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The Way of the World

by William Congreve

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The Way of the World Summary

The Way of the World is a play by William Congreve in which Lady Wishfort tries to sabotage the marriage between her former lover and her daughter.

  • Mirabell hopes to marry Lady Wishfort's daughter, Millimant. However, Lady Wishfort wants revenge on Mirabell, who is her former lover. Mirabell, realizing this, disguises his butler as a wealthy suitor in order to distract Lady Wishfort.

  • Meanwhile, Mrs. Marwood plots against Lady Wishfort, as does Mrs. Marwood's lover, Fainall. Fainall is Lady Wishfort's devious and untrustworthy son-in-law.

  • After Mirabell and Millimant help foil Fainall and Mrs. Marwood's plot, Lady Wishfort agrees to let Mirabell marry Millimant.

Summary

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Last Updated September 29, 2023.

The Way of the World is a Restoration comedy by the English playwright William Congreve. First performed in 1700, the play is considered one of the masterpieces of English comedy. Restoration comedy, popular in late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century England, is often termed a "Comedy of Manners." Like other works of this genre, it is characterized by its satirical humor, intricate wordplay, and risqué themes.

The Way of the World follows Edward Mirabell and the wealthy object of his affection, Millamant, as they navigate the complexities of high society. The play is packed with schemes, misunderstandings, and clever maneuvers as characters chase their romantic and financial goals.

The play begins with a prologue in which Congreve humbly asks the audience not to spare any criticism. Indeed, they should even criticize him more for his efforts, rather than showing pity for his lack of skill.

He swears he'll not resent one hissed-off scene,Nor, like those peevish wits, his play maintain,Who, to assert their sense, your taste arraign.

Act one opens as Mirabel tells Fainall, a handsome young man who acts as the play's antagonist, about his love for Millamant. Mirabel expresses his frustration that Lady Wishfort is Millamant's mother, as he knows the older woman dislikes him because he once pretended to love her to hide his true affection for Millamant.

While Fainall is away, Mirabell learns that his valet, Waitwell, has married Foible, Lady Wishfort's servant. This pleases him, as the marriage is part of a secret plan he will not share with the audience, though he hints that,

I have been engaged in a matter of some sort of mirth, which is not yet ripe for discovery.

Lady Wishfort's nephew, Witwoud, and his best friend, Petulant, soon join them and share that Witwoud's older brother is coming to court Millamant. They all vie for Millamant's attention, as she is the most eligible bachelorette in high society. Mirabell discovers that if Lady Wishfort remarries, he stands to lose £6000 from Millamant's dowry. To secure the money, he needs Lady Wishfort to approve his marriage to Millamant, and quickly.

In act two, Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood discuss their hatred of men. Fainall makes an entrance and correctly accuses Mrs. Marwood, with whom he is having an affair, of nurturing feelings for Mirabell. Mrs. Fainall, a previous lover of Mirabell, tells her past lover about her disdain for her current husband. They then devise a plan to manipulate Lady Wishfort into agreeing to allow Marabell to marry Millamant.

Millamant arrives and expresses her disapproval of Mirabell’s plan, although it is unclear how much she knows. After she leaves, Waitwell and Foible arrive. Mirabell briefs them on their roles in his scheme. For it to succeed, Waitwell must convincingly play the part of Sir Rowland, Mirabell's wealthy uncle. He is so confident in this role that he claims it is easier to pretend to be someone else than to remember his true self.

…it will be impossible I should remember myself. Married, knighted, and attended all in one day! ’Tis enough to make any man forget himself. The difficulty will be how to recover my acquaintance and familiarity with my former self, and fall from my transformation to a reformation into Waitwell. Nay, I shan’t be quite the same Waitwell neither—for now I remember me, I’m married, and can’t be my own man again.

Act three begins at Lady Wishfort's home, where Mrs. Marwood informs her that Foible was talking to Mirabell. Lady Wishfort confronts Foible, who uses the situation to further Mirabell's plan by pretending he insulted Lady Wishfort. Consequently, Lady...

(This entire section contains 1070 words.)

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Wishfort decides to accept the arrival of Sir Rowland, who is really Waitwell.

After Lady Wishfort leaves, Mrs. Fainall enters, and, with Foible, discusses Mirabell's scheme. However, Mrs. Marwood eavesdrops on the conversation. The two women mention that Mrs. Fainall and Mirabell were once lovers and that Mrs. Marwood harbors unrequited love for Mirabell. Later, Millamant accuses Mrs. Marwood of loving Mirabell and mocks her age.

Marwood, you are more censorious than a decayed beauty, or a discarded toast.

Mrs. Marwood exposes Mirabell's plot to her affair partner, Fainall, who consequently wants revenge. She suggests that Fainall should take advantage of Lady Wishfort's authority over Millamant's wealth. He can use this influence to demand the transfer of Millamant's money to him by threatening to publicly expose his wife's—Lady Wishfort's daughter—infidelities.Later, Millamant and Mirabell discuss possible marriage terms. It is clear that Millamant is exhausted by the constant attention of suitors and is ready to marry.

I’ll fly and be followed to the last moment; though I am upon the very verge of matrimony, I expect you should solicit me as much as if I were wavering at the grate of a monastery, with one foot over the threshold. I’ll be solicited to the very last; nay, and afterwards.

After some back and forth, they reach an agreement. Meanwhile, the false Sir Rowland successfully courts Lady Wishfort until a letter from Mrs. Marwood reveals the scheme. Waitwell and Foible, however, persuade Lady Wishfort that the letter is Mirabell's, part of a plot against Sir Rowland, and she seems to believe them.

In act five, Lady Wishfort discovers Mirabell's scheme and has Waitwell arrested. Fainall attempts to blackmail Lady Wishfort, demanding Millamant's £6,000 and Lady Wishfort's vow not to remarry. Mrs. Marwood pressures Lady Wishfort to accept these terms, but when the maids reveal Fainall's own infidelity, he threatens to expose Mrs. Fainall's transgressions.

Millamant agrees to marry the befuddled Sir Wilfull, Witwoud's half-brother, to meet her aunt's wishes and save the £6,000, but Fainall is suspicious. Mirabell reveals that Mrs. Fainall secretly signed her fortune over to him, so there is no money for Fainall to claim. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood exit, vowing revenge, and Lady Wishfort forgives Mirabell, allowing Millamant to marry him.

The play ends with a brief epilogue in which one of the actors explains the limitations of those who criticize plays without understanding them and asserts that the characters are all fictional.

The Way of the World showcases Congreve's mastery in dissecting and satirizing the superficial nature of the upper classes. With razor-sharp humor, he exposes the characters' vanity, hypocrisy, and moral decadence, revealing the absurdity of their social conventions. In doing so, he critiques the values and priorities of his society, highlighting the contrast between outward politeness and underlying selfishness. 

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Act Summaries