Comparing and contrasting the maneuvers and the characters of all three plays reveals the genius of Congreve’s complex Restoration comedy. Underneath the complex interaction of characters, there abides integrity of fair play, a perception of truth. Mirabell affirms this sense of truth. In the other two plays, there is not a solid match to Mirabell, although Dorimant comes close.
Where Dorimant lacks compassion for his former loves, Mirabell remains a friend, confidant, and an ultimate protector of Mrs. Fainall’s reputation and wealth; he preserves a faculty of obligation. Through this sense of commitment, the association with noble chivalry shines and ultimately emphasizes responsibility of the noble ruling class.
Fainall, at first, appears as a perfect Restoration wit (in the same class as Mirabell). Nevertheless, later, he reveals himself as a villain, materialistic in nature with interests only in money and prestige. In his attempts to deceive, Mirabell (a true-wit in a noble capacity) out maneuvers him, leaving none of the demands he makes to Mrs. Wishfort fulfilled.
In the play The Country Wife, Wycherley explores the ideals of the city life versus country life. Ironic situations reveal the nature of the social and personal worlds of the characters. The demeanor survey partially sums up both Horner’s and Pinchwife’s discussion of what constitutes consideration in the taking a wife. Horner thinks “…Wit is more necessary than beauty…” for he considers “…no woman ugly that has it, and no handsome woman agreeable without it” (Wycherley 13).
Dorimant shares a similar admiration for women possessing wit; he finds his match, and love in Harriet. On the other hand, it is not the intent of Horner to limit himself to one woman or to marry. Instead, he fixes his intentions on enjoying his liberty and everyone else’s wife. His elaborate scheme concocts to identify the willing and gain the confidence of the unsuspecting (the husbands). One of his prior statements sums up his ideology: “Wine gives you liberty” . . . and “love takes it away” (Wycherley 9).
In contrast to Horner’s ideology, Pinchwife considers, the general truth of the matter to be, that “. . . he’s a fool that marries, but he’s a greater [fool] that does not marry a fool . . . .” Pinchwife’s question reveals his reasoning, “What is wit in a wife good for, but to make a man cuckold? “ (Wycherley 13). Thus, Pinchwife justifies his method of chicanery by keeping a country wife as a whore. Through his actions, he believes he prevents himself from becoming cuckold by the deceitful practices of men like Horner.
The comedy of The Country Wife is set in motion in the opening line with an [aside] that confers clarity of meaning and necessity for the quack: “A quack is as fit for a pimp as a midwife for a bawd; they are still but in their way both helpers of nature.–” (Wycherley 4). The consequence of this line gives precedence to the technique of using [aside] (a device the French playwright Moliere employs in Tartuffe) to succeed in the realization of the comical affect. In addition, Quack’s verbal interaction with Horner furnishes the audience with firsthand knowledge of Horner’s devious purpose from the beginning of the play to the end.
As the play continues, a comical aspect of the social and personal worlds of the characters reveals the play’s direction by way of the cuckold dance.
Etherege’s play, The Man of Mode, takes an altogether different direction when Dorimant opens the play with an articulate reference to the French Bourbon grandson of Louis XIV of France and great-grandson of Phillip IV of Spain:
“Now, for some ages, had the pride of Spain
made the sun shine on half the world in vain.”
Thus, a focus of contrast between the French and English is set in motion. By proceeding in this manner, Etherege portrays the quality of nature following from a higher to lower level as if to suggest that political approaches are the cause of the deterioration of morals.
Consequently, an achievement highlights through the portrayal of the characters a counter balance between the two ideologies. Sir Fopling’s characterizing astutely archetypes the augmentation of the French upper class. Whereas, the characterization of Dorimant portrays England’s Prototype, born of title. Although Dorimant admits to the ideology of Hobbes that man is naturally depraved by saying, “Love gilds us over and makes us show fine things to one another for a time . . . soon the gold wears off, and then again the native brass appears”(Etherege 100), he does not accept the French King’s adaptation of the concept. Instead, he sees through the false claim to nobility by Sir Fopling. The procurement of Sir Fopling’s station in the social order (subjugated to Louis XIV) manifests through Sir Fopling’s social blunders and recognizable, exaggerates elegance and intelligence and then compares to the superior, natural wit and intelligence of the English noble through the interaction of the characters.
King Louis believes God give him a divine right of power and declares, “I am the State”. The theory of Hobbes, who states people are naturally brutal and nasty (and the government is established by them to protect themselves from themselves), gives Louis absolute power. The government is to govern the people; they have no choice but to be obedient. Stemming from this ideology, feudal nobles disappear as Louis gives honor and income to only those who earn his favor. As a result, the middle class are encouraged to purchase titles through opportunity. Mannerism reign supreme over morals.
On the other hand, the English see intelligence and wit as superior qualities. The English exercising their choice with the restoration of the Stuart Line after Cromwell’s military dictatorship fails highlight this difference. The belief is the people give the power to King Charles II and the people have the right to take that power away. Intelligence and wit are the indication of notable worth, although the rising upper class put more significance in wealth than did the social class.
Etherege effectively conveys the posture of the French and English through Dorimant (the true wit in The Man of Mode). Dorimant initiates the caricature significance of Sir Fopling’s position by sharing his observation of Sir Fopling when he says, “…he affects in imitation of the people of quality of France” (Etherege 89). The significance of Sir Fopling serves as a means of exaggerating the position of the money elite within the society, eager for fame and money–yet, irresponsible and somewhat ignorant.
Likewise, in The Way of the World, Fainall imitates the people of quality in England. At first, he appears as a perfect Restoration Wit when he says, “…The coldness of a losing gamester lessens the pleasure of winner. I’d no more play with a man that slighted his ill fortune than I’d make love to a woman who undervalued the loss of her reputation” (Congreve 157). Dorimant makes a similar assertion when he says, “I would not have a woman have the least good thought of me that can think well of Fopling” (Etherege 101). They both exhibit jurisdiction, dominance, and control over their conquests.
However, Dorimant is not greedy for wealth as is the case with Fainall. Fainall betrays himself. Consequently, his greed for money and prestige converts his characterization to a villain.
Sir Fopling’s presentation of himself absolves Dorimant’s delineation of Sir Fopling. For example, when errors make mispronouncing words in an attempt to flatter Dorimant, Sir Fopling enhances the status of his own ignorance, “I have not met with any . . . who retain so much of Paris as thou dost–the very air thou hadst when the marquise mistook thee I’ th’ Tuileries and cried ‘H’e, chevalier!’” (Etherege 109). Dorimant’s reply, “I would fain wear in fashion as long as I can, sir. ‘ Tis a thing to be a valued in men as well as baubles” (Etherege 109)) escapes the understanding of Sir Fopling. In other words, Sir Fopling is unable to cover up his ignorance with stylish clothes or mannerisms. Although Fainall is not as vain as Sir Fobling is in regard to mannerisms and dress, he lacks the integrity of that which is of value in men of quality and he exaggerates the relevance of material wealth.
In The Man of Mode, not much of the plot depends upon the interaction of the characters. Whereas, in The Way of the World, by the end of the first Act the whole plot is given away very cleverly through the interactions of Foible and Mrs. Fainall while the enemy listens in Lady Wishfort’s closet in Act III. A rivalry between the characters disengages the movement the plot, enhancing the complexity, and distinguishing Congreve’s style over the other playwrights.
For instance, a rivalry first begins in Act I with Mirabell and Fainall through Act V. The final Act exposes the distinguishing qualities of both men. When Fainall takes his stand, his statement reflects his greed, “If it must all come out . . .’tis but the way of the world. That shall not urge me to relinquish or abate one title of my terms; no, I will insist the more”(Congreve 214).
Nevertheless, Fainall is soon outwitted and surprised:
“What’s here? Damnation! [Reads] ‘A deed of conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow, in trust to Edward Mirabell’. Confusion”! (Congreve 215). Mirabell answers, “Tis the way of the world, sir, the widows of the world.”
Mirabell saves the day. His planning and execution of Waitwell’s marriage to Foible puts him in control. Waitwell’s disguise as Sir Roland conveys a message: Only a servant can affectively imitate the upper crust without detection.
Although all the plays to some extent depict both the personal world and social world, Congreve does not flaunt the sexual aspects of the situations. The concept he portrays extends more towards exposure of the misrepresentation of the aristocracy by the money elite.
In The Country Wife, the play gives direction and then ends and in The Man of Mode, the play is open – ended, leaving the audience guessing whether Dorimant really changes. However, The Way of the World, issues a warning:
“From hence let those be warned, who mean to wed,
Lest mutual falsehood stain the bridal bed;
For each deceiver to his cost may find,
That marriage frauds too oft are paid in kind” (Congreve 217).
This statement revives noble chivalry with its warning.
Congreve, William. The Way of the World. The Restoration and eighteenthCentury Comedy. A Norton Critical Edition. Scott McMillin, editor. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 1973. 152-217.
Etherege, George. The Man of Mode. The Restoration and Eighteenth- Century Comedy. A Norton Critical Edition. Scott McMillin, editor. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 1973. 79-151.
Wycherley, William. The Country Wife. The Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy. A Norton Critical Edition. Scott McMillin, editor. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 1973. 3-78.