Mirabell, the play’s hero, wants to marry Millamant, but her aunt, Lady Wishfort, opposes the match. Though Lady Wishfort cannot prevent their marrying, Millamant will lose half her fortune, six thousand pounds, unless she can secure her aunt’s approval. Neither Mirabell nor Millamant is mercenary, but neither wants to be cheated. Hence, Mirabell devises a series of intricate schemes to trick Lady Wishfort into consenting. All of these plots apparently fail, however, when Fainall, who has married Lady Wishfort’s daughter, threatens to expose Mrs. Fainall’s affair with Mirabell unless Lady Wishfort turns over to him her fortune and Millamant’s six thousand pounds.
Mirabell has one last trick, though. Before marrying Fainall, Lady Wishfort’s daughter had conveyed her entire estate to Mirabell; Mirabell produces the deed of conveyance. Having no money of his own, Fainall discovers that he is dependent upon the good will of his wife and Mirabell and so must yield. Lady Wishfort is so grateful that her daughter has escaped disgrace that she consents to the Mirabell-Millamant wedding. Thus, true love overcomes greed, and Mirabell proves himself worthy of Millamant by overcoming Fainall in their battle of wits.
With its complex plot, disguises, and sudden reversals, the play might seem like an improbable farce. Yet it is very much tied to the real world in that it explores whether one can live honestly amid corruption. Mirabell and Millamant see the unhappiness of the Fainalls and the folly of Lady Wishfort, who, at fifty-five, seeks to rival her youthful niece. By their actions and language, particularly in the famous Proviso scene in the fourth act in which the lovers draw up a set of rules for civilized marital behavior, they prove that they have the intelligence and good nature to accommodate themselves to the way of the world without being tainted by it.
Holland, Norman. The First Modern Comedies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. This remains required reading for any student of English comedy written between the Restoration and the eighteenth century. Holland’s discussion of The Way of the World does justice to the play’s many complexities. Highly recommended.
Muir, Kenneth. The Comedy of Manners. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1970. A handy little book that provides an overview of the principal writers of stage comedy in England between the Restoration and the early eighteenth century. The chapter on Congreve contains a fine discussion of one of his best-known plays, The Way of the World.
Novak, Maximillian E. William Congreve. New York: Twayne, 1971. Probably the best general introduction to Congreve, with an act-by-act discussion of The Way of the World and an extensive annotated bibliography.
Powell, Jocelyn. Restoration Theatre Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. A delightful and very readable account of Restoration drama—from a “production” angle. Powell discusses music, acting styles, and scenery, provides many wonderful illustrations, and concludes with a particularly sensitive and informed discussion of The Way of the World.
Williams, Aubrey L. An Approach to Congreve. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Williams stresses the “common ground” of Christian belief shared by Congreve and his audience. Controversial, but clearly and persuasively written. The chapter on The Way of the World focuses on Mirabell, the play’s hero, whom Williams would exonerate of the charges of Machiavellianism so often brought against him.