Analysis of William Wycherley’s Plays

William Wycherley’s (8 April 1641 – 1 January 1716) dramatic canon consists of only four plays, and his stature in English letters depends almost entirely on a single work, The Country Wife. In his own day, The Plain-Dealer was his most popular comedy, but more recent criticism has called attention to certain problems with that play that have diminished its reputation. Interestingly, the play’s flaws are a result of Wycherley’s excessiveness in the very quality that makes his dramatic achievement unique. More than his contemporaries, Wycherley deals bluntly (some critics have said crudely) with the tendency of social conventions to corrupt natural human instincts. More specifically, he posits the need of men and women to come together in relationships of love and mutual respect, and he exposes the ills that result when that need is perverted by marriage for purely material reasons. As the real meaning for marriage, the strongest bond between two individuals, becomes infected and weakened by social concerns, so the more casual relationships between men and women suffer corruption as well. Finally, Wycherley’s vision is a world of grotesques, moral cripples, through which a very few good people grope their way in search of honorable relationships.


When read in the sequence of their production on the stage, William Wycherley’s four plays make an interesting study of a dramatist gaining mastery of his art. The early plays display a number of structural flaws and basic problems with dramatizing a story. Through what could only be deliberate experimentation, the several elements of drama are shaped, weighed, and positioned in a variety of ways until a near-perfect formula is achieved in The Country Wife.

Love in a Wood

The highest plot line of Love in a Wood, Wycherley’s first play, concerns the adventures and trials of Valentine and Christina, idealized lovers who would seem more at home in a romance than a Restoration comedy of manners. Valentine, who had fled England for France after wounding a man in a duel, has secretly returned and is staying with his friend, Vincent. Ranger, another friend of Vincent, met Christina by chance while investigating the activities of his own mistress, Lydia. Through no fault of her own, Christina has now become the object of Ranger’s desire, and this he has hastened to tell Vincent. Valentine concludes that Christina has been untrue, and five acts of the expected misunderstandings and confusions are needed to convince him that his jealousy is unfounded and to unite the pair in matrimony. A second level of the play concerns the adventures of Vincent and Ranger that do not directly involve Valentine. The fop, Dapperwit, also moves on this level, and together these three gallants generate the witty dialogue and bawdy action expected by a Restoration audience. The lowest level is occupied by an array of rogues and whores. Central are the efforts of the procuress, Mrs. Joyner, to match a mistress, a husband, and a particular suitor with the old usurer (Alderman Gripe), his sister, and his daughter, respectively.

Love in a Wood is much more complex than this simplified summary suggests. Minor characters and story lines clutter the action to such an extent that all but the most attentive viewers must, like the characters, find themselves lost in a wood. The play is obviously the work of a new playwright, one who is still learning the craft. Wycherley knew well all the things that might go into a drama. He knew Ben Jonson and the humors, and he understood his age’s fondness for wit and was himself at least witty enough to satisfy that appetite. He was aware that ideal, romantic love could always find an audience, and he understood the importance of effective dialogue and could write it forcefully and naturally, if not elegantly. Unity, too, he was certain, was one of the several ingredients that a playwright should add to the pot.

Conscious attention to all of these elements can be seen in this first play, but also apparent is Wycherley’s failure to understand that a cook need not empty his entire pantry to prepare one dish. Love in a Wood simply tries to do too much. There are too many characters, too many plots. Unity, which should be the natural effect of careful plotting and characterization, is lost in the stew. The rather artificial attempts to build in a kind of unity are obvious. For example, the play begins on the level of the low plot, with Mrs. Joyner being berated by Gripe’s sister, Lady Flippant, for not finding her a rich husband.More low characters are added before the action shifts to the level of the wits, as Ranger and Vincent prepare to seek new love in St. James’s Park. Ranger encounters Christina, and the audience is introduced to the high plot. In only two acts, Wycherley, in sequence from low to high, introduces his principals and plots, but there the neat if obvious organization ends as the action shifts among characters and levels quickly and too often without clear purpose.

Another and again only partially successful unifying device is the use of certain key characters as links between the three major plot levels. Both Vincent and Ranger serve to tie the world of Valentine and Christina to that of the wits; Ranger is actually the catalyst for the action involving the ideal lovers. Dapperwit exists in a limbo between the wits and the low characters. He does keep company with Vincent and Ranger but is clearly more fop than wit, and unlike them, his existence affects but little the world of Valentine and Christina. Dapperwit is much more at home with Mrs. Joyner and Lady Flippant, and on this level he does help to move the action. Thus, the low is directly linked to the middle and the middle to the high. There is still, however, a quite obvious gap between the high and the low; no single character links the extremes.

Construction and theme cannot be separated, and Wycherley’s failure to achieve effective unity of design is reflected in his ambiguous message. Happy marriage based on ideal love appears possible. Valentine and Christina exist in the real world of Restoration London, and their love survives nicely in that world, but there, too, live Gripe, Flippant, and Dapperwit, and their message must leave the audience quite confused as to what ideal love is really all about.

The Gentleman Dancing-Master

Wycherley’s second play, The Gentleman Dancing- Master, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El maestro de danzar (wr. 1651), suggests that he was aware of the problems with Love in a Wood, but that he was unsure as to how to resolve them, for The Gentleman Dancing-Master is the pendulum at its opposite extreme. While Love in a Wood has three major plot levels and a host of minor intrigues and adventures, The Gentleman Dancing-Master has only one story to tell, and this it does with a cast of major characters only half the size of that of the first play. Hippolita, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Mr. Formal, is unhappily engaged to Mr. Paris, her cousin and an absurd Gallophile. Mr. Formal, almost as absurd in his devotion to Spanish manners and fashion, would do all in his power to preserve his daughter’s virtue, and with the help of his widowed sister, Mrs. Caution, keeps her under careful watch. Hippolita, however, is smarter than the lot of them, and, with the unwitting help of Paris, she manages to conduct an affair with a young gallant, Mr. Gerrard, who at her suggestion poses as a dance instructor. The lovers plan an elopement, but Hippolita’s doubts about Gerrard’s motive—love or her money—and assorted other diversions postpone the nuptials until the end.

In his first play, Wycherley had aimed at too many targets. The Gentleman Dancing- Master aims at only one, a broad, comedic effect assisted by a large dose of farce. Wycherley himself was less than proud of this work as an indicator of his real literary skill, and critics have generally agreed that it has little to admire. First, there is the problem of the genre itself. Farce, while very popular with Restoration audiences, was held in low esteem by scholars. Truth to life was the principal criterion by which a play should be judged; so said most of the great English critics, including John Dryden, the leading dramatist, poet, and critic of the age. Believability is the least concern of a farce, for everything that contributes to a believable effect—fine characterization, realistic dialogue, tight plot development—must yield to the hilarity of the episode.Moreover, as farces go, The Gentleman Dancing-Master has been judged by many modern critics as especially uninventive.

To be sure, Wycherley’s second play would never be studied as an example of Restoration comedy at its finest. Still, it is not without merit, and a brisk stage rendition reveals strengths that are lost in a reading. For example, the single plot line tends to hold together the broadly comic episodes, achieving a sense of unity that is most often lacking in farce. The play is about Hippolita’s efforts to find a suitable husband, and a Hippolita well acted can keep that design always before the audience. Hippolita, certainly one of Wycherley’s more interesting characters, is responsible for adding a rather larger dash of satire than is commonly found in farce, not so large a dash as to make the flavor noticeably bitter—after all, she does get her man—but still enough that the reader of Wycherley’s later, darker comedies can look back to The Gentleman Dancing-Master and notice a hint of what was to come.

In this glimpse of Restoration society, a fourteen-year-old girl only recently returned home from boarding school is complete master of the revels. She rejects her father’s choice of a husband, engineers her own courtship, and marries the man she wants, all under her father’s roof and her aunt’s close guard, and neither is aware of what has happened until the closing lines of the play. It is she who invents the dancingmaster fiction and transforms a shallow young man, who is more interested in a dowry than a good marriage, into acceptable husband material. She displays the naïveté and frankness of a child and the insight and cleverness of a mature adult and can move between these extremes in a matter of a few lines. Yet all of this talent and effort is needed to obtain what ideally should be taken for granted: an assurance that the words of the wedding vow will be sincere, that her marriage will be based on mutual love, honesty, and respect. In Wycherley’s world, however, such assurances are difficult to find. Even a child must be devious to accomplish what is right, when her own father and intended husband are themselves prime examples of misrepresentation.

Mr. Paris, who would be known as Monsieur de Paris, and Mr. Formal, who prefers to be called Don Diego, are as contemptible as they are absurd. Wycherley created the roles for James Nokes and Edward Angel, two of the most famous comic actors of the day. Indeed, Paris’s part is the largest in the play, for it was doubtless Nokes as a French fool that the audience came to see. Both Formal and Paris have rejected what they are, Englishmen, to ape foreign manners: It is small wonder that they are so unaware of Hippolita’s machinations. They have their own lies to live and would rather argue with each other as to whose lie is better than to see the reality of what is happening. That a fourteen-year-old girl with a sense of purpose can manipulate the adult world says little for that world. That the best husband available is a man so easily directed, a man who must be tested for sincerity before deemed acceptable, adds little reason for optimism, and finally that that fourteen-year-old is herself unsure of the true nature of her young man and is after all only adept at fooling fools must bring small reassurance. The Gentleman Dancing-Master is a comedy, a farce, but already the darker shadows have begun to fall.


Robert Joy as Harry Horner, Bhavya Malhotra as Sir Jaspar Fidget, Rory Jurmain as Pinchwife, and Mary Walker as Margery Pinchwife.

The Country Wife

With his third effort, Wycherley brilliantly overcame the problems of his first two plays. The Country Wife is generally acknowledged as one of the finest comedies of the Restoration, and it is still frequently acted, not so much as a historical curiosity but because it is good theater. The plot is somewhat more complex than that of The Gentleman Dancing-Master, but it is tightly unified by linking characters who have real business in the variety of situations; there is none of the baffling confusion of Love in a Wood. The main action is moved by Horner—who, as his name suggests, delights in making cuckolds of the London husbands. To that end, he has caused the false rumor of his own impotence to be spread about the town; as expected, husbands who would never let their wives near Horner have foolishly relaxed their guard. Lady Fidget, Mrs. Dainty Fidget, and Mrs. Squeamish are among his willing conquests.

The adventures of Margery Pinchwife, the title character, form a second but closely related plot. Jack Pinchwife married his country wife because he was hopeful that such a woman would be ignorant of the fashions of the city and the promiscuity of the gallants and ladies. This decision, however, was not motivated by a sense of higher morality; indeed, Pinchwife may well be the most immoral character in the play, for, as his name suggests, his every action is directed by his intense fear of being made a cuckold and by a jealousy that can move him to viciousness. Despite her husband, Margery has learned of the way of the world and is anxious to sample it. She realizes that there are better relationships than that which she enjoys with Pinchwife and so cultivates an affair with Horner. The third plot does not relate quite so directly to the main plot, but the characters and action provide some obvious contrasts that serve to clarify and further comment on the play’s theme. Alithea, Pinchwife’s sister, is engaged to Sparkish. She is an intelligent woman of genuine honor; he is the usual ridiculous fop that so delighted Restoration audiences. Fully aware that her fiancé is a fool, she is resolved to go through with their arranged marriage, though in fact she loves Harcourt, a friend of Horner, and he loves her. At the last, Sparkish’s misunderstanding of Alithea’s part in the typically confusing episodes and intrigues that follow results in a broken engagement and a clear way to her union with Harcourt.

While Alithea’s role is a relatively minor and unimpressive one on the stage, she does make a significant contribution to an understanding of Wycherley’s message. Alithea stubbornly insists on behaving honorably in a world where there is no honor. She is obliged by custom and contract to go through with the marriage arranged by Pinchwife and respects that obligation, though the union must result in a life of misery and wasted talent for her and in material gain for men who neither need nor deserve it. In Alithea, the audience sees real virtue turned against itself by corrupt marital customs that not only make cuckolds of fools, which may not be so bad, but also make honorable people victims of their own honor, which is intolerable. Still, at the end, it is only Alithea who appears to have a chance for real happiness. Mrs. Pinchwife’s unhappy fate is to return to her husband, while the husbands return to their fool’s paradise, as Horner convincingly reaffirms the lie about his impotency.

Before concluding that Wycherley’s message is to proclaim the inevitable rewards that come to virtue, one should remember that he had little choice but to inject some measure of happiness at the ending (the play is a comedy), and that Alithea’s deliverance from Sparkish has nothing to do with the power of virtue. She is freed from the contract by Sparkish’s stupidity and the chance outcome of the intrigues of the other characters. In the world of The Country Wife, honor is as impotent as Horner pretends to be, and if anything is temporarily set right, it is only because of luck.

The corruptive power of marriage without love is seen from a different perspective in the title character, Margery Pinchwife. Alithea shows the system’s effect on honor; Margery shows its effect on innocence. She enters the world of fashion a complete ingenue, and so Pinchwife would keep her, but all that is said to her and all that she sees writes on the blank slate of her character. Her jealous husband foolishly describes the pleasures of city life, pleasures to be avoided, and thus awakens her interest in them; he takes her to a play dressed as a man, so that she will not draw the attention of other men, which gives her the inspiration to assume a disguise when she visits Horner.

Marlowe it would not be altogether accurate to say that Margery is corrupted, for at the end of the play, her naïve belief that she can exchange Pinchwife for Horner as her husband and live a happily married life ever after shows a character who has really learned nothing of how the system works. She does, indeed, do things that conventional morality would deem wicked, but she is merely aping what she has seen: These are the proper city responses, written on the slate by the characters around her, and against the background of her innocence, their conduct is brought into sharp relief. Hers is rightly the title role, for through her the audience clearly sees the nature of the other characters and the world they have created. There is no happy ending for Margery. Luck does not smile on her; she has not learned the true cunning of Horner that would allow her to make the best of the situation, and she is not one of the fools who can delude themselves with happy lies. She strikes a note at the end that is not quite comedy.

Mr. Harry Horner has been attacked by three hundred years of critics as one of the most immoral creations of the Restoration stage. In fact, there is no question of moral or immoral conduct in the high society in which he moves. The clearly moral alternative simply does not exist, and heroes are recognizable only by their superior wit and not at all by their deeds. Thus, though Horner does invent an obscene lie to help him bed other men’s wives, his contempt for his victims manages to make him something more than simply another rake. He has honor of a sort, but certainly not Alithea’s passive honor, not the honor of the martyr. Horner’s honor allows him to use the weapons of the system against itself, and to him is the victory, for, with his lie still intact, he leaves the field strewn with cuckolds. That lie, however, is more than a tool for undoing fools; it is Wycherley’s comment on the society. As the action moves the audience among various couples, it becomes increasingly clear that marriage has nothing to do with love or basic nature. It has become a thing arranged on paper and bought with money. Horner’s impotence is a fiction. Ironically, the real sterility exists in the marriages of his victims.

The Plain-Dealer

Wycherley’s final and longest play, The Plain-Dealer, confirms what was apparent in The Country Wife: The author had learned well the lessons of plot construction and structural unity. It poses other problems of characterization, however, that make it less a masterpiece than his third effort. The story is simple. There are only two plots, and all the principal characters occupy the same social level and have occasion to interact, thus creating a sense of unity.

Captain Manly, the title character, is described by the author as honest, surly, and good-humored. He believes firmly in plain dealing, and the shortage of others who share that belief has led him to misanthropy. After losing his ship in the Dutch wars, Manly has returned to London to seek another vessel. He soon discovers that his mistress, Olivia, thought to be a plain dealer like him, has married another man and appropriated the money Manly had left in her care. Torn between contempt and affection, Manly sends his young aide, Fidelia, to arrange a meeting with Olivia. Instead, Olivia develops a passion for Fidelia, who in fact is a wealthy young heiress disguised as a boy to be near Manly, whom she loves. Manly next discovers that Olivia’s secret husband is Vernish, the only man he really trusted. At Olivia’s home, Manly fights Vernish, takes back the money, and discovers that Fidelia, who lost her wig in the commotion, is really a young woman. He immediately decides that Fidelia is a more proper object for his affection, and together the couple plan their future in the West Indies.

In the second plot, Lieutenant Freeman, a young friend of Manly, attempts to marry the cantankerous old Widow Blackacre for her fortune. The widow, whose only delight is in controlling her own business and suing people, wants no part of such an arrangement. When Freeman persuades the widow’s stupid son to accept him as his guardian with full power over his inheritance,Widow Blackacre retaliates by claiming that her son is a bastard and not a legal heir. Freeman, however, discovers this to be a lie, and in order to avoid a charge of perjury, the widow is forced to grant him a handsome annuity.

Captain Manly is perhaps the most puzzling character in Restoration drama, and the difficulty of the audience in interpreting him obscures the theme of the play. Like that other famous voyager, Lemuel Gulliver, Manly suffers from misanthropy, and the distorted judgment to which it leads him makes it difficult to judge how representative a spokesperson for the author he is intended to be. Certainly he has qualities to be admired. In relation to the collection of liars and frauds that surrounds him, his utter contempt is justified and his bluntness is refreshing. Still, he recognizes neither hypocrisy nor plain dealing when he sees them, and at times he is as willing to overlook or condone deliberate deception as he is at other times anxious to condemn it. Moreover, he is, like Horner, quite willing to practice a little deception of his own if it suits his purpose.

If Manly were not wrong and self-contradictory most of the time, there would be no play, for his mistakes move the plot. His greatest mistake is his choice of Olivia. She mouths the same philosophy of plain dealing as Manly but marries and steals in secret. Fidelia is the cause of another mistake; the plain dealer wanders through five acts unaware that his aide, the person with whom he plots revenge against Olivia, is a woman, and when her gender is discovered, he transfers his affection with embarrassing rapidity. Throughout those five acts, he has remained blind to the fact that Fidelia displays a faithfulness and devotion rare in a human being, and when he decides at last to love her, he is equally unconcerned that her disguise, while for a good purpose, was hardly consistent with plain dealing.

There is also the problem of Freeman. The lieutenant is really Manly’s best friend, for Vernish turns out to be a villain. In fact, Freeman is the only character who deals plainly with Manly. He quite frankly tells his captain that truth is a handicap in the social world and honestly confesses his motives in the wooing of Widow Blackacre. Manly cannot tolerate the company of most dissemblers and hypocrites, but Freeman is an exception; apparently, honest hypocrites are acceptable.

Despite Manly’s several mistakes and inconsistencies, he is still clearly the hero of the play, and Wycherley certainly intended the general audience response to be positive. After all, Manly does have the love of a good woman, who seems willing to suffer almost any humiliation for his sake, and he does have the sincere friendship of Freeman, something of a rogue, to be sure, but a likable rogue. The problems with Manly’s philosophy of plain dealing are more apparent in a careful reading than they are in a lively performance, and his confusing behavior is in part a result of his being made to interact with Freeman and Fidelia, who have characterization problems of their own. Fidelia in almost any other play would present no difficulty. She is an idealized female who would be quite at home in a romance, but she seems strangely out of place in a world that requires a misanthrope for a hero. Moreover, her male disguise, which jars with Manly’s love of plain dealing, is a conventional comedic device that would present no problem on another stage. Freeman, too, is a conventional figure, but confidant to Manly is not a proper job for a lovable rogue, and while Freeman would make an ideal friend for Horner, his role in The Plain-Dealer confuses the message.

Wycherley’s final play, then, cannot be judged his best. It may well be, however, his darkest comment on society. Manly is certainly the closest thing to direct spokesperson that Wycherley ever created, and in The Plain-Dealer that spokesperson was finally allowed to comment openly on the world of knaves and fools and hypocrites and whores that had been presented with increasing pessimism in the three earlier plays. The problems with Manly may well be the inevitable culmination of Wycherley’s vision: Society corrupts honor and innocence and infects with confusion even the best efforts of the best people. There is no firm ground on which a plain dealer can stand.


Principal drama
Love in a Wood: Or, St. James’s Park, pr. 1671, pb. 1672; The Gentleman Dancing-Master, pr. 1672, pb. 1673 (adaptation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play El maestro de danzar); The Country Wife, pr., pb. 1675; The Plain-Dealer, pr. 1676, pb. 1677; Complete Plays, pb. 1967.

Other major work
Poetry: Miscellany Poems: As Satyrs, Epistles, Love-Verses, Songs, Sonnets, Etc., 1704.

Markley, Robert. Two Edg’d Weapons: Style and Dialogue in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Marshall, W. Gerald. A Great Stage of Fools: Theatricality and Madness in the Plays of William Wycherley. New York:AMS Press, 1993.
Thompson, James. Language in Wycherley’s Plays: Seventeenth Century Language Theory and Drama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1984.
Vance, John A. William Wycherley and the Comedy of Fear. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 2000.
Young, Douglas M. The Feminist Voices in Restoration Comedy: The Virtuous Women in the Play-Worlds of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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