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The Way of the World

by William Congreve

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What is the definition of "wit" applied in The Way of the World?

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It is important to recognise the way in which this play is a satire of society, and in particular we can see this through the use of the term "wit" as applied to the characters that Congreve presents as being fools and rather risible individuals. These characters are referred to as "wits," though it is clear that they are foils for Mirabell and Millament and act as a way of indicating the way in which manners have declined. "Wit" then in the play applies to a level of cultural sophistication that is in theory indicative of good breeding, though Congreve subverts this for his own satirical purposes.

Wits are therefore presented in their reality as fools. Witwould and Petuland are used as symbols of the superficial nature of fashionable society and the way in which they confuse fashionable behaviour for good manners heightens the satire. Wit then is a concept that Congreve chooses to focus on by taking the ideas and expectations of society and turning them on their head to make us think about the ways in which what we believe to be "wit" is actually not decorum at all but rather the current fad of society.

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