Action centers around determining which of three characters will control
Millamants inheritance: Lady Wishfort, Mr. Fainall, or Mr. Mirabell.
Millamants fortune stands as a metaphor for concrete social power in the play.
Act I. Setting in a chocolate house. Congreve uses this public space to
distinguish good-natured, civilized male response to social experience from various
negative, selfish, or limited responses:
- Mirabell distinguished from Fainall in terms of moral qualities
- The "wits" (Mirabell and Fainall) distinguished from the false wits (Witwoud
Act II. Setting in St. James Park. The dancelike pairings of characters as
various couples are formed on the stage help to distinguish positive human relations from
a series of negative or limited ones. Congreves focus in this act is on the games
people play as they manipulate the distances between them.
- Sorry manipulation of female "friendship" by Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood
- Hellish intimacy of an affair gone sour between Mrs. Marwood and Mr. Fainall
- Civilized friendship between two former lovers, Mrs. Fainall and Mirabell
- The vital, witty couple, Mirabell and Millamant, in the company of others.
Act III. Setting in Lady Wishforts house. Antagonisms of various sorts are
close to the surface in all interactions. A number of people plot and counterplot to get
various kinds of power over others. The villains, Marwood and Mr. Fainall, are especially
active and successful in gathering information.
- Lady Wishfort preparing for Sir Rowland, spatting with servants, being controlled by
Foible and Marwood
- Millamant and Marwood as openly antagonistic
- Witwoud (the artificial fool) trading insults with Sir Wilfull (the natural fool)
- Marwood and Mr. Fainall bitterly planning to ruin all
Act IV. Festive act of proposals and drunkenness.
- Lady Wishfort prepares for Sir Rowland with theatrical performances and stagings
- Millamant prepares for Mirabell with poetry; proviso (marriage contract) scene
- Drunks on the stage preparing to propose and travel
- Sir Rowland finally appears
Act V. Moves from festivity to law, dramatizing the difficult transmission of
power from Lady Wishfort and Mr. Fainall to Mirabell note the number of legal
documents and legal threats.
According to Norman Holland:
The discrepancy between the family structure and the emotional
structure plays into the Restoration convention about intrigue: a discrepancy between
appearances (the overt family relations) and "nature" (the hidden emotional
facts) gives power to the man who knows the discrepancy. At the beginning of the play,
Mirabell is trying to set up such a situation. He has married his servant Waitwell to Lady
Wishforts maid Foible and plans to have Waitwell disguise himself as a nobleman,
court, and marry Lady Wishfort. Then Mirabell plans to reveal the disguise, show
Lady Wishfort that she has married a servant, and offer to release her if she will let him
marry Millamant cum estate. Unfortunately, Mrs. Marwood (who for at least two
reasons wants to spike Mirabells courtship of Millamant) discovers the plan and
tells Lady Wishfort. Mrs. Marwood also tells Fainall of his wifes former affair with
Mirabell; he threatens to publish it to the world unless Lady Wishfort signs over to him
not only his wifes but also Millmants estate and even the reversion after her
life of Lady Wishforts own estate. Mrs. Fainall then ineffectually reveals that she
knows Mrs. Marwood is having an affair with her husband. Finally, however, Mirabell wins
the contest by knowing the ultimate discrepancy between appearance and nature. He produces
a deed by Mrs. Fainall conveying all her estate to him as her trustee; she made it when
she was a widow (and could execute a valid conveyance of her property), and it therefore
predates any deed Fainall could now obtain. These various deeds at the end of the play
combine and fuse the two kinds of reality, dynastic and emotional, from which the play is
[Holland, Norman. The First Modern Comedies.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1959.]