From its creation until the mid-20th century, The Country Wife was subject to both aesthetic praise and moral outrage. Many critics through the centuries have acknowledged its linguistic energy and wit, including even Victorians such as Leigh Hunt, who praised its literary quality in a selection of Restoration plays that he published in 1840 (itself a daring undertaking, for reputedly "obscene" plays that had been long out of print). However, in an influential review of Hunt's edition, Thomas Babington Macaulay swept aside questions of literary merit, claiming with indignation that "Wycherley's indecency is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe, because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome even to approach." Margery Pinchwife, regarded in Wycherley's own time as a purely comic character, was denounced by Macaulay as a scarlet woman who threw herself into "a licentious intrigue of the lowest and least sentimental kind".
It was Macaulay, not Hunt, who set the keynote for the 19th century. The play was impossible equally to stage and to discuss, forgotten and obscure.
Academic critics of the first half of the 20th century continued to approach The Country Wife gingerly, with frequent warnings about its "heartlessness", even as they praised its keen social observation. At this time nobody found it funny, and positive criticism tried to rescue it as satire and social criticism rather than as comedy. Macaulay's "licentious" Mrs. Pinchwife becomes in the 20th century a focus for moral concern: to critics such as Bonamy Dobrée, she is a tragic character, destined to have her naiveté cruelly taken advantage of by the "grim, nightmare figure" of Horner.