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MonkeyNotes-The Way of the World by William Congreve
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Act Summaries With Notes


Congreve dedicates his play, The Way of the World, to Ralph,
Earl of Montague, whose company and conversation have made
it possible for Congreve to write this comedy. The dedication
also constitutes a statement of purpose. Congreve writes that he
is aware that the world may charge him with vanity for
dedicating his play to the earl. However, he is certain that the
world cannot think "meanly" of a play that is meant for the
earl’s perusal. Conversely, if the play is attributed "too much
sufficiency," it would be an extravagant claim, and merit the test
of the earl’s judgment. Congreve humbly states that the earl’s
favorable reception of the play will more than compensate for
the play’s deficiencies, and he praises the earl lavishly for his

Congreve does not expect the play to succeed on the stage, since
he is aware that he is not catering to the current tastes of
Restoration society. Congreve states his dissatisfaction with the
kind of comedies being written. He points out that the characters
meant to be ridiculed in these comedies are largely "gross fools"
who can only disturb an audience, rather than stimulate their
reflective judgment. Congreve asserts that instead of moving the
audience to laughter, comic characters should excite

Congreve’s dissatisfaction with the contemporary comic mode
has led him to design comic characters who will do more than
merely appear ridiculous. The "affected wit" of his characters
shall be exposed and held up for the audience’s ridicule.
Congreve defines this as "a wit, which at the same time that it is
affected, is also false." Congreve is aware of the difficulty
involved in the creation of such complex characters. He is also
aware that his play may not succeed on stage because many
people come to the theater prepared to criticize a play without
understanding its purpose. Congreve then apologizes for his
digression and entrusts his play to the earl’s protection, claiming
that only his patronage and the approval of like-minded people
will provide recognition to writers of merit.

Congreve holds Terence, an ancient Roman author of comedies,
as his model. He states that Terence benefited from the
encouragement of Scipio and Lelius. Congreve laments that the
majority of Terence’s audience was incapable of appreciating
the purity of his style, his delicacy of plot construction, and the
aptness of his characters. Congreve then sketches a brief history
of classical comedy in which he mentions Terence's models and
traces the source of his inspiration back to Aristotle. Congreve
emphasizes the importance of patronage and claims that contact
with such superior people is the only means of attaining
perfection in dialogue.

Congreve proceeds to attribute all that is best in his style to the
society of Ralph, Earl of Montague. He further praises the earl
by stating that if this play suffers from any deficiency, it is his
(Congreve's) fault, since he could not rise to the stature of
Terence even though the earl was his patron. Congreve then
mentions that although poetry is "the eldest sister of all arts and
parent of most," the earl has never before given a poet his
patronage. Poetry addresses itself to the good and great. This
relationship is reciprocal: it is the privilege of poetry to address
them, and it is their right alone to grant it patronage.

Many writers dedicate their works to the good and the great. But
Congreve pleads that his address may be exempt from all the
trappings of a typical dedication. He states that he is dedicating
his play to the earl because he considers him to be the most
deserving and is aware of his "extreme worthiness and

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MonkeyNotes-The Way of the World by William Congreve

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