The following biography is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.
English dramatist William Wycherley (1640-1715) was born in 1640, of a good Shropshire family. His father, probably disgusted with the gloomy Puritanism of the reigning manners, sent the future dramatist to be educated in France, where he was brought up in the brilliant household of the Duke of Montausier. Here the young man abandoned his national faith and embraced Catholicism, probably regarding the latter as more especially the religion of a gentleman and man of fashion. Returning to England, adorned with all the graces of French courtliness, and remarkable for the beauty of his person, Wycherley, while nominally studying the Law, became a brilliant figure in the gay and profligate society of the day. In his literary career we do not find indications of any great precocity of genius: his first comedy, Love in a Wood, was not acted until he had reached the age of about thirty-two; and the small number of his dramatic works, as well as the style of their composition, seems to prove that he was neither very original in conception, nor capable of producing anything otherwise than by patient labor and careful revision. Love in a Wood was followed, in 1673, the next year, by the Gentleman Dancing-Master, the plot of which was borrowed from Calderon. His two greatest and most successful comedies are The Country Wife, acted in 1675, and The Plain Dealer, in 1677. Moving in the most brilliant society of his time, Wycherley was engaged in many intrigues, the most celebrated being that with the infamous Duchess of Cleveland, one of the innumerable mistresses of Charles II. His grace and gayety attracted the notice of the king; and he was selected to superintend the education of the young Duke of Richmond, Charles's natural child; but a secret marriage which he contracted with the Countess of Drogheda caused him to lose the favor of the court. His union with the lady, which commenced in an accidental and even romantic manner, was not such as to secure either his happiness or his interest; and after her death, Wycherley fell into such distress as to have remained several years in confinement for debt. He was at last liberated partly by the assistance of James II; and on this occasion, probably to gratify the king, he again rejoined the Catholic church, from which he had been temporarily reconverted. The remainder of Wycherley's life is melancholy and ignoble. Having long survived the literary types which were in fashion in his youth, with a broken constitution and an embarrassed fortune, he continued to thirst with vain impotence after sensual pleasure and literary glory. With the assistance of Pope, then a mere boy, but who had blazed out upon the world with sudden splendor, Wycherley concocted a huge collection of stupid and obscene poems, which fell dead upon the public. The momentary friendship and bitter quarrel of the old man and the young critic form a curious and instructive picture. Wycherley died in 1715, at an advanced age, having, on his very death-bed, married a young girl of sixteen, with the sole purpose of injuring his family, and preventing them from receiving his inheritance.
It is by The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer that posterity will judge the dramatic genius of Wycherley. Both these plays indicate great deficiency of original invention; for the leading idea of the first is evidently borrowed from the Ecole des Femmes of Molière, and that of the second from the same author's Misanthrope. As Macaulay has excellently observed, nothing can more clearly indicate the unspeakable moral corruption of that epoch in our drama, and the degree in which that corruption was exemplified by Wycherley, than to observe the way in which he has modified, while he borrowed, the data of the great French dramatist. The character of Agnès is so managed as never to forfeit our respect, while the corresponding personage of Mrs. Pinchwife, is in the English comedy a union of the most incredible immorality with complete ignorance of the world; while the leading incident of the piece, the stratagem by which Horner blinds the jealousy of the husband, is of a nature which it is absolutely impossible to qualify decent language. Nevertheless the intrigue of the piece is animated and amusing; the sudden and unexpected turns seem absolutely to take away one's breath; and the dialogue, as is invariably the case in Wycherley's productions, is elaborated to a high degree of liveliness and repartee. In The Plain Dealer is still more painfully apparent that bluntness of feeling, or rather that total want of sensibility to moral impressions, which distinguishes the comic drama of the Restoration, and none of the writers in that drama more signally than Wycherley. The tone of sentiment in Molière, as in all creators of the highest order, is invariably pure in its general tendency. Alceste, in spite of his faults, is a truly respectable, nay, a noble character. Those very faults indeed are but a proof of the nobility of his disposition--a generous heart, irritated past endurance by the smooth hypocrisy of social life, and bleeding from a thousand stabs inflicted by a cruel coquette, which claims our sympathy even in the outbursts of its outraged feeling. But Wycherley borrowed Alceste; and in his hands the virtuous and injured hero of Molière has become "a ferocious sensualist, who believes himself to be as great a rascal as he thinks everybody else." "And to make the whole complete," proceeds our admirable critic, "Wycherley does not seem to have been aware that he was not drawing the portrait of an eminently honest man. So depraved was his moral taste, that, while he firmly believed that he was producing a picture of virtue too exalted for the commerce of this world, he was really delineating the greatest rascal that is to be found even in his own writings."
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