The Way of the World
By William Congreve (1670-1729)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Comedy of Manners
Plot Background
Plot Summary
Figures of Speech
Magnificent Failure?
Glossary of Terms, Allusions
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Congreve
Complete Free Text
Index of Study Guides
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and First Performance

.......The Way of the World is a stage play in the form of a comedy of manners, which satirizes the attitudes, affectations, and foibles of the privileged classes. Witty dialogue and romantic intrigue are among the characteristics of this genre. William Congreve was among the pioneers of the comedy of manners in England. His Majesty's Servants, an acting company, staged the play in 1700 in a theater at Lincoln's Inn Fields, a public square in London. 

Comedy of Manners: Characteristics

.......Among the elements of a comedy of manners are the following:

  • Scenes in gathering places for the upper classes (such as fine homes and exclusive clubs).
  • Stock characters such as fops, country bumpkins, elegant young ladies, and older persons attempting to recapture their youth.
  • Romantic intrigue.
  • Gossip. 
  • Schemers hatching plots against their enemies.
  • Eavesdropping. (A character in a closet, behind a curtain, or in another room overhears information that could embarrass or incriminate someone.)
  • Scandal or the threat of scandal.
  • Witty conversations. But the wit is often contrived and artificial.

.......The action takes place in Greater London, circa 1700. The scenes are set in a chocolate house, in St. James's Park, and in the home of one of the main characters, Lady Wishfort. 
.......St. James's Park, consisting of ninety acres that include elaborate landscaping, is in the Westminster borough of London.
.......Chocolate houses, popular in London after 1650, attracted elite young males and usually permitted gambling. One of the most famous of London's chocolate houses was White's.


Edward Mirabell: Young Londoner and reformed womanizer. Mirabell, the protagonist, is in love with an attractive, intelligent, and witty young woman.
Miss Millamant: Mirabell's beloved. She is to receive an inheritance of £12,000 (more than $1 million in today's money). She lives in the home of her aunt, Lady Wishfort.
Lady Wishfort: Guardian and aunt of Miss Millamant. Wishfort, a wealthy widow, controls half of Millamant's inheritance£6.000. If Millamant does not marry the man of Wishfort's choice, Wishfort can withhold from her the £6,000. 
Mr. Fainall: Double-dealing husband of Lady Wishfort's daughter. Fainall attempts to extort money from Lady Wishfort and others.
Mrs. Arabella Fainall: Wife of Fainall and daughter of Lady Wishfort. She once had an affair with Mirabell. Mrs. Fainallwhose first husband, Mr. Languish, died despises her scheming second husband.
Miss Marwood: Mistress of Fainall. She loves Mirabell but turns against him and supports Fainall in his extortion scheme.
Waitwell: Servant of Mirabell. He marries Lady Wishfort's servant, Foible. 
Sir Rowland: Waitwell in disguise. As Sir Rowland, Waitwell woos Lady Wishfort as part of a scheme to dupe her.
Foible: Maid of Lady Wishfort. She marries Waitwell.
Anthony Witwoud and Petulant: Suitors of Miss Millamant. They have no chance to win her, since it is Mirabell whom she loves.
Sir Wilfull Witwoud: Anthony Witwood's bumbling half-brother from the country. Lady Wishfort attempts to match him with Miss Millamant. 
Mincing: Servant of Miss Millamant. 
Betty: Waitress at the chocolate house.
Messenger: Bearer of a letter from Sir Wilfull Witwoud to his half-brother.
Coachman: Man who summons Petulant to leave the chocolate house with three women in a coach.
Peg: Servant of Lady Wishfort.
Mrs. Primly: Acquaintance of Miss Millamant. She is a woman with a big belly. Mrs. Primly has no onstage role in the play.
Lady Strammel: Acquaintance of Miss Millamant. She has no onstage role in the play.
Mrs. Qualmsack: Curate's wife, whom Lady Wishfort says is "always breeding." Mrs. Qualmsack has no onstage role.
Curate: Husband of Mrs. Qualmsack. He has no onstage role.


.......The author maintains a playful and good-natured tone while lampooning the defective characters that populate his play. However, the author doubles his gunpowder when targeting the villainous Fainall, who resorts to blatant extortion to enrich his coffers.


.......The two Latin quotations preceding the play are from the first book of the Satires of Horace (65-8 BC)

First Epigraph

Audire est operae pretium, procedere recte
Qui maechis non vultis. (second satire, lines 37-38)

You who seek retribution against adulterers will be happy to learn that they are impeded on all sides.

Second Epigraph

Metuat doti deprensa (second satire, line 131)

[She is] afraid for the dowry.

Plot Background

.......The plot of The Way of the World is complex and intricate. The following background on the characters and their activities may help the reader better understand the play.

.......A young man named Mirabell once wooed Lady Wishfort, 55, in order to be close to her niece and ward, Miss Millamant. He and Miss Millamant are in love. Miss Millamant stands to receive an inheritance of £12,000, half of which Lady Wishfort controls. 
.......Wishfort welcomed Mirabell's attentions until an acquaintance of hers, Miss Marwood, informed her that Mirabell was only pretending to love her so that he could be near Millamant. The news enraged Lady Wishfort. She then declared that she would never approve a Mirabell-Millamant union. If Millamant defied her wishes and married Mirabell anyway, Lady Wishfort would withhold the £6,000 she controls. 
.......Before falling in love with Miss Millamant, Mirabell had a mistress—Lady Wishfort's daughter—who became concerned one day that she might be pregnant. To protect her from scandal, Mirabell arranged for her to marry a man named Fainall. Although she did not love him, she married him. After becoming Mrs. Fainall, she continued to see Mirabell until he fell in love with Miss Millamant. 
.......Meanwhile, tattletale Marwood became the mistress of Mr. Fainall. Fainall has designs on the portion of the Millamant inheritance that Lady Wishfort controls (£6,000). He also seeks to claim his wife's fortune and become the sole heir of Lady Wishfort. His plan is to threaten to reveal that his wife was once Mirabell's mistress. Such a revelation would not only open his wife to scandal but also Lady Wishfort, since she is the mother of Mrs.Fainall. Fainall believes Wishfort will give him what he wants as the price of his silence. 
.......Back to Mirabell. To win Millamant and preserve her entire fortune, he sets in motion a scheme that would force Lady Wishfort to approve of his marriage to Millamant.

Plot Summary

.......At a chocolate house in London, Mirabell loses at cards to Fainall. When they rise from the table, Fainall guesses that Mirabell lost because he was preoccupied with his visit the previous evening with Miss Millamant, Fainall's cousin. She and Mirabell are in love. 
.......“What, some coxcomb came in,” Fainfall says, “and was well received by her, while you were by?” (1.1).
.......Mirabell says Witwoud and Petulant both showed up. They seek the attentions of the beautiful Miss Millamant, although she has exhibited no interest in them. But even worse, Lady Wishfort came in. (She is Miss Millamant's aunt and the the mother of Fainfall's wife.) The fifty-five-year-old Lady Wishfort despises Mirabell because he once pretended to love her so that he could gain access to Millamant, who lives in Wishfort's home. Now Wishfort has erected herself as a barrier against a Mirabell-Mallamont marriage. What is more, since she controls half of Millamant's £12,000 inheritance, she will refuse to release £6,000 if Mirabell marries Millamant. Wishfort herself is promoting a marriage between Millamant and Sir Wilfull Witwoud, a country bumpkin. 
.......With Lady Wishfort were Miss Marwood and Fainfall's wife, as well as several others. Mirabell knew they all resented his presence. For that reason, he was determined to remain. After a long silence, Wishfort delivered a tirade against long visits, and Miss Millamant supported her. At that point, Mirabell said it was easy to know when one has overstayed his welcome—causing  Millamant to blush—and left.
.......Fainfall then tells Mirabell that he understands why Lady Wishfort and the others wanted Mirabell to leave: They all gather three times a week in a closed meeting to discuss about “murdered reputations” (1.1). The members of the group—founded by Lady Wishfort, who now hates men—take turns hosting the meeting. Mirabell acknowledges that he may have gone too far in his false relationship with Lady Wishfort, telling her that “the malicious town took notice that she was grown fat of a sudden; and when she lay in of a dropsy, persuaded her she was reported to be in labour” (1.1). However, in his wooing scheme, he says, he never went so far as to “debauch her” (1.1),
.......The one who revealed his scheme to Lady Wishfort was Miss Marwood.
.......A footman arrives at the chocolate house to inform Mirabell that his valet, Waitwell, has “married and bedded” (1.2) Miss Foible, Lady Wishfort's maid. Waitwell's marriage is part of a scheme that Mirabell is executing to win the hand of Miss Millamant. 
.......In another room in the chocolate house, Squire Witwoud receives a message that his half-brother, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, will soon arrive in town to woo Millamant with Lady Wishfort's approval. Witwoud and Petulant also hope to win the favor of Millamant, primarily because it exalts their reputation to be seen with a beautiful woman. 

.......In St. James's Park, Miss Marwood and Mrs. Fainall discuss the ever-changing ways of men. Both avow that they hate them. Miss Marwood says she despises them so much that she would consider marrying a man just to make his life miserable. One way she would bedevil a man is to make him think she has been unfaithful.
.......“Would thou wert married to Mirabell,” Mrs. Fainall says.
.......“Would I were” (2.1) Miss Marwood says. 
.......When Mrs. Fainfall asks why Marwood despises Mirabell, Miss Marwood says he is “insufferably proud” (2.1). Mrs. Fainfall says the reason she has given suggests that she is not telling the truth. Even Mirabell's enemies would agree that he is not proud, she says.
.......Mirabell and Fainfall happen onto the scene. Mrs. Fainall and Mirabell go for a walk after she asks him to tell her about what happened after her mother (Lady Wishfort) interrupted his visit with Miss Millamant. 
.......Miss Marwood suggests that she and Fainall follow his wife and Mirabell, hinting that his wife loves Mirabell. But Fainall tells Miss Marwood that she and his wife both love Mirabell. The audience then learns that Fainall and Miss Marwood have been having an affair: 
.......“'Twas for my ease to oversee and willfully neglect the gross advances made him [Mirabell] by my wife, that by permitting her to be engaged, I might continue unsuspected in my pleasures, and take you oftener to my arms in full security,” Fainall says (2.3).
.......By desiring Mirabell, Fainall says, Miss Marwood has been an unfaithful mistress. Miss Marwood denies that she loves Mirabell and challenges Fainall to prove otherwise. As evidence, Fainall cites her disclosure to Lady Wishfort that Mirabell was only pretending to love her. This disclosure, he says, was designed to motivate Lady Wishfort to oppose a marriage between Mirabell and Millamant, providing an opening for Miss Marwood to step in and take her place. Miss Marwood, however, maintains that she made the disclosure out of friendship for Lady Wishfort. 
.......During their conversation, Fainall says he married his wife only for her money so that he could spend it on Mrs. Marwood..But Mrs. Marwood remains angry and tells Fainall that she hates him. Fainall then apologizes to her and says, “Pray forbear—I believe you; I'm convinced I've done you wrong; and any way, every way will make amends . . . I'll part with her, rob her of all she's worth, and we'll retire somewhere, anywhere, to another world” (2.3).
.......Meanwhile, the conversation between Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall reveals that he arranged for her to marry Fainall after she thought she might be pregnant. Mirabell tells her that he also arranged the marriage between his servant, Waitwell, and Lady Wishfort's maid, Foible. 
.......This marriage is part of an elaborate scheme. Waitwell is to woo Lady Wishfort in disguise, identifying himself as Mirabell's uncle and calling himself Sir Rowland. If she agrees to marry him and signs a marriage contract (as expected), Mirabell will seek to marry Millamant. Then, when Lady Wishfort objects, he can reveal that Rowland is an impostor and declare the marriage contract between her and Rowland invalid. She would not want to endure the scandal that would ensue if the public learned that she sought to marry a man who was already married. In exchange for Mirabell's silence on the matter, she would be required to approve of Mirabell's marriage to Millamant. 
.......Miss Millamant appears with Witwoud and her attendant, Mincing. Millamant is about to apologize to Mirabell for the interruption of their visit the previous evening by Lady Wishfort and her group. But instead she says she is glad that “I gave you some pain” (2.5). Mirabell says it is not in her nature to be cruel but instead to please.
.......“One's cruelty is one's power,” she says, “and when one parts with one's cruelty one parts with one's power, and when one has parted with that, I fancy one's old and ugly” (2.5). 
.......Waitwell and Foible meet with Mirabell to update him on the execution of Mirabell's plan. First, Waitwell informed Lady Wishfort that he will be seeing Sir Rowland, then told her that he will show him a picture of Wishfort. Next, he will tell Wishfort that Rowland was captivated by her beauty and “burns with impatience to lie at her ladyship's feet and worship the original.” If all goes well, Wishfort will be only too happy to receive the attentions of Sir Rowland.
.......By and by, Mrs. Marwood overhears Mrs. Fainall and Foible discussing Mirabell's plot against Lady Wishfort. Mrs. Fainall says, 

I am privy to the whole design, and know that Waitwell, to whom thou wert this morning married, is to personate Mirabell's uncle, and, as such winning my lady, to involve her in those difficulties from which Mirabell only must release her, by his making his conditions to have my cousin and her fortune left to her own disposal. (3.4)
.......Foible comments on what a sweet man Mirabell is and says that Mrs. Fainall remains dear to him. Foible then says the plot is working well. “My Lady is so incensed [at Mirabell] that she'll be contracted to Sir Rowland to-night . . . I warrant I worked her up that he may have her for the asking. . .” (3.6).
.......Foible asks Mrs. Fainall to acquaint Mirabell with her success. She would do it herself, she says, but she fears that she is being observed by Mrs. Marwood, adding that “Mr. Mirabell can't abide her [Marwood]” (3.6). After they exit, Marwood realizes the great power she now wields with the information she possesses and calls herself “a very master-key to everybody's strong box” (3.7).
.......Sir Wilfull Witwoud arrives from the country to court Millamant. He is a shy bumpkin, gets drunk, and has no success at all with the sophisticated Millamant. But his drunkenness makes him an irritating presence in the household. 
.......Mrs. Marwood tattles to Fainall that his wife has been cheating on him with Mirabell. She also tells him about Mirabell's scheme against Lady Wishfort to win the hand of Millamant. The two of them then begin plotting to thwart Mirabell's plans and extort money from Millamant, Wishfort, and his wife.
.......After Mirabell and Millamant agree to conditions for their marriage, Millamant accepts Mirabell's proposal. Meanwhile, Lady Wishfort receives an unsigned letter (written by Mrs. Marwood) saying that Sir Rowland is really Mirabell's servant, Waitwell. But Rowland (Waitwell) persuades her that Mirabell sent her the letter to forestall her marriage to Rowland. Wishfort then goes ahead with plans to marry Rowland. The latter says he will bring her a marriage contract to sign, as well as documents proving his identity. 
.......Later, when she is alone with Mrs. Fainall, Millamant says, “Well, if Mirabell should not make a good husband, I am a lost thing: for I find I love him violently” (4.7).
.......Mr. Fainall, with the support of Marwood, then threatens to reveal publicly that his wife once had an affair with Mirabell. Such a revelation would not only embarrass Mrs. Fainall but also her mother, Lady Wishfort. Fainall says he will remain silent only if Wishfort gives him Millamant's £6,000 and the rest of Mrs. Fainall's inheritance. In addition, Wishfort is to make Fainall the heir to her fortune. 
.......But Millamant now says she will marry Sir Wilfull. In so doing, she would meet Wishfort's condition that she marry a man of her guardian aunt's choice. Therefore, she would be legally entitled to the £6,000. Of course, Fainall still has the option of claiming his wife's inheritance and extorting Wishfort's money. However, Mirabell now reveals that before Mrs. Fainall married her husband she signed a parchment ceding control over all of her money to Mirabell. Witwoud and Petulant were witnesses to the signing. Mirabell produces the document, which says: "A DEED OF CONVEYANCE OF THE WHOLE ESTATE REAL OF ARABELLA LANGUISH, WIDOW,
.......Mirabell says, “'tis the way of the world, sir; of the widows of the world” (5.13).
.......Fainall and Marwood walk off defeated. 
.......Wishfort forgives Waitwell (Sir Rowland) and Foible and approves Mirabell's marriage to Millamant. Mirabell gives the deed of conveyance to Mrs. Fainall. 

Life Beneath the Veneer

.......Beneath the surface of proper English society are layers of deceit, greed, vanity, pretension, silliness, desire for revenge, and indecorous romance. Congreve's sharp wit pierces this surface to reveal society as it is, with all its faults, foibles, follies, and bitter rivalries. He shows the reader “the way of the world.”

Love and Its Pitfalls

......."The course of true love never did run smooth," Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1.1.134). In The Way of the World, the road of true love is indeed bumpy—and full of twists and turns. But in the end, when Mirabell and Millamant pledge their love for each other, true love triumphs. 


.......Mirabell and Millamant compromise on conditions of their marriage, with the astute and resourceful Millamant first establishing her conditions. She tells Mirabell:

I hate a lover that can dare to think he draws a moment's air independent on the bounty of his mistress. There is not so impudent a thing in nature as the saucy look of an assured man confident of success: the pedantic arrogance of a very husband has not so pragmatical an air. Ah, I'll never marry, unless I am first made sure of my will and pleasure. (4.5)
Millamant demands
liberty to pay and receive visits to and from whom I please; to write and receive letters, without interrogatories or wry faces on your part; to wear what I please, and choose conversation with regard only to my own taste; to have no obligation upon me to converse with wits that I don't like, because they are your acquaintance, or to be intimate with fools, because they may be your relations. Come to dinner when I please, dine in my dressing-room when I'm out of humour, without giving a reason. To have my closet inviolate; to be sole empress of my tea-table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave. And lastly, wherever I am, you shall always knock at the door before you come in. These articles subscribed, if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife. (4.5)
Mirabell demands
that you admit no sworn confidant or intimate of your own sex; no she friend to screen her affairs under your countenance, and tempt you to make trial of a mutual secrecy. No decoy-duck to wheedle you a FOP-SCRAMBLING to the play in a mask, then bring you home in a pretended fright, when you think you shall be found out, and rail at me for missing the play, and disappointing the frolic which you had to pick me up and prove my constancy . . . that you continue to like your own face as long as I shall, and while it passes current with me, that you endeavour not to new coin it. 4.5)
Mirabell forbids "all masks for the night, made of oiled skins and I know not whathog's bones, hare's gall, pig water, and the marrow of a roasted cat." He also tells Millamant to 
restrain yourself to native and simple tea-table drinks, as tea, chocolate, and coffee. As likewise to genuine and authorised tea-table talk, such as mending of fashions, spoiling reputations, railing at absent friends, and so forth.  But that on no account you encroach upon the men's prerogative, and presume to drink healths, or toast fellows; for prevention of which, I banish all foreign forces, all auxiliaries to the tea-table, as orange-brandy, all aniseed, cinnamon, citron, and Barbadoes waters, together with ratafia and the most noble spirit of clary. But for cowslip-wine, poppy-water, and all dormitives, those I allow. These provisos admitted, in other things I may prove a tractable and complying husband. (4.5)

.......The love of money is the root of all evil, as the Bible points out (1 Timothy 6:10). Fainall proves the truth of this biblical adage with his lust to enrich himself at the expense of Miss Millamant, Lady Wishfort, and his own wife.

Other Themes

.......The section under Satire focuses on other themes in the play.


.......Among the targets of Congreve's satire in The Way of the World are the following:

Promiscuity and Infidelity

.......Mirabell once had an affair with Mrs. Fainall, who despises her husband. Fainall is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood. 

Deceit and Sneaky Schemes

.......Mirabell once pretended to love Lady Wishfort in order to gain access to Miss Millamant. He also arranged the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Fainall after the latter appeared to be pregnant. In addition, he designed an elaborate scheme in which Waitwell married Foible, then courted Lady Wishfort in disguise as Sir Rowland. 

.......Fainall and Marwood scheme to extort money from Lady Wishfort, Miss Millamant, and Fainall's wife. 


.......Just before Sir Rowland (Waitwell in disguise) is to meet and begin wooing Lady Wishfort in the first scene of Act 4, she says the following in the presence of Foible: 

Well, and how shall I receive him?  In what figure shall I give his heart the first impression? There is a great deal in the first impression. Shall I sit? No, I won't sit, I'll walk,ay, I'll walk from the door upon his entrance, and then turn full upon him. No, that will be too sudden. I'll lie,ay, I'll lie down. I'll receive him in my little dressing-room; there's a couchyes, yes, I'll give the first impression on a couch. I won't lie neither, but loll and lean upon one elbow, with one foot a little dangling off, jogging in a thoughtful way. Yes; and then as soon as he appears, start, ay, start and be surprised, and rise to meet him in a pretty disorder.  Yes; oh, nothing is more alluring than a levee from a couch in some confusion. It shows the foot to advantage, and furnishes with blushes and re-composing airs beyond comparison.  (4.1)

.......Several characters pretend to be models of virtue while secretly taking part in schemes to undo other characters.

Affectation in Conversation

.......Congreve pokes fun at the tendency of some of the upper classes to attempt to be witty through contrived and unnatural speech, often laden with allusions, figures of speech, and big words, as in the following exchange between Witwoud and Petulant. 

WIT.  Thou hast uttered volumes, folios, in less than decimo sexto, my dear Lacedemonian. Sirrah, Petulant, thou art an epitomiser of words.
PET.  Witwoud,you are an annihilator of sense.
WIT.  Thou art a retailer of phrases, and dost deal in remnants of remnants, like a maker of pincushions; thou art in truth (metaphorically speaking) a speaker of shorthand.
PET.  Thou art (without a figure) just one half of an ass, and Baldwin yonder, thy half-brother, is the rest.  A Gemini of asses split would make just four of you.
WIT.  Thou dost bite, my dear mustard-seed; kiss me for that.
PET.  Stand offI'll kiss no more malesI have kissed your Twin yonder in a humour of reconciliation till he [hiccup] rises upon my stomach like a radish. (4.9)
Preoccupation With Money

.......The motivations of the characters in The Way of the World hinge in large part on money. In the following passage, Mincing and Mrs. Fainall discuss one of the intrigues involving Miss Millamant's inheritance. 

MINC.  My lady would speak with Mrs. Foible, mem.  Mr. Mirabell is with her; he has set your spouse at liberty, Mrs. Foible, and would have you hide yourself in my lady's closet till my old lady's anger is abated.  Oh, my old lady is in a perilous passion at something Mr. Fainall has said; he swears, and my old lady cries.  There's a fearful hurricane, I vow.  He says, mem, how that he'll have my lady's fortune made over to him, or he'll be divorced.
MRS. FAIN.  Does your lady or Mirabell know that?
MINC.  Yes mem; they have sent me to see if Sir Wilfull be sober, and to bring him to them.  My lady is resolved to have him, I think, rather than lose such a vast sum as six thousand pound. Oh, come, Mrs. Foible, I hear my old lady. (5.3)
Idleness of the Upper Classes

.......Members of the English upper class in 1700 (the year when the play debuted) inherited established family names and estates, which sometimes included large fortunes. Men generally would manage their property or sometimes serve in the military. Women were to marry into other established familiesand more money. Servants and nannies took care of the household and children. Thus, by and large, the upper classes had considerable time at their disposal. Many of them spent this time gossiping, going to parties and balls, shopping for the latest fashions, and taking part in one-upmanship against their acquaintances. Mirabell comments on the indolence of the people who visit Millamant.

You had the leisure to entertain a herd of fools: things who visit you from their excessive idleness, bestowing on your easiness that time which is the incumbrance of their lives. How can you find delight in such society?  It is impossible they should admire you; they are not capable; or, if they were, it should be to you as a mortification:  for, sure, to please a fool is some degree of folly. (2.6)


.......The climax occurs when Mirabell, with the support of Mrs. Fainall, thwarts the villainous Fainall's scheme to extort assets belonging to Millamant, Lady Wishfort, and his own wife, Mrs. Fainall. This action not only saves everyone's money, but it also earns Mirabell Lady Wishfort's approval to marry Millamant.


.......The main conflict pits Mirabell against Lady Wishfort, who opposes Mirabell's marriage to Miss Millamant. Other important conflicts exist between Fainall and  Mirabell, between Fainall and the three women with money, between Marwood and Mirabell, and between Marwood and Millamant. Following is an example of the venomous dialogue that Millamant and Marwood exchange. 

MILLA.  The town has found it? What has it found? That Mirabell loves me is no more a secret than it is a secret that you discovered it to my aunt, or than the reason why you discovered it is a secret.
MRS. MAR.  You are nettled.
MILLA.  You're mistaken. Ridiculous!
MRS. MAR.  Indeed, my dear, you'll tear another fan, if you don't mitigate those violent airs. (3.11)
Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


Fainall accuses Miss Marwood of being unfaithful to him. Fainall himself is being unfaithful to his wife.

In the following passage, Miss Marwood says she would like to be married to Mirabell because she hates him.

.......MRS. FAIN.  Ingenious mischief!  Would thou wert married to Mirabell.
.......MRS. MAR.  Would I were.
.......MRS. FAIN.  You change colour.
.......MRS. MAR.  Because I hate him. (2.1)

Dramatic irony occurs frequently in relation to Lady Wishfort. She is unaware of what the audience well knowsthat she is a vain and self-serving and that she is the target of a scheme executed by Waitwell (disguised as Sir Rowland). 

Is there a worse disease than the conversation of fools? (2.6)
Comparison of conversation to a disease
[Lady Wishfort] hates Mirabell worse than a quaker hates a parrot. . . .(1.9)
Comparison of the intensity of Lady Wishfort hatred to that of a quaker for a parrot

[Lady Wishfort] loves cater-wauling better than a conventicle. (1.9)
Comparison of Lady Wishfort love for caterwauling to her love for a conventicle

If you would but appear barefaced now, and own Mirabell, you might as easily put off Petulant and Witwoud as your hood and scarf. (3.10)
Comparison of putting off Petulant and Witwoud to that of a hood and scarf 

A Magnificent Failure?

.......Critics generally agree that The Way of the World is an outstanding play, mainly because of its brilliant dialogue. But many these same critics find fault with the play because of its convoluted plot. Consider the following appraisal:

That it was a failure on the stage is not remarkable, for it is still a failure on the stage. That Millamant sails triumphantly into our hearts and that the dialogue is written with dazzling brilliance cannot hide the harsh facts that the story (if it can be called a story) is unintelligible and that the action (if there can be said to be any action) is feeble. But, failure though it is, The Way of the World touches a height that Congreve nowhere else attained. Some of it is comedy perfectly brilliant; some of it is near to tragedy almost poignant. It shows possibilities of dramatic excellence that Congreve, with his indolence, failed properly to exploitSampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. 3rd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970, page 352.
Allusions and Terms

Bartlemew and his Fair: Bartholomew Fair, held each summer in London. 
battledore: Flat wooden paddle used to hit a shuttlecock in a game similar to badminton.
beau monde: French for fashionable society. Beau monde literally means beautiful world. 
Borachio: Spanish (borachoe or borrach'o), drunkard. 
camlet: Fabric made of Angora wool or camel's hair.
canonical hour: In the Church of England, any hour between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. for the performance of a wedding ceremony; in Roman Catholicism, a time when certain prayers are said.
clary: Herb of the mint family.
Cleopatra (69-30 BC): Seductive and cunning Queen of Egypt in the Macedonian dynasty.
conventicle: Illegal assembly of Protestants who contested the authority of the Church of England.
coxcomb: Conceited fellow preoccupied with fashionable clothes.
Dame Partlet: A hen in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Mirabell uses this term in the second scene of Act 1 to refer to Foible.
decimo sexto: In printing, a book leaf measuring about 4½ by 6¾ inches. 
dormitives: Preparations that induce sleep.
drap de berri: Drap de Berry, woolen cloth made in Berry, France.
dropsy: Edema, a condition in which fluid accumulates in the body and causes swelling.
epitomiser (epitomizer): One who outlines, condenses, or summarizes.
Gemini: Two (twins). 
Gorgon: In Greek mythology, any of three sisters with snakes for hair. The gaze of a Gorgon could turn an observer into stone.
in vino veritas: Latin for in wine there is truth. (Alcohol consumption lowers inhibitions and often makes the drinker reveal the truth about himself or others.)
knight-errant: Medieval knight who wandered in search of adventure.
Lacedemonian: Spartan.
Mahometan: Follower of Islam; Muslim.
Maritornes: In Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha, a servant woman at an inn. She is short, ugly, and blind in one eye. 
Messalina: (AD 22-48): Third wife of the Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC-AD 64). 
Mufti: Interpreter of Islamic religious law.
Mussulman: Follower of Islam; Muslim.
Pancras: Saint Pancras, a section of London.
Penthesilea: In Greek mythology, queen of the Amazons, a race of warrior women living near the Black Sea. 
noli prosequi: nolle prosequi, Latin legal term meaning not willing to proceed with a prosecution.
rantipole: Wild, riotous, disorderly, reckless, rakish.
ratafia: A liqueur.
Roxolanas: Empresses. Roxolanaor Roxelana(1506-1558) was the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent ((1494-1566), a ruler of the Ottoman Empire. 
Saracen: Muslim who fought against Crusaders; desert nomads of Syria and Arabia in ancient times.
Suckling: Sir John Suckling (1609-1642), British poet. For an example, Suckling's poetry, click here.
sultana: Wife of a sultan.
sybil: In Greek mythology, a prophetess.
Thyrsis: Shepherd in Idyll I, a poem by the ancient Greek writer Theocritus (310?-250? BC)
trull: Prostitute.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Who is the most admirable character in the play? Who is the least admirable?
  • Is Miss Milliamant's money important to Mirabell?
  • Is the plot of The Way of the World too complicated? If you answer yes, explain how you would simplify it?
  • Was marrying strictly for love (rather than for money, social status, and power) commonplace in England in 1700?
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting Mirabell and Fainall.
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting Millamant and Mrs. Fainall.