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The Way of the World

by William Congreve

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Discuss Lady Wishfort's character in The Way of the World.

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Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World is a vain and foolish old lady who stubbornly refuses to act her age. Her Ladyship tries to behave like a much younger woman, but this only serves to make her look somewhat ridiculous. Lady Wishfort is, paradoxically, both devious and gullible. She spends most of the play trying to gain revenge on Mirabell, yet she is at the same time easily duped by the scheming Marwood.

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Lady Wishfort demonstrates that, while you are only young once, you can be immature forever. Restoration comedy targets vanity in all its forms, and one of the most common of these is the refusal to grow old gracefully. Lady Wishfort retains the mannerisms and attitudes of a much younger woman, and by doing so she makes herself both ridiculous and vulnerable.

The dramatis personae of The Way of the World describes Lady Wishfort as "enemy to Mirabell, for having falsely pretended love to her." This shows another side to her character. As well as being vain and foolish, Lady Wishfort is vengeful. She is not depicted as innocent or in any way morally superior to the other scheming characters in the play; her malicious schemes are merely less successful than theirs.

When the audience first encounters Lady Wishfort in act 3, she is applying her cosmetics and showing clear signs of her various character defects, her vanity, her scheming nature, and her irritability. It is the last of these that is most immediately apparent, as she continually bullies her servant, Peg:

Ratafia, fool? No, fool. Not the ratafia, fool—grant me patience!—I mean the Spanish paper, idiot; complexion, darling. Paint, paint, paint, dost thou understand that, changeling, dangling thy hands like bobbins before thee? Why dost thou not stir, puppet? Thou wooden thing upon wires!

Lady Wishfort has been much discussed by the other characters in the previous two acts, but it is this first-hand evidence of her bad temper that quickly confirms her as an antagonist who the audience is glad to see thwarted and made ridiculous.

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Whether one finds Lady Wishfort a constant source of amusement or just plain annoying, there can be no doubt that she's one of the more colorful characters on display in Congreve's The Way of the World.

To a large extent, this is because Lady Wishfort doesn't believe in acting her own age. A woman of advanced years, she appears determined to grow old disgracefully, going out of her way to act like a woman much younger than she is. Unfortunately, this makes her look rather ridiculous. No amount of makeup can hide the road map of wrinkles on her face; in fact, it simply draws attention to the fact that she's not getting any younger.

But Lady Wishfort is a vain, foolish old woman, and this is precisely what we would expect from someone like her. She's also devious, as can be seen from her strenuous efforts to gain revenge on Mirabell. At the same time, Her Ladyship is much too silly to play the role of an avenging angel effectively.

Her gullibility also lets her down in this regard. She places way too much trust in her alleged friend Marwood, whose deviousness and cunning are much more effective than her own. Such gullibility only makes Lady Wishfort look all the more ridiculous.

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Lady Wishfort is one of my very favorite characters in The Way of the World by William Congreve! She is elderly and she wants a husband almost as much as she wants sexual relationship.  The irony is, it is a true game to pursue her sexually. 

Heir to a small fortune, she is ready to give her "virtue" to anyone willing to please her.  GOT to love her interjections throughout the play as well as her ability to apply the makeup as thick as "paint" to cover her vastly increasing wrinkles.  This is while everyone is able to pull the wool over her eyes as to what is truly happening:  men trying to win her fortune and not truly win "her."  Incredibly worried that her reputation will be ruined, she is less worried that her money will be stolen!  In my opinion, there is a wonderful quotation from the play that proves her character:

But say what you will, 'tis better to be left than never to have been loved. To pass our youth in dull indifference, to refuse the sweets of life because they once must leave us, is as preposterous as to wish to have been born old, because we one day must be old.

Her quest of prowess for both Mirabell and Sir Rowland shows that, despite her age, Lady Wishfort still thinks herself attractive.  This, of course, is from someone who raises her own daughter to dislike men!  Eventually, Lady Wishfort realizes she can't live without them (men) herself, therefore she must forgive and forget.

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In William Congreve's play, The Way of the World, Lady Wishfort's character is given away in her name: She wishes and wishes. The suffix -fort is from the Late Latin suffix -fortāre, which is derived from the Latin word fortis meaning strong. Does the association of strong with Lady Wishfort indicate the magnitude of her wishes, the strength of her character when her wishes fail to come true or, like cheese, the unpleasant aroma of her wishes? In the end of the farcical satire, Lady Wishfort sets her wishes aside to preserve the reputation of her daughter, Mrs. Fainall; sets aside her jealous protestations preventing Mrs. Mirabella's, her niece's, happiness; and forgives all evil schemes perpetrated against her. This seems to speak to at least two of the possibilities for the -fort suffix. I suppose Congreve trusts us to decide how odoriferous Lady Wishfort's wishes really are.

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