The Country Wife and Reversal of Power Dynamics

Throughout Wycherley’s play The Country Wife, characters reverse the time period’s normal power dynamics of reputation and gender to create power from a state of powerlessness. While certain characters appear to be powerful due to their status, honor and reputation, other seemingly powerless characters are able to gain power over these characters through trickery. The protagonist Horner deliberately places himself and his reputation in a situation seen as powerless and deceptively manages to gain power over many of the other characters. The women of the play, in a less powerful position due to the time period’s unfortunate gender roles rather than by choice, similarly use deception to gain power over their apparently more powerful husbands by using Horner’s treachery to their advantage. Wycherley, in showing that the play’s women are only able to gain power by taking advantage of Horner’s improbable situation, may have been ridiculing the period’s gender roles and suggesting that they were unjust.

While it may seem more likely that one would gain the most power from a strong reputation and good status, the protagonist Horner purposefully tarnished his own reputation in order to gain more power in an unexpected way. Power in The Country Wife tends to consist of the ability to threaten another character, usually in a sexual nature. Husbands fear that they will be made cuckolds if their wives sleep with other men. Horner spread a rumor that a botched surgery had left him impotent, leaving his friends and acquaintances with the perception that he has lost power, and is even less of a man. At the end of a drawn out joke concerning store signs, his friend Sparkish delivers the punchline “Did you never see Master Horner? He lodges in Russell Street, and he’s a sign of a man, you know, since he came out of France!” (Wycherley 1.1.273-5). Sparkish suggests that, since Horner is now apparently “impotent,” he is no longer truly a man, just an indication of one. A store sign is a physical representation of what the store holds, but offers nothing else beyond that. Similarly, Horner is now seen as a representation of a man who is incapable of enacting manly activities, such as reproduction. By losing his ability to reproduce, he loses the one power he would otherwise have over other men that they appear most concerned about; the ability to threaten other men with the prospect of becoming cuckolds.

Now that he is seen as a eunuch, he is granted freer access to his friends’ wives. Another friend of his, Sir Jaspar, after affirming for himself the rumor that Horner is now practically a eunuch, tells him “Pray come and dine with me, and play at cards with my wife after dinner; you are fit for women at that game yet,” (1.1.106-7). He first shows that he has been deceived by Horner enough to trust him in the company of his wife by inviting him into her presence. He then compares Horner to a women. Women, in the time of the play, still lacked most forms of power, which shows that he perceived Horner as less powerful because of his physical state. The phrase “fit for women at that game” also carries the implication that he is not fit for women at other “games,” namely, sexual intercourse, another indication that he no longer sees Horner as a threat who holds any form of power over him. Ironically, his confidence that Horner will not be able to make him a cuckold is exactly what turns him into a cuckold. Horner, by making himself seem less powerful and less of a threat, gains more power over the husbands than they are able to perceive by taking advantage of his allowed proximity to the play’s married women, many of which become his lovers.

The play’s women, too, gain power over their husbands, power being defined as the ability to threaten. Whereas Horner acted deceptively to alter his public perception so he would be seen as less powerful, the play’s women are intrinsically less powerful simply due to their gender. While Horner acted to augment his power over the play’s men, the women act deceptively in order to gain power over men which they never had to begin with. Their power is the ability to use trickery to secretly subvert the wishes of their husbands and, like Horner, to turn husbands into cuckolds. The most restricted of the play’s women, Margery Pinchwife, is frequently locked up by her husband so she will not leave the house and have an affair, particularly with Horner. When her husband finds her writing a letter to Horner, however, she makes it seem as if she is doing a favor for Alithea. Concerning Alithea, Margery’s husband says “Well, I resolve it; Horner shall have her. I’d rather give him my sister than lend him my wife, and such an alliance will prevent his pretensions to my wife” (5.1.64-6). This is another statement heavy in dramatic irony. Margery disguises herself as Alithea, so Pinchwife is, in truth, “lending Horner [his] wife,” and the “alliance” created when the disguised Margery and Horner meet is exactly the one Pinchwife was trying to avoid. Margery here gains power over her husband by tricking him into allowing her to make him a cuckold.

The power wielded by Horner and his lovers is shown to the audience most explicitly in the way they talk to each other in front of the husbands. Particularly in the notorious “china scene,” Horner and the wives speak in ways that make it clear to the audience that they are having an affair, but that the husbands believe are innocent conversations because they, still believing Horner to be impotent, are ignorant of the implications. The china scene begins with Horner and Lady Fidget locked in a room while her husband Sir Jaspar and their friend Squeamish stand outside. When they exit, Fidget says that she has “been toiling and moiling for the prettiest piece of china” (4.3.87-8). The word “china” in this play has already been given sexual connotations, though they were subtle and may not be picked up on until Squeamish also requests that Horner give her china. Fidget tells her “to my certain knowledge he has no more left” (4.3.197-8), insinuating that she finished him off and he no longer has the energy to have sex again. Squeamish persists, so Horner tells her “I cannot make china for you all, but I will have a roll-wagon for you too, another time” (4.3.203-4). A “roll-wagon” refers to a cylindrical china vase, clearly a phallic symbol, indicating that Horner is offering to satisfy her sexual needs as well once he is physically able to. (4.3. footnote 204).

It is still possible to interpret the scene as innocent until Fidget asks Horner, regarding what he had just told Squeamish, “What do you mean by that promise?” and Horner responds “Alas, she has an innocent, literal understanding” (4.3.206-7). Said as an aside, Horner’s claim that Squeamish understands this conversation literally is an admission to the audience that he and Fidget have been speaking metaphorically. Depending on how Squeamish’s character is acted, the audience could interpret her actions as an innocent request for decorative china, or, if she asks suggestively, a request for sex. Horner’s offer of a phallic symbol suggests, however, that he and Squeamish also have an agreement and that she too is speaking metaphorically. Here, Horner is the only person in the room who knows the entirety of the situation. Sir Jaspar believes that Horner is still speaking innocently. His statement that Horner’s kisses “have no more hurt in’t than one of my spaniel’s” (4.3.231) shows that he believes Horner has no more power to make him a cuckold than the lick of a dog. Here, again, a character displays a belief that Horner is now less powerful due to his physical state, this time comparing him to an animal. While Horner said that Squeamish “has an innocent, literal understanding,” this line applies much better to Jaspar, as he is the only person in the room who does not make the connection between china and sex. In this scene, Horner, Fidget and Squeamish flaunt the power they have gained over Jaspar and the other men of the play by openly talking about their affairs using metaphors that are obvious to the audience but are not understood by Jaspar. Horner, who, as a man, began the play with more power, still has the most power in the room, as he is still deceiving both women into believing that they are the only ones he is having an affair with. The women, however, still managed to raise themselves into a position of power over their husbands by making them cuckolds without their realizing, giving themselves sexual freedom.

Despite the misogyny that appears in certain moments of the play, Wycherley portrays the women as actual human beings who are just as complex and flawed as the men, and are frequently cleverer than their husbands. The playwright may have been calling attention to the unnecessary restrictions of women’s freedom by showing that the only way the play’s women could gain any sort of power from their powerless status was through the highly absurd situation with Horner and his own manipulation of power. Wycherley was likely not entirely altruistic due to the prevailing views of the time period, seeing as the male Horner still had the most power. However, the fact that his female characters were unable to gain agency or power in any way other than taking advantage of a man pretending to be a eunuch may have been an indication that there was something horribly wrong with gender roles and norms. He may have been suggesting that there should be easier ways for women to gain power and freedom.

The Role of Humour in The Country Wife

As a Restoration Comedy humour is central to Wycherley’s play. Like many other Restoration Comedies The Country Wife is characterised by farcical humour that runs throughout the whole play, generated through wit, sexual innuendo and a great deal of dramatic irony. However, Wycherley’s use of humour serves more than simply the creation of entertainment for the audience. Through the use of humour Wycherley addresses some of his key thematic concerns, ultimately providing a damning indictment on the state of this “diseased” Restoration society. The social mores and values of Wycherley’s stereotype characters are constantly mocked, thus while Wycherley creates entertainment through this humour he also forced his contemporary audience to evaluate the values that were at the heart of their society.

Wycherley’s use of humour as a means of entertaining as well as addressing key thematic concerns can be seen through the character of Pinchwife. This is as through Wycherley creating humour at Pinchwife’s expense he is able to put forward the idea that city husband’s play a large role in their own cuckolding. This is an idea central to the play, as a key theme of Wycherley’s is discussing why marriage as an institution had become so diseased. Wycherley uses humour as a tool to put this idea forward in Act V scene II where Pinchwife unwittingly hands his wife over to Horner, securing his cuckolding. The humour is created through the dramatic irony that Pinchwife believes he is handing over his sister not his wife, however the audience know otherwise, and know he is securing his own fate with this action. Thus when Pinchwife says to Horner “The last time, you know, sir, I brought you a love letter. Now you see a mistress.” there is huge dramatic irony which generates humour, particularly due to the fact the Pinchwife’s use of the word “mistress” to describe his own wife. Yet Wycherley’s humour does more than just entertain. The fact that Pinchwife literally hands his wife over to Horner is hugely symbolic, and develops Wycherley’s idea that the Husbands to a large extent cause their own cuckolding. Thus Wycherley uses comedy as a tool to show the audience his ideas about the problems within the marriages of the Restoration society, and to demonstrate his idea that in many ways the husbands are to blame.

Humour through dramatic irony such as this is a key feature of the play, however, equally significant in the generation of humour throughout the play is Wycherley’s use of sexual innuendo and double entendre. In many cases this humour does seem to be for the sole purpose of entertainment and to generate laughter through the outrageous nature of the innuendo. Yet even some of Wycherley’s crudest humour has deeper underlying thematic concerns that he is addressing. This can be seen for example in Act IV scene III between Horner and the “Virtuous Gang”. Following Horner outrageously having intercourse with Lady Fidget under Sir Japer’s nose without him realising, the audience sees that China becomes a euphemism for these sexual relations. Thus the audience see humour created through the use of this euphemism in front of Sir Jasper without him realising. This can be seen for example with Lady Fidget’s statement that “we women of quality never think we have China enough.”. Humour is created as she is openly talking about extramarital sexual relations right in front of her husband, yet he as the stereotypical fool cannot see it. However, once again we see that Wycherley uses humour to develop other key thematic ideas. This is as through this innuendo sexual relations are debased into something as basic as “china”. Thus by comparing sexual relations to such an inanimate object Wycherley conveys a sense that such sexual relations are very cheap and meaningless. Thus again he can be seen to be using humour to address his thematic ideas. Moreover the use of dramatic irony makes the audience to an extent complicit in what is going on, as they unlike Sir Jasper, understand the double entendres. Thus Wycherley forces the audience to contemplate whether they can actually accept what is going go, thus using humour to pose key questions to the audience.

Wycherley also uses humour to mock the vices of his own contemporary audience. This can be seen most pertinently through the character of Sparkish. Wycherley portrays Sparkish as he stereotypical “fop” who believes himself to be far more intelligent, and possess far more wit than he actually does. The audience sees through his language and the contrast between him and the real “wits” of Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant that he is a ridiculous character, and one who is deservedly mocked. However, Wycherley makes clear that Sparkish is representative of many of his own audience, whom like Sparkish are far too concerned with their outward appearance and others’ perceptions of them. This is shown clearly through the meta-theatrical element to Sparkish’s speech when he says he “would not miss a chance to sit in wits row”. For a contemporary audience there would have actually been those who considered themselves “wits” sitting in some equivalent to the “wits row” that Sparkish speaks of. Thus by Wycherley presenting Sparkish as this ridiculous character he not only creates humour, but poses the question to his audience of whether those among them who consider themselves “wits” are genuinely so, or whether they are more like Sparkish.

When assessing the overall role of humour in The Country Wife one has to accept that it is used for more than the simple generation of laughter. Of course as a Restoration Comedy the farcical humour is at the heart of the play. However, in many ways Wycherley went beyond the works of his contemporaries in his use of humour to actually critique the Restoration society and its vices. For Wycherley humour is a tool that transcends the entertainment of his contemporary audience and challenges them to question societal values.

The Mythic Archetype of Don Juan in The Country Wife and The Rover

In Wycherley’s The Country Wife and Aphra Behn’s The Rover, both authors explore masculine ideals through the legendary character of Don Juan, as respectively exemplified by Harry Horner and Willmore. By casting their heroes as embodiments of this mythic figure of virility and sexuality, both Wycherley and Behn reveal the masculine ideals of their time. In his article “Wycherley’s The Country Wife and the Don Juan Character,” Anthony Kaufman defines the myth of Don Juan as being “transcultural” and taking “many forms,” alternately portrayed as a “vulgar seducer… a seeker after a full, ideal lover… the embodiment of masculinity” (216). With this definition in mind, Don Juan becomes the fundamental model for both Horner and Willmore’s characterizations, thereby rendering the secondary male characters as inferior specimens.

Kaufman further characterizes the emblematic Don Juan figure as displaying distinct overtures of sexual hostility. He labels this aggression as “overt sadism directed toward his female victims” (Kaufman 217). Interestingly, it is not the actual performance of sex or even explicit female sexuality that Don Juan enjoys; rather it is the “hostile joke, the triumph in sadism,” that satisfies him (Kaufman 217). This characterization solidifies Willmore and Horner into their roles as Don Juan figures, for both of them visibly hold a strong antagonism and resentment towards the entire sex of females.

Horner’s entire ruse –pretending to be impotent, and thus getting access to heavily protected wives – is meant not only to further his sexual conquests, but also to reveal the blatant hypocrisy of womanhood. There is obviously a more nuanced agenda to this subterfuge; he could easily hire prostitutes or consort with lower-class women if all he wanted sexual fulfillment. Instead, he seems to derive a unique and sadistic joy in exposing the flaws of his female acquaintances, without trying to understand the limitations of their agency. To take it further, he consistently dehumanizes those women around him, therein revealing the intensity and narrow-mindedness of his derision. After an encounter with Lady Fidget, he says, “Oh women, more impertinent, more cunning / and more mischievous than their Monkeys, and to me almost as ugly” (l. 525). Later, he equates the state of wifehood to being a dog, saying, “A Spaniel… can fawn, lye down, suffer / beating, and fawn the more/… gives your Fleas, / and the mange sometimes” (l. 479). To Sir Jasper Fidget, he says, “I do know your Wife, Sir, she’s a Woman, Sir, and / consequently a Monster, Sir” (75). Horner does not only label women as animals; he takes it a step further by associating them with monsters. Yet this does not stop him from deliberately seducing them. By cuckolding husbands and aiming to seduce and thereby corrupt women, Horner gains a perverse sense of accomplishment, in direct accordance with Kaufman’s definition of Don Juan.

Willmore is the titular character of The Rover, though he may not be the protagonist in a traditional sense. Yet he too, fits into Kaufman’s description of Don Juan, for he displays a similar hypercritical and contemptuous attitude toward womanhood. He does not fit the mold as neatly as Horner; after all, he ends up married to Hellena by the end, while Horner escapes the confining strictures of matrimony. But because of Willmore’s philandering and aggressively sexual nature – and because Behn allows Hellena to die in the sequel to her play – he is still firmly situated as a Don Juan figure. And while he may not blatantly animalize women in the same vein as Horner, Willmore still views women as playthings or commodities, and not as human beings. He says to Beau, “Change… of Place, Clothes, Wine and Women. Variety is the Soul of Pleasure, a Good unknown… (l. 134). Here, Willmore reveals that he views women in terms of economic wealth, directly comparing them to common articles of trade such as clothes and alcohol. Not only does he dehumanize them by stripping them of their individuality, but he sees them as disposable goods as well, championing “variety” as a necessity of pleasure.

In his article, Kaufman describes another dimension of Don Juan’s portrayal in literature as “fascinating,” for he simultaneously acts as a “diabolic” yet “godlike” character (218). While these forces may seem diametrically opposed, the ambiguity of both Horner and Willmore adds to their charm and allure. Kaufman writes that Don Juan “stands alone in his society, with no close friends or confidants, alienated and isolated, incapable of any meaningful action except repeated and unsatisfactory seduction” (Kaufman 220). This is highly supported in The Country Wife by Horner’s actions, and his inner thoughts that the audience is privy to from his monologues or asides. He starts out the play confiding in the “Quack” doctor, and he has a handful of friends or acquaintances that are featured in the play, including Sparkish and Fidget. He professes, “Good fellowship and friendship, / are lasting, rational and manly pleasures” (220). But these statements ring false. There is never any sense of real friendship or camaraderie; rather, it seems as if Horner is manipulating those closest to him for his own gain. His lack of intimacy – indeed, his resolute dedication to being isolated in the midst of society – sets him up to be ideal Don Juan figure.

Willmore differs from Horner in this regard, for he is not firmly set apart from the fellow cavaliers that he associates with, aside from his greater wit and charm. He is isolated, however, in his lack of connection with the females surrounding him. This stems largely from his own volition: he unceremoniously tries to rape Florinda, vows to seduce Hellena, and immediately afterwards sleeps with Angellica. Here, Willmore again displays his skewed vision of females as malleable and sexual objects, wholly dependent on men. Even when Willmore marries Hellena at the end, it is only for the reason that he can bed and conquer her. He says, “Therefore, dear creature, since we are so well agreed, let’s retired to my chamber, and if ever thou wert treated with such savory love! Come, my bed’s prepared for such a guest all clean and sweet as thy fair self” (l. 430). She refuses to acquiesce until they are married, but the fact that he only agrees to marry her for sexual reasons seems to nullify any true or lasting bond they might have had. Again, the mystery and isolation that surrounds Willmore – stemming from his own actions and desires – renders him into an alluring and enigmatic figure, attractive not only to the other characters, but to the audience as well.

Perhaps the most salient way that Horner and Willmore are elevated to their statuses of Don Juans is in their marked contrast to the other male specimens in the respective plays. Wycherley and Behn’s characterizations of the other men seem strikingly obvious in their purpose of making Horner and Willmore even more attractive. In The Country Wife, Pinchwife and Sparkish are two of the other central male figures, and in many ways catalyze the plot. Through Pinchwife’s close-mindedness and mean-spirited protectiveness, his wife becomes susceptible to Horner’s charms. Similarly, Sparkish’s bumbling antics and foppish ways cause him to lose Alithea, and cause him to be cast as a ridiculous and ultimately pathetic character. Despite Horner’s vindictiveness and sexual depravity, he emerges as the most likable and admirable male character in this circle of characters. Only Harcourt is more virtuous. But though Harcourt fits the traditional understanding of the male hero, he is a largely flat and one-dimensional character, primarily defined by his affection for and devotion to Alithea. Horner, freed from messy love affairs, has plenty of opportunities to showcase his roguery and wit, and therein win the audience’s heart. The same holds true for Behn’s The Rover, with Blunt serving as the violent, but comically ineffectual, male. Compared to Blunt, Willmore’s virility and phallic strength is shown to be estimable. Belvile, of course, is the established young hero, winning Florinda’s love by the end of the play. Yet, as with Harcourt, the audience gives off a lackluster response to his ostensible heroism. Willmore, the rover who gives the play its name, is the audience’s true favorite.

Ultimately, Horner and Willmore emerge as the most beloved – or at least the most admired – protagonists of their plays. Rakes they may be, libertines they may be, but the truth remains that Wycherley and Behn never wholly condemn them for their unsavory actions. Neither of them receive negative endings: Horner is left free to continue his licentious ways, while Willmore is joined in holy matrimony to the play’s most appealing heroine. In part due to their actions throughout the play, and in part due to their endings, both of these characters are revealed to embody the ideal masculinity of Restoration Comedy. The transmutability of Don Juan enabled both Wycherley and Behn to use his figure in their own plays, and to great affect. The fact that Don Juan still remains a popular and mythic archetype highlights the extent to which masculine ideals are steeped in the surrounding culture. More than anything, however, the Don Juan quality of both Horner and Willmore is indicative of gender roles during the age in which the comedies were written. Men are allowed to be predatory, depraved, and dishonorable, and are even celebrated for these defining attributes; women are restricted to their limiting statuses as animals, monsters, or commodifiable objects.