Comedy of manners refers to the kind of comedies that seized the theatre in England during the Restoration Period. A comedy of manners aims to depict the aristocratic or upper-class society at the same time also revealing what lies underneath the surface.
It portrays the way in which they attempt to describe themselves as the embodiment of morality and goodness. Meanwhile, in secret, the disorder develops extending from immortality to falsehood, treachery, infidelity, and depravity. William Congreve’s “The Way of the World” is the most appropriate example of comedy of manners. Congreve’s play incorporates nearly all the characteristics of a comedy of manners including wit, humor, love, treacherous persons and romantic dialogues, etc.
Truthful representation of contemporary society
The play “The Way of the World” truthfully offers us details about how the aristocratic society of England was entangled in their way of life; how women of that time were mad about style and romantic relationships. Act one of the play starts at the Chocolate House where aristocrats turn up to enjoy. In the same way, Act two of the play starts in St. James Park. This is a common place where people used to come to talk and meet each other. Act Three of the play takes place in Lady Wishfort’s home toilet. In this scene, Lady Wishfort talks to another character Peg about important matters from inside her toilet. It certainly reveals how aristocratic people of that time dealt with the serious things in life. In Act Four of the play, Lady Wishfort and Foible talk about the arrival of Sir Roland. Lady Wishfort instructs Foible to organize everything and she also requests for a dancer and musician so that Mr. Roland can be well entertained. It is the pretentious nature of the aristocratic people of the Restoration period. Considering Lady Wishfort is very much anxious about how to influence men in his first meeting, she is busy in the whole play about things like how to walk, how to talk and how to sit, etc. All these incidents distinctly reveal how people used to focus more on their manners and looks during the Restoration Period.
Read More: Proviso Scene in “The Way of the World”
Love and Marriage:
The Restoration Period was a time when England came out as colonial power all over the world. During this time England reached its peak materially and commercially. The people of this time stressed more on pleasure, wealth, and physical gratification. Love and marriage were assessed with regard to wealth. Marriage, at that time, was not meant for reproduction or for bringing solidity to the community. It was identified as a money-making venture. For example, in “The Way of the World” Mirabell pretends to love Lady Wishfort so as to he can come nearer to Millamant. Mirabell is eying her property. Mr. Fainall, on the other hand, does the same. It is not because of love and affection that Mr. Fainall marries Mrs. Fainall but because Mr. Fainall’s eyes are on Lady Wishfort’s possessions. So love and marriage are governed by a yearning for wealth.
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Illicit love affairs and intrigues in the comedy of manners
We can see illicit and extramarital love affairs and intrigues in a comedy of manners. In the play “The Way of the World” it appears that male characters are running after female characters. For example, Mirabell, Fainall, Witwoud, Petulant all look deceitful, two-faced, and unfaithful. In this play, most of the characters take part in conspiracies and cheats others. For example, when the play starts, we get to know that Mirabell is pretending to love Lady Wishfort so that he can come nearer to Millamant, the only inheritor of the property. In the same way, Mr. Fainall also keeps an eye on Millamant’s property. So we can see that in the comedy of manners characters give false pictures of themselves and they give their all to be what they are not. To take on a false and deceptive appearance is ‘the way of the world’. So, the title itself speaks the manner and behavior of the upper-class society of the Restoration period.
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Use of Wit in comedy in manners
The use of wit is another important characteristic of comedy of manners. The use of wit means using language in a very clever way by using intelligence. Repartee means when two or more characters communicate using these witty dialogues. The proviso scene of Mirabell and Millamant is an example of a repartee. Talking about examples of wit, there are numerous occasions in the play where characters use their wit. One such example is when Mirabell is talking to Mrs. Fainall, he wittily comments on 18th-century marriage: “You should have just so much disgust for your husband as may be sufficient to make you relish your lover”. (The Way of the World, William Congreve)
In the end, we can say that the entire play is concerned with the matters of legacy conflict, disloyalty, love, and marriage. As the story develops we can see the characters disclose themselves through their behavior, which creates laughter. Through this play, Congreve mocks and satirizes the manners of the upper-class society of that time and hence “The Way of the World” is a typical comedy of manners.
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