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
|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.
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 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.