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.