Country Wife Q & A
let me know if you have additional questions about any of these or
other issues in The Country Wife.
Throughout the play, the term "cuckold" is used almost in a casual
way. It seemed to me that there wasn't the shame attached to being the
husband of an adulteress in this play that there is today in "real
life." Was this true of the times, or simply a device of the play? Was
it that prevalent? (Pinchwife: "Nay,
if every husband's proper sign
here were visible, they would be all alike" ). Then in the
there's the cuckold's dance. I just can't imagine it would be popular
or acceptable today for anyone to sing or dance to a song written for
spouses of adulterers.
society" during this period (i.e., in the court circle of the libertine
Charles II), sexual liaisons were frequent, popular, yet scandalous
diversions. Men were indeed frequently cuckolded, though whether more
so than they are today I couldn't say. ;-) Women
engaged in these love affairs, but they had to keep them secret lest
they lose their "chaste" reputations, which in this period was a very
important safeguard. The male characters' preoccupation with avoiding cuckoldry would
suggest that it was shameful, indeed! If nothing else, it would have
caused the husband's (public and/or private) humiliation.
those same lines, what is the term for the wife of an adulterer?
Why is all the emphasis on the men being wronged by the "dishonorable"
women? What about all the women dishonored by the cheating husbands?
To my knowledge
there was no term for the wife of an adulterer other than "wife."
Legally it was acceptable for a man to have extramarital affairs, but
it was grounds for divorce (or worse) if a wife did so. [The term "rule
of thumb" derives from an English common law that stated it was okay
for a man to beat his wife so long as the object he used was no wider
than his thumb, so you can imagine what "or worse" might mean.]
it acceptable to talk freely about sexual diseases?
at least not in "polite" circles, especially where women were present.
Consider the following exchange:
PINCHWIFE: He says he won't let me go abroad for fear of catching the
Fie! The smallpox you should say.
corrects Mrs. Pinchwife's innocently ignorant mention of "pox" [i.e.,
syphilis], which is, of course, one of Mr. Pinchwife's real concerns.)
might Wycherley have used gambling and shopping as metaphors for
gambles, one takes a risk, as one does when one engages in extramarital
sex. Winning at gambling is sort of like having your cake and eating it
too, as is being married to a rich member of the aristocracy while you
sleep with whomever you please on the side, and as is avoiding marriage
altogether while you sleep with whomever you please. Shopping, on the
other hand, implies consumption of goods. Women are sometimes
objectified (i.e., as "goods") in this play, but Horner is also turned
into a commodity, as exemplified by Lady Fidget's triumphant entry with
the piece of china. She has quite literally consumed him, and in this
moment he is reduced to a sex object. There is also the consideration
that gambling and shopping were very popular pastimes in this period,
particularly among members of the aristocracy; Wycherley is invoking
these popular diversions to expose the hypocrisy underlying other kinds
of popular "diversions."
were gender relations like during this time? How was sex viewed?
That's a good
(and huge) question. I think the answer depends largely on who one was
(in terms of class and gender) and where one lived (urban or rural). As
noted above, it was socially and legally acceptable for men to engage
in extramarital sex, but it was most definitely NOT okay for women to
do the same. Technically, at least among devout people, sex was really
only okay for purposes of procreation. You weren't supposed to want to
have sex for pleasure or recreation. The libertines, on the other hand,
turned this notion on its head by promoting sex in every imaginable
form with persons of either sex and any age. Also see The Rape of the Lock handout for some
brief notes on how women were viewed in this period.
is the significance of the bully, the humbly fawning physician,
the usurer, etc. in I.i (2296)? What are Harcourt, Dorilant, and Horner
Most men are the contraries to that they would seem. Your bully, you
see, is a coward with a long sword;
In other words,
he makes up for his psychological insecurity by acting out his
aggression on people weaker than he; also implied is the suggestion
that his aggression takes a sexual form--his long sword is his penis.
little, humbly fawning physician, with his ebony cane, is he that
On the other
hand, the physically unthreatening demeanor of a medical doctor masks,
or diverts attention from, the power he wields with his medicine; also
implied is the sexual connotation of "house calls"--he brings his
"ebony cane" along when he visits the sickly ladies and thus poses more
of a threat of cuckoldry to husbands than the swaggering bully (above)
The usurer, a poor rogue possessed of moldy bonds and mortgages, and we
they call spendthrifts are only wealthy, who lay out his money upon
daily new purchases of pleasure.
In other words,
the usurer makes money by charging interest on loans, which in some
cases is compounded daily, amounting to enormous rewards for his
initial risk. Dorilant and his rakish pals spend all their money on
gambling, whoring, and boozing ("purchases of pleasure"), and in
that sense they are rich (in sensual terms).
Ay, your arrantest cheat is your trustee or executor; your jealous man,
the greatest cuckold; your churchman, the greatest atheist; and your
noisy, pert rogue of a wit, the greatest fop, dullest ass and worst
company . . . .
Dorilant, and Horner are here invoking the theme of appearances versus
reality--a consistent preoccupation in this play and in this historical
period. People can't be judged accurately based on the way
they look or on the way they present themselves. Thus it behooves one
to be wily, savvy, and calculating in one's dealings with people.
Failing to do so puts one at risk of being the brunt of a wit's joke,
as Sparkish frequently is.
women in the play seem to think that what Horner is doing is
honorable. Does anyone else in our class feel this way? Was Wycherley
trying to depict the women of his time (or was he doing it simply to be
funny)? Note this line: "But, poor gentleman . . . " (2310).
But, poor gentleman, could you be so generous, so truly a man of honor,
as for the sakes of us women of honor, to cause yourself to be reported
no man? No man! And to suffer yourself the greatest shame that could
fall upon a man, that none might fall upon us women by your
conversation? But indeed, sir, as perfectly, perfectly the same man as
before your going into France, sir? As perfectly, perfectly, sir?
What's going on
here is that Lady Fidget is laying the groundwork for a sexual
encounter with Horner. She is asking him to confirm that he really has
circulated the rumor that he is impotent so that she can know
that she can be seen in his company without arousing any suspicion. The
term "conversation" in this period also meant "sexual intercourse." In
other words, she is very pleasantly surprised to learn that she can now
have sex with him without damage to her reputation (because no one
believes he can have sex), and she's making sure that he can still get
it up before she goes any further with her plans to rendezvous with
him. He in "honorable," from her point of view, in the humorous sense
that he has taken steps to preserve her honor before she sleeps with him.
does the following comment refer to: Pinchwife: "They! -- they'll
swear a man that bled to death through his wounds died of an apoplexy"
A man who has
bled to death through his wounds has most definitely NOT died of
apoplexy, no matter what anyone says. In other words, Pinchwife does
not believe the rumor that Horner is impotent because, as he well
knows, rumors are unreliable, and people will say anything to make
themselves appear to be "in the know."
is the doctor called Quack? Is that his name, or is it a joke?
"Quack" is his
name in this play, but it also refers to his being a "bogus" doctor; a
"quack" is a person who acts as a doctor but who
lacks the proper credentials to practice medicine. After all, Horner
couldn't get a legitimate doctor to spread the rumor that he's impotent
because he isn't.
does the first part of the "china scene" look like, before Lady
Fidget comes out holding the piece of china?
Sir Jaspar, Old
Lady Squeamish, and Mrs. Squeamish are standing in the middle of
Horner's living room. Horner and Lady Fidget enter from a bedroom door
on one side of the stage.
does Sparkish mean when he says, "'Tis even as common with lovers
as playing with fans; and you can no more help rhyming to your Phyllis
than drinking to your Phyllis" (2315).
That is to say,
lovers write poetry to each other as often as they play with fans.
(Fans were common trinkets in the Restoration and eighteenth century,
carried and fidgeted with by women. They could be used to communicate
certain "messages," much as one might using sign language. For
instance, a woman might indicate that she wanted to have a private
conversation with a man by making a particular movement with her fan.)
A man can no more help writing a poem to his lover than he can help
drinking a toast to his lover. (This is also a pun on the Restoration
and eighteenth-century meaning of "toast": to toast a woman meant
something like boasting to all your friends in a jovial manner that you
slept with so-and-so, which is of course not considered a very polite
thing to do. Cf. Tom
what does Harcourt mean
when he says, "Poetry in love is no more to be avoided than jealousy"
A lover cannot
help writing a poem to his or her beloved anymore than a lover can
avoid being jealous of his or her beloved. Also, a lover can no more
avoid having love poems written to
he can avoid inspiring jealousy in his lover when he flirts with
William Wycherley critiquing only the nobility in The
or is the play
making a statement about the nature of people, regardless of their
Yes to the
latter. He's also critiquing the merchant class, country bumpkins,
society in general, men and women in general.
is the playwright saying, through his satire, about the
relationships between men and women?
The answer to
this question depends upon whom you ask. I think he's saying
that men and women should avoid playing games and get to know each
other as people rather than as gender stereotypes. Genuine friendship
is the only reliable foundation for the marriage contract. What do you
think? (This would be a great paper topic!)
does it mean that two relatively minor characters, Lucy and Quack,
know more of the "truth" than the major characters?
reflects the nature of aristocratic households in this period. Servants
generally knew all the secrets of the family they served; consequently
they could sometimes create, or threaten to create, problems for their
"respectable" ladies and gentlemen if they weren't treated fairly by
II.i (2305), Alithea states that Harcourt has been making love to
her. Is this meant to be taken in a literal sense or does it simply
mean that Harcourt shows affection for her?
To "make love"
in this period mean to "court," to express affection, to woo. It
specifically does NOT refer to sexual intercourse.
understand the character Sparkish is supposed to be a would-be wit,
but does he really need to act the part of the half-wit so well? Can
any one person really be that oblivious, and I wonder what's his real
His purpose is
two-fold: (1) He is a comic foil for the genuine wit demonstrated by
Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant. (2) He stands as an example of the kind
of man a woman should never marry. He is only
interested in Alithea for her money and doesn't really love her.
understand that this is a story of love, jealousy, and affairs. What
puzzles me is that even though Sparkish knows about the circulating
rumor, he is still jealous of Horner. Why is that?
It's bad enough
that his fiance loves another man--but that she loves an impotent man over him?! (He mistakenly
believes that Alithea is in love with Horner.)
is hard for me to understand about The
is why Pinchwife
and Mrs. Pinchwife do not hear any of the rumors about Horner being a
all his time making sure his wife doesn't hear about anything, and he isn't really
a chum of the wits or Sir Jasper. Presumably he is occupied with
transacting business in the few moments when he's not haranguing his
the time period that the play represents, was it generally
accepted to treat wives like Pinchwife does his? He seems to control
her, lock her in rooms when he feels like it, forces her to write
letters when she doesn't want to, etc. Was this usual then or are these
characters different from typical people?
common law during this period, women literally belonged to their
husbands. If a wife was lucky, she was treated well. If she wasn't
lucky, she might have been treated like some women still are to this
day. Domestic abuse is still very much a part of many women's lives all
over the world.
was slightly confused with the beginning part of the play in terms of
who knows the truth about Horner. Do Horner's friends, Dorilant and
Harcourt, know the truth, or are they also being fooled?
are in on the secret. They are his close compadres and partners in
not. This would be a good paper topic, the pursuit of which would
unquestionably lead to lots of amazing discoveries about women, men,
and marriage in the Restoration and 18th century! I'd love to talk with
you about it in depth if you decide to pursue the question.
am interested in the meaning of and usage of the word "rogue" as used
in this play.
Try the OED. Look at the list of
chronological quotations and find the ones that are concentrated around
this general time period, as well as ones that occur before it. Then
track the usage in the play! (This could be an interesting part of a paper!)
Wednesday's lecture, Prof. Scruggs referred to the running theme in
the play of people becoming trapped in their own schemes. I am
intrigued with how this theme, especially coming so closely on our
reading of Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," plays against the
American way of life (both formative and present).
excellent paper topic! Perhaps you would like to jot down some initial
thoughts on this theme, and we could talk about it in depth?