In William Congreve’s play Way of the World, Millament is a young charming dame passionately in love with Mirabell and equally loved by him She is the first cousin of Mrs. Fainall, considered to be the most charming heroine in restoration comedy, she is beautiful, tantalizing, annoying and teasing at times. She is highly witty but sweet. There can be no malice in her. Mrs. Marwood is a parody of Millamant. She is sure of her feminine power.
In Act 2 Millamant gives the evidence of sparkling wit. She slights Witwoud for indulging in too many similitudes. She asks Mincing to stand between her and his wit and it gives young Witwoud the attention he is worthy of, nothing more. She is also clever enough to see through Mrs. Marwood and get to know what she is and what she wants.
She condemns the lack of knowing the art of writing letters on part of people. She uses letters written in verse to pin up her hair. In a teasing wit, she tells Mirabell that she likes to give him pain because that gives her a sense
of power. She calls him, ‘sententious Mirabell’ and exhorts him not to look brave like Solomon when he had to divide the child.
Millamant’s wit like that of Rosalind and Beatrice is a sign of intelligence. Fundamentally Millamant is a sensitive girl in an insensitive society. Millamant is genuinely in love and is not a coquette is made very clear after the bargaining scene when she confesses to her friend:
‘well if. Mirabell should not make a good husband, I am a lost thing-for I find I love him violently.”
Millamant’s choice of not using endearing terms in marriage is perhaps the prevailing disillusionment in marriage.
Millamant is the perfect modal of the accomplished fine lady. She is the ideal heroine of the comedy of high life. With all her love of affectations and all her social mannerism, Millamant understands that beneath the surface man is always man and woman still a pure woman. Mirabell loves Millamant for her faults.
Millamant’s character finds its true manifestation in love. Mirabell and she are the worthy partners. Though deeply in love she would not admit her love to him because to do so would be to lose one’s effective power in love. Her wit somehow eclipses her love for Mirabell but it makes the proviso scene so very successful.
Millamant and Mirabell overtop all other characters. The warfare of their wits and hearts is the very essence of the drama. George Meredith has said with justice that the play might be called “The Conquest of a Town Coquette,” and, when the enchanting Millamant and her lover are on the stage, our interest in the others fades to nothingness.
The affair between Millamant and Mirabell reaches the acme in the proviso scene. In this famous scene, the two lovers laid down the conditions for their marriage. Millamant would not like to be addressed by such names as wife, spouse, my dear, my joy, my jewel, my love, my sweetheart, etc. She regards them as vulgar modes of addresses. Millamant would not like to go to Hyde Park with Mirabell on the first Sunday to attract the attention of people and become the subject of their whisper, as the newly wedded couples are never seen together after that. She would also not like to pay social visits to his company or go to the theatre. She would like to maintain distance with him at least in public. The other conditions are that she would like to be free to pay visits to whomsoever she likes and receive visits from whomsoever she pleases, similarly write and receive letters, freedom to wear clothes that please her, and talk on the subjects which agree with her taste. Taking dinner at a time and place is her prerogative, privacy of her closet is not to be violated and Mirabell is not to be permitted without permission at the tea table.
There is plenty of humour and it will be noted that the love between the two is not based on sentimentality but on mutual consent, honour and grace.
Wit is an essential ingredient of Millamant’s character. She proves more than a match to Mirabell and to every other character. Some of her witty remarks have become proverbial
(i) One’s cruelty is one’s power; and when one parts with one’s cruelty, one parts with one’s power, and when one has parted with that, I fancy one’s old and ugly.
(ii) Beauty the lover’s gift! Lord, what is a lover, that it can give ? Why, one makes lovers as fast as one pleases, and they live as long as one pleases, and they die as soon as one pleases; and then, if one pleases, one makes more.
(iii) One no more owes one’s beauty to a lover than one’s wit to an echo.