Levels of Power and Authority in Congreve's The Way of the World

Inheritance & Marriage

Power and authority are tied to who controls inheritance money.  Thus, Lady Wishfort controls Millamant's portion, which Mirabell and Millamant want to obtain before they marry.  Likewise, Mrs. Fainall has secretly given control of her portion to Mirabell in order to keep that control from whom it would normally go to -- Mr. Fainall.  And Mr. Fainall and Marwood are seeking to gain control of Wishfort's estate in general; thus, the move on Sir Willful and Millamant's part to appear to be engaged, so as to take that portion out of Wishfort's control. In a more general way, Mr. and Mrs. Fainall chaff at each other within the bonds of marriage.  The interchange between Mirabell and Millamant in Act Four over what the conditions and rejoinders of their marriage will be, while quite playful, has at its heart a real concern with domestic authority and control.

Reputation & Information

The impact of infidelity on one's public reputation is another means of power and authority.  When someone has knowledge of another's indiscretions, that person now has some measure of control over the unfaithful.  In the play, the reputation of infidelity is more feared than the actual practice.  Thus, Fainall seeks to gain control of Wishfort by the knowledge of Mrs. Fainall's early infidelity with Mirabell; in the same way, she regains a balance of power once she knows that Mr. Fainall and Marwood are lovers.  The same kind of concern for reputation also shapes in a more light-hearted way Mirabell's scheme to set up Wishfort with Waitwell disguised as Sir Roland.

Emotional Involvement & Betrayal

This is not to say, however, that real emotional involvement does not itself hold power and authority over others.  Mirabell has some real control over Wishfort having lead her on, and perhaps he still has some over Mrs. Fainall.  Millamant certainly has real power over Mirabell. Mr. Fainall and Marwood have emotional control over each other as well.

Wit & Conversation

The presence or absence of wit in conversation also reflects a kind of authority and control.  Mirabell and Millamant are the most witty and powerful in this way.  Marwood and Mr. Fainall are blunter, but the former is skilled in some level of parody.  The fops Witwoud and Petulant represent a lack of real wit, as does Sir Wilfull in his own, "country bumpkin" way.

Physical Appearances

Women are particularly concerned with physical beauty as a means of gaining and keeping power.  Cosmetics are held up in the play for scorn as a weak way to starve off the effects of age.  Wishfort, being the oldest, is the most desperate.   Millamant knows that her own youth is what gives her one up on Marwood who is older but actually more beautiful.  In performance, the out-of-style fashions of Sir Wilfull and the over-the-top dandified fashion of the fops could be played off as well.   To be young, pretty, and in style is to have more control.

Class Prerogatives

Class does play a role in the play.  Lady Wishfort has a certain kind of power over Foible that the later can not have in return.  The scandal of Wishfort and "Sir. Peter" is a class-based one.  The opposition between the "town" of most of the characters and the "country" of the Sir Wilfull is also class-based.

Social Atmosphere & Performance

Because the 18th century English theatre was fully lighted and attended by the same classes of people as the characters in the play, The Way of the World in such a context was bound to produce a certain "mirror effect".  Part of the experience (and perhaps fun) of attending the play would be to compare real life examples with those on stage.  This would give both a sense of realism to the stage production, but also a sense of close social commentary.

Religious/ Spiritual Insight & Judgment

Christianity, on the surface, only plays a minor role in the play. In Act Three,  Lady Wishfort is reading a number of conservative Anglican, Baptist, and Puritan writers -- Quarles, Prynne, Bunyan.  Sir Wilfull mocks the state of Christian drunkenness over against Islamic sobriety in Act Four.  Sir Wilfull tells Wishfort to be a good Christian and forgive.  However, at a deeper level, Christian expectations for marriage, charity, and gossip haunt this play because they are so little observed, yet without the Christian norm, the violations could not be instruments of power.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding