The Country Wife

Quotes and Analysis

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“[Y]our women of honour, as you call ’em, are only chary of their reputations, not their persons, and ’tis scandal they would avoid, not men.”

Act I, Scene 1, lines 151-43; p. 197

At the beginning of the play, in the course of explaining the ruse that consummately exposes the corruption of his society, Horner voices most concisely the play’s indictment of “honour” as it is practiced in the Restoration. Echoing the famous funeral speech of Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Cæsar, with its sarcastic refrain of “Brutus is an honorable man,” Horner exposes the emptiness of a concept of honor in which the eye of the world, not conscience or the eye of God, is the authoritative monitor.

“A pox on ’em, and all that force Nature, and would be still what she forbids ’em. Affectation is her greatest monster.”

Act I, Scene 1, lines 243-44; p. 200

Horner speaks this line to Harcourt and Dorilant, apropos of the approaching Sparkish. It is a concise summation of one of the great themes of the play, the moral failing that goes by the name of “affectation” or “hypocrisy,” i.e. the desire to be seen as better or more virtuous than one really is. Horner, speaking in character as an embittered and misanthropic eunuch, naturally uses strong language in enunciating this theme: speaking of poxes and monsters, he channels the hardcore cynic’s disgust with the follies of those around him. Horner is perhaps not the most credible spokesman against affectation, since his ruse involves precisely his pretending to be what he is not; nevertheless, the basic concern is Wycherley’s, and indeed Horner’s ruse, in its smashing success, tends rather to expose and condemn society’s pervasive hypocrisy than to mitigate or excuse it.

“[M]ethinks wit is more necessary than beauty, and I think no young woman ugly that has it, and no handsome woman agreeable without it.”

Act I, Scene 1, lines 385-87; p. 203

In one of his more attractive moments, Horner distances himself from Pinchwife’s strategy of marrying a fool. This sentiment suggests that Horner may not be given over entirely to cynicism, and indeed the impression that he is capable of valuing including women for the right reasons will be substantiated later in the play, when he expresses his regret over the impending marriage of Alethea to Sparkish rather than to Harcourt, who loves her. In addition to the light it sheds on Horner’s characterization, however, this quote enunciates a tantalizing possibility for human relations, namely that women, no less than men, might be valued primarily for the qualities of their personality and intellect, and only secondarily for their eligibility as sexual partners. It is a possibility that is realized (perhaps) in the Harcourt-Alethea relationship but, unfortunately, nowhere else in the play.

“’Tis my maxim: he’s a fool that marries, but he’s a greater fool that does not marry a fool. What is wit in a wife good for, but to make a man a cuckold?”

Act I, Scene 1, lines 388-90; p. 203

Coming directly after Horner has articulated quite an opposite sentiment, this quote is a concentrated expression of Pinchwife’s highly unattractive views on marriage and women. Because his conception of marriage is totally self-interested, Pinchwife’s overriding anxiety is not for his wife’s happiness but for her abstention from adultery. His opinion that “wit in a wife” is good for nothing but mischief bespeaks a basic contempt for women and indicates that he subscribes to the view, common among the husbands in the play, that wives are not companions and equals but simply long-term prostitutes.

“Indeed, as the world goes, I wonder there are no more jealous, since wives are so neglected.”

Act II, Scene 1, lines 342-43; p. 214

Lady Fidget, discoursing on husbands’ jealousy with the rest of the “virtuous gang,” voices a not unreasonable complaint: women who receive no attention or affection from their husbands are likely to seek it elsewhere—so if husbands feel they have cause to be jealous of their wives, they must bear some of the blame for it themselves. Coming from Lady Fidget, this complaint has an interesting resonance: on the one hand, her marriage would seem to be Exhibit A in support of this observation, as Sir Jasper’s indifference to her creates the conditions for her dalliance with Horner; on the other hand, Wycherley certainly does not go out of his way to generate sympathy for Lady Fidget, and most readers will probably feel that her behavior is hardly less selfish than her husband’s.

Sir Jasper: “What, avoid the sweet society of womankind? That sweet, soft, gentle, tame, noble creature woman, made for man’s companion—”

Horner: “So is that soft, gentle, tame, and more noble creature a spaniel, and has all their tricks—can fawn, lie down, suffer beating and fawn the more; barks at your friends, when they come to see you; makes your bed hard, gives you fleas, and the mange sometimes. And all the difference is, the spaniel’s the more faithful animal, and fawns but upon one master.”

Act II, Scene 1, lines 459-67; p. 217

This exchange between Horner and Sir Jasper is a good example both of Horner’s aptitude for his chosen role of impotent misanthrope and of his ability, as a satirist, to draw out the flaws and meannesses of others. Horner’s comparison of women to dogs is vividly nasty, as is the single point on which he will allow that the two species contrast. More subtle, however, is Horner’s implicit comment on the values of Sir Jasper: in pointing out that Sir Jasper’s complimentary description could describe a spaniel as well as a human female, Horner indicates that the only virtues Sir Jasper can appreciate in women are insipid virtues, attributes that tend to make women submissive and self-effacing. If woman is indeed as Sir Jasper portrays her, then she really is “made for man’s companion”: she is so much assimilated to his wants as to be practically an extension of him, and he need not consider her as a person in her own right. Just such a neglectful, dehumanizing concept of women is of course very much apparent in Sir Jasper’s interactions with his own wife.

“I love to be envied, and would not marry a wife that I alone could love. … I love to have rivals in a wife; they make her seem to a man still but as a kept mistress.”

Act III, Scene 2, lines 342-46; p. 232

This quote encapsulates nicely the moral idiocy of Sparkish. His resistance to romantic jealousy is simply perverse: that his wife should love him is less important to him than that other men should see him as the lord and master of an attractive woman. Moreover, Sparkish’s habit of avowing such repulsive attitudes reveals him to be as stupid socially as he is morally. One of the tenets of fashionable libertinism in the Restoration was that marriage was a burden and an inferior state to unmarried promiscuity; accordingly, in seeking to model himself on the wits of his acquaintance, Sparkish openly proclaims a disdain for marriage and a preference for illicit relations. No truly witty libertine, however, would fail to leaven his misogynistic sentiments with verbal cleverness: whereas Horner or Dorilant might harbor as deplorable views of women, they would never state them so crudely. In taking the direct route to misogyny and cynicism, Sparkish misses the point and tries too hard, demonstrating that his personality has literally no redeeming features, either of the moral sort or of the intellectual.

“But what a devil is this honour? ’Tis sure a disease in the head, like the megrim, or falling-sickness, that always hurries people away to do themselves mischief. Men lose their lives by it; women what’s dearer to ’em, their love, the life of life.”

Act IV, Scene 1, lines 30-34; p. 239

Lucy speaks these lines to her mistress Alethea in an effort to talk some sense into her regarding the relative merits of Harcourt and Sparkish. Alethea’s determination to remain with Sparkish, whom she has come to regard with contempt, derives largely from her devotion to her own honor: she will not be seen to break her word to a man she has agreed to marry. Lucy points out, however, that there are more important things in the world than honor and that a sense of honor that requires the sacrifice of love and life has become pathological. As it turns out, Alethea’s sense of honor, while not as shallow as that of Lady Fidget, nevertheless has tended to place too much emphasis on what other people think of her; consequently, her moral development will consist largely of her coming to understand that there is nothing dishonorable, if “honor” means anything, about abandoning a foolish and selfish man and marrying a decent and lovable one instead.

“[Y]our bigots in honour are just like those in religion: they fear the eye of the world more than the eye of heaven, and think there is no virtue but railing at vice, and no sin but giving scandal.”

Act IV, Scene 3, lines 20-23; p. 249

In this remark to The Quack, Horner skewers the respectable ladies whose behavior amongst themselves, which he has been privileged recently to witness, diverges so sharply from their behavior before the rest of the world. The epigrammatic quality of this remark has led to its being one of the most quoted passages in the play, and indeed it captures one of the play’s great themes—hypocrisy—admirably. Perhaps more interesting than the content of the quote, however, is its context: Horner dispenses his satiric insight, one of the fruits of his ruse, not to the great world or even to his close friends, but to The Quack, a factotum whom he despises. It is a measure of the lonely course to which Horner’s sexual and satirical impulses have committed him, that his most cutting commentary has no worthy onstage audience.

“Women and Fortune are truest still to those that trust ’em.”

Act V, Scene 4, line 390; p. 280

Near the end of the play, Alethea utters a fine-sounding epigram, and most readers will feel that, due to her intelligence and her demonstrated willingness to learn and change, she has earned the right to make this resonant pronouncement. Context, however, may undercut her somewhat. The action of the play has shown that not all forms of trust are admirable: Sir Jasper, like Sparkish in an earlier phase, has displayed excessive trust arising from self-centeredness, and in both cases this negative form of trust has led to the defection of the lady in the case. Worse, the action of the play’s final scene has brought about a restoration of that form of trust which is really just cynical obliviousness: in agreeing to believe once more in Horner’s clearly bogus impotence for the sake of everyone’s reputation, the assembled company affirm the cynical belief that a transgression is not a transgression until it is acknowledged publicly.