The Way of the World

The Way of the World

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The Way of the World Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Congreve's The Way of the World. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William Congreve
William Congreve grew up in Ireland, where he attended Kilkenny College. There he met Jonathan Swift, a fellow satirist who would become his lifelong friend. He also attended Trinity College in Dublin. Later, Congreve moved to London to study law but switched to playwriting instead. He wrote five plays (4 comedies and 1 tragedy) between 1693-1700, some of which became the most famous plays of the Restoration period. His career as a playwright was short-lived and he entered retirement early. He never married but was involved with several famous actresses, many of whom starred in his plays. He died from wounds he received from a carriage accident and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
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Historical Context of The Way of the World
Congreve’s play was written and performed during the end of what scholars call the Restoration, the period in which Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 (Charles II’s father, Charles I, was beheaded on charges of treason on January 30, 1649 after a lengthy civil war and England briefly became a commonwealth with Oliver Cromwell as its leader.) In 1700, the nation was still struggling to define succession. King William III, a Dutch prince was brought over from Hanover in 1688, to rule the Protestant nation alongside his wife/cousin, Queen Mary, an event known as the Glorious Revolution. The pair essentially took the throne from the then-reigning Catholic King James II, Mary’s father, who fled to France. They promised to rule the nation well by upholding its Protestant tradition, something many citizens felt James II wasn’t doing. Congreve weaves much of this political detail into his poem through its preoccupation with marriage, capital, and laws.
Other Books Related to The Way of the World
The Man of Mode, Or Sir Fopling Flutter by George Etherege. Etherege’s play, first performed in 1676, is the story of the roguish, man-about-town Dorimant and his efforts to woo the beautiful and headstrong Harriet. The marriage is contrary to the wishes of Harriet’s mother, Lady Woodvill, who has heard about Dorimant’s immodest reputation and is eager to protect her daughter by marrying her off to a more suitable man. Though Congreve’s play is much more forward thinking in terms of the way he portrays women and their struggle for independence, his play contains many of the same stock character types found in Etherege’s play, such as the flirtatious hero, the overbearing mother, and the stubborn heroine.
Key Facts about The Way of the World
  • Full Title: The Way of the World
  • When Written: likely late 1699- early 1700
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: March 1700
  • Literary Period: Restoration Period
  • Genre: Restoration comedy
  • Setting: London, most of the play takes place in Lady Wishfort’s house
  • Climax: Act V, Scene I, Wishfort finally learns about Mirabell’s plot, that Foible is helping him, and that Sir Rowland is a sham.
  • Antagonist: Fainall
Extra Credit for The Way of the World

Congreve’s Love Life. It is reputed that Congreve was involved with Anne Bracegirdle, an actress to whom he gave many major roles in his plays. She played the role of Millamant in The Way of the World.