It seems that pseudo castration as a form of disguise is a recurring motif in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife – or, at least, there are two remarkably similar cases in the play. In my last blog post, where I briefly reflected on how Margery Pinchwife’s cross-dressing can be regarded as an instance of “female castration,” I deliberately omitted one major analogue within the topic – that is the disguise of Horner, the male protagonist of the comedy.
Horner, whom I have only superficially mentioned in my previous posts, creates a plan in order to gain sexual access to the noble ladies of London: he pretends to be a eunuch, so that he can pursue his promiscuous aims while (hopefully) remaining unsuspected by the husbands. Thus impotence, or pseudo castration, becomes Horner’s idiosyncratic means of disguise; and, in this respect, “Margery represents a female counterpart to Horner” because “in one way, she too, is ‘castrated,’” as W. Gerald Marshall observes, making us realize an important analogy between the two characters. But pseudo castration makes the two characters similar in another respect, too: both Horner and Margery acquire self-identity through a disguise that involves some sort of sexual change.
Nevertheless, although Horner’s and Margery’s pseudo castration bears some strong resemblance, we cannot overlook one major difference in the two characters’ use of disguise. While in Horner’s case impotence as a form of disguise is a deliberate choice that is meant to promote his sexual appeal among married women, Margery dresses into male clothing under the duress of her husband, so that she will not attract the male gaze. In this way, we can see that Horner’s and Margery’s use of disguise serve just the opposite purposes, regardless of the fact that both of them end up appealing to the opposite sex.
It comes to me now as a revelation to see that, while Margery is coerced into writing a fake letter of hate to Horner and is dressed up into male clothing in order to hide her femininity, she comes out as a winner on both occasions, without any premeditation. The stress is on the fact that she benefits from both situations due to the on-the-spot circumstances – thus leading us to the rightful question: is she really a cunning woman, or is she just a naive country wife with some luck?