“The Country Wife” as Fabliau

•January 25, 2007 • 5 Comments

First off, Kit is fine; she’s eating well and walking around and should bounce right back. Now, on to business.

Upon reading Wycherly’s “The Country Wife,” I was struck by three things: first, how absolutely hilarious it was (the theme from “The Benny Hill Show” was running through my head the entire time I was reading it), secondly, how cynical it is about marriage, in particular the unlikelyhood of spousal fidelity, and thirdly, that I have heard this story before.

It seems to me that Wycherly’s play has a lot in common with a tradition that goes back at least to the latter part of the Middle Ages: that of the Fabliau. This is a genre that Shakespeare may have dabbled in (“The Taming of the Shrew” comes to mind, but one could also make an arguement for “The Merchant of Venice”) but is most well known to students of English through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales; in particular “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Reeve’s Tale.” The fabliau is a bawdy tale (usually using sexual as well as scatalogical humour) in which an older man is duped by a younger, smarter and more sexually virile one. The older man is usually an extremely foolish, jealous and unscrupulous character who marries a younger woman with whom he is no longer able to keep pace with sexually, or perhaps merely has a young, beautiful daughter that he keeps locked away to protect from the predations of young bucks. The fabliau ends with the “maiden” (who is complicit in the plot) deflowered, the jealous fool humiliated and the young man triumphant. These tales usually have a fairly straight-forward moral, for example, that the young should marry the young, and that an old man who marries a young woman is asking for trouble. We see this type of plot in two instances in “The Country Wife”: first with the Horner-Margery-Pinchwife triangle, and secondly in the Harcourt-Alithea-Sparkish plot.

Granted, there are aspects of the fabliau missing in both of these plots; for one, it lacks the kind of overly complicated plotting of the young lovers (anyone who has read “The Miller’s Tale” will remember how Nicholas tricks John by suspending him from the roof in a barrel, telling him that God is sending a second flood, so that he can get some alone time with Allison), and although Sparkish and Pinchwife play the parts of the jealous husband and the foolish husband quite well, there is no indication that they are any older than the bachelors Horner and Harcourt, and of course, neither Alithea or Margery actually commits adultery. Most troublesome, though, is the lack of a moral; the play leaves the audience with no real sense about the truth of marriage or of the rightness or wrongness of the characters’ actions. However, there are enough parallels to suggest that there may be something to this kind of analysis.

On a totally unrelated topic, Knapp’s article about linguistic slippage and the “modernity” of the play was quite interesting. I particularly liked her explanation of the word “pinch” in relation to Pinchwife, especially in light of Dr. Jones’ comments in class that the character names of plays in this period are almost allegorical. I had figured out Horner (gives horns, i.e. cuckolds other men), Mrs. Squeamish, Fidget, and of course Dr. Quack, but Pinchwife was a little bit harder to place.

Usually I’d have something “smart” to say but…

•January 23, 2007 • 3 Comments

I’ve just taken five minutes to set this up before I drive Meghan to work. I’ll probably start posting about class this afternoon, but first I have to go pick up my baby at the vet (one of my two ferrets, Kit). She had surgery yesterday to remove a tumor on her adrenal gland, so she’ll need a little more attention over the next couple of days.  The vet said that she had a little problem with hemorrhaging; not surprising given the fact that they essentially too a piece of her kidney off. Anyway, heres a pic of her.kit-058.jpg