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Restoration comedy or comedy of manner is a kind of drama which was predominated between the restoration of English monarchy in 1660 and early 18th century. This kind of drama was concerned with presenting a society of elegance and stylishness; it is an upper class drama which reflects the social world of the court wits. It is an anatomy of life; a commentary on life. Its characters were gallants, ladies and gentleman of rank. It dealt with the complexity of sexual and marital intrigue and also with adultery and cuckoldry. One of the greatest works in restoration comedy is The Country Wife by William Wycherley.
The Country Wife is a story of an intrigue. Horner, a disreputable London rank who has recently returned from France, spreads the rumor that a venereal disease caused him to become impotent in order to win the favor of the ladies from upper class. As the story goes on, it is shown how he gains access to these ladies. One of these ladies is called Margery, The Country Wife, who has married a jealous and suspicious man called Pinchwife. They have come to London to marry Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea. From their arrival to London, Margery, a country frank woman, was not allowed to go out and visit other women of rank just because of her husband’s horror of being cuckolded by his wife. At the end, Horner cuckolds Pinchwife easily and Margery gave up simply, because of having no opportunity, when everything is revealed. In his drama, Wycherley depicted a society in which love has vanished.
Wycherley presented a sexual game in his play artistically. In this research, it is going to study the participants of this game according two notions in modern criticism. The first notion, which is introduced by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick for the first time, is named erotic triangle. The other one is the notion of power which is demonstrated by many the critics. But in this study it is going to focus on the masculine power through out of the play according to feminism. Although almost all the important characters in this play are involved in this game by the playwright, the study’s purpose is just observing the main characters’ behavior according to the two mentioned notions.
The first notion which is going to study here is erotic triangle. This triangle consists of two men in favor of a woman. This scene is presented in this play vividly. With spreading the rumor that Horner is sexually impotent, this triangle shapes between each lady that undertakes liaison with him, her husband, and Horner. But the most prominent triangle represents with Margery, Pinchwife, and Horner throughout the play. Horner and Pinchwife quarrel over Margery directly or indirectly. From the beginning of the play, they argue starts verbally even when Horner have not visited Margery yet. The lines below, from the play, indicates this issue explicitly. The first quotation is uttered by Horner in the play in order to distance himself from Pinchwife’s strategy of marring fool. And the second quote comes directly in the play after Horner’s idea by Pinchwife to show his unattractive view toward women and marriage.
“[M]ethinks wit is more necessary than beauty, and I think no young woman ugly that has it, and no handsome woman agreeable without it.”(Act I, Scene 1, lines 385-87; p. 203)
“‘Tis my maxim: he’s a fool that marries, but he’s a greater fool that does not marry a fool. What is wit in a wife good for, but to make a man a cuckold?”(Act I, Scene 1, lines 388-90; p. 203)
Even the choice of words in the play is in a way to show this struggle more obviously. Horner’s words are chosen by the playwright to inflict upon Pinchwife. As an example, the scene that Horner knows Margery even in disguise planned by Pinchwife in order to hid her from Horner’s sight, Horner declares that “Me thinks he is so handsome, he should not be a man” (Act III.ii.486-87). And the most humorous part in the above scene is when Horner and his friends kiss Margery in front of Pinchwife under the disguise that the “brother” gives the kisses to Margery.
From Sedgwick’s view, the struggle between the men in the erotic triangle is just a way to show their superiority to each other, and the woman is only a means for their goal. This part of the notion is rendered aesthetically in the play. Horner dominates every action in the play, he even controls the plan designed by Pinchwife. The playwright makes this issue clear for the reader or audience when Horner says to his friends, “Did I not tell you I would raise his jealous gall” (Act III.ii.532). The aim of Horner’s behavior is just to affect Pinchwife, and Margery is just a vehicle for him to serve his purpose. Through these manners Horner shows his superiority over Pinchwife, and almost all other male characters in the play.
The other notion which is dominated in the play so vividly is the notion of masculine power. From feminists’ point of view, the masculine power in any society attempts to govern women by dictating or labeling specialized activities and behaviors to them. Masculine power always, through history, wishes to prove its superiority toward women. This research tries to trace this notion in the two male characters’ behavior, Horner and Pinchwife, in the play.
The first scene which indicates the notion of masculine power is when Pinchwife makes Margery to dress like a young boy in order to conceal her wife from other men especially Horner, and also when Pinchwife introduces Margery in disguise as Margery’s brother. From feminists’ outlook, Pinchwife uses his masculine power as a husband toward his wife. And by doing so, he ignores the real identity of his wife as a woman. He acts like the colonizer, in Julia Kristeva’s attitude, and behave with his with as a colonized person. Margery does not have any identity by herself any more.
The colonizer and colonized relation continue even in the scene in which Pinchwife forces his wife to write a letter to Horner and express her hatred toward him. Dictating the letter for her represents the mentioned sequence. The action of writing the letter can also indicates the masculine power in the society which wants to determine rules for the women. In this play, this action renders the women’s duty to be obedient from his husband and act as the husband’s wishes even when there is no logical reason to do so.
Beside all the concepts mentioned above, it should be remembered that the genre of the studied work is comedy of manner. And the aim of this genre is to teach some moral lessons by the means of humor. So regarding this aim, the play’s end can be justified better. The story ends up with Margery’s returning to the same social role as a wife and a woman in the society, but the moral lesson of mocking the traditional categorization of gender and superiority of masculine power remains artistically in the mind of readers or audiences. At the end, Horner also returns to womanizing. Considering the history of restoration comedy can help to illustrate this ending better.
“To the gallants of the court of Charles II, life was a pleasant comedy of which marriage is the main design. The gentleman in the comedy has a host of love affairs and mistresses, but he is neither plagued with love nor resolute in marriage. The married state is commonly made a subject for laughter.”(A Survey of English Literature: Vol. 2, p.53)
So all in all the only aim which Wycherley tried to depict in his master piece is to draw some common behavior of our everyday life into the stage of theater and represent these behavior through humor in order to remind the audience the wrongness of these act though looking right. Wycherley taught the moral lesson indirectly and by making the audience to laugh.
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