Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 202
The Double Deal by William Congreve is a comedy about how the devious Lady Touchwood and her ally Jack Maskwell contrive to break up the marriage of Cynthia Plyant and Mellafont. Maskwell is the double dealer of the title. Lady Touchwood is the passionate and jealous woman that falls in love with her nephew Mellafont. Mellafont is the honest and kind suitor of Cynthia, and Cynthia is a rich heiress in love with Mellafont. The other characters include Lady Touchwood's honest husband Lord Touchwood. Cynthia's stepmother and father Lady Plyant and Sir Paul Plyant, Mellafont's friend Ned Careless, the couple Lord and Lady Froth, the boring Mr. Brisk and the clergyman Reverend Saygrace.
Jack Maskwell is the Machiavellian character the story revolves around. He plans to become heir to Lord Touchwood's fortune and break up the forthcoming marriage between Cynthia and Mellafont so he can marry an heiress. He befriends Cynthia's future husband Mellafont and uses Lady Touchwood love for her nephew to turn Lord Touchwood against her. Only his greed stops him from succeeding.
The other characters are mostly very genuine and just pawns in Maskwell's plan. Even Lady Touchwood, Maskwell's lover and ally, is motivated more by love than greed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775
Jack Maskwell, the double-dealer, whose villainy can be admired only because of its audacity. A pensioner of Lord Touchwood, he plots to become his benefactor’s heir and marry an heiress. Toward this end, he pretends to be a friend of Mellefont, Lord Touchwood’s nephew and heir. He also becomes Lady Touchwood’s lover, both for his sensual delight and for an opportunity to put her in a position where she will be a willing tool against the innocent Mellefont. All of Maskwell’s evil machinations appear to be so well planned as to bear fruit, but his success causes him to overreach himself, so that he is unmasked as a traitorous friend and as a cuckold-maker. He is motivated only by selfishness and sensuality in his wicked schemes against his friends.
Mellefont, the chief victim of Maskwell’s plots. He is a mannerly, virtuous young man who is his uncle’s heir and about to marry Cynthia, a rich heiress. He trusts Maskwell: His own honesty blinds him to the dishonesty in his enemy, to the point that he makes Maskwell his confidant and tells him all his thoughts and plans.
Lady Touchwood, Mellefont’s aunt by marriage. She is a passionate woman who falls in love with Mellefont, even to offering herself to him in his bedroom. When she is repulsed by the honest young man, her love-turned-hate puts her in league with Maskwell to ruin Mellefont. She then becomes Maskwell’s mistress. Her zeal to enter Mellefont’s bed, even after being repulsed, proves her undoing, and her husband catches her and reveals her as an adulteress. Sensuality, driven by passions, dominates her nature.
Lord Touchwood, an honest man who, like his nephew, is deceived by dishonest people. When he is misled by Lady Touchwood and Maskwell, he casts off his nephew, believing that Mellefont has tried to seduce Lady Touchwood. He then vows that he will make Maskwell his heir and help that young man marry the rich heiress, Cynthia. With Cynthia’s help, however, he discovers the treachery of Maskwell and his wife in time to reconsider his actions and reinstate his nephew.
Cynthia, a beautiful young heiress in love with Mellefont. She refuses to consider Maskwell as a husband because she is sincerely in love with the man she wants to marry. She helps unmask the plot against Mellefont.
Lady Plyant, Cynthia’s stepmother, the second wife of Sir Paul Plyant. She pretends to great piety and virtue, even to the point of letting her husband enter the marriage bed only once a year, on their wedding anniversary. She dominates her husband, reading all of his mail and issuing him pocket money as one would give an allowance to a child. Her hypocrisy becomes manifest, however, when Careless, Mellefont’s friend, courts her and easily turns her from her virtuous path, revealing her piety to be mere silliness and hypocrisy. That she wishes to be of easy virtue is also indicated by her too ready belief that Mellefont, under cover of marrying Cynthia, will attempt to seduce her. Like her sister-in-law, Lady Touchwood, she is dominated by sensuality.
Sir Paul Plyant
Sir Paul Plyant, Cynthia’s father. A good man but stupid, he accepts his wife’s dominance and her supposed piety, not wanting to admit that she fails him as a wife. He wishes his daughter to marry so that she can provide him with a grandson; his wife appears unlikely to produce a son and heir. He is Lady Touchwood’s brother.
Ned Careless, a happy, witty young man, Mellefont’s good friend. He distrusts Maskwell and tries to warn Mellefont against him. Careless, almost as a joke, undertakes to sue for Lady Plyant’s love, in the hope of leading that woman to provide a son for her husband.
Lord Froth, a solemn, stupid nobleman. He tries to appear a bit better than everyone else. He fears especially to demean himself by laughing at other people’s jokes.
Lady Froth, a vain, silly woman. She wants to appear as a scholar and poet, but poetical efforts merely show that she has neither taste nor talent.
Mr. Brisk, a would-be wit who succeeds only in being a coxcomb. He strives desperately to be a brilliant conversationalist, only to prove himself a bore.
The Reverend Mr. Saygrace
The Reverend Mr. Saygrace, an absurd clergyman who is Maskwell’s willing tool. He would like to be considered a great writer of sermons, as well as a scholar and a wit.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245
Birdsall, Virginia Ogden. Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Good introduction to The Double Dealer in chapter 7, “Congreve’s Apprenticeship.” Interprets the play as an exploration of the fate of the gullible in a treacherous world where appearances conceal realities.
Gosse, Anthony. “Plot and Character in Congreve’s Double Dealer.” Modern Language Quarterly 29 (1968): 274-288. Useful overview of the play’s history, characters, and structure. Claims it was unpopular because it targeted early audiences instead of “some safe outside target, such as the cuckolded cit or booby country squire.”
Hoffman, Arthur W. Congreve’s Comedies. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1993. Stimulating discussion in chapter 2, “The Pessimism of Comedy: The Double Dealer,” includes the play’s historical background, Dryden’s protection, and verbal and structural connections with Shakespeare’s Othello (1604).
Holland, Norman N. The First Modern Comedies. The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Chapter 13 discusses the combination in The Double Dealer of a serious plot with comic action. Claims that the play is a failure because the hero (the good but naïve Mellefont) is passive while the villain (the worldly-wise Maskwell) is an active and successful intriguer.
Van Voris, W. H. The Cultivated Stance. The Designs of Congreve’s Plays. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1965. Chapter 3 provides a good account of Congreve’s imposition of a “mechanically perfect neoclassical order” on the play and a valuable discussion of its characters and political ramifications.
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