Fine. I’ll admit it.
This play was actually really funny.
Don’t expect to hear me say it again though.
Mr. Harry Horner is officially a eunuch. At least, that’s what the rumours say. In truth, Horner has spread the rumour himself, the first step in a scheme to seduce all the young (and possibly married) women in London. He figures that men will let him near their wives and daughters because he can’t have an affair with them, and women are disgusted by his “condition” because they can’t get it on.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pinchwife has brought his new country wife to London for his sister’s wedding, but locks her away in fear she’ll be seduced and leave him. Not that he has much to worry about, since she’s too dumb to even know what an affair is.
She is seduced anyway…by none other than Horner.
And Pinchwife’s sister, the honourable Alithea, is engaged to marry Sparkish, a rich pretty boy who’s all talk and no brain. Too bad Sparkish and Horner’s best friend, Harcourt, is in love with Alithea too.
Only hilarity can ensue.
On the face of it, this play looks little more than some tacky R-rated college movie. Filled to the brim with innuendos, silly schemes, and larger-than-life characters, it’s a wonder anyone takes it seriously.
And yet, once I reached the scene at the Exchange, I actually couldn’t stop reading.
The plot is so exaggerated, the reader is forced to strip it down. Horner’s ridiculous scheme, Pinchwife’s fruitless attempts to keep his wife, and Harcourt’s outlandish attempts to win Alithea while Sparkish watches, oblivious. Ironically, this allows the themes to shine through, rather than bury them in innuendo.
This is the same for the characters. The players are meant to dress excessively, covered in lace and fine dresses and wigs, and their personalities are even louder. All the people in this play are idiots, for all different reasons. Horner makes up an idiotic scheme, Pinchwife thinks extensive control of his wife will make him dearer to her, Sparkish thinks the world is his to play in, and the country wife herself is just an idiot.
But in the end, the characters simply represent ideas. Horner and Alithea appear to be foils, one wanting all indecency, the other doing nothing but what is decent. Sparkish is the result of too little jealousy, Pinchwife of too much.
And the country wife? Interestingly, she’s the only one brave (or stupid) enough to accept and declare the truth, at least, until the very end. And even then, she lies and schemes with the help of others—she wouldn’t be able to do anything by herself.
There are heaps of wit in this dialogue, which makes it really enjoyable to read. Yes, some of the wit comes in the form of innuendo, but a lot of it isn’t innuendo, and that’s what makes it so fun. I’m glad that the humour doesn’t solely depend on euphemism–and in truth the scenes are funny. Act IV scene i is my favourite.
Plus, its really interesting how the Alithea/Harcourt/Sparkish plot mirrors the one of Horner/Margery/Pinchwife
There are glaring problems though. Ignoring the format of a play, the plot isn’t anywhere near original. And while I did enjoy reading it, I doubt I’ll ever read it again.
Recommendation: Read. If you like plays and if you like archaic innuendos.
Featured image from the infamous China scene from BBC’s The Country Wife.