The Way of the World


The Way of the World was first presented in 1700 at London’s Lincoln’s Inn Field theatre by Majesty’s Servants, an acting company of the time. Though it is now widely recognised as one of the greatest Restoration comedies ever written.  It was initially met with hostility by audiences who felt it was too obscene. The Way of the World is one of the most famous instances of Restoration comedy that is still performed today.

Congreve epitomises the mindset of the period. The rakehell was no longer a hero; Mirabell is a descendant of the rakehell, but he possesses urbanity, grace, and decorum in comparison to earlier specimens. Congreve’s love passages can be charming and dignified; he approaches love objectively, distinct from the concept of lechery. His comedies, like comedies throughout history, are focused on love and money, which are sometimes complicated by parental opposition. His approach, on the other hand, is balanced: Money without love would be a problem, but money without love is not the goal of the cynic. Similarly, Congreve despises the romantic belief that love will result in persons being absorbed into one another; he believes that lovers retain their individuality. Love is not a philosophical concept, it is not emotional, and it is not a sort of self-sacrifice. On the other hand, it is not only carnal or a poorly disguised kind of lust in this context; it encompasses trust, dignity, and mutual respect.

The Way of the World was a first-of-its-kind. Congreve did more than just offer comedians some humorous lines to deliver; he created characters. He wanted to do something more intellectual than just put folks on stage and have them laugh. When confronted with how phoney his show appeared, as it was not the classic or typical humour that the audience expected, he stated that his goal was:

     “ design some characters which should appear ridiculous, not so much through a natural folly . . . as through an affected wit . . . which . . . is also false.”

William Congreve based his characters on persons that everyone knew or knew “of” and the fact that they maintained a sense of dignity did not sit well with the audience at first. He also distinguished between two concepts: “Affectation” and “Humour.” Congreve defines affectation as “behaviour we devise.” Nature bestows us with a sense of humour.

The genre is distinguished by its humorous take on current events, with a special emphasis on the relationship between conventional morality and the individual spirit. Its comedic characters are frequently reflections of court society’s shallow aristocracy; they are filled with libertines and wits, gallants and dandies. In The Way of the World, for example, Mirabell can out-rascal the other rogues and therefore obtains the love and fortune he desires as well as the respect and admiration of the other characters.

Summary of The Way of The World

The Way of the World is written with neo-neoclassical precision. The narrative structure follows the four-part formula of protasis (character and situation exposition), epitasis (complication development), catastasis (climactic moment), and catastrophe (the resolution of all the complications in the denouement). It also features a strong sense of temporal unity, with the entire play taking place in a single day, and a sense of action unity, with the entire storey swirling around Mirabell. Congreve’s purposeful violation of the unity of location is the single transgression of classical principles. Act I is set in a posh chocolate shop to give the audience a sense of the play’s artificial ‘world.’ Act II takes place in St. James’ Park, a fashionable Restoration location. The last three acts take place in the confines of a room in Lady Wishfort’s house. The play’s use of time compression causes the crowding of events and provides a sense of urgency to the action.

The Way of the World marks Congreve’s greatest achievement, despite the fact that it was not a success on the stage when it was originally produced in 1700, owing to the play’s complexity. Despite the fact that the play only has one primary narrative and takes place on a single day, it is jam-packed with events and intrigues. The plot of The Way of the World appears to have its own logic. Certain events are known to have occurred before the action of the play. Mirabell, a typical Restoration suitor, is hatching a covert plan to win Millamant’s hand in marriage while also amassing her riches. Lady Wishfort is opposed to this match since Mirabell has offended her vanity by pretending to court her when he is actually in love with Millamant, her ward. Mrs Marwood, Fainall’s mistress, has disclosed Mirabell’s falsehood to Lady Wishfort out of jealously because she, too, adores Mirabell. The issue stems from Lady Wishfort’s control of half of Millamant’s money of £6,000, which will be delivered to her only if she marries the suitor she has chosen.

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Act 2 is set at St. James’ Park. Mrs Fainall and Mrs Marwood are talking about how they despise men. Fainall appears and accuses Mrs Marwood (with whom he is having an affair) of falling in love with Mirabell (which she does). Meanwhile, Mrs Fainall (Mirabell’s old lover) tells Mirabell that she despises her husband, and they conspire to trick Lady Wishfort into agreeing to the marriage. Millamant enters in the park, unhappy about the previous night (when Mirabell was confronted by Lady Wishfort), and expresses her unhappiness with his scheme, which she only has a hazy understanding of. Mirabell reappears after she has left, and reminds the newlywed staff of their duties in the plot.

Acts 3, 4, and 5 are all set in Lady Wishfort’s home. We are introduced to Lady Wishfort, who is pushed by Foible to marry the fictitious Sir Rowland – Mirabell’s fictitious uncle – in order for Mirabell to lose his inheritance. Sir Rowland, on the other hand, is Waitwell in disguise, and the objective is to ensnare Lady Wishfort in a marriage that cannot take place because it would be bigamy, not to mention a social disgrace (Waitwell is only a serving man, Lady Wishfort an aristocrat). If she agrees to his marriage, Mirabell will offer to help her get out of the awkward position. Mrs Fainall later discusses this scheme with Foible, but Mrs Marwood overhears them. She subsequently tells Fainall about the scheme, and he chooses to take his wife’s money and go with Mrs Marwood.

Mirabell and Millamant, both strong-willed, discuss in length the conditions under which they would accept each other in marriage (the “proviso scene”), demonstrating the depth of their feelings for one other. Mirabell finally proposes to Millamant, who accepts with Mrs Fainall’s encouragement (nearly consent, given Millamant’s knowledge of their previous relationships). Mirabell departs as Lady Wishfort comes, announcing her desire for Millamant to marry her nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, who has just arrived from the countryside. Lady Wishfort later receives a letter informing her of the Sir Rowland scheme. Sir Rowland accepts the letter and accuses Mirabell of attempting to ruin their wedding. Lady Wishfort consents to Sir Rowland bringing a marriage contract that night.

By Act 5, Lady Wishfort has discovered the conspiracy, and Fainall has had Waitwell arrested. Mrs Fainall informs Foible that her prior romance with Mirabell is now known to the public. Lady Wishfort makes an appearance with Mrs Marwood, whom she thanks for revealing the conspiracy. Fainall then appears and exploits Mrs Fainall’s prior romance with Mirabell and Millamant’s contract to marry him to blackmail Lady Wishfort into never marrying and transferring her riches to him. Lady Wishfort agrees to the marriage provided Mirabell can rescue her riches and honour. Mirabell summons Waitwell, who produces a contract from before the Fainalls’ marriage in which Mrs Fainall transfers all of her possessions to Mirabell. This neutralises the blackmail attempts, after which Mirabell reclaims Mrs Fainall’s property and is free to marry Millamant with the whole £6000 inheritance.

The Way of the World clearly has a rich and intricate plot. As we progress through the comedy, we notice a lot of relationships prevailing among various individuals. In some way, everyone is tied to everyone else. Lady Wishfort is Sir Wilfull’s aunt, as we can see. She has the same relationship with Witwoud. Furthermore, Sir Wilfull and Witwoud are half-brothers because they are the kids of the same mother but different dads. Again, Millamant, the heroine of the drama, is Lady Wishfort’s niece, and half of her money is under her aunt’s trusteeship. Millamant is also related to Mrs Fainall and Mr Fainall because Mrs Fainall is Lady Wishfort’s daughter. As a result, when Mrs Fainall experiences adversity in the play, Lady Wishfort is perplexed. When we read about Mirabell, we see that he is surrounded by female characters. He is already in love with Millamant, but Mrs Marwood has feelings for him as well, despite the fact that he despises her. Mrs Fainall, despite being married, maintains a relationship with him. Such relationships between these individuals cause confusion and complicate the plot to a big extent, but they also add to its cohesiveness to a large extent.

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Congreve’s expertise, it should be noted, is to add some unique characters in his play who give smart and funny exchanges. They give the plot of the play a certain kind of strength. They are outspoken individuals that are capable of mocking the foibles of other characters. Characters like Sir Wilfull, Witwood, Petulant, and, to a lesser extent, Millamant keep the plot moving and enjoyable to read. As a result, it is reasonable to assert that subplots or little moments in The Way of the World are as important as the play as a whole. Some of the scenes in this play, in particular, represent the spirit of the entire plot. The Proviso Scene between Millaniant and Mirabell is full of humorous banter. The effect of wit and humour in this situation can be properly appreciated by readers. Similarly, the exchanges between Petulant and Sir Wilfull, as well as Witwoud and Petulant, are uncommon examples of amusing exposition. The talk between Mrs Marwood and Mr Fainall is another moment that adds vitality to the plot of the play. Mr Fainall reacts angrily to Mrs Marwood’s behaviour, alleging that she is in love with Mirabell, and Mrs Marwood threatens him with disclosing his indiscretions.

Aside from these essential minor subplots, there are a few other sequences that are crucial. Among these sequences, Lady Wishfort’s behaviour generates a humorous mood in the play, especially when she prepares to greet Sir Rowland, who is actually Mirabell’s servant. Waitwell, disguised as Sir Rowland, speaks to Lady Wishfort in the following scene, where he demonstrates a special form of wit and humour. To summarise, the plot of The Way’of the World is a little jumbled but not incomprehensible in its construction. And the fundamental strength of this comedy is its subplots, which give it power and zest.

Questions and Answers

1. The way of the world is a good example for comedy of manners. Justify.
Answer: The Comedy of Manners is a type of comedy that flourished during the Restoration period. It is a play intended to entertain, not to educate or modify the audience. It is often situated in the upper class to mirror their way of life and satirically depicts the follies and foibles of the London Aristocratic Society. It brilliantly depicts the clothing, etiquette, infidelity, avaricious lifestyle, and love of wit of Aristocratic society.

‘The Way of the World’ is a seamless representation of Restoration period comedy of manners penned by William Congreve. Critics see the play as a pure comedy of manners, and William Congreve as the master of the genre. The play’s title, The Way of the World, alludes to the ‘path’ taken by the play’s primary protagonists in order to overcome obstacles erected by their adversaries in order to accomplish their goals. In this play, Congreve mocks marriage and love. The play is about the intricacies of love in high class society. Sex is dealt with bluntly in the play. The play provides an accurate portrayal of upper-class society. Its prose is clear and the characters are well-developed.

In a comedy of manners, we meet lovely young women, licentious women, envious and hungry husbands, and fops and gallants who consort with charming young women. The play The way of the world has all of these characters. Mirabella, the play’s protagonist, has an illicit relationship with Arabella but persuades her to marry Fainall. Fainall marries Arabella solely to acquire her property, and he has an affair with Mrs Marwood. Millamant adores Mirabell, but Mirabell has a sweet spot for Petulant and Witwoud. Millamant butterflies Lady Wishfort in order to appease her, as she is Millamant’s property’s protector. Lady Wishfort dresses her up in cosmetics to conceal her ageing wrinkles. She desires marriage to a young man. She even pines for Mirabell’s affection. Mr Fainall, Lady Wishfort’s son-in-law, devises a scheme to seize her fortune. All of these characters’ efforts to achieve their goals contribute to the play’s wit. All of these romantic intrigues contribute to the play’s perfection as a comedy of manners.

2. What is the main theme of the play “The Way of the World”?
Answer:  William Congreve brilliantly depicts life in Aristocratic Society during the Restoration Period. Its purpose is to expose the rich’s superficiality to the public. Congreve declares his motto in the prologue. The play satirises and mocks the world’s ways. Money takes precedence over affection. He declares that the purpose of his play is to entertain, not to reform, the audience. Marriage, adultery, dishonest inheriting of others’ possessions and individuals’ techniques for outwitting others are significant topics in the play “The Way of the World.” The play can be seen in a variety of ways as a struggle between Mirabell and Fainall to betray one another through their machinations to seize control of Lady Wishfort and her luxury. Each character in the play becomes a tool for them to achieve their objective.

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Edward Mirabell is the play’s protagonist. He is a fashionable, well-informed, and astute man about town. He enchanted the bulk of Aristocratic women, and every woman adores him. He had an unlawful relationship with a widowed Ms Arabella, Lady Wishfort’s daughter before her marriage to Mr Fainall. They ended their affair prior to her marriage to Mr Fainall, and they remain close friends throughout the play. The play’s main factors are his love for Ms Millamant and his expectation of legitimate income through her. The play’s comedic effect is enhanced by his love intrigues to acquire her hand in marriage with the agreement of her aunt and guardian of her land, Lady Wishfort. Mr Fainall and Mrs Marwood, as well as Lady Wishfort, hatch their own schemes to undermine his love and desire to marry Millamant, and a slew of other characters, including Mrs Fainall, Foible, Waitwell, Petulant, and Witwoud, assist him in carrying out his plan to marry Millamant.

Lady Wishfort is a wealthy elderly widow who is the mother of Arabella Fainall and Millamant’s aunt and guardian. Her childish wish to appear young in her old age and her reckless efforts to marry a young guy lend the play a comedic tone. Mirabell and Sir Rowland fill her heart with longing. She spends the majority of the play seeking vengeance against Mirabell for feigning interest in her. She innocently confides in the nasty Marwood and falls victim to her own sun-in-law Mr Fainall, who attempts to seize all of her assets and get control of her. Mr Finall takes his deceptions and proclaims them to be the “ways of the world.” Finally, Mr Millamant intervenes to save her. She expresses gratitude for his generosity and vows to give him her niece and money in exchange for saving her from ruin. Mirabell exposes Mr Fainall and Mrs Marwood’s clandestine relationship with the assistance of Mincing and Foible and their stratagems to obtain Arabella and Laday Wishfort’s property. They provide evidence against Marwood regarding her romance with Fainall. Mirabell finally reveals that before to Arabella Languish’s marriage to Mr Fainall, she signed over her money to Mirabell in order to prevent Fainall from wheedling it from her, and asserts that Arabella’s measures are “the way of the world.” Finally, Fainall realises he has been outwitted. The adulterous couple, humiliated and vanquished, vow to spend the remainder of their lives seeking vengeance. Mirabell’s scheme has preserved both love and riches, and Lady Wishfort is convinced to undo all her angry crimes. She consents to Mirabell and Millamant’s marriage. Arabella reclaims her independence, frees herself from Fainall, and acquires property after reclaiming the paperwork that governs her fortune.

Millamant values her steadfast commitment to individuality. Thus, “The Way of the World” is the quintessential example of a comedy of manners, and Congreve is a master of form.

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