The Country Wife

Modern criticism

The past fifty years have seen a major change, and academic critics have acknowledged the play as a powerful and original work. Norman Holland's widely influential proposal in 1959 of a "right way/wrong way" reading took Wycherley's morality with innovative seriousness and interpreted the play as presenting two bad kinds of masculinity – Horner's libertinism and Pinchwife's possessiveness – and recommending the golden mean of Harcourt, the true lover, the representative of mutual trust in marriage. A competing milestone approach of the same generation is that of Rose Zimbardo (1965), who discusses the play in generic and historical terms as a fierce social satire.

Both these types of reading have now fallen out of favour; there is little consensus about the meaning of The Country Wife, but its "notorious resistance to interpretation"[19] is having an invigorating rather than damping effect on academic interest. The play's ideological dimension has been emphasised recently. It was written by a courtier for a courtly and aristocratic audience, and Douglas Canfield has pointed to an unusual complication for a courtly play. Horner's acts of cuckolding aggression are directed not only at disrupting middle-class families of "the City", in the usual way of the aristocratic Restoration rake, but also at his own, upper, class, the inhabitants of "the Town" – the new and fashionable quarters (the future West End) that had sprung up west of the medieval City walls after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The courtier code proposed by Wycherley is of a sexual game. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued in Between Men that the game is played not between men and women, but between men by means of women, who are merely the "conduits" of homosocial desire between men. The hierarchy of wits meant that the wittiest and most virile man would win at the game. Thus Horner, as Canfield puts it, "represents not just class superiority, but that subset of class represented by the Town wits, a privileged minority that ... is the jet set identified with the Town and the Court as the loci of real power in the kingdom." The aggressive attack mounted in the china scene against the class and the generation by which Wycherley was patronised with the expectation that he would defend it (against Sir Jaspar Fidget and Lady Fidget), suggests Canfield, would only let an audience of that class laugh comfortably if Horner were punished by actual impotence in the end, which he is not. "When the play concludes with no poetical justice that makes Horner really impotent", writes Canfield, "leaving him instead potent and still on the make, the audience laughs at its own expense: the women of quality nervously because they have been misogynistically slandered; the men of quality nervously because at some level they recognize that class solidarity is just a pleasing fiction."[20]

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