Set in 18th-century England, the play tells the story of a military officer who wants to marry a young woman. His obstacles are the four guardians who watch over Anne Lovely. Each of the four has his own idea of the ideal husband. The catch is that each is disagreeable in his own way, and they can't possibly see eye to eye on a man for Anne.
To gain Lovely's hand in marriage, soldier Colonel Fainwell must convince the four guardians that he will make an ideal husband. Fainwell takes the bold stroke of wearing elaborate disguises, four of which mimic the personalities and occupations of each of the guardians in turn: an antiquarian, an old beau, a Quaker, and an exchange broker. In all, Fainwell dons the guise of a preening fop, a mysterious world traveller, a shuffling country steward, a dimwitted Dutchman and a fire-and-brimstone preacher in turn. The fire-and-brimstone Quaker character impersonated by Fainwell is Simon Pure, and one point of the plot is to discover the "real" Simon Pure. Fainwell gets her guardian's permission to wed Lovely but before the marriage can take place, the real Simon Pure shows up at the end to prove his identity.
Periwinkle is described as an antique collector, his wardrobe collection is made up of clothes of fashion from the last century, and he follows the words of the author of a collection of travellers' tales Sir John Mandeville more than the words of the Bible. Deception to obtain his consent fails the first time, but is successful the second time when tricked into signing the consent when presented with the false Lease for Pillage.
Tradelove is described as a stickler for trade, hates anything that comes with a sword, and a great admirer of Dutch traders believing they understand trade better than any other nation. It is also noted that he is devilish in his dealings, as he cheated his father for the advantage of stock to get a bargain. He is encouraged to offer his consent to marry Anne Lovely to the Dutch trader in lieu of the payment of two thousand pounds wagered.
Sir Philip Modelove is described as a "beau", an old fashionable man, dresses fancy by keeping with the new fashions, and is the most cheap of the whole company on birthdays. He admires the French and enjoys the French operas, balls, and masquerades. Approved Colonel Fainwell's French behaviours and high class appearance and gave his consent to marry Anne Lovely. He introduces Fainwell to the rest of the guardians.
Obadiah Prim is a very rigid Quaker. At the start of the play Anne Lovely is seen entering Prim's house to start her three-month stay with him. He believes those who are not Quakers are impure. He is deceived by Colonel Fainwell when he impersonates Simon Pure and gives consent to marry Anne Lovely when he is convinced Colonel Fainwell had converted Lovely.
Colonel Fainwell is the protagonist in this play, going after the consent of the four guardians to receive Anne Lovely's hand in marriage. His friend Freeman helps him achieve his goals in any way possible. He resorts to impersonations and deceitful behaviours to gain the consent of the four guardians by transforming himself into the ideal husband each guardian seeks.
Anne Lovely is the damsel in distress held hostage by the four guardians. She seeks out an exit from them and relies on Fainwell to obtain consent from her guardians to gain her freedom. She has a massive amount of money that comes with her when she marries after the guardians give consent. She changes her life style and attitude for each guardian she stays with, as she has to stay with a different guardian every three months per year.
Mrs. Prim is Obadiah's wife. She is seen to interact with Anne Lovely and constantly gives her a tough time for not being a Quaker and her choice of appearance in clothes.
Betty is Anne Lovely's maid and only friend.
Simon Pure is a Quaker preacher from Pennsylvania who comes to visit Obadiah Prim. His visit creates an entrance for Colonel Fainwell and is impersonated by him.
Freeman is Colonel Fainwell's friend and dedicates himself to help Fainwell achieve his goals with Anne Lovely. He initially introduces Fainwell to his difficult task and directly helps obtain consent from Tradelove by convincing Tradelove to give up consent to Fainwell since he couldn't pay the wager amount he lost. Freeman also keeps an eye out for Colonel Fainwell during his impersonation as Simon Pure and sends in a false letter to help.
Sackbut is the tavern keeper featured often in this play. He describes each guardian to Colonel Fainwell and also helps Fainwell with his goal of obtaining consent from Anne Lovely's guardians. Sackbut acts as a witness to the signing of consent by Tradelove.
The act starts with Colonel Fainwell and Freeman at the local tavern as Colonel Fainwell is talking of love. He had seen Anne Lovely earlier in the day and inquires about her to his friend Freeman, who calls upon the Tavern owner Sackbut to tell Fainwell about the four guardians who were left with taking care of Lovely along with more information on Lovely. It is revealed that her father wished Lovely dead a thousand times because he wished the world would end with his passing. Since fortune had to be passed down to Lovely, the father had arranged it so that in order for Lovely to marry, she had to get the consent of all four guardians. Each of the guardians had their own view of the ideal husband in ways that contradicted each other making it impossible for a universal agreement between the four men. Lovely spends three months of each year at each of the guardian's residences with her going to Prim's house at the beginning of the play. With promises of help from Freeman and Sackbut, Fainwell plans on obtaining the consent of the guardians, beginning with Sir Phillip Modelove.
During Fainwell's meeting with his friends, Lovely and her assistant Betty discusses Lovely's situation with the guardians. Lovely is sick and tired of being condemned of being the "preposterous humours" of people in town and being pointed at. Lovely brings up that Colonel Fainwell had promised her freedom from her situation and mentions that she likes the Colonel out of all the men she had ever seen.
Fainwell's method of obtaining consent turns out to be the ideal gentleman to each other guardians. Since he has no chance in obtaining consent as himself from all four guardians simultaneously, he is forced to get consent individually. The Colonel only needs to deceive each guardian long enough to receive consent to marry Anne Lovely while disguised as the guardian's ideal husband.
Colonel Fainwell shows up at the park dressed nicely to impress Sir Phillip with a few footmen to show off. Fainwell is supposedly dressed in a French style which attracts the attention of Sir Phillip as Colonel approaches him. Once they begin to "praise one another", the woman sitting with Sir Phillip leaves and the Colonel says everything that Sir Philip wants to hear. Sir Philip gives the consent to the Colonel to marry Anne Lovely, Fainwell is arranged to be introduced personally to the other three guardians.
At Obadiah's Prim's house, Mrs. Prim and Anne Lovely are seen arguing about Lovely's choice of dress with Mrs. Prim saying it is too revealing. Lovely argues back saying Mrs. Prim is a prude and a believer of Quaker to Quaker relations. Mr. Prim enters and states that Lovely's breasts are too exposed and that she should hide them with a handkerchief, also stating that it inflames desire in other men. Lovely is upset and declares that her father never meant the tyranny of guardianship controlling her life, while Mr. Prim only defends himself stating all he meant was to prevent her from wearing temping attire and provoking others to sin.
Sir Philip and Fainwell arrive at Prim's house and Fainwell is introduced to Mr. Prim formally for the first time. Then he is introduced to Lovely and as he goes to kiss her hand, he attempts to give her a letter which she drops and Prim picks up. After Fainwell reveals to Lovely who he really is, Lovely realises she had made a mistake refusing his letter. She snatches the letter away from Prim and shreds it before anyone can take it back from her. The other guardians arrive and Fainwell is introduced to Periwinkle and Tradelove. Both guardians question Colonel Fainwell, determine that they disapprove of Sir Philip's suggestion, and leave after voicing they would only consent if all of their personal qualifications were met.
We see in this act that Sir Philip is a French admiring fop. He has very big interests in Fashion and is made to believe the Colonel is a higher figure than who he really is to appeal Sir Philip's senses. The Colonel plays every card he knows to mirror Sir Philip's personality to make it seem to "…appear to have but one soul, for our ideas and conceptions are the same."(Act 2, Scene 1, 83–85). In the next scene, we see how Lovely disapproves of the Quaker styles to be forced upon her by covering up any and all tempting features on her body. Mr. and Mrs. Prim's characteristics are revealed even more when the point about romance between Quakers is accepted even with temptation being involved, but if they are not Quakers it is evil and is looked down upon. It is reconfirmed that the disapproval of the other guardians is unanimous, as each fail to see the Colonel as one of their own kind.
Act three starts with Sackbut congratulating Colonel Fainwell for the consent of at least one of the guardians. The Colonel is in an Egyptian dress to meet Periwinkle, disguised as a foreigner. Periwinkle is intrigued by not only the foreign appearance of Fainwell, but also the antique "habits" the Colonel displays. Periwinkle asks Fainwell if he has collected any rarities, as odd trinkets capture his interest including asking if he's had a crocodile. Fainwell plays it off saying that there are more worthy knowledge that he possesses rather than spending it on such petite items. He claims that he knows great knowledge of the sun, more than what Descartes had claimed to discover and find out. With Periwinkle astonished, jealous, and admiring Fainwell, he finishes off with a slew of more items with claims of outrageous things it can do. He finishes off the items with a typical girdle claiming it has the power to make the wearer invisible and able to teleport instantaneously. Fainwell explains that in order for the girdle to work, the others in the room must face east for it to work. After the explanation Periwinkle tries on the girdle, Fainwell and Sackbut turn towards the East, turns back and pretends that Periwinkle had indeed disappeared. Not convinced, Periwinkle requests that the Colonel try the girdle on. Fainwell agrees and when Periwinkle and Sackbut turn East, Fainwell hides underneath a trap door so that when Periwinkle turns back, the illusion of invisibility is played out.
After the demonstration, Sackbut raises a point saying that if Periwinkle would purchase the girdle and use, he would be able to travel as he always wanted to. Colonel says that the girdle would never change ownership for money and reveals that the point of the trip was to find the guardians of Lovely for consent of marriage. The first guardian to give consent would receive the girdle and Periwinkle declares that he is one of the four guardians of Lovely. Right when the agreement is to be signed and finalised, a drawer of the tailor reveals to Periwinkle that the foreigner is actually Colonel Fainwell, ruining the Fainwell's plans. Fainwell flees immediately and Freeman enters to set forth the backup plan since the scheme was ruined. Freeman informs that Periwinkle's uncle is dying and suggests that Periwinkle make a trip to the estate despite it being far away. Periwinkle thanks Freeman, leaves, and Colonel and Sackbut re-enters with the plans of going after the next guardian, Tradelove.
Fainwell in this act is dressed up as a foreigner armed with a "unique" item that is so intriguing to Periwinkle it is to the point Fainwell can demand anything and he will likely receive it. Strangely enough, the item name Fainwell uses is called "moros musphonon", meaning mousetrap for a fool in Greek. Periwinkle is indeed a fool and is easily manipulated into believing the girdle's abilities. He is also a fool for easily believing the disguised Fainwell was the nephew of his admirer John Tradescant. The plan b for just in case Colonel Fainwell isn’t able to successfully get the consent of Periwinkle synced very well to set up the stage for the Fainwell's next entrance.
Act four opens at the Exchange Alley where all the stock action takes place with Tradelove looking busy. Freeman enters with Fainwell disguised as a Dutch trader with news saying the Spanish had raised their siege from before Cagliari. The note states that no one would know right now, but in a few hours it will go public and this would be the perfect opportunity to make money. Tradelove and Freeman both make transactions that they think will bear fruit, and Freeman mentions to Tradelove that the Colonel has no idea of the potential opportunity present. Tradelove insists that the siege has been raised while Fainwell holds his end saying it hasn’t resulting in Tradelove betting money.
With the bet made, Fainwell and Freeman make it back to Sackbut's Tavern to plan for Periwinkle's opening with his dying uncle. Before they get started, Sackbut enters with a letter addressed for Prim introducing him to a Simon Pure, a leader Quaker. Fainwell plans on impersonating Simon Pure to try to secure consent from Mr. Prim. As Sackbut prepares the Quaker clothes, Sackbut brings in the country dress and boots for Colonel Fainwell to wear as the steward of Periwinkle's uncle.
As the Colonel is ready to go, Tradelove shows up at the tavern seeking Freeman's audience. Fainwell disguised as the steward sneaks out, Freeman meets with Tradelove who immediately brings up that the letter Freeman received earlier was a fake. Tradelove loses the bet he made with Colonel Fainwell at the exchange and is unable to pay it. Freeman suggests that Tradelove offer his consent to marry off Anne Lovely without mentioning to the Colonel that he would still require the consent of the other three guardians. Tradelove agrees to this proposal and tells Freeman to ask the "Dutch Trader" this proposal instead of paying up the two thousand pounds wagered.
The scene shifts to the Colonel disguised as the steward at Periwinkle's house informing him of his uncle's death. The Colonel Fainwell now as "Pillage" sobs in between lines to make it seem like the uncle's death was greatly impacting his life to convince the legitimacy of the situation. Colonel Fainwell brings up the contents of the uncle's will and lastly discusses "his" lease needs to be renewed with the approval of Periwinkle. Periwinkle approves and as he is inspecting the pen Fainwell hands him, Fainwell switches the lease for the consent contract and Periwinkle signs the consent form unknowingly. With the form in hand, Fainwell leaves Periwinkle's house and returns to the tavern where Freeman and Tradelove are waiting. Before the Colonel has a chance to make an appearance, Tradelove is praising the generosity of the Dutch trader for accepting the proposal of his consent for marriage in lieu of the payment of two thousand pounds. The Colonel now dressed as the Dutch trader enters and secures the deal for consent by the signing of a paper with the agreement with Sackbut and Freeman as witnesses. Tradelove leaves claiming he will put in a good word with the other guardians as he made the Dutch trader believe he was the main man in charge of the marriage of Anne Lovely. On Periwinkle's way out he is smiling thinking that he had the good fortune of relieving his debt for his consent on an impossible marriage situation for the Dutch trader.
Tradelove is seen to admire Dutch traders claiming they know stocks and trade best of all nations and yet he makes a wager with confidence against the Colonel based on the letter Freeman shows him. His cocky behaviour to finally outwit a Dutch trader and his trust in Freeman with the letter of information. Since the "Dutch" would naturally know better according to the stereotype of Tradelove, Colonel would confidently wage against Tradelove, thus trapping him to make a payment he doesn’t have forcing Tradelove to give up consent to marry Anne Lovely. After Tradelove finds out about his ruin, he proposes with Freeman's suggestion that he offer consent to the trader of Lovely in lieu of the payment of the money. He emphasises that he is the leader of all the guardians in charge of Lovely's marriage plans, saying that he wouldn’t give up the consent easily, and other means necessary to make Lovely a better offer than the doomed reality is. The deceit is played out and accepted by the Colonel, making Tradelove feel like a winner when he's the biggest loser. At Periwinkle's house, all goes according to plan as Colonel Fainwell acts as if that death is a true tragedy to help prove that the situation is real. He brings up the lease signing to get a signature one way or another, switching it with the consent contract to secure Anne Lovely from Periwinkle's end. The arrival of Simon Pure's letter was not originally in the plans and represents a godsend for Colonel Fainwell to act as an entrance and opportunity to win Prim's consent to marry Anne Lovely.
The act starts at Prim's house with Mrs. Prim and Anne Lovely arguing over Lovely's choice in dress. Lovely declares that she wishes to dress in whatever fashion she desires to wear and claims that Mrs. Prim would have never attracted any man with the way she dresses, even if she did bait them. Mrs. Prim counters saying that she did indeed attract as much men while properly dressed as Lovely did, claiming that Lovely is also too familiar with wicked people. The guardians all enter and mention that they have found a husband for Lovely and as they do, a different guardian shoots the candidate down, despite the candidate is the same for all three of them. Prim is the only one without a candidate to marry Lovely, which changes quickly when a servant announces that the Colonel, disguised as Simon Pure, has arrived.
The Colonel enters in a Quaker's outfit as Lovely and Mrs. Prim re-enters to greet the "guest". As Lovely enters, Fainwell cannot help but stare at her. Prim notices this and asks why Fainwell stares, which he responds saying that he had a dream and saw Lovely in it. Prim interprets this as Lovely being converted and leaves with Mrs. Prim to have Fainwell convert Lovely to become a faithful Quaker. Lovely does not recognise Fainwell in his Quaker disguise and shrieks when he approaches her initially, but Fainwell reveals his identity to calm her down. Due to the shriek, Prim investigates, but Lovely explains she shrieked because of Fainwell's non-stop blabber about converting into a Quaker. Convinced with the situation, Prim exits once again to leave Fainwell and Lovely alone together. Fainwell explains to Lovely that he has the consent of the other three guardians and only needs Prim's to marry her. Lovely understands the situation and plays along with Fainwell, faking that she has indeed converted to being a Quaker. Prim is convinced that Lovely is converted as a servant enters and informs that the real Simon Pure has arrived.
Once Simon Pure has arrived, Fainwell's deception holds and a counterfeit letter is brought in stating that there would be an imposter dressed as a Quaker with a mob to rob and kill Prim. Fainwell accuses Simon of being the imposter and Lovely adds on saying that she saw Simon with the said Mob, convincing Prim to dismiss the real Simon Pure. Fainwell realises his time under cover is short, so he acts quickly and explains that Lovely would not be left alone by the Sathan and Lovely displays attitudes as if the spirits have filled her. With this behaviour, Prim gives consent to Fainwell to marry Lovely and signs the consent before Simon returns with proof. Since Fainwell has obtained the consent, he no longer has any reason to deceit anyone any more and admits that he was the false Simon Pure. All the guardians enter with Freeman and realise that they all have been deceived as Fainwell exposes his many identities to each guardian.
Colonel Fainwell's disguise of a Quaker admits him to the household of Prim and acceptance from him and his wife. After Lovely discovers his disguise, her acting helps persuade Prim into believing Lovely has converted and requires the magic of "Simon's" convincing to remain a Quaker, hence the speedy consent approval. The fake letter that accuses the fake Simon Pure could have gone both ways. With Fainwell's aggression and Lovely's assistance, Simon is forced to leave long enough for Fainwell to obtain the consent form from Prim. The letter is not planned from Fainwell's knowledge, but he recognises it instantly as Freeman's handwriting, which suggests that Freeman has been keeping watch this entire time in case of Simon's arrival.
Centlivre made fun of all the stereotypes of her time, fearlessly sending up the marriage mart, fashion, commerce, academia and even religion.
A Bold Stroke for a Wife was first performed at Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre, on 3 February 1718, where it ran six nights, which was considered a substantial success. During its long life the play became very popular in the United States. It was produced as early as 1782 (in Baltimore). In 1786 a Charleston, South Carolina, journalist commented that "The Bold Stroke for a Wife . . . is one of the few comedies that has stood the test of time -- it is full of business and intrigue and abounds with such a variety as always arrests and keeps up the attention of the audience until it ends." The play continued to find American audiences into the nineteenth century, and was billed as a "fine old comedy" when it was presented at Wallack's Theatre on Broadway in 1863.
In a 1985 production by Double Edge Theatre the play was set in the androgynous cabaret world of the 1920s as an ironic look at "the marriage game" written by an 18th-century male impersonator to underscore its cross-gender casting and the wry implications such an approach has in contemporary society.
Like the character of Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's play The Rivals, the name Simon Pure soon became a noun for a quality in a person. In Mrs. Malaprop's case, that quality was incorrect usage of a word by substituting a similar-sounding word with different meaning, usually with comic effect. In Simon's case, that quality was authenticity and in Simon's impersonator's case, that quality was hypocrisy.
In adjectival use, the compound quickly gained a hyphen and lost its capitals when, in 1894, William Dean Howells wrote glowingly of "American individuality, the real, simon-pure article." As in boycott from Captain Boycott and bloomer from Amelia Bloomer, names turn into words and lose their capital letters in eponymy. As a noun, Simon Pure is two words; as an adjective, it is lowercase and still holds the hyphen. That keeps the adjectival form untainted.
The fact that there were two Simon Pures on stage is probably the reason the term became a confusing one. Depending on how it's used, it can mean either an honest man or a hypocrite who makes a great show of virtue.
In modern usage, Simon Pure has become the source of two expressions: the phrase "The real Simon Pure", meaning "the real man"; and the adjective "simon-pure", meaning either
- of genuine, untainted purity or integrity; or
- pretentiously, superficially or hypocritically virtuous.
In 1984, the term "simon-pure" received some publicity when Ambassador Robert Morris at the United States State Department conceded that the United States had taken some steps toward economic protectionism, but insisted, "If we are not simon-pure, we remain fairly credible." As reported by then-New York Times columnist William Safire, the phrase simon-pure means "untainted." In this context, delegates to conventions who are unencumbered by charges of being the creatures of ill-gotten funds are simon-pure delegates.