Obscenity, indecency and lewdness are quite common in today’s media-television shows, news, soaps, popular songs, movies, magazines,books, Facebook, and the internet in general. It probably does not shock us that much because we are ‘oh so modern’ and are not narrow minded like those restrained Victorians! Its also kind of ‘cool’ to be indecent at times in today’s world. Bollywood movies will teach all the Indian guys how to woo a girl by eve teasing her or worse even by raping her. However, even today, we do sometimes get outraged by shameless displays of obscenity and well mostly its the Censor Board that gets outraged which then displays its own obscene power to chop down obscenity to protect the people from getting outraged too!
Well, there wasn’t any Censor Board in the Restoration Period in the late 17th century or even later on yet the drama of that time received some flak for its indecency. Nonetheless, at the height of the Restoration, it was enjoyed by the audience to the fullest and only later on did the drama begin to be looked down upon.
‘The Country Wife‘ is one such play produced at that time which was one of the most popular plays but like the rest of Restoration drama it was ignored and only resurrected in the 20th century when a few ‘modern’ critics considered those works from a literary angle and critiqued it intelligently. Written by William Wycherley, ‘The Country Wife‘ is a quintessential Restoration play as its core is wit, satire, and indecency. The Indian Censor Board would have banned it if it was written today but thankfully it has been put in the sacred halls of literary work. Even if it hadn’t been, it is wrong to define this play and all the other Restoration plays as being solely obscene. As mentioned before, the play is replete with wit and it pokes fun at the aristocracy and their hollow/superficial lives. Satire and wit were esteemed aspects of that life and were incorporated in the plays as well particularly in comedies. Thus, ‘The Country Wife‘ is a hilarious play with several literary devices particularly the double entendre (double meanings) which furthers the wit along with the indecency.It is this hilarity that also acts as a biting commentary on the frivolous and decadent ways of the Restoration aristocracy.
‘The Country Wife‘ has a main plot and a sub plot. The former is centered on a gentleman named Horner, who pretends to be an eunuch so that he can gain the trust of the husbands who would then allow their wives to spend time with him. A rich middle class man, Sir Jasper Fidget, falls for this ruse and allows him to enjoy the company of his wife, Lady Fidget and daughter, Miss Dainty Fidget. He also falls for a town gentleman’s wife, Margery Pinchwife when he sees her in the theater. Her husband, Mr. Pinchwife only married her because he could not keep a ‘whore’ to himself and felt that the country wife would not cheat on him because of her innocence and naivete. Yet he is wholly jealous of her and keeps her restricted and even locked up so that she won’t cheat on him. Margery is thus the titular character of the play. The play then goes on as to how Horner makes a ‘cuckold’ of all the husbands because of his stratagem. This is interspersed with the sub plot that basically deals with Harcourt and Alithea’s (Mr. Pinchwife’s sister) love. The two plots are in stark contrast to each other. The former is all about cheating on one’s wives and husbands and the latter extolls true love. In the end, it is Harcourt and Alithea’s relationship that is a right example of how love should be treated.
The downside of the play is that is a tad bit sexist because it is judgmental towards the aristocratic women and not the great pretender Horner who seems to have a vicious appetite for fornication. This attitude also reflects on how badly women were treated then particularly accentuated by Pinchwife’s cruel treatment of his wife. Wycherley, however, does show Pinchwife in a ludicrous light perhaps to manifest that husbands who restrict their better halves and treat them so will deserve to be cheated and ‘cuckolded.’
The play may not be everyone’s cup of tea especially for those who are touchy about indecent language and manners. Yet those very things are what make the play a satire. It is an inseparable part of the play. Knowing a little about the time and the literary techniques and customs will also help in further understanding the play. For eg, the dominant stock characters such as the fop, the rake, the wit etc that were usually used in the Restoration comedies, the predominant French influence(seen in ‘The Country Wife‘ as well in the many French words and the influence of Moliere), the importance of wit in the towns, the constant juxtaposition of town and country and the usual deriding of the country ways and manners etc.
So you could either dismiss ‘The Country Wife‘ as being bawdy and uncouth or read it up and go with the flow as 17th century bawdry could not shock us anymore! Moreover, who wouldn’t enjoy the sexual innuendos?