The Amorous Machiavellism of The Country Wife


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Criticism of The Country Wife is agreed that the play represents Wycherley's supreme dramatic achievement; beyond that, however, it is every critic for himself. Allardyce Nicoll, for example, judged The Country Wife "a bright and glorious farce" in which innuendo "is brought to a stage of utmost perfection,"1 while William Archer, echoing the sentiments of Jeremy Collier and Lord Macaulay, pronounced it loathsome, "surely the most bestial play in all literature."2 Some commentators, following Lamb, burke the moral problem of the play by locating it in that "Utopia of gallantry, where pleasure is duty, and manners perfect freedom," that "speculative scene of things, which has no reference whatever to the world that is."3 Others, however, view the play as a searching exploration of contemporary social problems or mores: "a moving drama," claims J. W. Krutch, "the result of a realistic imagination as powerful almost as Ibsen's."4 In its point of view, some would have The Country Wife a satire and some a celebration of the society it reflects.5 Here, according to Clifford Leech, "Wycherley not merely lashes but delights in his age," fondling even while exposing it;6 but for Bonamy Dobrée "the clever, cynical dialogue, the scathing irony, the remorseless stripping of all grace from man" are so overpowering as to prevent the play from being considered a comedy at all "in the ordinary sense."7 While most modern critics have managed to detect some sort of ideal that redeems the play from sheer cynicism or mere frivolity - an ideal usually found to adhere in the Alithea-Harcourt subplot - Anne Righter can find nothing: "In its overall effect, The Country Wife is nihilistic."8

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