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The Way of the World

by William Congreve

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The Way of the World by Congreve is a mirror of the contemporary society. Why is it called so?

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Congreve's The Way of the World is called a mirror of contemporary society because the themes and characters in the play "reflect" types of people, behaviors, and situations that all levels of British society would have been familiar with. As such, Congreve holds a metaphorical "mirror" up to the vain and decadent lifestyles of the late-seventeenth-century English upper class for the purpose of comedic satire, giving common people a chance to laugh at their social superiors.

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From its very title, the audience gets the idea that William Congreve's play The Way of the World is intended to show them something about how the world really works, how people relate to one another, and how people really are even when they are trying to put on a good show. Indeed, this is exactly what The Way of the World sets before its audience as it opens their eyes to the scandals and schemes of society.

The conflicts in The Way of the World revolve around love (or perhaps lust) and money, just as the conflicts of the real world often do. The play's characters are involved in a set of tangled relationships. Mirabell had once been the lover of Mrs. Fainall, who has married her current husband only to appear virtuous. Mr. Fainall, however, has a lover of his own in Mrs. Marwood. Mirabell now wants to marry Millamant, but her guardian Lady Wishfort disapproves of the match and wants Millamant to marry Sir Wilfull Witwoud. Mirabell's servant is employed to masquerade as Mirabell's uncle and court Lady Wishfort. What a mess! In fact, the play's relationships are nearly as messy as the relationships of the real-life upper class society of Congreve's day.

The tangled skein begins to unravel when Mr. Fainall blackmails Lady Wishfort with the threat that he will expose the foibles of his own wife (who is also Lady Wishfort's daughter). His motive, of course, is not love, but money. Mr. Fainall wants control of Millamant's fortune, Mrs. Fainall's fortune, and Lady Wishfort's fortune. Mirabell reveals Mr. Fainall's own affair with Mrs. Marwood, but the ploy fails, because Mr. Fainall still holds his wife's good name in his hands.

Then Mirabell plays his final card. Mr. Fainall has no claim to his wife's money, for it is held in trust by another: Mirabell himself! Mr. Fainall departs in anger, and Mirabell makes a match with Millamant. The schemes and underhanded deals seem to be resolved, at least for the moment.

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The Way of the World reflects contemporary society because it mirrors, as the title indicates and the question notes, the upper-class English world at the turn of the century. Based on William Congreve’s depiction of English society around the 1700s, it’s reasonable to claim that the world is a classist, greedy, and deceitful place.

The characters in Congreve’s comedy of manners are engaged in a number of schemes that can’t be separated from marriage and the money that marriage is supposed to bring. Mirabell has a scheme so that Lady Wishfort will let him marry Millamant. Meanwhile, Fainall has a stratagem so that he can acquire all of Millamant’s money and the assets that belong to his wife. Finally, Millamant has a plan of her own so that she can protect her own money.

Again, the sundry scheming does not paint a pleasant portrayal of aristocratic English life. It unveils a world in which marriage is synonymous with money, dishonesty, and social climbing.

It’s possible to make the argument that The Way of the World is not only a mirror of Congreve’s society but of a modern reader’s world as well. Present-day terms, like wedding industrial complex and bridezilla link to the materialistic notion of marriage that manifests in Congreve’s play. More so, as Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah reveals, the English elite can still be merciless when it comes to marriage.

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The main way the play is a mirror of the society in which is was written is by "reflecting" certain realities about life in late-seventeenth-century England. Congreve wanted to poke fun at the immoral, antisocial behavior of the British upper-classes. The scheming and manipulative Lady Wishfort, the wicked Mrs. Marwood, and her adulterous henchman Fainfall represent comic and satiric versions of types of characters that were familiar to people from all levels of society.

Congreve was taking advantage of newly emerging freedoms of expression of ideas in print and performance after a generation of political and social instability. In the decades before The Way of the World premiered in 1700, the Puritan forces of the British Parliament had fought a civil war against the monarchy, leading to a victory for the parliamentarians and the execution of the Stuart King Charles I. After a repressive period of shaky Puritan rule, the former King's son Charles II resumed the throne and proved as popular and impactful as his father had been otherwise. Charles II and his court were known for their decadence and liberal attitudes toward drinking and lusty intrigue.

Accordingly, one of the defining characteristics of the era's literature is its humorous, carnal aspect that casts a critical eye on the manners of the privileged elite. Just like Shakespeare a wrote his own popular bawdy comedies about the foibles and follies of the dominant classes as well as the peasants, clergy, and rogues a century earlier, Congreve depicts his own time's hypocrisy and wanton excess.

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This hilarious play is known as a comedy of manners precisely because it does what your quote expresses. Any comedy of manners takes as its basis the social customs and behaviour of its day and then uses that as the basis of satire. This is particularly true in the way in which such texts depict relationships between men and women. This is why this text concerns social pretenses so greatly. In this play, we are presented with a world in which society forces women to deceive and act coyly in the merry dance of courtship and couples deceive each other in their marriage and even friends deceive each other. Marriage is shown to be more about wealth and convenience than actual love.

Congreve presents us with a world therefore where moral values and principles are exchanged for prestige and wealth. In addition, the deceit that is practised by all characters makes this play incredibly comic. In this play, the words that characters speak and the way that they act to each other are almost never a reflection of what they really believe. Consider Fainall as an example, who, if we look at appearances alone, we would imagine to be incredibly happy in his marriage. Reality however shows us that he scorns his wife and is having an adulterous relationship with the best friend of his wife.

This conflict between appearance and reality exposes the way in which Congreve is satirising his own society and how this society was based on the importance of maintaining an outer facade or veneer of wit and sophistication, no matter how questionable the reality was underneath that veneer. Congreve indeed uses this play to hold a mirror up to his own society and to find it wanting.

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