What can we learn from the actions and speech of men and women in The Way of the World by William Congreve?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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William Congreve's play The Way of the World is a comedy of manners that uses conflicts to satirize immoral behavior within society, especially during the Restoration era in which England, Scotland, and Ireland were all reunited under one monarch, Charles II. Conflicts arise between marriages and friendships to satirize immoral society: friends double cross each other; spouses are unfaithful; marriages are made for the sake of gaining money; and all actions in general are performed for the sake of gaining both social standing and money. Hence, in analyzing the characters' actions and the way they speak to each other, we would want to see how their actions and speech illustrate themes of immorality.

One example can be seen in the way that Mr. and Mrs. Fainall falsely treat each other. Mr. Fainall is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood, whereas Mrs. Fainall previously had an affair with Mirabell, Mr. Fainall's close friend. Yet, when Mr. and Mrs. Fainall see each other in Act II, Scene II, they feign, or pretend, to dote on each other. For example, Fainall refers to his wife as "My dear," whereas his wife addresses him as "My soul." Fainall also comments on his wife not looking like she feels well, and she replies he is "the only man from whom [she] could hear [she looks unwell] without mortification." Finally, Fainall comments that he knows the depth of her affection for him though, of course, both characters know the comment is untrue: "Oh, my dear, I am satisfied of your tenderness; I know you cannot resent anything from me; especially what is an effect of my concern." However, despite these public proclamations of affection, later, we hear Mrs. Fainall declare she despises her husband, and we know that Fainall is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood. Hence we see that every word spoken in their exchange in Act II, Scene II is a lie that Congreve uses to satirize both the institute of marriage and the immoral behavior common within marriages.

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