William Wycherley

The Country Wife

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The Country Wife Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 45-page guide for “The Country Wife” by William Wycherley includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 5 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Social Perception of Innocence in the City Versus in the Country and Illness and Disease as Consequences of Romance.

Plot Summary

William Wycherley’s The Country Wife was written and first performed in London, in 1675. The play has lived on as one of the most famous examples of British Restoration comedies and continues to be produced frequently. The Restoration era, between 1660 and about 1700, describes the period following the Commonwealth era and the restoration of the English monarchy. During the Commonwealth, theatre was banned in England for 18 years, so with his return to the throne, King Charles II encouraged not only the reinstatement of the theatre but the production of plays with lascivious content and language. Restoration comedies had complicated romantic plots, often featuring a mixture of working class and (as the character Sparkish complains) members of the aristocracy. After Puritan control during the Commonwealth, artistic responses like The Country Wife adopted a clear anti-Puritan stance. But even in this moment of permissiveness, the play was considered scandalous and was actually banned from the stage between 1753 and 1924.

The Country Wife, based on a compilation of Molière’s The School for Husbands (1661), The School for Wives (1662), and Terence’s The Eunuch (161 BCE), is about marriage, infidelity, and male friendship. Harry Horner, an infamous womanizer, enlists his doctor to spread the false rumor that Horner has become impotent to convince other men to trust him to be alone with their wives. Jack Pinchwife, a former rake, has recently married Margery Pinchwife, a woman from the country, since rampant cuckolding seems to be a trait learned in the city. Pinchwife tries to hide his wife from his philandering friends, but Horner becomes enamored with Margery, who immediately falls for him. As Horner schemes to bed Margery (as well as all the other married ladies around him), his friend Frank Harcourt falls in love with Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea, who is betrothed to Mr. Sparkish, a foolish bore who believes that he is witty and intelligent. Much trickery ensues, involving masks, fake twins, and humorous mix-ups. At the end of the play, Mr. and Mrs. Pinchwife remain unhappily together while Harcourt presumably marries Alithea, and Horner goes on to keep bedding unhappy wives who can preserve their honor and reputation under the ruse that Horner is incapable of defiling them.

The Restoration era introduced the first professional women actresses, as before the Commonwealth, female roles on the English stage were played by boys. This led to the creation of “breeches roles,” which required women to wear pants, a trope that manifests in The Country Wife when Margery Pinchwife is disguised as her own brother. Given the fashion of the period, the appeal of having women in breeches roles was the opportunity to see their legs in form-fitting clothing. The play depicts competitions that occur between men and the ways that women become pawns and prizes in those competitions. It shows these interactions as a game in which a woman’s honor and reputation are tantamount to her social value, and yet the impeachability of her virtue is determined less by her actions than by the gossip surrounding her actions (or even inactions). The Country Wife differs from many romantic comedies in its cynicism about marriage and an ending in which the protagonist does not wed his beloved or even receive punishment for duplicitousness but instead continues his rakish behavior.

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Prologue-Act I