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The title of this play is significant because it points to one of the major themes of the play -- it sort of signals to us what the play is about.
The play is a "comedy of manners" in which the playwright pokes fun at the social customs and values of his time. In this case, the author is mainly making fun of the sexual values of the time. He makes fun of marriages and dowries and he makes fun of the way men and women behave towards each other.
The title helps us understand that he is making fun of these things -- of how the world works. We sometimes will say "that's the way of the world" when we are commenting on how foolish or absurd things are in our society. So by naming his play that, Congreve is signalling that he thinks that at least some things in his society are absurd or foolish.
The meaning of the expression "the way of the world" literally means 'the way people behave or conduct themselves' in this world. However, in the Restoration times which was notorious for its promiscuity and loose morals the expression "the way of the world" connoted adultery.
Adultery is the most important theme of Congreve's play "The Way of the World," and it is underscored by using that expression as the title of the play itself.
The expression "the way of the world" occurs thrice in the play:
Firstly, at the end of Act 3 Mrs. Marwood reveals to her lover Fainall the details of the conversation between his wife Mrs.Fainall and Foible which she overheard when she was hiding in Lady Wishfort's closet. Fainall becomes acquainted with the bitter truth that his friend Mirabell and his wife Mrs. Fainall had been former lovers and that Mirabell had got him married to Mrs.Fainall to use him as a shield in case Mrs. Fainall were to become pregnant. Fainall is shocked to learn of the betrayal of both his friend and his wife and expresses his resentment thus:
Fain: And I, it seems, am a husband, a rank-husband; and my wife a very errant, rank-wife,—all in the way of the world.
Secondly, in Act 5 Mincing the servant steps forward to testify that she and Foible had seen Mrs.Marwood and Fainall in a sexually compromising situation, at once Fainall very boldly remarks:
Fain: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.
Fainall defends himself saying that he couldn't care if he is exposed as an adulterer because he knows the truth that his wife is also an adulteress. Adultery, according to Fainall, is too common a practice for anyone to complain about.
Thirdly, again in Act 5 Mirabell taunts Fainall by remarking,
Mira: Even so, sir, ’tis the way of the world, sir; of the widows of the world.
Mirabell snubs Fainall by revealing to him that his wife, a former widow, Mrs.Fainall who was actually his secret lover has been wise enough to trust him with her share of her property and that every thing had been recorded precisely in a legal document and that he had no rights over her property.
Mrs.Fainall even as she was committing adultery had been shrewd enough to protect her financial interests unlike her cuckolded husband Fainall.
I think, personally, that there is a wit in this title because once we read it (of course before reading the book or watching the play), we will think about two things: the way of the world as it is now and the way of the world as it should be in the writers own point of view. The answer of our wondering comes out while and after watching the play. We can understand after watching the play that Congreve chooses this exact title in an excellent way by which he means this is the world and at the same time this is how it should be like. After showing us how the world is; in marriage, for example, we can understand clearly how was it going on at that time. However, Congreve did stop with showing us that, but goes on telling the audience of the time (and us as readers) what the way of the world, regarding marriage, should be. That is being showed in the words of Millimant when talking to Mirrable about the kind of wife she wants to be, the kind of husband she wants him to be and the kind of couple she wants them to be. Like;
......don’t let us be familiar or fond, nor kiss before folks, like my Lady Fadler and Sir Francis......
......Let us never visit together, nor go to a play together; but let us be very strange and well-bred: let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while; and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.......
........Trifles!- As liberty to pay and receive visits to and from whom I please; to write and receive letters, without interrogatories or wry faces on your part; to wear what I please; and choose conversation with regard only to my own taste; to have no obligation upon me to converse with wits that I don’t like, because they are your acquaintance: or to beintimate with fools, because they may be your relations. Come to dinner when I please; dine in my dressing-room when I’m out of humour, without giving a reason. To have my closet inviolate; to be sole empress of my tea-table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave. And lastly, wherever I am, you shall always knock at the door before you come in. These articles subscribed, if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife........
and the list goes on....
The point is that there is an IRONY in this title which has two meanings; the way of the world as it is and the way of the world as it should be.
"The play is a "comedy of manners" in which the playwright pokes fun at the social customs and values of his time. In this case, the author is mainly making fun of the sexual values of the time. He makes fun of marriages and dowries and he makes fun of the way men and women behave towards each other." I agree with him...
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