“The Way of the World”, written by William Congreve, was launched in 1700 in London. Although the play Is now regarded as one of the best comic plays of all times, during that time, it was considered to be too fast due to the explicit sexual tones used in the content. In addition to “The Way of the World”, William Congreve had written four other plays in his life, three other comedies and one tragedy. His plays revolve around the same themes of marriage, fortunes and conspiracies.
The story follows the tale of the couple, Mirabell and Millamant, as they conspire against their families to get them to agree to their marriage. One of the main obstacles standing in their way is Millamant’s aunt, Lady Wishfort. Apart from the main characters, there are many supporting ones and they play prominent parts in the play as they run their own charades for personal motives. The play constantly points out the hypocrisies of the society, especially regarding the ones involving marriage. “The Way of the World” shows how the matters of money used to taint the supposed purity of the union of two people by marriage at those times.
By the time the play has begun, major episodes have already occurred which are revealed bit by bit as the plot continues. Edward Mirabell has an affair with Arabella, a woman who had previously been married to a wealthy man named Languish who left her great wealth after his death. After they part ways, Mirabell convinces Arabella to marry another man as soon as possible as he is afraid that the recent affair may have led Arabella to become pregnant. He is not inclined to marrying her himself but chooses her second husband for her, a man called Fainall. Arabella marries Fainall but chooses to remain on cordial terms with her ex-lover.
Through Arabella, Mirabell meets her cousin, Millamant, who lives with her aunt, Lady Wishfort, who is also Arabella’s mother. In order to gain Millamant’s hand in marriage, Mirabell attempts to impress Lady Wishfort. Unfortunately, Lady Wishfort is too impressed with Mirabell and misunderstands his motives; she assumes that he is trying to court her, instead of Millamant. She falls in love with him but her delusion is broken when her friend, Mrs. Marwood, tells her the truth. Lady Wishfort is heartbroken upon learning that it is Millamant who is the object of Mirabell’s desire and refuses to let them marry. This is a problem since Millamant’s guardian Lady Wishfort holds the key to her entire fortune, a grand total of 6000 pounds.
At the beginning of the play, Mirabell is entering Wishfort’s house after she has found out about his affair with Millamant. She insults him in front of her guests as well as Millamant who helplessly watches Mirabell as he is asked to leave the premise. However, Mirabell is not disheartened and has already started working on a plan to convince Lady Wishfort to change her mind.
Arabella, who has now become Mrs. Fainall, is busy with her own affairs. She is, but, unaware that her husband is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood, the best friend of her mother. Foible and Mincing know about the secret relationship but have agreed to keep the secret between the two of them after being persuaded to do so by Mrs. Marwood. The only other person in the know is Mirabell, who intends to use the information for his own benefit.
The next morning is the first scene of the first act. Mirabell is enjoying a game of cards with Mr. Fainall. Mirabell lets Fainall know in a subtle manner that he is aware of his affair with Mrs. Marwood; in the same breath, he also reveals his affections for the lovely Millamant. Fainall understands the underlying suggestion and he wholeheartedly affirms his support to Mirabell’s cause, urging him to not let go of Millamant.
As the two men converse, Witwoud and Petulant enter the scene with news of their own. They reveal that Lady Wishfort has arranged Millamant’s marriage with a certain gentleman with the name of Sir Rowland, who is apparently the uncle of Mirabell. Wishfort intends to kill two birds with one stone: separate Mirabell from Millamant and cut him off from his bachelor uncle’s wealth.
In the beginning of the second act, there is a conversation between the two ladies, Mrs. Marwood and Mrs. Fainall. Arabella is of the opinion that women must be the ones to practice self-control since men cannot be trusted due to their deceitful nature. On the other hand, Mrs. Marwood believes that such self-control will only result in regret afterwards since it is always better to enjoy one’s youth by risking falling in love instead of wasting away years in fear of possible repercussions.
Mrs. Fainall is surprised to hear such a remark, as Mrs. Marwood is her mother’s best friend yet she does not share Lady Wishfort’s hatred of men. Mrs. Marwood admits to hiding her true self in order to keep her place in Lady Wishfort’s cabal but at the same time, she also tries to cajole Mrs. Fainall into revealing her true stance. Arabella refuses to budge from her point of view and even affirms that she hates all men - including her husband, Mr. Fainall. After hearing this strong statement, Mrs. Marwood changes her mind, her excuse being that she only meant to test Mrs. Fainall. She says that she too despises all men and that she wished that she could run experiments on a man by marrying him and then convincing him that she is cheating on him. This way, she could continually torture the man without ever facing the risk of getting caught.
We soon learn that there is no Sir Rowland and that this is a plan orchestrated by Mirabell to gain Millamant. Mrs. Fainall and Foible discuss the plan and unfortunately, Mrs. Marwood overhears the entire conversation. She shares her information with her lover Fainall and they both decide to destroy Mirabell, their blackmailer, and Lady Wishfort as well.
In the afternoon, Mirabell again visits Millamant at Lady Wishfort’s house where he proposes to her. Millamant rejects the man her aunt has chosen for her and readily agrees to marry Mirabell, the man she truly loves. Mrs. Marwood and Mr. Fainall arrive at the premises and activate their own plan. Sir Rowland is proven to be a fraud as he is actually Waitwell, Mirabell’s servant, in disguise as a gentleman. Waitwell is given away to the police for committing fraud, in front of Lady Wishfort.
After Waitwell’s arrest, Fainall proceeds to the second act of his conspiracy. He reveals the details of his wife’s affair with Mirabell and threatens to leave her in shame in front of the entire society unless Lady Wishfort transfers all her wealth in his name. His second demand is that his mother-in-law agrees to remain unmarried for the rest of her life or at least, until he changes his mind.
Wishfort and her family are at their wit’s end as they attempt to foil Fainall’s plan of throwing them in the streets. Mirabell arrives and claims to have a solution to the problem. The sole price for his assistance is Millamant’s hand in marriage, to which Lady Wishfort agrees.
At first, he brings Mincing and Foible in front of Lady Wishfort who reveal that Mrs. Marwood and Mr. Fainall are having an affair. Next, it is revealed that prior to the marriage, Mirabell and Arabella had decided to secure the wealth she had acquired from her first marriage in the event Fainall turns out to be deceitful. Arabella had transferred her wealth to Mirabell for safekeeping and had made him her trustee. Fainall had been kept unaware of this information and he has no idea that he has no control over his wife’s wealth.
After this information is revealed to the conspirators, Fainall’s blackmail falls apart as he has now lost both his wife and her fortune. Now that Arabella is free from Fainall’s terror, Mirabell tears down the papers, releasing himself from being the controller of her fortune. He advises her to use her fortune to control her powerless and revengeful husband. Lady Wishfort keeps her word and agrees to get Millamant and Mirabell married, with dowry included.
In the end, Lady Wishfort had to forfeit her grudge by letting Mirabel, the man she had fallen in love with and the one her daughter had indulged in an affair with as well, marry her niece. This is because she felt that her wealth and the status she held in the society were far more important elements than her hatred.
The epilogue is short and serves a moral for the audience. The playwright, William Congreve, urges us to not take the play too seriously or try to guess who the characters were based on. Instead of focusing on the people who may have had been inspirations for character development, it is encouraged to look at the bigger picture by trying to understand the satirical element of the work.