Lady Wishfort is a character type with a long tradition in drama — the over-eager, man-seeking widow. Her first offense, and that which initially makes her an object of ridicule, is the breach of taste, for she should know better. She is first described by Mirabell, who points out that her character is defined in the tag-name, Lady Wish-fort. She is fifty-five years of age, an age that certainly seemed very old to the precocious and brilliant thirty-year-old whose play was being produced. She is also the character with most lines in the final acts of the play.
Her vanity is made clear from the first. She misinterpreted Mirabell's flattery, which he describes in the first act. In the third act, the picture of Lady Wishfort at her toilette ridicules the woman who does not accept the fact of her age gracefully. Her indecorous interest in men is a part of her character and important for the action. It is the reason she can misinterpret Mirabell and the reason Mirabell can hope that Waitwell's wooing may be successful.
As a woman who controls considerable wealth, she is accustomed to having her own way; she is abrupt and tyrannical with her maid; she plans her ward's marriage. It is clear she does not like to be crossed and does not expect to be.
Congreve has probed this character further. Her vanity and man-chasing both have a common source; she lives in a world of fantasy. She looks into mirrors constantly but does not see what everyone else sees. In her mind, she can still be a girl of sixteen or a beautiful young woman. She is, therefore, especially susceptible to flattery, for there is no touch of good sense to help her see through it. Because of her susceptibility to flattery, her friends are always ill-chosen. Everyone she trusts betrays her to a greater or lesser degree: apparently her closest friend is Mrs. Marwood; her daughter and ward are both prepared to go along with a plot that would trick her in a most humiliating way; her maid, Foible, on whom she depends, plays a major part in the plot. In her dilemma in the last act, she is bewildered and helpless.
The humorous character is not often shown in situations that display aspects of his character other than his humour. However, Lady Wishfort as mother and guardian has a depth beyond the usual for her type. As a mother, she did not always act wisely:
She [her daughter] was never suffered to play with a male child . . . nay, her very babies [dolls] were of the feminine gender. Oh, she never looked a man in the face but her own father, or the chaplain, and him we made a shift to put upon her for a woman, by the help of his long garments and his sleek face.
Yet Fainall's demands could prove successful only because she loves her daughter and wants to protect her. Her choice of a husband for her ward might be incongruous, but it is certainly well-intentioned. Sir Wilfull does have sterling qualities, although he is hardly the right choice for Millamant.
The result is that Lady Wishfort, by the end of the play, has gained a certain measure of good will from the audience. She is a complex creation, the butt of the author's satire and actors' ridicule, yet the object of some painful sympathy.