Does Love Exist in Marriage? The Country Wife by William Wycherley is a comedy full of naughty laughs, and an elaborate game between men that illustrates several themes concerning men, and women. Throughout Wycherley’s play, he clearly shows the contrasts between the single life and married life in London during the 1670’s.
Eventually, going as far as having the audience undoubtedly believing that love does not exist in marriage, shown specifically within the play, when Margery Pinchwife writes in her attempt at a second letter to Horner “I have got the London disease they call love; I am sick of my husband and for my gallant” (Wycherley 2266). Despite this, Wycherley gives his audience hope that love can exist in marriage through the courtship of Harcourt, and Alithea. Wycherley assigns Harcourt as the true romantic in the play, whose relationship with Alithea by the end of the play resembles the perfect relationship/marriage.
He further makes Harcourt, as a lover, and Harcourt and Alithea’s relationship evident by putting their relationship alongside Horner’s relationship towards all women overall, and Pinchwife and his marriage. From the start of the play Wycherley makes it obvious that the male characters have their own beliefs on love and women. For instance, in Act I scene 1, the conversation between Horner, Dorilant, and Harcourt display Harcourt’s and Horner’s slightly different beliefs on love, and women at the beginning of the play.
In the following quote, Horner makes statements on how love makes you dull, and restrained. Wine gives you liberty, love takes it away” and “Wine gives you joy; love, grief and tortures, besides the chirurgeon’s. Wine makes us witty; love only sots. Wine makes us sleep; love breaks it” (Wycherley 2220). Horner uses wine as a metaphor for the single life and therefore most likely love could also represent marriage. This quote demonstrates clearly that he believes that loving or marrying a women would keep him from begin independent, and restrain him from the pleasures that he can find and already has as a bachelor.
Harcourt simply responds to Horner and Dorilant’s statements on love saying, “I grant it; love will still be uppermost” (Wycherley 2220). This quote suggests that Harcourt believes love to be of the highest principal, during a period of the play where the audience still believes Harcourt to have similar qualities as Horner. Also in this conversation, Horner expresses that “Women…keep a man from better company…[and that] Good fellowship, and friendship are lasting, rational and manly pleasures,” vulgarly showing that to him all women, not just mistresses, are only worth being with to satisfy his sexual needs (Wycherley 2220).
Harcourt replies by saying “No, mistresses are like books. If you pore upon them too much, they doze you and make you unfit for company; but if used discreetly, you are the fitter for conversation by ‘em” (Wycherley 2220). Harcourt’s comment may seem to be just as offensive as Horner’s, but when looked closely it becomes apparent that Harcourt’s statement is not that insulting. Harcourt doesn’t say women, like Horner, and instead specifically mentions mistresses, which implies that he believes this to be true only about mistresses and not all women.
Furthermore, this quote is just stating that mistresses are better in small doses, which is usually or at least sometimes the case for being around most people. Towards the end of Act I, Wycherley makes Pinchwife’s beliefs about marriage apparent when Pinchwife visits Horner and they begin conversing about Pinchwife’s marriage and affairs in town. Pinchwife’s attitude toward women becomes evident when he declares, “I must give Sparkish tomorrow five thousand pound to lie with my sister” (Wycherley 2223).
While this quote, given its sarcastic tone, is at first humorous it also exhibits Pinchwife’s possessiveness towards women, even his own sister, as he makes it seem more like he is selling away a prostitute instead of arranging a marriage for his sister. This is seen, also, when Horner questions Pinchwife about his wife and why he got married. After Horner processes some of Pinchwife’s responses he proclaims, “So, then you only married to keep a whore to yourself.
Well, but let me tell you, women, as you say, are like soldiers, made constant and loyal by good pay rather than by oaths and covenants” (Wycherley 2225). This quote again shows how Pinchwife is possessive towards women, but more specifically his wife, a young, naive country woman, who he only married to keep to himself and not because he loved her. Wycherley makes Horner’s, Harcourt’s, and Pinchwife’s beliefs evident through many of their actions and conversations, but it is the juxtaposition of the three characters that make their beliefs even more evident.
This is also the case for their relationships. In The Country Wife, Wycherley uses Horner’s relationship to women, the courtship of Harcourt and Alithea, and Pinchwife’s marriage, not only to make their beliefs of love, and women even more known to the audience, but mostly, to illustrate to the audience, possibly more to the women, a certain male persona that each character represents in their relationship with women. Horner, throughout the entire play, exemplifies the ultimate womanizer.
From the beginning of the play the audience starts to associate him as a womanizer because of his clever scheme to cuckold married men, which is just as Wycherley desires. And as Wycherley reveals some of Horner’s mistresses in the play, there is no denying that Horner is a womanizer. For example in Act 5 scene 4, Wycherley unveils the majority of Horner’s recognized mistresses, when Lady Fidget, Mrs. Squeamish, and Mrs. Dainty Fidget go over to Horner’s lodge for their small masquerade party.
Eventually, Lady Fidget’s jealousy and uncertainty of Horner’s loyalty causes her to have everyone announce their gallants, leading them to discover they have been sharing Horner and his secret of being a fake eunuch all along. This incident not only proves, once again, that he is womanizer because he succeeded in sleeping with many women by lying to them, but mostly cause he manipulated them into keeping his lie alive, even after they knew he was not going to be loyal to any particular one of them.
Through Horner’s relationship with his mistresses, Wycherley demonstrates to his audience Horner as the definitive womanizer, and the types of relationships they tend to have with women. Contrast to Horner, Pinchwife is epitomized as the possessive husband in the play. He is frequently locking his wife in her room, keeping her isolated from men, and forcing her to do as he says in order to prevent her from cuckolding him. Wycherley does this to constantly remind the audience how controlling Pinchwife is with Margery Pinchwife, and the more controlling he becomes the further he seems to push his wife away.
An example of this would be when Pinchwife finally discovers how to take his wife to the theatre without having her be noticed. He states “I’ll dress her up in the suit we are to carry down to her brother, little Sir James; nay, I understand the town tricks. Come, let’s go dress her. A mask! No – a woman masked, like a covered dish, gives a man curiosity and appetite, when, it may be, uncovered, ‘twould turn his stomach; no, no” (Wycherley 2239). In this instance, Pinchwife is seen as being incredibly overprotective of Margery, but his plan, like most, to keep his wife close backfires as foreshadowed in the quote.
It is because Margery is disguised as Sir James at the theatre that Horner is able to meet and further woo Margery. It is by means of Pinchwife’s marriage that Wycherley is able to further show the audience Pinchwife’s possessiveness, but more importantly the strain and damage it causes to Pinchwife and Margery’s relationship. Lastly, Wycherley uses the courtship of Harcourt and Alithea to display Harcourt in a different light as a true romantic lover instead of the womanizer stereotype the audience at first associates with him.
As soon as Harcourt meets Alithea, Harcourt seems to go through an abrupt transformation, which at first glance looks to be just Harcourt flirting with Alithea like he would any other mistress, but as the play progresses it becomes apparent that Harcourt is in love with Alithea. This is most evident when Harcourt explains to Alithea Sparkish’s motives in marrying her. He states “Marrying you is no more sign of his love than bribing your woman, that he may marry you, is a sign of his generosity. Marriage is rather a sign of interest than love and he that marries a fortune covets a mistress, not loves her.
But if you take marriage for a sign of love, take it from me immediately” (Wycherley 2230). In this quote, Harcourt informs Alithea that most men, like Sparkish, marry women for their wealth and not love, but more importantly Wycherley shows the audience that Harcourt is so in love with Alithea that he is willing to marry her to prove his love to her. Wycherley also uses Harcourt and Alithea to represent mutual trust within a relationship/marriage, which is seen at the end of the play when Harcourt defends Alithea’s innocence after being accused of leaving Sparkish for Horner.
Through Harcourt’s relationship, Wycherley makes Harcourt the true lover of the play and his relationship with Alithea the ideal relationship that is based on love and trust. By having two extreme male personas (Horner and Pinchwife) in the play, Wycherley is able to make Harcourt and his relationship with Alithea even more noticeable to the audience. Horner, the womanizer, and Pinchwife, the possessive husband, are continuously seen as having unattractive and unsuitable qualities in their relationship with women.
Horner is deceitful to all women, as seen when Lady Fidget discovers that she was not his only mistress, while Pinchwife can become violent as in Act 4 scene 2 when he says to Margery “Write as I bid you, or I will write “whore” with this penknife in your face” (Wycherley 2255). Horner and Pinchwife make Harcourt and his relationship with Alithea better simply by comparison, which is Wycherley purpose in having two extreme male personas in The Country Wife. William Wycherley’s intention of this play is not for his audiences to completely dismiss the idea of love in marriage, but to realize that it is a rare thing to obtain.
That is why only one couple, Harcourt and Alithea, in The Country Wife is used by Wycherley to represent an ideal relationship that is based on love and mutual trust. He juxtapositions Pinchwife’s marriage and Horner’s relationship with women to additional prove how difficult it is to acquire love in marriage/relationship. The Country Wife is not just simply a celebration of the single life during the 1670’s; it is also an observance of how scarce marriages/relationships were fundamentally built on love.