Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Country Wife: Metaphor Manifest

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Country Wife: Metaphor Manifest

Article excerpt

L.C. Knights has famously charged that metaphoric density is precisely what Restoration Comedy lacks. Its language, he claims, is impoverished, its "idiomatic vigour and evocative power" is lost, and the plays are not so much immoral as "trivial, gross and dull."1 James Thompson's booklength analysis of Wycherley's "densely packed imagery"2 has answered thisOlympianjudgementandP. F. Vernon claims that The Country Wife is "more metaphoric man any other comedy in English."3 Others have claimed that Restoration Comedy is uniformly refined, restrained and static. David Vieth suggests:

the Elizabethan and Jacobean idea of a play as essentially a series of dynamic, developing actions would be misleading if applied to The Country Wife. Most Restoration plays are comparatively static ... the plot is primarily an illusion of movement designed to bring issues and characters into friction. (337)"

But this emphasises only the moral-frictional pattern, and The Country Wife is not a parade of fleeting frictions. It is driven by vital entries which change events and impel action on stage and off, a dynamic shunting of cause and effect leading to purposeful change. This has been well illustrated by Peter Malekin. Its masquing conventions and use of the stage depth to expose a dialectical tension has been magnificently exposed by Jocelyn Powell. Acknowledging this, I shall explore the relationship of the play's metaphoric density to its action and visual groupings in the treatment of women by men and the metaphoric use of the stage and theatre space itself.

The language of The Country Wife is savage and subtle, and profoundly metaphoric. It is so dense with metaphor that speakers fall into the grip of the sentient power of its imagery and the stage achieves a rich, cohesive virtuality recalling the Jacobean stage. "Metaphors are fleshed out and words return with ironic significance so consistently as to suggest that words are invested with a curious power that often seems to reside outside the speaker" (Thompson 85) Metaphoric threads run the length of the play, a polyphony of iconic language, close to plot and theme. Stage action moves in extended support of verbal metaphor and often creates independent images with a force of their own. The menagerie of animal reference mutates from scene to scene but cumulatively it descends to a deviant farmyard. There is no temporary use of image for wit's sake, yet a sword-play vitality predominates. Sense is countered in its making, before it is complete: a 'stop-hit.' Figurative attack is accepted and turned back: a 'prise à feu.' The 'flèche,' or running attack, of the cuckolds lays them open to be hit from all sides when they miss and rush past. Horner and Pinchwife duel in metaphors. Horner besieges him with figurative language and masters him by defeating his metaphors. Speeches are unpredictably long, have the cadence of real conversation and are sharply interruptive,5 so that we never settle into listening to one speaker and complacent prediction, but are forced to attend closely to all interlocutors and what takes place between them. Language becomes an actional force, tied always with gesture, travel and social intention. They duel in action too.

The Country Wife is largely about the relation between men and women as factions, about sex and the arranged marriage. Horner may be hero or villain, a "life force triumphant," or a "gigantic emblem of vice." The play may be a satire on hypocrisy or "an anatomy of masculinity."6 None of these readings precludes this essential definition of its subject matter. Its verbal imagery and visual attack are about the discourse, or the lack of it, between men and women. Nor is it partisan. The shock waves of satirical attack expose both men and women to criticism. "Unlike Congreve, Wycherley is writing of a world in which there is little rational commerce between the sexes."7 Since men dominate socially, it is mainly about the treatment of women by men. …

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