There may be perhaps no comedy from the Restoration period that has been staged more than William Wycherley’s The Cuntry Wife. The play was first performed in 1675 in an era in England that bore witness to the first professional female actresses on the island and also saw an excessive amount of sexual innuendo and plotting, the theatrical fruit of a generation of repression (the result of Cromwell’s universal ban of theatre: that guy was worse than John Lithgow’s character in Footloose). The play revolves around Horner, the protagonist, who seeks to make a cuckold out of any man who is married to a woman who might be open to his advances and who happens to be beautiful and witty enough to warrant his time. It ultimately serves as a comedic inversion of Shakespeare’s Othello. In part a response to the bygone days of Puritan England, and in part a release of pent-up sexual frustration caused by the repressive Cromwellian regime, that play is open to many readings. It challenges the prescribed sexual morality of the age, praises women, lampoons the chauvinist and misogynist nature of some Restoration patriarchs, questions the nature of marriage, and explores how identity is constructed, all while delivering a play filled with entertaining word play and not-so-subtle puns.
The issue of cuckolding is central to the narrative because it is central to masculine identity, ultimately demonstrating that masculine identity is defined through the signification of the feminine realm. No character demonstrates this more than Pinchwife, who is so preoccupied with ensuring that he is not cuckolded, that he suggests marrying an unattractive woman stating that “because she’s ugly, she’s the likelier to be my own” (18; queue the Jimmy Soul). The use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’, frames the potential wife as property, while his goal to ensure that no other man encroaches on his property demonstrates how he defines himself through his ability to maintain the chastity of his wife. Sir Jasper Fidget, a peripheral character, acts accordingly. Horner notes that Fidget, a “grave man of business leaves his wife in [Horner’s] lodgings, invites [Horner] to his house and wife, who before would not be acquainted with [Horner] out of jealousy” (11). Fidget, like Pinchwife, is reluctant to allow his wife to be in the company of a ‘fruitful’ man, and only leaves her in the company of a man who be believes cannot ‘perform’, thus ensuring his masculine identity is secured. The Pinchwife and Fidget are concerned with preventing the adulterous act, a wife need not be adulterous in action for a man’s masculinity to be sullied as the mere suspicion of adultery can suffice. As Horner states, if a woman does not “make her husband a cuckold, she’ll make him jealous, and pass for one; and then ‘tis all one” (18). Here, Horner demonstrates that a man who becomes jealous of his wife can pass himself off as a cuckold even if he is not one, and that the suspicion of being a cuckold is no different than being an actual cuckold, which speaks to the notion of virtue as a performance. This is reminiscent of Othello as Desdemona, though faithful in action, was suspected of adultery and sentenced to death by her husband for her perceived transgression. The failed performance of chastity, as Horner suggests, is as bad in the eyes of society as the act itself. For Pinchwife, it is not only his wife’s fidelity that determines his identity, but his sister’s chastity as well. When Pinchwife questions his sister, Alithea, about the company she keeps, she responds: “I keep no company with any women of scandalous reputations.” Pinchwife then makes an accusation: “No, you keep the men of scandalous reputations company” (21). The irony is that Pinchwife himself is such a scandalous man who was known to take up with working ladies. What he accuses her of, then, is nothing worse than keeping company with men of his own ilk. HYPOCRITICAL PATRIARCHAL BASTARD!
When women are constructed socially as signifiers for masculine identity, it often leads to the men who are invested in socially constructed identities to seek control over women, and one of the ways to do this is through suppressing their intellect. Wycherley is always careful to ensure that it is only the fops who seek to keep such control over women. It is Pinchwife and Sparkish, Alithea’s fiancé, who most often seek to control the women in their lives. In one scene Sparkish claims that “virtue makes a woman as troublesome as a little reading or learning” (46), demonstrating that he believes educating women, or even allowing them the autonomy to define their own concepts of virtue is an impediment to him that makes them ‘troublesome’. Ignorance, then, is preferred to wit, at least in Sparkish’s view. Pinchwife seems to be of the same mind as he states that “Good wives and private soldiers should be ignorant” (17). This is an especially telling line because it demonstrates the intersectional forms of oppression within a kyriarchal system of oppression. Pinchwife, as a member of the aristocracy, does not believe that all men should be educated, only those in the aristocracy. Working-class men, like those who become private soldiers, are to be kept ignorant, just as he suggests women should. Both men are presented as fops, so their maxims are meant to be mocked. The protagonist of the play has an entirely different view on how women ought to be viewed: “methinks wit is more necessary than beauty; and I think no young women ugly that has it, and no handsome woman agreeable without it” (18). While Wycherley’s emasculated patriarchs seem to think women should be kept ignorant, Horner argues that true beauty cannot be secured without wit.
Wycherley’s women are, in most instances, too innately curious to fit the mould prescribed by the likes of Pinchwife, and when Mrs. Pinchwife seeks to expand her horizons, Pinchwife demonstrates the utter brutality that lays behind the paternalistic mask of patriarchy, employing a ‘might is right’ mentality. Early in the play, when Pinchwife leaves the stage, Horner hypothesizes as to why he left: “To beat his wife. He’s as jealous of her as a Cheapside husband of a Covent Garden wife” (19). The lines are delivered to comic effect, as if the behaviour is something to laugh about, which demonstrates the culture of violence inherent in a patriarchal structure. This foreshadowing comes to fruition when Mrs. Pinchwife tries to refuse a command given to her by Pinchwife and he tells her that he will “write ‘whore’ with this penknife in [her] face” (62). When she proves reluctant, he continues his threats: “I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief” (63). When Pinchwife is not threatening her, or locking her up in a closet (65), he is drawing his sword on her (78) or offering to do so (96). Mrs. Pinchwife sees these instances as more than just idle threats as she expresses concern that her “husband will kill” her (64). Aside from the physical violence, Pinchwife is also condescending, claiming in one scene that Mrs. Pinchwife is too ignorant to be capable of devising a lie, saying “This changeling could not invent [a] lie” (80). The use of the word ‘changeling’, frames Mrs. Pinchwife as a child, not an adult, and what’s more as a child who has been taken, which in term frames Pinchwife as a predator of sorts. The scenario reinforces the fact that Pinchwife is a fool because Mrs. Pinchwife did indeed fabricate the life and Pinchwife is to dull to detect the deceit, and is thereby outwitted by a person he thinks of as inferior intellectually.
Though women are portrayed negatively and treated poorly by the play’s fops, Wycherley is sure to present them in a positive light. Horner makes a note early on in the play that no woman is beautiful unless she also has wit, demonstrating that for some men, intellect in women is valued over both ignorance and physical beauty. Even Sparkish shares this sentiment early in the play when he observes, with a complimentary tone, that Alithea “has wit… as well as beauty” (25), though this is not consistent with Sparkish’s attitude throughout the play. When it comes to duty and loyalty, women on the stage are often portrayed as lacking such qualities, or at the very least possessing them in a manner that is inferior to the duty and loyalty displayed by men. In The Cuntry Wife, however, each man utterly lacks such qualities and it is only Alithea who displays them, as she demonstrates when she confesses that though she loves Harcourt, she is “engaged to marry” Sparkish and her “justice will not suffer [her] to deceive or injure” (56) the man to whom she is promised. This is in stark contrast to Harcourt, who tries to steal Alithea away from Sparkish, with whom he is supposedly friends, and Horner, who attempts to steal away wives from both Pinchwife and Fidget, despite the fact that he feigns friendship with both. Harcourt also demonstrates progressive views on women. Marriage is often couched in language plagued by concepts of ownership, with the man frequently taking possession of the woman and making her his property. Though Harcourt doesn’t eliminate the language of ownership from such conversation, he does shift them, suggesting that it is the man who belongs to the woman, using the word ‘yours’ when speaking to Alithea about what her lover should be (47). Though still problematic in its objectification of people, it is a language that shifts the control from the patriarch to the matriarch. The play is problematic in many respects, but it is clear that while perhaps not a ‘feminist’ piece, it at the very least does serve to challenge patriarchal norms and might fairly be called a proto-feminist play.
The concept of marriage is consistently contextualized in the language of ownership throughout the play, as Wycherley frequently discusses marriage through metaphors related to economics. When Horner and Pinchwife speak of marriage, Pinchwife, who frequently patronizes the working ladies of his era, states that he could not marry a ‘whore’ because he would not be sure that he had her exclusively. Horner notes then that Pinchwife would “only marry to keep a whore to” himself (19), thus framing marriage as a form of institutionalized prostitution. Pinchwife furthers this when he states that “Our sisters and daughters, like usurers’ money, are safest when put out; but our wives, like [usurers’ bonds, are] never safe but in our closets under lock and key” (85). In this instance, Pinchwife speaks of the value of women through financial metaphor that aligns them with money. These are sentiments he expresses earlier in the play with a similar metaphor when he tells his friends that “He that shows his wife or money will be in danger of having them borrowed sometimes” (49). There is an interesting Taoist reading of this line, in that Pinchwife is encouraging people to not boast of their possessions and therefore not instill jealousy in others, but at the same time, he is still aligning women with money, which is an objectification of a human. The women in the play likewise align marriage with business. When Alithea learns that Harcourt is opposed to marriage, she suggests that he is opposed to business as well (24), suggesting that she views marriage the two on parity terms. Lady Fidget likewise suggests that economics is the primary factor in a relationship as she notes that “Money makes up in a measure all other wants in men” (33). I think Kanye West wrote a song about women like this. Lucy, a peripheral character, echoes these sentiments when she states that “Formerly women of wit married fools for a great estate, a fine seat, or the like” (57). It is important to note that Lucy prefaces this with the word ‘formerly’, to suggest that this is no longer common practice, perhaps demonstrating a move toward the companionnate marriages that were argued for by the like of John Milton in his tract: The Doctrine On The Discipline Of Divorce. Even the play’s rakehell/protagonist, Mr. Horner (not to be confused with Jack Horner) speaks of romance in economic terms when he confides in Lady Fidget: “I must confess, I have heard that great ladies, like great merchants, set but the highest prices upon what they have, because they are not in necessity of taking the first offer” (92). This analogy suggests women treat their ‘love’ like a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, though in fairness, it is important to note that Horner is not saying this is the case, merely that he has heard it said, whereas the other characters each seem to be prescribing their own economic maxims on love. The language of the play seems to suggest a shift from the ‘business arrangement of marriage’ toward something more progressive, but demonstrates that most still view marriage strictly in business terms.
With marriage framed as a business transaction, the Latin maxim caveat emptor comes into play: Let the buyer beware. With a society that constructs identity based on the performance of virtue, women must then present themselves in a manner that is contrary to their authentic selves, otherwise risk being excluded from the marriage ‘market’. Wycherley uses the play as a platform through which to discuss the performance of virtue against the authentic selves. Horner, for his part, rails against the performance of virtue. He suggests early on that pimps and ‘bawds’, like doctors and midwives, are “helpers of nature” (7) and sees nothing inherently wrong with any of them. Because virtue is prized, though, women must put on the performance of virtue, and as a result Horner notes that “all the young fellows of the town… lose more time, like huntsmen, in starting the game, than in running it down” (11). This is a metaphor that suggests amorous pursuits are akin to hunting, with men as the hunter and women as the prey. This is problematic, but it also suggests that men only hunt those who want to be hunted. However, because women must put on the performance of virtue, the men must first determine which women are up for the game, which Horner suggests is difficult because “Women of quality are so civil, you can hardly distinguish love from good breeding” (11), demonstrating how men cannot differentiate authentic virtue from the performance of virtue. As a result, Horner, who had formerly feigned friendship with men whose wives he wished to pursue, publicly feigns impotence because “Shy husbands and keepers, like old rocks, are not to be cheated but by a new unpracticed trick; false friendship will pass now no more than false dice upon ‘em; no, not in the city” (8). This demonstrates how the proliferation of performative companionship had made everybody mistrust one another. The performance of impotence, then, gives Horner access to the women, while the women who appear most disinterested in befriending him, are the ones whom he hypothesizes are most interested in sex. The propagation of performative prudence and piousness, causes a role reversal of sorts, and Horner suggests that performance has obscured the authentic identity of those around him: “your arrantest cheat is your trustee or executor; your jealous man, the greatest cuckold; your church man the greatest atheist; and your noisy pert rogue of a wit, the greatest fop, dullest ass, and worst company” (14). And as for marriage, this performance of virtue, according to Horner, has transformed “a marriage vow” into “a penitent gamester’s oath” (18). Wycherley seems to suggest through Horner that no authentic relationships can be developed in a society that defines identity through performative virtue.
Though Horner seems to be the mouthpiece for the argument against virtue as a performance, Mrs. Squeamish validates it when she tells Horner “that… [the] modesty, that [he] see in [women’s] faces in the boxes at plays, is as much a sign of a kind of woman, as a vizard-mask in the pit” (91). This metaphor overtly links the virtue of ‘modesty’ with a performance as she compares it to the acting done on the stage. Lady Fidget demonstrates the importance of performance when she asks Horner to keep his virility secret so that her reputation can be maintained (67). She is not concerned with her actual virtue, only that the perception of her virtuousness is upheld. She later concedes to the performance of virtue, admitting to Horner that women construct their reputation to serve their own ends and defending the process: “why should you not think that we women make use of our reputation, as you men of yours, only to deceive the world with less suspicion?” (91) The perceived fidelity of married women was integral to their husbands, whose masculinity was linked with their wives’ fidelity, and for women, maintaining the pretense of fidelity was important, or they might suffer violence like that which Mrs. Pinchwife is threatened with. The frightening thing is that even if these women were actually faithful, it would not matter if the perception of their fidelity was threatened, as Horner states: “if she cannot make her husband a cuckold, she’ll make him jealous, and pass for one; and then ‘tis all one” (18). Horner clearly states that perceived infidelity is ‘all one’ with actual adultery, calling upon the tragic premise of Shakespeare’s Othello.
A play that is filled with such academic conversations might seem dull on paper, but what makes it so palpable is Wycherley’s mastery of the English language and his ability to play on words in a manner that deconstructs the inherent flaws in languages whilst simultaneously providing the audience with bawdy double-entendres. Horner states that “fools are most easily cheated when they themselves are accessories” (41), and sentiment the continues to be echoed by the likes of Max Frisch, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Gunter Grass in plays like The Fire Raisers, Rhinoceros, The Caretaker, and The Flood. The people who become complicit in their own victimization are encouraged to do so through the ambiguity of language coupled with their own arrogance and ignorance. Sir Jasper Fidget, who tries to control his wife, unwittingly gives Horner private access to her. He shouts through a door that Horner “is coming in to you the back way”, whilst Lady Fidget responds by telling Fidget to “Let him come” (69). Appropriately enough, this double-entendre that references Horner’s sexual climax happens to be situated on page ‘69’! Fidget displays an utter lack of understanding of the words being used by his wife, and in turn demonstrates the ambiguity of language and how our own arrogance encourages us to interpret words as we wish to, and not how they are intended.
Harcourt, like Horner is trying to woo a woman, Alithea, away from the man to whom she is promised: Sparkish. Sparkish is an utter fop in the situation. When Harcourt dresses as a parson and pretends to be his own brother, offering to perform the wedding ceremony between Sparkish and Alithea, Alithea sees through the ruse straight away, but her fiancé does not. Harcourt tells Alithea, right in front of Sparkish, that he aims to please Alithea, the “divine, heavenly creature” that she is, with “all [his] soul” (59). When Alithea suggests he is being amorous, Sparkish dismisses this and says Harcourt is speaking as a man faith with words like ‘soul’, ‘divine’, and ‘heavenly’. This passage is key in demonstrating how words often have two meanings, corrupting the intent of a word. In this instance, religious rhetoric has been appropriated for so long by the likes of sonneteers to create metaphors for their love that a rhetoric once exclusively religious now becomes amorous: a contrary meaning that can promote vice rather than virtue. When a word comes to mean its own opposite, the value of the word is gone. Harcourt is free to drive this home by telling Alithea that he desires “nothing more than to marry” her (59), meaning to become her husband, but Sparkish chooses to believe that the word combination means to perform the wedding ceremony. When Alithea attempts to point out Harcourt’s meaning to Sparkish, he remain oblivious despite the fact that Harcourt repeats this and tells Alithea that “nobody else shall marry” her but him (59). Wycherley’s attack on language and signifiers is perhaps best summed up when Harcourt speaks to Alithea’s beauty, stating that she is “More beautiful than a poet’s fist mistress of imagination” (51). The poet’s imagination, which is communicated through a systems of signs and signifiers, proves inferior to the authentic signified: Alithea.
Wycherley’s play is a finely executed attack on Puritan morality and patriarchal hypocrisy. Some of Wycherley’s contemporaries, and even more recent critics, may dismiss the work as an example of incendiary obscenity meant to shock the deposed Puritans, and there is just cause for such an assessment. When Pinchwife speaks of his wife to the audience in an aside, he says the men on stage will ‘know her’, Biblically of course, just as the audience will know her (24). This was likely a reference to the paid liaisons many Restoration actresses would have with audience members, as prostitution and the stage went hand-in-hand, even when it was only boys on stage during the Elizabethan era. In terms of style, while Wycherley does recycle some of the tricks used by Shakespeare when dealing with issues of gender, they likely had a fresh sheen to them considering that for the first time in England’s history there were actual women on stage, so the arguments, even if they were similar, took on a different meaning in such a context. The play manages to beautifully balance social commentary with comical obscenity and is easily one of the best comedies from the era.
If Restoration literature is something that interests you, be sure check out my posts on John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Aphra Behn, and if you enjoy drama, be sure to read my play The King’s Attrition. You can also get updates on my latest posts, by following me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler. And my apologies if I missed a few O’s, but that is the way Mr. Wycherley would have wanted it.
Words and phrases I thought I’d look up:
Arrantest: From the root ‘arrant’ meaning utterly and completely, only for some reason some jackass thought he needed to add an ‘est’ to it, so it essentially means the completest and most utterlyest!
Asquint: To glance at one side through the corner of your eye, like Paul Giamatti does in John Dies At the End.
Rakehells: An immoral hell raiser, likely somebody who is more interested in sex than anything else.
Tittle: A tittle is the dot above a lower-case ‘j’ or ‘i’. If f the moon were represented to scale as the size of a small tittle and you made a scale model of the universe, it would look something like this.
Wycherley, William. The Cuntry Wife. From Restoration Drama. Ed. Eugene Waith. Bantam. New York. 1968. Print.