Refresher on Comedy of Manners and the link within The Country Wife
In the story The Country Wife, we see plenty of examples within the text and the personalities of the characters we meet that are resembling a direct focus on the ideas of Humanism, a major theory of thought at the time this play is set. Humanism, in simple terms, is the philosophical idea of human behavior being a result of emphasizing human needs rather than the work of a divine or supernatural force. We see a lot of things within this play, but where exactly do we see this link between humanism and the characters that make the story? Where do these characters prove that their actions are to benefit themselves rather than to please God? A simple answer to that is; everywhere.
In the beginning of the play, the first characters we meet are Horner and The Quack, who are discussing the genius of Horner’s new plan. He has faked a surgery that went wrong, leaving him impotent, simply because he wants to sleep with the wives of the surrounding characters. With him being considered impotent in the eyes of the men, they will not see him as a threat, but more as a helper. Someone who can do the things with the women they do not want to do. In the very beginning, Horner is talking to Sir Jasper immediately after his conversation with The Quack.
“Sir Jaspar: Won’t you be acquainted with her Sir? (Aside.) So the report is true, I find by his aversion to the Sex; but I’ll play the wag with him. (Aloud) Pray salute my Wife, Sir.
Horner: I will kiss no Man.s Wife for him, Sir. I have taken my eternal leave of the Sex already, Sir.”
(The Country Wife Act 1, Scene 1)
What we are seeing here is the first example of a situation being created to benefit Horner and his desires, while disregarding his reputation in the eyes of God. In the story of Adam and Eve, death is called upon when the two decide to lie to God and follow the words of the serpent. Because of this, lying becomes a sin and is therefore displeasing in the eyes of the Lord. With this time in history being influenced by social standings and economical class, it was normal for people to present themselves in ways that pleased the others around them. Reputation relied, and still does rely, heavily on behavior. Religion was still a major social belief and society was framed around the belief of higher powers, in most cases in history. What Horner was doing when he created this lie for the benefit of his own sexual desires was fall into his first example of Sin. His lies straight from the beginning of the play show us that this story isn’t going to follow a traditional frame of society, but an exaggerated one that proves that personal desires overcome God’s desires and how a higher power would want you to behave.
It’s not just the men, however, that follow this frame of humanistic desire. We see plenty of examples within the women of this play that also show us that society as a whole, both male and female, have these same desires and will act upon them if they are safe from the judgements of society rather than the judgements of divine beings. In Act 4, Scene 3, otherwise known as the ‘China Scene’, we get a very in depth glance at yet another Sin being committed here by Horner and Lady Fidget, this time in the category of Lust and even Greed.
“Horner: If you talk a word more of your Honor, you’ll make me incapable to wrong it.
Lady Fidget: But you can’t blame a Lady of my reputation to be chary.
Horner: Chary—I have been chary of it already, by the report I have caused of myself.
Lady Fidget: Ay, but if you should ever let other women know that dear secret, it would come out. Nay, you must have a great care of your conduct, for my acquaintance are so censorious and detracting that perhaps they’ll talk to the prejudice of my Honor.
Horner: Nay Madam, rather than they shall prejudice your Honor, I’ll prejudice theirs. And to serve you, I’ll lie with them all, make the secret their own, and then they’ll keep it.
Lady Fidget: A secret is better kept, I hope, by a single person than a multitude, therefore pray do not trust anybody else with it, dear, dear Mr. Horner. (Embracing him.) (The Country Wife, Act 4 Scene 3)
Here, we are seeing the beginning of what becomes the scene that had this play banned from the stage for hundreds of years. When Lady Fidget states she is chary, she is talking about her worry of her reputation being ruined for her desire to sleep with Horner. They continue going on, talking about the fact that if too many people learn of Horner’s lie, then word will get out to the husbands. Lady Fidget continues to express the fact that she believes it is a secret best kept between them rather than having Horner sleep with all of the women in an attempt to make this secret something they all must hold because of their unfaithful behaviors. After this, Sir Jasper walks in, Lady Fidget lies, and then in the room over Horner and Lady Fidget have sex as they explain they are “searching for China.” Though it is more exciting seeing the text of the actual scene itself, that is not the point here. The point is that Lady Fidget as well as Horner go to great lengths to defend this secret and still engage in the desires they hope to fulfill. Horner has succumbed to Greed as he sleeps with people’s wives for his own benefit. They both lie compulsively to keep the secret going. And they prove that the only thing holding them back, especially in Lady Fidget’s position, is the possibility of their reputations in society being jeopardized. Not once do they reference their reputations in the eyes of a divine power, because deep down they are absent minded to the idea that these actions could affect the way they view religion and their beliefs.
So with that being said, it’s interesting to see the ideas these characters have. In a time of Protestant and Catholic uprising, they only define their roles in the world based on their reputation from other everyday people. This entire story, though a Comedy of Manners, is still viewed directly from a Humanistic approach and puts into perspective the failed ability to place personal desire beneath their outwards seeming beliefs they preach to society.
- The Country Wife. William Wycherley. 1675. Play.
- Wycherley, The Country Wife Introduction. The Virginia Anthology. Article.