BORN: c. 1640, Hampshire, England
DIED: 1715, London, England
GENRE: Drama, poetry
Love in a Wood (1671)
The Country-Wife (1675)
The Plain-Dealer (1677)
Miscellany Poems: as Satyrs, Epistles, Love-Verses, Songs, Sonnets, etc. (1671)
William Wycherley. Wycherley, William, photograph. © Michael Nicholson / Corbis.
One of the foremost dramatists of the Restoration period, British author William Wycherley combined irreverent social satire and complex verbal wit to create comedies of lasting interest and appeal. His comedies ridiculed the manners and morals of sophisticated ladies and gentlemen who delighted in illicit intrigue. Wycherley’s plays have attracted much controversy over the years for their candid treatment of moral—particularly sexual—attitudes and behavior, with the result that Wycherley has been alternately hailed as a force for moral regeneration and denounced as a purveyor of moral indecency.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Social-Climbing Father. Wycherley was born in Hampshire, England, c. 1640, into an established Shropshire family. His father, David Wycherley, was a steward and deputy for a local aristocrat, and he spent his entire adult life hoarding money, trying to climb the social ladder, and entering into lawsuits. Such activities became prime targets of his son’s satire in later years, and Wycherley was believed to have modeled several unattractive characters after his father.
Royalist Exile. Less than two years after Wycherley’s birth, the English civil war began. Oliver Cromwell led a coalition of Puritans and supporters of parliamentary rule against the forces of King Charles I. At issue were the questions such as the king’s right to sole autocratic power and the position of the Anglican church as the official church of England. Cromwell’s victory was complete in 1649 when he proclaimed himself Lord Protector for Life and had Charles I’s head cut off at the guillotine. Before his death, Charles wisely had his son, also named Charles, sent out of the country to France, where he received support and recognition from the king and aristocratic families there.
France became a safe haven for ‘‘Royalist’’ families such as Wycherley’s who supported the king and his dynasty. At the age of fifteen, Wycherley was sent to Angouleme where he began his remarkable education. Wycherley became associated with the brilliant intellectual Julie d’Angennes, the wife of the province’s governor, who was at the center of a fashionable group of writers and thinkers who demonstrated ‘‘la preciosite’’: exquisitely refined manners, morals, and verbal elegance. One of their codes was that passionate love refines the soul and lifts it above the constraints of marriage. (At the time, marriages were usually arranged for financial advantage among the aristocratic class or those who aspired to it). This theme appears often in Wycherley’s works, although sometimes in a bawdy comic form that is anything but ‘‘precieuse.’’
Return to England. There is little evidence of Wycherley’s activities between the ages of fifteen and thirty. All we know for sure is that he, along with many other Royalists, returned to England in 1660 when Parliament—the same group who fought with Cromwell to depose King Charles I—tired of the restrictions of Puritan rule and voted to invite Charles’s son back from France to claim the English throne as King Charles II a few years after the death of Cromwell. Wycherley had converted to Roman Catholicism while he was in France, but after he had begun studying at Queens College, Oxford, he converted back to Protestantism. In November of 1660, Wycherley enrolled as a law student in London, but it is doubtful that he ever completed his training or practiced law. It is more likely that Wycherley took some part in the naval battle against the Dutch in 1665, and it is certainly true that throughout his writing career he associates aristocratic bravery with heroism at sea.
Wycherley’s first play, Love in a Wood, premiered in London in 1671 and made him famous overnight. It attracted the attention of Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland, who introduced Wycherley to court circles. His second play, a comedy titled The Gentleman Dancing Master, was performed later that year, but it was not as well received. Shortly after this, Wycherley probably served as a naval officer in the Dutch War.
Wrote Last Plays. The Country-Wife, Wycherley’s best-known play, was first performed in 1672 or 1673 and centers on the attempts of a jealous husband named Pinchwife to keep his young and naive wife out of society because of his fear that she will be unfaithful. This play was a great success and is still performed today. The next year The Plain Dealer was performed with equal success. After The Plain Dealer, Wycherley stopped writing for the stage.
Wycherley fell ill in 1678, and Charles II sent him to France to recuperate. When Wycherley returned, the king entrusted the education of his illegitimate son, the duke of Richmond, to Wycherley, but he lost the appointment a year later because of Charles’s displeasure at his absence from court. This absence was occasioned by Wycherley’s secret marriage to the countess of Drogheda, who died about a year later. Litigation over her estate proved so expensive that Wycherley was imprisoned for debt. About seven years later, King James II secured his freedom, paid his debts, and gave him a pension.
In 1697, Wycherley succeeded to his father’s estate. In 1704 he published Miscellany Poems, which caught the attention of young Alexander Pope, who later helped Wycherley to revise and edit his poetry. Wycherley died on January 1, 1716.
Works in Literary Context
Wycherley was both a product and an exponent of the ‘‘Restoration,’’ a period from 1660 to 1700 marking Charles II’s ‘‘restoration’’ to the British throne. After his father was executed in 1649, Charles II left England to be protected in the opulent palace of King Louis XIV of France, where he learned the pleasures of fast living and enjoyed the attention of fine ladies. When Charles returned to England, the London court culture seemed to explode with new life after a long period of repressive Puritan rule. Cromwell had closed all of the theaters (bringing the rapid advancements that William Shakespeare had introduced to a sudden halt), but under Charles II, they opened with a full agenda of witty, satirical, and highly sexualized plays that seemed designed to offend Puritans as much as possible.
Restoration Themes. In his comedies, Wycherley both celebrated the live-for-the-day immorality of aristocratic London society and satirized its hypocrisies and follies. His plays helped to establish the subjects and structures that would come to define ‘‘Restoration comedies’’: sharp and smart dialogue, elaborate plots full of mistaken identities and overheard speeches, sexual intrigue, and conclusions that often go easy on the villains and ridicule the morally prudent. Another common feature of Restoration comedies was a plot involving a woman forced to disguise herself as a man, as seen in The Country-Wife. The Restoration was the first time women were allowed to perform on stage, and a play always sold tickets if the plot gave men in the audience an excuse to leer at women in tight men’s breeches.
Restoration Characters. Amply represented in Wycherley’s work are such stock Restoration characters as the roguish wit; the deceived cuckold (a clueless husband whose wife is cheating on him); the conceited, ineffectual fop (or social-climbing, fashion-conscious man); and the falsely pious hypocrite.
Wit. Wycherley’s plays are replete with wit, a quality very highly prized during the Restoration. ‘‘Wit’’ meant not just humor or irony but a keenness of perception that recognized the relationship between seemingly dissimilar things, an ability to cut straight to the heart of a matter in an original way, and an ability to express all of this with cleverness and quick improvisation. Such verbal dexterity is a famous feature of Wycherley’s work, and he incorporates it brilliantly into how characters compete with and evaluate one another. Wycherley has even been faulted for being too clever, for occasionally sacrificing consistency of characterization for the sake of a witty exchange.
Influence. Wycherley greatly influenced other Restoration dramatists as well as a number of British authors who followed him. Later in the eighteenth century, for example, David Garrick adapted his own version of The Country-Wife as The Country Girl in 1766, which became the preferred version through the end of the nineteenth century. Outside of drama, Wycherley’s young friend Alexander Pope was influenced by his mentor’s verse.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Wycherley's famous contemporaries include:
Alexander Pope (1688-1744): British poet Pope attracted serious critical attention at the age of twelve for his remarkably mature and polished poetry. He continued to refine his art until he was widely acknowledged as the greatest poet of his day.
Oliver Cromwell (1589-1658): British political leader Cromwell was a Puritan who helped raise an army to rebel against King Charles I. He ruled as Lord Protector and engaged in a brutal oppression of the Irish in order to enforce British claims on the island and to stamp out Catholicism.
Aphra Behn (1640-1689): Behn was one of the first Englishwomen to be a professional writer. Her works include the short novel Oroonoko: Or, the Royal Slave (1688). She also worked as an actress and as a spy, and spent time in debtor's prison.
Christopher Wren (1632-1723): Briton Wren was a brilliant architect, designer, engineer, and astronomer whose mark can be seen all over London to this day. In 1666, London suffered a terrible fire that destroyed much of the city. Charles II, who was interested in design and architecture himself, gave Wren free reign to rebuild the city on a more logical and elegant plan.
John Dryden (1631-1700): Dryden was the first poet laureate in England, but long before that honor, he was regarded by other writers of the era as their leader, model, and patron.
Works in Critical Context
Wycherley’s reputation as a playwright and his place in the literary tradition have always been problematic because the history of Wycherley studies hinges upon a bitter paradox. In his own day, Wycherley was considered to be a moral satirist of the seriousness and stature of the classical writers Horace and Juvenal. Yet from the nineteenth century to the present, he has been thought successively to be a monster of moral depravity, a writer of artificial comedies of manners, and a writer of mere sex farces. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the history of Wycherley criticism was one long contention between critics who dismissed his best plays— The Country-Wife and The Plain Dealer—as immoral and those who sought to clear them of that charge. It was not until 1965, in Rose A. Zimbardo’s Wycherley’s Drama: A Link in the Development of English Satire, that a serious, book-length study was devoted to placing Wycherley, the satirist, firmly back into English literary history.
The Country-Wife. Wycherley’s reputation as a playwright was immediately enhanced by the production of The Country-Wife. It was an extremely popular play in the seventeenth century, deemed a hilarious comedy for its jeers at adulterers who claim virtue. By the eighteenth century, changing values and social norms led to censorship of the play as it was judged offensive and dissolute. This trend continued into the nineteenth century as changing views on how drama affects audiences changed the reception of Wycherley’s plays. A play that in the eighteenth century exposed audiences to instances of immoral behavior, offering up such behavior to denounce it, was seen in the nineteenth century as providing audiences immoral behavior to emulate. Today, critics remain distressed with the morality of the play, but with different rationale. With central characters that seem to exemplify the vices of lust and hypocrisy, critics question exactly which values Wycherley was condoning at the time of publication and against what the satire is actually directed. Reviewing a 2007 London production of The Country-Wife, Lloyd Evans wrote in the Spectator, ‘‘William Wycherley’s 332-year-old sex romp is about as entertaining as I would be if I were 322. The plot is dazzingly crass.... The characters are as crude and oafish as the storyline. Only the elegance of the script delivers the occasional joy.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Wycherley's work often satirizes the hypocrisies and immoralities of London high society. Here are some other works that poke fun at the rich and mighty:
The Rape of the Lock (1712), a narrative poem by Alexander Pope. Pope was asked by some friends to mend fences between two aristocratic families after a man cut off a lock of hair, without permission, from a young woman he admired. Pope turned it into a mock- epic satire full of sparkling wit, stinging satire, and obvious affection for an elegant society that he could observe but never fully join himself.
Vile Bodies (1930), a novel by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh uses his trademark black humor to expose the shallowness of the ''bright young things'' of post-World War I British society.
Shampoo (1975), a film directed by Hal Ashby. This satire on the sexual and social mores of the rich in the late 1960s starred Warren Beatty as a hairdresser who makes housecalls, allowing him to use his charms to cuckold all the husbands who are at work earning the money their wives are spending on their selfish pleasures.
Responses to Literature
1. In an essay, consider the following questions: Do you think a play is ‘‘immoral,’’ if it is trying to accurately reflect or satirize immoral times? Was the Restoration court under Charles II as ‘‘immoral,’’ as it is usually assumed to be?
2. In a presentation, consider the following questions: What is the role of women in one or more of Wycherley’s plays? What stereotypes do they embody, or do you think they run counter to stereotypes? How does Wycherley use the plot in order to get his female actors into sexually alluring costumes or provocative situations?
3. Consider the names of some of Wycherley’s comic characters. How are they meaningful? Do you think the satire is subtle or heavy-handed? Discuss your opinions in a group.
Hume, Robert. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Rogers, Katharine M. William Wycherley. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Vernon, P. F. William Wycherley. London: Longmans, Green, 1965.
Wilson, John Harold. A Preface to Restoration Drama. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Zimbardo, Rose A. Wycherley’s Drama: A Link in the Development of English Satire. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.
Evans, Lloyd. ‘‘Losing the Plot (The Country Wife and Rent.’ Spectator (November 3, 2007): 84.
Rump, Eric. ‘‘Theme and Structure in Wycherley’s Love in a Wood.’ English Studies 54 (August 1973): 326-33.
William Wycherley. Retrieved March 13, 2008, from http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc95.html