea; she is fascinated by the possibility that one such as Sparkish could actually be free from its influence. Finally, even Lucy begins to understand: “O do's the wind lye there?” (64).

When Sparkish promises his friendship to the smitten Harcourt, who will be “oblig'd” to his “dear Friend” if he can be “reconcil'd” to Alithea, we find of course both men lying unashamedly—each wishing to destroy the other, each tearing even further at the already ravaged conception of “brotherhood” by dragging the phrase “dear Friend” into this duplicitous exchange. Harcourt resorts several times to a juvenile form of indirection (seeming to talk disparagingly of himself but pointing at Sparkish to make Alithea comprehend his meaning—as if she needed to be so informed), embracing Sparkish Judas-like, the quintessential emblem of a male hostility (III.ii.240-63)—giving life to Corneille's observation “J'embrasse mon rival, mais c'est pour l'étouffer.” And in his striving to control both Harcourt and Alithea, Sparkish pushes them closer and closer together in this Wycherlean perversion of a ménage à trois, secure that he will always be the agent of coitus interruptus: “Come pray, Madam, be friends with him” (319-20).

Pinchwife is once more horrified: “What, invite your Wife to kiss Men? Monstrous, are you not asham'd? I will never forgive you” (323-24). He will not forgive him as a representative of his sex, we might conclude, rather than as the intended of his sister, for Sparkish's so openly pimping for his wife-to-be (as Pinchwife sees it) only raises the Country Husband's greatest fears to the point where they cannot be held silent—forcing him to extend every gesture or hint to its full and horrible potentiality. And to Pinchwife, Sparkish metaphorically places Harcourt under Alithea's sheets, revealing his “wife's” sexual charms to the frustrated and aroused rival: “[Harcourt] is an humble, menial Friend, such as reconciles the differences of the Marriage-bed; you know Man and Wife do not alwayes agree, I design him for that use, therefore wou'd have him well with my Wife” (331-34).51 If we could have doubted Sparkish's ulterior motives, his answer to Pinchwife's contention—that he “will get a great many menial Friends, by shewing” his wife as he does now—erases any doubt: “I love to be envy'd, and wou'd not marry a Wife, that I alone cou'd love; loving alone is as dull, as eating alone; … and to tell you the truth, it may be I love to have Rivals in a Wife, they make her seem to a Man still, but as a kept Mistriss” (342-46). Sparkish's motives are sinister, prompted by his love of inflicting pain and need for ascendancy over other males: “What, then, it may be I have a pleasure in't, as I have to shew fine Clothes, at a Play-house the first day, and count money before poor Rogues” (337-39). Here he is undoubtedly the fawning physician with that dangerous cane. But Sparkish will not win at his game, because he underestimates the power, cunning, and apprehensions of Alithea—and is so preoccupied with the image of destruction that he does not feel the noose he has slipped around his own neck. In his fantasy, the now sadistic Sparkish transforms Harcourt into something no more significant than a dildo. He places Harcourt in a Priapian state, never allowed satisfaction, taking responsibility for satisfying (or perhaps not) the voraciously sexual wife (whom Sparkish could never satisfy), all to feed the pleasure of the voyeuristic, yet manipulative, husband.

And Sparkish's subsequent appearance only reinforces the danger to Alithea; he tells Pinchwife, “'tis her modesty only I believe, but let women be never so modest the first day, they'l be sure to come to themselves by night, and I shall have enough of her then” (IV.iii.356-59). Sparkish now reveals more blatantly a delusionary sense of his own masculinity (unveiled through some regressive and violent sexual activity) and therefore the kind of harsh restrictions he would hope to impose on his wife. The trusting gentleman—so “oblivious” to Harcourt's designs, so repulsed by the thought of jealousy—would pull off his mask once the laws and customs of marriage made him secure enough to introduce the true man. As for any rivals, Sparkish observes to Horner with further malicious glee, “the time will come, when a Rival will be as good sawce for a married man to a wife, as an Orange to Veale” (379-80). He moreover aims a gratuitous blow at Horner's purported condition: “what pleasure cans't thou have with women now, Harry?” (396-97)52—and one at Pinchwife's fear of cuckoldry, even in the country: “your stingy country Coxcomb keeps his wife from his friends, as he does his little Firkin of Ale, for his own drinking, and a Gentleman can't get a smack on't, but his servants, when his back is turn'd broach it as their pleasures, and dust it away, ha, ha, ha” (389-92). Commentators have spent precious little time on these remarks, but they are vital to the understanding of Sparkish's crude, menacing, and sexually maladjusted side.

Harcourt's “parson” disguise surely pushes the play into that uncomfortable depth of farce—that is, if one assumes Sparkish actually believes the chaplain is Harcourt's twin brother. But it would be in keeping with the theatrical Sparkish's love of games-playing and his perverse designs to take Harcourt, now in white heat, right to the altar, not only to watch the event that tells him Alithea will not be his but also to have an active part in his own humiliation, even if the marriage would have been a sham. And Alithea need not be seriously peeved or incredulous either. She may well be suppressing smiles or even laughter, playing along in her own way—charmed, really, by Harcourt's child-like attempt at preventing the marriage. To test again his jealousy-free protestations, Alithea confronts Sparkish directly with Harcourt's puerile plot, but of course he chooses not face the truth, advancing instead “trust and belief” to disguise his vanity and pulsing destructive tendencies. Free and capricious with her power, Alithea then turns her “anger” on Harcourt—who has in the ritual given up his identity and perhaps all past associations with mistresses who are like “books”—assuring him that this childish gimmick will not move her: “though you delay our marriage, you shall not hinder it” (IV.i.140).

And even here Wycherley reminds us that Harcourt is no “right-way” character. Lucy says that the parson “Ned” Harcourt “has the Canonical smirk, and the filthy, clammy palm of a Chaplain” (121-22)—which is part of a bawdy joke Sparkish himself had started. What may actually peak Alithea's anger is the fact that Sparkish is not showing any jealousy—the requirement of her breaking the match: “Invincible stupidity, I tell you he wou'd marry me, as your Rival, not as your Chaplain” (158-59). When she asks Harcourt at the end of the scene “What can you hope, or design by this?” Alithea knows what the reply will be (her question is not simply rhetorical), but she needs to hear the answer; she needs Harcourt to continue his courtship. By her insults and the “finality” of her protestations—“[L]et us make an end of this troublesome Love, I say”—she has pushed Harcourt to the brink both as a test of his commitment and as an indication of her own and often insufferable pride. And yet she will pull him back to safety with the slightest indication of hope—for example in the pronouncement “Though you delay our marriage, you shall not hinder it” (140); she not only poses the challenge, encouraging him to do exactly that, but also subtly allows Harcourt to read our as his and Alithea's own potential nuptials. To be openly flattered by Harcourt's persistence would only soften her powerful demeanor, for she knows that power rests in remaining aloof, even if one must eventually capitulate (again, one recalls Etherege's Harriet and Congreve's Millamant). But all must be on her terms. Harcourt can only hope to effect a “reprieve” from his doom: “at worst, if she will not take mercy on me, and let me marry her, I have at least the Lovers second pleasure, hindring my Rivals enjoyment, though but for a time” (165-68)—the antifraternal feelings remaining paramount.

One now moves from one intriguing though misjudged woman to another: Lady Fidget, who arrives (II.i.306) with her ribald cohorts, Mistress Dainty Fidget and Mistress Squeamish.53 Lady Fidget has come to escort Margery to the theater (in good “sisterly” fashion), to initiate her properly into the sorority of London wives. Pinchwife is understandably dismayed by the prospect and refuses to allow the persistent women to “see” the one he now calls his “Free-hold” (II.i.305)—a rather grim reminder of Margery's fate, the oxymoron suggesting well the tension between the “Free” Margery (her natural spirit) and the “held” Margery (her subjection to her husband and the marriage laws and customs that sustain him). Pinchwife's standing guard in front of the door—again literally “pinched” by adversaries—claiming that Margery has already gone has little effect, for the ladies keep demanding her presence.54 Sensing that his wife may come to share the undaunted personalities of these irrepressible women, Pinchwife's only recourse is to retreat in the face of insurmountable odds: “Well, there is no being too hard for Women at their own weapon, lying, therefore I'll quit the Field” (333-34).

In the women's discussing the plight of wives, who are “so neglected” by husbands who take up with “little Play-house Creatures” (342-43), we note that the traditional complaint merely provides justification for female sexual freedom. Here the women exercise their power by patronizing the males, employing (appropriating) the same kind of rhetorical and metaphoric abuse males heap on the absent female: “Fye, fye upon'em,” Mrs. Dainty Fidget giddily exclaims, “they are come to think cross breeding for themselves best, as well as for their Dogs, and Horses.” Lady Fidget completes the figurative association: “They are Dogs, and Horses for't” (357-59), the frustration only intensified by an assumption that their social position does not seem to afford them the same advantage males have in such class-blurring relationships. And what is particularly aggravating to Lady Fidget is the male propensity to cover fear and insecurity with “reports” to “the World” that they have been successful with them: “to report a Man has had a Person, when he has not had a Person, is the greatest wrong in the whole World, that can be done to a person” (364-66). Her repetitive and choppy wording suggests a kind of verbal fidgeting and frenzied amusement the women take in such comments: “Fye, fye, fye, for shame Sister, whither shall we ramble? be continent in your discourse, or I shall hate you” (377-78). Likely punctuating her remarks with a raucous laughter, Lady Fidget's references to discourse and honor offer tribute to propriety, although the women enjoy pushing matters extremely close to the chaotic state: they must bear gifts to Apollo even though their hearts are with Dionysus. Lady Fidget explains to the others that “a woman of honour looses no honour with a private Person”—to which Mrs. Dainty Fidget adds, having picked up on the sexual entendre: “So the little Fellow is grown a private Person” (386-88).

That Sir Jaspar wishes Horner to escort the ladies to the play as a form of public humiliation encourages further our seeing Lady Fidget, especially, and the other women as younger and more sexually appealing than mere farce might want them (the attractive Elizabeth Knepp assayed Lady Fidget in the original cast). Increasingly delighted by thoughts of Horner's impotence, Jaspar portrays as overtly as indirection will allow the sexual act Horner can no longer perform: “Come, come, Man; what avoid the sweet society of Woman-kind? that sweet, soft, gentle, tame, noble Creature Woman, made for Man's Companion” (II.i.452-54). And playing the Philistine to Horner's shorn Samson, Jaspar tells his wife that she should keep him as one of her “droling pack of hombre Players” because he is an “ill Gamester”; he would make a fine addition to the “two old civil Gentlemen” with “stinking breaths” who wait on her: “a Lady shou'd have a supernumerary Gentleman-Usher, as a supernumerary Coach-horse” (470-76)—establishing Horner in a fraternity of impotence. Jaspar next paints into the nightmarish portrait other strokes of humiliation: Horner will be relegated to such effeminate tasks as drinking tea, dealing cards, reading to the women, “picking Fleas” out of their dogs, and “collecting Receipts, New Songs, Women, Pages, and Footmen for'em” (485-89). But at the height of this reverie of emasculation, and as a likely reaction to it, Horner reasserts himself by beginning a metaphoric lovemaking to Lady Fidget:55

SR. Jas.
Heh, he, he, well, win or loose you shall have your liberty with her.
As he behaves himself; and for your sake I'll give him admittance and freedom.
All sorts of freedom, Madam?
SR. Jas.
Ay, ay, ay, all sorts of freedom thou cans't take, and so go to her, begin thy new employment; wheedle her, jest with her, and be better acquainted one with another.
I think I know her already, therefore may venter with her, my secret for hers.—


Clearly, Jaspar reflects that disturbingly voyeuristic intensity shared by Don Diego and Sparkish, as well as offers a self-destructive invitation for Horner to make him a cuckold.

Lady Fidget's reaction to Horner's admission of sexual fitness borders on a missionary's euphoria at the baptism of another heathen: “to suffer your self the greatest shame that cou'd fall upon a Man, that none might fall upon us Women by your conversation; but indeed, Sir, as perfectly, perfectly, the same Man as before your going into France, Sir; as perfectly, perfectly, Sir” (528-32). Her repetition of perfectly (perfection being to Lady Fidget sexual potency)56 and of dear in the following speech (“I have so strong a faith in your honour, dear, dear, noble Sir, that I'd forfeit mine for yours at any time, dear Sir”) translates these words into sexual entendres, making evident that Horner is the object of her lust, not vice-versa; and the exuberance of her reaction gives cause to believe that for once in Wycherley the volatile sexual energy seems destined for uninterrupted release.57 Horner is indeed sensitive to a woman's fear and accordingly convinces Lady Fidget that she may remain safely behind the protective screen: “the reputation of impotency is as hardly recover'd again in the World, as that of cowardise, dear Madam” (550-52)—an observation that moreover stresses the pleasure males take in the humiliation of another, a pleasure they are not about to relinquish, regardless of the truth. And there is playful though subtle eroticism in her reply: “Nay then, as one may say, you may do your worst, dear, dear, Sir” (553-54), her affectionate words directed primarily at his sexual organ—his “honour.”58 Jaspar's self-destructive prodding is by now superfluous: “get you gone to your business together; go, go, to your business, I say, pleasure, whilst I go to my pleasure, business” (567-68). Therefore, rather than being the master of all he surveys, Horner is now about to enter the service of the domineering Lady Fidget.

The contrast between the exuberant and erotically liberated Lady Fidget of the second act and the “melancholy” and sexually incapacitated Margery Pinchwife at the beginning of the third is striking indeed. The caged bird sings, but only a “sullen” song, as it naturally seeks its freedom to fly. “I confess,” Margery tells Alithea, “I was quiet enough, till my Husband told me, what pure lives, the London Ladies live abroad, with their dancing, meetings, and junketings, and drest every day in their best gowns” (III.i.9-12). Pinchwife wrongly assumes that his wife has been awakened from a kind of idyllic slumber not so much by the town (“She has been this week in Town, and never desired, till this afternoon, to go abroad”) but by the intoxicating delights Alithea has presented to her imagination. After all, it is easier to blame Alithea (or “Mistriss Flippant, as he calls her) for his “dreadful apprehensions” than to confront the disturbing implications of Margery's increasingly assertive “Londonness”: “Come, pray Bud, let's go abroad before 'tis late; for I will go, that's flat and plain” (35, 83-84).

Interestingly, Pinchwife approaches the horrifying image with some intelligence (although indirectly in an aside to the abstract presence of Horner): “well, if thou Cuckold me, 'twill be my own fault—for Cuckolds and Bastards, are generally makers of their own fortune” (54-55)—and even more openly admits another truth: “I was my self the cause of her going [to the playhouse]” (29-30). And he comprehends, as any discerning person would, that “a Mask makes People but the more inquisitive,” for they “have made more Cuckolds, than the best faces that ever were known” (89, 94-95)—an estimation corroborated by his sister: “a Beauty mask'd, like the Sun in Eclipse, gathers together more gazers, than if shin'd out” (105-6)—a bit of wisdom she learns from a “gentle Gallant” of hers, wisdom that helps us understand better the masking of her warmth for Harcourt. But Wycherley stresses that an understanding of a problem is no firm defense against its influence, for right in the midst of all this perceptive contemplation, Pinchwife adds, “if we shou'd meet with Horner, he wou'd be sure to take acquaintance with us, must wish her joy, kiss her, talk to her, leer upon her, and the Devil and all” (91-93). Completely ignoring his better sense, Pinchwife reaches for what is most handy though most ineffectual: a physical disguise by which to deny his wife's feminine allure.59

To the Country Husband, his fellow men are “a swarm of Cuckolds, and Cuckold-makers”—the first to be despised and ridiculed, the second to be feared and avoided. Margery adds the appropriate pinch of anguish by noting that she has not “half [her] belly full of sights yet” (the metaphor being sexual as well as gastric) and points to the “power of brave signs” she observes at the Exchange: “the Bull's-head, the Rams-head, and the Stags-head, Dear”—which Pinchwife rightly determines are the “proper” signification of “every” husband (III.ii.178-83).60 But more than the allusions to horns and cuckoldry, the three animals (perhaps representing to Pinchwife his tormentors Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant) are males who batter each other over territory and sexual privilege among the females.61 And Horner's arrival heightens the sense of interruption and anxiety. He prevents Pinchwife from leaving this pack of “lewd Rakehells” by grabbing and detaining young “Master James”—turning the screws with relish: “[W]ho is this pretty young Gentleman?”; “I never saw any thing so pretty in all my life” (III.ii.380, 383). Pinchwife's civil attempts at disentanglement fail miserably: “Come away, come away”; “How she gazes on him! the Divel; “I am upon a wrack”; “O Heavens! what do I suffer” (396, 401, 418, 451). Dorliant and Harcourt naturally “gang-up” on their adversary by complementing Horner's praise of the young lad's “sister,” who “wou'd make all that see her, in love with her” (405-6), and in sending kisses to Margery through her “brother”62—and here we see still another “male” (the metamorphosed Little Sir James) adding to Pinchwife's distress. As Horner says, “let us torment this jealous Rogue a little” (424)—the emphasis being on gratuitous affliction more than on appropriate punishment for any unwarranted jealousy. Even Horner's apparent amenity of “Well, then, if she [Margery] be gone to bed, I wish her and you a good night” (435-36) is likely a reminder of Pinchwife's failure between the sheets. Pinchwife is tied and then baited with visions of three men making love to his wife and the irony of his being guilty of the same kind of merchandising for which he ridiculed Sparkish. His image of “ten thousand ulcers” gnawing away their “lips” is as graphic as it is hyperbolic—the gnawing suggestive of venereal disease, the malady of a promiscuous wife. Can it really be that if the husband were more rational in his actions, less jealous and possessive, Horner and the others would have left him unmolested? Would Margery have warmed to him? The play suggests nothing of the kind.

Margery Pinchwife's satisfaction with her first London sexual experience, as she returns from her tryst with Horner with her hat “full of Oranges and dried fruit,” is impossible to disguise (and there was enough time, as Lucy suggests, for more than kissing and fondling: “Their business will be done presently sure, an't please your Worship, it can't be long in doing I'm sure on't” [III.ii.508-9]). A stunned Pinchwife can only stare with horror at seeing the fruit and hearing “The fine Gentleman has given me better things yet” (521).63 Having immediately surrendered to the metaphor, Pinchwife barks at Horner, “You have only squeez'd my Orange, I suppose, and given it me again” (526-27), the indirection at least helping him cope with the reality of what has likely occurred—a reference Horner puckishly embellishes: “I have only given your little Brother an Orange, Sir” (524).64 This is the first time in Wycherley that some mutually agreeable sexual activity has actually taken place. There has been a consummation of sorts, even though we do not witness it and must have some doubt as to its exact nature; as in the famous China scene, the sexual activity is funneled through a signifier. But are we to feel anxiety or relief at this consummation? Should we share Margery's satisfaction? Initially, and not on any “moral” grounds, we may answer no, for those trying to prevent the sexual union were the sisters and protectors, Alithea and Lucy, as well as the obsessed Pinchwife. He was foiled, but so were the more altruistic women, who were physically detained to allow for the sexual act to take place—both Harcourt and Dorilant resorting to crude measures to assert their will: “Thou shalt not stir thou robust Creature,” Dorilant says to Lucy, “you see I can deal with you, therefore you shou'd stay the rather, and be kind” (503-4). Yet, there is undeniably a sense of pleasure (or relief) now that Margery's natural vivacity has had its release, and perhaps this first mutual and “normal” erotic activity in Wycherley (that is, actual as well as metaphoric) helps make the play more satisfying and exhilarating than The Plain Dealer, in which coitus interruptus is more pronounced.

In his interrogation of Margery, Pinchwife demands a contradiction of her stated innocence so that he may find her “false.” Considering the pattern of truth avoidance, why else does Pinchwife wish to hear again, as he has already heard almost “an hundred times over,” the tale of Horner's kissing his wife also “an hundred times” and putting “the tip of his tongue between [her] lips” (IV.ii.18, 36)?65 Pinchwife therefore fears the truth but still must prove his suspicions correct, an irony similarly present in his realization that Horner “knew her certainly,” while still being thankful for his wife's “simplicity” (27-28). In addition to the husband's “denial” is the wife's excitement in recalling her sexual experience—perhaps coloring it with every retelling, pausing and emphasizing specific words and phrases for carnal effect: “Why, he put———… the tip of his tongue” and “he's a proper, goodly strong man, 'tis hard, let me tell you, to resist him” (34-36, 46-48). True to the self-destructive impulse, Pinchwife, while trying to suppress his wife's natural sexual inquisitiveness, has given her (by demanding the “specifics”) a kind of sexual pleasure of which he is otherwise incapable. And Margery is shrewd enough to muffle at least some of the satisfaction she gets in recounting the event,66 for to tell her husband all would be to transform the sport into something frightening, since he would then resort to a regressive and hostile display to reassert his masculinity, which, as Alithea mentioned earlier when considering jealous husbands, could cost her “her life.” And Margery is moreover proficient in shifting the focus of responsibility, for when he asks, “But what you stood very still, when he kiss'd you?,” she replies, “Yes I warrant you, wou'd you have had me discover'd my self?” (29-31). Finally, she is not at all averse to reminding her husband that the cuckold-maker waits anxiously below: “he said if you were not within, he wou'd come up to her, meaning me you know, Bud, still” (25-26).

A significant feature of Wycherley's comedies is the manner in which he confronts many of his characters with unrelenting emotional stress until they demonstrate peculiar, absurd, sordid, violent, or otherwise disturbing behaviors. Here Pinchwife articulates a wish to “strangle that little Monster,” Love (sexual charm), who “gave women first their craft, their art of deluding” (52-56)—initially threatening the abstract, but soon enough the very object, Margery herself. In his assertion that women were originally “plain, open, silly and fit for slaves,” Pinchwife makes clear how easily he can leap from an intelligent assessment into one of the atavistic sanctuaries he has created for himself. He admits, for instance, that women have “more invention in love than men” because “they have more desires, more solliciting passions, more lust, and more of the Devil” (59-61)—a remark that, considering the women in Wycherley's plays, begins as accurate (“more desires, more solliciting passions”) but then bounds aggressively toward the primal and misogynistic denial of reality and human complexity.67 The second part of the characterization also provides a judicial context in which law and custom may justify his increasingly violent responses to his wife's ripening sexuality. Uncontrollable lust and sinful behavior, after all, must be identified, combated, and punished.

We may conclude that Margery's apparent bafflement (after Pinchwife orders her to compose a letter to Horner) over why one in London must write to someone else in London is in part a ruse to keep her husband off balance—but it also reminds him of where he presently is, reinforcing feelings of entrapment in a hostile environment. In the country, which denotes distance and isolation, letter writing is more necessary to communication—whereas the city suggests density, a place where there is no retreat from the madding and cuckolding crowd. Pinchwife is indeed disoriented, fearing at one moment that Margery is purposely deceiving him and assuring himself at the next that “she is innocent enough yet” (IV.ii.85). Her ongoing commentary as she begins to construct the letter and her attempts at altering what he tells her to write diminishes Pinchwife's editorial preeminence and accordingly prompts his most violent expression to this point: “Write as I bid you, or I will write Whore with this Penknife in your Face” (92-93). His floundering manhood requires a violent impetus to put it on firmer ground, and the penknife serves well enough as a menacing phallus68—the promise to write on her face suggesting how the phallic symbol threatens that which is most associated with the feminine (youth, beauty, and sexual charm). And the punctuation of his demand is even more gruesome: “Once more write as I'd have you, and question it not, or I will spoil thy writing with this, I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief” (107-9). Confronted with such violent reinforcement, Margery's survival instinct halts temporarily the manipulation of her husband's emotions: “O Lord, I will,” although she cannot help reminding him that Horner will “ne'er believe” she could write “such a Letter” (110, 129-30).69

In essence rejecting the view that the city has corrupted her, Margery writes to Horner that she would in the country have ways enough to express herself carnally: “I'm sure if you and I were in the Countrey at cards together,—so—I cou'd not help treading on your Toe under the Table—so—or rubbing knees with you, and staring in your face, 'till you saw me” (IV.ii.158-61). Neither has Pinchwife really forced a chaste and naive Margery into a life of sexual awareness by making it all so attractive to her—in reality, he has only facilitated the prospect despite himself. And after she cleverly exchanges letters with her husband, her desperate husband (noting “I have been detained by a Sparkish Coxcomb, who pretended a visit to me; but I fear 'twas to my Wife” [172-73]), now evaluates his enemies as savage opponents who do not fight by the European rules of open confrontation: “if we do not cheat women, they'll cheat us; and fraud may be justly used with secret enemies, of which a Wife is the most dangerous; and he that has a handsome one to keep, and a Frontier Town, must provide against treachery, rather than open Force—Now I have secur'd all within, I'll deal with the Foe without with false intelligence” (198-204).

As the scene changes to the enemy's encampment, the Quack (maintaining the emphasis on male antagonisms) asks Horner, “have you not the luck of all your brother Projectors, to deceive only your self at last” (IV.iii.1-2)—in other words, “Have you not failed?” Horner's assurance that he has duped the males and been the beneficiary of the sexual appetites of their “Wives, Sisters and Daughters” (5) is a claim, we might remember, that is unsubstantiated by any clear evidence. Are we wise to believe categorically the assertions of one who takes pride in deceiving others?70 Regardless, the women he describes here are bawdy, dauntless, and intimidating in their relationships with males—in short, London women, the kind Margery would like to be, the kind Pinchwife fears the most. Horner's “success” is partly, if not mainly, due to his role as eunuch, which not only permits him safe passage but places him in the inferior position the women expect of their lovers.71 Horner's attack on female hypocrisy may serve to reinforce perceptions of his own masculinity and to reorder the hierarchy of the sexual world, placing himself, in all his “wisdom” and moral censure, above the women who have and will use him physically. And yet for all of his satiric posturing, he has absolutely no chance to dominate the famous scene about to unfold.

Regarding Lady Fidget's concern for her reputation as well as for her intimacy with Horner (“But first, my dear Sir, you must promise to have a care of my dear Honour” [IV.iii.38-39]), as Hobbes assumed, to have reputation and honor (the semblance usually being enough) is also to have power, but in this case the restraints and cautions are self-imposed, not externally forced by a husband, brother, or father—an important distinction.72 Lady Fidget knows as does Horner that such words have a useful, if not required, duality satisfying both the need for propriety and the desire for sexual expression. And Lady Fidget's employment of “Honour” (one notes the polysemic kinship to “Horner,” which permits an even easier transference of the concept to sexual activity)73 allows for the security of indirection. She faces her lover looking slightly off center, using the term as a flimsy garment that both reveals and teases in its “concealment.”74 She is therefore unaffected by Horner's criticism of her concern for “Honour”—his assertiveness in such claims as “I am a Machiavel in love Madam”75 moreover failing to impress. (And Horner's assault on hypocrisy and assertion of virility are more for the Quack's benefit, now listening behind the screen, than Lady Fidget's.) Lady Fidget's desire that Horner never share his “secret” (sexual potence) with those “censorious” acquaintances of hers implies more a delightful sexual avarice than passionate concern for reputation: “A secret is better kept, I hope, by a single person, than a multitude” (68-69). And her use of entendre is both incessant and pleasing: “Ay, but if you shou'd ever let the other women know that dear secret, it wou'd come out” (emphasis added; 55-56). Once having satisfied the demands of propriety, Lady Fidget is now free to embrace Horner openly, informing him that she will not be a passive partner in their relationship. That the sexual contacts in the play are helped along by either the male or female denying or disguising their true essence (Horner as the eunuch, Margery as Sir James, Lady Fidget as a woman of honor) only underscores Wycherley's belief that men and women must in some way conceal, distort, and decorate their erotic side as a way to control and elevate it from the Dionysian impulse it is and must always be.

Sir Jaspar's intrusion on the lovers is a kind of coitus interruptus—initially disturbing Lady Fidget (discovery diminishing power)—but she is quick to explain that she is only tickling Horner, offering something apparently diversionary but reflective nonetheless: “I love to torment the confounded Toad,” she tells her husband (76-77). (And Horner is “tormented” by being temporarily denied sexual gratification.)76 Though powerful and aggressive, Lady Fidget (like Hippolita) cannot escape her own considerable frustration—or her reliance on entendre—over Horner's so far having “done nothing,” adding “Hah, hah, hah, Faith, I can't but laugh however; why d'ye think the unmannerly toad wou'd not come down to me to the Coach, I was fain to come up to fetch him, or go without him, which I was resolved not to do; for he knows China very well, and has himself very good, but will not let me see it, lest I should beg some; but I will find it out, and have what I came for yet” (IV.iii.97-104).77 As she goes into the next room to await her “Machiavel,” Lady Fidget informs us that for a woman of power and intelligence, the locked door can occasionally liberate as well as incarcerate. Lady Fidget leads; Horner follows—the desire to satisfy her sexual desires being far more pronounced here than his. And, annoyed by Sir Jaspar's ridicule, Horner warns him—“though I cannot furnish you [a pair of horns] my self, you are sure, yet I'll find a way” (110-11)—wishing without blowing his cover to assert his manhood and more directly take part in the ritual of destruction. He cannot help predicting Sir Jaspar's fate even though he should avoid such hints that encourage more vigilance from the husband. Finally, even though Horner is smart enough to “take” the “Cue” (“China” as an out); it is Sir Jaspar who provides it: “I thought you had been at the China House?” (79-80).

Horner's linking of women to the animal world (“Oh women, more impertinent, more cunning, and more mischievous than their Monkeys” [117-18]) depicts a shameless creature so graphically associated with licentiousness that we easily sense our arrival at the peak of sexual activity in Wycherley's four plays:

Stay here a little, I'll ferret her out to you presently, I warrant.
SIR Jas.
Wife, my Lady Fidget, Wife, he is coming into you the back way.
LA. Fid.
Let him come, and welcome, which way he will.
SIR Jas.
He'll catch you, and use you roughly, and be too strong for you.
LA. Fid.
Don't you trouble your self, let him if he can.


Even in his use of lesser animals—the mouse earlier (my interpretation of “mousled”) and “ferret” here (one that chases mice and rats)—the playwright encourages our visualizing objects going in and out of orifices. Whether we like it or not, Wycherley places both the audience and reader in a position of the classic voyeur, witnessing the sexual act performed—here through the completely transparent curtain of metaphor. We also detect the female as enthusiastic and undaunted about sex (of any kind), if not more so, than the male. Whereas Horner seems sexually potent in the references to the “back way” and “ferret,” we know that it is Lady Fidget who is “throwing [his] things about, and rifling all” he has—encroaching on his privacy and upsetting his valued possessions (the verb rifling even suggesting her usurpation of the male's prerogative). We now laugh at the irony in Jaspar's “warning” to his wife that Horner would be “too strong” for her. Horner may go smugly into the room a powerful rake hero, but he returns literally debilitated.

Upon her unexpected arrival, Mrs. Squeamish (very plausibly another fairly attractive as well as sexually stimulated woman78) reveals her particular brand of Dionysian agitation by wishing to break down the door (“liberated” London ladies seemingly having little trouble with such barriers) and vowing to “disturb 'em” when she realizes that Horner is giving sexual favors to Lady Fidget—intimating, as Lady Fidget did earlier, that women can be possessive and less sisterly when sexual gratification is concerned. For the moment foiled, Mrs. Squeamish is left to indulge in vicarious sexual release by “staring at the prettyest Pictures,” which we can trust are erotic in nature, perhaps something on the lines of Lyly's “Windsor Beauties” or some more blatantly pornographic sketches.79

Lady Fidget emerges in postcoital splendor, with the emblem of her sexual activity and triumph—the piece of china (a cylindrical vase, no doubt) in her hand: “I have been toyling and moyling, for the pretti'st piece of China, my Dear.” Horner immediately swears to her sexual prowess and concedes his more secondary role: “Nay she has been too hard for me do what I cou'd” (IV.iii.178-79). And Mrs. Squeamish has little difficulty interpreting their allusions, which animates her to the point of demanding sex from the now temporarily impotent Horner:

Oh Lord I'le have some China too, good Mr. Horner, don't think to give other people China, and me none, come in with me too.
Upon my honour I have none left now.
Nay, nay I have known you deny your China before now, but you shan't put me off so, come—
This Lady had the last there.
LA. Fid.
Yes indeed Madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.
O but it may be he may have some you could not find.
LA. Fid.
What d'y think if he had had any left, I would not have had it too, for we women of quality never think we have China enough.


All of this memorable banter stresses the near volcanic need for the women to express their unbridled passions and the indispensability of indirection—whether in entendre, euphemism, allusion, metaphor, simile, or any other signifier.81 In short, the famous China Scene presents Lady Fidget as triumphant—not Horner, who cannot enjoy his experience for long without being set upon by another insatiable woman demanding his services.82 For the moment reality has become the slave to artifice: he is as helpless now as his disguise assumes, placed inside the carocele as the women in the scene—even Old Lady Squeamish—surround him, firing off expressions of derision and taunting the unarmed and weakened man to engage them in erotic battle.

Horner attempts to mollify the restless Mrs. Squeamish with the assurance that he will have a “Rol-waggon” for her “another time” (194)83—his having no choice but to promise future attentions, given his sexual debility now that Mrs. Fidget has left him so well spent. As Old Lady Squeamish observes, “Poor Mr. Horner, he has enough to doe to please you all, I see.” And whereas Horner's reply, “Ay Madam, you see how they use me” is particularly amusing in its irony and likely mode of delivery, it nonetheless testifies forcefully to the fact that indeed he is being used—and to the fact that the women are as merciless as they are powerful: “I could never find pitty,” he says to Old Lady Squeamish (she with memory but no participation), “but from such reverend Ladies as you are, the young ones will never spare a man” (203-5). Horner also tells the triumphant Lady Fidget that Mrs. Squeamish “has an innocent, literal understanding” (197-98)—something he does not believe nor should we, its being merely a futile attempt to ward off the anger of his possessive lover. (And even though the sisterhood is seemingly fractured when another man is involved, there is absolutely no gesture of any significance against the other woman—no attempt to destroy her; rather the male is the object of the woman's bitchiness.)

As if to punctuate her all-consuming nature, the younger Squeamish pulls Horner by the crevat—“Come come, Beast, [a woman again appropriating the male's favorite derogatory metaphor] and go dine with us, for we shall want a man at Hombre after dinner”; “Come Sloven, I'le lead you to be sure of you” (206-10)84—(all reminiscent of Flirt's treatment of Monsieur) and Horner, in answer to the old woman's suggestion that he kiss her granddaughter, again concedes that the aroused woman is a force beyond his control: “No Madam, that Remedy is worse than the Torment, they know I dare suffer any thing rather than do it” (213-14), meaning of course that a sweet kiss would not be enough; it would either lead to more affectionate behavior or cause the woman to laugh at the feeble effort. The image is marvelous: Lady Fidget standing to the side in wicked triumph with her “roll-wagon,” Sir Jaspar laughing heartily at Horner, Mrs. Squeamish pulling at the debilitated lover, and Old Lady Squeamish, like Don Diego, in an agitated state, insisting “Alas poor man, how she tuggs him, kiss, kiss her. … [P]rythee do” (211-16). Undoubtedly, the china scene appears to be Horner's greatest triumph—after all, he has had his cake and beaten Jaspar too, by making him (again?) a cuckold—admirable behavior in a world of libertines, hypocrisy, and aggression. But it is really the women's scene. Even considering his “manly” performance, Horner has been more used by than exploitive of the women. Only the Quack suggests that Horner's actions have been majestic: “I will now believe any thing he tells me” (225). But he is a Quack, one who purports to be what he is not, one who convinces others to believe in half-truths, falsehoods, and exaggerations.

With trepidation, Lady Fidget announces Pinchwife's arrival: “O Lord here's a man, Sir Jaspar, my Mask, my Mask, I would not be seen here for the world” (226-27), a remark that lures us into focusing on the commonplace matter of masking and hypocrisy. But the most significant words may be “O Lord here's a man,” for only Pinchwife truly represents to women what they dread most—an intimidating and perceptive man, using law, custom, and primitive expression to keep their freedoms and spirits suppressed. He has come to confront Horner, as the only male who could match Horner in battle—a man Pinchwife truly knows “so well”—ridiculing Horner's attempt at rhetorical brotherhood, “But why not, dear Jack” (241-43). Horner is unable to manipulate Pinchwife with refurbished language, attempts at flattery, protestations of loyalty or impotence, or any other form of deception. It is only Pinchwife's consuming fear and Margery's undaunted sexual desire that work successfully for Horner.

Pinchwife's delivering the wrong letter (another suggestion of the self-destructive impulse and of Horner's luck rather than skill) indicates that the rake hero can indeed be knocked off balance: “Ha, is this a trick of his or hers?” (269). But not content with what he believes is a missive terminating the relationship, for he knows too well that men like Horner are not easily discouraged, Pinchwife physically threatens his adversary, as he did Margery: “there will be danger in making me a Cuckold”; “I weare a Sword” (IV.iii.299-302). And he is not above admitting to his self-destructive tendencies, for when Horner informs him that his “freedome with [Margery] was your fault, not mine,” Pinchwife is compelled to admit to himself, “Faith so 'twas” (314-15). Hardly a mere embodiment of gullibility and peevishness, Pinchwife is the only male character who does not disguise his true feelings to the other males; there is no pretence of virtue, friendship, innocence, or impotence with him.85 Horner's reply “Thou art mad with jealousie” seems to place him in the role of satirical agent leveling justifiable criticism. Still, even this censure is undercut by the fact that Horner is lying boldly about not having seen, courted, and kissed Margery—and by the fact that Pinchwife has more than good cause to be distrustful of Horner and his wife (296-98). Accordingly, Horner's more adamant assessment, “thou art mad, Man” (304), is only partially correct, for whereas Pinchwife has the madness of obsession, he is often keenly perceptive about the motivations of those with whom he interacts (Margery, Horner, and Alithea).

Horner's sudden victory in his memorable reply to Pinchwife's “there will be danger in making me a Cuckold”: “Why, wert thou not well cur'd of thy last clap?” (299-301)—is very short-lived as Pinchwife reminds him (“I weare a Sword”) that such wit will be of little use should the Country Husband be provoked to violence. Pinchwife's threats against his wife in severe terms (“write whore” with a knife in her face) or ludicrous ones (“pinch me, or kill my Squirrel”—278-79) might be categorized as cowardly if he threatened only his wife, but his facility with hostile expression extends to anyone—including the “hero” of the play—making clear that he is dangerous. And Pinchwife does not sustain the same kinds of losses both Sir Jaspar and Sparkish receive, for Margery's earlier sexual activity was not entirely the result of his willingly pushing her toward Horner (as did the other two men); rather she was “forcibly” taken off stage. To the Quack, Horner professes delight at Margery's letter, but again we see the parasitic character benefitting from the “ingenuity” of Pinchwife's obsession. And even here his revery about the letter is interrupted by the return of Pinchwife—this time with Sparkish, another ridiculer of Horner's manhood. Horner must by now wince at the irony of his earlier comment, “I shall be rid of all my old Acquaintances” (I.i.139-40).

We next see the Country Wife in lamentation: “I am sick of my Husband, and for my Gallant” (IV.iv.2).86 Horner is to her the embodiment of freedom and open sexual expression, and accordingly, when she thinks of him her “hot fit comes” and she is “all in a Feaver” (6).87 Visions of Pinchwife, however, cause her to “tremble” and break out “in a cold sweat,” and “have inclinations to vomit” (4-5)—not so much because of his looks or bland sexuality but because he is the cause of her incarceration and fears. As if on cue, Pinchwife creeps up behind, interrupting his wife's communication to Horner and preventing her escape: “O Lord Budd, why d'ye fright me so?” (14-17). His reading the letter precludes at least for the moment her required concealment and indirect expression. Now Pinchwife has knowledge of her true thoughts and proof of her “lost” innocence as he reads “if you [love me], you will never suffer me to lye in the arms of another man, whom I loath, nauseate, and detest” (22-24), words—in addition to “sickness,” “feaver,” “disease,” “vomit,” “break out,” and “tremble”—emphasizing the infirm personal world of the Pinchwifes. One cannot help sensing the desperation in a woman convinced that she is likely doomed to a life of spiritual and sexual barrenness even amid the fruitful arbors, fertile fields, and flowing streams of the country.

Again Pinchwife calls on a primitive response as the only way to control his greatest fear. First he damns the entire sex, equating them with “sensless, indocile animals” and then drawing, not a penknife but something even more potent (as weapon and phallic symbol), a sword, to “make an end” of his wife and “all my plagues together” (37-40)—dangerously shifting his rage from the general (all women) to the particular (Margery). But Sparkish arrives to prevent this violent form of intercourse, a most felicitous manifestation of coitus interruptus, suggestive again of the males' unmitigated ability to frustrate the designs of other men: “What drawn upon your Wife? you shou'd never do that but at night in the dark when you can't hurt her” (44-45), a gleeful allusion to Pinchwife's insufficient phallic sword wielded in the marriage bed.

Pinchwife's retaliatory strike (through a gratuitous outburst against Alithea)—“[She is making] you a Cuckold, 'tis that they all doe, as soon as they can” (50-51)—with its shift back from specific to general misogyny, informs Margery that she is now out of immediate danger: “I am contented my rage shou'd take breath” (64). But Sparkish quickly ends this respite by exploiting Pinchwife's destructive and diseased preoccupations: “we men of wit have amongst us a saying, that Cuckolding like the small Pox comes with a fear, and you may keep your Wife as much as you will out of danger of infection, but if her constitution incline her to't, she'l have it sooner or later by the world” (68-72). And Pinchwife is quick to acknowledge the sagacity of such observations: “What a thing is a Cuckold, that every fool can make him ridiculous” (73-74). His fears now prominent, Pinchwife keeps his hand firmly on the one remaining symbol of his masculinity—telling his wife to continue her latest correspondence to Horner, adding, “if you are false in a title, I shall soon perceive it, and punish you with this [the sword] as you deserve” (V.i.3-5). The notion of “punishment” leads Pinchwife (as Othello before him) more deeply into the realm of judicial process—from prosecutor to judge, then to jury, and now edging dangerously close to executioner, as he seeks the final corroborating evidence to justify not only his present treatment of his wife but her ultimate fate. But this time the moment's tragic possibilities are suddenly halted, not by male interruption, but by Margery's signing the letter, “Your slighted Alithea” (12). Other than suggesting the Country Wife's awareness (shaped by both instinct and recent experience) that language lies ready to be manipulated and twisted to suit one's needs,88 Margery's forgery reinforces the power of the sorority to provide aid and protection. That is, although she is not present, “Alithea” does effect Margery's narrow escape. As Pinchwife responds, now that the horrid spectre of cuckoldry has magically vanished, “I am stunn'd, my head turns round” (18).

Unlike other gulls, however, Pinchwife's active intelligence has no room for complacency, and he immediately questions how Alithea could have dictated the letter since Margery was “lock'd” up alone. Desperately needing to deny a pair of horns, Pinchwife comes to rationalize his wife's explanation (“O through the key hole Budd”), but only with considerable skepticism as he measures probabilities against possibilities: “This changeling89 cou'd not invent this lye, but if she cou'd, why shou'd she?” (37-38). And his subsequent resolution, “I'd rather give him my Sister than lend him my Wife, and such an alliance will prevent his pretensions to my Wife sure,—I'le make him of kinn to her, and then he won't care for her” (61-64), testifies to how his fears have pushed this normally perceptive man into bizarre scenarios and ridiculous devices in order to prevent his cuckolding—which, again, may well be a fait accompli (the “Orange and dried fruit” scene). Still, Pinchwife feels for the moment calmed—“I'd rather give him my Sister”—by the power to dispense a woman as property (V.i.61-62). This vision of his rival married to Alithea and thereby no longer interested in Margery because she would be related is of course utter nonsense and contradicts what Pinchwife has concluded about Horner—a man who would not hesitate, regardless of circumstance, to torment him further. Regardless, Pinchwife's preoccupation with intercourse is striking: “I'd rather fight with Horner for not lying with my Sister, than for lying with my Wife … for we have as much a doe to get people to lye with our Sisters, as to keep 'em from lying with our Wives” (95-103). So shackled is Pinchwife by these elaborate machinations that he is actually praising Horner as a man wealthy enough and more sexually attractive than Sparkish—becoming, despite himself, Horner's advocate.

All of this tortured maneuvering sets Pinchwife up for a variation of the bed-trick, in which the increasingly resourceful Margery (likely with some assistance from Lucy) blows out the candle, dresses in Alithea's clothing, and shifts position so that Pinchwife believes he is leading his sister to Horner's lodging. Though undeniably the stuff of farce, Pinchwife's action is still consistent for one who could dress his pretty young wife as a young “Sir James” to throw hot-blooded males off the scent. Here he is so wanting his sister to become the agent by which he may escape his fate that he willingly staggers about in the dark, in a gesture of self-destruction—actually leading his wife by the hand to her lover. His speech ebbs and flows from reason back into chaos: he paints a most felicitous image—“Wife and Sister are names which make us expect Love and duty, pleasure and comfort” (V.i.99)—but then defaces the portrait with both threats of violence and betrayal of his own sister to a man he thoroughly despises, a man, given his general distrust of other males, is properly on guard: “let's see her face presently, make her show man, art thou sure I don't know her?” (V.ii.51-52).

“What means the Fool?” Horner wonders, as he is forced to take a bite of his own deceit, evincing the discomfort of one who must now distrust, rather than orchestrate, all language and gesture (68-70). Horner is denied the luxury of uncomplicated sexual conquest; the confusion, distress, and anxiety he has sent flowing toward others has now, in its ebb, returned to him.90 And when Sir Jaspar arrives and informs Horner that his “Lady and the whole knot of the virtuous gang, as they call themselves, are resolv'd upon a frolick of coming to you to night in Masquerade” (89-91),91 Horner feels besieged by those he had earlier abused (the males) or hoped to use (the females). The women arrive more unified (as a “virtuous gang”) than do the males (Jaspar and Pinchwife “solus”). They come demanding what Horner cannot at present provide—Pinchwife, Jaspar, and the women circling about him in a kind of ritualistic promenade suggestive more of slaughter than of pleasure. In the meantime, as Horner tells the Quack, he is going “to a private feast”—Margery, who waits for him in the next room—again implying that he has simply been the beneficiary of Pinchwife's psychological problems and Margery's sexual hunger.

The play's penultimate scene (in the Piazza of Covent Garden) hardly qualifies as an instance of masculine altruism (in Pinchwife's informing Sparkish of “Alithea's” interest in Horner), for his motive is to remove Sparkish from the picture entirely—one component in the Country Husband's tortured scheme to avoid his greatest fear. Pinchwife also gains the satisfaction of having his earlier warnings to Sparkish come true: “You were for giving and taking liberty, she has taken it only Sir” (V.iii.4-5)—his parting words almost laughable considering Wycherley's negative emphasis on sight throughout his plays: “goe and believe your eyes” (18), for no character in Wycherley ever gains by such advice. Sparkish's reaction, now that his greatest fear—humiliation in front of other men—has begun to be realized, is not to seek the truth but to resort to a more vehement expression himself: “Nay I'le to her, and call her as many Crocodiles, Syrens, Harpies, and other heathenish names” (19-20), demonstrating a “normal” reaction to what he has heard. Indeed, we find him decked here in the traditional fool's raiment, his cursing simply rhetorical and harmless—Wycherley's way, perhaps, of showing the rapid deterioration of Sparkish's significance in the play: “unworthy false woman, false as a friend that lends a man mony to lose, false as dice, who undoe those that trust all they have to 'em” (34-37). And rather than explaining herself and seeking the motivation for Sparkish's outburst (a forged signature and other epistolary highjinx), Alithea is more than satisfied to allow his childish ranting to collapse the foundation of the “contract”: “So I find my Brother would break off the match, and I can consent to't, since I see this Gentleman can be made jealous” (55-56).

We know that her decision is more than mere caprice or a convenient deus ex machina—it evolves after all from Alithea's greatest fear and is therefore a culmination of a psychological process, not a revelation or awkward change of heart that serves to extricate the playwright from an intolerable denoument. But for those seeing her as a paragon, it is difficult indeed to justify her rather tepid reasoning: “How was I deceiv'd in a man!” (71)—this rhetorical flourish coming very close to self-parody of her rigid and honorable posturing. Yet even in the throes of comprehension, she fears what might have been: “O Lucy, by his rude usage and jealousie, he makes me almost afraid I am married to him, art thou sure 'twas Harcourt himself and no Parson that married us” (57-59). And consideration of a near-fatal mistake prompts her warning to the “over-wise woman of the Town, who like me would marry a fool, for fortune, liberty, or title, … then if for liberty, that he may send her into the Country under the conduct of some houswifely mother-in-law” (77-82).92 Her vision of a disastrous marriage is complete with the horror of incarceration in the country under the watchful eye of some powerful and oppressive force, one like her brother. And still she resists accepting the truth of her feelings, protecting herself and her pride with such a transparent remark as “But marry Mr. Horner, my brother does not intend it sure; if I thought he did, I would take thy advice, and Mr. Harcourt for my Husband” (75-77). Surely, Lucy could not be fooled by such a flimsy piece of indirection.

Sparkish's parting words remind us of the indifferent persona he forwarded earlier in the play: “I'le come to your wedding, and resign you with as much joy as I would a stale wench to a new Cully, nay with as much joy as I would after the first night, if I had been married to you” (66-68). But this valediction should not be equated with the magnanimous gesture of many a disappointed fop, such as Congreve's Sir Wilfull Witwoud and Cibber's Lord Foppington.93 First, such a bold admission, if it were honest, would be rare in Wycherley; second, his feelings for Alithea have been clearly subordinated to concerns for his own masculinity and wish to use her to torment other males. In essence, then, this flippant response is a cover for his deep humiliation at exposing himself and thus being known more accurately by others and accordingly rendered powerless. Rather than violence to repair the ripped ego, Sparkish employs a form of “benign” passivity, one that allows him to appear unfazed by Alithea's apparent change of heart. Yet, he does strike Alithea in a vulnerable spot by claiming that he “never had any passion” for her, “till now” (63-64)—for the insult goes to the heart of Alithea's vanity and of course reminds her of what she needs in her life—not mere “honor”—but passionate attention from a man without debilitating jealousy.

The play's final scene depicts Horner once more anxious over the approach of the formidable group of women headed by Lady Fidget: “A Pox they are come too soon—before I have sent back my new—Mistress, all I have now to do, is to lock her in, that they may not see her—” (V.iv.1-3), the nervousness evident by the flustered hitches in his speech. The desire to isolate Margery from the influence of the others clearly links him to Pinchwife—his words in fact echoing those of his adversary in earlier scenes. Wycherley seems to be hinting that Margery is indeed fated to live her life under lock and key. Because of her natural temperament, her growing proficiency in games of manipulation, and her continuing reliance on primitive expressions (in the female: sexual, not violent) without adequately obscuring them with cloaks of propriety, reputation, and honor, she represents now even to Horner a force that may never cultivate self-control, a young woman disturbing to the conception of order. In any event, the sorority remains strong in that the women do not interrupt Horner's apparent lovemaking to Margery; almost knowingly, they wait until Horner is in that “I have no more left” state—a better environment, of course, in which to frustrate and exercise power over him.

Lady Fidget, Mrs. Dainty Fidget, and Mrs. Squeamish let Horner know that they are more than willing to engage in sexual gamesplaying, especially since their “guardians,” Old Lady Squeamish and Sir Jaspar are in argument over backgammon94—although Old Lady Squeamish serves her fellow women (consciously or no) by keeping the male at bay (even if Mrs. Squeamish damns “an Old Grandmother” for interfering with a young woman's sexual expression). “Therefore,” says Mrs. Squeamish, “let us make use of our time, lest they should chance to interrupt us” (10-11). Unlike Gerrard's in the Gentleman Dancing-Master, her employment of the carpe diem convention is erotically, not monetarily, oriented. And as a prelude to more amorous activity, Lady Fidget sings a wife's and mistress's anthem, a song of female camaraderie: “Why should our damn'd Tyrants oblige us to live / On the pittance of Pleasure which they only give”—a ditty filled with irony (“damn'd Tyrants”), the obligatory gesture toward propriety (“We must not rejoyce, / With Wine and with noise”), the thinly veiled allusion to enjoyment however gotten (“On the pittance of Pleasure which they only give”; “In vaine we must wake in a dull bed alone”), and male weaknesses and female strength (“Whilst to our warm Rival the Bottle, they're gone”; “'Tis Wine only gives 'em their Courage and Wit”—“Then Sisters lay't on” [27-42]). Metaphor again provides the necessary filter, as we see the bottle in its phallic properties—the glass, with its concave shape also suggesting the female: “Lovely Brimmer,” says Mrs. Squeamish, “let me enjoy him first,” to which Lady Fidget adds, “No, I never part with a Gallant, till I've try'd him” (46-47).

This teeming Bacchanalian moment (a tableau worthy of Hogarth) releases several of the women's frustrations: “damn a Husband”; “an old keeper”; “And [the younger gallants] rather run the hazard of the vile distemper amongst [common women], than of a denial amongst us” (52-64)95—complaints that are worthy of the reader's sympathies. Their converting the drink into a “representative of a Husband”—the thing to which men run to enhance self-worth—and then their imbibing the wine suggests as well their all-consuming power.96 As their aggravation and militancy build—“drink Eunuch”; “Drink thou representative of a Husband” (51-52)—the women further disdain the male's choosing women based on class or “moral” distinctions:

The filthy Toads chuse Mistresses now, as they do Stuffs, for having been fancy'd and worn by others.
For being common and cheap.
LA. Fid.
Whilst women of quality, like the richest Stuffs, lye untumbled, and unask'd for … pray tell me beast, when you were a man, why you rather chose to club with a multitude in a common house, for an entertainment, than to be the only guest at a good Table.”

(65-69, 77-79)

Horner assumes a secondary place in this energetic scene, coming very close to actually functioning as a eunuch—and even his attempts at spirited insult are overwhelmed by Lady Fidget's exuberance and audacity—which is not averse to the occasional violent image:

[P]eople always eat with the best stomach at an ordinary, when every man is snatching for the best bit.
Though he get a cut over the fingers … [W]e take freedom from a young person as a sign of good breeding, and a person may be as free as he pleases with us, as frolick, as gamesome, as wild as he will.
Han't I heard you all declaim against wild men.
LA. Fid.
Yes, but for all that, we think wildness in a man, as desireable a quality, as in a Duck, or Rabbet; a tame man, foh.
I know not, but your Reputations frightned me, as much as your Faces invited me.

(81-83, 90-97)

Lady Fidget's casual dismissal of Horner's censure indicates that although much of their complaining reflects genuine concerns and frustrations, still some of it, especially the inflated manner in which it is voiced, is part of the ritual they all take part in, like a daily primping of their curls, in which proper deference is paid to propriety and “honour.” And when Horner brings up the matter of “Reputation,” Lady Fidget refuses to back away or permit him the pleasure of ascendancy: “Our Reputation, Lord! Why should you not think, that we women make use of our Reputation, as you men of yours, only to deceive the world with less suspicion; our virtue is like the State-man's Religion, the Quakers Word, the Gamesters Oath, and the Great Man's Honour, but to cheat those that trust us” (98-103).

Horner sharply feels the vivacious antagonism of the moment—drink and food both serving as sexual metaphors for the women—as they surround Horner (as he, Dorilant, and Harcourt had earlier circled Pinchwife). They tell Horner they do only what men do: “Why should you not think, that we women make use of our Reputation, as you men of yours. … Our bashfulness is only the reflection of the Men's” (98-99, 111). Lady Fidget and Mrs. Squeamish thereby neutralize Horner's perceived role as satiric agent, for his blithe assumption that women such as these are the worst hypocrites, mere representations of their sex, has been thrown back in his face and in those of his sex. Horner tries to hold his own with witty retorts, but the women's logic invariably subverts his wit—resulting in Horner's barely being able to keep his nose above the raging rhetorical flood. Lady Fidget cleverly cites examples of male “hypocrisy” that have inflicted far more damage on the nation, fashionable society, and the individual than has any sexually aroused female's protestations to “honour.” Horner is denied the satisfaction he believed his condemnation would provide; he finds himself successfully countered at every move. And his major opponent here is a woman that has demanded and received his sexual favors, adding a special flavor to their debate. Lady Fidget puts a stamp on his less-than-heroic status with “Money, foh—you talk like a little fellow now, do such as we expect money?”—thus calling his bluff at not coming to them before. Horner's replies are now even more hesitant: “I was afraid of losing my little money”; “I beg your pardon, Madam, I must confess”; “With your pardon, Ladies, I know, like great men in Offices, you seem to exact flattery and attendance only from your Followers, but you have receivers about you, and such fees to pay, a man is afraid to pass your Grants; besides we must let you win at Cards, or we lose your hearts” (125-39).

This animated exchange is halted by the women's realization that each was not exclusively privy to Horner's “loyalty” and sexual favors. Instead of attacking each other, however, they instinctively band together and turn on the male. As Lady Fidget says, “Well then, there's no remedy, Sister Sharers, let us not fall out, but have a care of our Honour” (162-63). The term “Sister Sharers” informs Horner that he cannot divide and conquer these women as he can the men, nor can he ever assume an ascendancy in a relationship with any one of them. Lady Fidget asserts that for women the sisterhood is too important to allow sexual possessiveness to affect it, and she hopes that “Harry Common” (a marvelous term of derision) will “be true to three” (170)—which we may take to mean that he will be expected to satisfy all three in bed.97 Finally, Lady Fidget's restating her regard for “Honour, the Jewel of most value and use” informs us that this delightful soiree of sexual allusion and female assertiveness ends with the knot of propriety still firmly in place.98

Although he has hardly orchestrated events, Horner—as a concession to his ego—believes that he has and therefore attempts to bring all to a satisfactory conclusion. His pulling Margery out of hiding and begging her to leave so that he (as much as she) might escape the wrath of her husband meets with considerable resistance: “he'll now discover all, yet pray my Dearest be perswaded to go home, and leave the rest to my management” (194-96). His pleadings suggest a chaotic unraveling, not a “management,” of events, and her reply that she has no plans to leave at all underscores his predicament—not exactly the fate his elaborate scheme promised. His informing her that he will let her down the “back way” (196) also reflects Horner's inability even to control sexual entendre. Here that memorable phrase from the China Scene is now devoid of its figurative appeal—“back way” at present only describing Margery's best method of escape and Horner's best chance to avoid detection and a deadly confrontation with Pinchwife. Margery's reactions to these entreaties are horrifying to Horner: “What care I, d'ye think to frighten me with that? I don't intend to go to him again; you shall be my Husband now”; “every day at London here, women leave their first Husbands, and, go, and live with other men as their Wives” (204-10).

Although these rebuttals imply a delightfully innocent country girl who, infatuated with a virile libertine, dreams the fairytale ending of dissolving her marriage with the snap of her finger, such a girl is not Wycherley's Margery. Her actions are more pathetic than childlike; she is aware that in London, ladies have “left” their husbands, but she misconstrues the limits of London freedom and ignores the demands of propriety and its siblings morality and legality. Such a natural expression as she wishes here just cannot be tolerated, and it points to her unfitness for a London life. As a result, this magnificent creature's lot is a sad return to her cage. As for Horner, with both words and wit having failed him, he cannot even communicate with, let alone control, a mere country wife. His assertion to the audience is accordingly as empty as it is superfluous: “Well, a silly Mistriss, is like a weak place, soon got, soon lost, a man has scarce time for plunder; she betrays her Husband, first to her Gallant, and then her Gallant, to her Husband” (214-16).

Pinchwife's arriving with the others and asking Horner if he had indeed brought Alithea to him earlier prompts the rake's desperate attempt, after stalling with asides, to save himself and whatever is left of his crumbling empire: “Then truly, you did bring that Lady to me just now” (235). Critics have defended Horner's lie, explaining that, although he betrays Alithea, he does so to save his mistress. Or, that even though he betrays Alithea he clearly respects and appreciates virtuous women such as she.99 It appears more evident, however, that his fear of Pinchwife prompts this response—one based primarily on self-preservation. In a moment of anxiety, Horner understandably seeks breathing room in order to contemplate his next move. As for his respecting Alithea—after all, say some, he does not try to seduce her—his impression of and distance from her is more likely predicated on the simple truth that she is just too smart and formidable to be so debauched.100 And while the men fume and hesitate, the forgotten Lucy comments, “Now cou'd I speak, if I durst, and 'solve the Riddle, who am the Author of it” (244-45)—reminding us that women have power to both agitate and resolve.

As the play speeds to its end, Alithea is furious, Pinchwife impatient to marry her to Horner, and Horner still unable to effect a satisfactory resolution. Alithea then precipitates the long-anticipated move by telling Harcourt that now she fears only his “censure.” Having been prompted to make clear his willingness to be subordinate, Harcourt seizes the opportunity and assures Alithea that “'tis possible for me to love too, without being jealous”—those utterly magic words that allow her to accept him wholeheartedly, allaying her greatest fears and making Harcourt the “perfect” husband (250-51).101 Harcourt (actually Alithea) therefore solves one problem, and Horner's words to Pinchwife, “I have resign'd your Sister to him, he has my consent” (268-69) merely accompany Harcourt's solution, not initiate it. Besides, Horner's gesture has no effect on soothing the Country Husband, who quickly deposes Horner's authority: “But he has not mine Sir, … and you shall marry her presently, or,———” (270-73), as he lays his hand on his sword. And here the apparently innocuous presence of the real Parson adds one further male to surround and plague Horner at play's end.

It is left of course to Margery to catapult matters to their conclusion, first saving Horner from masculine aggression (at the hands of Pinchwife and Harcourt) and then asserting openly her own needs: “he shan't marry her, whilest I stand by, and look on, I'll not lose my second Husband so”; “don't quarrel about finding work for the Parson, he shall marry me to Mr. Horner” (274-81). With her public courage remains a commitment to the sorority, for Margery is quick with an apology to Alithea: “Pray Sister, pardon me for telling so many lyes of you” (284). Having again confronted the inescapable conclusion that his greatest fear has been realized, Pinchwife can only resort to a vestigial expression to help salvage what is left of his manhood: he “Offers to draw” on both Margery and Horner: “I will never hear woman again, but make 'em all silent, thus—” (287-88). But as we have come to expect, other males thwart his efforts: Harcourt, who physically grabs him, and Sir Jaspar, who leads the entourage of ladies into the room, flooding the scene with characters, effectively blocking Pinchwife's violent expression.

It is appropriate that Pinchwife informs Sir Jaspar that he has been abused—thus bringing the motif of internecine warfare to a fitting conclusion: “I tell you again, he has whor'd my Wife, and yours too, if he knows her, and all the women he comes near” (301-2). Pinchwife has obviously given Horner too much credit, ignoring for the moment the women's desire for being so “whor'd”; but his sharing this information with Jaspar at least provides him the satisfaction of being right all along—and it is important to remember that he is right—pulling another man into the thickening morass of cuckoldry with him.102 And while the men continue to shape their separate fictions, Lucy steps forward to aid her fellow sisters, assuring the disordered Horner that she will save him and the situation, to which the rake can only respond, “Canst thou? I'll give thee—” (317).103 That she begins speaking before he can complete his sentence suggests either (or both) that she needs no money to assist her fellow women (not so much to aid Horner) or that she, and not Horner, will be the one to determine the cost of her assistance (one might assume sexual favors later on).104 Whereas Lucy confesses to Pinchwife what appears to be the truth—“your Wife is innocent, I only culpable; for I put her upon telling you all these lyes, concerning my Mistress, in order to the breaking off the match, between Mr. Sparkish and her” (318-22)—even here the indirection is conspicuous, that is, in Lucy's leaving out the details regarding Margery's sophistication in matters of deception and Lucy's own vicarious delight in steering Alithea toward the promise of romantic gratification. Although it is Pinchwife who is kneeled to, Pinchwife who is begged of, Pinchwife who all others stand around and fear—whereas Horner has only a secondary role in this climactic moment105—Margery refuses to allow a smooth return to order and propriety, demonstrating how unfit she is for London life by failing to silence her natural and untamed spirit: “Hold, I told lyes for you, but you shall tell none for me, for I do love Mr. Horner with all my soul, and no body shall say me nay” (329-31).106 Although she pulls off her and Horner's masks, Wycherley's other characters instinctively refuse to look, and her frantic lover can only blurt out, “Peace, Dear Ideot,” a plea that moves the subversive female not a whit: “Nay, I will not peace” (333-34).107

The Quack's arrival offers Horner his one hope of survival: “you may have brought me a reprieve, or else I had died for a crime, I never committed” (341-42). Still, he cannot finish his thoughts, being unnerved by the sight of a menacing Pinchwife and an insatiable Margery, and he whispers to the Quack to convince the doubtful that he is indeed impotent. Again, Horner needs help in effecting a resolution108—requiring the assistance of one of society's most illegitimate figures. To Pinchwife's credit, although he will accept Lucy's confession as a way to escape horrid implications and to salvage his manhood, he will not condone the ridiculous assumption that Horner is sexually harmless: “An Eunuch! pray no fooling with me” (352).109 He remains throughout the one male character who is above accepting the Quack's diagnosis of Horner's condition,110 even though he is sorely tempted to do so and thus ease his distress: “Well, if this were true, but my Wife—” (380). That he finally (tacitly) accepts what Lucy and Alithea tell him proves only that he must at all costs avoid the public perception (despite what he truly believes) of his cuckoldry: “For my own sake fain I wou'd all believe / Cuckolds like Lovers shou'd themselves deceive” (410-11).111 The company's stunned reaction to the country wife's contradiction of the Quack's diagnosis—“'Tis false Sir, you shall not disparage poor Mr. Horner, for to my certain knowledge—”(369-70)—makes clear that the lonely warrior Margery Pinchwife will be unable ever to breach such impenetrable defenses with such an impotent weapon as literal truth.

As the curtain begins to close, Alithea warns her brother that he should avoid “too strong an imagination”—meaning of course any attempts at analyzing or plotting against his wife—and she offers a platitude as an antidote to male possessiveness: “Women and Fortune are truest still to those that trust 'em” (382, 384), which seems more her effort to solidify her own gains than the playwright's desire to conclude on any moralistic or educative note.112 These points are made for Harcourt's benefit, of course, and they establish the conditions for his marriage to Alithea. Lucy follows with another commonplace, although one that speaks well to the female ascendancy at play's end: “And any wild thing grows but the more fierce and hungry for being kept up, and more dangerous to the Keeper” (385-86). Dorilant, Sparkish, and Horner reject these visions of “London” husbands as a way to escape the image of such female potential; but Harcourt, showing that he is truly a suitable mate for Alithea, accepts the reality and acquiesces willingly to her demands. After she cues him, “There's doctrine for all Husbands Mr. Harcourt,” he speaks up properly and docilely, “I edifie Madam so much, that I am impatient till I am one” (387-88). On the other hand, with much bitterness, Pinchwife adds, “But I must be one—against my will to a Country-Wife, with a Country-murrain to me” (392-93)—his particular way of acknowledging the verity of what Alithea and Lucy have stated but at the same time signaling his determination to fight against that truth and continue to suppress his fears. And his phrase against my will accurately reflects the furtive compromise that makes the worst kind of personal existence in Wycherley's world.

Pinchwife will force himself to believe that the “wild animal” Lucy alluded to may indeed be tamed or at worst made to forfeit its natural aggressiveness and instincts after long periods of incarceration. And as if to corroborate her husband's implied promise, Margery, having accepted that acting upon her natural inclinations has failed to move, resigns herself to her fate: “And I must be a Country Wife still too I find, for I can't like a City one, be rid of my musty Husband and doe what I list” (394-96). Those who find the conclusion lighthearted or otherwise an affirmation of the joys of sexuality fail to appreciate the disappointment and depression expressed in Margery's capitulation. Lucy again tries to protect her “sister”: “what she has said to your face of her love for Mr. Horner was but the usual innocent revenge on a Husbands jealousie” (403-5). But her assessment (a protective lie) offers little comfort to one who has begun to feel the loss of her natural exuberance and hope for freedom: “Since you'l have me tell more lyes—Yes indeed Budd” (407-9)—a response marked by exhaustion and growing despair. This Persephone, now at the conclusion of her fertile period, awaits a return with her Dis to the uninviting underworld that is the country.

Horner speaks the last two couplets of the play as a dance of the cuckolds begins around him.113 His positioning in the dance has encouraged some to portray him as a phallic symbol amid the ritual,114 and his having the final word implies that he has indeed been the center of the comedy. But although he steps forward to deliver the concluding lines, he has not ruled as a comic or satiric monarch, nor has all been resolved satisfactorily—and thus rings very hollow his aside to the Quack, “[W]ell, Doctor is not this a good design that carryes a man on unsuspected, and brings him off safe” (378-79), for Horner had to be brought off safe by others whose concerns, fears, and machinations effected both his successes and his rescue. There has been neither peace nor victory here; rather all returns to status quo ante bellum—an empty and frustrating cessation of hostilities. Horner's speaking the final lines amid the dance of the cuckolds is ironically most appropriate, for he too has been cuckolded in that his manhood has been subtly undercut throughout the play by men and women (and the playwright) alike115—the irony being that his desire to reverse the pattern by going from cuckold to sexual potentate has been subverted, leaving him only where he began116—completely surrounded by all these “old Acquaintances” he had hoped to be rid of. That The Country Wife has no delightful resolution punctuates the playwright's belief that life is ambiguous, incongruous, frustrating, deceptive, and filled with fear: after all, often what emerges from chaos is only chaos.117 Finally, Jocelyn Powell may provide the most effectively succinct estimation of the play by noting that it is not a mirror of life so much as it is “a commentary on the workings of the human animal.”118 Indeed, Wycherley's brilliance in The Country Wife is more than farcical and comic; it is engagingly psychological.


  1. Critics have traditionally noted similarities only between The Country Wife and Love in a Wood (eg., Ranger as a preview of Horner, Christina and Valentine an early version of Alithea and Harcourt). A good critical overview is provided by Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume in Producible Interpretations: Eight English Plays, 1675-1707 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), pp. 73-106. We need to keep in mind that perhaps only two years or so elapsed between the writing of The Gentleman Dancing-Master and The Country Wife. The implication has always been that Wycherley's first two plays were his juvenilia, written a considerable time earlier than his “mature” plays. Although criticism has come a long way from John Palmer's observation early in the century that The Country Wife is the “most perfect farce” in English drama, Robert Hume encourages our seeing it in roughly the same terms: “an immensely enjoyable play in which we take almost nothing seriously. … The gross character exaggerations are characteristic of farce, more than comedy.” Palmer, The Comedy of Manners (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1913); Hume, The Development of English Comedy in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 104.

  2. Bonamy Dobrée's memorable assessment of Horner as a “grim, nightmare” figure has been countered most dramatically, perhaps, by Virginia Birdsall: Horner is “a wholly positive and creative comic hero” on the side of “health, of freedom, and most controversial of all, of honesty.” Rose Zimbardo observes that Horner is “not sufficiently detached from the scene to be the satirist's persona. … [L]ess a character than an emblem,” Horner is “in himself a graphic declaration of the satiric thesis.” W. R. Chadwick also defends Horner against some of the earlier criticism: if he is a “monomaniac,” so are other heroes of sex comedies; he has “ideals”; he is a “picaresque hero” neither “admirable [n]or reprehensible.” Peter Holland comments: “The name is a symbol; it connects with other patterns of meaning and makes them relevant to the use of the word in the play. Horner is … a satyr in his cynical analysis of society, as well as his sensuality.” Anthony Kaufman argues that Horner cannot be considered a hero because of his “diseased” view of the world and his “sterility of emotion.” W. Gerald Marshall writes that Horner, “essentially … a negative creator, an anti-dramatist,” continually “sets stages upon which he invites those around him to forget about spiritual love.” Douglas Ford believes that Horner “serves as Wycherley's self-reflexive device,” a “symbol of authorial anxiety” affirming the “poet's [own] power to create.” Finally, Brian Corman asserts that Horner is “an attractive and clever character who, though no moral paragon himself, tends to apply his skills and talents only to those worse than he is.” Dobrée, Restoration Comedy, p. 94; Birdsall, Wild Civility, p. 136; Zimbardo, Wycherley's Drama, p. 90; “William Wycherley,” pp. 279, 280; Chadwick, The Four Plays of William Wycherley, pp. 117-19; Holland, The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 194; Kaufman, “Wycherley's The Country Wife and the Don Juan Character,” pp. 220-21; Marshall, Great Stage of Fools, p. 80—views that first appeared in “Wycherley's ‘Great Stage of Fools’: Madness and Theatricality in The Country Wife,Studies in English Literature 29 (1989), 409-29; Ford, “The Country Wife: Rake Hero as Artist,” Restoration 17 (1993), 77-78; and Corman, Genre and Generic Change, p. 34.

  3. Quacks moreover “specialized” in “renewing maidenheads” (with alum usually). The frequent damage done to the vaginal wall caused pimps to assault the quacks, who would hasten to the Netherlands or France, from where they had come. Several years before the first performance of The Country Wife, Dutch quacks “were attacked in the famous petition of the Whores to the Prentices in 1668 after the Shrove Tuesday riots” that so upset Charles II and Lady Castlemaine. Burford, Bawdy Verse, p. 145.

  4. Horner's “confiding” to the Quack cannot, of course, be construed as evidence of masculine trust, for the Quack is not a participant here but rather a kind of perverse chorus, overseer, and voyeur. Besides, Horner's initial words in the play (in an aside), “A Quack is as fit for a Pimp, as a Midwife for a Bawd,” suggests the distrust and separation of the males. What is significant, however, is that by having Horner's trust, the Quack is placed in the position of authority, the familiar role for any kind of confessor, over the one who confides—and Horner willingly establishes this relationship. (The next person Horner so informs is Lady Fidget, who also maintains dominance over him in her particular way.) Foucault discusses the nature of power in the relationship between penitent and confessor in History of Sexuality, pp. 59-67. David D. Mann sees the Quack “set[ting] up the thematic oppositions of seeming and being”: “we become him: we are all quacks and frauds; merely by accepting him, we have made ourselves accomplices in the action.” My point is, though, that we should not accept him; we should be dubious of him and Horner's confiding only in him. Mann, “The Function of the Quack in The Country Wife,Restoration 7 (1983): 19, 21.

  5. I cannot then support Anthony Kaufman's contention that, given the parameters of the “Don Juan” character, Horner's “disguise of impotence” requires our seeing a “latent impulse” of male homosexuality. William Freedman views the impotence as symbolic of “the Restoration society as Wycherley presents it.” Kaufman, “Wycherley's The Country Wife and the Don Juan Character,” p. 223; Freedman, “Impotence and Self-Destruction in The Country Wife,” p. 422. Freedman's essay says much about the nature of impotence and self-destruction with which I concur, but his applying these concepts to Restoration society as a whole (Horner's “injury” is “meant to comment on one prevalent insufficiency in the Restoration world: the inadequacy, in effect the impotency, of its males”) takes matters far beyond where I believe they should rest. For more on these issues see Giles Slade, “The Two Backed Beast: Eunuchus and Priapus in The Country Wife,Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, second series, 7, no. 1 (1992), 23-34.

  6. Anthony Kaufman believes that in Jaspar we see “a deliberate neglect of women as he foists off his wife unto the supposedly ‘safe’ Horner in order to absorb himself entirely in his business affairs.” I see his motives much differently. “Wycherley's The Country Wife and the Don Juan Character,” p. 226.

  7. Roger Thompson is quite succinct: “Masculine impotence or at least inadequacy was a seventeenth-century obsession” Unfit for Modest Ears, p. 105. And Derek Cohen adds that this “world of men is a world of continuous sexual contestation.” Cohen, “The Country Wife and Social Danger,” Restoration & Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, second series, 10, no. 1 (1995), 2.

  8. Dale Underwood has examined several aspects of Restoration libertinism, noting the conflict between individual expression and the desired social order. Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners, pp. 18-20. For further discussion of the dichotomy, see Richard Stieger, “‘Wit in a Corner’: Hypocrisy in The Country Wife.

  9. Jean Hagstrum refers to “the notion that profoundly suggestive pictures can be socially or morally acceptable substitutes for forbidden feelings or wishes.” Hagstrum, “Pictures to the Heart: The Psychological Picturesque in Ann Radcliffe's The Mystery of Udolpho” in Paul J. Korshin and Robert R. Allen, eds., Greene Centennial Studies (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984), p. 439. Horner's reference to L'Escole des filles, ou la philosophie des dames (1655) is to one of the most notorious “pornographic” works of the day; even Pepys vowed to burn it—that is, after reading it (The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 9:58). In 1675, the year of Wycherley's play, several young dons at All Souls College were found using the Oxford University presses to run off copies of Giulio Romano's engravings from Aretino's Postures—the period's famous sex manual. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, pp. 539-40. See Roger Thompson for more on erotic literature and iconography of the time. Unfit for Modest Ears, pp. 4-5, 28.

  10. My argument in this chapter runs counter to Anthony Kaufman's major contention that Horner demonstrates an “abnormal hostility towards women,” whom he “compulsively exploits.” Kaufman adds that Horner's “successful but unsatisfying seductions are a gesture of hatred towards women, a desire to revenge himself on them, for the initial erotic attachment to the mother, inevitably betrayed, may lead to the hostile charge that all women are fickle.” I contend that Horner is manipulated and often dominated by them—and he evinces the natural defensive posture (born from insecurity) of a severe critic. “Fear of” seems more accurate to me than “abnormal hostility towards” women. Kaufman, “Wycherley's The Country Wife and the Don Juan Character,” pp. 220-21, 224. Kaufman's views are reiterated in “The Shadow of the Burlador: Don Juan on the Continent and in England” in A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman, eds., Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986), pp. 239-43. At the other end of the rope, Harold Weber feels that Horner “insists throughout the play on a just appreciation of women.” The Restoration Rake Hero (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), p. 54.

  11. As for the play's frequent use of “honour,” Rose Zimbardo concludes that the term is a “double entendre that reveals how far [Horner's and Lady Fidget's] behavior falls below the [social and] moral standard to which their words allude.” But Wycherley never gives us a sense of anyone's falling from a higher social or moral status. There are no characters representing that ethereal world of a proper and moral society. (See my later assessment of Harcourt and Alithea.) Zimbardo, “Wycherley: The Restoration's Juvenal,” p. 21. James Thompson has counted seventy-six uses of honour, correctly noting that often the reader “must perform a lexical substitution, ‘translate’ from the obviously literal meaning to some distant, different, private meaning.” Language in Wycherley's Plays, pp. 75-78, 81. We might also detect Wycherley's tempting us, with so many uses of Honour, to consider its linguistic cousins Horner and horror.

  12. Although we move in opposite directions, I strongly agree with Peggy Thompson, who argues that the women are “exhausting sexual creatures”—“essentially and aggressively sexual” and that Wycherley sensed that women had become “the literary embodiment of all kinds of conflicting desires and fears.” Thompson, “The Limits of Parody in The Country Wife,Studies in Philology 89 (1992): 102-4, 113-14.

  13. W. R. Chadwick contends that the men are “quite clearly friends in the best sense”; and Thomas Fujimura notes that they treat Horner “amiably at all times, despite a supposed infirmity that would soon expose a lesser man to ridicule.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points to the “bond of cuckoldry” and argues that “Given that the object of man's existence is to cuckold men, Horner is a master. … If he gives up the friendship and admiration of other men, it is only in order to come into a more intimate and secret relation to them—a relation over which his cognitive mastery is so complete that they will not even know that such a bond exists.” Anticipating Sedgwick's interest in male “homosociality,” W. H. Matalene wrote that at times Horner “betrays his panic at the prospect of losing his London friends” and that “blinded by the physiological magic of copulation,” he “overlooks the homosocial pleasure he has taken from having his admired male companions look upon him as a great copulator.” Ronald Berman also discusses the concept of friendship (both male and female): part of Wycherley's “intention,” he concludes, “is to demonstrate” Bacon's view that without true friends “the world is but a wilderness.” Chadwick, The Four Plays of William Wycherley, p. 117; Fujimura, The Restoration Comedy of Wit, p. 140; Sedgwick, “Sexualism and the Citizen of the World: Wycherley, Sterne, and Male Homosocial Desire,” Critical Inquiry 11 (1984): 228, 231-32; Matalene, “What Happens in The Country Wife,Studies in English Literature 22 (1982): 402-3; Berman, “The Ethic of The Country Wife,Texas Studies in Language and Literature 9 (1967): 50.

  14. Later, Harcourt says to Horner, “Now your Sting is gone, you look'd in the Box amongst all those Women, like a drone in the hive, all upon you; shov'd and ill-us'd by'em all, and thrust from one side to t'other” (III.ii.10-12)—a graphic metaphor likely voiced with far more satisfaction than good-natured pity. And Dorilant implies that Horner disgraces himself and his sex by submitting to such humiliation: “Yet he must be buzzing amongst'em still, like other old beetle-headed, lycorish drones; avoid'em, and hate'm as they hate you” (III.ii.13-14). For more on the issue of male friendship, see Peggy Thompson, “The Limits of Parody in The Country Wife,” pp. 106-9.

  15. J. Peter Verdurmen believes Horner's words are “delivered in an emotional aside, … presumably based upon a just estimation of the couple's intrinsic worth and the consequent desirability of their marriage.” Verdurmen, “Grasping for Permanence: Ideal Couples in The Country Wife and Aureng-Zebe,Huntington Library Quarterly 42 (1979): 344.

  16. And how are these comments spoken? With troubled sincerity or sardonic ridicule at Sparkish's expense? Horner may also sense that Pinchwife would suspect Horner's own interest in Alithea, another “property” of Pinchwife's to spoil (and Pinchwife is concerned at Horner's disappointment in hearing of the match). Horner is furthermore perplexed that one such as Sparkish could attract such an appealing and independent woman as Alithea, for he expected Sparkish to secure only some old “stale Maid” who “has liv'd to despaire of a husband” or a young one who has failed to stimulate a “Gallant” (IV.iii.361-62).

  17. In addition, Lawrence Stone points to the frequent application of “friends” in the seventeenth century as meaning “no more than ‘my advisors, associates and backers.’” The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, p. 97.

  18. I believe Sparkish's character offers more than Robert Markley's description implies: “Sparkish is not a fop but a caricature of aristocratic presumption. He represents the failure of wit and carriage as measures of social value.” I moreover find misleading conclusions such as Alan Roper's that Sparkish “is impervious to the assault of events”: he is “so self-regarding as to be almost solipsistic, incapable of rational communication with others.” David Vieth points to the destructive aspects of the three plots headed by the “husband” figures: “the Pinchwife plot represents the country, the Fidget plot the ‘city’ or commercial district of London, and the Sparkish plot the ‘town’ or fashionable world on the fringes of Court.” However, Vieth adds that despite “superficial differences” among these worlds, the “fundamental implication is that the same ‘nature’ underlies them all.” Markley, Two-Edg'd Weapons, p. 169; Roper, “Sir Harbottle Grimstone and The Country Wife,Studies in the Literary Imagination 10 (1977): 115; Vieth, “Wycherley's The Country Wife: An Anatomy of Masculinity,” p. 338.

  19. Sparkish offers three alternative places to meet: at “Chateline's,” the “Cock,” or at the “Dog and Partridg” (I.i.316-20). Other than recalling “chatelain” as meaning Lord of a manor (Sparkish would like Horner to realize that he can no longer be lord of even his own sexual desire), the person with a good ear for French might also think of “châtier” (to punish, to flog) and, more appropriately, “châtrer” (to emasculate or castrate, or in noun form, a eunuch)—all of which Sparkish would most fervently wish Horner to consider. The “Cock” certainly had a number of masculine associations, but Horner and some of the members of Wycherley's audience and reading public might have been reminded as well that in classical times the cock was often castrated, the only bird to be so mutilated. The eunuch priests of Cybele, one of the oriental cults brought to Rome, were called the Galli (the “cut offs”) because of the cock's (gallus) more debilitating and disgusting associations. See C. T. Onions, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymologies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966); N. G. L. Hammmond and H. H. Sculland, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970); and T. H. White, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1960). In addition, the Partridge's perverse sexual habits had also been long noted—the male occasionally mounting the male; the female stealing eggs of another female. And the Partridge was excellent at camouflaging its identity: “Frequent intercourse tires them out. The males fight each other for their mate, and it is believed that the conquered male submits to venery like a female” (White, The Bestiary, pp. 136-37). Although the scientifically minded mid-seventeenth century, as William J. Farrell reminds us, began to criticize and replace “the old habit of collecting anecdotes and analogies about animals, insects, and plants from the books of the past,” nevertheless, “the old dependence on the lore of the library still persist[ed].” Farrell, “The Role of Mandeville's Bee Analogy in ‘The Grumbling Hive,’” Studies in English Literature 25 (1985): 524. George Farquhar wrote that the “Nature of Comedy … bears so great a Resemblance to the Philosophical Mythology of the Ancients, that old Aesop must wear the Bays as the first and original Author.” Farquhar, “Discourse upon Comedy” in The Complete Works of George Farquhar, ed., Charles Stonehill (London: Nonsuch Press, 1930), 2:336-37.

  20. Sparkish may also be cognizant of Hobbes's position that the more often observed “the lesse uncertain is the Signe” (Leviathan, p. 11). Although William Freedman is certainly right to note that Sparkish's self-destructive impulse evolves from his insecurity, I would not agree that he “is dependent for satisfaction entirely on the supposed esteem of others” and that “everything he does is designed to win their praise and avoid their contempt”—for I see his satisfaction coming from destroying, not pleasing, others. Freedman, “Impotence and Self-Destruction in The Country Wife,” p. 429.

  21. Virginia Birdsall labels him one of the “blind fools” and “moralizing hypocrite[s].” Although W. R. Chadwick finds him more important than do most critics, noting that his role is as long as Horner's, he views him only in the most negative terms: “every facet of his character provokes disgust”; he is an “evil man” at times “close to the villain of melodrama”—even though he does provide the “darker colouring” necessary to understanding Wycherley's view of the world. Whereas he fails to develop his point, John Cunningham sees as I do that in the play “the more interesting thing is really the treatment of Pinchwife”—a “study of jealousy and possessiveness, as serious, in a way, as Othello.” Birdsall, Wild Civility, pp. 137, 147; Chadwick, The Four Plays of William Wycherley, pp. 114-16; Cunningham, Restoration Drama, pp. 86, 87.

  22. As Maximillian Novak writes, in another play of 1675—John Crowne's The Country Wit—the implication is “that people live in the country not because they prefer a rural existence but because they simply do not have the intelligence to cope with the ways of the city.” In Pinchwife's case, however, he lacks more the inner security rather than the intelligence to survive in London. Novak, “Margery Pinchwife's ‘London Disease’: Restoration Comedy and the Libertine Offensive of the 1670s,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 10 (1977): 13.

  23. Leviathan, p. 64. Freud would later write, “A man's attitude in sexual things has the force of a model to which the rest of his reactions tend to conform.” The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 10:241. Charles Hallet has explained the play in Hobbesian terms but concludes far differently than I that Wycherley is attacking “the Hobbist society from which … hypocrisy stems”—not the Leviathan or Hobbesian philosophy per se but rather the influence and application of that philosophy (mainly its concentration on self-interest). Again, I find Wycherley reflecting an agreement with much of Hobbesian thought, not attacking it or its influence. Hobbes's philosophy held the mirror to, not redirected or influenced, human behavior and thought. Hallet, “The Hobbesian Substructure of The Country Wife,PLL 9 (1973): 380. Douglas Duncan also finds Hobbesian parody in the play. See “Mythic Parody in The Country Wife,Essays in Criticism 31 (1981): esp. 308-12.

  24. Lawrence Stone offers a succinct and most sensible reminder regarding the marriage laws and customs that could suppress women: “But it would, of course, be absurd to claim that the private reality fully matched the public rhetoric.” Women had “useful potential levers of power within the home.” The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, p. 199.

  25. James Thompson observes that Pinchwife “fears the power of the word” and that Horner is “more quick, more ingenious, more audacious than the others” in his use of language. Language in Wycherley's Plays, pp. 83, 85. J. Peter Verdurmen suggests slight oedipal overtones in the relationship between Horner and Pinchwife—although Pinchwife is “a rather sorry father figure.” (Seeing Horner as in his mid-twenties would at least provide the proper age difference.) Verdurmen, “Grasping for Permanence: Ideal Couples in The Country Wife and Aureng-Zebe,” p. 332, n. 9. For more on the Freudian implications in the play, see Antony Kaufman's “Wycherley's The Country Wife and the Don Juan Character”; and, especially for a perspective on Horner's and the play's use of jests, Carol L. Hee, “‘The Sign of a Jest’: Freudian Jokes in Wycherley's The Country Wife,Literature and Psychology 30 (1980): 8-17.

  26. In his colloquy “Marriage,” Erasmus tells of a man who married an “innocent” of seventeen, who had never been outside her parents' house. The husband believed she would be more easily trained to fit his taste, but she rebelled and the frustrated spouse took her back to her mother and father. The bride's father advised the new husband to give his wife a good beating as a way to control her. The young man was reluctant, so the father threatened to perform the beating himself. The girl then went to her knees and begged forgiveness of both her father and her new husband—and thus became the perfect wife. Such a vision (including the suppositions of the old Roman patria potestas), would tend to remain fixed in the mind of a man like Pinchwife, influencing his disturbed perspective of his wife and the country. For the belief that Erasmus was describing Thomas More and his first wife, Jane Colt, see Richard Marius, Thomas More (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), pp. 39-41.

  27. As David Vieth concludes, “Pinchwife's speeches about women reflect fear, hostility, and a debased physical version of sex” “Wycherley's The Country Wife: An Anatomy of Masculinity,” p. 339.

  28. As Friedman reminds us, commentators have long recognized the similarity of Pinchwife's words here to the speeches of Arnolphe in Molière's L'École des femmes. But Friedman rightly draws a distinction between Molière's character and Pinchwife in the severity of the responses. Friedman, Plays, p. 262, n. 2. Douglas Ford feels that Pinchwife's disturbing nature is “seemingly incongruent with the light nature of the play.” But I would argue that he is perfectly reflective of what is the truer nature of the play. Ford, “The Country Wife: Rake Hero as Artist,” p. 80.

  29. A generation later Mrs. Fainall asks Marwood, “You would not make [a husband] a cuckold?” “No; but I'd make him believe I did, and that's as bad” (Way of the World, II.i.61-63).

  30. As Freud noted, “Generally speaking, a tendentious joke calls for three people [here four]: in addition to the one who makes the joke [Horner], there must be a second who is taken as the object of the hostile or sexual aggressiveness [Pinchwife], and a third [Dorilant and Harcourt] in whom the joke's aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled.” Quoted in Hee, “The Sign of a Jest: Freudian Jokes in Wycherley's The Country Wife,” p. 10.

  31. Hobbes wrote that “much Laughter at the defects of others, is a signe of Pusillanimity,” which he had also defined as “fear of things that are but of little hindrance” (Leviathan, pp. 26, 27). Wallace Jackson is one critic who concedes that Pinchwife is at least “a far more dangerous and knowing adversary than Sir Jasper.” Jackson, “The Country Wife: The Premises of Love and Lust,” South Atlantic Quarterly 72 (1973): 543-44.

  32. As W. R. Chadwick says, she is “a splendid female animal, amoral, clever, sensual, who follows her natural instincts,” adding that because she is “consistently naive and artless,” the audience must feel “compassion for her.” The Four Plays of William Wycherley, pp. 112-13. To some, most notably Thomas Fujimura, Margery Pinchwife is simply “a pleasure-loving and unaffected girl from the country … simply a pawn in this witty plot.” The Restoration Comedy of Wit, p. 143.

  33. As Patricia Meyer Spacks writes, women insisted that their “sheltered lives, limited opportunities, nurture the seeds of their destruction. Men, of course, are ultimately the shelterers.” Spacks, “‘Ev'ry Woman Is at Heart a Rake,’” p. 31. Wycherley's audience would have soon determined that Margery was no Ariana or Gatty (in Etherege's She Wou'd If She Cou'd), blowing into London in search of amusement.

  34. Although not the focus of this study, Wycherley's self-effacing humor (wonderful slights of his craft and dramatic milieu) stands for me as one of his most delightful and noteworthy qualities. As for the play's more telling allusions to the theater, Joseph Candido argues that they are there to “remind us at certain prescribed moments of the deliberately contrived nature of the spectacle before us.” Candido, “Theatricality and Satire in The Country Wife,Essays in Literature 4 (1977): 35.

  35. One of those places where men may be found is “St. James's Park.” Alithea's admission “Though I take the innocent liberty of the Town” (42-43) and Margery's interest in the theater were anticipated in The Gentleman Dancing-Master: “And [I] would take all the innocent liberty of the Town to tattle to your men under a Vizard in the Play-houses, and meet 'em at night in Masquerade” (Hippolita to Mrs. Caution; I.i.296-98). Alithea's pride in having kept her freedom without any tinge of ill-repute—“who boasts of any intrigue with me? what Lampoon has made my name notorious?” (46-47)—suggests as well that she, like Lady Fidget, is highly sensitive to the necessity of a guarded reputation. And the fact that she has entertained male suitors—“wou'd you not have me civil?” (52)—should inform us that Alithea is more socially lively than her honorable and oft-admired pose suggests.

  36. We might keep in mind that Margery's longings and experiences in the country may have been more than virginal: when her husband informs her that a “lewd” fellow was in love with her, she responds, “Was it any Hampshire Gallant, any of our Neighbours?” (113). Such a comment would only stimulate further Pinchwife's suspicion about his wife's interests and at least momentarily take away his comforting association of the country with any power and serenity. I am therefore unwilling to accept the implication of Brian Corman's assertion that Pinchwife “corrupts Margery by mistreating her.” Genre & Generic Change, p. 31.

  37. Pinchwife's punctuation “In baggage, in” (127) squares well—in diction and sentiment—with Lord John Vaughn's description of a wife: “The clog of all Pleasure, the luggage of Life, her portion but small, and her C———t very wide.” Thompson, Unfit for Modest Ears, p. 120.

  38. Rose Zimbardo calls them “the twin virtues,” Alithea representing the “truth that opposes hypocrisy” and Harcourt a “romantic love that stands against lust.” James Thompson believes they are the only ones in the play who “strive to be what they would seem, or to be as good as their word”: at the end of the play they stand alone as examples of “decent behavior in a mass of corruption”—although he adds that the couple is “too dull and weak to support” the view that they represent “the Horatian mean, the locus of value.” David Morris sees the relationship as “essential to Wycherley's moral purpose”; at the beginning, however, Alithea (Greek for “truth”) is “literally betrothed to Folly (Sparkish).” Peggy Thompson considers Alithea an “angelic virgin,” a status that “removes her from the powerful physical forces animating the other women.” David Vieth is less willing to see them as ideal but admits that they “achieve a modest sort of proportion and wholeness in their relationship,” although the “price of wholeness” is “imperfection.” Finally, Brian Corman says that they suffer from “a mild case of what might be called Celia-Bonario syndrome, the dullness—even unattractiveness—that good characters suffer from contact with especially effective and vital rogues.” The couple seems to be “a remnant, greatly devolved, of the elevated high plot still found in Love in a Wood.” Zimbardo, Wycherley's Drama, p. 161; “William Wycherley,” p. 281; Thompson, Language in Wycherley's Plays, pp. 73, 91; “Ideology and Dramatic Form: The Case of Wycherley,” p. 170; Morris, “Language and Honor in ‘The Country Wife,’” South Atlantic Bulletin 37, no. 4 (1972): 9; Thompson, “The Comic Parody in The Country Wife, p. 104; Vieth, “Wycherley's The Country Wife: An Anatomy of Masculinity,” p. 344; Corman, Genre & Generic Change, pp. 34-35.

  39. Cynthia Matlack finds the “difficulty encountered by Alithea and Harcourt in their courtship” a parody of the love-honor conflict in the period's heroic plays. She is right to resist viewing Alithea's honor as ideal, but I cannot see Wycherley's consciously providing parody of the heroic genre. Matlack, “Parody and Burlesque of Heroic Ideals in Wycherley's Comedies,” p. 279. Her essay thus provides a contrast to J. Peter Verdurmen's “Grasping for Permanence: The Ideal Couple in The Country Wife and Aureng-Zebe.” Derek Hughes notes that “Epistemologically, it is hard to distinguish Harcourt's noble faith from Sir Jaspar's foolish credulity.” English Drama, p. 138.

  40. And Sparkish's torment of Harcourt includes the former's insistence that he is a “frank” person in a “frank age” (III.ii.327-28, 343-44)—“Frank,” of course, being Harcourt's Christian name—and thus “Sparkish” is trumping and consuming “Frank.”

  41. Sparkish likely realizes that to “go into a corner” is often the street prostitute's suggestion to her prospective customer—and thereby one more method of afflicting Harcourt.

  42. D. R. M. Wilkinson writes that Alithea's “loyalty to Sparkish is quite improbable from a lady of quality, or at least from a lady of any precipience—both by Restoration and by twentieth century standards.” Chadwick counters by pointing to the restrictions put on women by marriage laws and customs and suggesting that Alithea later hopes love might grow from the match, as Lord Halifax implied in his Advice to a Daughter, 1688: “In other words, her stand is the stand that any sensible honourable woman of her time and class would take. And this is precisely Wycherley's point, for it is the sickness of the whole marital system, a sickness that infects not only the bad but also the good, that is the main thesis of The Country Wife.” Richard Steiger is forced to conclude that if Alithea “does, as her name suggests, represent ‘truth,’ it is a severely compromised version.” Wilkinson, The Comedy of Habit: An Essay on the Use of Courtesy Literature in a Study of Restoration Comic Drama (Leiden: University Press, 1964), p. 135; Chadwick, The Four Plays of William Wycherley, p. 110; Steiger, “‘Wit in a Corner’: Hypocrisy in The Country Wife,” p. 66.

  43. Derek Hughes writes that “Alithea thus ultimately discredits the expectations that her name initially arouses, although her name [Gr.—“truth”] is one which peculiarly insists upon its own veracity, and she thereby demonstrates the difficulty of encompassing the totality of the self within the public world and the signs by which it coheres.” Hughes, “Naming and Entitlement in Wycherley, Etherege, and Dryden,” Comparative Literature 21 (1987): 266—restated in English Drama, p. 142.

  44. Again, one must consider the many possibilities for facial expression and line delivery here. Sarcastic or serious? Troubled or playful?

  45. Leviathan, p. 73. Charles Hallet argues that based on the true spirit of “contract,” Alithea “is perfectly correct in refusing to treat the marriage contract lightly”; she is “the one woman in the play who does not act out of self-interest.” My argument is that she, as much as anyone else, does act out of both self-interest and self-preservation. Hallet, “The Hobbesian Substructure of The Country Wife,” p. 391.

  46. Eventually, she will plainly admit to Lucy (and herself): “I love him” (IV.i.13).

  47. Robert Markley is one of the few who has seen such a motivation for Alithea's “loyalty” to Sparkish. Two-Edg'd Weapons, p. 176.

  48. Again, as Lawrence Stone reminds us, “In any familial relationship … the distribution of power over decision-making will, in the last resort, depend on the personal characters of the husband and the wife.” The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, p. 217.

  49. Chiding her mistress for preparing herself for “a stinking second-hand grave”—Sparkish's bed—Lucy proves that she has a vivacity of her own as well as a loyalty to a fellow women, which finds intolerable the thought of a lifeless match without sexual gratification. But she does not at first comprehend Alithea's deep-seated fears, which makes impossible her acceptance of her mistress's perplexing behavior and reliance on “honor.” As she says about Alithea's marrying such a fool as Sparkish, “you intend to be honest don't you? then that husbandly virtue, credulity, is thrown away upon you” (IV.i.46-48). Thomas Fujimura believes that Wycherley “is to blame, perhaps, for making Lucy wittier than her mistress, but the fault is not so much that Lucy is too witty as that Alithea is not witty enough.” But an understanding of Alithea's complex reasons for behaving as she does makes insignificant the division of wit between her and Lucy. Fujimura, The Restoration Comedy of Wit, p. 144.

  50. Lucy's subsequent words on the horror of the country suggest also that Wycherley's title is meant to convey more fear than amusement. For a discussion of the debate over City and Country comedies of the 1670s, see Maximillian Novak's “Margery Pinchwife's ‘London Disease.’” (Stone examines the tradition of slander, marital discord, and petty spying in the villages during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, pp. 99, 144-45.) The nature of Alithea's concerns is therefore unlike that suggested by Honour's maid Rose in Henry Neville Payne's The Morning Ramble (1673): “Well is not that better than to be troubl'd with a formal fopp of bus'ness who lodges his wife in the Country, to prescribe for the Ague, then scratches his empty Noddle [and] cryes, I protest I must post to London.” Quoted in Novak, p. 7.

  51. Wycherley's so often and effectively pushing us toward sexual double meaning permits our imagining Harcourt doing Sparkish's conjugal business in the “Marriage-bed.”

  52. His remarks here find use for the fruit metaphor Horner had earlier claimed as his own (in the scene with “Little Sir James” at the Exchange): “I have only given your Brother and Orange, Sir”—Horner says to Pinchwife (III.ii.524). It is no wonder, then, that Horner reacts with anger here: “O thou damn'd Rogue, thou hast set my teeth on edge with thy orange” (IV.iii.381-82).

  53. Kenneth Muir finds that “the main force of Wycherley's satire is directed against female hypocrisy” and that the hypocrisy of these women “is anything but endearing”—a point with which I cannot concur owing to what I see as Wycherley's point about the necessity for the verbal safeguards, the exuberance with which he portrays these women, and his consistent interest in the nature of indirection. Once more, where do we see the “norm” by which to judge the hypocrisy? P. F. Vernon argues that although the “satire on the affectation of Lady Fidget and her companions is a real tour de force,” the playwright does look upon them “quite sympathetically,” believing that they are “not ultimately responsible for their behavior.” Susan Staves also takes a softer, and I think more accurate, line: the women are “presented as hypocrites, but as reasonably conscious hypocrites who are aware of the difference between the universe of reputation and the universe of fact.” Finally, Richard Steiger sees no difference in the three women: they are “more or less indistinguishable from one another.” But such a conclusion fails to appreciate that Lady Fidget is far more sexual and powerful than the other two and that Mrs. Squeamish's part in the action is of more consequence than Mrs. Dainty Fidget's. Muir, The Comedy of Manners, p. 76; Vernon, William Wycherley, pp. 28-30; Staves, Players' Scepters: Fictions of Authority in the Restoration (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), p. 161; Steiger, “‘Wit in a Corner’: Hypocrisy in The Country Wife, p. 56.

  54. And his attempt to flank them only enhances the pervading theme of “fear”: “Well it must out then, to tell you the truth, Ladies, which I was afraid to let you know before, least it might endanger your lives, my wife has just now the Small Pox come out upon her, do not be frighten'd; but pray, be gone Ladies, you shall not stay here in danger of your lives; pray get you gone Ladies” (322-27).

  55. Another manner in which Horner asserts himself is in the familiar anti-male outburst—in this case as an analogue to the “hypocritical” women who stand before him: “Why, these are pretenders to honour, as criticks to wit, only by censuring others; and as every raw peevish, out-of-humour'd, affected, dull, Tea-drinking, Arithmetical Fop sets up for a wit, by railing at men of sence, so these for honour, by railing at the Court, and Ladies of as great honour, as quality” (II.i.417-21)—a motif wonderfully punctuated by Dorilant, who tells Sir Jaspar, “Nay, if [Horner] wo'not, I am ready to wait upon the Ladies; and I think I am the fitter Man” (440-41). As his sex (and the play) almost dictates, Jaspar returns the blow: “no pray withdraw, Sir, for as I take it, the virtuous Ladies have no business with you” (445), which shows us that often in Wycherley characters offer sexual entendres despite their intentions. The characters all serve the teeming world Wycherley creates—unwillingly or no.

  56. This usage may also be seen as an ironic twist of Jaspar's earlier employment, “Hah, hah, hah, he hates women perfectly I find” (I.i.91).

  57. Derek Cohen is one of the few critics to give Lady Fidget her due: although “her morals are repellent,” she “possesses a rare intelligence which, combined with her viciousness, makes her a formidable character whose strength even Horner seems to have underestimated”; she is “honest and forthright, frankly using the power of hypocrisy to help her overcome the obstacles that society and nature have put in her way.” Cohen, “The Revengers' Comedy: A Reading of The Country Wife,Durham University Journal 76 (1983): 33.

  58. In one notorious Restoration treatment, we can find

    Did she not clap her Leggs about thy Back,
    Her Porthole ope; Damn'd P———ck what dis't Lack?
    Henceforth stand stiff, and gain thy Honour lost,
    Or I'le ne're draw thee but against a Post.

    Thompson, Unfit for Modest Ears, p. 122 (emphasis added)

  59. Again a contemporary audience would have been easily cognizant of the fact that Margery is no Florimel (Dryden's Secret Love, 1667), no Hilaria (Ravenscroft's The Careless Lovers, 1673), no Betty Goodfield (the anonymous The Woman Turn'd Bully, 1675)—all women who choose to don male garb to manipulate and trick. For a discussion of the attractiveness of such gender shifting on the stage, see Pat Rogers, “The Breeches Part” in Boucé, pp. 244-58.

  60. Margery's allusions to sight are also conspicuous: “I like to look upon the Player-men, and wou'd see, if I cou'd, the Gallant you say loves me” and “I wou'd see first some sights”; “did the Gentleman come hither to see me indeed?”; “[S]hall we go? the Exchange will be shut, and I have a mind to see that” (III.i.60-61, 68, 75-76, 97-98)—hammering home the fear Pinchwife equates with the visual. Accordingly, he attempts to put an end to his anxiety with the simple remedy, “Sister, how shall we do, that she may not be seen?” (87).

  61. For more on “signs” throughout the play, see Michael Neill, “Horned Beasts and China Oranges: Reading the Signs in The Country Wife,Eighteenth-Century Life, n.s. 12 (1988): 3-17; and Deborah C. Payne, “Reading the Signs in The Country Wife,SEL 26 (1986): 403-19. Unlike Payne, I do not see Wycherley seemingly to “long for that world of perfect interpretation: a language beyond words, looks, and sighs; an act beyond conventional gesture” (pp. 416-17). Derek Hughes observes that as “Pinchwife's fear of being entitled a cuckold shows, names have genuine power to become the objects of fear and desire.” Margery moreover “matures by gaining control of the art of signification.” Hughes, English Drama, pp. 140-41.

  62. To Charles O. McDonald, the scene takes on a far different sexual connotation than other critics (myself included) are willing to give it: “Horner seems, though I could not prove this in less than some pages, thoroughly duped by Margery's disguise as a page—the humor of the scene is entirely homosexual.” McDonald, “Restoration Comedy as Drama of Satire: An Investigation into Seventeenth Century Aesthetics,” Studies in Philology 61 (1964), 543.

  63. Richard Steiger observes that the fruit “functions dramatically by virtue of its consistency with the play's ubiquitous imagery equating sex and food.” Steiger, “‘Wit in a Corner’: Hypocrisy in The Country Wife,” p. 69, n. 8. In addition to the employment of fruit in other plays of the period, relevant anecdotes from outside the theater would include that of the “famous libertine” Henry Killigrew, who in the 1660s confronted Frances Jennings disguised as an orange wench. Seeing her with the less attractive (and also masquerading) Mrs. Price, Killigrew, when asked by the women if he would like some oranges, replied, “Not just now but if you like to bring me this little girl tomorrow [Jennings], it shall be worth all the oranges in the shops to you.” His hand then strayed to Frances's bosom. Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel, p. 412.

  64. Oranges may of course be seen as breasts, buttocks, or testicles. The dried fruit Margery holds offers such possibilities as prunes, apricots, or dates, the kind of dried fruit that may look suspiciously like the female sexual organ—or the state of the male sex organ after coitus—and certainly a playwright such as Wycherley encourages our looking for such things. (Later, Horner will make a more traditional equation of fruit and sex when he tells Sir Jaspar that he will not be one “that wou'd be nibling at your forbidden fruit” [IV.iii.86-87]). I believe in addition that Wycherley expected his audience to recall Peter Lyly's series of portraits titled “The Windsor Beauties” (done in the early 1660s), which as Jean Hagstrum reminds us portray sensual women with “glowingly white skin, partially exposed breasts, full and sensual lips pursed as though to invite a kiss, and languishing and flirtatious eyes. The actions in which they are engaged partially fulfill the amorous promise of their countenances, as they accept grapes from a kneeling Indian boy, hold their skirts up for a gift of fruit. …” The portrait of Lady Jane Needham (Mrs. Middleton), for example, features her looking most provocatively while holding close a collection of fruit. Hagstrum, Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 105-6, plate 4. And Wycherley refers to Lely in The Plain-Dealer, Prologue and play. Peter McNamara sees the oranges as emblematic of Margery and the dried fruit as reflective of Pinchwife. McNamara, “The Witty Company: Wycherley's The Country Wife,A Review of International English Literature 7 (1976): 65. Finally, Michael Neill calls attention to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: “Give not this rotten orange to your friend, / She's but the sign and semblance of her honour” (IV.i.30-31). Neill, “Horned Beasts and China Oranges,” p. 16, n. 16.

  65. Margery adds that Horner “so musl'd” her (Friedman's text). Holland's modernized edition has “mousled,” as does Fujimura's Regent's Edition of the play—both defining it as “rumpled.” (Peter Dixon's 1996 text has “muzzled.”) The OED defines “mousle” as “to pull about roughly.” Friedman adds that “muzzle” means, as Johnson's Dictionary has it, “To fondle with the mouth close. A low word” (Friedman, Plays, p. 311, n. 1). The meaning is problematic, however, in that Horner's putting the “tip of his tongue between [her] lips” does not suggest that Margery has been muzzled, pulled about, or roughed up. Another image is likely conveyed by “mousled”: that of Horner's tongue (here the substitute penis) poking about as a mouse does in and out of a hole or crack. The publication of The Wandering Whore (in several numbers, 1660-63) included this description of the whore's technique: “They kiss with their mouths open, and put their tongues in his mouth and suck it.” Thompson, Unfit for Modest Ears, p. 67.

  66. One detail she adds is that the “Gentlewoman of this house” came into the room—another “sister” who, despite the ambiguity of her title, assists in Margery's liberation—at the very least by not interrupting Horner's affectionate advances (IV.ii.15).

  67. It is Peggy Thompson's contention that The Country Wife actually “conforms to the myth of a sexual fall and its assumptions about women as sexual beings” in presenting lust as an “intimidating, overpowering force and women as carnal, devious, and demanding Eves whose sexual urges the male characters take seriously, even if the women are themselves ludicrous creatures.” “The Limits of Parody in The Country Wife,” p. 106.

  68. As William Freedman writes, “while Wycherley read no Freud he knew something of sexual symbolization.” Freedman, “Impotence and Self-Destruction in The Country Wife,” p. 426. G. Douglas Atkins also reminds us of Freud's impression that the writing process takes on “the significance of copulation.” Margery's writing of the letter rather than her husband may be therefore construed as another way in which Pinchwife's masculinity is menaced, even though he still dictates what she is to pen. Atkins, Reading Deconstruction, Deconstructive Reading (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), p. 132.

  69. Jon Lance Bacon adds, “In a century when few women were able to sign their own names, writing had an obvious relevance to feminine identity. A woman's signature carried considerable significance in terms of political self-assertion. Several times during the Interregnum, groups of women petitioned Parliament.” More to the point, Bacon argues, “The manner of his portrayal indicates Wycherley's approval of Margery's subversiveness.” “Wives, Widows, and Writings in Restoration Comedy,” Studies in English Literature 31 (1991), 433-34. Implying again the connection to and evolution from the last play, Hippolita did not share Margery Pinchwife's ability to write.

  70. Robert Markley for one believes that “Horner accumulates mistresses so quickly that by the time of the China Scene he has more women than he can sexually satisfy.” Two-Edg'd Weapons, p. 165. However, we only know for sure that he has sexual experiences with four women in the play—enough, without doubt—but not enough to encourage any hyperbole.

  71. To Virginia Birdsall, Horner stands as a kind of “phallic symbol incarnate,” a view seconded by Kenneth Muir: Horner “is more a phallic symbol than a man.” Birdsall, Wild Civility, p. 156; Muir, The Comedy of Manners, p. 72. Much seventeenth-century bawdy verse features the relationship of a woman to her dildo—that object which frustrates males in its ability to satisfy the woman more ably but to the woman poses no threat, nor places any restriction on her sovereignty. See, again, Rochester's Signior Dildo (1673), Butler's “Dildoides” in Hudibras (1672), and much earlier Thomas Nashe's “Dildo Ballad” (ante 1601). For another perspective, consult Harold Weber, The Restoration Rake Hero: “Like Rochester, the rake is too complex and enigmatic a figure to be reduced to a sexual machine” (p. 3).

  72. Patricia Meyer Spacks writes that “Seldom indeed, even in fiction, was a woman allowed to enjoy sexual satisfaction without concern for her dignity, honor, or innocence.” Foucault has moreover commented on the “advent of the great prohibitions” in the seventeenth century: “the imperatives of decency.” Virginia Birdsall's criticism of Lady Fidget and her friends—they “are scarcely even willing to admit to having natural inclinations”—therefore misses an important point. Nor can I agree with Harold Weber's conclusion that Lady Fidget's “affected disdain for pleasure and her incongruous attempts to reconcile her lust with her ‘dear, dear Honour’ reveal an individual ashamed of, and afraid to admit, her natural passions.” Given Wycherley's world, Lady Fidget's approach hardly suggests one ashamed of her natural passions. One need only recall her earlier conversation with Horner and her subsequent one (in the fifth act) with Mrs. Squeamish and Mrs. Dainty Fidget. Spacks, “‘Ev'ry Woman Is at Heart a Rake,’” p. 35; Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 115; Birdsall, Wild Civility, p. 144. Weber, “Horner and His ‘Women of Honour’: The Dinner Party in The Country Wife,Modern Language Quarterly 43 (1982): 112. For a further view on the fear of public disclosure, see Katherine Zapantis Keller, “Re-reading and Re-playing: An Approach to Restoration Comedy,” Restoration 6 (1982): 64-71. Keller believes that “everyone” in The Country Wife is a “satirist” attempting to destroy the facades of others, while keeping their own in place.

  73. To Robert Markley, “The ironic coupling ‘Horner/honour’ offers paradoxical standards of pretence and honesty, each term defining itself by the satiric corruption of the other.” Two-Edg'd Weapons, p. 159.

  74. One further use of Honour needs mentioning. In later seventeenth-century card playing, Honour (or more chiefly Honours) was a term in whist to denote the four trump cards—those powerful weapons that frequently gave women victory on the playing field. (See Horner's remarks about letting women win at cards [V.iv.138-39].) Here then may be another variation of the code word Lady Fidget expects Horner to understand—Honour standing not only for propriety and sex but also for female ascendancy.

  75. For more on the Machiavellian aspects of the play, see Gorman Beauchamp, “The Amorous Machiavellism of The Country Wife,Comparative Drama 11 (1977-78): 316-30. “Sex is in The Country Wife,” Beauchamp writes, “what power is in The Prince: the energizing force, the motive for action” (p. 318).

  76. Peter McNamara points out that “symbolically the toad is the inverse of the frog, which images fecundity; hence ‘Toad’ refers jocularly or demeaningly, depending on a lady's current estimate or underestimation, to Horner's sexuality.” McNamara, “The Witty Company: Wycherley's The Country Wife,” p. 70.

  77. Although china is less effective than fruit as a sexual signifier, it does offer interesting interpretive possibilities. As Friedman points out, china houses were often “used as places of assignation,” and others have seen china as refined and decorated earth; “a vehicle for obscenity”; something that “completely hides its earthy origin”; a vessel for food, suggesting sex as mere appetite; a “fitting emblem for honor itself—since honor, like china, is at once precious, attractive, and frail; in short, a “euphemism for everything from Horner's sex organ to the sex act itself.” I would add that china is also a commodity that is frequently exhibited, then sold, protected, often dropped and broken and then replaced, something coveted yet fragile—as is sex and one's reputation or actual proficiency in it—something common but claimed to be rare—something that all can possess in name, but few in quality. And, as Aubrey Williams has written, in the period there was a “growing passion for fine China among women.” Friedman, p. 318, n. 1; Rogers, William Wycherley, p. 59; Chadwick, The Four Plays of William Wycherley, p. 99; Holland, The First Modern Comedies, p. 77; David Morris, “Language and Honor in ‘The Country Wife,’” p. 7; Carol Hee, “The Sign of a Jest: Freudian Jokes in Wycherley's The Country Wife,” p. 13; Williams, “The ‘Fall’ of China and The Rape of the Lock,Philological Quarterly 41 (1962): 415.

  78. As for her calling Horner “this Woman-hater, this Toad, this ugly, greasie, dirty sloven”—Richard Steiger points out that the “speech is a tip to the audience that [Mrs. Squeamish] knows the truth about Horner, for, as Horner has said earlier, ‘she that shews an aversion to me loves the sport.’” Steiger, “‘Wit in a Corner’: Hypocrisy in The Country Wife,” p. 69, n. 6.

  79. She expresses her appreciation of art to her grandmother Old Lady Squeamish, who is hardly the typical senex figure; she is more related to Wycherley's own Mrs. Caution. The older woman takes delight in conjuring an image of Horner as a “Snake without his teeth”—an allusion having the component of both castration and impotence.

  80. Katharine Rogers believes that this scene and much of the play emphasizes Wycherley's attack on the “selfishness which pervaded sexual relationships in his society.” But I cannot find here or elsewhere Wycherley's looking severely on the sexual activity of his age—the exuberance of the moment making most difficult such moralistic or satirical conclusions. Harold Weber contends that the “success” of the China Scene proceeds mainly “from the joy which Horner takes in revealing the hypocrisy of Lady Fidget and the stupidity of her husband.” I can agree with the latter half of his statement, but to whom is Lady Fidget exposed? Not to her husband certainly. The audience? To Roy Porter, “These naturalistic and hedonistic assumptions—that Nature had made men [and Wycherley's women] to follow pleasure, that sex was pleasurable, and that it was natural to follow one's sexual urges—underpinned much Enlightenment thought about sexuality.” Rogers, William Wycherley, p. 59; Weber, “The Rake Hero in Wycherley and Congreve,” Philological Quarterly 61 (1982): 146; and The Restoration Rake Hero, p. 53; Porter, “Mixed Feelings” in Boucé, p. 4.

  81. C. D. Cecil finds the “whole point” of the China Scene “is to display the skill with which a brilliant rake and a few obliging ‘right’ women can conduct un discours licentieux without disconcerting one another or discovering themselves to a suspicious intruder.” Foucault has written that “Sexuality is not the most intractable element in power relations, but rather one of those endowed with the greatest instrumentality: useful for the greatest number of maneuvers.” Cecil, “Delicate and Indelicate Puns in Restoration Comedy,” Modern Language Review 61 (1966): 576; Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 103.

  82. Rochester's “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” which David Vieth dates to the 1672-1673 period, speaks well to the issue. “Is there then no more?” his lover cries. The male's attempts at reviving his potency fail him—the once proud thunderbolt now dwindled to a “dead cinder.” Vieth, Poems, p. 38.

  83. Yes, a “roll-wagon” is a also cart, as Thomas Fujimura notes in his 1965 edition of the play—but by now we shouldn't be squeamish about glossing it as a “cylindrical vase”—the shape being the point of Horner's reference, of course.

  84. That Horner has had sex with Lady Squeamish may be inferred from Old Lady Squeamish's remark that he had “admir'd” her granddaughter's picture “so last night” (215-16).

  85. His telling Horner that Margery is an “innocent creature” with no “dissembling in her” is of course deliberately deceptive, but it is a gesture of self-preservation—not an element in a scheme or game (328-29).

  86. Antonia Fraser considers the period's interesting parallel between notions of sickness and notions of sexual pleasure: “Jane Sharp, the midwife [whose book was published in 1671], writing for popular consumption, agreed with Lord Monmouth that the ‘Green Sickness’ which occurred in unmarried girls would be cured by the physical delights of marriage.” What Lord Monmouth had written was a joyous endorsement of sexual pleasure: to the newly-married Philadelphia Cary he suggests that she tell her ill sister “that such an ingredient as you have had of late would do her more good than any physick she can take. But she is too good and too handsome to lack it long if she have a mind to it; and therefore she may thank herself if she continue to be ill.’” Weaker Vessel, p. 51.

  87. She has “the London disease they call Love.” As Maximillain Novak observes, “I cannot find a passage in the play that suggests there is anything wrong with sensuality.” “Margery Pinchwife's ‘London Disease’: Restoration Comedy and the Libertine Offensive of the 1670s,” p. 19. I would only add that neither do I find the playwright consciously advocating openly unrestricted or at least freer sexual license.

  88. James Thompson argues, however, that ultimately Wycherley is concerned with a “certitude of language” and with incorruptible “standards for right speech.” In Wycherley's plays, “Correct and honest speech is rewarded with trust, while incorrect and dishonest speech is punished with distrust.” Language in Wycherley's Plays, pp. 4, 114. For more on the play's language, see Barrie Hawkins, “The Country Wife: Metaphor Manifest,” Restoration & Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, second series, 11, no. 1 (1996): 40-63.

  89. We expect Pinchwife to use “changeling” in the sense of one who is capricious or simple-minded, but its more formal meaning of one who is secretly exchanged for another also fits: the “country” Margery has been replaced—through the secret machinations of Alithea, Horner, and Margery herself—by the more frightening “city” Margery—she who threatens Pinchwife's masculinity. See his earlier allusion to her as a “changeling” (IV.ii.44).

  90. Before Pinchwife arrives with “Alithea,” Horner asserts to the Quack that “keeping a Cuckold company after you have had his Wife, is as tiresome as the company of a Country Squire to a witty fellow of the Town, when he has got all his Money” (V.ii.10-12), which suggests Horner's frequent, at least according to him, sexual adventures lately—and earlier, he wants the Quack to assume. And yet this picture does not square with the facts of the play. Horner does not keep Sir Jaspar or Pinchwife company (although the men come upon him without invitation). And we know of no males he must endure who are connected to Mrs. Squeamish or Mrs. Dainty Fidget. We may conclude, then, that Horner's depiction is a fictive construct—a vision intended for the Quack's benefit—at least to be distrusted if not disbelieved entirely.

  91. That the ladies call themselves the “virtuous gang” is more than a sanctimonious reference to their publick “virtue” or “honour.” We have seen Lady Fidget's ability to use honour as a code word for sex, and virtue is probably another esoteric reference to sexual proclivity at the expense of the dull-witted Jaspar.

  92. This “mother-in-law” is most assuredly one female who is not part of the sisterhood. But there really is no such character in Wycherley. Mrs. Caution comes closest to filling the role, but as discussed, her character and motivations are complex enough to discourage our labeling her too simplistically.

  93. Sir Wilfull says to Lady Wishfort, “I have no mind to marry. My cousin's a fine lady, and the gentleman loves her and she loves him, and they deserve one another”; and Lord Foppington observes to Lady Betty Modish, “Madam, to convince you that I am in an universal peace with mankind, since you own I have so far contributed to your happiness, give me leave to have the honor of completing it by joining your hand [to Morelove] where you have already offered up your inclination.” Congreve, The Way of the World (V.i.635-38); Cibber, The Careless Husband (V.vii.250-55).

  94. Harold Weber writes that “this dinner party, in presenting an image of genuine community which the play's larger society moves to frustrate, displays the conception of human nature which the play assumes and the values it celebrates. … Within the context of the play, the honesty of the banquet's participants is a virtue, not a vice, and their frank acknowledgement of the sexual aspects of human nature marks a valuable departure from the negations of those characters who would deny the importance of their own desires and needs.” Much of what Weber says here seems to me on the mark; I have trouble only with his assertion that “The dinner party, then, functions as a scene of revelation, creating an atmosphere in which the women no longer feel the necessity to lie to each other” (114). I believe they understand each other very well from the beginning, each comprehending the need for indirection and metaphoric speech. Derek Cohen finds that the scene provides significant commentary on the “threat of social collapse” and the “fragility of male-induced structures.” Weber, “Horner and His ‘Women of Honour’: The Dinner Party in The Country Wife” (repeated in The Restoration Rake Hero, pp. 56-66), pp. 108, 110; Cohen, “The Country Wife and Social Danger,”p. 2.

  95. The sexual possessiveness again makes a small crack in the fortress of female sisterhood (“common women”), but there is no one woman they have in mind, no one who is attacked directly.

  96. A similar reference is suggested in one of Rochester's “Songs” from the mid 1670s, where the man complains to his lady,

    While I, my passion to pursue,
              Am whole nights taking in
    The lusty juice of grapes, take you
              The lusty juice of men.

    Vieth, Poems, p. 84. Regarding Wycherley's scene, Rose Zimbardo finds a Juvenalian parallel (in his Sixth Satire) in the Maenads “conducting their orgiastic rite” in the rite of Bona Dea (Wycherley's Drama, pp. 152, 160).

  97. I cannot agree then with Michael Neill's assertion that “for a moment all four characters stand exposed and vulnerable to scorn: the ladies as victims of one another's duplicity and Horner's guile.” Nor would I second Peggy Thompson's position that the women here “continue to exhibit the grossest sort of self-delusion.” Neill, “Horned Beasts and China Oranges,” p. 13; Thompson, “The Limits of Parody in The Country Wife,” p. 102. As Derek Cohen comments, “Nowhere in the play does [Horner] seem more like the object he ultimately becomes, the very plaything of a gang of female gallants. … The scene throws into doubt the entire question of the extent to which Horner manipulates the world about him.” “The Revengers' Comedy: A Reading of The Country Wife,” pp. 31, 32. I think, however, that Horner's omnipotence was thrown in doubt much earlier in the play—indeed, in its very first scene.

  98. Judith Milhous and Robert Hume comment that critics have “devoted singularly little thought to how the women in the audience are supposed to respond” to the play and that a Horner “contemptuous of his conquests would hardly appeal to the female part of the audience; if he seems genuinely to please and satisfy his women, then perhaps the identification would be with their interests.” I think it more to the pleasure of Restoration women to see Lady Fidget and her friends much as I see them here. Milhous and Hume, Producible Interpretations, p. 81, n. 15.

  99. An insistence on seeing Alithea as “ideal” wrongly encourages anger over Horner's “betrayal” of her. Second, Margery has barely earned the designation “Mistress” (at least as modern readers construe the term) based on the “Orange and dried fruit” encounter and her being stuffed in Horner's “closet.” And then, does Horner in any serious way love Margery Pinchwife? Earlier, he observed to the Quack that Margery was nothing but “a silly innocent”—not the supreme challenge he seemed to prefer (V.ii.22-24).

  100. Some contend, to use Charles Hallet's words, that Alithea's “reputation is ruined” when Horner admits that she was brought to him and that “all the characters believe that Alithea has become Horner's mistress”—an assumption further held by Pat Gill: “While Harcourt's good name and offer of marriage deliver Alithea from shame, they do not acquit her from any charges.” But the misunderstanding lasts only some forty lines before Margery arrives in Alithea's clothes to correct the false impression—hardly enough time to ruin a reputation—especially one as imposing as Alithea's. Hallet, “The Hobbesian Substructure of The Country Wife,” pp. 393-94; Gill, Interpreting Ladies: Women, Wit, and Morality in the Restoration Comedy of Manners (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), p. 69.

  101. Harcourt says to Horner that he must be concerned for Alithea's “Honour”—to which Horner answers, “And I must be concern'd for a Ladies Honour too”:

    This Lady has her Honour, and I will protect it.
    My Lady has not her Honour, but has given it me to keep, and I will preserve it.
    I understand you not.
    I wou'd not have you.


    Other than the further fragmentation of the brotherhood, this exchange suggests Horner's continuing Lady Fidget's use of “Honour” in the sexual sense and Harcourt's obtuseness, now that he has been “purified” by Alithea's accepting him, in not, openly at any rate, acknowledging its meaning.

  102. Here we discover another intriguing connection between the adversaries. In the play's first scene, Horner ridiculed Jaspar's tag word Sir with “I will kiss no Man's Wife, Sir, for him, Sir; I have taken my eternal leave, Sir, of the Sex already, Sir” (I.i.70-71)—echoed now by Pinchwife's (again to Sir Jaspar) “Why my Wife has communicated Sir, as your Wife may have done too Sir, if she knows him Sir” (V.iv.294-95).

  103. In this wild moment, an agitated Old Lady Squeamish comes up to her granddaughter: “An Hypocrite, a dissembler, speak young Harlotry, speak how?” And yet her next “assault” on Mrs. Squeamish allows for her dropping of the conventional senex pose and revealing an awareness of her granddaughter's natural promptings. The key to this interpretation is to read the first part of the line in a senex pose—then pause briefly—to deliver the second part in an exuberant interrogative, reflective of a young girl's questioning her older sister upon her return from a romantic assignation: “O thou Harloting Harlotry, [pause] hast thou done't then?” Such a reading reinforces in another way the play's delightful sorority.

  104. Derek Cohen has likewise identified Lucy's power at this moment but supposes “for argument's sake, that Lucy is old and ugly”—which would make Horner's “enslavement” complete, a character “far more fettered than freed by sexual liberty.” But there is no need to suppose Lucy as “old and ugly.” Being younger and sexually attractive would suggest even more emphatically the power of her sex to rule Horner. “The Revengers' Comedy: A Reading of The Country Wife,” p. 35. And more recently Cohen has argued that she “identifies with the illicit and subversive interests of the women of the drama in sabotaging the oppressive system of male control.” “The Country Wife and Social Danger,” p. 13. J. Douglas Canfield believes that she “remains a parasite on the political economy of the hegemonic system but exercises independent agency, serving not only her mistress but the Town Wits who reward her services.” Tricksters & Estates, p. 191.

  105. Yet Pinchwife has no relief from the realization of his humiliation—as Sparkish reminds him: “I was only deceiv'd by you, brother that shou'd have been, now man of conduct, who is a frank person now, to bring your Wife to her Lover—ha—” (324-26).

  106. Aspasia Velissariou rightly asserts that the sexuality of Margery and the other women is “a factor potentially subversive of patriarchal arrangements” and that the play “insists on the self-determination of female desires outside such arrangements.” She moreover notes that the play demonstrates the impossibility of a “‘liberated’ sexuality.” “Patriarchal Tactics of Control and Female Desire in Wycherley's The Gentleman Dancing-Master and The Country Wife,Texas Studies in Language and Literature 37 (1995): 116, 125.

  107. Horner's reaction makes it difficult to see the validity of J. Peter Verdurmen's claim that Horner “remains in the broad sense true to Margery, the mistress for whom he cares most.” “Grasping for Permanence: Ideal Couples in The Country Wife and Aureng-Zebe,” p. 345.

  108. And as H. W. Matalene reminds us, from this point on the other characters have nothing to say to Horner. Matalene, “What Happens in The Country Wife,” p. 409.

  109. Helen M. Burke writes that “the resolution of normalcy—the comic resolution—then, demands the expulsion of this barbaric element [the women's overt sexual desire], the permanent exorcism of the consciousness that disturbs and disrupts. In the designation of Horner at the end of the play as the sole evil in the system, we see the process by which such a restoration can be carried out. Horner functions as the pharmakos, or ritual scapegoat, the man who is cast out of the city to save it. Like the pharmakos, Horner is expelled from the social system, his alienation being his public designation as eunuch. … But as Derrida has argued … the expulsion of the scapegoat also endlessly makes apparent the very difference it seeks to hide.” Burke, “Wycherley's ‘Tendentious Joke’: The Discourse of Alterity in The Country Wife,The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 29 (1988), 238.

  110. W. R. Chadwick finds as a minor flaw the unlikelihood that Pinchwife “would not have heard of Horner's impotence before Act V.” But owing to his perception and fears he may well have simply rejected the validity of the rumor. Chadwick, The Four Plays of William Wycherley, p. 104, n. 16.

  111. These words are bitterly ironic in that he mouths the trite couplet as a way to concede his defeat without dwelling on the significance to his masculinity. I do not agree with A. N. Kaul that “From now on Pinchwife will be as well-adjusted and routinely jealous a husband as Sir Jasper Fidget”—for to take a pair of horns back to the country would be unthinkable in part because the country had long viewed the male's reputation as a cuckold as “a slur both on his virility and his capacity to rule his own household.” He would be defamed and denied public office—often, with his wife, suffering the indignation of a “skimmington” (public shame and punishment). Kaul, The Action of English Comedy, p. 127; Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, pp. 503-4.

  112. Her remark “Come Brother your wife is yet innocent you see” (381) prompts one of her few detractors, Gerald Weales, to claim that “she is either as corrupt as Dorilant and the Quack, in covering for Horner, or as stupid as she has often seemed to be.” The Complete Works of William Wycherley, p. xix. Her words, though, reflect neither corruption nor stupidity but rather that “sisterly” overture for Margery's sake. Nor would I agree with J. Peter Verdurmen's argument that here Alithea's “abrupt reversal” of character “can be understood only as an emotional reaction to the heavy pressure she has undergone.” Verdurmen, “Grasping for Permanence: Ideal Couples in The Country Wife and Aureng-Zebe,” p. 342.

  113. A dance consisting of Sir Jaspar, Pinchwife, and Sparkish? Horner's remark to the Quack—“Where are your Maskers” (401) conjures a separate troupe advancing on stage. To John Bowman the dance “seems to be a survival of the jigs and undoubtedly was an obscene and mocking short-hand for the play's action.” John Harwood views it as an “icon of disorder, of loyalties forsaken and vows neglected.” I would agree about the disorder, but where have we seen loyalties forsaken and vows broken to the extent that we are to feel regret (Alithea and Sparkish)? Bowman, “Dance, Chant and Mask in the Plays of Wycherley,” p. 183; Harwood, Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy, p. 111.

  114. As “phallic symbol incarnate,” writes Virginia Birdsall, Horner “represents, in all his impudence, the life force triumphant.” On the other hand, John Harwood believes that Horner finds a hell in a “confinement to his own solitary being and the petty illusions by which he defines himself and of which he is master.” Finally, I agree with the heart of Peggy Thompson's argument that the “dance and epilogue also resonate with the threatening power of female sexuality that Horner as hostile and inadequate lover cannot control.” Birdsall, Wild Civility, p. 156; Harwood, Critics, Values, and Restoration Comedy, p. 111; Thompson, “The Limits of Parody in The Country Wife,” p. 113.

  115. David Vieth does not go this far but does believe that Horner's “strikingly successful ruse limits the nature of his masculine activities so drastically that in a sense he becomes the eunuch he pretends to be” Vieth, “Wycherley's The Country Wife: An Anatomy of Masculinity,” p. 346. We may find interesting if not significant the fact that Charles Hart (Horner) spoke the Prologue and Elizabeth Knepp (Lady Fidget) the Epilogue—emphasizing a shift in power and ascendancy at play's end. (The Epilogue chides the males for their inability to satisfy their women.)

  116. I disagree, then, with Julie Stone Peters' assertion that here we see “the brilliant flash of Horner's final victory.” Peters, “‘Things Govern'd by Words’: Late Seventeenth-Century Comedy and the Reformers,” English Studies 68 (1987): 148.

  117. The dance “Cuckolds all in a row”—explained in John Playford's The English Dancing Master (1650)—may be said to describe the play's movements, frenzied yet going nowhere, especially in the attempts of the male to put aside the woman, and the woman's redoubtable efforts to gain ground: “Men put the [contrary women] back by both hands, fall even on the [contrary's] side men cast off to the right hand, your [women] following, come to the same place again. put them back again, fall on your owne side, men cast off to the left hand, and come to your places, the [women] following” (p. 67).

  118. Powell, Restoration Theatre Production, p. 144.