The Way of the World Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First produced: 1700

First published: 1700

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Comedy of manners

Time of work: Seventeenth century

Locale: London, England

Characters DiscussedMirabell

Mirabell, Way of the World, Thea man of fashion, intelligent and authentically in love with Mrs. Millamant. He enjoys the favors, either overt or covert, of most of the women in the play, who, either through unrequited love of him or mutual affection, try to affect the course of his fortune. He is presented as a man of genuine parts, not so superficial as to render him without a sense of honor or the genuine ability to experience love, but at the same time a clever schemer. His love for Mrs. Millamant and his hope of legitimate income are the motivating factors in his intrigues. Mirabell is somewhat more in love with Mrs. Millamant than she with him. Although his stake in the marriage is higher than hers, he bears up well under the handicap, never attempting to outmaneuver Mrs. Millamant by feigning indifference. Instead, he rather admirably presses his proposal with candor and plain dealing as to his love. Thus, he keeps a manly station without lowering himself to beg or unduly flatter her, and he impresses her with his devotion. He emerges from the action as a Restoration gentleman who possesses wit, charm, and masculinity and who does not deal in simper, pose, or guile. Although he is a master schemer on occasion, in him the vestiges of sense, honor, and right have not become translated into chicanery, venery, or deception.

Mrs. Millamant

Mrs. Millamant, Lady Wishfort’s niece, loved by Mirabell and perhaps the most fascinating member of the cast. Mrs. Millamant contains within her personality an attractive haughtiness, and she enjoys making Mirabell’s suit appear an even more one-sided affair than it is. She has a frankness that sometimes uncouples her from her train of followers and a glitter that–especially in the famous comic-love scene between herself and Mirabell–approaches radiant wit. For all her practiced arts of conversation and her determination to keep love a game, Mrs. Millamant is levelheaded, and Mirabell’s commendable qualities will meet good use in such a wife. Beneath her protests and shams, she has carefully marked a line to follow. She wisely recognizes Mirabell as the man to keep her on it.

Lady Wishfort

Lady Wishfort, a sex-starved old woman. Past the natural flows of passion in her sex, she falls victim to the insatiable demands of false passion. Anxiously casting about for reassurance, she is easy prey for any man who can stomach the odious game of pursuing her. She is more than straight comedy because she carries, though chillingly, a kind of pathos. Her wrath against Mirabell, brought about because he pretended love to her, is averted in the end, and she emerges a wiser woman.

Mrs. Marwood

Mrs. Marwood, the consort of Fainall. She is jealous of Mirabell’s love for Mrs. Millamant, and her main interest in foiling Mirabell’s plans is formulated in bitterness. She wishes Fainall, the lover toward whom she is passive at best and hostile at worst, to gain control not only of his wife’s fortune but of Lady Wishfort’s as well in order to destroy Mirabell’s hopes. In this endeavor, she concocts a plan to reveal the “immoral” nature of Mrs. Fainall, Lady Wishfort’s daughter, so that Fainall will have a strong bargaining position from which to demand control of the money. Her deceptions and personal immorality are exposed, and she is defeated by her own envy and malice.

Fainall

Fainall, an unscrupulous, avaricious man who possesses no morals above or beyond those necessary to his own satisfaction, but whose charm and manner allow him to deceive others. No dupe, he is allied with Mrs. Marwood in an attempt to acquire Lady Wishfort’s fortune. While carrying on his affair with Mrs. Marwood, he hypocritically plants and reveals indiscretions on the part of his wife. He represents better than any character in the play the attitude toward societal relationships that appears so perverse outside of the Restoration era–distaste for mate, cultivated love, interest in self best served by interest in the affairs of others, and tedious attention to a reputation that is all the more precious for being morally unstable.

Mrs. Fainall

Mrs. Fainall, Fainall’s wife, Lady Wishfort’s daughter, and at one time Mirabell’s mistress. In the end, because of Mirabell’s help, she gains the upper hand over her husband.

Foible

Foible, Lady Wishfort’s resourceful, energetic servant, allied with Mirabell.

Witwoud

Witwoud, an idle, foppish follower of Mrs. Millamant. He represents the effeminate character of the affected “gentlemen” of the period.

Petulant

Petulant, a man of fashion, much like Witwoud.

Sir Wilful Witwoud

Sir Wilful Witwoud, the half brother of Witwoud, quite different from Witwoud because of his blunt, raucous, and honest nature.

Waitwell

Waitwell, Mirabell’s serving-man, married to Foible. Mirabell uses him in his plot against Lady Wishfort.

Mincing

Mincing, Mrs. Millamant’s maid.

BibliographyHolland, Norman. The First Modern Comedies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. This remains required reading for any student of English comedy written between the Restoration and the eighteenth century. Holland’s discussion of The Way of the World does justice to the play’s many complexities. Highly recommended.Muir, Kenneth. The Comedy of Manners. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1970. A handy little book that provides an overview of the principal writers of stage comedy in England between the Restoration and the early eighteenth century. The chapter on Congreve contains a fine discussion of one of his best-known plays, The Way of the World.Novak, Maximillian E. William Congreve. New York: Twayne, 1971. Probably the best general introduction to Congreve, with an act-by-act discussion of The Way of the World and an extensive annotated bibliography.Powell, Jocelyn. Restoration Theatre Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. A delightful and very readable account of Restoration drama–from a “production” angle. Powell discusses music, acting styles, and scenery, provides many wonderful illustrations, and concludes with a particularly sensitive and informed discussion of The Way of the World.Williams, Aubrey L. An Approach to Congreve. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Williams stresses the “common ground” of Christian belief shared by Congreve and his audience. Controversial, but clearly and persuasively written. The chapter on The Way of the World focuses on Mirabell, the play’s hero, whom Williams would exonerate of the charges of Machiavellianism so often brought against him.
Categories: Characters