Author logo Studying William Wycherley's The Country Wife

Introduction
Preparing to study
The text of the play
Learning about Restoration Comedy
Characterization
Costume in Restoration Comedy
The set
Key scenes explored
Specimen exam questions
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Introduction

This study guide is intended for students taking examinations in English literature, drama or theatre arts at GCE Advanced (A2) and Advanced Supplementary (AS) level. It may also be of general interest to students of Restoration theatre in general and the plays of William Wycherley in particular. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this guide, please contact me.

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Preparing to study

This guide is written to support your study of The Country Wife. The guide indicates the terms in which examiners will expect you to understand the play. It should be used in conjunction with study of The Country Wife in performance, as far as possible, and of the text in one or more editions designed for study at your level.

The text of the play

The text of the play is quite widely available. An edition designed for study at GCE Advanced level is now available from Cambridge University Press. Alternatively, you can find the whole text online at www.bibliomania.com. Use the links below to purchase the Cambridge edition or go to the Bibliomania version:

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Learning about Restoration comedy

The best reference guide to the comic drama of the Restoration era is J.L. Styan's Restoration Comedy in Performance (1986); Cambridge University Press; ISBN: 0521274214. Use the link below to buy this book.

A helpful short introduction by Esther Lombardi can be found on the About.com Web site. Click on the link below to see this guide.

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Characterization

Realism and stereotypes | Caricatures | Straight characters | Margery Pinchwife | Asides | Mr. Horner

Realism and stereotypes

The play is clearly not realistic, not, that is, naturalistic or psychologically realistic like the work of later dramatists such as Chekhov. We do not see characters whose every minute nuance or mannerism is depicted with accuracy. Nor do we see characters on whose life history, psychology and inner motivation the playwright has lavished great attention. In general these tendencies belong to more recent times (though recent production has shown the last two to be well-developed in Shakespeare).

The play is, however (and Restoration comedy in general is) realistic in some other senses:

  • it depicts characters who are recognizably from the same social milieu (background) as the audience, who share the same ideas and preoccupations;
  • it depicts types who, if rather two-dimensional are, nonetheless, representative or who correspond to familiar stereotypes.

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Wycherley uses such stereotypes to present on stage a portrayal of social relations that is both critical and unambiguous. The exaggeration of Pinchwife's jealousy and Horner's cuckolding instinct at once reveal the play's ideological territory. Devices to render Pinchwife more sympathetic (as a "real" man) would muddy the waters. The play is not "realistic" in character delineation (a late 19th century definition). It is realistic in depicting with clarity vexed questions about social morality by means of clear, representative types in familiar social situations.

It would be inappropriate and anachronistic to approach the playing of, say, Sparkish in the manner of a method actor (Marlon Brando being prepared by Elia Kazan or Lee Strasberg for a rôle as an inarticulate anti-social rebel, mumbling in the patois of the Bronx). A Carry On film or well-crafted television situation comedy would be a better model. Better still might be the approach, say, of an actor in an Ayckbourn comedy - fixing a social type in a deft manner dwelling more on relationships and situations than on expressing the self.

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Caricatures

Wycherley exaggerates various characters - Pinchwife, Sparkish, Sir Jasper and the "Virtuous Gang" as a means of depicting them critically. Pinchwife's jealousy and Sparkish's foppishness can be caricatured to point their failings. How far they can, or should, be lampooned will vary with the taste of the times and with the nature of the production. Today conventions of realism are so regularly overthrown in the theatre, television and film, that self-conscious over-the-top acting by a Sparkish would have considerable comic potential. On the other hand, while we know Alithea does not love Sparkish, it ought, in the performance, to be at least plausible that she should be ready, albeit out of a sense of honour, to marry him. Sparkish might be played as fairly ridiculous and very obnoxious rather than very silly and slightly objectionable.

“The Virtuous Gang” is a term Horner uses to describe three women: Lady Fidget, Mrs. Dainty Fidget and Mrs. Squeamish. It is blatantly ironic, but also convenient as a label for three characters who are not especially clearly distinguished. Lady Fidget has a quite substantial part in the play, but the other two are much less fully developed. Their virtue is a matter of public reputation only. They take care to guard this, but have no conception of inner or private morality, such as we see in Alithea.

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Straight characters

In a modern sense many of the characters are very "straight": they create comedy by making us laugh at others, who are the butts of the humour. In this sense, Alithea, Harcourt, Lucy and Dorilant may be lively and interesting, but should not draw too much attention to themselves (drawing it from the real targets of the humour) nor have any silly characteristics of their own.

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Margery Pinchwife - the Country Wife

More difficult is the case of Margery Pinchwife - perhaps Wycherley intends the audience to misjudge her, but she is also the character in the play who changes most. (Frank Harcourt changes in the opposite direction - while she is losing her virtue, he is recovering his.)

At first we may be led to see her as a kind of social and sexual simpleton, but her education is rapid and she is largely self-taught (by observation of London ways). Some of her comic mannerisms - such as her quaint turn of speech - may gradually appear as cover for a rather deep cunning and resourcefulness. This appears in a series of episodes in the later part of the play. On her husband's orders, she has written a letter to Horner, repudiating his advances. When Pinchwife briefly leaves the room, Margery takes charge:

  • first (in 4.2) she takes advantage of her husband's absence to write Horner a second letter, in which she declares her true feelings (of love)
  • then, on Pinchwife's return, she shows him the first (hostile) letter
  • and finally (pretending that she is piqued at her husband's belief in her stupidity) she uses the pretext of proving she can seal a letter, to substitute the one for the other.

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In her next appearance (4.4 and 5.1), when she is caught in the act of writing Horner a love letter, she surpasses even this performance. She pretends that she is writing the letter for Alithea. (It is in her hand, so Alithea can disown it if spurned by its recipient - who is Horner). Margery then contrives, as Pinchwife has doused the candle:

  • first, to enter her room noisily and leave it silently, so her husband believes, in locking the door, that he has locked her in
  • and then to pretend to be Alithea, with whom, Pinchwife (as he believes) goes out.

In both scenes by her words and actions Margery makes Pinchwife appear stupid. To show this more clearly to the audience she employs asides when he is on stage, and speaks aloud when he is offstage, to inform the spectator of her intention.

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Asides

Wycherley's stage directions indicate extensive use of the aside. This is an anti-naturalistic device but (as Brecht would agree) is useful as a means of commenting on what is occurring on stage and pointing its significance.

Wycherley sees, however, that in the case of Horner asides, alone, will not suffice. Horner's "English-French disaster" is so much of a tour-de-force that a full explanation is needed. Action could not be interrupted long enough for all this to be in asides. The playwright's solution is to introduce a figure, the doctor, who is solely an earpiece for Horner's explanation of his plot, and a mouthpiece for the obvious objections to the plot's chances of success. Elaborate characterisation of the doctor in performance, or giving him humorous qualities, would again be an error. If Wycherley had anticipated Brecht, he might have allowed Horner to explain his plot directly to the audience.

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Mr. Horner

Horner's name implies not just the horns of the cuckold (the betrayed husband) but also the idea which lies behind this - diabolical punishment of the fool and sinner.

  • Pinchwife's sin and folly lie in his insane jealousy;
  • Sir Jasper's sin and folly lie in his arrogant complacency, his smug sense of security with Horner.

Note that, despite his general lustfulness (and despite Margery's claim that Horner desires her sister-in-law) Horner has no designs on Alithea - because she is in a decent relationship (love not commerce nor coercion). Were she to marry Sparkish, this might change. The cuckolding is not (in the play's system of values) presented as corruption of the women, but a just (deserved) punishment of the men. In any case, the women are themselves fallen and hypocritical, with the possible exception of Margery - but it is hinted she may become as the others.

What this says to the actor playing Horner is not so much to present a rounded character (this is not in the text, anyway) but an unbalanced monomaniac sexual appetite incarnate as the scourge of mercenary marriages.

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Thus it makes sense for him to show delight and a sense of power and control in the manipulation and deception of others. We do not have to like him, but we should like, and enjoy, his torment of Pinchwife and his deception of Sir Jasper. Thus, the fact that he does what he does under people's very noses, in broad daylight (the New Exchange) and, in many cases, with the doctor as concealed witness (Horner's only confidant), is very important to the actor's portrayal of Horner as a kind of nemesis figure. The play is not celebrating free love (an anachronistic notion) but condemning, and showing punishment of, mercenary and loveless marriages.

Two scenes are, therefore, of great importance for a proper portrayal of Horner:

  • the New Exchange scene (3.2, the whole story explained in 4.2)
  • and the "China" scene (4.3).

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In both of these, Horner not only manipulates and deceives but he also does so with dazzling effrontery. The actor should not appear nervous and fearful of detection, but revelling in his complete mastery of the situation. So a diabolical, rather than naturalistically human, demeanour is required. A normal man would worry, but a normal man would not be doing such things anyway. Horner is not a normal man - he is closer to a madman or demon or both. As well as his many asides, the actor playing Horner may use frequent gestures to, and eye contact with the audience (directly or as if to the concealed doctor).

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Costume in Restoration Comedy

Revival of the plays in the 20th century tended to be in period costume. It was felt that modern dress would lead to the plays' being mistaken for drawing room romantic comedies. Period costume was necessary to suggest the social attitudes of the plays. Great social changes between the 1930s and 1990s may mean this is not necessarily true any more. The plays' preoccupation with sex, social etiquette and fashion could perhaps find a suitably modern-dress expression.

In Restoration Comedy in Performance J.L. Styan notes how, when first revived in this century, the plays were performed in fantastic costume. For all actors to be dressed in gorgeous costume is not appropriate. Over-decorated dress may suit the fop; if others are dressed likewise the notion of his foppishness is minimized. Authentic period costume may seem exotic to modern audiences, but the plays should not become pantomimes.

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Styan notes, interestingly, that the clothes worn in restoration times (by actors/actresses and those they represent) would restrict movement, being stiff and heavy. The women's costumes allow less movement than the men's and movement of a different kind. It is a stock device of comedy to put the heroine into a man's costume - the so-called "breeches part". This allows her to assume certain male attitudes and prerogatives, and to move more freely, without the weight of skirts. It also may be titillating to the audience, to see a woman's legs displayed. It may allow other characters to do things which social etiquette would otherwise not permit - so Horner is able to lead Margery away, when she is dressed up as "little Sir James". The only person who is fooled here is Pinchwife - who proves deceived in his hope of thwarting Horner.

Restoration period costume gives great scope for humour in portrayal of ridiculous types. For this to work, though, the "straight" characters must be restrained. What was considered excessive and, so, ridiculous in Wycherley's day, conveniently, still looks as silly, if not more so. Modern dress could be used appropriately e.g. Sir Jasper in a rather crumpled but expensive city pin-stripe or a moustachioed, monocled military type with tweeds and shooting stick or Sparkish as a slave to bizarre fashions. Modern dress, however, would pose problems for the disguising of Margery in boy's clothing (3.2) and for the idea of her wearing a mask in 5.1. In general the Restoration drama has worked best when played in more or less authentic period dress - unlike, say, Shakespearean plays, which can adjust to all sorts of adaptations of costume.

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The set

J.L. Styan argues that the comedies are written for the "platform" stage, not the "picture" stage. The great success of a 1920 revival of The Beggar's Opera led to a run of Restoration revivals in which highly decorative sets were used. These were often like picture-frames - creating a limited acting area in front of a backcloth, painted in great detail.

Styan argues in favour of a less decorative but more functional set which opens out the whole area of the stage, especially the proscenium area with the doors of entrance at either side.

Styan illustrates this well by comparing the set designs of two productions: Rolf Gerard's set (1943) for The Constant Couple and René Allio's (1963) for The Recruiting Officer. The former is an elaborate painting, recreating in two dimensions a 3-D effect, but providing no acting space. The latter consists of rows of buildings, realistic, but reduced in scale, on each side of the stage, almost meeting upstage in the centre to exaggerate perspective. This design creates a deeper acting area and provides many points of exit and entrance. The detail in the miniature buildings is not essential but is basically sober and authentic - Allio shows a town of small houses where Gerard depicts a gushing fountain in a vast city square surrounded by very grandiose dwellings.

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Styan also associates the tendency for "fantastication" in set to match the same tendency in costume and even acting style. He gives the example of the Lyric theatre's 1924 production of The Way of the World in which:

  • servants lit candles in quartet formation,
  • everyone not speaking struck attitudes - an arm raised or elbow stuck out,
  • and a group of musicians, dressed in period style, remained visible throughout and played.

Following Styan's recommendations, a good set for The Country Wife - which relies on exits, entrances and quite intricate movements, as well as asides which might require separation, on stage, of actors - would be simple but suggestive. As there are many changes of scene indicated in the text, there is no reason why two fairly neutral walls, supplied with enough doors, should not serve as Horner's lodgings, those of Pinchwife and the New Exchange. To signal the change simple representational properties could be placed on, or removed from, the stage, though much of this is established by the disposition of actors on stage and their remarks. Occasional props (a screen for the quack to hide behind, a table at which Margery writes) are specified. The ballad seller tells us that the New Exchange is an arcade, and other street-traders could pass across the stage here. Elsewhere appropriate furniture could differentiate a bedchamber from a drawing room, or Pinchwife's house from Horner's.

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Key scenes explored

Act 1: Scene 1 | Act 2: Scene 1 | Act 3: Scene 1 | Scene 2 | Act 4: Scene 1 | Scene 2 | Scene 3 | Scene 4 | Act 5: Scene 1 | Scene 2 | Scene 3 | Scene 4

Act 1, scene 1
What happens in this scene?

Largely giving of information:

  • Horner explains his plan to the Quack (doctor). The Quack is a useful stage device rather than a character as such. He is there to allow Horner to give information in a plausible manner. It has to be the Quack, for to tell anyone else (male) would ruin Horner's plan. Also, the Quack can voice objections to the plan.
  • Sir Jasper, clearly taken in, invites Horner to attend his wife. Sparkish is insulting to Horner but is himself more laughable - much depends on the performance (he should show suitable measure of affectation).
  • Pinchwife begins as he continues - his ruse to put Horner off the scent of Margery is as good as an invitation to Horner to cuckold him.

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Stagecraft

In stage terms we should note

  • the quality of the dialogue - there is good dry comment from Horner but also "acting" the mysogynist eunuch for Sir Jasper.
  • Sparkish, wonderfully fixed by his windiness and lack of self-consciousness.
  • Pinchwife, torn by fear of cuckolding yet inevitably inviting it.

Physical action is limited to entrances and exits.

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Act 2, scene 1
What happens in this scene?

Pinchwife warns Margery of the vices of London - in doing so he arouses her curiosity. On Harcourt's entry, Margery is sent away.

Harcourt flirts with Alithea but Sparkish is happy to allow this, as it proves how generous a friend he is to Harcourt. We see how mistaken Sparkish is in his belief that he has Harcourt's friendship..

The "Virtuous Gang" arrive to take Margery to the theatre. Soon Sir Jasper, Horner and Dorilant join them. Pinchwife leaves (goes inside). Sir Jasper begs the ladies to go to the theatre with Horner, who now explains to them that he is not really impotent (his whispers reassure the ladies of his virility, but the men must not know of it). While Sir Jasper is amused at Horner's supposed incapacity, the audience sees how Horner has got the better of him.

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Stagecraft

The action is mainly exits and entrances but we also note:

  • Margery's crying,
  • Pinchwife's locking her in,
  • Sparkish's struggle with Pinchwife,
  • Pinchwife's aborted offer to draw on Harcourt
  • a stage grouping which allows Horner to speak apart to Lady Fidget.

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Act 3, scene 1
What happens in this scene?

This scene mirrors 2.1 (Pinchwife, Margery, Alithea are all present).

But now Margery has been to the play. It is the day following that in the previous act. The next day is to be Alithea's wedding day, and on the day after that, Pinchwife and Margery are to leave London before daybreak. Margery has heard that a gallant at the play has admired her.

Pinchwife agrees to take Margery to the Exchange, evidently a 17th century shopping arcade and place of social gathering where people go to see and be seen. However, she is to go in boy's clothing! This is Pinchwife's foolish stratagem to thwart male admirers.

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Act 3, scene 2
What happens in this scene?

This takes place evidently at the same time as 3.1, but the action here is in the New Exchange, where Margery, Pinchwife and Alithea eventually arrive. First we meet the three gallants, Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant.

Harcourt surprises the two cynics by announcing his love for the mistress of Sparkish (Alithea) who now appears. Sparkish gives an account of his experience at the play. He has tried to match the wit of the author but the actors it seems have got the better of him. (Wycherley's skill lies in the way that Sparkish protests his success, but convinces the audience of the opposite.) The discussion of realism in theatre and painting is very interesting.

Sparkish tries to hide from Alithea on her arrival, as he wishes to ingratiate himself with the King. The audience sees how he prefers wealth and ambition to love. But Harcourt persuades Sparkish to reconcile Alithea to him. Before and after this we see brief glimpses of Pinchwife and Margery.

As in his earlier wooing of Alithea in Sparkish's presence, Harcourt again manages to let Alithea see his meaning and deceive Sparkish. However, Alithea begins to review Sparkish's supposed generosity. The audience sees what Harcourt is doing, and how Alithea also sees it, while Sparkish does not.

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Pinchwife enters and rebukes Sparkish again, who leaves for Whitehall. Before Pinchwife can take Alithea (and Margery) away, Horner and Dorilant join them.

Pinchwife's ruse fails: clearly Horner recognises Margery (Dorilant seems to be in on this secret, though he certainly does not know that Horner's impotence is feigned.) Now Horner is able to praise the absent "wife". He is able, in doing so, to show Margery his attraction to her, while taunting Pinchwife, who can do nothing. Pinchwife is angry to find himself in the same plight as Sparkish - but, unlike Sparkish, knowingly. The play raises the question whether it is worse to be an unconscious fool, like Sparkish, or a self-conscious one, like Jack Pinchwife.

They appear to leave - Pinchwife thinking it safe, goes to call a coach. At once the three gallants return, Horner taking Margery away to buy her a present. The other two beaux hold back Lucy and Alithea. Pinchwife returns and again leaves in distraction to find Margery (if he can), while Harcourt once more entreats Alithea who now holds back out of pity. Dorilant meanwhile holds Lucy who may not object to the treatment. Pinchwife returns again and blames Alithea (unfairly) for what has happened. When Margery reappears she has oranges in her hat. Presumably Horner is taunting Pinchwife without having really yet done anything - but Pinchwife feels for his cuckold's horns. (Oranges, sold in the theatres by whores, for the playgoer to wet his whistle, are commonly associated with promiscuous behaviour - this is a coded message which Wycherley's own audience well understands, as much as does Pinchwife).

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Sir Jasper now appears, and takes away the supposed eunuch, Horner. He leaves Harcourt and Dorilant to bemoan their lack of opportunity. (It seems that Pinchwife does not notice the description of Horner as impotent - or he discounts it). Dorilant says farewell in his lewdest manner to Lucy while Harcourt does so romantically to Alithea.

We see, now, another use for Dorilant - to make up the trio of (very different) couples:

  • the satyr and the innocent (Horner, Margery Pinchwife)
  • the reformed lecher and the honourable woman (Harcourt, Alithea)
  • the unreformed lecher and the lusty maid (Dorilant, Lucy)

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Stagecraft

This is a brilliant scene - the exits and entrances are often bewildering, but they contain several gems:

  • Sparkish speaking about the stage,
  • Harcourt's wooing of Alithea,
  • and Horner's wooing of Margery.

Also, we do not see what happens between Harcourt and Margery - Margery can, therefore, tell her husband and us later (in Act 4, scene 2).

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Act 4, scene 1
What happens in this scene?

It is the day after Act 3. The scene is in two parts.

  • In the first part, Lucy forces Alithea to see the folly of loving Harcourt yet marrying Sparkish. Alithea remains resolute for she has given her word. Lucy's view of mercenary marriage is clearly the dramatist's.
  • In the second part, Sparkish's credulity is exposed again as Harcourt pretends to be Ned, brother (twin) of Frank, a parson. This enables him:
    • to make a last appeal to Alithea (who is not fooled);
    • to make a series of weak puns about marrying her;
    • to prevent her marriage, as he is not in holy orders (though a ceremony in due form might in fact be binding).

All three go off with Lucy to solemnize the marriage.

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Act 4, scene 2
What happens in this scene?

This scene also falls into two parts.

  • In the first, Margery tells Pinchwife of Horner's advances. She is very candid; it becomes yet more clear that Horner has not been fooled by the boy's outfit (not after holding her so closely).
  • In the second, Pinchwife dictates a letter from Margery to drive Horner away. While he brings sealing wax, she writes another (encouraging) letter to Horner, whose name she has only now learned. Again, Pinchwife attempts to guard Margery's virtue, but in doing so gives her information which will lead to his cuckolding. She shows the first letter to Pinchwife but substitutes the second, when she seals it.

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Act 4, scene 3
What happens in this scene?

This scene opens with Horner's persuading the doubtful Quack of the swift success of his ruse, which he now proceeds to demonstrate while the Quack hides behind a screen. Lady Fidget, having taken assurance for her honour, embraces Horner, only to be interrupted by her husband, whom she assures that she is trying to tickle Horner. She then pretends to be angry with Horner (who feigns anger at her, too) for not wishing to show her the "china" she has come to buy of him. She storms off (into his chamber) and locks the door. He goes off (by another exit) ostensibly to drag her back.

This allows Sir Jasper to utter innocently what is, for the audience, a filthy double entendre:

"Wife! my Lady Fidget! wife! he is coming into you the back way."

Lady Fidget's reply spells out the joke:

"Let him come, and welcome, which way he will".

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Mrs. Squeamish and her mother arrive (also seeking "china") but fail to locate Horner before he emerges with Lady Fidget who is bearing a piece of real china. He is now unable to supply Mrs. Squeamish, but promises her plenty next time. At this point "China" becomes a euphemism for sexual pleasure. All the characters on stage and the audience share the code - only Sir Jasper is excluded.

The deceived Pinchwife now arrives to insist on the accuracy of the letter and to demand that Horner do as it requests. Horner is amazed, but the audience enjoys knowing both why Pinchwife believes he is keeping Horner at bay, and why Horner cannot understand Pinchwife's enthusiasm for Margery's declaration of love. The exit of Pinchwife enables the Quack to admit the success of Horner's ruse. But Pinchwife returns almost at once with Sparkish, whom Alithea has left, claiming that the marriage has no validity: Harcourt has not followed the rubric (the order of service) and he is not a priest in holy orders.

Horner does not, it seems, know of Harcourt's ruse. Sparkish requests Horner's company for dinner; he insists that Sparkish arrange for Margery to be there.

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Act 4, scene 4
What happens in this scene?

In this brief connecting scene, Pinchwife discovers Margery writing Horner another letter. He locks her up, and refuses Sparkish's request to dine.

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Act 5, scene 1
What happens in this scene?

This scene seems to continue directly from Act 4, scene 4, but Sparkish has gone. In this interval Margery has hit upon the ruse of writing Alithea's name at the bottom of the letter and pretending she, as Alithea's confidante, has written at her dictation. Why would Alithea do this? Because she could disown a letter written in another's hand. This is why she has, according to Margery, asked her sister-in-law to write in her behalf.

Because he thinks Margery too stupid to devise this ruse, Pinchwife is fooled. He is glad to satisfy Horner with Alithea. This "confirms" his groundless suspicions of his sister's lewdness. Margery says Alithea is within, but will only see her brother if she is masked and the light is out. He readily agrees.

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Stagecraft

So Margery turns back on Pinchwife the device of using disguise, which he has earlier taught her. Margery reappears, pretending to be Alithea. Her own husband does not detect the device.

Note the succession of explicit deceptions of appearance:

  • Margery pretending to be her brother, "little Sir James".
  • Harcourt pretending to be his twin brother, Frank (an obvious pun in this name)
  • Margery pretending to be her sister-in-law.

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Act 5, scene 2
What happens in this scene?

Horner, not needed now to squire anyone's wife, is conveniently alone with the Quack. He cannot believe his luck when Pinchwife brings Margery to him. Horner recognises her (though she quickly whispers her explanation to him) while Pinchwife leaves to undeceive Sparkish of the invalidity of his "marriage" and to bring a parson to "marry" Horner and "Alithea" (Margery). Once more he is doing the same as Sparkish, whom he repeatedly ridicules! Sir Jasper brings notice that his wife and others are to visit Horner, as they are so "virtuous". Horner, as Sir Jasper leaves, invites the Quack to be his guest later but not at the "private feast" (on Margery) to which he is now going. He will not expose her to the same publicity as the "virtuous gang".

It is clear that the cuckolding of Pinchwife happens now. In Act 5, scene 4, Horner remarks that he has had no time to "have sent back" his "new mistress". His thinking of sending her back and his calling her his "mistress" tell us he has made love to her.

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Act 5, scene 3
What happens in this scene?

Pinchwife has discovered to Sparkish the alleged love of Alithea and Horner. This provokes Sparkish into a bitterly jealous reproach of Alithea - Lucy points this out to her. When Alithea says she wishes such as Sparkish to have the title of cuckold, Lucy suggests she make him deserve it. Alithea shows her virtue by reproving Lucy for this.

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Act 5, scene 4
What happens in this scene?

This scene holds a brilliantly farcical resolution and Lucy, abetted by the "virtuous gang", saves the day. That is, she saves Pinchwife's public reputation and Margery's honour. Pinchwife is fairly certain he has been cuckolded, but is prepared to accept Lucy's version of events, as this allows him to preserve some dignity.

  • In the first section the ladies, free to speak frankly, admit to all their deceits. Finding (not very surprising) that all share Horner's secret, and his favours, they agree amicably to share him, too. Sir Jasper and old Lady Squeamish are quite happy to find the three women with Horner
  • In the second part, Horner is confronted by Pinchwife and Alithea whom he claims to have just brought to Horner. To save Margery he affirms this. Harcourt has come with her, as have Sparkish, Lucy and a real Parson. He now confers with Horner, who resigns to Harcourt his supposed "claim" to Alithea's hand. Margery now appears and virtually gives the game away.

When Sir Jasper and his circle arrive they ridicule Pinchwife's claim that he has been cuckolded by Horner. Lucy explains that she encouraged Margery to tell lies and pretend to be Alithea to further Alithea's match with Harcourt.

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The resolution of the play

Unfortunately by denying Lucy's claim (that she does not at all love Horner), Margery again threatens to expose the truth. So Horner now calls on the Quack to affirm that he is indeed impotent. All the "virtuous" ladies support this, as does Dorilant who whispers to Margery. She has just alluded to her "certain knowledge" (of Horner's virility, evidently) but been cut short. Pinchwife is ready to accept this version of events, but is not really convinced. Margery recognises that she cannot be rid of her "musty husband" and do as she chooses. Lucy finally gets Margery off the hook by saying that all her claims to love Horner and to know him to be potent were lies to upset a jealous husband.

In an epigrammatic quatrain Pinchwife states his readiness to deceive himself for his own peace of mind.

Now comes a "dance of cuckolds" - whether the others take part is not clear as only Sir Jasper and Mr. Pinchwife have been cuckolded in the course of the play.

Horner has the last word, as he follows with his own quatrain stating that a man must be ready to be despised by his fellow man, if he is to win women's love.

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Specimen exam questions

  • "The play is concerned with self-deception and hypocrisy." How far do you agree with this judgement?
  • How, in the play, does Wycherley examine foolish and mercenary attitudes to love?
  • How might a production of the play effectively communicate Wycherley's chief concerns to his audience?
  • Does this play present women in an unfavourable light?
  • Consider the importance, to the plot and themes of the whole play of any, or all, of the following scenes: 3.2 (the breeches part); 4.1 ("Ned" Harcourt); 4.3 (the "china" scene); 5.4 (the resolution of the play).
  • Consider the play as a debate about love and marriage.
  • Is it appropriate that the actress who plays Lady Fidget should have the last word (i.e. speak the Epilogue)?
  • "A foolish rival and a jealous husband assist their rival's designs" (Horner; Act 3, scene 2). How far does the drama support Horner's statement?
  • How far does this play, as a comedy, attempt serious debate about sexual politics?
  • Does this play, first performed in 1675, have any value for modern audiences?

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