The country wife, Dance of the Cuckolds.
The most obvious meaning of the dance is that it is a symbolic representation and mocking parody of the literal cuckolds in the play, who are right there in front of the dancers: Sir Japer Fidget and Pinchwife; and, though he is not yet married, Sparkish has an honorary position in this group, having forced Harcourt into his fiancee's arms. These men, placed on the stage among all the other characters from the play, watch the dancers perform their humiliation, with various levels of understanding: Sir Jasper, as oblivious as always, is unaware that the dance applies to him, and Pinchwife must knowingly and patiently endure the humiliation just as he must endure Margery's betrayal. At this level of symbolism, the dance is simply "an obscene and mocking short-hand for the play's action," which does not elaborate beyond the literal sexual meaning of cuckolding. (6) But more than the critique of the foolishness of husbands and the faithlessness of wives and "friends," the play shows that much more is wrong in this world than simply adultery, and this more complicated error applies to all (or almost all) of the characters on the stage. After all, the dance is not of cuckolds and cuckolders, which would more accurately reflect the play's action. So how might cuckolding be a more inclusive metaphor that would involve the whole world of the play--and, by implication, of the audience?
To answer this question, I want to look first at the theatricality of meaning in the period, its relationship to the new materialist interpretation of the world, and the related attitudes toward language that interpretation brought. In the seventeenth century, it was a truism that life was not like theater; it was theater, or, as John Bowman puts it in discussing The Country Wife's audience, "The same baroque theatricality and artificiality which we perceive as characteristic of the plays were also to be seen in the society attending the theatre." (7) One thing the critics agree on is that the thought of The Country Wife is about theater, that the play thematically is about the troubling distance between appearance and reality, or appearance and nature, as Norman Holland prefers to put it in order to underscore that appearance is as much real as anything else in this world. (8) Horner is right in his diagnosis of his society's disease: "Affectation is [nature's] greatest Monster" (265), and with consummate affectation, as he--this sign of a sign of a man--says it, he is its greatest exemplar. Furthermore, the corruption of language is the most insistent form of that monstrosity; in The Country Wife, as David Morris claims, "language itself has become the ultimate form of appearance." (9) Language is the most important part of the general theatricality of meaning.
The period's attitudes toward language and its instability were linked with the New Science and materialism's ability to explain the world with greater power than the traditional spiritual explanations from religion had. Just as it was no longer God and his "love that move[d] the sun and the other stars" but gravity, so the New Science attempted to chase the spiritual out of explanations of how language worked. (10) On the stage, the period's philosophy of materialism was represented most often by its most fervent and logically consistent proponent, Thomas Hobbes. In his attempts to efface the realm of the spiritual, Hobbes mocked the use of such terms as "immaterial substances," (11) traditionally used to define the spiritual, and even went as far as to define God as a "corporeal spirit," (12) a degree of materialist critique that few involved in the New Science would agree with. In The Country Wife specifically, most of the characters have only materialistic motives, not only greed and sex but also the desire for power, which Hobbes sees as the ultimate force that governs humankind: "The passions that most of all cause the difference of wit, are principally, the more or less desire of power, of riches, of knowledge, and of honour. All which may be reduced to the first, that is, desire of power" (62). The world of Wycherley's play and the world it imitates are in a moment of history when society is increasingly seeing itself governed and defined by materialist forces, the famed "dissociation of sensibility." (13) It is important to note as well that the stage Hobbes was a misconstruing of the real Hobbes. This misunderstanding was most clearly formed in the public mind by the scandals and controversy that centered on the Scarsgill affair, which involved a Cambridge Hobbist who was forced to publically recant his Hobbism, calling the philosophy "the Accursed Atheism of this age." (14) From this point in the late 1660s on, atheism, libertinism, and immorality--positions not directly argued for in Leviathan, but always suspected by his opponents to be supported by his philosophy--became intimately associated with Hobbes because the public now had a real sordid Hobbist to hang all their suspicions upon.
The new materialist philosophies had consequences for theories about language by increasingly stripping language of its divine, spiritual link. Earlier notions of language dwelt on its divinely motivated origin. Traditionally, Gods language was thought to be echoed in Adam's language: "Originally Adam shared God's language by which creation was brought into existence in the beginning. Because this language, traditionally agreed to be Hebrew, was the formal cause of the creation, it bore an innate relation to what it named." (15) Thus, Adam's names for the animals were thought to reveal their true essence. Even as late as Wycherley's day, discussions of language proposed an intimate connection between properly functioning language and God's presence. Even though after the tower of Babel man distances himself from the divine origin of language, a trace of the divine origin still resides in language. (16) As James Thompson describes this more traditional Christian attitude toward language, "the Word of God creates and sustains an ordered, rational cosmos, wherein meaning or signification is neither arbitrary nor extrinsic, but the intrinsic spark of divine presence. To use a Thomistic term, the words of men 'participate' in the Word of God, for it is from the Logos that all meaning derives." (17)
With the late seventeenth century's materialist critique, the link between language and God is severed. Words become simple arbitrary "counters" (Leviathan 37), "marks," or "signs" as Hobbes calls them (.Leviathan 34). "For the seventeenth century," Margreta de Grazia writes, "language becomes more the slipshod invention of illiterate man than the gift of omniscient God." (18) Hobbes's version of the Adam story quickly implicates the arbitrary nature of language and points out that any divine motivation that Adam's language had was totally lost after the tower of Babel (Leviathan 33-34). Thus, in the late seventeenth century, language is seen as arbitrarily at variance from reality and consequently in need of restoration. Many attempts at language reform in the seventeenth century attempted to reestablish an Edenic connection between the word and nature. One of the more ambitious examples of these attempts to rectify the arbitrariness of language is John Wilkins's entirely new philosophic language whose "course is parallel with the course of things." (19) James Thompson characterizes the goal of these new languages or "real characters" as a will to "forge an indestructible bond between the signifier and the signified, making misunderstanding impossible by excluding ambiguity and choice in meaning. Once one word clearly and precisely signifies only one thing, language will accurately reflect the created world." (20) Likewise, Hobbes sees language as the root of man's perverted relationship to reality. Through language, man's reason is betrayed into absurdity: man's privilege of reason is "allayed by another; and that is, by the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only" (Leviathan 43). The seven causes of the betrayal of reason into absurdity are all misuses of language (Leviathan 43-45). All of Hobbes's attempts at language reform were efforts to reestablish a non-arbitrary relationship between it and reality or truth; Hobbes strives for stability in definitions in language so that a man can seek "precise truth" or else "he will find himself entangled in words, as bird in lime twigs" (Leviathan 36).
The theatricality and arbitrariness of language in The Country Wife reflects much that is found in Hobbes. His commonwealth is really founded on language; without it the commonwealth would not be possible:
But the most noble and profitable invention of all other, was that of SPEECH, consisting of names or appellations, and their connexion; whereby men register their thoughts; recall them when they are past; and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which, there had been amongst men, neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears, and wolves. (Leviathan 33)
A meaningless condition exists outside of language because no truth or falsehood can exist without it: "For true and false are attributes of speech, not of things. And where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood" (Leviathan 36). This, of course, does not mean that everything is true within the commonwealth; in fact, this is where falsehood can now thrive. In the commonwealth one has the choice to live within falsehood or truth, to use or abuse language. And overwhelmingly, the characters of The Country Wife choose falsehood. Their whole realm of meaning is an empty, deceitful mask, and language is the most prominent and foundational tool of their deceit.
However, it is only partly within the context of materialism and Hobbes that the play must be understood. Ultimately, materialism is in the play only to show its shortcomings. Most of Wycherley s contemporaries saw the consequence of embracing materialism as atheism. As one of the Cambridge Platonists, Ralph Cudworth, put it, "It is certain that the Source of all Atheism, is generally a Dull and Earthly Disbelief of the Existence of things beyond the Reach of Sense." (21) Hobbes was repeatedly accused of being an atheist despite his protestations to the contrary, and even the more mainstream proponents of the New Science spent a great amount of energy fending off the suspicion that they were atheists. Through the play's characters' choice to live in a world of language as arbitrary facade, that is, to adopt the materialists' critique of the world but without any of their remedies, they have seemingly chased God out of their world. (22) The theological consequence of their lying, of this arbitrariness of words, is an alienation from God: "To lie is to attempt to create an alternative 'truth,' another order, an attempt to usurp the creative power [of divine speech]. Lies constitute different, contradictory significations in denial of God's truth." (23) The Hobbesian materialist world of arbitrary meaning shows us a world that is seemingly bereft of a divine presence. Because the word becomes just another material object divorced from any spiritual meaning, no motivation--divine or otherwise--between word and thing needs to exist. What we have is a commonwealth of falsehood. Because words float arbitrarily over the world they are meant to describe, the characters live in an epistemological state of mistrust if they are wise. Of course, Hobbes is not arguing for such a state of deceptive language any more than Wycherley is; Hobbes and the popular culture's "Hobbism" are not the same thing. Falsehood, which Hobbes calls using words "metaphorically" (Leviathan 34), is a corruption of speech. It is the second in his list of abuses of speech. The proper functioning of his commonwealth implies the proper functioning of language. The commonwealth is fundamentally a covenant or a contract, which in turn is merely the obligation of keeping true to your word.
In the play, the theological and epistemological implications of the arbitrary or empty sign are best exemplified by marriage. Marriage should be an institution of great spiritual significance but is repeatedly associated with the whole complex of Hobbes's materialistic world. The war of all against all is often linked to marriage through the characters' metaphors: a wife is a soldier that will turn against you without good pay (271); or a "weak place, soon got, soon lost" (354); or "the most dangerous" of "secret enemies" (323). As well, marriage is merely a business transaction where Pinchwife gives Sparkish "five thousand pound to lye with [his] Sister" (268). And animal metaphors are frequently applied directly to marriage: wives are just animals "soyl'd or unsound" (269), and a husband is a "Grasier" (269). But above all these other links, marriage is more clearly linked to the materialist interpretation of the world because of the unfaithfulness of the married characters, which makes marriage the most arbitrary of signs. Charles Hallett points out that marriage is the central metaphor of the play because it represents Hobbes's social contract. (24) However, the idea of meaning itself as it is produced through language, not just the idea of contract, is also embodied in the idea of marriage. Like language in the play, marriage is almost always a deception, an act of unfaithfulness. Both marriage and language are defined by questions of faith: the word is as untrue to its referent as the wife is untrue to her husband (or vice versa in Alithea's case). Thus, as marriage in this world is synonymous with cuckolding, so language is synonymous with lies, that other form of unfaithfulness. Where there is cuckolding there can be no trust, or rather, there is always trust betrayed. Not that marriage must imply unfaithfulness or falseness by necessity. Faithfulness or truth, that other by-product of the arbitrariness of language, is always a possibility. But the characters almost never choose it. What we have in this world is more an institution of cuckolding than an institution of marriage. This works back to how the characters use language in the play, where the word holds no faith with what it refers to, yet all the characters are still married to that word. Thus, figuratively, all (or almost all) meaning is a cuckolding.
While telling Horner how virtue operates in her world, Lady Fidget inadvertently gives the best definition of how cuckolding is the central symbol for meaning in this materialist's world: "our virtue is like the State-mans Religion, the Quaker's Word, the Gamester's Oath, and the Great Man's Honour, but to cheat those that trust us" (351). While this might appear to be Lady Fidget teaching Horner that all the women's virtues were just masks for their vices, (25) it is really something he has already expressed directly--to the extent he is ever direct--to Lady Fidget in the first act:
Lady Fidget: Ay, he's a base rude Fellow for't; but affectation makes not a Woman more odious to them, than Virtue.
Horner: Because your Virtue is your greatest affectation, Madam. (261)
At the first level this is a sneer at the fact that her virtue is only an affectation, but he is also saying that affectation is what Lady Fidget holds as her real virtue (as later she calls that closely related term, her honor, her "Jewel of most value and use, which shines yet to the world unsuspected, though it be counterfeit" ). He knows she knows she has no real virtue, only its appearance. And just after this encounter with Lady Fidget, Horner and his two friends broaden this perception out to include all of society in terms almost identical to those Lady Fidget uses in the later drinking scene quoted above:
Horner: A Pox on'em, and all that force Nature, and wou'd be still what she forbidsem; Affectation is her greatest Monster. Harcourt: Most Men are the contraries to that they wou'd seem; your bully you see, is a Coward with a long Sword; the little humbly fawning Physician with his Ebony cane, is he that destroys Men. Dorilant: The Usurer, a poor Rogue, possess'd of moldy Bonds, and Mortgages; and we they call Spend-thrifts, are only wealthy, who lay out his money upon daily new purchases of pleasure.
Horner: Ay, your errantest cheat, is your Trustee, or Executor; your jealous Man, the greatest Cuckold; your Church-man, the greatest Atheist; and your noisy, pert Rogue of a wit, the greatest Fop, dullest Ass, and worst Company.... (265-66)
Here is the world of "materialist" language at its chaotic worst, ripe for reformation by a Wilkins or a Hobbes. All social figures and institutions are a deceit to those foolish enough to trust to them, and a foolish trust is the defining characteristic of cuckolding. Even at this moment when he bemoans affectation, Horner, as its greatest operator, is practicing it with his "friends," who do not know he is not a eunuch. All of these relationships listed by the men and Lady Fidget are like cuckolding: they are used "to cheat those that trust us." If one lives in this world, if one is in this commonwealth, one is living in a cuckoldom. Thus, all the characters on the stage are figuratively cuckolds, knowingly or unknowingly. Cuckolding, that is, deceiving those who trust you or being cuckolded, is the element that all the characters swim in. These intricate performances of deceit can figuratively be called "the dance of the cuckolds," for which Wycherley will provide the literal emblem at the play's end. Society, as it is shown in the play and as it is promised to continue beyond the play, is a self-serving conspiracy of deceit, best summed up by Pinchwife's final lament, where cuckolding is defined as deceiving others and also deceiving yourself:
For my own sake fain I would all believe. Cuckolds like Lovers shou'd themselves deceive. But--sighs-- His honour is least safe, (too late I find) Who trusts it with a foolish Wife or Friend. (360)
If one knows enough, as Pinchwife does, one knows one is a cuckold as well as one's own cuckolder. In fact, all three plots show three separate instances of men acting as their own cuckolders or, more precisely, in league with their cuckolders. (26) For the sake of the commonwealth's appearance of peace (since this world's meaning is founded on appearance) and the appearance of honor it grants him, he weds himself not only to Margery, but also to this society at large. He puts his sword away rather than have his world explode literally and openly into the war of all against all. By embracing the empty sign, Pinchwife and the other materialists who think themselves so smart and who "know the town" are also left with the world of empty meaning.
Horner and the "virtuous gang" are the most obviously complicit with this world. One may even see Horner as its "hero," as Norman Holland does, (27) but Holland also qualifies his eminence by saying that Horner is really "locked in the prison of his own hedonism" (28); he is only a "knave of the first rate," as Rochester might call him. (29) Horner doesn't manage to really avoid any of the evils of the state of nature in his cuckolding commonwealth; he and all those who are not trustworthy create a phantasm of lies. All meaning becomes corrupt and inverted. Peace, the true end of a commonwealth (Leviathan 129), is really just an illusion; the open war of all against all is merely transformed in this world of the empty sign, of words not kept, into a secret war: if men do not respect their covenants, that is, keep their word, as Hobbes claims, "covenants are in vain, and but empty words; and the right of all men to all things remaining, we are still in the condition of war" (Leviathan 113). Almost all of Hobbes's dictum about the state of nature--that it is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan 100)--applies to Horner's world. "Foh, 'tis a nasty World" (283) is Lady Fidget's judgment, while she shows herself to be a part of it. She also calls Horner a "nasty Fellow" (285). Pinchwife's brutality toward his wife and those around him is always bubbling up almost to the point of exploding. And while "poor" and "short" are arguable terms, Horner is certainly alone at the play's end, isolated from even his "friends," who know nothing about his real situation, and he would not have them know. (30) The sin of materialism is its own punishment. While Horner is the greatest wit, he is also the prince of lies in this commonwealth of deceit. (31) Having abandoned the presence of the Word for only its facade, Horner represents a world that is ultimately meaningless. These characters are followers of the "anti-word," or anti-logos, with all that this means in its Christian sense. (32) In the religious allegory that lies behind the Hobbist one, by stripping the world of the meaning that faithfulness to the Word gives, the characters surrender the spiritual level of existence and live in a materialist world that maintains only a parody of the spiritual world of truth, only an empty shell of meaning.
The two other cuckolding plotlines of the play, which center around Margery and Alithea respectively, conflict in opposite ways with the ethos of cuckolding, on the literal and epistemological level. Both these women, at least at first, cannot be cuckolders. In their own different ways, they are not subjects in the commonwealth of deceit. At first glance there are similarities between them: they are sympathetic, and both have a kind of innocence, but each of a different kind. The word innocent is used most frequently for Margery, but her innocence is more an ignorance. Eve-like, (33) she does not even know what jealousy is:
Alithea: O he's jealous, Sister.
Mrs. Pinchwife: Jealous, what's that?
Alithea: He's afraid you shou'd love another Man.
Mrs. Pinchwife: How shou'd he be afraid of my loving another man, when he will not let me see any but himself. (273)
But this is not really Edenic innocence. She seems to have reasonably human emotional responses to everything around her (fear and lust, for example); however, she does not know the name of the emotion. She is more an example of someone living outside language or living only within a very rudimentary version of it; thus, as Hobbes defines it, she is someone who cannot fully know truth and falsehood. She is someone who is not yet ready for a commonwealth of any kind. Not only does she not know the word but also her answer shows she cannot quite understand the logic of truth and falsehood, as when she says, "How should he be afraid of my loving another man, when he will not let me see any but himself?" (273), not understanding that seeing someone is the first step to temptation. This is a pattern she repeats when Pinchwife asks her if she loves him above the actors and she answers, "You are my own Dear Bud, and I know you, I hate a Stranger" (275). Her reassurance really undermines any reassurance because the reassurance is only that the actors are strangers, a situation that can quickly change. Her extreme form of ignorance radiates out to all forms of social interaction beyond language, but it is founded on that primary one.
Although she is not really an ideal character, she cannot yet be--either literally or epistemologically--a cuckolding character either because of her naive linguistic state. This is not because of her fidelity to Pinch wife; she clearly would have sex with another man as soon as she got a chance and as soon as she even understood what adultery was. She has not entered fully enough into the world of truth and falsehood, the world of language, to be capable of that. (34) Rather, she cannot cuckold someone because she cannot disguise her desires behind words (or other signs). She represents honesty, not truth. Unlike the cuckolders, Margery, at first, can be trusted. The distance between word and thing has not opened up for her to hide within. Even as Pinchwife forces Margery into the world of deception, his "commonwealth," she still tenaciously maintains her inability to deceive, which is why he married her. Pinchwife entirely and correctly believes her relation of what has gone on between her and Horner: "but for this confession, I am obligd to her simplicity" (318). She is so totally unaware of the force of appearance, of word over thing, that she laughs at the world of words that marriage is, at the legal and moral importance the words "husband" and "wife" confer on a couple:
Mrs. Pinchwife: What care I, d'ye think to frighten me with that? I don't intend to go to him again; you shall be my Husband now.
Horner: I cannot be your Husband, Dearest, since you are married to him.
Mrs. Pinchwife: O, wou'd you make me believe that--don't I see every day at London here, women leave their first Husbands, and go, and live with other men as their Wives, pish, pshaw, you'd make me angry, but that I love you so mainly. (354)
She cannot yet see marriage as the sign that it is nor human society as founded on signs. Concomitantly, she is the farthest from being a master of figurative language, as her letter "without Flames, Darts, Fates, Destinies, Lying and Dissembling" (334) to Horner supports. Unlike the masters of wit who can negotiate their way through this linguistically sophisticated world of the duplicity of the word, Margery is witless; and, as Julie Stone Peters notes, "The successful characters understand the importance of figurative language." (35) She must be schooled in signs, from the meaning of "jealous" to writing letters to putting on disguises; and Pinchwife, despite himself, is her ardent teacher, his own serpent in this parody of the Garden of Eden. Margery slowly learns the duplicity that is necessary to survive in this culture of cuckolding, to the point where we are shown the ludicrous triumph of disguise that has her dressed up as Alithea, leading Pinchwife to Horner to deliver her up to him. But even at this point Margery hasn't become a true cuckolder. Her complete transformation is saved for the final scene, when her last spark of "innocence" is snuffed out. Through the pressure of all those around her, the cuckolding commonwealth, Margery lies, puts up the facade that her marriage is not violated. She has created the false surface that Pinchwife now puts faith in; she is, against her will, a real cuckolder, and enters into the dismal world of falsehood.
While Margery signifies at first one opposite to the language of deceit and disguise that Lady Fidget and Horner represent, Alithea, "Truth," is the other opposite, the one that embodies the satirists positive values. In Alithea, there is a manifestation of an anti-materialist world, where something like a divine presence, a real meaning, is shown. Alithea, unlike Margery, is always within language. But how she deals with both marriage and language shows how it is possible to be in this commonwealth and yet not be a cuckolder, literally or figuratively. Alithea is the only one who attempts to heal the wound that has opened up between the word and the thing, the sign and its substance, in this postlapsarian world. While she does not exactly create an Edenic coincidence of word with thing, she does maintain a willful adherence between her word and its referent that is the act of faith that guarantees truth, a way of maintaining the link to the divine spark of the Word. (36) It is important to stress that Alithea is not an untheatrical figure in opposition to the "masked" Lady Fidgets and Horners of her world: there is no meaning in the fallen world that is not theatrical. That distance in language that permits the possibility of falseness, as well as truth, is always there. The distinction between conceptions of the ineradicable mask of meaning is demonstrated in this exchange between Alithea and Pinchwife:
Pinchwife: ... a Mask! no--a Woman mask'd, like a cover'd Dish, gives a Man curiosity, and appetite, when, it may be, uncover'd, 'twou'd turn his stomack; no, no.
Alithea: Indeed your comparison is something a greasie one: but I had a gentle Gallant, us'd to say, a Beauty mask'd, like the Sun in Eclipse, gathers together more gazers, than if it shin'd out. (293-94)
His metaphor shows a world of rot beneath the mask; hers is one of beauty and light. Both involve the mask; it is an inalienable part of meaning (which Alithea knows and Margery must learn), but choices are still to be made about what goes on behind the mask.
Alithea unfailingly, and, according to most critics, foolishly, adheres to her word. (37) But one must not read this foolishness, as it certainly seems to be from the materialist characters' perspective, in the context of a realistic character. Alithea is every bit as improbable a character as Margery. She is--as is everyone else in the play--highly allegorical, and her foolishness must be interpreted as a symbol itself. While she does find love in the play, she is not primarily a figure of romantic love. She does not love Sparkish; rather, she will not break her word to him. Her lack of love is not important; she said she would marry him, and she will, as "Truth," make her word cohere to reality, make it cohere to what it represents. Alithea's agreement was never motivated by love; it was motivated, as she admits once she is free of Sparkish, by her desire, as an "an over-wise woman of the Town ... for fortune, liberty, or title" (347-48). But she did demand "truth" from Sparkish, without which she could dissolve the bond between them: "He only, not you, since my honour is engag'd so far to him, can give me a reason, why I shou'd not marry him; but if he be true, and what I think him to me, I must be so to him" (309). Once her word is given, she will never "cheat those who trust her." She is married as truthfully to her word as she would be to Sparkish. She is a symbol of adherence to the word, not the figure of naive honesty that Margery is. Confusing these categories, at least one critic sees Alithea as representative of truth only ironically and as involved in the corruption of meaning as are the other characters because occasionally she does not speak entirely honestly, as when she lies to save Harcourt from being killed by Sparkish. (38) The difference between Margery's honesty and Alithea's truth can be seen in their respective marriage relationships. Margery does honestly attach herself to Pinchwife until she finds something better. Then she merely dumps Pinchwife "honestly." Alithea never loves Sparkish; her adherence to him is purely on the level of the word, of sign, a level Margery cannot understand, at least not until she is finally educated to lie. Alithea also finds better in Harcourt, but the realm of the word and language has a more important claim on her than her honest feelings. That is why she maintains what is apparently an absurd faithfulness to Sparkish or what one might even call a dishonest one, especially in our post-romantic world where one is supposed to be true to oneself above all else. Only once the bond of the word is broken by Sparkish does she create a new bond with Harcourt. She leaves Sparkish not so much honestly as honorably.
Although Alithea shows how to operate in a truthful fashion in a cuckolding world, her behavior might seem hopelessly naive. She does not have a wit as sophisticated as Harcourt's to negotiate the intricate masks of deception of this world:
Alithea: I have no obligation to you.
Harcourt: My love.
Alithea: I had his before.
Harcourt: You never had it; he wants, you see jealousie the only infallible sign of it.
Alithea: Love proceeds from esteem; he cannot distrust my virtue, besides he loves me, or he wou'd not marry me.
Harcourt: Marrying you, is no more sign of his love, than bribing your Woman, that he may marry you, is a sign of his generosity:
Marriage is rather a sign of interest, than love; and he that marries a fortune, covets a Mistress, not loves her: But if you take Marriage for a sign of love, take it from me immediately.
Alithea: No, now you have put a scruple in my head; but in short, Sir, to end our dispute, I must marry him, my reputation woud suffer in the World else. (279)
Alithea, through her faithfulness to her word and her inability to read the signs of this world properly, has set herself up to be cuckolded (or, more precisely for a woman, "cuckqueaned") by Sparkish's facade of faith. Not that Alithea is totally inept at reading the signs of the world, as her wittier grasp of Harcourt's double-leveled performances in front of herself and Sparkish makes clear. But her faithful word forces her to behave in a fundamentally un-Hobbesian way, that is, against her own self-interest. In this behavior, she is like the figure of honesty and truth from Rochester's "A Satyr against Mankind":
And honesty's against all common sense, Men must be Knaves, 'tis in their own defence. Mankind's dishonest; if you think it fair, Amongst known Cheats, to play upon the square, You'le be undone-- Nor can weak truth, your reputation save, The Knaves will all agree to call you Knave. (39)
While the world of this poem and Wycherley's play are strikingly similar, they are not exactly the same. Up until Margery's disclosure that she was the one delivered to Horner, Alithea's critics (and one could put Rochester among them) are right; her trust is apparently foolish. But we see events force themselves upon this world and are shown a force beyond the material interpretation of its workings. In a providential fashion--"in the nick of an exigency, for the relief of innocence"--Alithea is delivered from the hell of a cuckolding world when Harcourt places faith in her word. (40) Not only in terms of marriage but also in the broader social sense, Alithea is right when she says, "Women and Fortune are truest to those that trust 'em" (360). Fortune, or Providence, aligns itself with those who have faith; although the faithful seem to be fools, they are God's fools. Alithea falls within the tradition that M. A. Screech has called "Good Madness" in Christianity, where "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise" (1 Corinthians 1:27[AV]) or, as St. Anselm puts it, "Since wisdom of this world is foolishness to God, and vice versa, it follows that we cannot be truly wise unless, to the world, we are fools." (41) Alithea represents those who benefit from the forces that are beyond those of materialism, a world most of these characters, like little Rochesters, think themselves too wise to trust to. But this foolish faith is what conjures up the spirit; "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1 [AV]). (42) Providence is the hand of God in the world, where the unseen makes itself seen. In her adherence to the Word, with its providential results, Alithea represents the same ideal that Almanzor does in The Conquest of Granada, the first part of which was performed five years, and the second four years, before The Country Wife. Almanzor's attitude to his word expressed here could just as easily be said by Alithea:
He break my promise and absolve my vow! 'Tis more then Mahomet himself can do. The word which I have giv'n, shall stand like Fate. (43)
Alan S. Fisher describes the ideal in the Dryden play as "daring to be wretched." (44) In sharp contradiction to Hobbesian self-interest, Alithea, like Almanzor, practices "Assertive self-abnegation." (45) What Fisher says of Providence in The Conquest of Granada also applies here: "Dryden asserts God's Providence, but he seems to have been at pains to make Providence look silly." (46) The improbability of her fortunate outcome emphasizes the power of Providence that is needed to save her. The point is that, though at first the Hobbists' arrogant rationalism may appear to have a wiser grasp of events, Providence is far beyond it.
Certainly the Christian vision here is not as clearly present in the text as the materialist aspects of the play. But one must remember the context of familiarity with religious concepts of Providence among the audience. The providential ending of this play for this virtuous character (and punishment for the evil ones) is like that described by Thomas Rymer in his description of poetic justice:
that constant order, that harmony and beauty of Providence, that necessary relation and chain, whereby the causes and the effects, the vertues and rewards, the vices and their punishments are proportion'd and link'd together; how deep and dark soever are laid the Springs, and however intricate and invol'd are their operations. (47)
Although its workings are "deep and dark," divine order is displayed in the play's outcome. But beyond the context of the presence of Christianity in seventeenth-century English culture, which convinces me of the need to see the hand of Providence in The Country Wife, there is an aesthetic reason that the Christian aspect of the play is less apparent than the Hobbists materialism. The play is a criticism of materialism, whose central tenet is the obvious presence of truth as empirical fact. The world that the materialists describe is so obviously apparent; their "truth" is there in front of them. However, Christian spirit, which must move in ways that are not so vulgarly apparent, cannot appear with the same obviousness as matter. The point of the play is that materialists (such as the audience) foolishly trust to appearances. Not only do the play's thematics concern materialism, but also its aesthetics are those of a ruthless empiricism, holding up the mirror to the audience on a very materially precise level. The play will not show us what the materialists won't see. Christianity's truth is beyond the evidence of appearances and must be more subtly arrived at. Spirit is a more powerful, though less obvious, truth.
Through their prospective marriage, Alithea and Harcourt manifest a whole different spiritual world of meaning based on faith and trust. With them, we have a real reinstitution of an Edenic pair. Margery is a false Edenic ideal; she is seen by the likes of Pinchwife as "innocent," but she learns only to be untrustworthy and untrue. A true innocence is what Harcourt learns from Alithea. While all evidence is stacked against her innocence, Harcourt, in an identical act of apparently foolish faith, believes Alitheas word that she is not having an affair with Horner. (48) He loves her without jealousy because he trusts to her virtue, in the same way she believed that Sparkish was not jealous because "love proceeds from esteem; he cannot distrust [her] virtue" (279). Trust is Harcourts edification from the play ("I edifie Madam" ): "Madam, then have no trouble, you shall now see 'tis possible for me to love too, without being jealous, I will not only believe your innocence my self, but make all the world believe it" (356)--a very evangelical love. We are far from the Hobbesian world of a selfish grasping after power and of exclusive materialism, and far from the realm of cuckolding meaning. Looking beyond the appearance of things, Harcourt has entered a world of faith, that evidence of things unseen. Through their faith, the couple provides an example of how to heal the wound that has opened up between word and thing, between appearance and nature, in this fallen world. Alithea is not the ignorant Eve that Margery is; she is Eve redivivus, who has the knowledge of good and evil, knows the nature of the potentially arbitrary relationship between word and thing, and so can truly take "the innocent liberty of the Town" (274).
Yet, despite this ray of hope at the end of the play, celebrating the values of Alithea and Harcourt is not the point; they are used as a foil to satirize the values of Horner and his world, which includes the audience. In Dryden's examination of Juvenalian satire, he describes the formal function of a character such as Alithea: "Under this Unity of Theme, or Subject, is comprehended another Rule for perfecting the Design of true Satire. The Poet is bound, and that ex Officio, to give his Reader some one Precept of Moral Virtue, and to caution him against some one particular Vice or Folly." (49) Alithea is that "Precept of Moral Virtue." In this play, we are not shown a couple that will save this world. Rather, we are left with a feeling that the play's "overall effect ... is nihilistic." (50) It may appear as though Wycherley cannot accede to the order of truth that Alithea and Harcourt represent, that "Wycherley cannot really bring himself to believe in them." (51) But Wycherley uses them to show the evil of the world they find themselves in, to show that those around them (not Wycherley) do not believe in this couple and what they represent. In a very Juvenalian fashion, this world is being totally condemned by showing not only that Alithea and Harcourt will not form a new society beyond the play's end, but also that the old corrupt society will continue on, dominant, thereafter.
To hammer home the Juvenalian force of the play, its final image-the tableau of the dance of the cuckolds--and the nature of meaning it represents must ultimately be understood within the context of the immediacy of the audience in the performance so that one can see the audience is the true object of the satire. Right from the prologue, Wycherley establishes the antagonistic relationship between audience and playwright that is essential for Juvenalian satire and that makes the audience a presence in the play. (52) The street-fighter image of the first line--"Cudgel'd Bullys" (256)--establishes for the poet the mutually brutal relationship between himself and the audience: they attack first, then the author responds in kind. This poet, unlike a gentler satirist who might wish to comically reintegrate his satiric target into his community, "all yielding Countermands" (256) in the fight to the death with the audience, where no quarter should be given. The actor who performs the prologue also indicates the corrupted nature of this world. While the imagery of war is maintained throughout the prologue, the actor is not presenting himself as a crusading moralist outraged at the audience's world. Certainly, once the play proper starts, he will be the agent of the moral ends of its author. As an employed actor directed by an author's text, he has fought for the moral purposes of the author against the audience in the past: "But though our Bayses Battles oft I've fought, / And with bruis'd knuckles, their dear Conquests bought" (256). However, the author's moral purpose is not shared by the actor as a person; it is Mr. Hart, not Horner, who presents himself here to the audience. We see him stepping for this moment outside the moral framework of the play, outside his role, to show himself as morally weak as the audience. He is willing to take quarter from their "saving hands" (256) not because they are morally upright, but because he is not. He whorishly submits "to a full Pit" (256), and, forecasting the nature of the world of the audience and of that depicted in the play, he is willing to surrender even his mother to their lusts: "We patiently you see, give up to you, / Our Poets, Virgins, nay our Matrons too" (256). Even before we have entered into the play, the world in which the play is performed--not the world the play imitates, though it will be seen to be the same, but that of the audience at that theater on that night--seems to have no morals. The world is so corrupt the playwright cannot even trust his actor.
The prologue establishes an uncomfortable sense of antagonism between playwright and the audience, who know the author sees them as the enemy. Yet, paradoxically and perhaps even more forcefully, Mr. Hart creates a kind of complicity between the audience and himself. As Jocelyn Powell puts it, "by gently prodding the audience into laughter against the poet and applause for the actors, [the prologue] establishes them ... as accomplices to the action." (53) The prologues insinuation with the audience, Powell says, is further built upon by the opening aside of the play: "Hart's opening aside transfers their complicity from himself to his character, and establishes a relationship which is fundamental to the satirical force and emotional depth of the play." (54) The audience should identify Horner, who is Mr. Hart, as one of them, as someone who, given his choice, would make common cause with them against the author. And in some sense, as Horner, he does when he fights as the Hobbist materialist who achieves his troubling and dark victory of sorts at the plays end that is in opposition to the playwrights morals.
This dualism of the prologue--the morality of the playwright versus the immorality of the audience--permeates the play and divides the criticism of it. There is a more accommodating "comic" surface in the play where Horner is the hero and the materialistic attitudes of the audience are applauded, a reading of the play best typified in the criticism by Virginia Ogden Birdsall's Wild Civility or, in a similar mode that also blithely blunts Wycherley's satire, by Judith Milhous and Robert Hume's belief that the "audience is invited to enjoy its superiority, not threatened by the possibility that it must identify with what is attacked." (55) But somewhere behind this pleasing comic surface is the moral indignation of the playwright. The prologue is a forecasting of the sophisticated irony where the actor--and by extension the play--gives in to the public vice (a kind of baiting or entrapment of the audience (56)), but at a deeper level is controlled by that denigrated voice of the poet offstage, who condemns the morally bankrupt world in a Juvenalian fashion. This is in its own way a form of cuckolding meaning that is performed upon the audience by the playwright, hoisting them with their own petards. They believe in the surface of the play as they believe in the surface of the world; both are shown to be deceptions. As greater meaning is found beyond materialism, so is the greater meaning of the play found beyond the immediate surface victory of the materialist hero Horner. The aesthetic of the play, its newness, is based on a precise imitation of the immediate world around it; it is its own little materialist experiment.
This involved and direct relationship among audience, playwright, and performers is peculiar to the Restoration. (57) Even within the play, Sparkish draws attention to the nature of this new relationship between the audience and the performance by defining it as a kind of magic:
Sparkish: Damn the Poets, they turn'd 'em [Sparkish's songs] into Burlesque, as they call it; that Burlesque is a Hocus-Pocus-trick, they have got, which by the virtue of Hictius doctius, topsey turvey, they make a wise and witty Man in the World, a Fool upon the Stage you know not how; and 'tis therefore I hate'em too, for I know not but it may be my own case; for they'l put a Man into a Play for looking a Squint: Their Predecessors were contented to make Serving-men only their Stage-Fools, but these Rogues must have Gentlemen, with a Pox to'em, nay Knights: and indeed you shall hardly see a Fool upon the Stage, but he's a Knight; and to tell you the truth, they have kept me these six years from being a Knight in earnest, for fear of being knighted in a Play, and dubb'd a Fool.
Dorilant: Blame'em not, they must follow their Copy, the Age. (297)
This exchange makes it clear that the target of the new kind of satire is not Wycherleys social inferiors but those of his own class of that precise moment in history, and that the imitation is ruthlessly accurate:
Dorilant: Don't you give money to Painters to draw you like? and are you afraid of your Pictures, at length in a Play-house, where all your Mistresses may see you.
Sparkish: A Pox, Painters don't draw the Small Pox, or Pimples in ones face. (298)
The aesthetic of the play is as accurate a reproduction of the material world as any New Scientist could wish his language to be. The audience, moreover, is not only the subject of the play but part of it. The unusual closeness, in fact even presence, of the audience in the play is well exemplified by a recent revival of The Country Wife, whose director instructed the actors to deliver eighty percent of their lines to the audience and twenty percent to each other because the "actors were expected to play with the audience as much as for them." (58) Likewise, Norman Holland stresses the audience's presence: "It seems almost needless to say it, but a fourth-wall conception of drama will be fatal to the artificiality necessary in a production of Restoration comedy.... The production must stress the feeling that the play is a mirror of the audience, that it only partly represents a reality of its own. The actors ought to be as aware of the audience as the audience is of them." (59)
This focus on the audience brings me back to my overarching concern about the dance of the cuckolds and the audience. That the dance represents the whole world of the plays social relationships and of meaning itself as cuckolding is not the end of the symbolism of the dance. Near the play's end, as the audience looks upon the stage, they see all the characters crowded around the dance of the cuckolds. At that moment the stage holds both a performance (i.e. the masquers) and an audience (Horner, the Ladies, Pinchwife, et al.). We have the situation of the audience being allegorized on the stage, clearly making a link between them and the play. As Horner and the others watch the dance of the cuckolds, they are functioning as symbolic stand-ins for the audience. As they watch the dance, so the audience has this evening watched The Country Wife, in its own symbolic way a dance of the cuckolds. The lessons that the characters (as audience) are to take from that dance in front of them are also lessons the audience is to take from the performance they have just seen. The audience of course are not all literal cuckolds, that first level of meaning of the dance, but they are implicated in this grand dishonest world of "affectation" that is its second level of meaning. The intimacy between the audience and the actors, and the audience's identification with them, bring this fact home even more clearly (which modern audiences, dressed differently and otherwise distanced from the performance, might not feel as sharply as the original audience would have). This new genre--the newness highlighted in the play's epigraph from Horace--makes "a wise and witty Man in the World, a Fool upon the Stage" (297) by directly and pitilessly imitating its immediate world. The aesthetic of this new "comedy of manners" performs the lesson of the playwright: it shows the audience how easily deceived they are by the superficial material world, just as the characters themselves are, no matter how wise they think themselves. The darkness of the vision is made darker by spilling over into the audience, showing how pervasive and inescapable the ugliness is.
The ending of the play shows a stark choice between lies and truth, between what Horner represents and what Alithea represents. As in the duel of wits in the first act, where Horner argues for wine and Harcourt for love, the audience is given the choice between sensual, material pleasures and spiritual ones. It cannot have both: "No, no, Love and Wine, Oil and Vinegar" (264). Having strung along the audiences sympathies for Horner, Wycherley finally makes the audience choose between Alithea and Horner by having the plots collide. (60) The audience may smile at Horner besting the foolish Sir Jasper or Pinchwife, but it cannot smile at his treatment of Harcourt and Alithea. The confusion among the critics about Horners status at the plays end is not really because of Wycherleys ambivalent attitude towards him; it is because of Wycherley's antagonistic attitude towards the audience. Wycherley creates in Horner an embodiment of their values right from the prologue. As the actor who plays Horner comes out to show that he is an unprincipled and cowardly reflection of their values, so Wycherley presents a Horner who likewise is a concession to the audience's Hobbist materialism. The audience's identification with Horner is a calculated strategy to implicate the audience completely in the evil of Horner. But as the poet of the prologue is not with the audience, so the play is ultimately not with them either. That the audience embraces Horner does not speak well of Horner; it speaks badly of the audience. The audience is assumed to accede to the values of Horner not because Horner is right but because the audience is wrong. In fact, Wycherley's attack on the audience seems to have been so successful that it produced the English theater's "first recorded instance of systematic moral protest." (61) The protest was ostensibly because the play, not the audience, was immoral, but Wycherley's rebuttal to the protest in the second act of The Plain Dealer shows, through Olivia's condemnation of The Country Wife, that he thought the protest was a sign that he had made a palpable hit on the hypocrisy of his audience. And if Harcourt and Alithea cannot forge a new world of truth in this diabolical world, it is not because they are weak or do not represent a true ideal; it is because the audience is so immoral they will not choose that virtue. To demonstrate this play's paradoxical genre of precise imitation and yet deceit, the audience, by being entrapped by Wycherley, experiences very much what the characters on the stage experience. What appeared to be the comforting clarity and self-assurance of their perceptions disappears in front of them. Their own wit deceives them as it does Sparkish, Pinchwife, and ultimately Horner. They experience the phantasm of meaning that their materialist grasp of the world offers them.
The whole theatricality of meaning in Wycherley's world is on display in the image of the dance of the cuckolds. Through it, the audience discover that they have been the cuckolds of the play, thinking themselves Horners when they are in fact Pinchwifes, and that this cuckolding is not only in the theater but outside it as well. What Peter Holland says of Restoration comedy in general is especially true of The Country Wife: "The consideration of role-playing in social life that is a fundamental part of the critique of society offered by Restoration comedy is inseparable from the recognition of that comedy as performance." (62) This observation is emphasized by the play's closing with a performance within the performance. Even the virtuous are necessarily caught up in the performance. But, in order to restore truth to this fallen world, one can honorably remain faithful to one's word and thereby to the Word. Wycherley's urbane, cynical audience is wrong: materialism isn't the only truth; it is merely a choice, one they are condemned for making.
(1) William Wycherley, The Country Wife, in The Complete Plays of William Wycherley, ed. Gerald Weales (New York: New York University Press, 1967), 345. All further references to this play are to this edition, cited parenthetically in the text.
(2) Norman Holland, The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1959), 236.
(3) Rose Zimbardo sees the dance of the cuckolds as a parody of the "Hymeneal blessing of the green world comedies of Shakespeare" in "Wycherley: The Restoration Juvenal," Forum 17 (1979): 17-26 (24). Virginia Ogden Birdsall describes it as "the most complete and yet the most ironic enactment of a fertility rite to be found among the major comedies of the Restoration" in Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit in the Restoration Stage (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970), 156; W. R. Chadwick also notices this ironic play on the traditional marriage ending in the dance in The Four Plays of William Wycherley (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), 130; as do Harold Weber in The Restoration Rake Hero: Transformations in Sexual Understanding in Seventeenth-Century England (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 68, and John Harwood in Critics, Values and Restoration Comedy (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 111. Some critics who focus on the sexual politics of the symbolism of the dance are H. W. Matalene, who sees Horner as a defeated character at the end with the dance symbolizing the "celebration of the cuckolded Pinchwife and Fidget households at having safely escaped from Horner's involvement with them" in "What Happens in The Country Wife" Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 22 (1982): 395-411 (409); Peggy Thompson, who sees the dance as an image of the "victims of womens insatiability and deception" in "The Limits of Parody in The Country Wife" Studies in Philology 89 (1992): 100-114 (112); and Derek Hughes, who sees the dance as pointing to the secret society of cuckolds that Horner is establishing with Lady Fidget and the other women in "Naming and Entitlement in Wycherley, Etherege, and Dryden," Comparative Drama 21 (1987): 259-89 (265).
(4) Laura J. Rosenthal, '"All Injury's Forgot': Restoration Sex Comedy and National Amnesia," Comparative Drama 42 (2008): 7-28 (26).
(5) I am alluding to Robert D. Hume's statement that denies the satiric force of The Country Wife: "To call [Wycherley] a serious satirist is probably an exaggeration, for he never goes beyond exposing the obvious to contempt and ridicule. Never, as in Swift, is the audience made to identify itself with what is attacked"; in The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 103.
(6) John Bowman, "Dance, Chant, and Mask in the Plays of Wycherley," Drama Survey 3 (1963): 181-205 (183). This level of the symbolism of the dance is also noted by Kellye Corcoran, "Cuckoldry as Performance, 1675-1715," Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 52 (2012): 549-50.
(7) Bowman, 202. For a brief discussion of the trope that seventeenth-century life is theater, see Jose Antonio Maravall, Culture of the Baroque: Analysis of a Historical Structure, trans. Terry Cochran (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 199-201. Wycherley himself has a poem about this trope, which Norman Holland discusses (60).
(8) Norman Holland, 5.
(9) David Morris, "Language and Honor in The Country Wife," South Atlantic Bulletin 37, no. 4 (1972): 3-10 (6).
(10) Dante Alighieri, The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine: Cantica 3: Paradise, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1962), 347.
(11) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 43. All further references to this text are to this edition, cited parenthetically in the text.
(12) Thomas Hobbes, An Answer to Bishop Bramhall, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. W. Molesworth (London: 1840), 4:306.
(13) For the larger Scientific background on this question in relation to Restoration plays, see Norman Holland, Chapters 6: "Disguise, Comic, and Cosmic," and 11: "A Sense of Schism"; for Hobbes as particular influence on The Country Wife, see Charles A. Hallett, "The Hobbesian Substructure of The Country Wife," Papers on Language and Literature 9 (1973): 380-95.
(14) Jon Parkin, Taming the Leviathan: The Reception of the Political and Religious Ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England 1640-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 249.
(15) Margreta de Grazia, "The Secularization of Language in the Seventeenth Century," Journal of the History of Ideas 41 (1980): 319-29 (324).
(16) de Grazia gives some examples of those who thought that language had a divine origin in the sixteenth century (324). As well, she cites Milton as a later supporter of the idea of God's presence in language (324n32).
(17) James Thompson, "Providence and Verbal Irony in The Country Wife" South Atlantic Review 47, no. 4 (1982): 37-42 (38).
(18) de Grazia, 326.
(19) Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language (London 1668), 21, quoted in de Grazia, 327.
(20) James Thompson, Language in Wycherley's Plays: Seventeenth-Century Language Theory and Drama (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1984), 9.
(21) Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), vol. 1 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1978), 176. This perspective is generally behind Wycherley's use of the materialist/spiritualist dichotomy in the play.
(22) Many critics examine this lack of a link between language and the divine logos in this period and play: for example, James Thompson, "Providence and Verbal Irony" and his Language in Wycherley's Plays, especially 6-36; and Hughes, "Naming and Entitlement in Wycherley, Etherege, and Dryden," 262-63.
(23) James Thompson, Language in Wycherley's Plays, 26.
(24) Hallett, 381.
(25) Some critics see this moment in the play as the triumph of the women and an indication that Horner is in this game of deception over his head. For example, Laura J. Rosenthal writes, "Horner, after all, becomes himself a bit of a country wife in the face of the drunken virtuous ladies, who pass him around like a half-empty bottle and demand a continuous supply of china. Horner tries to be cynical, but he clearly has trouble keeping up" (25). Similarly, H. W. Matalene claims Horner's plan to pretend to be impotent is "ill-conceived and mismanaged" (401) and, by the end of the drinking scene in Act V, he realizes he has "taken on more than he knows how to manage" (410) and is then "irrelevant to the future interests of Lady Fidget and her friends" (408). Derek Hughes sees Horner as becoming in this last scene "the property of a secret society of sexually voracious women" in English Drama, 1660-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 137. However, Horner's deceit is so total that even at this moment when he seems to be letting his guard down, he is still only pretending to be naive and remains entirely in control; he is the consummate literal and figurative cuckolder. Virginia Ogden Birdsall justly calls him "the undeceived deceiver" (154).
(26) David Vieth notices this: "In all three plots, the pattern of self-cuckolding is concretely rendered by situations in which the wife is embraced or kissed by her lover while the husband looks on"; in "Wycherley's The Country Wife: An Anatomy of Masculinity," Papers on Language and Literature 2 (1966): 335-50 (341).
(27) Norman Holland, 83.
(28) Ibid., 125.
(29) John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, "A Satyr against Reason and Mankind," in The Works of the Earl of Rochester, ed. David M. Vieth (Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions, 1995), 100, line 173. Parkin notices the link between Rochester's poem and the use by playwrights of the 1670s, especially Wycherley, of the idea that "society barely concealed a state of war" (307).
(30) Noted by Anne Righter, "William Wycherley," in Restoration Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon Studies 6, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965), 78. James Thompson cites an interesting quote from Bacons "Of Friendship" that equates the friendless state with a state of nature: "it is a meere, and miserable Solitude, to want true Friends; without which the world is but a wilderness" (Language in Wycherleys Plays, 88).
(31) J. Douglas Canfield looks at some further associations of Horner with the devil in "Religious Language and Religious Meaning in Restoration Comedy," Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 20 (1980): 385-406 (393). As does Birdsall, 154.
(32) As J. Douglas Canfield calls them in Word as Bond in English Literature from the Middle Ages to the Restoration (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 141.
(33) Douglas Duncan details the "other peoples Eves" that Wycherley is alluding to through Margery in "Mythic Parody in The Country Wife" Essays in Criticism 31 (1981): 299-312 (302).
(34) In similar terms, Deborah C. Payne says that Margery suffers from "the complete absence of an interpretive system" in "Reading the Signs in The Country Wife" Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 26 (1986): 403-19 (406).
(35) Julie Stone Peters, '"Things Govern'd by Words': Late Seventeenth-Century Comedy and the Reformers," English Studies 68 (1987): 142-53 (151). James Thompson's Language in Wycherley's Plays, 73-91, discusses at great length the characters' relative abilities in dealing with figurative language.
(36) Charles Hallett notices the symbolic importance of Alithea adhering to her word, as the one who adheres to her contract in the Hobbesian sense (391-92). J. Douglas Canfield gives a similar reading of the relationship of Alithea and Harcourt as defined as a version of the feudal "code of the word" (Word as Bond, 135-40). But, as I will show, Alithea is ultimately very un-Hobbesian.
(37) For example, Gerald Weales calls her "stupid" or "corrupt" for supporting Margery's statement of innocence in act 5 and blames her for staying true to Sparkish even after the "dullest person in the audience has recognized him for the fool he is" (introduction to The Complete Plays of William Wycherley, xix); Deborah C. Payne sees that her "critical naivete [does] not betoken an ideal future" (416); Robert D. Hume calls Alithea "stubbornly foolish" and her loyalty to Sparkish "block-headed" (Development of the English Drama, 101); Anne Righter calls Alithea "knowingly foolish" (111) and "wrong" (110) in her faithfulness to Sparkish; James Thompson calls her "foolishly and even dangerously naive" in "Ideology and Dramatic Form: The Case of Wycherley," in Reader Entrapment in Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. Carl R. Kropf (New York: AMS Press, 1992), 168.
(38) Derek Hughes sees Alithea not as truth but as falsehood, an irony that her name only highlights ("Naming and Entitlement," 266), a point he makes again in English Drama, 1660-1700,142.
(39) Earl of Rochester, "A Satyr against Reason and Mankind," lines 159-65.
(40) This is quoted by Aubrey L. Williams from Isaac Barrow, a Restoration cleric, describing the functioning of special providence in An Approach to Congreve (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 28.
(41) M. A. Screech discusses this tradition in his "Good Madness in Christendom," in The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry, vol. 1, ed. W. F. Bynum, Roy Porter, and Michael Shepherd (London: Routledge, 1985), 25-39, and in his Laughter at the Foot of the Cross (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999), "Chapter 31: The Foolishness of God," 124-26. The quote from Anselm is in Laughter, 124.
(42) W. Gerald Marshall alludes to this Biblical line in the context of Harcourt's foolish faith in "Wycherley's 'Great Stage Fools': Madness and Theatricality in The Country Wife" Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 29 (1989): 409-29 (425); I see Alithea as more forcefully the Christian fool and certainly the preponderance of critics see foolishness as Alithea's failing, not Harcourt's, though Marshall is right ultimately because Harcourt becomes "converted" to her way of seeing the world.
(43) John Dryden, The Conquest of Granada, in Plays, ed. John Loftis and David Stuart Rhodes, vol. 11 in The Works of John Dryden, ed. H. T. Swedenberg (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), 126.96.36.199-9. The Country Wife contains an even more obvious reference to The Conquest of Granada when Mr. Hart alludes to his performance as Almanzor in the Prologue: "But though our Bayses Batles oft I've fought, / And with hruisd knuckles, their dear Conquests bought" (256), as Peter Holland notes in The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 184.
(44) Alan S. Fisher, "Daring to be Absurd: The Paradoxes of The Conquest of Granada," Studies in Philology 73 (1976): 413-39 (431).
(46) Ibid., 436.
(47) Thomas Rymer, The Tragedies of the Last Age, in The Critical Works of Thomas Rymer, ed. Curt A. Zimansky (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1956), 75, quoted in Aubrey Williams, "Of 'One Faith': Authors and Auditors in the Restoration Theatre," Studies in the Literary Imagination 10 (1977): 57-76 (61). For the place of Christian Providential readings of the plays in this period, see Aubrey L. Williams, An Approach to Congreve and his rebuttal to its critics in "Of 'One Faith'."
(48) Derek Hughes notices that "Harcourt's affirmation of faith in Alithea's innocence, though justified by the event, is epistemologically hard to distinguish from the cuckolds' continuing faith in their wives" ("Naming and Entitlement," 266). But Harcourt has seen Alithea's repeated insistence on maintaining her word to Sparkish, so he knows that "epistemologically" she is different from the others. As well, that there is no difference is partly the point; he learns to trust and thereby gives into the power of providence, as Alithea has throughout. God rewards those who truly trust and are trustworthy.
(49) John Dryden, "Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire," in Poems 1693-1969, ed. A. B. Chambers and William Frost, vol. 4 in The Works of John Dryden, ed. H. T. Swedenberg (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974), 80.
(50) Righter, 112.
(52) Rose Zimbardo's Wycherleys Drama (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965) and her article "Wycherley: The Restoration Juvenal" have outlined many direct links between Wycherley's work and Juvenal, and, as she also cites (Wycherleys Drama, 60, 124), John Dryden twice directly describes Wycherley's satire as Juvenalian. James Thompson attributes this antagonistic relationship with the audience not to the genre but to the period, "the particular historical situation of a class of writers" ("Ideology and Dramatic Form," 162). While his description of the historical atmosphere is convincing, that does not negate this play being a Juvenalian-styled satire. In fact this historical atmosphere makes aggressive satires more likely.
(53) Jocelyn Powell, Restoration Theatre Production (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 128.
(55) Birdsall, 134-56; and Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, Producible Interpretation: Eight English Plays, 1675-1707 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), 102.
(56) James Thompson looks at this idea in his "Ideology and Dramatic Form," 162-63, but he sees it as a way of attaining approval from a recalcitrant audience; I see it as a way of more cleverly criticizing them. David Vieth in his "Entrapment in Restoration and Early Eighteenth-Century Literature: Introduction," Papers on Language and Literature 18 (1982): 227-33, which introduces a series of essays including Thompson's, notices that one of the features most common to literary entrapment is figure like a Hart/Horner: "A phenomenon observed repeatedly ... is the widespread use of a first-person speaker as a device of entrapment, including characters in plays. Such a speaker is a surrogate, not for the author, but for the reader or theater audience" (229).
(57) Two of the best discussions about this are by Peter Holland in The Ornament of Action, especially 55-69, and Powell, Restoration Theatre Production, especially chapter 1, "Riding the Audience," 3-23.
(58) Joel D. Eis and Stephen Earnest, "The Actor as Archeologist: Aspects of the Dramaturgy of the Restoration Stage Rediscovered in Performance," Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 19 (2004): 22-38 (28, 26).
(59) Norman Holland, 237.
(60) As James Thompson discusses in "Ideology and Dramatic Form," 168.
(61) Arthur H. Scouten and Robert D. Hume, "'Restoration Comedy' and Its Audiences, 1660-1776," in Literature and Its Audience, I, ed. G. K. Hunter and C. J. Rawson, special issue, The Yearbook of English Studies 10 (1980): 45-69 (53).
(62) Peter Holland, 63.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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