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the country wife

2 november 2022

The Country Wife is probably the archetypal Restoration comedy. William Wycherley's masterpiece is all about sexual misbehavior; its characters are unrelievedly witty; it is hugely cynical; it is outrageously entertaining. And of course it would fall into disrepute during the high-minded late 18th century, and stay there through the Victorian era. But for the last century or so, The Country Wife has re-emerged to characterize a great era of English theater.

Our hero, Horner, is looking for a new angle for his hobby of cuckold-making. He has hit on the idea of publicizing the lie that, after an operation in France, he has been turned into "an eunuch." Apparently this is how these things go in France. Anyway, this news subjects Horner to ridicule, but he doesn't care; it also makes saps like Sir Jasper Fidget eager to leave their wives with him while they go off in search of other extracurricular amusements.

That's the background, though. The plot concerns the arrival in London of the Pinchwife family. Mr. Pinchwife has married a country girl in hopes of keeping her innocent and chaste. Meanwhile, he has betrothed his sister Alithea to the devil-may-care Sparkish – a straight-up trade, Alithea's dowry for Sparkish's social standing.

Complications arise when Alithea, who thinks Sparkish is an idiot, falls genuinely in love with Horner's friend Harcourt. If the play has anybody you're rooting for, it is Harcourt and Alithea, who simply want compatible monogamy. Meanwhile, Mrs. Pinchwife of course falls in love with Horner. Horner is incapable of love but just as incapable of passing up a conquest, and all sorts of farcical business ensues as various characters dress up as someone else, sneak around behind one another's backs, and pursue their romantic goals.

As always in Restoration drama, reputation counts for everything and reality counts for nothing. "To report a man has had a person," explains Lady Fidget, "when he has not had a person, is the greatest wrong in the whole world that can be done to a person" (II.i., p.39).

There is no happy ending here, and no comeuppance either. The dramatic situation resolves in the sense that everyone hasn't killed a person, and will try the same stuff again tomorrow, but The Country Wife is remarkable for its sense of nobody ever being better than they should be, in perpetuo.

Wycherley, William. The Country Wife. 1675. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.