The Successful Rake: Licentious Behavior in William Wycherley’s Writing

The sexual repression felt during the Commonwealth period came to an abrupt halt in 1660 when Charles II was put into power, causing the ruling party, as well as the daily lives of England’s subjects to be based on ideas of absolutism rather than those centered on religion. Prior to Charles’ reign, the Puritans had enacted several laws prohibiting sexual deviances, which carried harsh punishments. These punishments were considered incredibly strict, causing many to abstain from sexual activity entirely. While Charles II may not embody all of the characteristics of the rake, his decadent relations with several women certainly had an effect on his subjects.

These sudden changes in behavior can be seen through the lives of those of the period, as well as through their literature. Several authors exemplified rake tendencies in their own lifestyles, including that of John Wilmot the second Earl of Rochester and Aphra Behn, a ground-breaking feminist; however, William Wycherley can be considered the embodiment of the rake in the successes of his personal life as well as those in his literature.

Wycherley, who composed four plays between the ages of 30 and 35, was well-known for embracing the once prohibited lifestyle of a care-free playboy. His notorious relationships with several beautiful women gave him the reputation of a good lover, which perhaps facilitated his pursuit of one of Charles II’s many mistresses; and his talent and social standing gave him the in with many from the Court’s “popular crowd.” While Wycherley was considered a success in the eyes of many of his “brat-pack” buddies, which included the notorious and pornographic Earl of Rochester, the publication of The Country Wife in 1675, secured him his success as a playwright.

The Country Wife’s main character, Harry Horner, without surprise is considered by some to display many of the most appropriate examples of the rake’s cunning and deceiving tendencies. Wycherley sets the stage with Horner concocting a dubious scheme, to not only seduce the privileged ladies of the day, but to do so through the blessings of their unsuspecting husbands.

One important trait of the Restoration rake is their tendency to disguise themselves as something that they definitely are not. In order to pose himself as non-threatening, Horner starts a seemingly destructive rumor that he is impotent. Horner explains to his doctor, affectionately named Quack, that his scheme is not overly-concocted, but that it is a well-conjured deception, necessary to gain the trust of the unsuspecting couples, “Doctor, there are quacks in love as well as physic, who get but the fewer and worse patients for their boasting; a good name is seldom got by giving it oneself, and women no more than honor are compassed by bragging. Come, come, doctor, the wisest lawyer never discovers the merits of his cause till the trial; the wealthiest man conceals his riches, and the cunning gamester his play. Shy husbands and keepers, like old rooks, are not to be cheated but by a new unpracticed trick; false friendship will pass now no more than false dice upon ’em; no, not in the city (The Country Wife, 2291).”

Wycherly, who allows Horner to smoothly skate through the piece displaying a disregard for everyone but himself, brilliantly mirrors the attitudes of the Restoration period. Because the attitudes towards sexuality were rampantly changing, the pursuit of one’s own personal gratification could be considered less selfish; therefore, Horner’s unique style of searching for love was simply regarded as witty and creative. Unfortunately however, Wycherley’s protagonist is not that innocent; the rake is not that innocent and neither were Wycherley or his licentious cohorts.

For many who lived a rakish lifestyle, the pursuit of several sexual conquests was not their only negative characteristic. Many drank their ales and spent their money heavily and paid for their habits later in life. Horner describes the trials and tribulations of the rake in Act I of The Country Wife, “I tell you, ’tis as hard to be a good fellow, a good friend and a good lover of women, as ’tis to be a good fellow; a good friend and a lover of money. You cannot follow both, then choose your side. Wine gives you liberty, love takes it away (The Country Wife, 2295).”

Although the author’s life was not a direct reflection of Horner’s and although Horner was not doomed to a tragic end, Wycherley did live a downward spiral, eminent for those who live such brazenly irresponsible lives. He ultimately was incarcerated in a debtor’s prison for his frivolous manner in spending money, but can be relieved to not have experienced the same demise of his friend Rochester, who died of syphilis at the age of 33.

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