The Country Wife is a Restoration comedy, that is, an English theatrical comedy written during the period 1660-1710, when theatrical performances resumed in London following their 18-year spell of illegality under the reign of the Puritan...
William Wycherley was probably born on or around May 28, 1641; scholars are uncertain as to the exact date. His place of birth was the town of Clive in the English county of Shropshire, and his parents were Daniel, High Steward in the household of the Marquess of Winchester, and Bethia, a lady-in-waiting to the Marchioness. During the English Civil War, which began in 1642, the Marquess’s estates were confiscated and he was thrown in prison, leaving Daniel to act as his deputy. Daniel continued in this position until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660; during this time he accumulated considerable savings, with which he later purchased a moderate estate in Shropshire.
At about age 15 William was sent to study in western France, where he encountered the sophisticated culture of the salons, in particular the salon of the aristocratic Madame de Montausier. Both the literary and the religious attitudes of this circle influenced him, and he converted to Roman Catholicism. Shortly before the Restoration, at about age 18, he returned to England and, upon going up to Oxford, reconverted to Protestantism. His Oxford career was a brief one, as by 1660 he was in London at the Inner Temple, ostensibly studying the law, though his lifelong contempt for the legal profession suggests that he may not have applied himself very avidly.
Wycherley’s doings between the ages of 20 and 30 are obscure; he may have spent time abroad and may even have participated in a naval battle in 1665. By age 30, however, he was certainly back in London: his first play debuted at the Theatre Royal, performed by the King’s Men, in 1671. Love in a Wood was an instant success, establishing Wycherley as a fashionable writer and wit. His new social circle was an exalted one, and he would eventually gain the patronage of several aristocratic personages, up to and including King Charles II himself. Wycherley’s second play, The Gentleman Dancing Master, was put on by the Duke’s Men at the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1672; it was a disappointment. His third play, The Country Wife, graced the stage at the Theatre Royal in 1675 and was a popular triumph. In 1676 his fourth and final play, The Plain Dealer, was presented at the Theater Royal; it, too, was a success, and it was viewed during his lifetime as Wycherley’s signature work.
After composing The Plain Dealer, at about age 35, Wycherley would write no more plays, even though his life was not yet half over. Poor health and financial difficulties began to afflict him, and he pursued several different stratagems for coming into money without working for it. One disastrous gambit was his secret marriage, in 1679, to the widowed Countess of Drogheda. This compulsively jealous woman terrorized Wycherley in life and beggared him in death: upon her passing in 1681, Wycherley inherited not her fortune, as he had expected, but a 15-year lawsuit, as the Countess’s family disputed her first husband’s will. Debts landed Wycherley in prison in 1682.
King James II, an admirer of The Plain Dealer, settled Wycherley’s debts and released him from prison four years later, in 1686. James even granted Wycherley a pension of £200 per year, but this pension ceased in 1688 when James fled England and William III acceded. Thereafter Wycherley resigned himself to living in a small way, dividing his time between London and Shropshire. In London he reigned over Will’s Coffee House, the watering hole of the prominent writers of the day, including the playwright William Congreve and the poet Alexander Pope. The teenage Pope, in particular, became a friend and even revised some of Wycherley’s verse; the published volume, which appeared in 1704, was not well received.
Illness, depression, and financial hardship beset Wycherley in his final years, and the capstone of these afflictions was a very sordid transaction that led to his remarriage in 1715 at age 74. A cousin of Wycherley’s, one Captain Thomas Shrimpton, suggested that Wycherley might discharge his debts by marrying a young woman named Elizabeth Jackson and, with her, a considerable dowry. Wycherley had no interest in this scheme, as his physical condition was deteriorating rapidly at the time; having recently reconverted to Catholicism, he was more interested in the sacrament of last rites than that of matrimony. Shrimpton, however, availed himself of everything from threats to physical compulsion, and in the end Wycherley submitted to ceremony, eleven days before his death on New Year’s Eve.
Inevitably, the litigation over Wycherley’s will favored the widowed Elizabeth over Wycherley’s nephew. Shrimpton and the new Mrs. Wycherley were lovers, of course, and they married three months later, leaving the late dramatist on the wrong end of just such a cynical plot as he might once have delighted to write into his comedies.