The Way of the World

"Let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at all," requests Millamant to Mirabell during their celebrated negotiation of how they should treat one another if they get married (Act IV). The quotation's basic cynicism about marriage (it makes the married couple "strange" and implies that marrying is an ill-bred activity in the first place) belies the play's essential optimism about the possibility of reform and reconciliation. In a complex plot packed with razor-sharp dialogue, The Way of the World explores issues of love, friendship, justice, and deception with style and aplomb that has made it William Congreve's (1670-1729) most well-known play and earned it a place among the greatest comedies ever written in English.

The Way of the World The Way of the World

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Table of contents

    The Way of the World Prologue

    The play's prologue was originally delivered by Thomas Betterton, an aging star actor who William Congreve had hand-picked to portray Mr. Fainall. Written in heroic couplets (two rhyming lines in iambic pentameter), its opening lines give a good indication of the self-deprecating humor that characterize it:

    Of those few fools, who with ill stars are cursed,

    Sure scribbling fools, called poets, fare the worst” (Prologue, lines 1-2)

    The speaker goes on to note that since poets depend on the favor of important people, they risk everything for a little fame and fortune, both of which can be revoked as quickly as they were given.

    He makes a preemptive apology for any dullness or imperfections the play might contain, and swears he won’t defend it. He then promises that the play will have an original plot, ideas, and humor but "no farce" (line 29). He sarcastically claims that satire is impossible in such a morally impeccable place as London and swears that his only goal is “to please” and “not instruct,” claiming to be a “passive poet” in that respect (lines 32-7).

    The Way of the World Summary

    The Way of the World is a play in five acts. While it opens with a fairly straightforward introduction of one of its major characters, Mirabell, things quickly become more complicated.

    The Way of the World, 1700 Playbill, StudySmarterA playbill from The Way of the World's first production in 1700. The British Library.

    Act I

    Two friends, Mirabell and Fainall, are playing cards in a chocolate-house. Mirabell is distracted by his recent failed attempt to court a woman called Mrs. Millamant, which went wrong when a woman named Lady Wishfort arrived with two other potential suitors, Witwoud and Petulant. Lady Witwoud is Millamant’s aunt and Fainall’s mother-in-law. Mirabell had pretended to be in love with her to get closer to Millamant, so Wishfort now has a grudge against both of them. Millamant needs Lady Wishfort’s approval of her marriage, or she will lose half of her inheritance. Their arrival spoiled the evening, forcing Mirabell to leave early.

    As Mirabell and Fainall are arguing over who is to blame for Lady Wishfort’s anger, one of Mirabell’s servants arrives. Mirabell privately asks him whether “they are married” without specifying who. The servant confirms that “they” are.

    A messenger arrives and delivers a letter to Witwoud from his brother, Sir Willful. Sir Wilfull, Lady Wishfort’s nephew, is revealed to be a foolish and obstinate country bumpkin.

    Petulant has intelligence that Mirabell’s uncle is in town and that if the uncle gets married, Mirabell will receive no inheritance from his family. Mirabell appears shocked to hear this. They speculate that Lady Wishfort wants to set this uncle up with Millamant or marry him herself to take revenge on Mirabell.

    Act II

    Mrs. Fainall and her friend, Mrs. Marwood, lament how quickly men lose their passion as lovers, both eventually agreeing that they hate all men. When Mrs. Fainall suggests jokingly that Mrs. Marwood marry Mirabell, she blushes and is unable to explain why.

    Fainall arrives with Mirabell, and Mrs. Fainall requests that Mirabell continue a story he had begun telling her. He agrees and walks off in one direction with Mrs. Fainall while Mrs. Marwood and Mr. Fainall go off in another.

    Through their conversation, it is revealed that Mrs. Marwood and Fainall are lovers. Fainall also reveals that he knows his wife is having an affair with Mirabell, accusing Mrs. Marwood of also being in love with Mirabell. Mrs. Marwood, it turns out, was the one who informed Mrs. Wishfort that Mirabell was deceiving her.

    The Way of the World, St. James Park Rosamond's Pond 1840 Lithograph, StudySmarterThe dialogue in Act II takes place as the characters stroll around St. James Park, London, depicted here in a 19th-century lithograph. Yale Center for British Art.

    The conversation between Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall reveals that they are also former lovers and that he had helped arrange her marriage, knowing that Fainall would cheat but maintain an outwardly good public appearance. He also reveals that the man Lady Wishfort thought was his uncle is actually his servant, Waitwell. The marriage that Mirabell had arranged in Act 1 was between Waitwell and Foible, Lady Wishfort’s most trusted servant. He plans to get Lady Wishfort to marry Waitwell, thinking he's Mirabell's uncle, Sir Rowland, and then to inform her of his true identity and the fact that he is already married to Foible. He will use this as leverage to get her to agree to his marriage to Millamant.

    Act III

    Lady Wishfort is impatiently waiting for Foible to help her get ready to see the man she believes is Sir Rowland. Mrs. Marwood enters and mentions having seen Foible in the park talking to Mirabell. Foible arrives, and Lady Wishfort asks Mrs. Marwood to hide in the closet.

    Confronted with this accusation, Foible claims that she was defending Lady Wishfort’s honor in an argument with Mirabell. Upset, Lady Wishfort is now especially eager to try to marry the man she thinks is Sir Rowland.

    Mrs. Fainall discusses Mirabell’s plans with Foible, then announces that she’ll sneak out the back to avoid an encounter with Mrs. Marwood, who, unbeknownst to them, has overhead the whole conversation from her hiding place. She infers that Mrs. Fainall is still in love with Mirabell, and vows to foil his plot.

    Sir Wilfull arrives. He doesn’t recognize his half-brother at first, and Petulant’s remarks about his horse and outfit are offensive enough to almost cause a fight. When he does recognize Witwoud, he accuses him of having become an over-mannered “fop” wearing wigs and fancy ties. Sir Wilfull discusses his intention to travel the world, though he hasn’t settled on a location yet.

    Mrs. Marwood reveals Mirabell’s plot and relationship with Mrs. Fainall to Mr. Fainall. He agrees to help her thwart Mirabell by revealing everything to Lady Wishfort. They plan to have an anonymous letter sent to her just as Waitwell is visiting in the disguise of Sir Rowland.

    Act IV

    Lady Wishfort is eagerly anticipating Sir Rowland’s visit. She asks if Sir Wilfull has been speaking with Millamant but learns that he’s gotten drunk already.

    Foible informs Millamant that Mirabell has been waiting to see her. Sir Wilfull enters, but is more interested in drinking than conversing with Millamant. Mrs. Fainall insists that he get to know Millamant, and locks the two of them alone in the room together.

    After a brief, unsuccessful conversation with a tipsy Sir Wilfull, Sir Wilfull discovers an unlocked door and leaves shortly before Mirabell enters and flirts with Millamant. They playfully discuss the conditions of a marriage contract that would prevent their marriage from going stale, becoming too familiar, and creating jealousy or resentment.

    Mrs. Fainall informs Millamant that Sir Wilfull has gotten so drunk that his singing, shouting, and arguments with Petulant are upsetting the rest of the house. Lady Wishfort had to leave her meeting with Sir Rowland to deal with him.

    Lady Wishfort returns to Waitwell disguised as Sir Rowland. They discuss their mutual hatred of Mirabell and how they look forward to seeing him impoverished after their marriage.

    Foible informs Lady Wishfort that the dancers are ready and that one of them has a letter to give her. Lady Wishfort opens the letter, and Foible instantly recognizes Mrs. Marwood’s handwriting. She warns Waitwell, who insists he will be jealous if she doesn’t let him see the letter. Lady Wishfort suggests they read it together. It accuses Sir Rowland of deception, but Waitwell and Foible are able to convince Lady Wishfort that Mirabell wrote the letter in an attempt to stop the marriage. Waitwell offers to get a black box containing all of his wealth if Lady Wishfort agrees to marry him.

    Act V

    Lady Wishfort has discovered Sir Rowland’s true identity, and Foible’s part in the scheme, kicked her out of the house, and gone to summon the police.

    Foible tells Mrs. Fainall that Mr. Fainall had Waitwell arrested as he left and that Mrs. Marwood explained everything to Lady Wishfort. Foible tells Mrs. Fainall that her husband and Mrs. Marwood are also having an affair and that she and Mincing caught them in the act some time ago.

    Mincing arrives, informing them that Mirabell has gotten Waitwell out of jail and that Mr. Fainall is threatening divorce if Lady Wishfort doesn’t hand him over her entire fortune. Mirabell is considering marrying Sir Wilfull just to avoid losing her inheritance.

    Lady Wishfort praises Mrs. Marwood as a true friend, then confronts Mrs. Fainall about her affair with Mirabell that will cost her her fortune. Mrs. Fainall responds by saying that she is the one who has been wronged, that Mrs. Marwood is not a true friend but a parasite, and that she has a case against her.

    Mr. Fainall arrives and offers a private settlement with very harsh conditions: Lady Wishfort can never marry; he and his wife will live separately, with him maintaining complete control of her finances. He will also receive the half of Millamant's fortune under Lady Wishfort's control with the excuse that she had rejected the match with Sir Wilfull.

    As Lady Wishfort laments Mr. Fainall’s cruelty, Millamant and Sir Willful approach. Millamant announces that she agrees to marry Sir Wilfull. Mr. Fainall insists on the terms of his earlier deal despite Mirabell’s agreeing to marry Sir Wilfull and threatening to leave Mrs. Fainall ruined and penniless.

    Foible and Mincing arrive, ready to swear that they caught Marwood and Fainall in the act. Mr. Fainall is unphased, insisting he will get his wife’s entire fortune.

    Waitwell arrives with a mysterious black box, which Mirabell reveals contains a deed of conveyance, made up at Mirabell’s suggestion before Mr. Fainall’s marriage, that prevents him from getting her fortune if they divorce. Since it pre-dates any other agreements, there is nothing Mr. Fainall can do. Enraged, he leaves.

    The Way of the World, Desk Quill Paper Ink, StudySmarterMirabell had cunningly laid the legal groundwork to exclude Fainall from stealing his wife's fortune before their marriage. Pixabay.

    Lady Wishfort pardons Waitwell and Foible and agrees to Mirabell’s marriage to Millamant. Sir Wilfull, who didn’t really want to marry in the first place, is happy to go off on his travels. Mirabell also promises to make peace with Mr. Fainall.

    The Way of the World Genre

    The Way of the World is a comedy in both the modern sense (it tries to make its audience laugh) and the generic sense (it ends with marriage rather than death).

    The play also bears a close resemblance to the comedies of the Restoration era in the 1670s, which often center around fashionable but immoral young men trying to win the hand of a rich heiress.

    In English history, The Restoration refers to the return of the English king and queen in 1660 after nearly a decade of Puritan rule, which had been preceded by years of civil war. The Puritans had closed all of the theaters, which were then re-opened by the tolerant Charles II.

    Restoration Comedy tended to satirize the style and manners of the aristocracy but typically did not include a moral of any kind. In fact, their heroes were often sexually devious tricksters.

    In 1688, Charles II's heir James II was ousted in the Glorious Revolution. The new English monarchs, William and Mary, took a less tolerant view of the theater. Criticism and censorship increased.1

    Do you think The Way of the World fits into the category of Restoration Comedy? What do you think could account for any significant differences between this play and the style of earlier Restoration Comedies?

    Unlike those earlier comedies, however, The Way of the World is careful to impart a moral, and to make its hero, Mirabell, a good person despite his questionable past. This is a reflection of the changing times, in which the theater's morality was increasingly under attack.2

    The Way of the World Themes

    Three key themes in William Congreve's The Way of the World are Marriage, Justice and The Law, Friendship and Deceit.


    The Way of the World centers on Mirabell’s attempt to marry Millamant with her full inheritance. To do this, he needs the approval of her curmudgeonly aunt, who hates Mirabell and would rather see her married to her boorish country nephew. Millamant, however, clearly prefers Mirabell to anyone else. In this sense, the play deals with the extent to which parents or guardians should interfere in a young person’s marriage choice, clearly favoring independence.

    The play also has a more complex message about marriage itself, as can be seen in Mirabell and Millamant's celebrated discussion in Act IV of how they will treat one another after their marriage. Here Millamant wants stipulations against domestic familiarity that would prevent their marriage from going stale, and Mirabell expresses a desire to prevent Millamant from getting caught up in the beaux monde of fashion, gossip, and luxurious food and drink.

    The one marriage actually portrayed in the play, that between the Fainalls, is deeply unhappy and dysfunctional. This is perhaps meant as a warning against marrying for convenience rather than love.

    Justice and The Law

    The Way of the World’s plot depends on three legal instruments relating to marriage. The first is the ability of a relative or guardian to withhold or bestow inheritance based solely on their opinion of the suitability of a marriage partner. The second is that if a husband could prove his wife cheated, he could divorce her and take possession of all of her money. The third is the deed of conveyance, a kind of secret prenuptial contract which Mirabell uses to preempt any attempt by Mr. Fainall to make off with his wife’s fortune.

    The first of these two seem ridiculous and unfair, pillars of a system of patriarchy that was extreme even in Congreve’s time. The third demonstrates, however, that the law is not inherently unjust and that skill and foresight can be used to improve it. Mirabell uses it to force a negotiation that seems just and that everyone (except perhaps Mr. Fainall) is satisfied with.3

    Friendship and Deceit

    The play starts with two apparent friends, Mirabell and Fainall, playing cards together. Mrs. Fainall and Marwood also seem to be close friends at the beginning of the play. As things turn out, Mirabell has married off Mr. Fainall to his former mistress, likely pregnant with his child, and considers him so untrustworthy that he takes preemptive legal action to prevent his taking advantage of her. Marwood turns out to be willing to betray her friends and their closest secrets for the chance of material gain.

    Friends are certainly not what they seem in The Way of the World, and this is part of a larger pattern of deception and false appearances: the fake Sir Rowland pretends to woo Lady Wishfort, who, her aging face caked in layers of makeup, pretends to be interested mostly so she can get revenge; Sir Witwoud, recently moved in from the country, disguises his appearance in fancy wigs and cravats and his speech in attempted wit, usually resulting in unintentionally funny misuse of words; Mr. Fainall pretends innocence in order to secure his divorce case. Everyone in the play, it seems, is hiding something or pretending to be something they’re not.

    The Way of the World analysis

    With its witty dialogue and intricate plot, The Way of the World is a sophisticated satire of the 17th and 18th-century dating and marriage market that has earned William Congreve enduring fame as a playwright. Its title and conclusion suggest that bad or unpleasant things are simply bound to happen in this world, and the best we can do is to forgive and forget. The play also has an interesting, if ambiguous, relationship to feminism. Millamant, the play’s heroine, has essentially no choice about whether or not to get married. Surrounded by warnings of failed relationships, from Lady Wishfort’s lonely spinsterhood to the Fainall’s failed marriage of convenience, she ultimately manages to exercise choice and secure the marriage partner she most wants in Mirabell.

    The Way of the World - Key takeaways

    • First performed in 1700, The Way of the World was modestly successful in its own time but has since been recognized as one of the foremost English comedies of the 18th century.
    • The story centers on Mirabell's attempt to marry Millamant, who needs her aunt's approval, Lady Wishfort, to marry with her inheritance intact.
    • After a series of attempted tricks mostly fail, Mirabell is able to save Lady Wishfort's daughter from a disastrous divorce, thereby finally winning her approval as Millamant's marriage partner.
    • Deception is a central theme in the play, as characters who seem to be friends end up betraying each other, characters disguise their appearance, and marriage proposals are made in service of larger schemes.
    • The moral of the play suggests that some degree of unpleasantness and deceit may be necessary in the service of a larger good.


    1. D. Maybank. "An Introduction to Restoration Comedy." The British Library, 2018.

    2. J. Douglas Canfield (general editor) The Broadview Anthology of Restoration and Eighteenth Century Literature. 2001.

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Way of the World

    What is the theme of The Way of the World?

    The main theme is marriage, but it also touches on friendship, deceit, justice, and morality

    What did Congreve expose in The Way of the World?

    Congreve exposes hypocrisy and selfishness, particularly as they come to ruin marriages (or are used as a tool to do so!).

    What type of drama is The Way of the World?

    The Way of the World is a comedy. It is often classified as a Restoration Comedy, though it came at the very end of the Restoration era and differs in important respects.

    What is the moral of The Way of the World?

    The Way of the World's moral is not entirely straightforward, but it seems to suggest that some degree of lying or bad behavior is justified if it leads to some greater good or happiness.

    What purpose do the epigraph and the prologue serve in the play The Way of the World?

    The play's prologue and epilogue, delivered by the star actors Thomas Betterton (Mr. Fainall) and Anne Bracegirdle (Millamant) respectively, serve to lighten then mood, to make some jokes at the expense of Congreve himself, and to address anticipated criticism of the play in a lighthearted manner.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was The Way of the World first performed?

    "Let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at all" suggests that marriage is

    Who delivered the play's prologue, and what role did they play?


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