William Congreve World Literature Analysis - Essay

William Congreve World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Congreve has become known as the most brilliantly witty of the group of Restoration dramatists that included Dryden, Sir George Etherege, and William Wycherley. Restoration drama is a comedy of manners showing a metropolitan society in pursuit of pleasure. It takes a satirical view of the hypocrisy, sexual freedom, and moral degradation of the sophisticated class of people that would have formed its audience. Congreve’s characters are variations on Restoration stock types: On one side, there are the fools, including “coxcombs,” “fops” (vain, self-deluded followers of fashion), and dullards pretending to wit. In this category also are the predatory old men and women who set their sights on handsome young spouses. On the other side of the fence are the people of sense—characters who carry the audience’s sympathy because they have a higher degree of awareness of self and others and a genuine wit.

The desired outcome in these plays is the marriage between a young couple of sense and their secure possession of the fortune due to them. Working against this desired outcome are schemes engineered by the old, deluded, or wicked against the young couple. The prizes at stake are a young and handsome spouse and the fortune. Sometimes the fortune is already in the possession of the young person, becoming part of the prize. More often, it is still in the control of the old and foolish and will only descend to the young person at the old person’s discretion.

The Double-Dealer and The Way of the World are remarkable among Restoration comedies; though they feature many brilliantly caricatured schemers driven by folly and weakness, such characters are not the primary engineers of trouble. Instead, the seeds of evil are sown and tended by villains of almost tragic status—Maskwell in The Double-Dealer and Mrs. Marwood (and, to a less intense degree, Fainall) in The Way of the World. Characters such as Lady Touchwood and Lady Wishfort, powerful though they be in their ability to frustrate the desired outcome, are instruments in the hands of these grand destroyers of happiness.

Many of Congreve’s characters are drawn with a complexity and insight not seen in other plays of the type. The witty “whirlwind” character of Millamant in The Way of the World remains a challenge for any actress. Foolish characters evoke pathos even as they do laughter—for example, Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World, with her hopeless attempts at reconstructing her long-lost beauty by artificial means, and Sir Paul Plyant in The Double-Dealer, nightly swaddled in blankets that prevent him from fathering the son for whom he longs. More than any other Restoration dramatist, Congreve saw the tragedy underlying the ridiculousness of his subjects.

In the world of Congreve’s plays, values are inverted, and characters pretend to be the opposite of what they really are. Mirabell’s epigrammatic couplet at the end of the first act of The Way of the World summarizes this unnatural moral condition: “Where modesty’s ill-manners, ’tis but fit/ That impudence and malice pass for wit.” Hence, in The Double Dealer, Brisk’s obsession with his “wit” belies his true status as a “pert coxcomb”; Lady Plyant’s harping on her “honour” as she capitulates without much resistance to Careless’s seduction reveals her promiscuity. The constant abuse of such terms by hypocritical or foolish characters makes them gain ironic weight at every repetition. The pointedness and brilliance of Congreve’s wit have remained unrivaled, except possibly in the plays of Oscar Wilde three centuries later. Congreve’s dialogue has a rhythm, cadence, and rhetorical structure at times approaching the status of poetry.

The Double-Dealer

First produced: 1693 (first published, 1694)

Type of work: Play

In a sophisticated social circle of fops, wits, fools, and hypocrites, two schemers try to foil the intention of a young couple to marry.

The action of The Double-Dealer is governed by the Machiavellian schemes of Maskwell and the manipulative Lady Touchwood, with whom he is in league. Maskwell and Lady Touchwood both want to break the intended match between the innocent couple Cynthia and Mellefont—Maskwell, because he wants Cynthia for himself, and Lady Touchwood, because she wants Mellefont for herself. Most of the characters’ lives revolve around hidden motives, secret intrigues, and deception. Nobody, except Mellefont and Cynthia, is what he or she seems. Sir Paul and Lady Plyant pretend to the world to be the happiest married couple; Lady Plyant pretends to her husband that she is too chaste to grant him her sexual favors, while enthusiastically pursuing intrigues with others. The fop Brisk sets himself up as a wit; the giggling Lord Froth affects solemnity; the vacuous Lady Froth sees herself as a writer of heroic epic poems.

The supreme embodiment of deception is Maskwell. He pretends to be Mellefont’s loyal friend, defending him against Lady Touchwood’s plotting and supporting the marriage with Cynthia. In fact, he is using every weapon in his armory to discredit Mellefont in the eyes of his uncle and benefactor-to-be, Lord Touchwood, and his bride’s parents, Sir Paul and Lady Plyant. Such is Maskwell’s skill that he...

(The entire section is 2213 words.)