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Act I introduces the characters and reveals the complexity of the
plot, although much of the important information is supplied
indirectly. There is a quality of indeterminacy that is maintained
throughout the play, so that later developments and intrigues
will be effective. The plot does not unfold in a linear fashion.
For example, important events alluded to in the conversation
between Fainall and Mirabell have already taken place.
At first glance, Fainall and Mirabell appear to be similar, but as
their conversation progresses, their distinct personalities
emerge. Both are witty rakes. It is only by the gradual revelation
of their inner natures that one is able to distinguish between the
hero and the villain. Fainallís cynicism is contrasted with
Mirabellís role as a commentator on the society of which he is
also a part. Congreve drops clues that foreshadow the animosity
that develops later between Fainall and Mirabell. For instance,
when Fainall cynically comments about the significance of a
womanís reputation, Mirabell nonchalantly replies, "You have a
state extremely delicate, and are for refining your pleasures,"
possibly hinting at Fainallís affair with Mrs. Marwood.
Mirabellís seriousness surprises Fainall, who then proceeds to
question him about the events of the previous evening. Fainallís
curiosity is fueled solely by base self-interest. He wants to know
about the developments in Mirabellís relationship with
Millamant because Mirabell is his rival in this matter. Fainall is
in need of money and is hoping to attain half of Millamantís
fortune. Fainall also suspects that his mistress, Mrs. Marwood,
loves Mirabell and wants to find out whether Mirabell
reciprocates her feelings.
The audience is informed that Mirabellís first attempt to win
Millamant by pretending to love Lady Wishfort (who controls
half of her nieceís fortune) has already been unsuccessful. Mrs.
Marwood exposed Mirabell's clever plot. Mirabell suspects that
Fainall is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood and, therefore,
knew about her decision to expose him. Mirabell further blames
Mrs. Marwood for turning Lady Wishfort against him. When
Mirabell remarks, "for the discovery of this amour, I am
indebted to your friend, or your wifeís friend, Mrs. Marwood,"
he subtly insinuates that Mrs. Marwood is Fainallís mistress.
This provokes Fainall, who denies that Mrs. Marwood was
responsible for enlightening Lady Wishfort and then retorts,
"What should provoke her to be your enemy unless she has
made you advances which you have slighted? Women do not
easily forgive omissions of that nature." This hasty reply
indicates Fainallís guilt, and it also indicates that he suspects
that his mistress has feelings for Mirabell. As a result, Mrs.
Marwood seems to be the main reason for the current rift
between Fainall and Mirabell. This part of the conversation
draws to a close as Mirabell accuses Fainall of being unduly
concerned about Mrs. Marwoodís reputation. Fainall cannot
answer this accusation and escapes on the pretense of meeting
Witwoud and Petulant in the next room.
Fainallís escape is well timed. It gives Mirabell the necessary
privacy to receive the message that his valet, Waitwell, has
married Lady Wishfortís maid, Foible, in accordance with his
plans. While the details of Mirabellís plan are not revealed until
the second act, his happiness indicates that he foresees some
remedy to his present problems. Therefore, Congreve arouses
the audience's curiosity without destroying the element of
surprise that will result when Mirabellís plot is unfolded later.
Another aspect of the conversation between Mirabell and
Fainall demands attention. When Fainall re-enters, Mirabell
comments that he loves Millamant in spite of all her faults.
Mirabell is unlike the sentimental romantic lover, blinded by his
mistressís beauty to the reality of her being. Mirabell excuses
her follies, however, saying that they are so natural that they suit
her. Mirabell pursues a woman because he loves her; Fainall
pursues women only because of money.
Witwoud and Petulant, who are also courting Millamant, are
introduced in this act. They are fops who have false wit; their
type is common in Restoration Drama. They do not serve any
significant part in the action, but add humor to the play. Their
main purpose is to serve as a contrast to Mirabellís superior wit.
They try to imitate the manner and wit of Mirabell, an
unaffected and accomplished gentleman, but fail miserably.
Witwoud, in particular, appears to be a hypocrite. His criticism
of Petulantís faults is strikingly at odds with his flattery of the
man when Petulant is present. Petulant is an example of an
affected character who wants to create the impression that he is
a fashionable gentleman; but he emerges as a mere fop. He goes
to the extent of having prostitutes dressed as fine ladies call on
him at odd hours in order to appear to be popular. Witwoud
remarks that often Petulant goes to the extent of even calling on
himself. Witwoudís criticism of Petulantís behavior indicates
that he is perhaps better than Petulant.
The argument between Mirabell and Petulant, as the scene
draws to a close, serves to contrast the two characters. Mirabell
is often taken to be Congreveís representative of the ideal
Restoration gentleman. Here, he shows genuine concern about
offending the ladies, which contrasts with Petulantís conceited
attitude as he declares that he is "in a humor to be severe." The
scene closes with Mirabellís comment that Petulantís wit is in
fact "impudence and malice."
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