A Prologue, spoken by the actor playing Harry Horner, gives the conventional “apology” for the play that is to follow. The actor anticipates that the “wits” in the audience will criticize the play, but he wittily defies their censure.
Horner begins to elucidate for The Quack his scheme for seducing the fashionable ladies of London. At Horner’s request, The Quack has spread a rumor that a treatment for veneral disease has rendered Horner impotent; The Quack expects that this rumor will tend to make Horner less attractive to the ladies, rather than more, but Horner criticizes the Quack for his conventional thinking.
Before Horner can explain further, The Boy announces the arrival of Sir Jasper Fidget with Lady Fidget and Dainty Fidget. Their coach has broken down before Horner’s door, and Sir Jasper takes the opportunity to introduce Horner to his wife and sister. Horner receives the women coldly, and from his “aversion to the sex” Sir Jasper concludes that the rumors of his impotence must be true. The ladies proclaim themselves disgusted with Horner’s behavior, and they become even more disgusted when Sir Jasper informs them that Horner is “a mere eunuch.” Before leaving, Sir Jasper invites Horner to spend more time at the Fidget household, to dine and play cards with Lady Fidget; in an aside, he observes that his plan is “to provide an innocent diversion for a wife” and thereby keep her chaste.
When the Fidget group has left, The Quack marvels that Horner should actively strive to make ladies despise him. Horner scorns The Quack’s obtuseness and explains that his plan is already succeeding. Husbands and guardians like Sir Jasper will now give him free access to their ladies. Moreover, Horner will be able to discern from the ladies’ reactions to him who is likely to respond to his advances: if a woman finds the notion of a eunuch disgusting, he will know that she “loves the sport.” Finally, the rumor of his impotence will provide cover for the ladies themselves, who may desire Horner but will not wish to sully their reputations.
The Quack exits as two of Horner’s friends, Frank Harcourt and Mr. Dorilant, enter. Both Harcourt and Dorilant believe Horner to be impotent, but unlike Sir Jasper they do not laugh at him; rather, they extend their sympathy and try to rally him to disregard the jeers of the public and join them at the theater. The three friends discuss the change in Horner’s attitude toward women, and Horner gives his opinion that “women serve but to keep a man from better company. … Good fellowship and friendship are lasting, rational, and manly pleasures.”
The Boy then announces the impending arrival of Mr. Sparkish, whereupon the three friends begin to disparage Sparkish as a tiresome pretender to wit. When Sparkish enters, he immediately teases Horner about the reports of his impotence, making what he considers a very clever pun about Horner’s being a mere “sign of a man.” Sparkish then demands of the other three where they are all to dine, claiming that he has “left at Whitehall an earl, to dine with you.” The other three rebuff him, and finally he leaves to find his mistress (i.e. fiancée), with whom he will dine before seeing the new play.
As Sparkish exits, Jack Pinchwife enters. To Pinchwife’s chagrin, Horner immediately deduces from his altered appearance that Pinchwife, recently returned from the countryside, has recently gotten married; Pinchwife says in an aside that he had hoped to conceal the fact of his marriage from the notorious rake Horner. (Clearly, Pinchwife has not heard the rumors about Horner’s diminished capacities.) Pinchwife mentions that he has come back to London in part to see his sister married to Sparkish. Horner then prods Pinchwife about his new bride, suggesting that “the next thing to be heard is—thou’rt a cuckold.” Pinchwife finds this idea “insupportable” and says that he has married a country wife in order not to have to worry that she will, like a “London wife,” commit adultery. When Horner points out that adultery occurs as well in the country as in town, Pinchwife explains that he has chosen his wife because, in addition to being rich, she is “ugly, ill-bred, and silly”: she will not attract rivals with her looks or desire fashionable company; above all, Pinchwife says, “’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?”
Horner then presses Pinchwife on his reasons for marrying: Pinchwife has previously been such a “whoremaster” that Horner did not expect that he would ever confine himself to a single woman. Pinchwife answers that, when he was a rake, “the jades would jilt me; I could never keep a whore to myself,” to which Horner retorts, “So then, you only married to keep a whore to yourself.” Horner then mentions having seen Pinchwife at a play yesterday in the company of “a pretty country wench.” Pinchwife, realizing that Horner has seen his bride, vows in an aside never to take her to a play again. Horner gives his opinion that the new Mrs. Pinchwife is “exceedingly pretty; I was in love with her.” Pinchwife, suddenly uncomfortable, excuses himself, though the three wits try to detain him. Harcourt then comments that Pinchwife has gone home “[t]o beat his wife. He’s … jealous of her.”
Horner is our nominal protagonist: his first speech opens the play, as if he were the author’s spokesman, and his machinations propel the plot, suggesting a further affinity with the playwright. By taking the audience into his confidence with his frequent asides, Horner makes us virtual accomplices in his trickery, which we, in turn, largely approve because it provides entertainment and the moral satisfaction of seeing corruption exposed. His hero-status must remain only nominal, however, because Horner is no less licentious and duplicitous than his victims—indeed, in depravity he may be said to outdo them all. Nor do Horner’s considerable intellect and moral insight effect any positive change in any of the characters: his wit is entirely negative, exposing and exploiting, never correcting.
Still, Wycherley does not encourage audience contempt for Horner, as he does for Horner’s victims; as B. A. Kachur puts it, “[Wycherley] does expect theatregoers to applaud Horner’s wit, intelligence, and ingenuity as the ultimate satirist who exposes hypocrisy and corruption.” As we see in the case of his dissecting Pinchwife’s motives for marrying, Horner is able to articulate brilliantly Wycherley’s own condemnation of Restoration society. He is admirable at least in his clear-eyed understanding of himself and others.
Act I also introduces several other important male characters, including two bad husbands and one bad would-be husband. As Jack Pinchwife exits the scene, Harcourt remarks with brutal flippancy that he has gone home “[t]o beat his wife”—and indeed Pinchwife is the archetypal jealous husband, the grim watcher of a much-younger bride. His views on marriage, which Horner cleverly draws out, are as debased as they are conventional. The crude terms in which he speaks of his sister’s dowry are quite revealing: “I must give Sparkish tomorrow five thousand pound to lie with my sister.” A wife, to Pinchwife’s mind, is essentially a long-term prostitute whose sexuality requires that money should change hands. Accordingly, he looks on the new Mrs. Pinchwife as a sexual object, to whose services he has guaranteed access; she is in this sense an improvement over the mistresses who, in his life as a London rake, would take his money and then move on. For Pinchwife, then, marriage is not so much a covenant as a business transaction: a wife is a kind of chattel, and once the husband has acquired her, his main interest is in maintaining her value; if she turns out to be “a whore” whom he cannot “keep … to [him]self,” then his investment will have backfired.
Sir Jasper, though a less clearly odious figure than Pinchwife, has his own unpleasant qualities. His smirking at Horner’s supposed debility shows him to be careless of other people’s feelings. Worse, behind his fussily civil facade he is contemptuous and neglectful of his wife. His strategy is different from Pinchwife’s: rather than keeping her secluded from the world, he seeks to keep Lady Fidget harmlessly occupied with “an innocent diversion.” He is constantly running off, as in this scene, to attend to his all-important business, with the consequence that he has no time to spend on Lady Fidget. He resembles Pinchwife in taking no interest in his wife except to seek measures to prevent her disgracing him through adultery.
Young Mr. Sparkish is a vain fop who considers himself a terribly sophisticated “wit”; in fact, his wittier acquaintances view him as a pretender and a dolt—as Horner says, “the greatest fop, dullest ass, and the worst company.” Sparkish is, in other words, a caricature of the many slow-witted poseurs of the day who tried to imitate the fashionable London libertines but who lacked the requisite intelligence and flair. Nor is Sparkish’s intellectual inferiority offset by any moral superiority. In this respect, Horner’s purported impotence acts as a touchstone, revealing Sparkish’s character through his reaction to it: whereas Harcourt and Dorilant jested about Horner’s impotence only lightly, as a means of cheering their unhappy friend, Sparkish immediately (like Sir Jasper) starts in with witless mockery “upon the report in town of thee, ha-ha-ha.” As will be seen, Sparkish’s frivolity goes hand-in-hand with a potential for unfeeling nastiness.