The Country Wife Q & A

Please 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" [2317]). Then in the end, 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.

In "high 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.

Along 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.]

Was it acceptable to talk freely about sexual diseases?

Apparently not, at least not in "polite" circles, especially where women were present. Consider the following exchange:

MRS. PINCHWIFE: He says he won't let me go abroad for fear of catching the pox.
ALITHEA: Fie! The smallpox you should say.

(Here Alithea corrects Mrs. Pinchwife's innocently ignorant mention of "pox" [i.e., syphilis], which is, of course, one of Mr. Pinchwife's real concerns.)

Why might Wycherley have used gambling and shopping as metaphors for sex?

When one 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."

What 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.

What is the significance of the bully, the humbly fawning physician, the usurer, etc. in I.i (2296)? What are Harcourt, Dorilant, and Horner talking about?

HARCOURT: 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.

the little, humbly fawning physician, with his ebony cane, is he that destroys men.
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) does.

DORILANT: 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).

HORNER: 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 . . . .
Harcourt, 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.

The 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).

LADY FIDGET [aside to Horner]: 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 for certain 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.

What does the following comment refer to: Pinchwife: "They! -- they'll swear a man that bled to death through his wounds died of an apoplexy" (2354).

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."

Why 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.

What 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.

What 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 Jones.

Also, what does Harcourt mean when he says, "Poetry in love is no more to be avoided than jealousy" (2315).

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 him than he can avoid inspiring jealousy in his lover when he flirts with another woman.

Is William Wycherley critiquing only the nobility in The Country Wife, or is the play making a statement about the nature of people, regardless of their social status?

Yes to the latter. He's also critiquing the merchant class, country bumpkins, society in general, men and women in general.

What 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!)

What does it mean that two relatively minor characters, Lucy and Quack, know more of the "truth" than the major characters?

Perhaps it 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 them.

In 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.

I 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 character purpose.

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.

I 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.)

What is hard for me to understand about The Country Wife is why Pinchwife and Mrs. Pinchwife do not hear any of the rumors about Horner being a eunuch.

Pinchwife spends 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 wife.

During 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?

Under English 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.

I 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?

They definitely are in on the secret. They are his close compadres and partners in rakish "crimes."

Does The Country Wife present women unjustly?

Maybe, maybe 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.

I 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!)

In 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).

Another excellent paper topic! Perhaps you would like to jot down some initial thoughts on this theme, and we could talk about it in depth?

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