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William Wycherley's The Country Wife: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Intro to William Wycherley
  • 1:19 Context of ''The…
  • 2:12 Overview: Acts One - Five
  • 5:25 Analysis of ''The…
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore William Wycherley's 'The Country Wife.' We'll look at the political and literary context of the play as well as the plot of the play itself. Then, complete the short quiz at the end of the lesson.

Introduction to William Wycherley

Although theatre might seem to be a fairly conservative or traditional form of art in contemporary society, its history illustrates that this has not always been so. One of the best and most vibrant examples of this is William Wycherley's play The Country Wife.

William Wycherley lived from 1640 to 1715, and earned his reputation as one of the wittiest playwrights in England. Although he entered college and had the opportunity to study law, Wycherley's main interests were the theatre and enjoying himself; interests which, fortunately for Wycherley, coincided with the interests of the literary and social climate in which he lived. Wycherley wrote the play in 1675, in what is called the Restoration era, which lasted from 1660 to about 1689. The period takes its title from the restoring of the traditional English monarchy, which occurred when Charles II became king in 1660. Prior to Charles's coronation, England had been ruled by various republican governments since the beheading of Charles I in 1649. These republican governments were more religiously strict than the traditionally Catholic monarchy, and the restoring of the English monarchy resulted in a variety of political and literary changes.

Context of The Country Wife

As a result of political and religious leaders who believed theatre was inherently evil, the English theatre had been closed for 18 years prior to Charles II becoming king. Charles, however, embraced and enjoyed the theatre and was incredibly lenient in regards to allowing plays that didn't conform to more traditional religious morality.

With this freedom in place, Restoration playwrights produced plays that were satirical and distinctly sexual. These plays form a genre that is called Restoration comedy. Restoration comedies are not only risqué but openly mock recognizable members of England's elite; these plays frequently depicted wealthy husbands as fools who were constantly being cheated on by their wives. Additionally, these plays are defined by their use of wit and their frequent and overtly sexual wordplay.

Overview: Act One

These qualities of Restoration comedy are central to The Country Wife. The first act opens with the cunning Harry Horner describing how he has spread the rumor that he is impotent in order to seduce the wives of unsuspecting husbands who assume Horner has no interest in sex. We quickly witness the success of Horner's plan when Sir Jasper Fidget enters with his wife, Lady Fidget, and allows Horner to be Lady Fidget's chaperone because of his assumption that Horner is no threat sexually.

Overview: Act Two

The second act introduces Margery Pinchwife, a woman from the country who is married to Jack Pinchwife and who, despite her seeming naivety, is clearly susceptible to the advances of men such as Horner. Jack Pinchwife is an overtly jealous man who has been locking Margery up to prevent her from encountering other men—a fact that Margery dislikes and explains to her sister-in-law, Alithea, who is engaged to marry a boring man named Sparkish. Sir Jasper then leaves Lady Fidget with Horner; at first Lady Fidget is bothered by this but her mood soon changes for the better when Horner explains that he is not actually impotent.

Overview: Act Three

The third act reveals that Pinchwife wants to take Margery home as soon as possible to prevent her straying from him, which is met with frustration by Margery. Pinchwife then agrees to let her stay in the city on the condition that she wear the disguise of a young man. We then learn that Frank Harcourt, one of Horner's friends, is interested in Alithea.

Overview: Act Four

In the fourth act, while Alithea is getting ready for her wedding with Sparkish, Sparkish arrives with Harcourt. Harcourt is disguised as the priest that will marry them because this will make the marriage illegitimate and allow Harcourt to pursue Alithea. Alithea knows it's Harcourt but fails to convince Sparkish that this is the case. Pinchwife learns that Margery hasn't had sex with Horner and attempts to make her write a letter to Horner asking him to leave her alone; however, she switches this ordered letter with a love letter.

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