The Way of the World

The Way of the World Summary and Analysis of Prologue and Act I


The Prologue, found just before the Dramatis Personae in printed editions of the play, is spoken before the play's start by the actor playing Fainall, and is still written as "Spoken by Mr. Betterton," who played Fainall in the show's first production. The verse is written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of aabbcc..., also called rhymed couplets. The actor, like Congreve in his dedication, delivers a speech about try-hard poets and foolish characters, asking the audience to not take offense and to withhold quick judgement. Congreve does, however, slip in a sarcastic jab - "Should he by chance a knave or fool expose,/ That hurts none here, sure here are none of those..."

Act I Scene I opens with Mirabell and Fainall in conversation at a chocolate-house, attended upon by a server named Betty. Fainall has just beat Mirabell in a game of cards, and because Mirabell seems to have lost interest in playing further the two men turn to conversation. Mirabell confesses that when he was visiting his love Ms. Millamant the night before, many other people were there and were rude to him. Namely, these people were two of her other suitors - Anthony Witwoud and Petulant - and her aunt, Lady Wishfort, along with a few other women.

It is revealed through Fainall's reaction that Mirabell once courted Lady Wishfort; he did so to get close to Ms. Millamant. However, Lady Wishfort holds half of Ms. Millamant's inheritance, and because of this prior romance seems unlikely to give it if Ms. Millamant marries Mirabell. This falsehood was revealed to Lady Wishfort by Ms. Marwood. Mirabell speaks with disdain of the cabal nights held by Lady Wishfort, where women meet together to gossip and disparagingly discuss men.

Fainall leaves the room to watch some other card-players, and footman a enters to inform Mirabell that his servant Waitwell was married successfully. Mirabell is pleased with this because it is a step in a grander scheme, yet to be revealed. Mirabell sends the footman off with further instructions to tell the married couple to, rather than consummating their marriage, be ready to meet him in the park later.

Act I Scene II opens again on Mirabell, Fainall, and Betty in the same room of the chocolate-house. Fainall notices that Mirabell looks pleased, but Mirabell responds that he is happy because a scheme is working but that he cannot reveal what is happening yet. They continue to discuss the cabal nights, women, and jealousy. Fainall tells Mirabell that he seems too aware of Ms. Millamant's problem areas to be her lover; Mirabell responds with a romantic monologue about his attempt to focus on her faults that led to a habitual perusal and eventual love of them. Hearing this, Fainall encourages him to marry her.

A messenger enters looking for Anthony Witwoud at the chocolate-house because he has a letter from his half-brother, Sir Wilful Witwoud, to deliver. Betty directs him to the next room. Sir Wilful Witwoud is related to both Anthony Witwoud and Lady Wishfort by his former wife, and is now coming to town to prepare to go abroad. Fainall and Mirabell wittily discuss the man, belittling his intelligence.

Anthony Witwoud now enters the room, asking for pity from Mirabell and Fainall because of the coming of his half-brother. They discuss Petulant, another of Ms. Millamant's suitors who Witwoud was playing cards with, saying he is argumentative and not well-mannered. Witwoud almost reveals something about Petulant but then refuses to say, prompting Mirabell and Fainall to guess. Finally, Witwoud reveals that the fault is Petulant's constant lying.

A coachman enters to inform Petulant that, supposedly, three gentlewomen in a coach wish to speak with him. A comedic scene ensues in which Witwoud reveals that Petulant often has messengers and coachmen come to tell him people wish to speak with him, when in reality there is nobody there. Sometimes, according to Witwoud, he even goes home, dresses up, and returns to call on himself.

Petulant enters, following the coachman from the other room, and tells the coachman in front of everyone to tell the waiting gentlewomen that he won't come out. He joins the room's conversation, and then the four men split to have two separate conversations, Fainall and Witwoud in one conversation and Mirabell and Petulant in another. Both conversation couples discuss Ms. Millamant, Lady Wishfort, and Sir Wilful Witwoud's immanent arrival. Witwoud says that he does not see Mirabell as a real competitor for Ms. Millamant's hand because of Lady Wishfort's dislike for him, but he does see the coming Sir Wilful as one because Lady Wishfort may encourage that match. Mirabell then invites the men to take a walk in the park, where the ladies might be found.


The fact that, as it is written, the prologue is spoken by an actor, not a character, is important to the tone of the show. This metatheatrical move demonstrates how Congreve is pushing for the audience to really think about the show - to analyze it show as part of its genre and as apart from other theatre of the time. Showing the character, likely already in his garb for the scene about to follow, demonstrates the reality of the character, and makes the plea for the audience to withhold their criticism until the end of the show seem even to come from the characters of the play themselves.

Furthermore, the fact that the prologue is written in verse, iambic pentameter, and rhymed couplets - a classic and highly formal style used often by Shakespeare and other great, traditional English writers - was a common move for playwrights at the time and demonstrates that he can write in the learned, restrained manner before the show proper opens with the more naturalistic speech of the characters (besides the rhymed couples that end each act). This adds to the effect of Congreve pleading and scolding the audience for being foolish in their tastes and criticisms.

Within the play, we see that Mirabell's earlier womanizing has gotten him into trouble now that he is ready to devote himself to one woman, which is a relatable problem even today. However, that this is based around a problem with money )that is, Ms. Millamant's inheritance) demonstrates the strong link between love and money throughout the play, which seems to undermine the value of the love itself.

However, Mirabell gives one of the only great, romantic monologues of the play (though there are other great monologues, few uphold love in such a way) about his internalization of Ms. Millamant's faults. He does not go into the faults that he noticed in her, besides attending cabal nights, but leaves the focus on the honest blossoming of his feelings for her. This contrasts many of the male characters petitioning for Ms. Millamant's love, who do it only for show or respect, based on her status, beauty, and wit.

A later conversation turns back to faults more specifically, when Fainall, Mirabell, and Anthony Witwoud discuss Petulant's faults. The faults discussed are not having manners, being argumentative, not thinking before he speaks, being insincere, being too positive, being illiterate, not speaking well, being impudent, being vain, telling "unseasonable truths," and lying. This list of faults gives a window into the various things that could be considered faults in upper class society of the time, and interesting describe problems of both being too foppish (vanity, lying) or perhaps not enough (illiteracy, telling the truth).

The characters of Witwoud and Petulant serve mostly as foils for Mirabell's true love for Ms. Millamant, and with their foolish vanity and double-talk are common comedic characters in Restoration Comedies. Petulant, especially, is obviously hyperbolic, with his overboard fake displays of being desired by others.