William Congreve

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William Congreve Drama Analysis

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William Congreve began writing some thirty years after the Restoration, yet his plays retain many of the concerns of those written in the 1660’s and 1670’s. Foremost among these concerns is what constitutes a gentleman; that is, how one should act in society. The seventeenth century, particularly after 1660, was very interested in this matter; some five hundred conduct books were published during the century, the majority of them after the Restoration.

The response that Congreve gives, which is identical to that of Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and other Restoration dramatists, may be summed up in a single word: wit. This wit encompasses far more than mere verbal facility. By the time Sir Richard Blackmore attacked wit as suitable “only to please with Jests at Dinner” (“A Satyr Against Wit,” 1700), the term had lost much of its significance. For Congreve, Dryden’s definition is more relevant than Blackmore’s: “a propriety of thoughts and words”—and, he might have added, of conduct. As Rose Snider wrote in Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward (1937), “Decorum (true wit) might be defined simply as a natural elegance of thought and conduct, based on respect for sound judgment, fidelity to nature, and a due regard for beauty.”

What constitutes propriety and fidelity to nature is subject to varying interpretation. To the nineteenth century, Restoration comedy was at best “the Utopia of gallantry, where pleasure is duty, and the manners perfect freedom” ( Charles Lamb, “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century”), at worst the height of immorality. Chastity was not a requirement for the late seventeenth century gentleman, though it was for the lady. Charles de Saint-Denis de Saint-Évremond expressed well the age’s sexual ethics: “As for the Hatred of villainous Actions, it ought to continue so long as the World does, but give leave to Gentlemen of refin’d Palates to call that Pleasure, which gross and ill-bred People call Vice, and don’t place your Virtue in old musty Notions which the primitive Mortals derived from their natural Savageness.”

In keeping with this genial libertinism is a rejection of prudence, financial as well as sexual. Money is not to be saved but spent, and spent on pleasure. Business is rejected as an improper pursuit. In the first scene of The Old Bachelor, Congreve presents in the dialogue between Bellmour and Vainlove a catalog of unworthy occupations for the genteel and indicates that the proper pursuits are witty conversation and love.

To a certain extent, this hedonism was a reaction to the restraints imposed by the Puritan Protectorate. After the Restoration, playwrights, who had lost their occupation under Cromwell, continued to portray the final victory of Cavalier over Roundhead. The Puritan cleric is a standard butt of Restoration satire. So, too, is the “cit,” the merchant—not only because he was likely to be a Dissenter rather than an Anglican but also because mercantile London supported Cromwell while in general the country squires remained loyal to the Crown. Those who suffered the most under the Protectorate, the Court party, took their revenge in their plays when they returned to power.

Restoration comedy does not, however, restrict itself to negatives, nor to rejecting conventional morality and ridiculing its followers. The Truewit is indeed a libertine and often a spendthrift and freethinker, but he espouses positive values that offset these signs of youthful exuberance. Bravery, for example, is highly prized. The wit will not tolerate an insult; a sign of wit is a willingness to defend one’s honor. A character such as Captain Bluffe (in The Old Bachelor ), who draws his...

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sword only when all danger is past, or Fainall (inThe Way of the World), who draws his sword on a woman, shows himself to be no true wit.

Urbanity is another attribute of the Truewit. He must be able to engage in brilliant repartee; his conversation must never be dull, vulgar, overly serious, or abstruse. A wit must never lose his temper, for reason should always control emotion. He must be aware of the latest fashions and observe them. Excesses in dress, manner, or speech are scorned, as are rusticity and bad taste. Because the wit must fit into polite society, the rustic is a butt of humor on the stage even though his political views probably harmonized with those of the playwrights who were mocking him.

Yet another virtue is intelligence, of which one outward sign is again brilliant conversation. A further indication is the ability to outsmart those who would thwart the wit’s desires—generally comic villains who try to prevent his attaining a suitable wife and estate. Although these villains make a pretense of being clever and urbane, their speeches and action expose their flawed nature, which leads to their punishment at the end of the play.

Selflessness is also a Restoration ideal. Prodigality is not a vice but rather a manifestation of generosity. Fondlewife (The Old Bachelor) leaves his wife to secure five hundred pounds and is almost cuckolded during his absence. By contrast, Valentine (Love for Love) is willing to give money to a discarded mistress (though not to a creditor). When wits scheme, they are trying to secure what should rightfully be theirs; when fools and Witwouds plot, they are trying to secure what should belong to another. The latter are greedy and so are frustrated.

Restoration comedy is thus moral in its intent, punishing those who deviate from societal values and rewarding those who are faithful to those norms. These values are not Victorian, nor are they the values of religious fanatics, Puritans, or nonjurors such as Jeremy Collier—hence the repeated charges of immorality brought against Congreve and his contemporaries. In emphasizing intelligence, generosity, urbanity, and bravery, though, these dramatists were drawing on a tradition that went back to Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea (335-323 b.c.e.; Nicomachean Ethics, 1797), and their view of comedy is Aristotle’s as well. Defending himself against Collier, Congreve conceded that he portrayed vice on the stage, but he did so because comedy, according to Aristotle, depicts “the worst sort of people.” It portrayed such people, Congreve continued, because “men are to be laugh’d out of their Vices in Comedy; the Business of Comedy is to delight, as well as to instruct: And as vicious People are made asham’d of their Follies or Faults, by seeing them expos’d in a ridiculous manner, so are good People at once both warn’d and diverted at their Expense.” Collier and his successors did not find this response persuasive; they saw little to choose between Bellmour and Heartwell (The Old Bachelor) or between Mirabell and Fainall (The Way of the World). On the other hand, Congreve’s appreciative audiences have always understood the important distinction.

At the same time that Congreve’s plays are the artistic consummation of the traditions of Restoration comedy, they also reveal a breaking away from those traditions. Though these plays accept societal norms, and though the hero and heroine must be able to conform to societal expectations, they recognize the flaws of society also. Instead of trying simply to blend into society, the true wits seek to establish a private world beyond it. They recognize that beneath the glittering costumes and language lurk hypocrisy and brutality. Marriages are more often made in countinghouses than in heaven; a wedding is often the beginning of a domestic tragedy rather than the end of a social comedy. Life does not always proceed smoothly, and even when it does, it leads to a loss of youth, beauty, and attractiveness. Congreve reaffirms the carpe diem spirit—eat, drink, and be merry—but he does not blink from the rest of the refrain—for tomorrow we die.

The sadness beneath the surface of Congreve’s plays also derives from his refusal to dehumanize the targets of ridicule. Restoration comedy is social rather than psychological, and Congreve’s plays are primarily concerned with how one should act in society. For the first time in the period, though, those who do not conform are not simply dismissed as fools. In fact, Pope wondered whether Congreve actually portrayed any fools, and in his dedication of The Way of the World, Congreve noted that audiences had difficulty distinguishing “betwixt the character of a Witwoud and a Truewit” in that work. Congreve probes beneath action to motivation to reveal what Heartwell, Fondlewife, Lord Plyant, and Lady Wishfort are thinking. These characters recognize their weaknesses; they are not merely two-dimensional types but three-dimensional people capable of suffering. By granting humanity to would-be wits and fools, Congreve was unconsciously moving away from the purely satiric toward sentimental comedy.

His one tragedy, which is actually a tragicomedy, similarly uses many of the conventions of the period while showing significant variations. The diction is inflated, as is typical of heroic tragedy. The action is remote in time and place, the characters of noble birth and larger than life, the conflict Hobbesian as rivals ruthlessly contend. Unlike earlier heroic tragedy, however, the resolution to the conflict comes not through a Leviathan, not through some divinely ordained ruler, but rather through a Glorious Revolution that overthrows unjust, though otherwise legitimate, authority in favor of a benign, popularly proclaimed monarch as exponents of power yield to advocates of love. The influence of John Locke and the deposition of James II echo in the play, especially when contrasted with Dryden’s tragedies, which espouse the divine right of kings.

The Old Bachelor

Congreve may have begun The Old Bachelor as early as 1689, at the age of nineteen. Although Dryden proclaimed it the best first comedy he had ever seen, it shows in many ways evidence of being an apprentice piece. It is the only one of Congreve’s comedies that lacks dramatic tension. There is no reason why Bellmour and Belinda could not marry in the first scene because there are no blocking characters to prevent the match. Another flaw is Congreve’s ambiguous attitude toward Belinda. In the dramatis personae, he describes her as “an affected Lady,” and in his Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations, he indicates that she is not intended to be admirable. Anne Bracegirdle, who always played the heroine in Congreve’s works, took the role of Araminta; Belinda was played by Susanah Mountfort, who performed as the obviously foolish Lady Froth in The Double-Dealer. Because role and performer blended with each other in Restoration drama, audiences would expect that Belinda/Mountfort was intended as a butt of ridicule for her affectation and that Araminta would be the ideal to be admired. Yet at the end of the piece, Belinda is rewarded with marriage, while Araminta remains single.

The Old Bachelor also suggests its author’s youth in its close adherence to the conventions of Restoration drama. It is, for example, the only one of Congreve’s comedies that has for its hero a practicing, rather than a reformed, rake. It introduces, somewhat gratuitously, standard butts of Restoration satire: a rustic boor (Sir Joseph Wittol), a pretender to valor who is in fact a coward (Captain Bluffe), a Puritan merchant (Fondlewife), and an old man who, according to the dramatis personae, while “pretending to slight Women, [is] secretly in love.”

Aside from the treatment of Belinda, the play does show a sure hand in exposing these various pretenders and in providing suitable punishment for them. Sir Joseph Wittol is tricked out of one hundred pounds and married to Vainlove’s discarded mistress. Captain Bluffe is shown to be aptly named; he is valorous only in the absence of danger. He is beaten and kicked by Sharper and married off to Silvia’s maid, Lucy, who had been Setter’s mistress. Heartwell, who pretends to misogyny and candor, is punished by being made to believe that he has married Silvia and then being informed that she is not as chaste as he had assumed. Though he is again unmarried, he is tormented and mocked for his folly. Fondlewife has married a woman too young and sprightly for his years; additionally, he devotes himself to business, which Bellmour calls “the rub of life [that] perverts our aim, casts off the bias, and leaves us wide and short of the intended mark.” Fondlewife narrowly escapes cuckolding, and one senses that the escape is only temporary. As Vainlove notes, “If the spirit of cuckoldom be once raised up in a woman, the devil can’t lay it, ’till she has done ’t.”

Congreve shows great skill in handling the dialogue. Bellmour and Belinda exemplify the witty couple of Restoration comedy; as is typical of duels between the witty man and woman, Belinda has the better of their exchanges. Vainlove and Araminta, too, engage in witty debate, and again the woman proves the wittier; in one dialogue, Araminta reduces Vainlove to a defeated “O madam!,” at which point she dismisses the conversation—and her suitor—with a call for music. The men and women also engage in repartee among themselves, deftly leaping from one topic to another, devising fresh and apt similes, coining paradoxes, brilliantly sketching a character in a line. The play abounds in the sheer joy of words, as when Barnaby tells Fondlewife, “Comfort will send Tribulation hither.” Restoration audiences attended comedies less for their plots than for their wit, and the success of The Old Bachelor shows that Congreve did not disappoint them in this regard.

While Congreve was offering largely conventional fare in his first comedy, even here one finds hints of sadness beneath the comic surface. John King McComb argues (in his essay “Congreve’s The Old Bachelor: A Satiric Anatomy”) that Bellmour, Vainlove, Heartwell, Fondlewife, and Spintext are stages in the rise and fall of the lover—from rake, to fop, to gull, and finally, to cuckold. The “cormorant in love,” as Bellmour describes himself in the first scene, admits that “I must take up or I shall never hold out; flesh and blood cannot bear it always.” Vainlove has been a cormorant in love, too, but now contents himself with arousing desire and leaving to others the task of satisfying it. Heartwell, too, was a rake in his youth, but his passion has ebbed; unlike Vainlove, he no longer can excite women at those rare instances when he wishes to and so must attempt to purchase love. At the last stage are Fondlewife and Spintext; the latter never appears in the play but is mentioned as being a cuckold, while the audience sees Fondlewife first almost suffering the same fate and then refusing to believe the ocular proof. Bellmour, too, will age, Congreve seems to suggest; he will lose his looks and gaiety and perhaps be reduced to the state of a Heartwell or Fondlewife. The last speech of the play, which Congreve gives to Heartwell, projects such a fate for the youth.

Restoration satire is also muted in the play through the humanization of Heartwell and Fondlewife, both of whom show more sense than the typical comic butt. Heartwell’s pretended aversion to “the drudgery of loving” must be exposed, since love is the chief concern of the Truewit and thus not to be slighted. Neither can pretense go unpunished. Yet Heartwell himself understands his dilemma as he is caught between reason and desire. Standing before Silvia’s house he declares, “I will recover my reason, and begone.” He is, however, fixed to the spot; his feet will not move: “I’m caught! There stands my north, and thither my needle points.—Now could I curse myself, yet cannot repent.” After Heartwell is caught and exposed, Congreve does not mask his real anguish. In a speech reminiscent of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes,” Heartwell turns on his mockers: “How have I deserved this of you? any of ye?” Vainlove urges Bellmour to stop ridiculing Heartwell—“You vex him too much; ’tis all serious to him”—and Belinda agrees: “I begin to pity him myself.”

Similarly, Fondlewife, Puritan, banker, old man that he is—and any one of these characteristics would suffice in itself to render him ridiculous in a Restoration comedy—has moments of self-knowledge that grant him a touch of humanity. When he discovers Bellmour with his wife, he, too, speaks with dignity. Though Bellmour kisses Laetitia’s hand at the very moment she is being reconciled to her husband, Fondlewife’s tears and professions of kindness take some of the edge off the satire. If one must choose between the world of Bellmour and that of Fondlewife, one will certainly prefer the former; even so, Congreve understands that with all its admirable qualities, its wit, grace, youth, and intelligence, that world, too, is not devoid of faults.

The Double-Dealer

Congreve’s second play, The Double-Dealer, demonstrates much greater control over his material; it also contains a more fully developed negative portrayal of society. In A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage (1698), Jeremy Collier noted, “There are but Four Ladys in this Play, and Three of the biggest of them are Whores. A Great Compliment to Quality to tell them there is not above a quarter of them Honest!” Despite Congreve’s efforts to dismiss Collier’s observation, Congreve does indeed indict the fashionable world, and his epigram from Horace—“Sometimes even comedy raises her voice”—suggests that he intended to go beyond the conventional butts of Restoration satire. Small wonder that fashionable society returned the favor with a cool reception of the piece.

Artistically, The Double-Dealer is much more coherent than The Old Bachelor. As Congreve wrote in the dedication, “I made the plot as strong as I could, because it was single; and I made it single, because I would avoid confusion.” This single plot revolves around the love between Cynthia and Mellefont, who wish to marry, and the efforts of Maskwell and Lady Touchwood to prevent the match. The intrigues of these blocking figures, though conventional in comedies of the period, provide dramatic tension lacking in Congreve’s earlier piece.

Congreve’s handling of this central conflict, however, is less conventional. Typically, the Truewit defeats the Witwoud through his greater intelligence and so proves himself worthy of the witty heroine. When Mellefont proposes that he and Cynthia elope and thereby end the plotting and counterplotting, she rejects so simple a solution, demanding “a very evident demonstration of” her lover’s wit. Until Maskwell overreaches and betrays himself, though, Mellefont is powerless to direct the action of the play; instead, he acts as Maskwell directs.

The conversation is not as sprightly as in Congreve’s other plays or in Restoration comedy generally. Mellefont and Cynthia are too good-natured to take verbal advantage of the follies of those around them. While their benevolence makes them likable, it also tends to make them dull. They seem to anticipate the comedies of Steele rather than looking back to those of Etherege and Wycherley. Like Maskwell, the Witwouds are left to expose themselves: Lady Froth attempts a heroic poem on “Syllabub,” for which Brisk provides inane commentary; Lord Froth claims that the height of wit is refraining from laughing at a joke, yet he laughs incessantly; Lady Plyant thinks herself a mistress of language but contrives such convoluted sentences that her lover, Careless, is driven to exclaim, “O Heavens, madam, you confound me!”

These Witwouds are as vain as they are foolish. In a telling piece of byplay, Lord Froth takes out a mirror to look at himself; Brisk takes it from him to admire himself. This sign of vanity is repeated when Lady Froth hands her husband a mirror, asking him to pretend it is her picture. Lord Froth becomes so enamored of the image he sees that his wife declares, “Nay, my lord, you shan’t kiss it so much, I shall grow jealous, I vow now.” Like false wit, vanity is left to mock itself.

Even sex, treated so cavalierly in other comedies of the period, is here largely a disruptive rather than a regenerative force. Each of the married women in the play is false to her husband. Lord Froth and Sir Paul Plyant are old and foolish and so “deserve” to be cuckolded, but the same cannot be said of Lord Touchwood. Lady Touchwood’s passion for her nephew Mellefont threatens to upset Cynthia’s marriage as well as her own and to subvert, through incest, proper familial relationships. Her passion for Maskwell, meanwhile, threatens to allow a member of the servant class to become a lord, as she contrives to have Maskwell supplant Mellefont as her husband’s heir. The seriousness of this sexual promiscuity is manifest at the end of the play; Lady Touchwood is to be divorced and so lose her position in society.

Surrounded by vanity, infidelity, folly, and knavery, Cynthia has good reason to wonder whether she and Mellefont should continue to participate in the social charade. “’Tis an odd game we are going to play at; what think you of drawing stakes, and giving over in time?” she asks Mellefont. She understands that marriage is not a great improver: “I’m thinking, though marriage makes man and wife one flesh, it leaves them still two fools.” The song that concludes this conversation with Mellefont warns of yet another threat: “Prithee, Cynthia, look behind you,/ Age and wrinkles will o’ertake you;/ Then, too late, desire will find you,/ When the power must forsake you.” To become like her stepmother, Lady Plyant, or Mellefont’s aunt, Lady Touchwood, may be the fate reserved for Cynthia. The melancholy implicit in The Old Bachelor here rises to the surface. Mellefont remains cheerful, but his optimism seems misplaced. He has grossly misjudged Maskwell; he may be misjudging all of reality. Though the true lovers marry, and though Maskwell and Lady Touchwood are banished at the end of the play, Congreve had not yet found, as he did in his last play, a way to reconcile the private world of virtue with the public world of folly, sham, and pretense. Cynthia and Mellefont remain apart from society; they do not control their actions, nor do they appear much in the play. The implication is that one can preserve one’s innocence only by avoiding the fashionable world. The play thus foreshadows the gloom of the Tory satirists as well as the sentimental comedy of the next age.

Love for Love

Congreve was stung by the cool reception of his bitingly satiric The Double-Dealer. Although he believed that satire is the aim of comedy, in his next play, Love for Love, he disguised his attacks on fashionable society and offered a more traditional Restoration comedy. As he notes in the prologue: “We hope there’s something that may please each taste.” Much of the satire of Love for Love is confined to Valentine’s mad scenes in the fourth act. By putting these comments into the mouth of a seeming madman, Congreve can be harsh without offending; it is as if he were stepping outside the world of the play to deliver these observations. Valentine in his madness is utterly Juvenalian, railing against all aspects of the fashionable world. There is more truth than wit in such observations as, “Dost thou know what will happen to-morrow?—answer me not—for I will tell thee. Tomorrow, knaves will thrive through craft, and fools through fortune, and honesty will go as it did, frost-nipped in a summer suit.” Scandal, Valentine’s friend, is also harsh in his analysis of society: “I can shew you pride, folly, affection, wantonness, inconstancy, covetousness, dissimulation, malice, and ignorance, all in one piece. Then I can shew you lying, foppery, vanity, cowardice, bragging, lechery, impotence and ugliness in another piece; and yet one of these is a celebrated beauty, and t’other a professed beau.” Beneath the surface, the way of the world is vicious and foul.

By the end of the play, though, Valentine abandons his feigned madness, and Scandal is willing to take a kinder view of the world than that expressed in the song: “He alone won’t betray in whom none will confide;/ And the nymph may be chaste that has never been tried.” Although society in Love for Love has its faults, these spring more from folly than from vice; the world here is closer to that of The Old Bachelor than to that of The Double-Dealer. There are no villains such as Maskwell or Lady Touchwood, no divorce, no banishment from society.

As in The Old Bachelor, there is considerable pretense that must be exposed and, to an extent, punished. Tattle pretends to be a great rake, a keeper of secrets, and a wit. Foresight pretends to be wise, to be able to foretell the future, and to be a suitable husband for a “young and sanguine” wife. Sir Sampson Legend pretends to be a good father and a fit husband for Angelica. Each of these pretenders is exposed and punished. Tattle is married off in secret to Mrs. Frail, a woman of the town. Fondlewife is cuckolded. Sir Sampson’s plan to cheat his son of his inheritance and his fiancée is frustrated. These characters are Witwouds because they fail to adhere to the ideals of Restoration society. Sir Sampson is greedy; Foresight has failed to acquire wisdom with age; Tattle seeks a fortune rather than pleasure. They all want to be Truewits, but they are unable or unwilling to conform to the demands of wit.

Below them are Ben and Miss Prue, respectively a “sea-beast” and a “land monster.” Neither has had the opportunity to learn good manners, Ben because he has spent his life at sea and Prue because she has been reared in the country rather than the town. They are no match for even the pretended wits. Tattle quickly seduces Prue; Mrs. Frail seduces Ben. Society has no place for these characters, who return to their element at the end of the play.

Above the fools and would-be wits are Valentine and Angelica. She is the typical Restoration witty lady, able to manipulate Foresight and Sir Sampson and control Valentine to attain her goal, which is a suitable marriage. Valentine has many of the characteristics of the wit—he is generous, he prefers pleasure to prudence, he is a clever conversationalist—but Angelica will not marry him until she is certain that he really is a proper husband.

At the beginning of the play, there is some question as to his suitability, not because he has been a rake, not because he has spent money recklessly—these are actually commendable activities—but because he has been trying to buy Angelica’s love. Valentine’s lavish entertaining has been to impress her; he seems to regard her as mercenary and must learn her true character. Having failed to purchase her with his wealth, Valentine next tries to shame her with his poverty; here, again, he fails. Then he tries to trick her into expressing her love by feigning to be mad. As a Truewit, Angelica is able to penetrate this disguise also. Only when Valentine abandons all of his tricks and agrees that Angelica should have free choice of a husband does she accept him. Marriage for her is a serious business; she must be certain she is not submitting to tyranny or being pursued solely for her large fortune.

The blocking figure in Love for Love is, then, Valentine himself, and the plot of the play concerns his learning how to interact in society. Ben and Miss Prue do not learn how to do so, in part because of their previous experiences, in part because their teachers are would-be instead of true wits, in part because they lack intelligence and so are easily deceived. Foresight, Tattle, and Sir Sampson fail to learn because their characters are flawed. Foresight thinks he will learn from astrology, while Sir Sampson and Tattle think so highly of themselves that they are not even aware that they need to be taught anything.

Congreve indicates in Love for Love that one must live within a society that is less than perfect but that one can do so pleasantly enough if one adheres to the ideals of Restoration comedy. The despair in The Double-Dealer yields here to a happier vision. Valentine and Angelica, unlike Mellefont and Cynthia, understand their society and have shown their ability to survive in it.

Because Congreve recognizes the limitations of the fashionable world, he is sympathetic to characters who do not quite fit in. Ben is not simply a butt of ridicule because he is an outsider. Whereas Tattle is punished with Mrs. Frail, Ben escapes that fate. Because he does not share society’s viewpoint, Ben is also able to make some telling comments. He speaks his mind, shuns pretense, is generous, and understands that he will be happier at sea than in London. Prue, too, is honest; though she is Tattle’s willing pupil, she does escape marrying him. The innocent fools suffer less than do the Witwouds.

With Love for Love, Congreve has found his true voice—a combination of satire, compassion, and wit. His hero and heroine understand both the attractions and faults of society and therefore are able to skate deftly on the surface of their world without succumbing to its folly, as Bellmour and Belinda may, or being overwhelmed by its viciousness, as Mellefont and Cynthia may be. It is a shorter step from Love for Love to The Way of the World than from The Old Bachelor to this comedy.

The Mourning Bride

Before making that step, however, Congreve turned to tragedy, though The Mourning Bride resembles Congreve’s other plays, for, like the comedies, it explores the questions of how the individual should act in society and what constitutes a proper marriage. On the one hand are Zara and Manuel, who rely on royal birth and power. They believe that power can command even love; Manuel wants to compel his daughter to marry Garcia, the son of the king’s favorite, and Zara seeks to force Osmyn to marry her. Manuel is therefore another version of Sir Sampson Legend, who would have his child act as he himself wishes, regardless of the child’s desires. Zara is a tragic rendition of Lady Touchwood, who would rather murder the man she loves than see a rival marry him. Significantly, Elizabeth Barry played both Lady Touchwood and Zara. Zara and Manuel serve as blocking figures, much like Maskwell and Lady Touchwood, but with more power to do evil.

Contrasted to these two are Osmyn and Almeria. They, too, are of royal birth, but instead of using power to create love, they use love to get power. They are generous, brave, intelligent, like their comic counterparts. Like them, too, they are young, confronting a harsh world controlled by their elders. As in the comedies, the values of the young triumph, but in the process the villains are not simply exposed but, as befits a tragedy, killed. The true lovers wed; Zara and Manuel also “marry”—at the end of the play, Zara drinks to her love from a poisoned bowl, embraces him, and dies by his side exclaiming, “This to our mutual bliss when joined above.” Like Tattle and Mrs. Frail, the unworthy characters are joined. The analogy is strengthened by the masked wedding each undergoes. Just as Tattle and Mrs. Frail do not recognize their partners until it is too late, so Zara believes she is dying beside Osmyn rather than Manuel.

The deposition of the old by the young marks a triumph of love over power. It also addresses the question of what constitutes legitimate power. The older generation believes that birth and rank alone are sufficient; Manuel and Zara sense no obligation to anyone but themselves. Theirs is the belief in the divine right of kings to govern wrongly. Osmyn and Almeria have a different view. Though of royal birth, Osmyn is elevated to the throne by the people, who rebel against Manuel’s tyranny. Congreve, staunch Whig, is portraying the Glorious Revolution, in which the hereditary monarch, because he has abused his power, loses his crown to a more worthy, because more benevolent, successor.

The Way of the World

In the first scene of the fourth act of The Way of the World, Congreve directly addresses the issue of how two people can live harmoniously with each other while retaining personal autonomy and dignity on the one hand and remaining part of the social world on the other. This famous “Proviso” scene has a long theatrical history. A scene that first gained prominence in Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astrée (1607-1628, 1925; Astrea, 1657-1658), versions appear in four of Dryden’s comedies—The Wild Gallant (pr. 1663), Secret Love: Or, The Maiden Queen (pr. 1667), Marriage à la Mode (pr. 1672, pb. 1673) and Amphitryon: Or, The Two Socia’s (pr., pb. 1690)—in James Howard’s All Mistaken: Or, The Mad Couple (pr. 1667), and Edward Ravenscroft’s The Careless Lovers (pr. 1673) and The Canterbury Guests (pr. 1694). As he did so often, Congreve used a well-established convention but invested it with new significance and luster. The proviso in The Way of the World is not only the wittiest of such scenes but also the most brilliantly integrated into the theme of the play. Indeed, the scene illuminates the plight of every witty heroine who had appeared on the Restoration stage and summarized the hopes and fears of all fashionable couples to that time.

Millamant does not want to “dwindle into a wife”; Mirabell does not want to “be beyond measure enlarged into a husband.” She wishes to be “made sure of my will and pleasure”; he wants to be certain that his wife’s liberty will not degenerate into license. In the Hobbesian world of self-love, rivalry, and conflicting passions, these two therefore devise a Lockean compact, creating a peaceful and reasonable accommodation between their individual and mutual needs. They will not act like other fashionable couples, “proud of one another the first week, and ashamed of one another ever after.” They will act more like strangers in public, that they may act more like lovers in private. Millamant will remain autonomous in her sphere of the tea table, but she will not “encroach upon the men’s prerogative.” She will not sacrifice her health or natural beauty to fashion or whim; otherwise, she may dress as she likes. Together the lovers create a private world divorced from the follies and vices of the society around them while retaining the freedom to interact with that society when they must.

In contrast to this witty couple are Fainall and Marwood. As the names suggest, Fainall is a pretender to wit, and his consort, Marwood, seeks to mar the match between Mirabell and Millamant because of her love—and then hate—for Mirabell. She, too, is a pretender, a seeming prude who in fact is having an affair with Fainall. Whereas the witty couple seek to preserve their private world inviolate, Fainall and Marwood attempt to exploit private relationships. Fainall has married for money, not love, and once he has secured his wife’s fortune, he intends to divorce her, marry Marwood, and flee society. Later, he and Marwood conspire to secure half of Millamant’s and all of Lady Wishfort’s estate by threatening to expose Mrs. Fainall’s earlier affair with Mirabell, hoping that Lady Wishfort will pay to keep secret her daughter’s indiscretion and prevent a public divorce.

On yet another level are Lady Wishfort, Petulant, and Witwoud, who have no private life at all. Lady Wishfort cannot smile because she will ruin her carefully applied makeup; the face she presents to society must not be disturbed by any unexpected emotion. All of her efforts are directed to appearing fashionable—hence her fear of Mrs. Fainall’s exposure. Hence, too, her inflated rhetoric when she tries to impress the supposed Sir Rowland. Petulant wishes to appear the true Restoration wit and so hires women to ask for him at public places. He will even disguise himself and then “call for himself, wait for himself; nay, and what’s more, not finding himself, sometimes [leave] a letter for himself.” Witwoud, as his name indicates, seeks to pass himself off as a wit but must rely on his memory rather than his invention to maintain a conversation. His cowardice or stupidity prevents his understanding an insult, and he mistakes “impudence and malice” for wit. He will not acknowledge his own brother because he believes it unfashionable to know one’s own relations, thus surrendering private ties to public show. Sir Willful, Witwoud’s half brother, is the typical rustic. Like Ben and Prue in Love for Love, he has no place in society. He withdraws from social interaction first by getting drunk and then by returning to his element, leaving the urban world entirely.

Congreve thus offers four ways of coping with the demands of society. One may flee completely, as Sir Willful does and as Marwood, Fainall, and Lady Wishfort talk of doing. Mirabell and Millamant could adopt this solution, too. If they elope, Millamant will retain half of her fortune, enough to allow the couple a comfortable life together, but they would lose the pleasures of the tea table, of the theater, of social intercourse—of all the benefits, in short, that society can offer. One can also submit one’s personality completely to society and abandon any privacy (Petulant and Witwoud). One can use private life only to serve one’s social ends (Fainall and Marwood), or one can find a suitable balance between them. Presented with these choices, Mirabell and Millamant wisely choose the last.

The question posed here is not only one of surfaces, of how best to enjoy life, although that element is important. Additionally, Congreve here explores differing ethical stances. The opening conversation between Mirabell and Fainall establishes the moral distinction between them. Fainall states, “I’d no more play with a man that slighted his ill fortune than I’d make love to a woman who undervalued the loss of her reputation.” Mirabell replies, “You have a taste extremely delicate, and are for refining on your pleasures.” Fainall’s may be the wittier comment, but it is also the more malicious. True wit in The Way of the World embraces morality as well as intelligence. Mirabell does prove more intelligent than Fainall, outwitting him “by anticipation” just as he has cuckolded Fainall by anticipation. Even so, in their conversations the difference in cleverness is not as apparent as it is between Witwoud or Mirabell or Lady Wishfort and Millamant. Congreve once more is moving toward sentimental comedy by creating an intelligent hero who is also sententious. He is foreshadowing Addison’s attempt in the Spectator “to enliven Morality with Wit, and to temper Wit with Morality.”

The tone is bittersweet—another anticipation of the next age. Like Belinda in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), Millamant must grow up. Just as she cannot be a coquette forever, so Mirabell must put aside his rakish past. One has a sense of time’s passing. Even amid the witty repartee of the proviso scene, Mirabell looks ahead to Millamant’s pregnancy, and to the time beyond that when she will be tempted, as Lady Wishfort is now, to hide her wrinkles. Her maid will one day say to her what Foible tells her lady: “I warrant you, madam, a little art once made your picture like you; and now a little of the same art must make you like your picture.”

With this new sense of the future coexists a new sense of the past, a sense that one’s earlier actions have consequences. Valentine is able to dismiss a former mistress with a gift of money and to redeem his earlier extravagances through an inheritance and a good marriage. Mirabell is not so fortunate. His previous affair with Mrs. Fainall is not immoral—no one condemns Mirabell for it—but neither is it a trifle to be quickly forgotten. Because of that affair, Mrs. Fainall has had to marry a man she dislikes and who hates her; she is not merely asking for information when she inquires of Mirabell, “Why did you make me marry this man?” Nor has Mirabell escaped all consequences, for this affair gives Fainall the opportunity to seize half of Millamant’s—and thus half of Mirabell’s—estate.

The artificial world and golden dreams of The Old Bachelor have essentially vanished in The Way of the World. The form remains—the witty couple contending successfully against the Witwouds and the fools; the young struggling against the old; the flawed but brilliant urbane society opposing vulgarity and rusticity. Congreve has elevated this form to its highest point; there is no more lovable coquette than Millamant, no Restoration wit more in control of his milieu than Mirabell. Yet the substance, the sense of passing time, of the sadness of real life, is undermining the comedy of wit. Alexander Pope called Congreve ultimus Romanorum (the ultimate Roman). He is truly the greatest of the Restoration dramatists, but he is ultimus in its other sense as well—the last.


William Congreve Short Fiction Analysis