Congreve's "The Way of the World": A Play on Power and Provisos

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A power struggle. Three words encompass the major component of Congreve's play, "The Way of the World." A primary example occurs between the play's two main characters: Mirabell and Millamant when Mirabell asks for her hand in marriage. Known as the "proviso scene", it represents the greatest power struggle in the play--a battle of the sexes. Some see Millamant prevailing to be as powerful if not more so than Mirabell. These "Pro" sided scholars have called the proviso scene an example of equality between the sexes and a literary progression toward the modern woman. Contrastingly, I believe Millamant loses power throughout the scene and although Mirabell may sincerely care for her, he does not intend to give her more equality through marriage. Describing the scene sequentially, I will go into detail about why I support the "con" side of the argument. Overall, there are three main sections of focus: the Daphne and Phoebus analogy, the provisos themselves, and how the scene ends.

The proviso scene opens, "-Like Daphne (Millamant) as lovely and as coy." alluding to a Grecian myth about a woman resisting love. Even as the first line, the mention of Daphne reveals the foreshadowing of Millamant's loss in power. In the book, Great Figures of Greek Mythology, the god Apollo loves Daphne but she does not want to be caught and calls out to her father to save her. Her father transforms Daphne into a laurel tree and "Apollo made a wreath of laurel from its leaves for his head and decreed that the tree should henceforward be sacred to him" (Clayton 65). Already we can make a strong connection between Daphne and Millamant. Even though Daphne is not "caught", she still becomes a tree that is sacred only to Apollo. Like Daphne, Millamant f...

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...re to be treated as an equal, or if this scene proved to be a movement toward modern feminism, would that idea correlate to Congreve's view of the way of the world? I think the play as a whole and as a satire, reminds us (then and now) of our own vices, inequalities, and foolish behaviors even in the sphere of the sexes. The proviso scene stands as a power struggle between the strong-willed Millamant and her lover; a struggle the man wins. Likewise, Congreve's overall satiric message of the play does not reflect humanistic wishes or prophecies even in sexual equality. Instead, the play reveals the opposite, the reality, and the "way of the world."

Works Cited

Clayton, Peter and Joseph Campbell. "Great Figures of Mythology". New York: Crescent Books, 1990.

Congreve, William. "The Way of the World". Trevor R. Griffiths, ed. London: Nick Hern Books, 1995.

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