Summary and Analysis
After Lady Wishfort is seen preparing for the visit of Sir Rowland, Millamant and Sir Wilfull are onstage together. Sir Wilfull, somewhat drunk but very shy, is too bashful actually to complete his proposal to Millamant. Overawed by the aloof lady, he is eager to get away and grateful when she dismisses him. It is obvious that he will not succeed, but he is likable in his embarrassment.
Immediately after occurs the scene between Millamant and Mirabell that is often called the proviso scene. They discuss the conditions under which he is prepared to marry her and under which she is prepared to accept him. At the end of the scene, when Mrs. Fainall enters, Millamant admits that she does love him violently. As Mirabell leaves, the company — Sir Wilfull, young Witwoud, and Petulant — come in from dinner. They are all drunk — Sir Wilfull the drunkest of the three. Now the spurious Sir Rowland arrives to woo Lady Wishfort, and his wooing bids fair to be successful when a letter is brought from Mrs. Marwood in which she tells Lady Wishfort of the plot. However, Waitwell and Foible between them manage to convince Lady Wishfort that the letter is actually sent by Mirabell and is designed as a plot against Sir Rowland. Apparently Lady Wishfort is convinced, at least for the moment.
Much of Act IV is devoted to variations on the theme of courtship in the Restoration manner. First the comic country squire is portrayed. At the end of the act, the obviously burlesqued Sir Rowland woos Lady Wishfort in a broadly comic manner. Between the two is the proviso scene.
The proviso scene in The Way of the World is generally considered the finest in Restoration comedy. The motif was first used by Dryden in Secret Love. The scene must be read carefully and, in a performance, must be developed by the actors with some finesse. Under the polished phrases and the verbal fencing, the happy couple are very much in love, as Millamant admits at the end of the scene. The careful student might reread the scene at this point to see what has led up to this admission.
This proviso scene is an emblem of the Restoration comic convention at its civilized best. At no time do the characters descend to any obvious display of emotion, let alone pathos. Even though in love, they conduct the scene with complete decorum. In the Restoration convention, in every exchange between a man and a woman, each is trying to build his or her own ego. All encounters are duels, and to be bested in the game of wits is to lose. The proviso scene is the reconciliation of these seeming irreconcilables. Mirabell will be a husband, Millamant will dwindle into a wife, but they have made a victory of their mutual surrender.
The gentlemen, drunk after dinner, who enter immediately afterward, are at once a comic interlude and a wry commentary. We have seen the Restoration ideal; we now see the gentleman as he actually exists.
The comic scene between Sir Rowland and Lady Wishfort is broad. Sir Rowland is a masquerade. He is the servant pretending to be a gentleman. Lady Wishfort plays the salacious widow to the hilt. Inevitably, the scene is a marked contrast to the love duel of the proviso scene.
The drunken comments are also nice counterpoint. Petulant's "if you can love me dear nymph, say it — and that's the conclusion. Pass on, or pass off — " and Sir Wilfull's "A match or no match, cousin with the hard name . . ." are a significant contrast with the mastery of style displayed in the preceding scene.