William Congreve, The Way of the World
Genre: comic or satiric drama (see "Prologue" ll. 30-40).
Form: prose with some inset lyrics.
Characters: Note the "Dramatis Personae"'s careful
description of characters in terms of their love and friendship relations, as
well as their kinships. This play is founded upon the notion that love
strives with and often overthrows the "natural" order of kin
relationship, including that crucial artificial one that is formed by
marriage. Note that all female characters who
are not servants are styled "Mrs." as a term of respect. Only
Mrs. Fainall is actually married. Marriage, by contrast, is not
a sweet sacrament, but rather
a carnivorous battle
for supremacy, first between the alpha-males, Mirabell and Fainall, and then
between the future bride and groom, Mirabell and Millamant. The "rake" (from "rake-hell")
is a type of Restoration comedy character we have not yet encountered in early
literature except for John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester and perhaps the living
"Mr. Horner," hero of William Wycherly's The Country Wife
Since then, we have seen "rake" characters repackaged in the "loveable rogue" or
"anti-hero" (or "mack-daddy") of Modernist and Post-Modernist literature.
To see a visual representation of the "rake" lifestyle by an artist who was
Congreve's younger contemporary, click here to see William Hogarth's "The Rake's
Progress." (There are 8 engravings in the series--this one captures
the Rake's disastrous loss at cards which precipitates his downfall.)
Click here to see a
modern British production's costumes and set designs for William Etheredge's
Man of Mode (1676), another Restoration comedy.
The following list describes the characters by their type, since members of the
same type often are either allies or opponents in the plot.
- Rakes: Fainall (the
antagonist, now married to Mirabell's ex-mistress, though F doesn't know it); Mirabell (the co-protagonist [with Millamant],
now scheming with his ex-mistress to wed Millamant). Though their
manners usually conceal it, they are both dangerous men, and like all competent
non-servant males, armed with rapiers with which they can "demand satisfaction"
for insults, real or imagined.
- Would-be Rakes
and Wits: Witwoud
and Petulant are nearly rendered asexual by drink and affectation, they live
for wit--neither of the rakes can really be insulted by them though Petulant
comes close). Their faulty manners give them away as not being real
contenders for the role of "rake," but they do set themselves up to be "wits."
As Witwoud's name suggests, he's a pretender to the title (compare "Sir Politic
Would-Be" in Volpone, the play to which this play openly alludes in
Act II). Petulant's name sums up his entire stock and trade, though he's
a wonderfully useful "flat character" who satirizes any normal social
convention he tries to imitate.
- Country Aristocrat: Sir
Wilfull Witwoud (an elderly outsider, also like Sir Pol in Volpone?), who
talks about people's pasts and money and other things "one doesn't mention"
while remaining both astoundingly shy around Millamant and yet courageous in
a crisis--a bit of "old England" from the provinces among these "new men" of
the Town. His one failing, apart from his country manners, is a
complete lack of literary, musical, or artistic learning. In short, he is
no "courtier," but he has deep roots in the comedia del arte tradition
with origins in Greek and Roman type-character comedy as a fusion of the "miles
gloriousis" (braggart warrior) and "senex" ("out-of-it" old man).
- Established (older & more powerful) City Woman: Lady Wishfort
is an old rich woman who controls the wealth of her young, rich, widowed
daughter-in-law, Millamant. Before the play's action commences, she had
discovered that Mirabell had only been pretending to love her in order to get
closer to Millamant--she hates him fiercely for it. Nevertheless, she
secretly believes that with the right make-up, dress, and seductive behavior,
she can still compete with the younger women for sexual attractiveness.
- Younger (marriagable or seducable) City Women: Millamant's
name means "loved by thousands." Congreve has made her
well-educated, unlike Mrs. Fainall, but also so proud of her wit she nearly
cannot accept any man's love lest he diminish her attractiveness. See
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's "The Lover," addressed in some manuscripts to
Congreve, for what may be her answer to the suspicion that Millamant parodies
her severely witty beauty. Mrs. Marwood is Fainall's mistress, but also a double agent torn between
loyalty to Fainall and her secret love for Mirabell, the sadest creature in the
play because she has no money of her own and must live on Fainall's ability to
fleece heiresses who are her friends. Mrs. Fainall, a widowed heiress who
became Mirabelle's mistress before having to marry Fainall, is torn between her mother's power [Lady Wishfort], her past association with
Mirabell, and her loveless marriage to Fainall. She tries to help Millamant
escape a fate like her own but risks humiliating divorce if her scheming
with Mirabell becomes public knowledge in court.
- Servants: Foible
Wishfort's chief maid, but secretly an ally of Mirabell who offers her a
chance to escape the tyranically
Lady W's household by marrying his servant, Waitwell, in return for helping
Mirabell's scheme against Fainall and Wishfort. Peg, Mrs. Wishfort's underservant,
subordinate to Foible, is an innocent foil to reveal Wishfort's vanity. Mincing,
Millamant's maid, supports her mistress's vanity and helps her fend off
suitors. Waitwell, Mirabell's
servant and ally against Fainall and Wishfort, plays the part of "Sir
Rowland," Mirabell's "uncle who hates him" in hopes that he
will be rewarded by Mirabell with a farm and thereby escape being servant
for the rest of his life. He is Mirabell's "Mosca" in the play's
allusive relationship to Jonson's inheritance plot. Both Foible and
Waitwell have deep roots in the comedia del arte tradition that arose
from Greek and Roman type-character comedy as "the wily servant." Betty
is a servant
in the chocolate house, a good-hearted gal who keeps the boys happy, later
a familiar type in the film noir tradition.
Summary: The plot of "Way" is so complex that it
may be partly to blame for the play's lack of critical success when Congreve
first put it on. However, once mastered, the play begins to shed a
glorious light upon the contemporary issues of courtship, truthfulness, and
testing the quality of one's prospective mate and allies. It's also
enormously funny and prophetic. (Like Petulant, the would-be society man, Lucienne Goldberg [Linda Tripp's "literary agent" and wiretapping
guru] liked to have herself paged at trendy Washington restaurants in order to
create the impression she was "in demand" among the fashionable
set.) Therefore, I lay out for you the basic lineaments of the
plot. The real stuff of this play is in its conversation.
- Lady W. resists Mirabell's marriage to her neice, Millamant,
because Mirabell has previously pretended to love Lady W while secretly
courting her ward, the much younger and wealthy Millamant. She does
not know that Mirabell also has had
her daughter as his former mistress, before arranging secretly to marry her to the notorious rake, Fainall
when it appears she has become pregnant (Act II).
- Mirabell schemes to arrange a marriage between Lady W. and "Sir
Rowland" (his servant, Waitwell in disguise), which appeals to her vanity and to
her desire for revenge. "Sir Rowland" is rumored to be Mirabel's
uncle, a man who hates M. and who could, by having a male child of his
own, disinherit Mirabell in M's father's will. That Lady W. still
believes herself capable of pregnancy is one of the play's running jokes.
The "Sir Rowland" rumor was started by Mirabell, himself, and he takes great pains to make sure it's spreading in his
interrogation of Petulant in Act I. Meanwhile, Mirabell makes sure
Waitwell has already married Foible, their co-conspirator, so that Waitwell
cannot play Mosca's part (see the Volpone reference!) and really marry Lady
W. When Lady W has made a bigamous marriage (Cf. Lady Anne Halkett!),
Mirabell can threaten to expose her unless she relents to let him marry
Millamant. Mrs. Fainall aids M. in
this fiction because she is disgusted with her husband's unfaithfulness
with Mrs. Marwood.
- Mrs. Marwood sees Mrs. Fainall plotting with Foible, and tells Lady
W. that Sir Wilfull Witwoud (Lady W's cousin) would make a good and safe
match for Millamant. Millamant's inheritance will not allow her to refuse
a reasonable match proposed by her guardian, Lady W. Also, all of
that forfeited inheritance will go from Lady W's neice, Millamant, to Lady
W's daughter, Mrs. Fainall, whose fortunes are controlled by her husband
(who would then give it to Mrs. Marwood, she thinks (see Act
Mrs. Marwood, is motivated to aid Fainall,
even though now she hates him, because she has been offended by Millamant's careless
taunts about her age (imagine an unmarried 30-something being teased by a
popular 20-something) and by overhearing Mrs. Fainall plotting with Foible.
- Mrs. Marwood tells Fainall he now can divorce Mrs. Fainall
because she jealously presumes Mrs. F. is having an affair with Mirabell. Fainall
foils the match Lady Wishfort plans between Millamant and Sir Wilfull by
getting the Shropshire knight drunk.
- In Act V, Fainall springs his trap, demanding Lady W's
estate, his wife's estate (Mrs. Fainall), and half of Millamant's
inheritance (Lady W's neice) in return for Fainall's not charging his wife
with adultery with Mirabell. Mrs. Fainall dares them to attempt prosecution because she
has proof of innocence, but Mrs. Marwood convinces Lady W. that the press
coverage of the trial would humiliate the family.
- Lady W offers to allow Mirabell to wed Millamant in return for his helping her
escape (saving W's and M's fortunes, but apparently leaving Mrs. F. in
- Mirabell reveals that Mrs. Fainall, before her marriage, had signed
all her possessions over to him to prevent their falling into Fainall's
hands. Thus, Fainall has nothing to sue for. Note his response to the
news that his wife had outwitted him--the gesture is intended as a final
revelation of the true danger of his character, formerly masked by wit and
the hopes of an easy fortune.
Issues and Research Sources:
1) The Norton's page layout reproduces the "dramatis personae"
(dramatic personas, or literally "masks"), which comes to us from the
play's printed script. It lists two columns of characters divided by
gender and arranged in order of social rank. The men are listed first, from the
"rakes," who are described in terms of which women they are in love with or
"follow," to the servant, Waitwell. One oddity is "Sir Wilful Witwoud," who by
rank should head the list, but here he ranks below even Petulant and barely
above a servant. Why? Among the women, Lady Wishfort occupies the expected
highest place in the list, but immediately below here is Millamant, described as
"a fine lady"? What can that mean? Mrs. Marwood ("friend" of Fainall who "likes
Mirabell") precedes Mrs. Fainall ("daughter" and "wife" and "formerly
friend"--somewhat "used"?), and below them are servants, from the highest
(Foible) to the lowest ("dancers, footmen, and attendants").
In addition to what those
relationship markers tell us about the women's relative social status, we also
could redivide all the characters once again by another social marker, age. How
might competition between generations explain the behaviors of Millamant and
Marwood or Lady Wishfort, or Sir Wilfull Witwoud and "Tony" Witwould (and
Petulant)? In Lear and Volpone, we saw some conspiracy among children against
parents, but here we have three layers of "children," all trying to play the
courtship game. Can you see how this marks one complex set of behaviors we know
as "modern society"? Those are the "ways" of our "world." These
relationships would be very good evidence for a Structuralist or Post-Structuralist
(e.g., Feminist, Deconstructionist) interpretation of the play.
2) The plot's complexity is a significant hurdle for the first-time
reader. How could Congreve have expected his theater
audience to follow such a plot? Obviously, he is
trading in a subgenre of this New-Comedy style drama that other writers have
been working in for some time before, setting his audience's expectations for
the behaviors of
all the main character types. Rakes will seduce, though wittily. Fops
will unconsciously parody themselves while imitating the behaviors of the
rakes. The youngest and prettiest female part will be the "prize" for
which the rakes compete. The older, more experienced women will be torn
between their allies or opponents to defend their dwindling social power.
Wycherly, Etheridge, and Farquar all had produced satirical comic plays on these themes.
Nevertheless, this play was a failure on its first performance and marked
the end of Congreve's career. Could there be something in the play's
satire of London society that caused its audience to reject it? Compare it
with Volpone, which similarly satirizes high society, but with certain
major differences, especially its setting in Venice. Could it also mark the waning of audiences' appetite
for plays which mocked middle-class mores and institutions like marriage,
friendship, hard work, education, and even love?
3) Like Shakespeare's King Lear, Congreve’s play sets up a
subplot and main plot in which servants mimic the behaviors of the
aristocrats and their would-be followers. How are the servants treated in this play,
especially when they are detected in misbehavior, and what does this tell
you about England's emerging class system at the beginning of the
modern period? Because Congreve's dialogue refers explicitly to
Jonson's Volpone, you are openly invited to see Way as a successor
to Jonson's view of the power of greed to change human character. What
else has been corrupted in this play, and if the love of money is not the cause,
what is the corrupting agent?
4) The characters of Congreve's play often quote (and misquote)
literature from earlier eras. Millamant is especially careful to
test her suitors' literary taste in the course of generally discouraging
their efforts. In Act IV, she tests Sir Wilfull
Witwoud and Mirabell with lines by the Cavalier poets, Sir John Suckling
and Edward Waller (see samples of Suckling's work in the Norton
Waller poem she offers and Mirabell "caps" by completing the
Here is a
link to the University of Toronto web site's text of "The Story of Phoebus and Daphne
5) If bad literary taste is one sign of a "bad person" in
Congreve's universe, the resort to violence or the threat of it appears to
be an even worse indicator of character.
- What about these two poets' appeals to a
character like Millamant, and what does Congreve's choice of these two
poets say about his expectations of their effects upon his audience?
Luminarium.org web site's text of Suckling's "I
prithee spare me gentle boy" (referring to Eros or Cupid)--what is Millamant's quotation telling Sir Willful that he is too obtuse and
unlearned to understand?
What would Mary Astell say about the causes
of Millamant's earlier "cruel" behavior if the poets Millamant quotes are
evidence of her "education"?
When Millamant recites the first two lines of
Suckling's poem before receiving the "courtship" of Sir Wilfull Witwoud (IV),
Congreve is telling us something about her state of mind by revealing what
lyrics are on her mental "playlist." Because she does not complete the
song, only knowledgeable audience members will know the rest of what she is
thinking. Wouldn't it make sense for the wise modern student
to look up
the rest of that short poem for a non-obvious insight into Millamant's mind and
Congreve's dramatic technique? [The link will take you to the online
Luminarium.org version of the text.] Notice what she was talking about
immediately before the poem came to her mind, and what the whole poem says
about love, lovers, faithfulness, age, etc.
- How is the custom of the social duel-of-honor used in
the characters Petulant and Witwoud, Sir Willful, and Mirabell?
See especially the exchanges in Act I (Petulant to Mirabel re: "other throats to be cut") and
Act III (Petulant
to Sir Wilfull re: "Do you speak by way of
All male characters other than
servants routinely would be wearing rapiers, dueling swords. (The
Hogarth print in the foregoing hyperlink is dated c. 1790, so the men's
cloaks have become shorter, allowing them to "show a little leg," and their
wigs are growing smaller--all in pursuit of the fashionable "mode.") This
is crucial to your impression of Fainall's behavior, first exposed in St.
James Park as physically abusive in his intimidation of his mistress, Mrs. Marwood
("Let me go" implies what?), and finally in the ultimate unacceptable
act at the end of the play, what is he about to do to his wife?
- How do these uses of real force, and the threat
of real armed combat in the drawing room, affect your reading of the
imagery of Millamant's song in Act III (? How might you compare it with the way Marlowe
used violence or the threat of violence in the scenes involving Faustus
and the Horse Courser or Rafe and Robin (vs. the moment of Faustus’
damnation in Scene 13)?
How is the culture changing?
6) Restoration theater audiences were
extremely well-to-do, and witty (or so they considered themselves). It was
common for them to call out jests to each other and to taunt the actors while
the play was being performed. Since the house lights were not dimmed for
the performance, the play was less of a "sacred ceremony" and more of a social
event, even a social contest between the actors and the audience. How
might this shape your sense of the play's long-running theme of "public
performance," with its women in masks, its reading of blushes and paleness, its
ritualized use of comic speech, and its in-jokes about the complex language for
popular fads? Note that Congreve's first great success in the theater (The
Old Bachelor, 1693) was considered unusual for running as long as fourteen
days in performance. How does that fit into the newly emerging codes of
middle-class consumerism which you see in the play's content, and how might that
affect the play, itself, as something audiences "consumed"? To see
illustrations of the Drury Lane Theater stage and audience seating, click
note that the audience in the well-lit box seats are easily as "on stage" as the
actors and far more numerous.
7. Congreve sets The Way of the World's
acts in places of iconic importance to London society, especially with respect
to the new social mores and minor (and major) vices which had become more
acceptable in Restoration English culture. Though the countryside remained
largely committed to values and ways of living that had changed little since
Medieval times, city-dwellers sought new sights, sounds, sensations, and modes
of social contact in the chocolate houses, St. James's Park, and the "salons" of
Chocolate and coffee drinking were marginally acceptable aristocratic
intoxication, pursued by males alone (except for female servants), and often
accompanied by gambling. These institutions later were transformed into
the "gentlemen's clubs" of London, fraternities which formed the hidden inner
circle of the power structure for politics, business, science, and the arts.
In the late 1600s, however, these were much less tame places. What does it
mean when the elite males of a nation find these activities a major part of
their daily activities?
St. James's Park's "Mall," allowed
men and women to mingle in socially acceptable circumstances, though it also
made possible socially risky behavior. The "Mall"'s familiarity
to English readers was such that, when Behn wants to tell her readers how big
her citrus garden was in Guyana, she says it was "about half the length of the
Mall here." The Mall was the canvas upon which aristocratic
Londoners showed off new fashions and new relationships, traded gossip and
rumor, and plotted with/against each other. The "salon" or private room in
a house devoted to social engagements offered women a chance to rule a social
space that could compete against the male domains of the chocolate and coffee
houses. A rural visitor, like Sir Wilful Witwoud, might find these three
domains as strange as an alien planet, but to insiders they are "the World" of
Congreve's title. Think about the way that centralizes all importance
within a few square miles of the imperial capital, and what it does to the rest
of the planet, especially England's colonial possessions. Keep in mind
that, while Congreve's characters are pursuing their intrigues, the Triangular
Trade continues to supply slaves to the American colonies, who trade tobacco and
sugar cane for manufactured goods and imports, like tea, from the rest of
England's colonial possessions. That trade is what underpins the lavish
spending and the personal fortunes which the play's characters fight to control.
8. If you want to write your final
paper on Congreve's play, you need to consult your "insight detector" for scenes
or lines of dialogue that seem to you excellent or puzzling or infuriating, etc.
In any case, calm down and reread the passage or lines with a detective's eye,
looking for what you have not yet noticed, the non-obvious pattern in the
textual data that will give you something to say about the play. If your
"insight detector" is not functioning very well for Congreve, but you still want
to write about the play, I can offer you
a page of my favorite passages from
Acts I and II, with some reasons why they appealed to me as possible paper
topics. Click here for some similarly
thematic passages in Acts III, IV, and V.