Can anyone analyze the structure of William Congreve's play The Way of the World?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Congreave's play follows the classic five-act play structure. Act I introduces the characters and establishes the conflict. Act II builds rising action and complications in preparation for the climax. Act III develops the turning point and climax, providing the high point of suspense. Act IV develops falling action wherein remaining secrets are disclosed and plot twists are unraveled. Act V is the resolution of the story during which the author indicates his tone toward the subject matter and the lesson intended. The American Association of School Librarians provides a detailed breakdown of the five-act play structure at StoryboardThat.

Act I: After the Prologue, considered part of the exposition, the principal male characters are introduced, including Mirabell, Fainwell, and Witwoud. The conflict is introduced through Mirabell's confession of romantic attraction toward Mrs. Millamant even though he first studied her character as a means of despising her: "[S]he once used me with that insolence that in revenge I took her to pieces, sifted her, and separated her failings: I studied ’em and got ’em by rote."

Act II: Female characters, such as Mrs. Marwood and Mrs. Fainwell, are introduced. Complicating relationships are introduced, such as that between Mrs. Marwood and Fainwell. Mirabell complicates the plot action by contriving a way to entrap Lady Wishfort, who despises him for previously tricking her, so that he can contrive to win Millamant's hand in marriage with Lady Wishfort's critical blessing.

Act III: The turning point, climax, and the greatest suspense occur in Act III. Mirabell develops a scheme centering around his servant Waitwell, who will don the disguise of a fictitious Uncle Rowland to ensnare Lady Wishfort into a love affair with the promise of marriage (while Waitwell is already married to Foible) so she will have to relent and give Mrs. Millamant consent to marry and will release her fortune. Suspense is heightened when Mrs. Marwood learns all and contrives her own counter-plots.

Act IV: The falling action begins, which leads the way to the resolution. Here, secrets and twists are revealed and unraveled. Millamant consents to an audience with Mirabell. It begins propitiously when he finishes a quote by English poet John Suckling:

Millamant: Like Phœbus sung the no less am’rous boy.
Mirabell: Like Daphne she, as lovely and as coy.

Millamant and Mirabell agree, in their own ironic and playfully witty way, to be engaged and married. Mrs. Marwood reveals secrets when she sends a letter to Lady Wishfort denouncing Sir Rowland as a fraud and Mirabell as a scheming conniver.

Act V: The conflict of the play (obstacles to Mirabell and Millamant's love for each other) is resolved, and villains are ousted. The author's tone toward the subject matter is revealed and the lesson presented. Congreave's tone—hinted at through his selection of allegorical character names—toward social duplicity and manipulation for fortune and insincere advantage is revealed as being disparaging and reproachful. The lesson is embodied in the finally sincere exchange between Mirabell and Lady Wishfort in which (although still finishing off the workings of his original scheme) Mirabell offers his advice and help without expecting compensation. The villain Mrs. Marwood is expelled from the house. Millamant and Mirabell have Lady Wishfort's blessing on their marriage.

MIRABELL: Ay, madam; but that is too late, my reward is intercepted. You have disposed of her who only could have made me a compensation for all my services. But be it as it may, I am resolved I’ll serve you; you shall not be wronged in this savage manner.

linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Follow the link below to an article on Congreve's style in this play. In that article you will find information not only about the five-act play structure but also about the setting, dramatic elements, and so forth.

The Way of the World is part of a genre of literature called "comedy of manners," a satirical look at the "manners" of high society.

You might also read the Encyclopedia Britannica article on the play (linked below). There you will find several critical reviews.

Read the study guide:
The Way of the World

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