In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Country Wife, Dance of the Cuckolds
  • David Gelineau (bio)

Only briefly and cryptically foreshadowed two scenes before by Sir Jasper’s promise to Horner to send in “the Banquet and the Fiddles”1 and presented with a minor stage direction near the end of act 5 of The Country Wife (361), the “Dance of Cuckolds” is largely ignored by critics. The dance, introduced by Horner saying, “the Ladies troubles we’l divert with a Ballet, Doctor where are your Maskers” (360), seems so minor as to be of no importance. Norman Holland even suggests cutting it and most other dances from Restoration comedies in order to shorten the plays for less patient modern audiences, because “they add virtually nothing to a twentieth-century audience’s appreciation of the play.”2 But on the stage it is an elaborate moment. All of the characters in the play are present; then, the dancers who perform the ballet are crowded onto the stage with them. In such a finely structured play, all this effort is not just wasted traffic. Among the critics who have ventured an interpretation, most have seen the dance as a kind of dark parody of the traditional comic ending of marriage—and it is certainly though not exclusively that.3 Almost no readings of the dance, however, see it as an emblem at the center of the play’s meaning. One interesting exception is from Laura J. Rosenthal, who sees the dance as an emblem for England and its recovery from the democratic, leveling tendencies that Horner represents. She claims the dance symbolizes the forgetting of one’s cuckoldom, an act of oblivion echoing the political one, as a triumph for the cuckolds, not for Horner: “The triumph of the cuckolds marks a new phase in English history: embracing one’s inner cuckold celebrates—albeit in overtly cynical ways—a nation recovering from a leveling rebellion that it must, with the help of repeated performances of The Country Wife, Marriage à la Mode, and other sex comedies, remember to forget.”4 The dance here [End Page 277] becomes an ideal, though an “overtly cynical” one. She sees the symbolic self-deceit of the cuckolds as a model to be followed in order to protect hierarchical privilege, her reading hinging on Horner ultimately being a victim of the women. My argument here, however, is that the dance’s symbolism, while central to the play’s meaning, condemns England, and not because England is abandoning its hierarchy, as Rosenthal argues, but because this society is fundamentally dishonest; the audience’s cynicism is the playwright’s satiric target, not the play’s saving virtue. In a truly Swiftian way, Wycherley forces the audience, or those of them who have the wits to see, to identify themselves with what is attacked.5 To communicate this scathing view of society, Wycherley finds the perfect metaphor in the image of the cuckold: within the highly theatrical culture of his day, Wycherley shows an intricate dance of those who have their faith in meaning betrayed because meaning is only a façade, an intricate, empty masque. He shows a world where, like cuckolds, those who trust in meaning are almost always cheated. So the dance is not only the center of the meaning of the play; it is an emblem for meaning itself in the corrupt world that Wycherley sees around him, as it chooses to reinterpret the world through the lens of materialism.

The most obvious meaning of the dance is that it is a symbolic representation and mocking parody of the literal cuckolds in the play, who are right there in front of the dancers: Sir Japer Fidget and Pinchwife; and, though he is not yet married, Sparkish has an honorary position in this group, having forced Harcourt into his fiancée’s arms. These men, placed on the stage among all the other characters from the play, watch the dancers perform their humiliation, with various levels of understanding: Sir Jasper, as oblivious as always, is unaware that the dance applies to him, and Pinchwife must knowingly and patiently endure the humiliation just as he must endure Margery’s betrayal. At this level of...