In England, the Comedy of Manners is represented by the plays of William Wycherley, George Etherege, William Congreve, and George Farquhar. This form was later classed "Old Comedy" but is now known as Restoration Comedy because it coincided with Charles II's return to England. The main goal of these comedies of manners in the period of Restoration is to mock society, or in other ways lift up society for scrutiny, which could cause negative or positive results. In the end, if the playwright has been successful, the audience will leave the theater feeling good (or at least feeling something), having laughed at themselves and society.
The definition of comedy and the background of the Restoration Comedy helps to explain the themes that run throughout these plays. One of the major themes is marriage and the game of love. However, if marriage is a mirror of society, the couples in the plays show something very dark and sinister about order. Many critiques of marriage that we see in the play are devastating, but the game of love is not much more hopeful. Although the endings are happy and the man invariably gets the woman (or at least that is the implication), we see marriages without love and love affairs that are rebellious breaks with tradition.
However, as we look at the Restoration comedies that range from William Wycherley's play, "The Country Wife" (1675) to William Congreve's play, "The Way of the World" (1700), and further than that if we look at Aphra Behn's comedy of intrigue, "The Rover" (1702) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's sentimental comedy, "The School for Scandal" (1777), which fall near the same period, we see how dramatically society has progressed. A dramatic change, in moral attitudes about marriage and love, has taken place.
William Wycherley's "Country Wife"
In Wycherley's "Country Wife," the marriage between Margery and Bud Pinchwife represents a hostile marriage between an old (or older man) and a young woman -- a May/December marriage. The Pinchwifes are the focal point of the play, at least as couples go, and her affair with Horner only adds to the humor of the play. Horner runs around cuckolding all of the husbands, while he pretends to be a eunuch. This pretension brings the women swarming to him. He is a master at the game of love, though he is emotionally impotent. He cannot love, which makes him an interesting character for analysis. The relationships in the play are dominated by jealousy or cuckoldry, with the exception of the gay couple -- Alithea and Harcourt, but they are really pretty boring.
The element of jealousy in marriage seems to be especially prevalent in the play. In Act IV, scene ii., Mr. Pinchwife says, in an aside, "So, 'tis plain she loves him, yet she has not love enough to make her conceal it from me; but the sight of him will increase her aversion for me and love for him, and that love instruct her how to deceive me and satisfy him, all idiot as she is." He insults her, not to her face of course, but he's serious. He wants her to be stupid, not able to deceive him. But even in her obvious innocence, he doesn't believe she is innocent. To him, every woman came out of nature's hands "plain, open, silly, and fit for slaves, as she and Heaven intended 'em." As he says, "No woman can be forced. " But he also says, in another aside, "Why should women have more invention in love than men? It can only be because they have more desires, more soliciting passions, more lust and more of the devil."
Mr. Pinchwife isn't especially bright, but in his jealousy, he becomes a dangerous character. He becomes passionate in his mad ravings, thinking Margery had conspired to cuckold him. Little did he know that he was correct, but if he had known the truth, he would have killed her in his madness. As it is, when she disobeys him, he says, "Once more write as I'd have you, and question it not, or I will spoil thy writing with this. [Holding up the penknife.] I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief." He doesn't ever hit her or stab her in the play (such actions wouldn't make a very good comedy), but Mr. Pinchwife continually locks Margery in the closet, calls her names, and in all other ways, acts like a complete jerk (to put it nicely). Because of his abusive nature, Margery's affair is not a surprise. In fact, it is accepted as a social norm, along with Horner's promiscuity. At the end, the whole scene with Margery learning to lie is also taking in stride because the idea has already been set up when Mr. Pinchwife voiced his fears that if she loved Horner more, she would conceal it from him. And with that, social order is restored.