The dual presence of the Puritan heritage and of the immoral spirit of the Restoration in Congreve‘s "Way of the World"

Essay, 2006

6 Pages, Grade: 2,0


After theatres in England were reopened again in the course of the Restoration in 1660, after a period of eighteen years, the English theatre developed very much. Many plays were written for the two theatre companies in London, now in the tradition of the Restoration. Different forms of Restoration plays developed, e.g. the Heroic Tragedy, and the Comedy of Manners. But not only the Restoration and the following Glorious Revolution from 1688 were made a subject, but also the former Puritan period. Both periods differ very much in their politics, their ideas, and their way of living. When William Congreve‘s comedy The Way of the World was published in 1800 and performed by The Dukes‘s Men theatre company at Lincoln‘s Inn Fields in the same year, it was already more than fourty years after the Puritan period and exactly fourty years after the Restoration. By then the constitunional monarchy was well established, and even the ideas of the Restoration were not that uptodate any more. Nevertheless Congreve and his works are seen as part of the Restoration tradition, and his drama The Way of the World even makes not only the Restoration time, but also the Puritan period a topic. Here Congreve acknowledges the dual presence of the Puritan heritage and of the immoral spirit of the Restoration. He does this by presenting both Puritan and Restoration formed characters, by including ideas of both sides, and by refering to exponents and terms of these as I am going to show in the following.

Most of the twelve main characters are formed by the ideas of the Restoration. They belong to the Restoration tradition and hold the norms and the values of the Restoration time. This means that the characters are on the one hand often morally vicious, but on the other hand intellectually brilliant. A good example for this is Mirabell who does not have any scruple to deceive Lady Wishfort because he really wants to reach his aim, namely to marry Lady Wishfort‘s niece Millamant. In a way this is malicious because he takes advantage of his knowledge about other people, and especially about Lady Wishfort‘s negative features like her constant urge for sex, and thus her overzealous willingness to get married again. But of course his very reasoned plan is a proof of Mirabell‘s high intellect. He arranges everything so exactly that his plan is destined to succeed. Throughout nearly the whole story he pulls the strings and directs the action of most of the other characters. But Mirabell is not the only character in whom the typical elements, namely a certain degree of malice, and a high intellect are combined. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are good examples, too. They are very vicious as they are lovers, and Fainall thus betrays his wife. He actually only married her because of her money: „And wherefore did I marry but to make lawful prize of a rich widow‘s wealth, and squander it on love and you? [...] Death, am I not married? What‘s pretence? Am I not imprisoned, fettered?“[1] Obviously, Fainall does not like his marriage, and even though it is very malicious to have married a woman only for her money and betraying her with her alleged friend, Fainall is very clever in the way that he found a possibility to get more money. Besides, he is so intelligent that his affair with Mrs. Marwood is not revealed to the other characters until the end of the drama. Fainall‘s lover Mrs. Marwood is vicious as well, she pretends to be Mrs. Fainall‘s friend, and she also betrays Mirabell‘s plan to Lady Wishfort.

These three examples show that Congreve made many characters of The Way of the World to be influenced by the Restoration tradition. They are both malicious, and very intelligent, so that they can direct action as they please. But despite all these characters, there is also one Puritan character, namely Lady Wishfort. In public she behaves like a Puritan, e.g. she has got strict views on sexual morality. She even raised her daughter with the Puritan spirit. „I promise you, her education has been unexceptionable. I may say it; for I chiefly made it my own care to initiate her very infancy in the rudiments of virtue, and to impress upon her tender years a young odium and aversion to the very sight of men.“[2] This shows that Lady Wishfort supports the Puritan ideas. But even though she keeps to this in public, she is quite different in private. There her action is mainly determined by her constant sexual drive, which fits in with the immorality of the Restoration period. Thus Congreve shows the dual presence of the Puritan heritage and the immorality of the Restoration not only in the confrontation of different characters in the play, but also in the inconsistent behaviour of one character.


[1] Congreve 2001, p. 31.

[2] ib., p. 87.

Excerpt out of 6 pages


The dual presence of the Puritan heritage and of the immoral spirit of the Restoration in Congreve‘s "Way of the World"
University College Cork  (English Department)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Puritan, Restoration, Congreve‘s, World
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Jana Groh (Author), 2006, The dual presence of the Puritan heritage and of the immoral spirit of the Restoration in Congreve‘s "Way of the World", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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