The Way of the World: Theme
Deception is portrayed in several ways, and comes, for example, when Waitwell disguises himself as Sir Rowland, in Fainall’s affair with Mrs Marwood and in Mirabell’s attempt to trick Lady Wishfort into allowing him to marry Millamant (which includes the plot of having Waitwell pretend to be his uncle).
Dishonesty is rampant and it is the means by which the plot functions. It is not until the final sections of the last act that this dishonesty is balanced by traditional morality and by the call to have no falsehood in marriage.
Unfaithfulness in marriage is a core strand to this work as several of the main characters are seen to either be in adulterous relationships in the present or have been in the past, or are pretending to be in one now (as with Waitwell in his disguise as Sir Rowland). The comedy of the play depends on these deceptions and on the ignorance of the cuckold. This theme is also intrinsic to a play such as this, which questions the piety of the marriage vows and offers instead a bawdy discourse on marriage, adultery and love.
Marriages are central thematic concerns as Mirabell’s machinations are fuelled by his desire to marry Millamant, and Fainall uses his marriage to try to extract money from his mother-in-law, Lady Wishfort. The state of marriage is depicted as simultaneously desirable, and yet to be avoided as a trap should be. These aspects of marriage are used to comic effect, but the play ends finally with a warning against falsehood in the marriage bed and so reminds the readers and the audience that it is dishonesty in marriage rather than marriage that has been questioned here.