Some "Ways" of The Way of the World: Vignettes and Character Revelation
Congreve's dramatic style, like Jonson's and Shakespeare's, tends to alternate major dramatic developments that involve crucial plot revelations with minor scenes in which characters sometimes drop important clues about their inner workings. The play's opening Act I Scene 1 dialogue is just such a minor "vignette," in which Fainall and Mirabell expose important elements of their characters. They are gamblers, who view life as a dangerous game. They are capable of great cruelty, and Fainall, in particular, enjoys being cruel. In keeping with London fashion of the time, both men (indeed all the men in the play except male servants) are wearing rapiers, long, thin dueling swords.
If you are struggling to find the play's dramatic pulse, you might want to try re-reading these passages. Like many comedies, there are few pauses in the action or dialogue, a rapid pacing of the action designed to keep the audience rolling along. The tightest-packed passages I've marked with ***:
***Act I, Scene 1, from "You are a fortunate man" to "refining on your pleasures" and "I did as much" to "then is your wife.": Mirabell to Fainall on his behavior with Lady Wishfort (in their "love affair" which has concluded before the play begins). What is it that a "man could, with any reasonable conscience" could do in Mirabell's London? Where are play's norms? Did Lady Wishfort deserve this treatment? (Read III.1 before you decide.) If this play is, on one level, a "battle of the sexes," Mirabell's opening statement might be said to set out the men's point of view for our inspection and challenge. Does the rest of the play confirm or disconfirm these rules of conduct?
Act I. Scene 6: from "What have you done with Petulant?" to "Now that is a fault": Mirabell, Fainall and Witwoud on the character of Petulant. What are "friends," and what is wit? What are the limits on speech in this culture? What is folly? What is truth? etc.
***Act I, Scene 8: Witwoud and Mirabell on Petulant's coffee-house strategy for spreading his fame (from "You shall see he won't go to 'em..." to "leave a letter for himself")
Act I, Scene 9: Petulant, Fainall, and Mirabell on Petulant's false pretenses and his nearly getting into a duel with Mirabell (from "This continence is all dissembled" to "I shrug and I am silent"). This play's culture treats "fame" far differently from the way the concept was treated in "The Battle of Maldon," though struggles are taking place. For what do people like Petulant and Witwoud "fight" in this play's universe? What is the play telling its audience about late C17 London society?
Act 1, Scene 9: Witwoud, Mirabell and Petulant on how to behave with women and the what a blush means (from "O rare Petulant..." to "and malice pass for wit"). You can see the language of faces and eyes used in texts as old as Wyatt's and Surrey's adaptation of "The Long Love," and as recent as Lady Mary Wroth's sonnet to her eyes, or Behn's description of Oroonoko's and Imoinda's courtship behaviors in Coromantien. What has changed?
Act II, Scene 1: Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood on Marwood's reaction to the idea of marrying Mirabell and to Fainall's reaction to the sight of her own husband (from "You hate mankind?" to "has almost overcome me"). Returning to the "battle of the sexes" pattern, what has this conversation suggested to the play's audience about women's ability to form alliances with each other to resist men's power over them? For predecessors in literature, see the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," Regan and Goneril in King Lear, and Amelia Lanyer's "Pilate's Wife" defending Eve, as well as her evocation of the college of women at Cooke-Ham. How do the men's depictions of women's alliances compare with Behn's? Is Congreve sympathetic or satiric in his portrayal of the failed Fainall-Marwood alliance?
Act II, Scene 2: Fainall and Mrs. Marwood arguing about their relationship, why he married Mrs. Fainall in the first place, and what they think about relationships (from "It shall be all discovered" to "You have a mask, wear it a moment..."). This is perhaps Fainall's most revealing moment when the civilized act he performs falls away and we see what he is capable of doing to his "lover." This will prepare us for the shocking thing he will attempt to do to Millamant in the play's last scene. He would be at home in that neighborhood of Baltimore known as "The Block," running his "stable" and driving the Escalade with the smoked windows, but he is still considered a respectable husband. Why?
Act III, Scene 1: Lady Wishfort and Peg, from "I have no more patience" to "No Foible yet?"--how does Lady W's character echo Lady Politic Would-be in Volpone? Why? What agenda about female literacy does Congreve share with Jonson, but how does Millamant's literacy challenge that pattern? Note that Volpone's plot is directly alluded to by Millamant when discussing why he has Waitwell marry Foible as part of the "Sir Rowland" scheme to deceive Lady W.
Act III. Scene 5: (From "Aye dear Foible" to "good Foible"--Lady Wishfort and Foible when Foible has invented her alibi for talking to Mirabell and infuriates Lady W against him, and Lady W's fury makes her makeup crack. This leads her to think about how to appear seductively ready for "Sir Rowland" (Waitwell, Mirabell's servant, who is masquerading as the knight to trick Lady W into a false marriage which will embarrass her too much to oppose Mirabell's marriage to her neice, Millamant). Read Lady W's metadramatic consideration of how she will act the role of "woman surprised by suitor" and consider where she might have learned it in literature, especially the lyrics of Herrick. (You also might think about poems by Jonson and Herrick about "too much art" in women's dress and makeup.)
Act III, Scenes 11-12: (From "The town has found it" to the end of Millamant's song in Scene 12)--Millamant and Marwood when Millamant mocks Mirabell's love for her in front of Marwood, who lives Mirabell intensely and secretly, and Millamant's excessive laughter gives away her passion for the man she claims to ignore. How do age/generational differences drive these women to compete with each other? What does the play tell us about trusting one's wit to compete in "the World" rather than building secret alliances?
Act III, Scene 14: (From "In the name of Bartlemew and his Fair" to "'tis hard to know 'em all")--Sir Wilfull Witwoud's arrival at Lady Wishfort's and the servants' lack of familiarity with their own mistress--she has been firing servants and making them leave so frequently that nobody knows her. Failed households show up in King Lear when Oswald has been instructed by his mistress to deliberately misbehave in his character as a servant to Lear, and again in Volpone where the protagonist's house staff are a bunch of loyal toadies who conspire with him to defraud guests, and Corvino's house is a prison and torture cell for Celia. What is the play telling us about the peculiar kinds of faulty social organization that afflict London aristocratic houses?
Act III, Scene 15: Sir Wilfull to his cousin Witwould on fashion vs. family loyalty (from "Why Brother Willful" to "till late of days"). City and country have become vastly different environments, a theme which will be taken up by C18 poets and novelists, including Henry Fielding (Tom Jones). What values does the country-gentleman represent, and how does the play describe his failings? Are the values overcome by the failings, or vice versa? Especially note where Sir Wilfull winds up in the last scene. For comparison, see Sir Thomas Wyatt's epistolary satire, "Mine Own John Poins," for satire on court (vs. City) manners, and also for its evocation of the attractions of country living "in Kent and Christendom."
Act III, Scene 18: (to "tis against all rule of play that I should lose to one who has not the wherewithall to stake")--Fainall's response to Marwood's telling him about Mirabell's plot to marry his servant (Waitwell) to Lady W as a way to get her to let him marry Millamant--Fainall's definition of "husband" is linked to the play's first use of the title phrase "way of the world" and it's a crucial touchstone in the dialogue. Why is he given "naming rights" to this play, and what does that do to the play's relationship to its audience? A famous fiction plot type has been called "the two-suitor plot," in which the heroine must decide which of two very different men to marry, usually one safe but unexciting and the other dangerously attractive and unstable. What choice of "heroes" does this play give its audience?