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Congreve’s dedication is distinguished from the usual ones
because it also constitutes a statement of purpose. Congreve
outlines his aims as a writer and expresses his dissatisfaction
with contemporary comedies while acknowledging his debt to
the patronage of Ralph, the Earl of Montague. The dedication
contains lavish praise of the earl, which was customary in the
Restoration Age. Therefore, Congreve compares the society of
the earl to that of Scipio and Lelius in classical times.
Congreve’s criticism of the contemporary dramatic scene is
relevant to The Way of the World. He blames certain
misinterpretations of his work on the poor taste of the audience,
accustomed to ridiculing characters who are fools. Congreve
states that in his view such characters are limited; they are
incapable of moving the audience to compassion and can only
provoke coarse laughter. Congreve distinguishes his characters
from those depicted in contemporary comedies. The main point
of difference lies in the fact that his characters invite ridicule not
for their natural follies, but for the exposure of their affectation.
Unfortunately, he feels that not many viewers possess the ability
to distinguish correctly between these different types. This
distinction forms the basis of the characterization in the play.
While Mirabell is a Truewit, Fainall, Witwoud and Petulant are
the False Wits. But not all the characters in The Way of the
World are examples of affectation. Some, like Lady Wishfort
and Sir Wilfull Witwoud, are Jonsonian "humors" (characters
with one distinctive feature or quality which motivates them).
Congreve also depicts the conventional fops and country
bumpkins, frequent objects of ridicule in Restoration comedies.
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