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The Way of the World

by William Congreve

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In The Way of the World, which characters display the best "wit"?

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William Congreve’s quick-paced The Way of the World is a comic masterpiece, though curiously it was such a failure when first presented in 1700 that Congreve resolved to never write for the stage again. But it is a play filled with sparkling wit and irreverent characters who happily blackmail one another at the drop of a hat. The wittiest duo in the play is, without a doubt, the sparking would-be lovers, Millamant and Mirabell, who spend the play (which takes place in a single breathless day) plotting to unite with each other in marriage.

To understand this type of comedy in social context, The Way of the World is a Restoration comedy. After public theater had been banned by the Puritans for almost twenty years, theaters re-opened in 1660,and “immoral” comedies of manner, bustling with busy plots and clever characters, were incredibly popular. Also, the first professional actresses were now playing the female parts in plays, and they and their famous male counterparts reveled in “celebrity” parts, such as the roles of Millamant and Mirabell in The Way of the World.

The most famous scene in The Way of the World is the “proviso scene,” in which Millamant and Mirabell discuss the conditions they will each accept to marry the other. Here we see their wit at full force, as when Millamant states,

MILLAMANT: Let us never visit together, nor go to a play together; but let us be very strange and well-bred: let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while; and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.

Further, she demands,

MILLAMANT: To have my closet inviolate; to be sole empress of my tea-table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave. And lastly, wherever I am, you shall always knock at the door before you come in. These articles subscribed, if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife.

To this, Mirabell counters,

MIRABELL: I covenant, that your acquaintance be general, that you admit no sworn confidant, or intimate of your own sex; no she friend to screen her affairs under your countenance, and tempt you to make trial of a mutual secrecy.

He then makes the following proviso:

MIRABELL: I article, that you continue to like your own face, as long as I shall: and while it passes current with me, that you endeavor not to new-coin it. To which end, together with all vizards for the day, I prohibit all masks for the night, made of oiled-skins, and I know not what- hogs’ bones, hares’ gall, pig-water, and the marrow of a roasted cat.

When all is (almost) said and done, they conclude,

MILLAMANT: O horrid provisos! filthy strong-waters! I toast fellows! odious men! I hate your odious provisos.

MIRABELL: Then we are agreed! shall I kiss your hand upon the contract?

Despite her fake protests (she has already told a friend she loves Mirabell "violently"), Millamant admits “I think I’ll endure you . . . In the mean time I suppose you have said something to please me,” and Mirabell seals the deal with “I am all obedience.”

In the rarified air of Restoration comedy, verbal wit is all. If they couldn’t verbally spar as they do, it is doubtful Millamant and Mirabell could stand another’s company. But they will “endure” each other, and where some lovers would seal it all with a sentimental kiss, here is how they do it:

MILLAMANT: Well, you ridiculous thing you, I’ll have you. I won’t be kissed, nor I won’t be thanked—here, kiss my hand though.

And so the witty lovers will be wed.

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While Congreve writes with great satirical wit in The Way of the World, he refrains from providing a definition of wit. Conversely, he uses his characters to show the difference between true wit and false wit. Therefore, selecting which characters exemplify wit best depends upon the reader’s perception and definition of wit. In the eighteenth century, true wit had some variation in meaning but was generally understood to be attributed to an individual who communicated with pleasing and amusing intellect. On the other hand, false wit was usually ascribed to people who themselves thought they were intelligent or witty but, in reality, were viewed as being rather dim or illogical.

Consequently, if the reader chooses to use true wit as the “best wit,” then Mirabell and Millamant exhibit the most wit. Mirabell’s comments reflect his intellect and wit throughout the play. When Mirabell states to Fainall, “You should have just so much disgust for your husband as may be sufficient to make you relish your lover” (act 2), he is providing a wry commentary on the state of love and marriage in the eighteenth century. Additionally, as the play progresses, Mirabell’s intellect and wit become more obvious through his machinations to become closer to Millamant by pretending to admire Wishfort.

Millamant displays true wit in a similar fashion to Mirabell, particularly through maintaining a calm, somewhat emotionless composure, while still speaking with entertaining, coy intellect. In act 2, Millamant says, “One no more owes one's beauty to a lover than one's wit to an echo” (act 2). She means that she does not rely on men to provide her with self-esteem or worth. While referring to herself, she is also commenting on women in eighteenth-century society with the previous statement and how many of them could be frivolous or too reliant on male opinions.

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One of the many amusing aspects of this play is the way in which Congreve presents us with characters who are supposed to be "wits" but are actually shown to not be wits at all. These characters are pitted against Mirabell and Millamant, the two characters who in my opinion show most "wit," in order to show the way in which manners have slipped. In particular, Congreve seems to use these false "wits" to present a rather crushing view of humans: Petulant and Witwoud for example are used to show the shallow nature of society and what we consider to be acceptable behaviour.

Mirabell and Milament, by contrast, although they are morally questionable in their activities, are shown to use their "wit" to achieve their aims and also distinguish between principles and what things are merely the passing vagaries of fashion. The various characters that these two come up against are shown to be weaker and ridiculous in comparison. Both Mirabell and Milament are able to use their intelligence and wit in order to remain both true to themselves and also to operate within a society where so much emphasis is placed on appearances and decorum. The fact that they are triumphant whereas characters like Lady Wishfort or not shows that they display the most wit.

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