by Anne Tulloch
The Country Wife opens with the main character Horner preoccupied with the task of having the falsehood of his sexual state widely broadcast. Under this deceitful guise, Horner is then able to gratify his own sexual desires without suspicion. Similarly, Horner’s friend, Harcourt, is wooing another man’s fiancée and uses the cover of wit to do so. In addition to their common use of deceit, both men employ theatrical personalities to confuse those around them. In this way, Harcourt and Horner set themselves up as literary foils of each other. By setting up a theatrical foil, The Country Wife points out the absurdity of over-theatricality in order to cover a personal scheme.
To first address Horner and Harcourt as foils: One must look specifically at how these men create and maintain the personas that set them up as foils. Horner’s first appears conversing with the Quack (1.1). Horner plans for the town to think him a eunuch. The point of this is to make the women believe he is safe to be with and to assure their husbands that he is not capable of making them cuckolds. He tells the Quack: “…now, I/ can be sure, she that shows an aversion to me loves/ that sport…” (1.1.177-179). Horner believes that the women who wish to be sexually active will be horrified at the sight of a eunuch, who is of no use to them. While carrying out his plan, Horner begins to create a persona of lies and deceit in order to find women to gratify his sexual urge.
In the case of Horner’s friend, Harcourt, his false persona is created by acting as only an admirer of his friend Sparkish’s fiancée, Alithea, when in reality, he is wooing her. In answering Sparkish’s question concerning Alithea’s beauty, Harcourt says, “I could gaze upon her till I became as blind as you are” (2.1.211-212). By this comment, Harcourt is not only saying how brilliantly beautiful he thinks Alithea is, but also calls Sparkish “blind”. This blindness refers to Sparkish’s being unable to see Harcourt’s aims to woo his fiancé. In this way, Harcourt imitates Horner in creating a deceitful façade as the means to his end of marrying Alithea.
Horner and Harcourt both become very playful in their plans to fool the other characters. In some ways, they begin to stage their own plays within The Country Wife. In Harcourt’s case, his wooing is double-edged. It would seem to the simple observer that Harcourt is simply supplying a polite answer and nothing more. But Wycherley puts an informed character into the scene (Pinchwife) to point out the two-sided nature of Harcourt’s replies. Pinchwife remarks to the audience, “Insensible fop, let/ a man make love to his wife to his face” (2.1.200-201) (Candido 30). It should be made clear: Harcourt’s theatrical nature does not reside in props and costuming, but in his two-edged dialogue with Sparkish and Alithea. This extra voice of Pinchwife is a way for the play of The Country Wife to point out that Harcourt is making fun of Sparkish as if it were a small play. This also shows how ridiculous Harcourt’s theatrics are. In an article on the dysfunctional nature of social structure within the play, entitled “Horner and His ‘Women of Honour’: The Dinner Party in The Country Wife”, Harold Weber mentions this scene and its two-sided nature. Weber writes, “We discover such conversation[s] everywhere, particularly when Harcourt makes love to Alithea in Sparkish’s presence… Such scenes [show] significant emphasis on the disjunction between appearance and reality…” (115). By using the word “appearance”, Weber points out Harcourt’s seemingly pretty compliments, as opposed to the “reality” of his love-making.
Horner’s use of theatricality to cover his tracks is even greater than Harcourt’s. The greatest volume of theatrics from Horner is displayed in the presence of Lord and Lady Fidget. With them, Horner’s theatrics rely even more heavily on the double entendre of his words. Such an example is during Act Four, when Horner essentially tells Sir Jaspar that he will become a cuckold, “…if ever you suffer your wife to trouble me/ again here, she shall carry you home a pair of/ horns,…though I can not furnish you myself, you are sure yet I’ll find/ a way” (4.3.126-130). He also says he could not make Jaspar a cuckold himself, thus referring to his appearance as a eunuch, but at the same time, he says that he could find a way if he tried, and so refers to his healthy state. Horner’s language recalls Weber’s commentary on Harcourt’s wooing, when Weber mentions the difference of “appearance” and “reality”(15). This scene is practically identical with Harcourt’s wooing of Alithea, but they are slightly different because Horner is telling the man to his face what he is doing, whereas Harcourt is only communicating his wishes to Alithea, who understands.
Once it is understood that Horner and Harcourt are foils in using theatricality to cover their deceit of others, it is possible to see how the play calls the audience to understand that this idea of a theatrical cover-up is ridiculous. Characters from The Country Wife point this out themselves: Alithea tells Harcourt, “Sir, Master Sparkish has often told me that his/ acquaintance were all wits and railleurs, and now/ I find it” (2.1.163-165), and Dorilant calls Horner’s acting, “theatrical impudence” (1.1.199).
The Country Wife means to expose the theatrics of the characters. Its purpose is for the audience to understand how silly and ridiculous it is to conceal a plan by over-acting. In his article, “Theatricality and Satire in The Country Wife“, Joseph Candido comments on this playing within the play:
“We are invited to see the focal character not as a mimetic representation of our own humanity, but as a comic, sometimes grotesque embodiment of a particular eccentricity which the dramatist chooses to expose” (29).
The audience should be able to laugh at the stupidity of Sparkish and Lord Jaspar for not seeing how they are being taken advantage of. Horner and Harcourt’s behavior can also be taken in a humorous light. In this way, it is possible to see The Country Wife as an exploitation of the absurdness of using theatrics to cover up a deceitful plot.
Candido, Joseph. “Theatricality And Satire In The Country Wife.” Essays In Literature 4.1 (1977): 27-36. Humanities International Complete. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.
Weber, Harold. “Horner and his ‘Women Of Honour:’ The Dinner Party In The Country-Wife.” Modern Language Quarterly 43.2 (1982): 107. Humanities International Complete. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.
Wycherley, William. “The Country Wife.” The Broadview Anthology of Restoration and Early Eighteenth-Century Drama. Ed. J. Douglas Canfield. Canada: Broadview Press, 2001.590-645.