In addition to being one of the leading comic playwrights of the English Restoration, William Wycherley was a lascivious rogue whose lust, plus a touch of avarice, helped bring about his death. Noted for several witty comedies that satirized the high society of which he was a part—Love In A Wood, The Gentleman Dancing Master, The Country Wife, and The Plain Dealer (in which he coined the word “nincompoop”)—he produced them all between the ages of thirty and thirty-seven, and never wrote another play, although he lived almost forty more years.
Wycherley, who was born in 1640 in Shrewsbury, was educated mostly in France, where he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, presumably because it was more acceptable in French society. On his return to England, he became a Protestant again—until the accession of the Catholic King James II, when Wycherley reverted to Catholicism once more.
His main goal seems to have been to latch on to a rich widow and spend her money on drink and other women. He finally succeeded to some extent when he married the Dowager Countess Drogheda—secretly, so that he could maintain his supposed bachelor status as a favorite of King Charles II. The King found out about the marriage anyway, and Wycherley was dumped as tutor to his illegitimate son.
The Countess was a shrewd cookie who knew about Wycherley’s roving eye, and she kept her husband on a short leash. She insisted on accompanying him almost everywhere, allowing him to meet his friends without her only at the unfortunately named Cock Tavern directly across from their home in Bow Street—and only if he was seated next to an open window, so that she could see that he was not in the company of any loose women.
No doubt to Wycherley’s relief, the Countess died a few years after their marriage, leaving Wycherley her fortune—which he promptly squandered before falling heavily into debt. He was sent to debtor’s prison for seven years until King James II freed him and even gave him a pension of £200 per year.
In his sixties, Wycherley suffered from chronic illnesses and constant financial difficulty. He idled away most of his time at Will’s Coffee House, where he met a young Alexander Pope. Pope befriended him and helped him publish some poems, which were ill received and derided by some as obscene.
When Wycherley was seventy-five, his friend Captain Thomas Shrimpton tried to help him by arranging for him to marry a sixteen-year-old girl named Elizabeth Jackson, who had a considerable dowry. Once again the idea of a rich wife—and a young and sexually appealing one, at that—motivated Wycherley, along with a desire to keep his nephew from inheriting any of his paltry estate. Wycherley and Elizabeth were married on December 20, 1715, and during the ten days after the wedding, Wycherley managed to go through most of the dowry to pay his debts. On December 31, Wycherley died suddenly at his home in Covent Garden, probably of a heart attack. His friend Captain Shrimpton married Elizabeth three months later.
Wycherley is buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard, Covent Garden.