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.
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