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Congreve: The Most Elegant, Subtle Writer of His Time

The Works of William Congreve

edited by D.F. McKenzie, prepared for publication by C.Y. Ferdinand
Oxford University Press, three volumes, 2,200 pp., $495.00


Shortly after the opening of John Vanbrugh’s comedy of 1697, The Provoked Wife, two ladies discuss what they would do if they discovered their husbands were unfaithful. The first lady declares that she would pay him back in his own coin, but the second protests that we are taught to return good for evil. On thinking this over, the first lady remarks, “That may be a mistake in the translation.” The new independence of women could affect even biblical criticism.

Granger Collection
William Congreve, circa 1709, from the studio of Godfrey Kneller

This registers an important change in the relation of the sexes. Women could now openly claim the same entitlement to sexual pleasure that had always been taken for granted by men. Nowhere is this shown so clearly as in the English comedies of the last quarter of the seventeenth century—perhaps because women were at last permitted to be seen on the stage. It is not until the accession of Charles II in 1660 that female parts were taken by actresses (in Shakespeare’s time, even Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth were played by boys or young men.) Now some male parts were often played by women and the practice was very popular (one could appreciate female anatomy better in male attire than in the ladies’ robes then current).

William Congreve comes late in the development of a new kind of comedy with a much more open treatment of sexual matters. The new edition of his works, edited by D.F. McKenzie, does him full justice. It identifies and explains every topical allusion and informs us of every word that has slightly changed its meaning during the intervening centuries. All that Congreve wrote is printed in an accurate text, and everything written or said about him during his lifetime is made available. His debt to his predecessors, including Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, is acknowledged and displayed.

Of all the British writers of his time, Congreve was the most elegant, complex, and subtle; but without the frank grossness of many of his contemporaries, he would not have been able to achieve his original strokes. The most important of his immediate predecessors is William Wycherley. The play where Wycherley deals with a delicate problem—sexual impotence—with an admirable lack of delicacy is The Country Wife (1675). Jack Horner (i.e., cuckold-maker), returning from abroad, pretends to have become a eunuch so husbands will leave their wives alone in his company with complete confidence. His plan works splendidly—only too well, in fact, until it threatens to explode when Horner invites Lady Fidget to see his collection of “china.” She locks the door behind them, and her husband, Sir Jasper Fidget, arrives. He wants to know if there is another way to get into the room. The scene continues and builds to a grand climax; here is a much abridged version:

Mistress Squeamish: Sir Jasper, your servant; where is the odious beast?
Sir Jasper: He’s within, in his chamber, with my wife; she’s playing the wag with him.
Mistress Squeamish: Is she so? and he’s a clownish beast, he’ll give her no quarter; he’ll play the wag with her again, let me tell you. Come, let’s go help her—what, the door’s locked!
Sir Jasper: Ay, my wife locked it—
Mistress Squeamish: Did she so? Let us break it open then.
Sir Jasper: No, no, he’ll do her no hurt.
Mistress Squeamish: No…(Aside) But is there no other way to get into ’em? Whither goes this? I will disturb ’em.

Sir Jasper calls through the door to his Wife, and she answers from within:

Sir Jasper: Wife, my Lady Fidget, wife, he is coming in to you the back way.
Lady Fidget: Let him come, and welcome, which way he will.
Sir Jasper: He’ll catch you, and use you roughly, and be too strong for you.
Lady Fidget: Don’t you trouble yourself; let him if he can.

Enter Lady Fidget with a piece of china in her hand, and Horner following:

Lady Fidget: And I have been toiling and moiling for the prettiest piece of china, my dear.
Horner: Nay, she has been too hard for me, do what I could.
Mistress Squeamish: Oh Lord, I’ll have some china too, good Mr Horner—don’t think to give other people china, and me none. Come in with me too.
Horner: Upon my honour, I have none left now.

Wycherley continues to milk this joke for all that it’s worth:

Mrs. Squeamish: Nay, nay, I have known you deny your china before now; but you shan’t put me off so. Come—
Horner: This lady had the last there.
Lady Fidget: Yes indeed, madam; to my certain knowledge he has no more left.
Mistress Squeamish: Oh, but it may be he may have some you could not find.
Lady Fidget: What, d’y’ think if he had had any left, I would not have had it too? For we women of quality never think we have china enough.
Horner: Do not take it ill; I cannot make china for you all, but I will have a rolwagen for you too, another time….
Old Lady Squeamish: Poor Mr Horner, he has enough to doe to please you all, I see.
Horner: Ay madam, you see how they use me.
Old Lady Squeamish: Poor gentleman, I pity you.
Horner: I thank you, madam; I could never find pity; but from such reverend ladies as you are; the young ones will never spare a man.

A century earlier Montaigne had complained that women were forced by the rules of society made by men to pretend that they had no interest in the pleasures of sex. With the arrival of the actress in Restoration comedy, we can see the modest beginnings of an emancipation from this imposed hypocrisy clearly delineated in this climactic scene of Wycherley’s The Country Wife. “We women of quality never think we have China enough” is not a shame-faced confession but a proud affirmation.


The new realism made possible both a more searching (often more cynical) criticism of society and a more complex view of the psychology of men and women. In the last of the four comedies of Congreve, The Way of the World (1700), it resulted in the most brilliant portrait of a young woman in English dramatic literature, surpassing even Shakespeare’s Cleopatra.

The basis of the The Way of the World is not original with Congreve; it derives ultimately from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, with Beatrice and Benedick, the couple who insult and torment one another throughout the play until the end when they fall into one another’s arms. This was imitated widely during the Restoration with brilliant examples from John Dryden and George Etherege. The device was given a name at the time, “the gay couple,” no longer available to us for obvious reasons.

The difference in The Way of the World is that the heroine is dominant and overshadows the hero. Millamant is superior not only in wit and personality, but also in fortune (Mrs.—mistress—does not mean a married or widowed woman, but applies to any woman of good social standing without an aristocratic title). It is she who is wealthy, but her fortune is under the control of her aunt, Lady Wishfort. The main action of the play is the intrigue to force the aged aunt to release the fortune so Millamant can marry her lover, Mirabell.

This old woman is obsessed with a desire to marry a young man herself, and she is the only other character in the play painted with the vivid colors of Millamant. When Lady Wishfort is cosmetically prepared to meet a possible suitor, her maid observes, “Your Ladiship has frown’d a little too rashly, indeed Madam. There are some Cracks discernable in the white Vernish.” Consulting a mirror, Lady Wishfort replies, “I look like an old peel’d Wall,” and commands the maid to make her resemble the miniature of her painted many years before. Congreve’s treatment of the aunt is brilliant but merciless.

In none of Congreve’s comedies does the heroine appear before the second act. In The Way of the World, however, the public is prepared for her in act 1, scene 3, by a long speech of Mirabell:

I like her with all her Faults; nay, like her for her Faults. Her Follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her; and those Affectations which in another Woman wou’d be odious, serve but to make her more agreeable…. She once us’d me with that Insolence, that in Revenge I took her to pieces; sifted her, and separated her Failings; I study’d ’em, and got ’em by Rote. The Catalogue was so large, that I was not without Hopes, one Day or other to hate her heartily: To which end I so us’d my self to think of ’em, that at length, contrary to my Design and Expectation, they gave me ev’ry Hour less and less Disturbance; ’till in a few Days it became habitual to me, to remember ’em without being displeas’d. They are now grown as familiar to me as my own Frailties; and in all probability in a little time longer I shall like ’em as well.

When Mrs. Millamant, with her maid, Mincing, finally appears in act 2, scene 5, she immediately exhibits the faults and frailties that must have been catalogued by Mirabell—insolence, cruelty, scorn, egotism, frivolity—but all portrayed in a light that strangely makes her attractive, even lovable. Arriving late for a rendezvous in St. James’s Park with a few friends, she launches at once into an explanation of her lateness with a camp babble that is intended to be taken seriously by nobody:

Millamant: Mincing, what had I? Why was I so long?… O ay, Letters—I had Letters—I am persecuted with Letters—I hate Letters—No Body knows how to write Letters; and yet one has ’em, one does not know why—They serve one to pin up one’s Hair.

A friend protests that if he knew that is what she did with all her letters, he would keep copies:

Millamant: Only with those in Verse, Mr. Witwoud. I never pin up my Hair with Prose. I fancy ones Hair wou’d not curl if it were pinn’d up with Prose. I think I try’d once.

She then turns her attention to her lover, who had been irritated at being ignored by her the evening before, and she wishes to pay him back for the implied criticism of her behavior:

Millamant: Mirabell, did you not take Exceptions last night? O ay, and went away—now I think on’t I’m angry—No, now I think on’t I’m pleas’d—For I believe I gave you some Pain.
Mirabell: Does that please you?
Millamant: Infinitely; I love to give Pain…. Ones Cruelty is ones Power, and when one parts with ones Cruelty, one parts with ones Power; and when one has parted with that, I fancy one’s old and ugly.
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