The Way of the World (1700)

  Restoration comedy was often very witty and clever offering the theatergoer diverting and realistic pictures of the external details of the life, fashion, manners, and speech of the times. As a social comedy of manners, The Way of the World suggests how character determines "manners" and how impulse and desire issue in behavior.


Summary of The Way of the World

Witty, ironic Mirabell is in love with the coquette Millament. But to marry her he must first win over her lovesick old aunt, Lady Wishfort and the estate she holds for the girl. He pretends to make love to the old woman who is receptive to his advances. Things go well until Mrs. Marwood, rejected earlier by Mirabell, threatens to expose his scheme. The plot is revealed and Lady Wishfort says that Millamant may marry Mirabell, but only half of the estate will go with her. More strategems by Miravell, more revelations by Mrs. Marwood. Mirabell then reveals an earlier indiscretion by Mrs. Marwood. This elicits eternal gratitude from Lady Wishfort to Mirabell for saving her from the scandal of a divorce of her daughter. In the end she agrees to the marriage of Mirabell and Millamant.


Study Questions:

1.   The Way of the World is not only the title but also one of the major themes of the play. Point out passions and obsessions by which characters of the play are obsessed, especially notice how the eye for advantage is common to all of them.

2.   The play's social milieu is a world of worth. In addition to contributing to the sheer comedy of the play, wit is used as weapon of defense and attack, flirtation and deception. Find examples and explain them.

3.   The basis of all the rhetorical figures (similes, conceits, epigrams, antitheses) in Act II, Scene 1, is comparison: characters find apt correspondences between unlike things and develop metaphors. Find examples and show how the metaphor works within the context of this scene.

4.   Millimant and Mirabell differ from the other characters of the play whose end is sexual or economic advantage. These two are playing the social game for a more serious and nobler purpose. Find passages that support this statement. What is the aim of these two characters.

5.   To Millimant and Mirabell wittiness is means to develop a definition of true marriage. Find the passage(s); what is their concept of marriage?

6.   Millimant satirizes the marriages of convenience common in Restoration society. Find passages that support this statement and point out what she expects of a marriage partner. By criticizing feminine vices Mirabell indicates what he regards as feminine virtues; what are they?

7.   The names of Congreve's characters are symbolic, linking each character with a specific idea or quality. Find passages that show how Witwoud "would be witty," Lady Wishfort is "wishing for" favors from men, Fainall "feigns all," Mrs. Marwood "would mar" etc.


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