Congreve opens The Way of the World with a prologue that outlines the general struggle of playwrights to satisfy the audience and please all the critics. He suggests that this is a foolish endeavor and that it is better to instead write a play that instructs audience members on what characterizes a fool versus a wit.
This type of instruction is exactly what he proceeds to give through the repartee, or witty dialogue, of the fools of the play, mainly Witwoud, Petulant, and Sir Wilfull. These comedic minor characters often don’t fully grasp the significance of the drama going on between Mirabell and Fainall but provide comedic relief with their well-timed puns and “raillery,” or good-humored teasing, of other characters.
Additionally, the foolish characters Sir Wilfull, Petulant, and Witwoud model qualities the Restoration gentleman should not have and are personality types that a true gentleman should not surround himself with. All three men are unintellectual, “foppish” (excessively concerned with fashion), and at times, vulgar. By contrast, Mirabell is the foil to all three men, and represents the highest standards of decorum and wit. Importantly, though the three fools can at times seem like witty fools when they crack jokes, the opposite relationship between wits and foolishness does not hold true in Congreve’s play. Instead, Congreve makes it clear that true wits, like Mirabell, are never foolish and never fooled. Hence Fainall, neither quite a wit nor quite a fool, occupies his own category as the villain or rogue of the play and is consequently undone by Mirabell and his team of half-wits, Sir Wilfull, Petulant, and Witwoud.