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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

In his sharp-edged satire, William Congreve turns his perceptive gaze onto the machinations of fortune-hunters in seventeenth-century London high society. First performed in 1693, Congreve’s second play fits, although somewhat awkwardly, within the Restoration comedy genre that was beginning to fall out of favor at the time.

Although the main character, Jack Maskwell, has traits such as urbane sophistication that were admired at court, he is a sham and a manipulator. His double dealings, intended primarily to benefit his own ambition of marrying a rich woman, draw in many unsuspecting, ethical characters. While the audience can feel proud that their own scruples would keep them from similar behavior, they can simultaneously enjoy the skill and humor with which he spins his webs of deception.

Makewell’s goal is to marry the lovely Cynthia Plyant, a wealthy heiress who heart belongs to Mellefont. To break them up, Makewell takes on a partner, Lady Touchwood, who wants to steal Mellefont for herself. Because Cynthia’s and Mellefont’s love is true, the audience suspects that they will be reunited at the end. The complications that Makewell’s schemes cause, and our curiosity at whether he will pull of his plan, keep us engaged in the various ruses and tricks that Makewell cunningly deploys.

Along with the ingenious deceptions, another thread that runs through the play is constancy and its rewards. While most of the characters are shameless hypocrites more concerned about getting caught than the effects their actions will have on those near and dear to them. The noble Mellefont is lured into a compromising position precisely because he believes he is helping a good friend, who is of course setting him up to be disgraced. The perplexed young man neatly sums up what most of the characters must feel, that he is stranded inside “a maze of thoughts, each leading into one another . . . ”

A dramatic difficulty, however, is built into such characterizations. As Cynthia and Mellefont are naïve and wholesome, almost beyond belief, they neither figure out the plot nor take any actions to thwart Makewell’s schemes. Makewell must be undone, with a boost from Lady Touchwood, because of his own sinful shortcomings. Rather than sustain a light comedic touch, Congreve applies a heavy-handed dose of moralizing that ultimately weighs down this play.

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