Ilustration of a man kissing a woman's hand

The Way of the World

by William Congreve

Start Free Trial

Characters Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815


Mirabell, a man of fashion, intelligent and authentically in love with Mrs. Millamant. He enjoys the favors, either overt or covert, of most of the women in the play, who, either through unrequited love of him or mutual affection, try to affect the course of his fortune. He is presented as a man of genuine parts, not so superficial as to render him without a sense of honor or the genuine ability to experience love, but at the same time a clever schemer. His love for Mrs. Millamant and his hope of legitimate income are the motivating factors in his intrigues. Mirabell is somewhat more in love with Mrs. Millamant than she with him. Although his stake in the marriage is higher than hers, he bears up well under the handicap, never attempting to outmaneuver Mrs. Millamant by feigning indifference. Instead, he rather admirably presses his proposal with candor and plain dealing as to his love. Thus, he keeps a manly station without lowering himself to beg or unduly flatter her, and he impresses her with his devotion. He emerges from the action as a Restoration gentleman who possesses wit, charm, and masculinity and who does not deal in simper, pose, or guile. Although he is a master schemer on occasion, in him the vestiges of sense, honor, and right have not become translated into chicanery, venery, or deception.

Mrs. Millamant

Mrs. Millamant, Lady Wishfort’s niece, loved by Mirabell and perhaps the most fascinating member of the cast. Mrs. Millamant contains within her personality an attractive haughtiness, and she enjoys making Mirabell’s suit appear an even more one-sided affair than it is. She has a frankness that sometimes uncouples her from her train of followers and a glitter that—especially in the famous comic-love scene between herself and Mirabell—approaches radiant wit. For all her practiced arts of conversation and her determination to keep love a game, Mrs. Millamant is levelheaded, and Mirabell’s commendable qualities will meet good use in such a wife. Beneath her protests and shams, she has carefully marked a line to follow. She wisely recognizes Mirabell as the man to keep her on it.

Lady Wishfort

Lady Wishfort, a sex-starved old woman. Past the natural flows of passion in her sex, she falls victim to the insatiable demands of false passion. Anxiously casting about for reassurance, she is easy prey for any man who can stomach the odious game of pursuing her. She is more than straight comedy because she carries, though chillingly, a kind of pathos. Her wrath against Mirabell, brought about because he pretended love to her, is averted in the end, and she emerges a wiser woman.

Mrs. Marwood

Mrs. Marwood, the consort of Fainall. She is jealous of Mirabell’s love for Mrs. Millamant, and her main interest in foiling Mirabell’s plans is formulated in bitterness. She wishes Fainall, the lover toward whom she is passive at best and hostile at worst, to gain control not only of his wife’s fortune but of Lady Wishfort’s as well in order to destroy Mirabell’s hopes. In this endeavor, she concocts a plan to reveal the “immoral” nature of Mrs. Fainall, Lady Wishfort’s daughter, so that Fainall will have a strong bargaining position from which to demand control of the money. Her deceptions and personal immorality are exposed, and she is defeated by her own envy and malice.


Fainall, an unscrupulous, avaricious man who possesses no morals above or beyond those necessary to his own satisfaction, but whose charm and manner allow him to deceive others. No dupe, he is allied with Mrs. Marwood in an...

(This entire section contains 815 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

attempt to acquire Lady Wishfort’s fortune. While carrying on his affair with Mrs. Marwood, he hypocritically plants and reveals indiscretions on the part of his wife. He represents better than any character in the play the attitude toward societal relationships that appears so perverse outside of the Restoration era—distaste for mate, cultivated love, interest in self best served by interest in the affairs of others, and tedious attention to a reputation that is all the more precious for being morally unstable.

Mrs. Fainall

Mrs. Fainall, Fainall’s wife, Lady Wishfort’s daughter, and at one time Mirabell’s mistress. In the end, because of Mirabell’s help, she gains the upper hand over her husband.


Foible, Lady Wishfort’s resourceful, energetic servant, allied with Mirabell.


Witwoud, an idle, foppish follower of Mrs. Millamant. He represents the effeminate character of the affected “gentlemen” of the period.


Petulant, a man of fashion, much like Witwoud.

Sir Wilful Witwoud

Sir Wilful Witwoud, the half brother of Witwoud, quite different from Witwoud because of his blunt, raucous, and honest nature.


Waitwell, Mirabell’s serving-man, married to Foible. Mirabell uses him in his plot against Lady Wishfort.


Mincing, Mrs. Millamant’s maid.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874

Fainall Fainall is a faithless husband who depends on his wife's inheritance for his ease and livelihood. His ‘‘Wit and outward fair Behaviour,’’ as his friendly acquaintance and rival, Mirabell, remarks, has allowed him to enjoy a good reputation ‘‘with the Town,’’ but his true nature is greedy, false, and profligate. While he is carrying on an affair with Mrs. Marwood, his wife's friend and confidante, he is plotting to wrest full control of both his wife's and his mother-in-law's estates. As his name implies, he is a pretender, but one whose talent for getting along serves him well in society. It is, in fact, this tractability that makes him a suitable man to be "sacrificed'' to ‘‘Arabella Languish’’ (Mrs. Fainall's name by her first, deceased husband) when this widow is in need of an inoffensive second husband.

Mrs. Fainall Mrs. Fainall is daughter to Lady Wishfort and heir to her fortune. Previously married to one "Languish,’’ she was widowed and then remarried to keep her love affair with Mirabell safe from public scrutiny. Unfortunately, her mother raised her to hate and revile men. Thus, while she can hardly bear her husband, she has warm regards still for her former lover, whom she is compelled to relinquish before she is remarried to preserve her good reputation. She is professed intimate friends with Mrs. Marwood until she learns that Mrs. Marwood is her husband's lover. Mrs. Fainall is clever and cautious, having signed over a large part of her estate in trust before her marriage because she suspected that her husband's greed would eventually force it from her. She is a loyal friend to her cousin, Mrs. Millamant, whom she helps to obtain Mirabell as a husband. In so doing, she is also generous: she not only willingly parts with her former lover, but she contrives to help Millamant, who stands to gain a portion of the moiety of her aunt's (the Lady Wishfort's) fortune when she marries.

Foible Foible is a simple yet quick-witted, dissembling yet good-hearted waiting woman to Lady Wishfort. She nonetheless helps dupe the Lady by means of a clever yet harmless ploy hatched by Mirabell. Since her betrayal is in the cause of love, and since no one is injured (only mildly embarrassed), she is forgiven in the end. Thought to be an obedient errand girl whom her Lady uses as an emissary to procure a husband for herself, Foible guilelessly turns the tables and finds a husband for herself (Mirabell's servant, Waitwell) as well as one for her Lady's niece, Millamant. It just so happens that Millamant's choice is Mirabell, her aunt's sworn enemy, hence the necessity of Mirabell's ploy. As a servant, Foible has the means to come and go throughout her mistress's home and is therefore privy to much that other characters would like to hide. Through Foible's assistance, Fainall and Marwood's adulterous affair and their designs to steal her Lady's fortune are found out and justly brought to closure.

Mrs. Marwood Pretended friend to Mrs. Fainall and secret lover of her husband, Mrs. Marwood schemes to spoil the happiness of others to enrich herself. She almost succeeds in foiling the hoped-for marriage between the true lovers Mirabell and Millamant by exposing their love and so inciting the rage of Lady Wishfort, who scorns Mirabell because he made false advances to her. Although she pretends she hates him and all men, Marwood also likes Mirabell and is jealous of his attentions to Millamant. Of all the characters in this comedy of manners, Mrs. Marwood is perhaps the least sympathetic: in fact, she is more than once referred to as "that devil'' by both Mrs. Fainall and Foible. Because she deliberately sets out to destroy the happiness of others, and because she is duplicitous in her friendships, she is finally despised as an adulteress and a traitor. Even the trusting Lady Wishfort, who believes Marwood's loyal friendship has saved her from the disgrace and villainy of others' machinations and plots against her, comes to see her as a ‘‘wicked accomplice.’’ While she is clever, she is not nice; while she has wit, she is not funny.

Mrs. Millamant Mrs. Millamant is a young, vivacious, pretty, and fashionable lady who loves Mirabell and, as niece to Lady Wishfort, is heir to part of her fortune should she marry with Lady Wishfort's approval. She affects a coy demeanor, as well as disdain for the opposite sex. She is often seen in the company of "fops," somewhat tiresome and affected young wits who nonetheless are entertaining enough and whom she tolerates to hide her true regard for Mirabell. She is willful and witty in her own right and adeptly manages to steer clear of the convoluted plots and schemes that pack the action and threaten to undo most of the characters by their twists and turns. Mrs. Millamant's nature is graceful, decorous, and confident; however, her tolerance for Witwoud and Petulance show her to be a creature of the world and somewhat at the mercy of the dictates of fashion. Despite her good breeding, she is not above abiding fools for her own mischievous ends.

Mincing Mincing is a somewhat affected yet dutiful and loyal waiting woman to Mrs. Millamant. Together with her friend, Foible, Mincing witnesses and corroborates Fainall's and Marwood's adulterous affair, and so helps expose the deception of the two in plotting to exploit Mrs. Fainall and extort from Lady Wishfort her entire estate. The two servant's testimony leads to Lady Wishfort's blessing of the marriage between Mirabell and Millamant.

Mirabell Mirabell is a clever, handsome, young, and headstrong gentleman of good manners who is the admirer of and persistent suitor to Millamant. He also is the former lover of Mrs. Fainall, and he is liked by Mrs. Marwood. While once the object of desire, he is now the sworn enemy of Lady Wishfort for pretending love to her. A man of sense, he is also a clever and effective strategist who carries out his schemes to marry Lady Wishfort's niece against her will and thereby secure his love and Millamant's dowry. While likeable, he is also ruthless in his exploitation of both servants and peers to get his own way. But since nearly everyone benefits from his schemes, no one seems to mind, except Fainall and Marwood, whom he exposes at the end as perfidious and maladroit traitors. Mirabell is a proud, artful, and generous man of the world who knows he is suffering from a love sickness from which he cannot and does not want to escape.

Petulant This dandy and follower of Mrs. Millamant is every bit as rude and ill humored, as peevish and capricious, as the name would suggest. Friend to Witwoud, he is perceived by other characters to be the inferior wit of the two. He is illiterate and proud, boorish and vain. To give the impression that he is popular, he pays ladies of questionable virtue to call on him in public places, and he has also disguised himself precisely to call upon himself in public. He likes Mrs. Millamant but really would just as soon sleep with his maid. His raillery is pure brilliance to Witwoud, but he is barely tolerated by people of any sensibility. Petulant is endowed with a brutal tactlessness but is unable to speak a truth since everything he says and does is a performance based on his mood at the moment. As a fool, he is rather more dour than deft.

Waitwell Servant to Mirabell, Waitwell is essential to furthering his master's marriage designs. Being loyal and eager to please, he agrees both to marry Lady Wishfort's maid, Foible, in order to better secure the plan, and also to impersonate Mirabell's uncle in order to profess love to Lady Wishfort. As Mirabell's invented uncle, Sir Rowland, Waitwell gives a delightful performance that convinces the Lady of his ardent desire and his rush to marry in order to foil Mirabell's hope for a marriage dowry. It is his gallant love act that places Lady Wishfort in the embarrassing and precarious position of being fooled once again by a suitor, and, by helping to place her at the mercy of her enemies, clears the way for Mirabell to extricate her.

Lady Wishfort An aging grand dame, Lady Wishfort is as desperate to get a husband as she is unsuspecting of the plans afoot to rob her of her fortune and her "virtue." Mother to Mrs. Fainall and aunt to Mrs. Millamant, she holds the key to the money and the maid that will bring the action to its conclusion. Lady Wishfort's colorful language and vehement expressions of emotion cause the greatest moments of amusement and liveliness in the play. She is the dupe of nearly everyone close to her, including her own daughter, and while she is in danger of losing her fortune, she is more worried about damaging her reputation. Her "paint'' is practically laid on with a trowel to hide the wrinkles, but she fancies herself attractive to men the likes of Mirabell and the pretender, Sir Rowland. While she raises her daughter to hate men, she cannot be reconciled to life without them. And while she is at great pains to keep up appearances, her mighty constitution suffers all forms of indignities and humiliation, yet she is able to recover with some modicum of good grace and in the end forgive all.

Witwoud A man who prides himself on his never-failing wit, raillery, and charm, this "becravated and beper-riwig'd'' fool (as Sir Wilfull calls him) is an admirer of Mrs. Millamant and a pretended favorite of the ladies. His chief usefulness is entertaining with his droll wit, and he is taken into the confidence of the ladies' thrice weekly "cabals" as they set about destroying reputations and professing their fashionable opinions on marriage, men, and morals. By his good-natured affectation and unself-conscious methods, he allows the other characters to disguise their true emotions; his superficial and careless remedy of jokes, similes, and puns relieves tension and unwittingly exposes the foolishness of contemporary fashion and manners. While he is foolish, he is also harmless, and he furnishes, despite his desperate attempts at wit, some very funny and insightful moments.

Sir Wilfull Witwoud Bashful and obstinate by turns, feisty and deferential when necessary, a country bumpkin with a good nature and a will to please, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, half-brother by marriage to Witwoud, would be a wit if he could. He has come to town to look around before setting out on his travels and finds he doesn't understand the "lingo'' of the fashionable world. He serves as a foil to the well bred. In contrast to their studied rudeness and affectation, he is simple and matter-of-fact. Thus, he is an easy mark in the scheming game of matchmaking, but a cheerful one, especially after a long bout of drinking. In a show of generosity and an imposture of sincerity, he gladly agrees to marry Millamant as a last resort to save her fortune. However, he also dissembles well. His is but another actor in Mirabell's clever ruse to catch Fainall and Mrs. Marwood in their deception and to lure Lady Wishfort into his harmless trap.