The Way of the World: Act Four
Summary – Act Four
The scene continues from the previous act and Lady Wishfort and Foible enter. Lady Wishfort asks if things are in order for Sir Rowland’s visit and she is assured they are. She asks Foible about how she should receive him and finally decides to loll on a couch and then rise in confusion when he comes in. She also says she wants Foible to call Millamant to send her down to Sir Wilfull.
Lady Wishfort exits and Millamant and Mrs Fainall enter. Foible tells Millamant that Mirabell wants to see her though her orders were to leave her with Sir Wilfull. She asks if she should tell Mirabell she is at her ‘leisure’, and Millamant says no, and bids him to come another time. She then repeats the following line: ‘There never yet was Woman made, / Nor shall but to be curs’d.’ She is indecisive about sending Mirabell away and asks Mrs Fainall to entertain Sir Wilfull but she declines.
Sir Wilfull enters and says he is to take his leave. As he talks, Millamant walks about repeating herself. The two are then locked in the room together and she repeats the following: ‘I prithee spare me gentle Boy, / Press me no more for that slight Toy.’ They talk a little about the ‘Town’ and the ‘Country’ and she says she some business to attend to after he says he has nothing further to say to her at present. He leaves and Mirabell enters.
Mirabell and Millamant enter and she says she will not be called names such as wife, spouse, and my dear after she is married. She calls such names ‘Nauseous Cant’ and also asks that they will not be familiar or fond with each other in front of people. He asks if she has any other conditions and she says she will wear what she pleases and choose conversations according to her own tastes and will have no obligation to talk to people she does not like. The list continues and she also asks that he will always knock on her door before entering.
He gives his conditions and provisos and these include what she will drink at her tea table. She says she hates his ‘Odious provisos’ and he asks if they are agreed.
Mrs Fainall enters and Millamant asks what she should do, if she should have him. Mrs Fainall says she should and Millamant agrees. Mrs Fainall goes on to tell Mirabell that her mother is coming and he must leave by the back stairs to avoid her. Mirabell leaves and Millamant says she is lost if he does not make a good husband as she loves him violently.
Witwoud enters next and has been drinking. He tells them ‘my Lady’ had come in and stopped proceedings (of him, Petulant and Sir Wilfull drinking). Petulant enters drunk and says he has been reconciled with Sir Wilfull and they have kissed. Petulant exits and Lady Wishfort and Sir Wilfull enter.
She tells him she is ashamed of him, for being drunk, and he sings a song about drinking. He also says if she would have him marry his cousin he will. Millamant leaves with Mrs Fainall after he refers to her maidenhead and says if she has it, and she says he smells. Lady Wishfort says she does not know what to do with him, and then advises he travels and says he is not fit to live in a Christian Commonwealth.
Foible enters and whispers to Lady Wishfort and her reaction shows she has been told that Sir Rowland is growing impatient.
Waitwell, disguised as Sir Rowland, enters and presses for a conclusion. She asks for a delay of a day or two ‘for decency of Marriage’. He says the delay will break his heart and if his nephew knew of his plans he would poison him. She implies that Mirabell is a love rival and she tells him to not kill him straight away, but to starve him ‘gradually inch by inch’. He says he will. Foible enters and tells Lady Wishfort that the dancers are ready and one of them has a letter for her. Lady Wishfort leaves and Foible calls Waitwell a rogue. He says she (Lady Wishfort) is ‘the Antidote to desire’.
Lady Wishfort appears with her letter and calls in the dancers. She says she will read it now and points out it is in ‘a woman’s hand’. Foible notices it is from Mrs Marwood and tells Waitwell to get it from her.
He claims to be jealous and says it is from a man, but she says they will open it together. The letter states it is from someone unknown to Lady Wishfort and is writing to let her know that she is ‘abus’d’ and ‘he who pretends to be Sir Rowland is a cheat and a Rascal’. Foible says it is written by his nephew and he says he will fight him. Lady Wishfort asks him not to and asks him to consider her reputation (if he is killed). She says she will go to her niece, Millamant, and get her to confess. He agrees not to fight and says he will bring proof that Mirabell wrote the letter and asks if he might also bring a contract to be signed that night. She says to bring what he will.
The act ends with the following lines: ‘Ere long you shall substantial proof receive / That I’m an arrant Knight.’ Foible adds, ‘or arrant Knave’.
Analysis – Act Four
Lady Wishfort’s role is strengthened in this act as she is central in the plot for Mirabell to be given consent to marry her niece. Lady Wishfort is also used as a dominant comic figure and her aristocratic position and generally pretentious nature are used for humorous purposes. In the previous act, she was seen to worry about frowning too often and in this act she voices her anxieties about how to receive Sir Rowland and finally decides on lolling. Fears of ageing and of being sufficiently attractive are used, then, for comedy and this has the effect of adding an element of pathos to these scenes. This in turn lends the play some complexity and is a balance to its bawdier and more ribald aspects.
The dialogue between Mirabell and Millamant also draws on humor, and also has a more serious undertone as they discuss ‘provisos’ before their marriage. Their talk has the air of bargaining, but this is one of mutual understanding rather than economics and highlights how their forthcoming union is to be based on love rather than money. It should be remembered, though, that Mirabell’s decision to trick Lady Wishfort is based on his desire to gain her consent and, therefore, the fortune due to Millamant.