William Wycherley (c. 1640 – January 1, 1716) was an English dramatist of the Restoration era. He was born in England, and lived and traveled abroad most of his life. He wrote plays known for wit and sarcasm, especially evident in his most popular play, The Country Wife, which is thought to be one of the most well-written comedies during the Restoration period. In general, the term "Restoration" is used to denote the literature that began and flourished due to Charles II. It was a particularly contentious time. The Puritan revolution had begun with the execution of the king, for which some elements of English society never forgave them. Further, the attempt by the Puritans to dictate the values and mores of society ultimately ended in a spectacular failure.
After Charles II was crowned, the theater became a place in which the anti-thesis to puritan values became manifest. Whether in reaction to puritan values, or simply a response to the years of violence and bloodshed that had preceded the period of restoration, the theater became primarily an expression of baudy irreverance. Unlike the great tragedies of Elizabethan drama, it was comedy that struck a chord with the audiences of Restoration theater. These comedies treated sexuality in a fashion previously unheard of, and for the first time made stars of the actors rather than the playwrights, the consequences of which, for good or ill, remain with us even today. For a generation Restoration comedy would rule the stages in England, but it eventually gave way, itself the victim of a pendulum swing in public morals upon the heels of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which spawned a more serious, sober time.
William Wycherley was born in Clive, England, near the county of Shrewsbury, to Daniel Wycherley and Bethia Shrimpton, where his family was settled on a moderate estate of about £600 a year. His father was, at the time, a teller to the exchequer, and later became the chief steward of the Marquis of Winchester (and in that post suspected of peculation).
Like Vanbrugh, Wycherley spent his early years in France, where he was sent, at 15, to be educated on the banks of the Charente in the heart of the precious circle of Madame de Montausier, formerly Madame de Rambouillet. Wycherley was thought by many, especially his friend, Major Pack, to have improved in culture and taste from such an education, during his time at school. His fondness for nature and all its wonders, which later appears in his plays, is said to have began with his time in France as well. Although the harmless affectations of the circle of Madame de Montausier are not chargeable with the refinements of Wycherley's comedies, they seem to have been much more potent in regard to the refinements of Wycherley's religion. His time and association in this circle is said to have a great affect on his life and career in general.
After his time in France, he returned to England shortly before the restoration of King Charles II, and lived at Queen's College, Oxford where Thomas Barlow was provost. Under Barlow's influence, Wycherley returned to the Church of England, from which he had previously strayed. However, Wycherley did not participate in academia while at Oxford in any formal sense, as his name is entered in the public library under the title of "Philosophiae Studiosus" in July 1660. According to his writings, he lived in the provost's lodgings during this time. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that Wycherley took classes of any kind of even worked towards a degree during his time at Oxford.
During this time, Wycherley turned his back on Roman Catholicism once more, which many, including Macaulay hinted that this had something to do with the patronage and unwonted liberality of the future James II. Wycherley became somewhat of a loose cannon in such a society, as he felt constrained by such extremities. However, his nickname of "Manly Wycherley" seems to have been earned by his straightforward attitude to life.
Interest in Literature
After Wycherley left Oxford, he took up residence at the Inner Temple, where he had been entered in 1659. Although his family intended for him to study law, Wycherley gave little attention to the study and practice of law. It was obvious from early on that his only interests were the stage, and the pleasure that he derived from writing and watching performances.
In his younger years, Wycherley also spent time in the armed services, as a naval officer, though little is known about the specifics of his experience there. Due to his background and heritage as a gentleman, Wycherley is said to have committed to the service because he felt it a polite thing to do as a gentleman, for his country. In the epilogue to The Gentleman Dancing Master, his second play, Wycherley writes, "all gentlemen must pack to sea." The impact that of service on his work is debated. Whether Wycherley's experiences as a naval officer, to which he alludes in his lines "On a Sea Fight which the Author was in betwixt the English and the Dutch," occurred before or after the production of Love in a Wood is a point upon which opinions differ. Popular opinion suggests that his service probably took place not only after the production of Love in a Wood but after the production of The Gentleman Dancing Master, in 1673.
Wycherley's personal life is much intertwined with that of his career. It was after the success of The Plain Dealer that the turning point came in Wycherley's career and life. For a young man of talent but no means, it was considered advantageous to marry a widow, young and handsome, a common theme of Wycherley's plays. For the young sophisticate it was considered best to marry a peer's daughter and spend her money upon wine and numerous women. It is rumored that while talking to a friend in a bookseller's shop at Tunbridge, Wycherley heard a woman request a copy of his play, The Plain Dealer. This woman was not in want of fortune, being the countess of Drogheda (Letitia Isabella Robartes, eldest daughter of the 1st Earl of Radnor and widow of the 2nd Earl of Drogheda), and therefore, was an excellent prospect for Wycherley, as she was both rich and handsome. This relationship was very beneficial to Wycherley, who, shortly after an introduction, moved quickly into a serious relationship with her. It was only a matter of time before the two were married. This was said to be a very secretive marriage, probably in 1680, for, with Wycherly fearing to lose the king's patronage and the income therefrom. Due to such, Wycherley was thought to continue to be able to pass as a bachelor in public in front of all the ladies.
However, his marriage did not remain a secret for long. News of his marriage spread. It quickly reached the royal ears, and deeply wounded the father anxious about the education of his son. Wycherley lost the appointment that was so nearly within his grasp and lost indeed the royal favor forever. He never had an opportunity of regaining it, for the countess seems to have really loved him, and just as in his play, Love in a Wood, had proclaimed the writer to be the kind of husband whose virtue prospers best when closely guarded at the domestic hearth, which Wycherly proved to be. Wherever he went, the countess followed close behind, and when she did allow him to meet his boon companions it was in a tavern in Bow Street opposite to his own house, there were certain protective conditions to ensure his fidelity. In summer or in winter he was obliged to sit with the window open and the blinds up, so that his wife might see that the party included no member of a sex for which her husband's plays had advertised his partiality.
She died, however, in the year after her marriage to Wycherly, and left him the entirety of her fortune. However, this was not as pleasant as it initially appeared, as the title to the property was disputed and the costs of the litigation were heavy, so heavy that his father was unable (or perhaps he was unwilling) to come to Wycherley's aid. The result of the death of his wife, the rich, beautiful, and titled widow was that the poet was thrown into the Fleet prison. There he remained for seven years, being finally released by the liberality of James II. It is thought that King James had been so much gratified by seeing The Plain Dealer acted that he paid off Wycherley's execution creditor and settled on him a pension of £200 a year.
Later Years and Death
While he appears to have been a somewhat villainous creature in his later years, Wycherley did show some compassion throughout his life that cannot go unrecognized. It is thought that due to his time in debtor's prison, he grew a cold heart to others in need. However, he aided in bringing Buckingham notice of the case of Samuel Butler, in order to help free him. He also remained true to the teachings and religions of his friend, Volaire. Among the 99 religions with which Voltaire accredited England, there is one whose permanency has never been shaken, which is the worship of gentility. To this Wycherley remained faithful to the day of his death.
Other debts still troubled Wycherley, however, and he never was released from his embarrassments, not even after succeeding to a life estate in the family property. Nearing Wycherley's death, the worst accusation ever made against him as a man and as a gentleman was, that at the age of seventy-five, he married a young girl in order to spite his nephew, the next in succession. Knowing that he must shortly die, Wycherly gave the estate to his new wife and not his nephew. Before his death, Wycherley made her promise she would never again marry an old man, and she obeyed, with her marriage to his young cousin, Thomas Shrimpton, after Wycherly's death. Wycherley died of unknown causes in London in 1716, after a spiteful and tragic ending to his life, and was buried in St. Paul's Covent Garden.
Wycherley's first play, Love in a Wood, was produced early in 1671 at the Theatre Royal in London's Drury Lane. It was published the next year, with Wycherley insisting to many, until he was finally believed, that he wrote it the year before he went to Oxford. This would mean that Wycherley wrote such a play at the tender age of 19, which many believe to be inconceivable. However, due to Wycherly's persistent boasting, many have reconsidered such a possibility. Some factual evidence, in the form of historical details within the play itself, would suggest that he did not write it when he was nineteen. Macaulay points to many of these anachronisms, such as the allusions in the play to gentlemen's periwigs, to guineas, to the vests which Charles ordered to be worn at court, to the Great Fire of London, among others, as evidence that the comedy could not have been written the year before the author went to Oxford; many such details occurred after that time. However, some argue that since the play was not produced till 1672, these kinds of allusions to recent events are the kind of additions which any dramatist with an eye to freshness of color would be certain to weave into his dialogue. The debate is still alive, and it may never be known when he wrote the play with any certainty.
His second comedy was published in 1673, but was probably acted late in 1671. In The Gentleman Dancing Master, the mingling of discordant elements destroys a play that would never in any circumstances have been strong. Later in his career, Wycherley wrote verses, and, when quite an old man, prepared them for the press with the aid of Alexander Pope, then not much more than a boy. But, notwithstanding all Pope's tinkering, they were not successful. Pope's published correspondence with the dramatist was probably edited by him with a view to giving an impression of his own precocity. The friendship between the two cooled, according to Pope's account, because Wycherley took offense at Pope's numerous corrections of his verses. It seems more likely that Wycherley discovered that Pope, while still professing friendship and admiration, satirized his friend in the Essay on Criticism.
It is in Wycherly's two last comedies—The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer—that Wycherley's fame rests. The Country Wife, by far his most popular and taught play, was produced in 1672 or 1673 and published in 1675, is full of wit, ingenuity, high spirits and conventional humor.
The Country Wife
The Country Wife is a Restoration comedy which is a product of the tolerant early Restoration period. Throughout the play, an aristocratic and anti-Puritan ideology are reflected, and was controversial for its sexual explicitness even in its own time. Even its title contains a lewd pun. It is based on several plays by Jean-Baptiste Molière, with added features that 1670s London audiences demanded, such as a colloquial prose dialogue in place of Molière's verse, a complicated, fast-paced plot tangle, and many sexual inferences and jokes. It turns on two indelicate plot devices: a rake's trick of pretending impotence in order to safely have clandestine affairs with married women, and the arrival in London of an inexperienced young "country wife," with her discovery of the joys of town life, especially the fascinating London men.
The scandalous trick and the frank language have for much of the play's history kept it off the stage and out of print. Between 1753 and 1924, The Country Wife was considered too outrageous to be performed at all and was replaced on the stage by David Garrick's cleaned-up and bland version, The Country Girl, now a forgotten curiosity. The original play is again a stage favorite today, and is also acclaimed by academic critics, who praise its linguistic energy, sharp social satire, and openness to different interpretations.
The Country Wife is more neatly constructed than most Restoration comedies, but is typical of its time and place in having three sources and three plots. The separate plots are interlinked but distinct, each projecting a sharply different mood. They may be schematized as Horner's impotence trick, the married life of Pinchwife and Margery, and the courtship of Harcourt and Alithea. The three plots are as follows:
1. Horner's impotence trick provides the play's organizing principle and the turning-points of the action. The trick, to pretend impotence in order to be allowed where no complete man may go, is (distantly) based on the classic Roman comedy Eunuchus by Terence. The upper-class town rake Harry Horner mounts a campaign for seducing as many respectable ladies as possible and thus cuckolding or "putting horns on" their husbands: Horner's name serves to alert the audience to what is going on. He spreads a false rumor of his own impotence in order to convince married men that he can safely be allowed to socialize with their wives. The rumor is also meant to assist his mass seduction campaign by helping him identify women who are secretly eager for extramarital sex, because those women will react to a supposedly impotent man with tell-tale horror and disgust. This diagnostic trick, which invariably works perfectly, is one of The Country Wife's many running jokes at the expense of hypocritical upper-class women who are rakes at heart.
Horner's ruse of impotence is a great success, and he has sex with many ladies of virtuous reputation, mostly the wives and daughters of citizens or "cits," i.e. upwardly mobile businessmen and entrepreneurs of the City of London, as opposed to the Town, the aristocratic quarters where Horner and his friends live. Three such ladies appear on stage, usually together: Lady Fidget, her sister-in-law Mrs Dainty Fidget, and her tag-along friend Mrs Squeamish—names that convey both a delicate sensitivity about the jewel of reputation, and a certain fidgety physical unease, or tickle—and the dialogue gives an indefinite impression of many more. The play is structured as a farce, driven by Horner's secret and by a succession of near-discoveries of the truth, from which he extricates himself by aplomb and good luck. A final hair-raising threat of exposure comes in the last scene, through the well-meaning frankness of the young country wife, Margery Pinchwife. Margery is indignant at the accusations of impotence directed at "poor dear Mr. Horner," which she knows from personal experience to be untrue, and is intent on saying so at the traditional end-of-the-play public gathering of the entire cast. In a final trickster masterpiece, Horner averts the danger, joining forces with his more sophisticated lovers to persuade the jealous Pinchwife to at least pretend to believe Horner impotent and his own wife still innocent. Horner never becomes a reformed character but is assumed to go on reaping the fruits of his planted misinformation, past the last act and beyond.
2. The married life of Pinchwife and Margery is based on Molière's School For Husbands (1661) and School For Wives (1662). Pinchwife is a middle-aged man who has married an ignorant country girl in the hope that she will not know to cuckold him. However, Horner teaches her, and Margery cuts a swathe through the complexities of London upper-class marriage and seduction without even noticing them. Restoration comedies often contrast town and country for humorous effect, and this is one example of it. Both Molière in the School For Wives and Wycherley in The Country Wife get a lot of comic business out of the meeting between, on the one hand, innocent but inquisitive young girls and, on the other hand, the sophisticated seventeenth-century culture of sexual relations which they encounter. The difference, which would later make Molière acceptable and Wycherley atrocious to nineteenth-century critics and theater producers, is that Molière's Agnes is naturally pure and virtuous, while Margery is just the opposite: enthusiastic about the virile handsomeness of town gallants, rakes, and especially theater actors, she keeps Pinchwife in a state of continual horror with her plain-spokenness and her interest in sex. A running joke is the way Pinchwife's pathological jealousy always leads him into supplying Margery with the very type of information he wishes her not to have.
3. The courtship of Harcourt and Alithea is a conventional love story without any direct source. By means of persistence and true love, Horner's friend Harcourt wins the hand of Pinchwife's sister Alithea, who is, when the play opens, engaged to the foppish Sparkish. The delay mechanism of this story is that the upright Alithea holds fast virtuously to her engagement to Sparkish, even while his stupid and cynical character unfolds to her. It is only after Alithea has been caught in a misleadingly compromising situation with Horner, and Sparkish has doubted her virtue while Harcourt has not, that she finally admits her love for Harcourt.
The play ends in laughter, with most of the characters resorting to their original, unhappy states.
William Wycherly's most popular play, The Country Wife has become well-known globally, acted and taught by many all over the world. His wit and style in his plays gives Wycherley continuous attention, said to be one of the greatest writers in the Restoration period.
He is also said to have added to the English vocabulary, as he is believed to have coined the expression "nincompoop" in one of his plays. The Oxford-English dictionary also cites Wycherley as the first user of the phrase "happy-go-lucky" in 1672.
- Love in a Wood
- The Gentleman Dancing Master
- The Plain Dealer
- The Country Wife
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- McMillin, Scott. Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy (Norton Critical Editions). New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company; 2 Sub edition, January 1997. ISBN 0393963349.
- Wycherly, William. Country Wife. London: Methuen; New edition, September 2007. ISBN 0713666889.
- Wycherley, William, and Peter Dixon. The Country Wife and Other Plays: Love in a Wood; The Gentleman Dancing-Master; The Country Wife; the Plain Dealer (Oxford World's Classics). USA: Oxford University Press New Ed edition, August 29, 2002. ISBN 0192834541.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
All links retrieved May 14, 2023.
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