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Reconsidering Harcourt In Wycherley’s The Country Wife

5992 words - 24 pages

Reconsidering Harcourt in Wycherley’s The Country Wife

Wycherley’s The Country Wife opens on Horner, the lead, telling his physician about his plan to change his reputation from that of a rake (promiscuous man-about-town) to that of a eunuch in order to gain access to women without anyone knowing. He withholds this plan from everyone but the doctor, who becomes his accomplice by spreading the rumor of Horner’s impotence to the gossipiest women in London. Horner’s sex life constitutes two of the three main plots, in both of which he gains access to a married woman and cuckolds her husband. He comes close to being found out but narrowly escapes discovery when the women of the play and the doctor reaffirm his condition, thus persuading the cuckolded husbands that they have not been made cuckolds. The other plot involves Harcourt, Horner’s best friend, who falls in love with and immediately proposes to Alithea when Sparkish, the would-be wit whom she is arranged to marry, introduces them in an attempt to make Harcourt jealous and thus win his approval. Harcourt then spends the rest of the play making failed attempts to win Alithea away from Sparkish. In the end, Horner’s plots intersect with Harcourt’s, and Horner slanders Alithea to keep his affairs secret. Sparkish had kept Alithea’s loyalty because ostensibly he was not jealous and seemed to trust her, but he believes what Horner says about Alithea without waiting to hear her defense and shows that he is not really who she thought he was, nor did he ever really care about her. Harcourt, on the other hand, defends her honor and trusts her, despite the slander, and once again offers marriage. Alithea, who had fallen for Harcourt but had to keep her feelings secret, is now free to marry him, and we assume they live happily ever after.

Though The Country Wife has provoked a great deal of critical interest, most of it focuses on Horner. Thomas Fujimura developed a system of categorization that allowed him to label every character in Restoration drama a “Truewit,” “Witwoud,” or “Witless.”[1] These categories were based on Hobbes’s understanding of wit as equal parts fancy (creativity and inspiration) and judgment (knowing when to make a comment, how best to make use of the fancy, etc). The Truewit had both fancy and judgment, the Witwoud had only fancy, and the Witless had neither. When he applied these categories to The Country Wife, Fujimura spent the most time on Horner, though he acknowledged that Harcourt was a Truewit as well, because his argument was in many ways a response to moralists who said the play was too smutty to study, a judgment they based on Horner’s involvement with women, not Harcourt’s. Norman Holland was the first to bring Harcourt and Alithea to the fore.[2] He argued that they were the moral center of the play and meant to be contrasted with Horner’s “wrong” behavior with women. Before Holland, most critics had dismissed Harcourt and Alithea.[3] After, they paid...

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