Enters Lady Wishfort and Fainall. After greeting her nephew and the rest of the guests, Sir Wilfull expresses his satisfaction that apparently she does not follow the city custom of not recognizing one’s relatives, as his brother told him. Lady Wishfort says he was just kidding and when Sir Wilfull travels abroad, he will understand this kind of teasing better. Mincing enters to announce that the dinner is ready, and Sir Wilfull asks her for help to take off his shoes, but Lady Wishfort tells him to do it in the hall. Everybody leaves for the dining room but Marwood and Fainall, who have been catching up on the news re: Mirabell’s uncle in the meantime. Left only with Marwood and her revelations about Mirabell having been Mrs Fainall’s lover, Fainall rages about being “a cuckold by anticipation”, which I think is a logical impossibility, but sexual mores are hardly ever ruled by logic. However, he gradually comes to his senses, by reasoning that he doesn’t love his wife, so he can’t be jealous of her, that takes her of the personal dimension. As for his reputation, or the public dimension, he didn’t marry for it, and his wife parted with her reputation before their marriage, so why should it reflect on his? Besides, as Mrs Marwood reminds him, quoting the Anglican marriage service, marriage is an honourable institution, and since one can’t be a cuckold without being married first, it means cuckoldry has to be honourable, too. Their plan is to warn Lady Wishfort about the identity of “Sir Rowland” in an anonymous letter, because Marwood doesn’t want to antagonize Foible, who may know a bit too much about her. Fainall, for his part, is going to act the role of an enraged husband and threaten to leave his wife, hopefully prompting Lady Wishfort into paying him for keeping silence and the marriage formally intact. If the plan doesn’t work out, he may leave his wife and settle down with Marwood. Do you now believe me that I hate Mirabell, asks Marwood. Yes, I believe you, he answers. Let husbands be jealous while lover should always believe in their mistresses’ fidelity.
What follows is a very strange scene where Sir Wilful and his brother stare at each other and nobody makes the first move. Finally he approaches the group, greets Mrs Marwood while Witwoud eggs Petulant on to make fun of his boots, which he does, implying that he’s a country yokel. Marwood intervenes, trying to defuse the situation. You must be Sir Wilful Witwoud, don’t you recognize the other gentleman? After a long while Sir Wilful recognizes his brother. I thought it was quite improbable, but as the later conversation indicates, he possibly hasn’t seen his younger brother since when he was a teenager and now Witwoud is fashionably dressed and wears a wig. I am on record not to recognize some of my friends when they wear a cap, so that. Sir Wilful greets his brother enthusiastically, but Witwoud tells him it’s not fashionable to acknowledge one’s relatives in town. Sir Wilful complains Tony (that’s his brother’s name) changed a lot, which he suspected because of the changing tone of his letters. He also reveals that his brother used to be apprenticed to an attorney, which Petulant finds awfully funny, because attorneys were looked down upon socially. Witwoud defends himself, saying it was long ago, and anyway after the death of his parents his brother was his legal guardian and he had to do what he told him too, or else he would have been apprenticed to a felt maker. Marwood, perhaps again trying to avoid a quarrel, asks Sir Wilful about his travelling plans, and he says he does plan to travel, but first has to spend some time in London to learn French. Sure, we have some great language school, says Marwood.
Enter Witwoud and Petulant. Millamant asks them whether they settled their differences. Witwoud says they are just both great wits going at each other. Petulant says that when he wants to say black is blue, it must be obeyed, Witwoud answers that it may, Petulant answers that upon proof positive it must, Witwoud uses his school logic to point out that upon proof positive sure, it must, but upon proof presumptive it only may. Mrs Marwood says their debates are very learned, and Witwoud answers that Petulant is an enemy to learning. Millamant says she hates ignorant men and can’t think of being married to somebody who can hardly read or write. Petulant answers that he doesn’t understand why: marriage is like hanging in this respect that in both cases it’s the clergyman’s job to read the prayers and the final result is the same. Millamant says he’s stupid and leaves with her maid. Sir Wilful, Witwoud’s brother enters. I think Congreve must have been a fan of Ben Jonson because he keeps on inserting these allusions to his plays: first to Volpone, than when Mrs Marwood talked about the intrigues of Foible, she quoted a title of Jonson’s play The Devil is an Ass, and now Witwoud seeing his brother, exclaims “In the name of Barthelemew and his fair”. Bartholomew’s fair was a big August fair in London, but it’s a play of a comedy by Jonson as well. Witwoud says he has not seen his brother since the revolution (meaning the Glorious Revolution of 1688), which, if we assume the play is set in the year of its premiere, 1700, is indeed very long. Footman says Lady Wishfort is not dressed yet, and Sir Wilful makes the customary noises about how late city dwellers rise from bed in comparison with him and other country folk. The footman is surprised to hear that Sir Wilful refers to Lady Wishfort as his aunt, and Sir Wilful asks him how he has been in her service. A week, answers the footman, which is still longer than anybody in her staff, except for her maid. Tell her that I’ve come, says Sir Wilful, and tell me who these guys are? I really don’t know, answers the footman, there are so many people who come and go here. He leaves.
Enters Millamant followed by Mincing, flustered because Petulant made her angry. Why can’t we choose our friends like we choose our clothes? (We totally can, Millamant.) She and Marwood engage in some light-hearted banter, carrying on the friends-like-clothes metaphor: the stupid ones are like the sturdy and cheap woollen clothes, they never wear out. Maybe one could give them as cast-offs to one’s maid? Or maybe to a theatre (rich people apparently often donated their cast-offs for costumes), fools could really be useful on stage, like masquerade clothes we are done with after one ball. Every woman of discretion accepts visits from fools as a disguise for her real lover, says Marwood. If you acknowledge Mirabell is your lover, Witwoud and Petulant may be your hood and scarf, because the whole town knows the secret. Millamant laughs her off. What? My lover? Of course the whole town knows he is desperately in love with me, but that doesn’t mean I love him. Marwood makes some veiled threats, but Mincing interrupts her by announcing that Witwoud and Petulant are going to come here, and Millamant decides to pass time by listening to a singer who just happens to be in the next room. (Congreve actually left her name blank, so that they could invite any female singer who happened to be available on this night.) The singer appears and sings a song about how sweet it is when somebody who was loved by many women but never loved back now falls in love with you.
Enters Mrs Fainall. Oh, Foible, it’s good I’ve found you. This beast Marwood saw you in the park talking with Mirabell and I’m afraid she is going to reveal your plans to the lady. What plans? asks Foible, innocently. Oh, don’t give me that, I know everything, says Mrs Fainall. I’m sorry, says Foible, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but I thought Mirabell, being your ex, might not want you to know. “Dear Foible, forget that”, says Fainall. You are really a very generous woman and Mirabell has reasons to be grateful to you, says Foible. But don’t worry, I’ve got it. Now if you excuse me, I have to rush to attend Lady Wishfort. I’ll go with you through the back stairs so that Marwood doesn’t see me, says Mrs Fainall. They leave and Mrs Marwood emerges from the back room. Well, well, well, she says. Now I know why Mrs Fainall pretends to detest Mirabell, but her dislike is caused by her surfeit of him, not by her want. I am certainly not going to be as generous as she. Enters Lady Wishfort, apologizing to Marwood for leaving her alone. Don’t worry, says Marwood, “I have been very well entertained”. I am really so busy, says Lady Wishfort, and now I realize Sir Willful, Witwoud’s brother, is coming before dinner, too. Marwood again suggests he should really settle down and get married, being forty, and not travel. Lady Wishfort says he still has time and she doesn’t want him to marry too young. Marwood suggests him marrying Millamant first and travelling later. I’ve thought so myself, says Lady Wishfort, I think it’s a capital idea. Foible enters to remind her that also Mr Witwoud and Petulant are coming to dinner. Dear me, says Lady Wishfort, I can’t possibly entertain them in this state. Marwood, be a dear and entertain them for a moment while I am getting dressed, will you? She and Foible leave.
Foible enters and Lady Wishfort asks her impatiently about the results of her mission. Foible assures her “Sir Rowland” is enamoured with her portrait and is going to visit her this evening. Lady Wishfort interrogates about her meeting with Mirabell and Foible assures her it was just a coincidence; she makes up a lot of offensive things about what Mirabell allegedly said about Lady Wishfort, her wish for a lover and how Foible is supposedly looking for an officer from a disbanded regiment for her (who had to live on half pay). Lady Wishfort is so incensed that she is ready to marry a waiter from a popular tavern in order to poison Mirabell, but Foible says a better option will be to starve him, when he can’t presumably inherit his uncle’s or Millamant’s money. They indulge in pleasant fantasies about Mirabell being imprisoned in a prison for debtors and reduced to begging passers in the street underneath his window for some small change. Lady Wishfort is unhappy because all these emotions cracked up her make-up, but Foible assures her she is going to make her look as good as new. Lady Wishfort is also anxious whether “Sir Rowland” is an “importunate” man and whether she can play a bit hard to get with him, and Foible assures her he is. She tells her she is going to complete her dressing in a room on the upper floor, which is just a pretext for Congreve to get rid of her when Mrs Fainall comes in.
The scene opens in the home of Lady Wishfort, who frets and chides her servant Peg because Foible is not back yet. She asks her to bring “red” and Peg asks whether she means ratafia or cherry brandy. Stupid girl, exclaims Lady Wishfort, I meant “Spanish paper”, i.e. rouge. Peg looks for it but Foible locked it up and took away the key. Lady Wishfort then asks for the other red – cherry brandy – and again gets angry with Peg when she brings her a cup that is in her opinion to small. As she is drinking, Mrs Marwood comes. She is surprised to see Lady Wishfort undressed, and Wishfort explains it’s because Foible is not back yet. Mrs Marwood tells her she saw Foible talking to Mirabell in the park. Lady Wishfort is distraught, because she sent Foible on a secret mission (that of seducing Mirabell’s “uncle”) and she is afraid she may reveal the secret to Mirabell, whom she describes as very cunning. At this point she hears Foible coming and tells Marwood to retire into another room, so that she may interrogate her maid. She tells Marwood to entertain herself by reading the works of several anti-theatrical writers such as Prynne, Collier and Bunyan – a joke on Congreve’s part, because Collier, who attacked Congreve personally, was a High churchman and certainly didn’t like to be grouped together with Puritans.