Witwoud joins the men and immediately takes over the conversation, remarking that he’s not looking forward to Sir Wilfull’s visit and stresses the fact that they are only step-brothers. Witwoud then says he doesn’t want to dwell on the topic of his half-brother, and instead turns the conversation to Fainall, and compliments Fainall for having a happy marriage. Mirabell responds that Mrs. Fainall would draw a more accurate and vastly different picture of her marriage.
Witwoud, with his domination of the conversation followed by his humorous statement that he doesn’t want to dwell on the topic he brought up, is immediately established as less witty than the other two men (which of course raises the question of just how non-witty Sir Willful must be). Mirabell’s hint of the underlying dysfunction between Mr. and Mrs. Fainall reveals that he’s on Mrs. Fainall’s side. It also gives another view on love: that marriages aren’t always as happy as they seem to outsiders, perhaps particularly for women.
Witwoud is shocked and scolds Mirabell for his impertinence, but then forgets what he meant to say next and apologizes for his poor memory. Mirabell warns him that fools often reveal themselves as fools by complaining about their poor memories.
Whereas Sir Wilfull has a good memory, Witwoud is clearly a fool with a bad memory. He is not savvy enough with repartee to admonish Mirabell using wit and so must use direct language.
The conversation turns to Petulant, who has recently won quite a bit of Witwoud’s money in a game of cards. Fainall teases Witwoud that it’s only fair that Petulant should have won Witwoud’s money because Witwoud is the wittier of the two and always dominates conversations with Petulant. Mirabell tries to get Witwoud to bad mouth Petulant by suggesting that Petulant would not admit Witwoud is wittier. Witwoud is unwilling to insult his friend. However, the more he tries to defend Petulant, the more he begins to insult Petulant’s character in the process of trying “excuse” his flaws.
Petulant lacks conversational skills but has practical skills, unlike Witwoud. Witwoud and Petulant, then, make quite a complementary pair. The two serve as comic relief in the play, and in portraying such non-wits Congreve establishes what wit is through its negative. Meanwhile, Mirabell incites Witwoud in order to get information out of him that will be helpful to his plot. Mirabell is good at reading people and knows what buttons to push to make them do what he wants.
Witwoud refuses, though, to name the particular flaw of Petulant’s that most annoys him. This leads Mirabell and Fainall to suggest numerous defects in Petulant’s personality: illiteracy, small vocabulary, etc. But Witwoud claims to actually admire these traits as they allow Witwoud to “explain his meaning.” Finally, Mirabell hits close to the answer when he suggests that Petulant tells unbelievable lies because he doesn’t have enough wit to invent more compelling lies. Witwoud laughs, responding that in fact he hates that Petulant never tells the truth at all, which to him is an unpardonable fault. 01000
The Way of the World is a comedy, and Witwoud and Petulant are meant to be comic fools. Here Witwoud, clearly a fool, indicates that he likes his friend Petulant’s faults because they make Witwoud look wise. Witwoud does not put up with Petulant’s compulsive lying because Petulant doesn’t draw a distinction between lying to outsiders and his best friend.