Marriage within Congreve's Way of the World After Charles II revived theater in 1660, a new kind of comedy, the comedy of manners exploded onto the English drama scene and remained the preferred style of theater for the rest of the century. The aim of these plays was to mock society, or rather to hold it up for scrutiny by those very people whose social world was being characterized on stage. The Way of the World reflects Congreve's personal view of Restoration society and city life, full of its artificiality, rigidity, and formality. As is typical of Restoration Theater, this play's main themes are centered around that of marriage and the game of love. However, unlike the relationships depicted in earlier works, the couple at the heart of World, that of Mirabell and Millamant, have the potential to become a true partnership even by modern standards. The love and trust shared between two intelligent and independent characters, set against the tableau of falsehoods, greed, and jealousy that was exemplified by the social world around them, was revolutionary for Restoration comedy. By comparing and contrasting Mirabell and Millamant with the characters and relationships surrounding them, Congreve reveals his view of the true meaning of marriage and how it should be seen by Restoration society.
The strength of character of our two protagonists is crucial to their status as an almost ideal couple. The stark contrasts set up between them and the secondary characters, especially the contrast between Fainall and Mirabell, allow Mirabell and Millamant's individual characters and the ensuing relationship to hold that much more merit in the eyes of the audience. At first glance, Fainall and Mirabell appear to be similar, but even as their first conversation progresses at the beginning of Act I, their distinct personalities emerge. Both are witty and rakish. It is only by the gradual revelation of their inner natures that one is able to distinguish between our hero and the villain. Fainall's cynicism is contrasted with Mirabell's role as commentator on the society of which he is also a part. If Mirabell is to be seen as our representative as the ideal Restoration gentleman, Fainall is that of the antagonist and compilation of all that is wrong with the social scene at present. As the action progresses, he reveals himself to be only a manipulator and a fortune hunter. Throughout the play, his character is unredeemed by a single act of humanity. His cynicism is revealed in his very first remark to Mirabell, "I'd no more play with a man that slighted his ill fortune than I'd make love to a woman who undervalued the loss of her reputation" (p.324). His attitude towards marriage is equally negative. He recommends marriage as a remedy for love, "be half as well acquainted with her charms as you are with her defects, and my life on that, you are your own man again" (p.327). Fainall is a backstabbing, money-grubbing man who admits to having married his wife for her fortune, and is eager to get his hands on funds intended for other characters within the play. Love doesn't exist for him, except for that of himself and money.
Fainall provides a perfect contrast for the chief male protagonist. At first
glance, Mirabell appears to be the typical Restoration beau, envied by the other characters for his wit and attractiveness. But Mirabell is far from perfect, and is much more real and human than that description would imply. He has had his share of debauchery and indulgence, as seen with his affair with Mrs. Fainall. He is also a manipulator, controlling events to his advantage, often resorting to being devious or amoral. In spite of his weaknesses, Mirabell follows a gentleman's code of honor, never losing control of his emotions. He also balances his desires with consideration for the needs of others. When the play opens, the audience learns that Mirabell has already failed in his first attempt to obtain Millamant. His "sham addresses" to Lady Wishfort have earned him the matron's hatred. His vivid portrait of his courtship of Lady Wishfort seems to go against the very values that he apparently cherishes. He declares that he "proceeded to the very last act of flattery with her" and that "an old woman" cannot be "flattered further, unless a man should endeavor downright personally to debauch her; and that my virtue forbade me" (p.325). His wooing of Lady Wishfort clearly shows the shady side of Mirabell. Although Mirabell is not a saint, he shows himself to be a completely decent fellow at the end of the play, when he gives Mrs. Fainall back her money. He is aware of his own failings and has the ability to laugh at himself, which makes a more human and humane character.
Mirabell definitely loves Millamant, but his love for her is not that of the sentimental kind portrayed in many Restoration comedies. Instead of praising Millamant's virtues, he engages in an analysis of her faults. He tells Fainall that once, when he was angry with Millamant, he "took her to pieces, sifted and separated her failings; I studied 'em, and got 'em by rote. The catalogue was so large that I was not without hope one day or other to hate her heartily" (p.327). He, therefore, is realistic about his true love, but loves her in spite of her faults, that her flaws make her even more appealing in the end. Mirabell claims, "her follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her" (p.327). At times, Millamant's weaknesses test his patience, and he comes close to losing his control; but Mirabell always reigns himself
in, even when Millamant's wit outshines his own. It can be safely said that Mirabell's feelings for Millamant are more motivated by true love than by considerations of money, unlike any of the other relationships within the context of the play.
With such a strong male character it would have been easy to have the na´ve, flighty, unsubstantial woman who falls for his manly charms and wit, a character that has been so typical of Restoration comedy. However, Mirabell's love interest, the formidable Millamant is the ideal comic heroine, ideal for both her time period and today. She has beauty, wit, intelligence, and vivaciousness, and is a perfect match for Mirabell. At first glance she appears to be a very coquettish woman, who plays the role of the belle effortlessly. But beneath the mask of the coquette, Millamant possesses a deep understanding of the seriousness of life and a depth of character that distinguishes her from her contemporaries both within this play and others. She dislikes superficiality and realizes that she needs both emotional and physical companionship in marriage; however, at the same time, she values her freedom and independence. It is evident that Millamant enjoys the power she has over Mirabell. She knows he loves her, she asks him what he would give that he "could help loving" her (p. 344). During the battle of wits in the park, she laughs at his moralized tone and asserts her independence, declaring that she will not "endure to be reprimanded nor instructed; 'tis so dull to act always by advice, and so tedious to be told one's faults - I can't bear it" (p.344). Its no wonder that Mirabell is so taken with her. An intelligent woman, Millamant insists on choosing her own marriage partner instead of simply marrying whomever is chosen by her aunt, Lady Wishfort. Since she is capable of whole-hearted love, she wants to find the perfect match who can love her for who she is and allow her to retain her individualism after marriage. She believes Mirabell is such a man.
Both Millamant and Mirabell take marriage very seriously, rejecting the sentimental kind of union normally depicted in Restoration comedy. The infamous "proviso" scene characterizes their relationship. They love each other very dearly; however, fortunately, the lovers temper their romance with realism and rise above the typical sentimentality of plays of this time period. Mirabell does not propose to Millamant before discussing the conditions under which they will be able to live together. Millamant insists that she will not be "called names . . . as wife, spouse, my dear, jewel, love" (p.366). She also requests that they shall not be "familiar or fond, nor kiss before folks" (p.367). After Millamant has stated her conditions, Mirabell lays down some of his own. They decide in a business-like manner to retain their independence after marriage. But this entire scene is conducted in a witty, flirtatious tone, and Mirabell rounds it off by telling Millamant that "when you are dwindled into a wife, I may not be beyond measure enlarged into a husband" (p.367), relaying that he hopes he can grow to be a husband that matches the wife she will be to him. The two characters are presented as equals, and see themselves as such. They both enjoy the power they have over the other, particularly Millamant, and live for the flirtatious battle-of-the-wits banter that characterizes their conversation. Mirabell and Millamant seem to be an ideal match for each other.
In of itself the relationship between Millamant and Mirabell seems to be idyllic. They love each other, they respect each other, and they treat each other as equals. When placed in the context of the play, their relationship represents more than just a happy couple; it speaks to the progress of the view of marriage from being merely a contract, a way of gaining money or of saving one's honor, to a more modern conception. Now, in present times, marriage is seen as an affirmation of the mutual love and respect between two people. This is what the leading couple in The Way of the World seems to be aiming at, and what Congreve would claim should be a model for Restoration society. Though Mirabell and Millamant's relationship is not completely devoid of negative influence, for Millamant's six thousand pound fortune is repeatedly an issue, they are still honorable in contrast to the relationships surrounding them. Marriage is depicted as entirely centered around greed for money, and protection of honor. Debauchery, greed, and deceit permeate this social world and all its interactions. It is exactly this "way of the world" that Congreve believes should be improved.
Congreve offers a critique of this whittled down and desensitized view of marriage by using the secondary characters to flesh out the negative aspects of society. He contrasts the situation those characters find themselves in at the conclusion of the play with that of Mirabell and Millamant. All of the characters who married with false intentions, or who stood in the way of the marriage of the two protagonists ended up unhappy or dissatisfied upon the closing of the play. In particular, the key antagonist of the play, Mr Fainall characterizes this obsession with money and as previously mentioned, he provides great contrast to Mirabell. Furthermore, all of his relationships are full of falsehood and deceit. He admits to never having loved his wife "wherefore did I marry but to make a lawful prize of a rich widow's wealth" (p.339), and he has already squandered the wealth of his mistress, Mrs. Marwood. His jealousy and greed drive him to ruthlessly blackmail Mrs. Wishfort who only wants to protect the reputation of her daughter. However, his debauchery comes full circle in the end, when he finds his reputation preceded him in marrying his wife. Not only did he lose all moral standing with his social world, but lost all chances at acquiring any money from any of the women in his life and is finally left to fend for himself. The parasite finally got his due.
Similarly all those who married under false pretenses, such as Mrs. Fainall, or who was an obstacle to the model couple, such as Mrs. Marwood, were punished in the end. Mrs. Fainall, even though she recovered her fortune from Mirabell, is left with an ambiguous and not entirely joyful future. She has officially lost the one love of her life. It is also unknown whether she will try to fix her disintegrating marriage or even if she wants to. This punishment is due to her marrying Fainall not because she loved him, but because she needed to cover up her affair with Mirabell, in case she was with child. Her receiving the money in the end is justified by her having benevolently supported Mirabell in his quest to win Millamant, even though she still loves him. Mrs. Marwood, on the other hand, never redeems herself, and has backstabbed all of her friends, and was a leading figure in the counter-plot to prevent the marriage of Mirabell and Millamant. She is rewarded for her efforts at the end of the play, when Foible and Mincing reveal her adulterous affair with Fainall. She loses her sole possession of value, her flawless reputation.
In contrast to their compatriots, Mirabell and Millimant, exemplifying the loving, realistic, and modern couple, are allowed happiness and each other. By allowing them to end up together, Congreve is claiming that this type of union should be favored and sought after by members of Restoration society. Rather than being boiled down to the mere desire for wealth, or looked at as a cover for some dishonorable affair, marriage should require the mutual love, respect, and appreciation that exists between Mirabell and Millamant. In addition, he seems to be claiming that this union can only take place between those who are equally matched in wit and appearance, and who are human in that they each have flaws of their own. Both lovers are just such characters, and each accept and love the other, complete with their faults. Mirabell elucidates Congreve's claim about marriage in the final four lines of the play,
From hence let those be warned who mean to wed,
Lest mutual falsehood stain the bridal bed;
For each deceiver to his cost may find
That marriage-frauds too oft are paid in kind, (p.389).
To be partners in life, and to be happy in the union, couples should be open and honest, love and respect each other. This should be the "way of the world".
Congreve, William. The Way of the World. Six Restoration Plays. Ed. John Harold
Wilson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959. 317-390.