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the school for wives

7 november 2016

The School for Wives gets to have it both ways: its rhetoric is somewhat misogynist, but its chief misogynist is an idiot, and its heroine gets what she wants. It doesn't therefore become a feminist play; as in The Miser, women's wants are limited to getting the most sympathetic man. But also like The Miser, The School for Wives displays the foolishness of patriarchy in elaborately cringeworthy ways. Molière more than implies that all this business of men's property, whether in objects or women, is offensive nonsense.

The central character in The School for Wives is named Arnolphe. He has recently acquired a second name (La Souche) and a second house, which is all that makes the ramshackle plot of this farce possible. Arnolphe has made a career, apparently, of poking fun at all the men of Paris who have been cuckolded by their wives. Now he's going to get married himself, and a comeuppance seems poetically inevitable. So he has chosen Agnès, the most innocent girl he can find, raised her from childhood, and is now keeping her in his extra house against the day he can marry her and keep her – or rather himself – safe from domestic intranquility.

Arnolphe's young friend Horace shows up, and reveals that he's been courting an innocent young girl who is being kept a near-prisoner by a jealous old idiot. Arnolphe figures out pretty quickly that this old idiot is himself under the name of La Souche. The ensuing farce depends a lot for its humor on who knows what about whom and when. Does Horace realize that Arnolphe is La Souche? Does he know it all along? Is Agnès as innocent as she looks?

Arnolphe's older friend Chrysalde is of the opinion that people will think with their libidos no matter what kinds of earthworks a society throws up around chastity. He proposes a kind of Aristotelian mean for the worried husband. Be too sanguine about your wife's straying and you lose dignity. Get too bent out of shape, and you lose dignity in the other direction. Better to cultivate the principle that a monogamish lifestyle is nothing to care much about one way or the other, and live while letting live.

While Chrysalde is speaking, we realize that as dated and absurd and objectionable as the whole premise of The School for Wives might seem, there is something viably humanist and liberal about it. Chrysalde is arguing for the undoing of a double standard that seemed to 17th-century audiences as natural as sex itself. His solution is not to make husbands chaste but to realize that wives are as sexually adventurous as husbands.

"Have not we affections, / Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?" Emilia asks Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello, a half-century earlier. It's a rhetorical question; of course women do. But Shakespeare couldn't imagine any positive way to spin that condition. Desires for sport, or even the suggestion of them, lead quickly to the deaths of both women. Molière imagines a world where men realize that women have "affections," and don't immediately want to smother them with pillows. Of course he does this in the context of a good smutty farce, not a sordid tragedy. But The School for Wives seems less smutty than healthy, as the centuries go by.

Molière. The School for Wives. [L'école des femmes, 1652.] Translated by David Coward. In The Miser and Other Plays. London: Penguin, 2000. 5-57.