Congreve, The Way of the World, Acts IV and V (with some linkage to II and III)
Congreve develops the plot around a series of themes that put characters in different "constellations" with respect to each other. "Cruelty," psychological and physical, unites such unlikely partners as Millamant and Fainall, and Tony Witwoud and Petulant, in their own feeble imitation of their betters' skills of dishing it out. Country culture vs. City of London culture pits Sir Wilful Witwoud against the whole gang of London fops and the beautiful, sophisticated women they chase, but Tony Witwould has a connection to his half brother that makes his eccentricities increasingly understandable once we learn of his origins in Shopshire. "Taste" in literature and in all other measures of culture becomes the real test of one's qualifications for matrimony, setting Sir Willful on the "too plain-spoken and unread" end of the spectrum and his half-brother, Tony, on the "too over-written and over-read" end, with Mirabell occupying the Aristotelian mean, right in the middle where the balance between reading and plain speaking feels more "natural." If that reminds you of Dryden's first critical excerpt about the two types of bad poets (2225-6 / 2114-5) or Oroonoko's opinion of the "witty " slave-owner, Trefrey (2204 / 21922-3), give yourself a critical pat on the back--you've found one of the great culture-forming functions literature grows to command in C17-19 English society--testing people's fitness for social roles of all sorts by testing their ability to read and interpret literature.
[Norton 8th edition page numbers come first, followed by 7th edition page numbers on the other side of the virgule or "/"]
Cruelty, wit, letters, and power in love:
Millamant's song in Act III (2255/2246)--psychological cruelty as a young woman's defense against male power (Wife of Bath?). Compare this with her more extended dialogue about "cruelty" with Mirabell, Witwoud, Mincing, and Mrs. Fainall in Act II, from "Here she comes, i'faith, full sail" to "O, fiction; Fainall, let us leave these men" (2244-46/2235/36)
Fainall's cruelty as control of all emotion, dissimulation (Fain-all) and physical force, in Act II with Mrs. Marwood in St. James Park from "Ha, ha, ha, you are my wife's friend, too" to "You have a mask, wear it a moment" (2242-3 / 2232-3). Regan and Cornwall vs. Gloucester in Lear, the uses of cruelty and deception in Lear and Volpone, (esp. Corbaccio vs. Celia) etc.
Country vs. City of London Culture:
Sir Wilfull's reunion with his half-brother, Antony ("Tony") Witwoud in Lady Wishfort's townhouse in Act III with Witwoud, Petulant and Mrs. Marwood from "Mr. Witwoud, your brother..." to "and now you may set up for yourself" (2256-8 / 2249-51). Edgar acting the Cornish countryman while leading his blinded father in Lear vs. the sophisticated courtier-servant, Oswald; Sir Politic Would-be and Peregrine on tourist manners in Venice (note Sir W. intends to take his continental tour a bit later than most young men, much to the amazement of the London toffs).
Literary Taste as the Courtship Test:
Sir Wilfull's failed courtship of Millamant and Mirabell's success, both dependent upon their ability to match Millamant's verses by Edmund Waller and Sir John Suckling, the Cavalier poets of the previous generation, with Foible, Millamant, Mrs. Fainall, Sir W., and Mirabell, in Act IV from "Madam, I stayed here to tell your ladyship" to "I am all obedience" (2262-66). Regan and Goneril vs. Cordelia in Lear Act I.i on verbal performance; Sidney's Astrophil or Spenser's persona or Shakespeare's on ornate speech, capturing the self in poems, etc.; Donne and Herrick as poet-seducers.
Class and "Service" as a Commodity:
Lady Wishfort is told by Mrs. Marwood about Foible's plotting with Mirabell, and "fires" Foible while gloating about the life to which her former servant will be banished, from "Out of my house" to "I shall be a Bridewell-bride. Oh!" (2272-3 / 2267-8) Kent vs. Oswald on the old and the new "servant"; ditto on Mosca and Volpone; Herbert on service to God vs. serving the self with one's talents--to whom should one's loyalty really be directed?
Rake vs. Rake in the "Shoot-Out" Conclusion:
Fainall delivers his ultimatum to Lady Wishfort (all of Millamant's inheritance and all of his wife's in return for his silence) and is answered by the long-thinking Mirabell's counterplot, in Act V from "Your date of deliberation, madam, is expired" to Sir Wilfull's ironic repetition of Fainall's expression in "Hold, sir, now you may make your bear garden flourish somewhere else, sir" (2280-82 / 2275-78). Pay special attention to the footnote defining "bear garden" and think about what that says about tLondon culture's capacity for cruelty and the radical cultural distinction between what was considered acceptable for animals or humans (n. 1, 2280 / 2276). In this years-long duel between Mirabell and Fainall, what role has really been played by Mrs. Fainall? If you are unsure, look again at Fainall's reply to Mirabell in their first dialogue about gambling in Act I. Lady Mary Wroth's view of courtship, and Mary Astell's, might be brought into comparison with this play's dramatic representation of women's plight in the late C17 "marriage market." How are women commodified, like slaves, made into exchangeable, tradeable, marketable commodities? Oroonoko and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's "Mrs. Yonge" both comment on this.