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Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the next scene, Sir Jasper walks in on Lady Fidget who is beginning to have sex with Horner. She convinces her husband that she was just looking for china, which he foolishly believes. Pinchwife then gives the substituted love letter (which Pinchwife believes is the letter he wanted Margery to write) to Horner who feigns surprise at Pinchwife's accusation that he has attempted to seduce Margery. After Pinchwife discovers Margery attempting to write another love letter to Horner, he tries to harm her, but is stopped.
In the fifth act, Margery cleverly convinces Pinchwife that it is not her, but Alithea who loves Horner, which causes Pinchwife to approvingly encourage the marriage between Alithea and Horner. Meanwhile, Margery contrives a way to meet up with Horner and have an affair. Sparkish is told that Alithea wants to marry Horner and is enraged. When Margery suggests that she should be married to Horner, Pinchwife learns that he has been fooled. The play humorously ends with a series of brittle lies that prevent Horner from being exposed but don't entirely convince Pinchwife that he is the innocent person he pretends to be.
One of the most significant aspects of this play is the way that it ends; namely, the fact that Horner escapes without his trick ever being fully discovered by the cuckolded husbands. In addition to reflecting the leniency that Restoration playwrights were given in regard to their subject matter, this also reflects the celebration of sexuality and pleasure that took place during the Restoration. Moreover, the fact that the hero of the play is a cunning trickster who undermines traditional conventions also hints at the political climate of the Restoration. Many writers saw the political events that had occurred prior to the Restoration as a result of people taking social conventions too seriously, a belief that is reflected by the fact that the audience cheers for the lying character who humorously steals from the foolish high-class husbands.
Despite the success of the play during the Restoration and well into the 18th century, later more conservative scholars would criticize the play as overly and unnecessarily crude. In fact, it didn't become popular again until well into the 20th century. Today, critics see The Country Wife as not only an example of the values of the Restoration era, but as one of the most impressive and nuanced Restoration comedies in terms of its ability to generate energy and humor with its language.
William Wycherley lived from 1640 to 1715, and wrote The Country Wife in 1675. The play belongs to the Restoration comedy tradition, meaning that it was riddled with sexuality and wit and was produced during the Restoration period, which lasted from 1660 to about 1689. The Restoration allowed a good amount of leniency in regards to the plays that were produced, and many Restoration comedies attacked the elite figures of society. The play centers around Harry Horner, who created the rumor that he was impotent in order to successfully bed the wives of a variety of wealthy and naive husbands. Using words in a playful way, Wycherley describes the foolish men who fail to catch on to Horner's trick and whose wives engage sexually with him.
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Back To CourseIntroduction to Humanities: Help and Review
42 chapters | 550 lessons