Humanism in Restoration Comedy

Refresher on Comedy of Manners and the link within The Country Wife

Image result for 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.

 

Sources:

  • The Country Wife. William Wycherley. 1675. Play.
  • Wycherley, The Country Wife Introduction. The Virginia Anthology. Article.

 

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Wycherley’s Country Wife: What’s In a Name?

They say that the eyes are the window to the soul, but when it comes to literary characters names are the written equivalent. Perhaps nowadays in a world where most celebrities have unknowingly entered themselves into a “weirdest baby name” competition, names have taken on a different purpose and reasoning.

 The modern state of naming, whether it be in the literary sense or not, is questionable. However back in the days of yore (for the sake of this post the Restoration period), names in literary works had a multitude of wonderful functions.

 William Wycherley’s The Country Wife is a standout example when it comes to the multi-functionality of character names. These character’s names perform two major functions:

 1. to illuminate the character’s true nature

2.  to inspire humor within the reader

One of the main characters (he might even be our antagonist…that’s up for debate), Mr. Horner, is one of the most obvious illustrations of these functions. His surname is explicitly tied to his inclination towards debauchery, as the main plot point for the play is Horner’s rumor-fueled quest to  conquer every one of his friend’s wives. As Martha Fletcher Bellinger writes in her article on Restoration drama

The heroes of the Restoration comedies were lively gentlemen of the city, profligates and loose livers, with a strong tendency to make love to their neighbors’ wives.”


In plain terms, our main character is a rakish man who is “horny” and certainly potent, though his male counterparts are led to believe otherwise. So, Horner’s name performs both of the functions we defined; it illustrates his intentions in an obvious way and that in itself fulfills the second function. The blunt nature of his name is what contributes to the humor surrounding it, as despite the repetition of his surname by the various characters he interacts with (combined with his questionable actions), they all remain more or less oblivious. 


Horner makes his intentions towards women very clear from the beginning. In Act I, Scene I he tells the quack, “Doctor, a good name is seldom got by giving it one’s self, and Women no more than honor are compassed by bragging.” In other words, Horner is a by-product of his reputation just as women are. Yes, his surname is of Anglo-Saxon origin and comes from those who make musical instruments, but in Wycherley’s play Horner is Horner because it is, simply put, his nature. The Restoration period is defined by its obsession with wit and nature (of the human variety), and Wycherley harnesses both of these concepts within The Country Wife.


Another possibility regarding the significance of Horner’s name is that it is a reference to the devil himself. Considering that Restoration literature is a rebellion against the staunch restrictions imposed by Puritan rule, Wycherley naming one of his main characters after Satan is an ironic throwback to more pious days. Horner…horny…horned? No need to leap very far to get to that one!


Another character from Wycherley’s comedy of manners is Pinchwife, and boy is his name full of sad, sad truth. Pinchwife is newly married to Margery, an “innocent” country girl, and he fears that his friends will steal her away from him therefore rendering him a lowly cuckold.

Pinchwife’s attitude towards his wife (really, just women in general) and his tendency towards violence is hidden within his surname. This exchange between Horner and Pinchwife in Act I, Scene I speaks to his unsavory and undesirable nature:

Horner: But tell me, has Marriage cured thee of whoring?

Pinchwife: Well, Gentlemen, you may laugh at me, but I know the Town. 

Horner: But prithee, was not the way you were in better than Marriage? 

Pinchwife: A Pox on it, the Jades would jilt me.  I could never keep a Whore to myself.

Pinchwife’s name denotes two possible interpretations, both wholly valid and telling. The first is that as a bachelor he cannot keep a whore and he can barely even “pinch” a wife, taking to the country to find an innocent girl who will marry him. The dialogue between Horner and Pinchwife is dripping with sarcasm, as Pinchwife is not in any way a “lady’s man” like his male counterpart. Horner uses this as ammunition and fires metaphorically at Pinchwife knowing that it will only bother him further.

Another way to construe the name Pinchwife is as a reference to his violent nature. Though his name is quite lighthearted and even humorous, his empty threats point towards darker realities. One of these many empty threats can be found in Act IV, Scene II:

Pinchwife:  Write as I bid you, or I will write “Whore”with this knife in your Face.

These numerous empty threats made by Pinchwife, while not fulfilled, also reveal what it was life was like for women during this period. Women were practically powerless and what power they did wield was gifted to them in the form of reputation. Pinchwife threatening to carve “whore” into Margery’s face is 17th century domestic violence coupled with the possibility of crippling his spouse’s livelihood. And any hope she might have of marrying someone who actually loves her and doesn’t try to mutilate her.

As previously mentioned, the two major functions of naming are to illuminate a character’s true nature and to inspire humor within the reader. As far as Pinchwife is concerned, the first function is absolutely met however the second function is not as successful as with Horner. Sure, Pinchwife’s sad-sack status with women is comical in conjunction with the banter of the other men however the emphasis is less on humor in his case. 

With the Restoration author’s obsession with the classics in mind, it only makes sense that the names of the characters within their works would be meaningful and complimentary to the themes and motifs of the play. Horner and Pinchwife’s names are much more than something to call them, they are a brilliant device utilized by Wycherley to embody these themes and motifs in a literal sense. Horner and Pinchwife, with their qualms about women and marriage, are called Horner and Pinchwife to illustrate their complex relationship with these ideas. Wycherley’s The Country Wife is a bawdy representation of life during the Restoration period and the characters that dwell within play a major role in portraying how human nature is flawed and in turn humorous.

Bellinger, Martha Fletcher. “Restoration Drama.” Theatre History. Web. 13 Feb. 2016. <http://www.theatrehistory.com/british/restoration_drama_001.html&gt;.
The Country Wife. Digital image. Palm Beach State College News Center. Palm Beach State College, 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.
Wycherley, William. “The Country Wife.” The Country Wife (1675). Winthrop University. Web. 13 Feb. 2016. <http://faculty.winthrop.edu/vorderbruegg/winthropweb/current/scripts/CountryWife–acting%20version–revised.pdf&gt;.