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.
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.
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.
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.