The Country Wife Summary

William Wycherley

The Country Wife

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The Country Wife Summary

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The Country Wife is a 1675 Restoration comedy by English dramatist William Wycherley. Like many Restoration comedies, it held an aristocratic and anti-Puritan ideology, and met with controversy due to its politics and its sexual explicitness. It is an expansion of several plays by Moliere, with added features such as prose dialogue in place of the original verse, a fast-paced and tangled plot, and many bawdy jokes. Centering around a rake’s trick of pretending impotence to have affairs with married women, and an inexperienced young woman who comes to London for the first time and experiences the pleasures of city life and city men, it was controversial for its time and its content kept it off the stage for much of its history. A derivative version, The Country Girl, by David Garrick, replaced it briefly on stage but has since been forgotten. It has recently seen a revival beginning in 1924 and is praised by academic critics for its sharp social satire and its emphasis on themes including the dynamics of marriage, the power that men hold in society, and the ugly face of hatred towards women.

Like many restoration comedies, The Country Wife features a plot that can be described as scattered and weaves together multiple narratives into a single play. The main players are Horner; a rakish man who pulls off the impotence trick that is the play’s most famous feature; the married life of Pinchwife and Margery; and the courtship of the young couple, Harcourt and Alithea. The rake, Harry Horner, is the closest thing the play has to a main character as his impotence trick provides the organizing principle of the play and the turning points of the action. He plans to seduce as many married women as he can and cuckold their husbands by spreading the rumor that he is impotent and as such can be allowed to socialize safely with their wives. This allows him to identify women who are seeking extramarital sex, because they’ll react to his supposed impotence with disgust. This plot point seeks to poke fun at hypocritical upper-class women who are no better than a rake at heart. However, he is threatened with exposure by the young country wife of the title, Margery Pinchwife, who knows for a fact that he’s not impotent. It’s only due to the help of his more experienced lovers that he’s able to avoid exposure and continue his trick successfully.

Although Margery is the country wife of the title, the story of her marriage is not the primary plot of the play. Her marriage to Pinchwife, a middle-aged man who married a naive girl because he believes she’ll be more faithful, is based loosely on two of Moliere’s plays, School for Husbands and School for Wives. Although Margery starts the play as naive, her early encounter with Horner teaches her the ways of London, and she’s soon manipulating and scheming her way into the realms of upper-class London society. Although Margery is sweet and innocent on the surface, she is in fact anything but – when exposed to opportunities, she is enthusiastic about the men she meets and takes every opportunity to be with them. Her interest in sex and plain-spoken nature keeps Pinchwife embarrassed and paranoid, and his paranoia often leads him to blurt out the exact information he has been trying to keep from her.

The third major plot, the courtship of Harcourt and Alithea, is the only segment of the story not to have roots in a previous play. Harcourt is Horner’s friend and the exact opposite of the rakish lead character. A believer in persistence and true love, he falls hard for Pinchwife’s sister Alithea. However, Alithea is engaged to a shallow, foppish man named Sparkish. Although Harcourt is a far kinder and more virtuous man than Sparkish, Alithea is loyal to her oath and refuses to break her engagement even as Sparkish’s cynical, foolish nature is slowly revealed to her. It is only when a series of mistaken events leads to Alithea in a compromising position with Horner that Sparkish turns on her, despite all her tolerance for him. When she sees that Harcourt believes her and trusts in her virtue despite the fact that Sparkish does not, that she admits she truly loves Harcourt. Harcourt and Alithea are the only truly decent, honorable characters in the play and are rewarded for this with their happy ending.

William Wycherley is best known today for his two plays The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer. The latter, a classic comedy of errors involving mistaken identity, is likewise praised for its cleverness and criticized for its bawdy nature. Most of his works besides these two have been lost to the ages, as many works during this time period were only performed briefly at public theaters. Educated in law but soon turning to drama, Wycherley is known for his political commentary and the daring allusions he made to the current ruling family. In addition to his two most famous plays, Wycherley’s most significant legacy may be the introduction of the word “nincompoop” to the English language in the pages of The Plain Dealer.