The Way of the World Summary

William Congreve

The Way of the World

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The Way of the World Summary

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The Way of the World by English playwright William Congreve premiered in London  in 1700. Considered one of the best Restoration comedies, it is still performed occasionally today but was controversial in its time due to its bawdy themes and sexual explicitness, which had fallen out of favor in its time. Focused on the adventures of a pair of lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, the story follows their plan to marry and the many steps they must take to obtain the approval of Millamant’s bitter aunt, Lady Wishfort. At the same time, supporting characters, including friends, servants, and others, are engaging in their own schemes and affairs. Like many Restoration comedies, the play serves as a satire on the culture of its time. Its themes include criticism of high society and the niceties of courtship, as well as the nature of love and the role of money in marriage. In many ways, The Way of the World is about the clash of the old with the new. Despite its sexually explicit themes, it is considered a more nuanced play than many others in the genre.

A five-act play, act one begins as as Mirabell and his friend, Fainall, have just finished playing cards. A footman arrives and tells Mirabell that his servant, Waitwell, and Lady Wishfort’s maid, Foible, have just been married. Mirabell tells Fainall how much he loves Millamant, and Fainall encourages him to marry her. However, Mirabell learns that if Lady Wishfort marries, he’ll lose a large chunk of Millamant’s inheritance. The only way to get this money is if he manages to convince Lady Wishfort to consent to their union.

Act two begins in St. James’ Park, as Fainall’s wife, known only as Mrs. Fainall, and her friend Mrs. Marwood are talking about their hatred of men. Fainall arrives and accuses Mrs. Marwood (with whom he is secretly having an affair) of being in love with Mirabell (which is true). Meanwhile, Mrs. Fainall, who is Mirabell’s secret lover, tells Mirabell that she hates her husband. She plots with him to trick Lady Wishfort into giving her blessing to the wedding. Millamant soon arrives, angry about an altercation between Mirabell and her aunt the previous night, and tells Mirabell she disapproves of his plan. As she leaves, Waitwell and Foible arrive, and Mirabell conspires with them about his plan to trick Lady Wishfort.

The scene shifts in acts three, four, and five to the home of Lady Wishfort. Wishfort is a lonely woman, and Foible encourages her to marry Sir Rowland, who is supposedly Mirabell’s uncle, so Mirabell will lose his inheritance. However, Sir Rowland is actually Waitwell in disguise. The plan is to trick Lady Wishfort into a marriage that is illegal due to bigotry laws. She will become a social disgrace for marrying a servant. Mirabell will then offer to help her out of the marriage in exchange for her consent to his marriage. Mrs. Fainall and Foible discuss this plan; Mrs. Marwood overhears them and decides to tell the plan to Fainall, who plots to steal his wife’s money and run away with Mrs. Marwood.

Mirabell and Millamant, both strong-willed and determined, discuss the terms of their marriage and what they expect, showing the depth of their love for each other. Mirabell proposes to Millamant, and with Mrs. Fainall’s encouragement, she accepts. Mirabell leaves just as Lady Wishfort arrives. Lady Wishfort tells Millamant she wants her to marry her nephew, Sir Willful Witwoud, who is visiting from the country. Lady Wishfort receives a letter telling her of the Sir Rowland plot. Sir Rowland steals the letter and accuses Mirabell of trying to sabotage the wedding; Lady Wishfort agrees to sign a marriage contract with Sir Rowland that night.

In act five, Lady Wishfort has discovered the plot, and Fainall has had Waitwell arrested. Mrs. Fainall tells Foible that all now know of her affair with Mirabell. Lady Wishfort appears with Mrs. Marwood, who is in her good graces for exposing the plot. Fainall appears and uses the knowledge of Mrs. Fainall’s affair and the contract to blackmail Lady Wishfort into transferring her money to him. Lady Wishfort offers Mirabell her consent to the wedding if he can save her fortune and honor. Mirabell calls on Waitwell, who produces a contract in which Mrs. Fainall transfers her property to Mirabell. This cancels out the blackmail attempts, and Mirabell tears up the contract as soon as it’s done. Having neutralized Fainall’s blackmail attempt, Mirabell receives the blessing of Lady Wishfort and is free to marry Millamant with the full inheritance.

William Congreve was an English playwright and poet of the Restoration period. Considered a great influence on the comedy of manners genre, he wrote five plays in his life: The Old Bachelor, The Double Dealer, Love for Love, and The Way of the World, all comedies, as well as the tragedy The Mourning Bride. All deal with similar themes of secrets, marriages, and inheritances. He was politically active, serving as an ambassador to Jamaica under King George I. He was an accomplished poet, and also translated the works of classic poets Homer, Juvenal, Ovid, and Horace. His work is still taught and studied in drama courses in the English-speaking world.