Dismantling Performativity in The Country Wife and The Belle’s Stragatem

By: Erin Caine ’19, an English major.

The following work was created for ENG 394: Restoration Comedy.

Brief description: “Following the end of the Puritan regime in England in 1660, English theater experienced a renaissance, a restoration. This essay examines two Restoration Comedy plays and the ways in which female characters gain social knowledge and use that knowledge to actualize (usually quite creatively) their own desires. The stage becomes a platform to explore women’s potential, and their ability to disrupt the constructs that bind them to limited social roles.”

Though written a century apart, William Wycherley’s The Country Wifeand Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagemdeal similarly with theme of young women gaining social knowledge and then asserting their desire, despite the limitations of propriety and others’ attempts to repress, prevent, or influence that desire. Though these characters are navigating a society that overvalues chastity and docility in women yet demands they be cunning and worldly to survive, the plays seem to celebrate their assertiveness in romance and preserved dignity, and mock those who seem too mired in old-fashioned or oppressive ways of thinking. In Restoration comedy, the one who ultimately comes away successfully is the one who can play the game irreproachably, without inviting disgrace or publicly committing any social gaffe. The women of these plays often get what they want by discovering creative ways to bend the rules, or to turn those rules against those who set them in place.

Country Wife’s eponymous character, the naïve Margery, is frank with her feelings and desires, much to the consternation of her perpetually-anxious husband. Though she first appears as utterly guileless, by the end she’s put in a peculiar position that requires her to learn how to lie in order to save other characters from disgrace. Initially uninformed and benign, she receives a lot of new information, sometimes by mistake; the more knowledge she acquires, the more dangerous she becomes to the “game.” Stratagem’s Letitia Hardy, meanwhile, begins with that knowledge, allowing her to adopt the demeanor of a tactless rube in one scene, and that of a mysterious and refined beauty the next. This particular brand of performance and code-switching betrays the cracks in society’s perceptions of women, class difference, and authenticity.

In exploration of Cowley’s Stratagem, Elizabeth Wallace’s essay observes that the play “evinces an awareness of the destabilizing effects of performance as well as the anxiety this destabilization can produce” (416). The heroines of Stratagem and Country Wife, after all, aren’t simply claiming agency in a narrative sense as they knowingly or unknowingly toy with the boundaries of propriety and class, but claiming it beyond the stage, as well. The importance of these plays, even today, is in their emphasis on the innate performativity of womanhood, and the ability of women to use their social knowledge—which includes their perspectives as women—to call attention to and begin to dismantle that performativity.

The underlying plot of Stratagemis somewhat common for the genre (one can see something very similar in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, for instance): a young woman disguises herself in order to ensnare the object of her affections. Thematically, it compels the audience to interrogate their own notions of “truth” and “illusion,” especially in terms of identity, and what it is that divides the two—if conclusively anything at all.

Doricourt, the unenthusiastic suitor of Stratagem, has distinct, diametrically opposed images in mind when he speaks of women. When he first appears, he has already decided that Letitia (though he only had one meeting with her) epitomizes what he refers to disparagingly as the “English beauty” (I.iii.82), a woman with a blushing modesty that stands in great contrast to the “zest” of the women he has met while abroad. Such a preconception disregards individual character, reducing Letitia to an incomplete stereotype. Though a character like Marlow from She Stoops holds quite the opposite opinion of refined “English beauties,” he has idealized and aggrandized them to terrifying abstraction. This tendency in male characters to generalize women into clear-cut groups often leads to an exacerbation of women’s oppression yet, the female characters use that particular tendency to their advantage as well.

Country Wife has an unusual scene in which three ostensibly well-bred women—Lady Fidget, Dainty, and Mrs. Squeamish—meet in the lodging of the play’s cunning rake, Horner, and proceed to drink, sing crude songs, and speak openly about men and sex. After Horner brings up the issue of “reputation,” Lady Fidget poses to him a provocative question “Why should you not think that we women make use of our reputation as you men of yours, only to deceive the world with less suspicion?” She adds that a woman’s “virtue” is meant to “cheat those that trust” in it (V.iv.107-112). The implication is that virtue in women, rather than being the expression of a genuine inner quality, is simply something donned for outward appearances, like a mask or cloak. This scene parallels the first scene of the play, in which Horner declares that “women of honor” are in fact “only chary of their reputations, not their persons, and ’tis scandal they would avoid, not men” (I.i.181-183). Though upper-class women are indeed restricted in many ways by the social laws of propriety, they use society’s assumptions as a cover to attain a reasonable amount of sexual freedom.

Letitia, for instance, uses her knowledge about speech, behavior, and assumptions about class to manipulate Doricourt’s emotions. The first part of her plan is to convince Doricourt to despise her, since in her belief it is “much easier to convert a sentiment into its opposite than to transform indifference into tender passion” (I.iv.271-273). In order to achieve this, she plays the part of an ignorant country bumpkin. Her performance even takes into account certain movements and gestures, such as making a “very stiff formal curtsy” when she approaches him, to demonstrate to him her apparent inexperience with elite social events. She then plays with his notions of her own “reputation,” implying she has had past suitors, and she may not have had entirely virtuous relationships with them. Most conspicuous about her act are her frequent colloquialisms and corrupted words—such as “potecary” instead of “apothecary,” or “genus” instead of “genius.” Though her performance is a caricature played for laughs, the decision shows a certain insight on Letitia’s part; Doricourt, after all, would certainly respond more strongly to the stereotypical display of a “country girl” than to something more moderate or realistic.

When the time comes to “convert” Doricourt’s disgust into adoration, a masked Letitia presents herself as a woman of culture and refinement, dancing gracefully, singing beautifully, and speaking in poetic language. Most crucial to this particular performance is her remaining just out of Doricourt’s reach, both emotionally and physically. As a refined woman, she must appear virtuous; as a mysterious seductress, however, she must also treat the interaction like a game, or make him believe he is in pursuit of some otherworldly being. Neither personas are necessarily Letitia’s apparent “true nature,” nor are they realistic representations of women. This aspect of the play seems to leave the question of whether or not Letitia is authentically “herself” even at the very end of the play in ambiguity. Recognizing this paradox of performance within performance, Wallace asks, “How does one act the part of someone who is not acting?” (420).

Though Stratagemis a play that compels its audience to interrogate the very construction of womanhood in society, Country Wife almost seems to frame womanhood (especially women’s sexualities) as an inherently chaotic or destabilizing force, with the potential to wreak havoc if not matched with an equal amount of craftiness. In addition to the play’s framing of supposedly refined women as emptily performing “virtue” to maintain their reputations, Margery’s acquisition of social knowledge and social opportunities only seem to increase Pinchwife’s terror. Though the characters of Margery and Stratagem’s Lady Frances Touchwood are in similar situations, considering that they are both inexperienced young women with overly jealous and anxious husbands, the plays present the characters with notable differences. Whereas Margery is indeed having an affair with Horner (and even wishes to leave her husband for him in the end), Lady Frances is beyond reproach or corruption—the very epitome of purity. They are both representations of guileless country women, women seemingly without “masks,” and yet their underlying natures are presented as opposite. Margery’s “education” seems to cultivate the threat of her sexuality and appreciation of society, and yet for Frances, the more she learns of society, the more she comes to reject it. 

And yet, Country Wifedoesn’t punish Margery. In the context of the era, it wasn’t infidelity or promiscuity that society deemed the most unforgivable, but failing to maintain the charade—getting caught. Margery hasn’t yet developed the skill set needed to play the game as someone like Horner does, but she is able to sometimes bend the rules in her favor. For instance, Pinchwife, after disguising Margery as a young boy to fend off potential suitors, must suffer the consequences of the situation he, himself, has created. When he later interrogates her about Horner, he asks, “But what, you stood very still when he kissed you?” She replies, “Yes, I warrant you. Would you have had me discovered myself?” (IV.ii.30-33).

Though Margery is not presented to the audience as particularly witty or capable of any purposeful malice (though there is perhaps room for a radical interpretation of her innocence as a complete performance), one must at least acknowledge that Margery acts on her desires within the framework she’s given. Once Pinchwife sets the parameters, ironically it gives her the freedom to maneuver within clear boundaries. She is technically beyond reproach when it comes to what happened at the theater, and yet she still finds satisfaction.

Characters such as Lady Frances andCountry Wife’s romantic heroine, Alithea, are able to get what they want without maneuvering. And yet, can they attain narrative agency this way? Can they assert their desires? Though Frances possesses a kind of power by nature of her being seemingly immune to the “masquerade” of society, she is ultimately the one being maneuvered through most of the play; the worldly “fine ladies” of the play, Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle, endeavor to introduce Frances to society seemingly out of spite for the old-fashioned and domineering Sir George. Needless to say, it is quite convenient for Touchwood that his wife ultimately discovered her distaste for society and preference for him, rather than the other way around. And yet she is now, by the end of the play, making a more informed decision. Lady Frances has been given the opportunity to examine the companionship she has with Sir George compared to her introduction into sophisticated society, and she has also made the distinction between what she is expected to want and what she truly desires.

Alithea is perhaps one of the more passive female characters in the two plays, defined by her sense of honor and dignity yet unable to exert any control over the unfolding plot. Though David Morris in his essay calls Country Wife a “play about honor,” Alithea is never in a position to be able to effectively defend her own honor (3). Others, such as Harcourt, must defend it for her. As for the knowledge she gains, she gains it almost solely through Harcourt’s courtship: “Throughout the play, Wycherley represents Alithea’s mistaking of appearances as an entanglement in words. Harcourt, however, constantly educates her concerning the differences between words and things, names and natures, signs and realities” (Morris 9-10). When Alithea is at last undeceived about Sparkish’s true nature, it is a moment she receives, rather than something she induces in him to confess to her.

Interestingly, Alithea’s maid, Lucy, possibly shows the most insight of any female character in Country Wife. Essentially, what she wants is for Alithea to supplant her misplaced sense of “honor” with desire—supplant the sense of duty binding her to her engagement to Sparkish with a more fulfilling engagement to Harcourt. Lucy’s belief about “honor” is that it is like a “disease in the head,” by which men “lose their lives” and women their love, “the life of life” (IV.i.34-38). Lucy’s particular insight here is that “honor,” much like “virtue,” is not only something to be performed, but imbued with an inordinate value or preciousness, despite signifying something deceptively hollow. In short, Lucy is attempting to unfix Alithea from an empty ideal and in a sense realign her with her own desires. Harcourt, then, is merely the demonstration or confirmation of Lucy’s particular insight about ideals versus reality.

Lady Frances, of course, might be said to represent a kind of “ideal” young woman for her time. Stratagembeing a play written in a time of revolution automatically sets its gender politics and sexual attitudes apart from those valued a century ago. Tanya Caldwell, in her essay on Cowley’s work, notes that plays like Stratagemstressed the fact “that change must build upon fundamental national institutions and virtues” and that “[Cowley] has a female artist’s heightened awareness that […] there was nobody anywhere who did not feel the ripples of revolution.” She adds that the play shows that women are indeed “instrumental in reviving old virtues” (31)—virtues needed, perhaps, to restore social stability.

Though the play never makes observations about the inherent performativity of being a woman in the domestic sphere—even though the roles of “wife” and “mother” are arguably the most demanding of social roles for women—it does position Lady Frances in a special vantage point as an outsider looking in, as someone capable of seeing society as one big masquerade. When George asks her opinion, she says, quite perceptively, “Everyone about me seemed happy—but everybody seemed in a hurry to be happy somewhere else” (III.iv.58-60).

Cowley’s emphasis on truth and illusion, on authentic self and performed self, in turn “encourages her audience to recognize a Shakespearean paradox: if human subjectivity is defined by constant role-playing, then only on the stage do people really appear as what they are” (Wallance 415). Moreover, because an actor on the stage represents an “explicit demonstration of ever-shifting human potential,” the stage becomes a space that demonstrates women’s potential, and women’s ability to question or dismantle the social constructs which bind them to a single role or image (Wallace 415). As Letitia tells Doricourt after she has revealed the game to him at the very end of the play, “You see I canbe anything” (V.v.278).

The moment that signifies the change she has induced in Doricourt comes when he requests that she be “nothing but [her]self,” as “nothing can be captivating that [she] is not” (V.v.283). Letitia had earlier spoken of a “veil” which necessity had forced her to “throw off.” Though she was referring in part to her own “natural reserve” (V.v.274), she also observed that “timidity” is in fact a symptom of her culture, and the way that society demands people—especially women—be “veiled” so that they remain inoffensive, non-subversive, nonthreatening. It becomes a shared responsibility, then, to emerge from it.

Works Cited

Caldwell, Tanya. “‘A City Graced with Many a Dome’: Hannah Cowley’s Domestic Comedies, the Georgic Impulse, and the Female Arts.” Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 42, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 28–57.

Cowley, Hannah. The Belle’s StratagemThe Broadview Anthology of Restoration & Early Eighteenth-Century Drama, by John Douglas Canfield and Maja-Lisa von Sneidern, Broadview, 2005, pp. 1826–1873.

Morris, David B. “Language and Honor in The Country Wife.” South Atlantic Bulletin, no. 4, 1972, p. 3-10.

Wallace, Elizabeth Kowaleski. “Theatricality and Cosmopolitanism in Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem.” Comparative Drama, vol. 35, no. 3/4, Fall/Winter 2001, p. 415-433

Wycherley, William. The Country WifeThe Broadview Anthology of Restoration & Early Eighteenth-Century Drama, by John Douglas Canfield and Maja-Lisa von Sneidern, Broadview, 2005, pp. 1038–1100.

Erin Caine ’19 is an English major and Creative Writing minor who divides her time between fiction writing, playwriting, dramaturgy, and music. She’s the Lifestyle editor for The Elm, and a few of her short stories (and one play) have appeared in The Collegian. She’s in the middle of an SCE about Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, and communal healing through literature.

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