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MonkeyNotes-The Way of the World by William Congreve
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The Way of the World represents the pinnacle of Congreve’s
achievement even though it was not successful on the stage
when it was first performed in 1700, largely due to the play’s
complexity. Although the play has only one main plot and
covers a single day, it is crowded with numerous events and
intrigues. The plot of The Way of the World seems to follow a
logic of its own. Before the action of the play unfolds, certain
events are understood to have previously taken place. Mirabell,
a typical Restoration beau, is devising a secret scheme to win
Millamant’s hand in marriage, gaining her fortune as well. Lady
Wishfort is opposed to this match because her vanity has been
offended by Mirabell, who earlier pretended to court her
although he was really in love with Millamant, her ward. Mrs.
Marwood, Fainall’s mistress, has revealed Mirabell’s deception
to Lady Wishfort out of jealousy, since she herself loves
Mirabell. The problem arises from the fact that half of
Millamant’s fortune of six thousand pounds is under Lady
Wishfort’s control and will be given to her only if she marries
the suitor chosen by her.

Act I opens at a fashionable chocolate-house where Fainall has
just beaten Mirabell in a game of cards. A footman arrives with
the news that Mirabell’s valet, Waitwell, has married Foible,
Lady Wishfort’s maid. This marriage is directly connected to
Mirabell’s secret scheme of winning Millamant, the details of
which are not revealed in this act. Through the conversation
between Witwoud and Petulant, the audience learns that Sir
Wilfull Witwoud (Witwoud’s half-brother and Lady Wishfort’s
nephew) is coming to town, presumably to court Millamant.
There is also a rumor that Mirabell’s uncle is coming to woo
Millamant. Witwoud and Petulant are also Millamant’s suitors,
but only because it is fashionable to court the prettiest woman in
town. The act draws to a close as Mirabell proposes a walk in
the Park where the ladies are waiting for them.

Act II shifts to the typical Restoration setting of a public park.
The opening conversation between Mrs. Fainall and Mrs.
Marwood, regarding their aversion to men, reveals that Mrs.
Fainall detests her own husband. Mrs. Fainall realizes that
although Mrs. Marwood claims to hate Mirabell, she is still in
love with him. The arrival of Fainall and Mirabell abruptly ends
their conversation. Mrs. Fainall goes off for a walk with
Mirabell. This leaves Fainall alone with Mrs. Marwood, his
mistress. Fainall accuses Mrs. Marwood of loving Mirabell and
reproaches her for revealing Mirabell’s pretense of love to Lady
Wishfort. If Mirabell had married Millamant, he (Fainall) would
have acquired half of Millamant’s fortune. (The half that
Millamant would have forfeited for disobeying her aunt would
have gone to her cousin, Mrs. Fainall.) However, Fainall is soon
reconciled with Mrs. Marwood and claims that he married his
wife only because of her money. He tells Mrs. Marwood that he
will marry her after getting rid of his wife and securing her

In the meantime, the audience learns that Mrs. Fainall was
Mirabell’s former mistress. Mirabell had arranged her marriage
to Fainall to provide a cover for their affair in case it resulted in
a child. It is evident that Mrs. Fainall still loves Mirabell
although their affair has ended. Mirabell takes Mrs. Fainall into
his confidence by telling her his secret plot to win Millamant.
He reveals that he has arranged a marriage between his valet,
Waitwell, and Lady Wishfort’s maid, Foible. Waitwell is to
pose as Mirabell’s uncle, Sir Rowland, and lure Lady Wishfort
into a sham marriage. When Lady Wishfort marries Sir
Rowland, Mirabell will reveal Waitwell’s true identity and offer
Lady Wishfort a means of escape from a degrading alliance; he
will provide Waitwell’s certificate of marriage if Lady Wishfort
consents to his union with Millamant. Millamant knows about
Mirabell’s plans and seems prepared to go along with
everything. Waitwell and Foible update Mirabell on the
progress of the plan. Mrs. Marwood, who is passing by in a
mask, notices Foible with Mirabell. Foible foresees the trouble
that Mrs. Marwood could cause with Lady Wishfort and hurries
away. Waitwell displays considerable eagerness to perform the
role of Sir Rowland.

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MonkeyNotes-The Way of the World by William Congreve

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