The Way of the World: Act Five
Summary – Act Five and Epilogue
The final act begins with Lady Wishfort and Foible talking. Lady Wishfort tells Foible to leave, to get out of her house and to go starve again. Foible begs her pardon and says Mr Mirabell ‘seduced’ her and ensured her no damage would come to her Ladyship. Lady Wishfort questions this, as they were set to betray her and have her marry a servant. Foible explains this could not have happened as Waitwell is already married to her. Lady Wishfort says they have made ‘a passive Bawd’ of her. She threatens them with custody and exits.
Mrs Fainall enters and Foible tells her that Lady Wishfort has left to find a constable and Waitwell has gone to prison already. Mrs Fainall tells her that Mirabell is there ‘to give security for him’ and says this is all Mrs Marwood and her husband’s doing.
Foible agrees as she knows Mrs Marwood had been in ‘my Lady’s’ closet earlier and heard their conversation and sent the letter to her. She also explains that Fainall laid the plot to arrest Waitwell when he pretended to go for the papers. In the meantime, Mrs Marwood explained everything to ‘my Lady’.
Mrs Fainall asks if she has been mentioned in the letter, or by Mrs Marwood. Foible says the letter referred to her, but ‘my Lady’ did not see that part. Mrs Fainall says her husband knows about her affair with Mirabell and this is their last day of living together.
Foible tells her that Fainall and Mrs Marwood have been in a relationship and she was made to promise to not say anything. Mrs Marwood made her swear on a book, but it was a book of verses and not the Bible so she is fine about breaking the promise now.
Mincing enters and tells them Lady Wishfort wishes to speak to Foible. She also says that Mirabell has helped to set Waitwell free, and wants her to hide in the closet as ‘my old Lady’ is in a ‘perilous passion’. This is because Fainall has said he will have her fortune made over to him or he will divorce. Mincing has also been sent for Sir Wilfull as ‘my Lady’ has resolved to have him rather than lose six thousand pounds. Before she leaves, Mincing agrees to vouch for Mrs Fainall and then exits with Foible.
Lady Wishfort and Mrs Marwood enter and she thanks Mrs Marwood for the ‘timely discovery of the false vows of Mirabell’ and the detection of the impostor Sir Rowland. She also thanks her for being an ‘intercessor’ with her son-in-law ‘to save the Honour of my House, and compound for the frailty’s of my Daughter’s’.
Lady Wishfort asks Mrs Fainall if it is possible she is her child and yet has transgressed ‘the most minute Particle of severe Virtue’. Mrs Fainall says she does not understand and when she is accused of ‘Cuckoldomes’ she denies it. She says the accusation is as false as her friend, Mrs Marwood, and Mr Fainall, her false husband and her ‘Friend’s Friend’.
Mrs Marwood asks what she means and Mrs Fainall insists that she knows and so shall the world. Mrs Marwood says she is sorry her zeal to help her Ladyship has made her ‘liable to affronts’ and Mrs Fainall exits after saying she knows her own innocence and defies everyone.
Lady Wishfort wonders if she might be innocent and says how she impressed upon her daughter to have an aversion at the sight of men. She comes round to agreeing with her daughter to let ‘him’ prove it.
Mrs Marwood warns her that her name will be ‘prostituted’ in court if this happens. This would then reach the press and hawkers would shout out the news in the streets. Lady Wishfort says this is ‘insupportable’ and she will give up everything for ‘Composition’. Mrs Marwood says she advises nothing.
Fainall enters and he advises Lady Wishfort to never marry as her next ‘Imposture’ may not be detected in time. He also says he reserves the power to choose for her, and his wife ‘shall settle on me the remainder of her Fortune’ and will depend on his discretion for her maintenance. Lady Wishfort argues that this is ‘inhumanly Savage’. He adds that he will be endowed with six thousand pounds ‘which is the Moiety of Mrs Millamant’s Fortune’, which she has forfeited by going against her aunt’s wishes (according to Sir Wishfort’s will). Lady Wishfort replies that Sir Wilfull was ‘non Compos’ and Fainall says he has come to make demands and will hear no objections. She asks for time to consider and he agrees.
He exits and she questions his insolence. She also says Mrs Fainall’s first husband would not have ‘carry’d it thus’.
Millamant and Sir Wilfull then enter and Lady Wishfort calls him a caterpillar and he apologizes and says he is willing to marry his cousin and Millamant agrees, in order to convince her she played no part in the plot. She also says that she has asked Mirabell to make a ‘Resignation’ of the contract that has passed between them.
Lady Wishfort says she cannot bear to see Mirabell, and compares him to a Gorgon, and Millamant warns that if she disobliges him he may resent it and insist upon the contract.
Sir Wilfull defends Mirabell, exits and returns with him, and Mirabell asks for Lady Wishfort’s pity. Sir Wilfull asks her to forgive and forget and Mirabell also asks that she sees he is punished as he is not marrying Millamant. Lady Wishfort accepts this on the provision he resigns the contract with her immediately. Mirabell says he has sent a servant and will deliver it to her. Lady Wishfort adds that his appearance ‘rakes the Embers’ which have been smothered in her breast.
Fainall and Mrs Marwood enter. He asks Lady Wishfort if she is prepared to sign and she replies she is not empowered to do so as her niece has matched herself by her direction to Sir Wilfull. Fainall insists she submits her estate to his management and complies with his other demands or her daughter will be turned adrift ‘like a leaky hulk to Sink or Swim’.
Mirabell offers to help and Lady Wishfort says he will have her niece yet if he can save her from this ‘imminent danger’. He says he takes her at her word and must have leave for ‘two Criminals to appear’. He adds, ‘Foible is one and a Penitent’.
Mrs Fainall, Foible and Mincing enter. Mrs Marwood says to Fainall that these have been brought in to expose her. Fainall replies that if this is the case, ‘tis but the way of the World’.
Foible and Mincing say they will take a Bible oath, and Lady Wishfort accuses Mrs Marwood of being an accomplice ‘with that profligate man’. Mrs Marwood accuses them of being mercenary and Mincing says if this were the case they would have held their tongues and she would have bribed them ‘sufficiently’. Fainall says his wife will ‘smart’ for this and will not leave her ‘wherewithall’ to hide her shame.
Mrs Fainall says she despises him and his malice and tells him to starve together with her (Mrs Marwood). He says he will not do so while she is worth a groat.
Waitwell enters with ‘a Box of Writings’. Petulant and Witwoud enter and Witwoud comments that they have all got together ‘like Players at the end of the last Act’. Mirabell says how a ‘Parchment’ of his has been signed and shows it to Fainall. It is a deed of conveyance of Mrs Fainall that puts her estate in his (Mirabell’s) trust. This was done on the advice of friends and ‘Sages’ as they knew of Fainall’s ‘Inconstancy and Tyranny of temper’.
Mirabell says it is ‘the way of the World’, ‘of the Widdows of the World’ and the date is older than the one Fainall obtained from his ‘Lady’. Fainall says he will be revenged and offers to run at Mrs Fainall. He leaves after threatening Mirabell that he will hear more of this.
Mrs Marwood leaves and Lady Wishfort says to Mrs Fainall that she has her mother’s prudence. Mrs Fainall says she should thank Mr Mirabell as ‘a Cautious Friend’. Lady Wishfort thanks him and says he has kept his promise so she must keep hers.
Sir Wilfull is accepting that he will not marry Millamant, saying he has ‘no mind to marry’ and wants to travel. Mirabell and Millamant are united and he kisses her hand, and a dance is performed (from the entertainment provided for Sir Rowland).
Lady Wishfort says she still has some fears that Fainall will ‘pursue some desperate Course’. Mirabell tells her not to worry as his circumstances are such that he will have to comply.
The play ends with an Epilogue and this refers to how some critics do not come to see a play to be pleased. Poets are also compared to painters, and the artistry of the writer is emphasized: ‘So Poets oft do in one Piece expose / Whole Belles Assembles of Coquetts and Beaux.’
Analysis – Act Five and Epilogue
This final act characteristically ties up the loose ends and also shores up the traditional morality that has been, up to now, challenged and mocked. By bringing Millamant and Mirabell together and exiling Fainall, some fairness has been restored and good seems to once more dominate over evil.
As with the Prologue, the Epilogue reminds us that this is a work of fiction and the artistry of the writer is highlighted as poets are compared to painters. This metafictional gesture has also been glimpsed earlier in Act Five, when Witwoud comments that they are all together ‘like Players at the end of the last Act’. This self-referencing means that the readers and audience are not allowed to be caught up in the play as a form of reality; it is reiterated instead that this is a play rather than life.