The young London man Mirabell and his friend Fainall have just finished playing cards in a chocolate house. Mirabell appears to have lost the game, but is not interested in continuing. Fainall notices something in him, but Mirabell passes it off for mood differences; the subject turns to Mirabell’s love interest, Millamant, and the nature of her flirtatious behavior occurring the night before. Mirabell mentions two jester friends involved, Petulant & Witwoud, but his thoughts truly turn sour at the thought of Millamant’s aunt, the endearing Lady Wishfort.
A party seems to have occurred to which Mirabell’s presence was deemed unnecessary. Fainall’s wife–who is also Lady Wishfort’s daughter–and her friend, Mrs. Marwood, had attended the party as well. Fainall discloses that Millamant cannot marry with dowry unless her Lady Wishfort approves.
After describing the nature and name of the “cabal” group, a group consisting of the immediate women known to them, Fainall also discloses how Mirabell had once made advances toward Lady Wishfort, if only to procure his love for Millamant. Mirabell cannot help but to describe the old Lady in his own, less than generous way, though they admit denying the woman’s return advances was a mean, dangerous thing to do.
What becomes known is that Mrs. Marwood had exposed Mirabell’s behavior, and in this light, Fainall gets slightly pushy with Mirabell, accusing him of acting then experiencing a sense of “negligence.” Mirabell observes how Fainfall pursues the “argument with a distrust,” and their conversation ends. Mirabell then learns of his servant Waitwell’s wedding; he’s married Lady Wishfort’s servant, Foible. Upon gaining this knowledge, he’s presented with their marriage certificate. Fainall returns and Mirabell admits to being slightly jealous of Millamant’s flirtatious behavior sometimes, though he accounts for other times in which he’s outdone her intellectually.
The subject turns to the impending arrival of a one, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, half-brother to Witwoud. They discuss his age of 40 in relation to the man’s desire to travel abroad in Europe, and the connection between the two is evidently viewed as a national embarrassment. They speak of the rambunctiousness that rules him in spite of his natural inclination to be generally friendly; they consider his best quality to be his mastery over the understanding of “raillery.”
Witwoud enters the conversation and he holds his own in wit; he’s expecting his brother, and is also asked to procure his friend, Petulant. They describe Petulant with less emphasis on intelligence, and more on his “smattering”; the man lacks manners and possesses the continual urge to contradict people in conversation. Ultimately, Petulant’s primary trait is that he simply lies about everything.
Petulant is dropped off by three unseeming women. Petulant’s ranting is finally interpreted to reveal that if Lady Wishfort is to marry, that is, if she is to marry a man that is Mirabell’s uncle who is also on the way into town, then Mirabell cannot marry Millamant with the inclusion of her dowry. Mirabell demands to know the origin of this rumor, knowing full well that Petulant has stayed the night at Millamant’s house. Witwoud discloses how the “cabal” group speaks of the rumors. The conversation heads to a close, and Mirabell saves himself the displeasure of walking with the riotous two men, instead leaving with Fainall to the mall.
Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are carrying on about men. Mrs. Marwood feels women always revert to loving men, no matter the state of dread that their lives seem to encounter as a result of them. Mrs. Fainall, however, remains utterly misanthropic; she hates her husband. Turns out, Marwood was only joking. She claims she would like to marry for spite, only to behave in ways that would make her husband perpetually jealous. During this exchange, Mrs. Marwood claims to hate Mirabell.
Fainall and Mirabell enter, and Mirabell leaves with Mrs. Fainall. Fainall talks with Mrs. Marwood, speaking of his knowledge of both Mrs. Fainall’s and Mrs. Marwood’s love for Mirabell. He had allowed his wife to pursue Mirabell so that he could be with Mrs. Marwood, though he cannot help but notice how she interjects her interests into Mirabell’s affairs; this is to suggest that she must love him. Mrs. Marwood, to the contrary, insists she has no attraction for Mirabell. He pushes her to admit the truth, but she threatens to expose their own affair. The conversation reveals how Mrs. Marwood exposed Mirabell and Millamant near secret marriage, which would have deprived Fainall’s wife, Millamant’s cousin, of big money. Fainall expresses frustration at having married Mrs. Fainall for what money she already had, only to spend it on his love, Mrs. Marwood, but the talk of these types of trickeries upset her, and she begins to cry. Fainall pleads his sincere love for her, hoping to calm her down.
Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall speak of love, and she speaks of her love for him. They talk of her disdain for her husband; she can’t figure out why she married him. Mirabell provides the answer: it was the most economic source of reputation to be had in light of her presumed pregnancy. Fainall had the type of character to serve the immediate marital need, and for this explanation, Mrs. Fainall comes to understand. As a token of their friendship, he informs her of his “design” to fool Lady Wishfort so he can marry Millamant with the inclusion of the dowry. He will have his servant Waitwell act as his fake uncle, “Sir Rowland,” to marry Lady Wishfort. After this contract is signed, Mirabell will disclose the hoax and provide the document that will “release her,” the one that shows Waitwell is, in fact, already married; yet he will do so only upon the condition that she consent to his wishes. Mirabell adds to his world of trickery by invoking the suggestion–through Lady Wishfort’s servant, Foible–that Lady Wishfort should endeavor to have Millamant marry her 40yr old nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud.
Mirabell and Mrs. Fainfall spot Millamant approaching with Witwoud & Mincing. Mirabell comments on the lack of men tailing the vivacious Millamant about. She’s denied herself the privilege, she claims. Witwoud is in a witty mood and Millamant graces the group with her own, a round of remarks that result in Mirabell’s subtle comment about Fainfall’s infidelity. At any rate, Mrs. Fainfall desires to know what took her so long. Millamant complains of letters, and speaks of using them for hairpins–verse letters only. Mirabell & Millamant then follow their logic on cruelty and power, and the punishing of a lover. Mirabell feigns a sincere viewpoint on relationships and aging; Millamant assumes the cynical in disagreement, espousing the ideal of acquiring as many lovers as one needs. The conversation turns to the act of talking, and Witwoud speaks of a woman he knows who never stops talking.
Mirabell then accosts Millamant directly, disapproving of the way she neglected him the previous night. She laughs, chalking it up to the foundation of her freedom. He implores her to be serious, but she persists, finalizing their moment by disclosing her knowledge of his “design.”
Mirabell is surprised, then talks to himself about the insanity of being in love. Here, the newlyweds Waitwell and Foible arrive to confirm the motion of plans. Foible carries a small picture of her lady for presenting in the fake arrangement. Everything is getting under way in the fooling of Lady Wishfort, and Waitwell feels overwhelmed by the impending transformation into “Sir Rowland.” The scene does not end without a three-way discussion on payment for deeds done.
The boisterous Lady Wishfort is heckling her servant for make-up to deal with her face that has an “errant ash color.” The “paint” can’t be found and cherry liquor is sought for drinking instead. Mrs. Marwood enters the room. Lady Wishfort has been waiting on Foible’s return, yet Mrs. Marwood informs her sighting of Foible with Mirabell, a thought which mortifies the Lady. Foible arrives, the Lady asks Mrs. Marwood for privacy, and Foible enters into a spiel of lies. Foible portrays Mirabell as slandering Lady Wishfort to shreds for being a schemer. She’s grows enraged as Foible feeds her anger with more lies. The stormy activity has the Lady ready to marry this “Sir Rowland” immediately, primarily to avenger herself of Mirabell. By contrast, she also begins to believe, via Foible’s craftiness, that “Sir Rowland” is something of a prime gentleman that she truly feels the desire to marry.
Mrs. Fainall enters in the absence of the Lady to notify Foible of her being seen with Mirabell, and to inform that she knows of the entire plan. Foible understands well enough, and boasts her of success at dealing with her being spotted.
During this time, Mrs. Marwood has been in soliloquy, thinking on the plot she has learned by eavesdropping on Foible and Mrs. Fainall. Lady Wishfort returns to her, and they come to agree that the 40yr old Sir Wilfull Witwoud is to be a fine match for the darling young Millamant.
The Lady leaves to prepare for dinner, and Millamant enters to speak with Mrs. Marwood. She is complaining about Petulant, that he contradicts everything said, a fitting behavior in light of the man’s name. The conversation turns into a dictum on the situation of the “fools” they have to deal with, yet in the process, Mrs. Marwood reveals that everyone knows about Millamant and Mirabell. Millamant insists it is no secret; in fact, she’s unclear why he’s secretive. In spite of, thinking on his behavior makes her laugh rather excessively. Mrs. Marwood reflects differently on the matter, reiterating her disdain for Mirabell, a disdain that Millamant appears to share in. Here Millamant expresses an odd affinity for Mrs. Marwood; a bizarre change in mood calls for a song to be sung by some woman in the next room.
[The song is about love, viewed as sickly when experienced by a vain, helpless person, that someone who is receiving the aim of affection is the one enjoying the reward of what amorous love has to offer.]
Petulant and Witwoud enter, and a conversation unfolds concerning the pettiness of their behavior. Millamant uses the subject to expose her wish for a man who cannot read or write. When Sir Wilfull arrives, Millamant takes her leave. He barely recognizes his brother Witwoud, yet demands to speak with Lady Wishfort. While waiting, Petulant and Witwoud play games with introductions, where a joke is made about Sir Wilfull’s boots and his horse that’s an ass. Finally Mrs. Marwood feels the need to formally introduce him; the brothers seem hesitant to embrace each other, though they exchange a series of sarcastic greetings. Witwoud has to explain that London is not the place for genial salutations between brothers. Sir Wilfull declares this to be the behavior of a city-pansy, the kind of traits he recognizes from Witwoud’s letters to home, the gradual change he noticed in the wording. The discussion recalls Witwoud’s past, one that amuses Petulant, yet Witwoud is grateful for his move to London, especially in light of his previous fate as a felt-maker in the country. Mrs. Marwood has to end the exchange by inquiring of Sir Wilfull’s plans to travel. Lady Wishfort and Fainall then enter the room; Sir Wilfull is to stay for dinner.
Fainall and Mrs. Marwood discuss matters. Fainall is disgusted by his wife’s betrayal, that she would willingly assist Mirabell. Since Mrs. Marwood has gained knowledge of the plan, it makes him angry that Mirabell might inherit the dowry money, Fainall’s would be share. Since Lady Wishfort loves her daughter, Mrs. Marwood suggests exposing Mrs. Fainall’s infidel behavior; the Lady would have to make a sacrifice to save her daughter’s reputation, and that would mean readjusting the inheritance.
These two discuss the possible results of effecting a plan that would ruin Mirabell’s plan. They ultimately decide that Mrs. Marwood will compose an anonymous letter to be delivered when “Sir Rowland” engages Lady Wishfort. Mrs. Marwood is also confident she can dispell the Lady’s plan to marry Millamant to Sir Wilfull. Fainall worries not about his reputation since he is the cuckold; he has a contract on some of Mrs. Fainall’s money already. Should they split, he will marry Mrs. Marwood into it, though for some reason, Mrs. Marwood still feels the need to clarify her disdain for Mirabell.
Lady Wishfort is anxious to meet “Sir Rowland.” She also remarks that she has ordered her nephew Sir Wilfull to address Millamant. When Millamant is posed with the option to speak with either Mirabell or Sir Wilfull, she avoids Mirabell for the latter. Foible is persistent on Mirabell’s behalf, and Millamant finally agrees to see him, if only with a lukewarm attitude, referring to him as a “wretch.” Millamant asks Mrs. Fainall to keep Sir Wilfull occupied, but she declines the honor. Sir Wilfull approaches, and Mrs. Fainall insists that he address Millamant immediately, even though he had tried to skip out.
Millamant responds to Sir Wilfull’s presence by continuing in her sudden mood of reciting poetry. Sir Wilfull cannot make out the reason for this, nor does he understand the “lingo.” He proceeds, however, to court her. Millamant is marveled, practically mortified, desiring to know exactly what a “walk this evening” would mean; she reverts to her naturally cynical disposition. Millamant knows nothing of his intentions, and she laughs when he talks himself out of the room.
Mirabell arrives to play the love interest, in spite of the callous atmosphere lingering in Millamant’s room. He discloses his persistence, and they begin to discuss the nature of marriage in a cynical manner. The Proviso Exchange to their marriage begins with Millamant’s uncharacteristic request, among others, of not appearing like a couple in love, a request Mirabell finds perfectly reasonable. He completes the exchange by listing his own unreasonable and restrictive rules, items that appall Millamant offensively. Her reaction thus seals the deal. Millamant is beside herself with frustration, but Mrs. Fainall arrives to have Mirabell vacate as Lady Wishfort is approaching, and that Foible wishes to speak with him as well. At this point, and quite out of the blue, Millamant confesses her true love for Mirabell.
The drunken Petulant & Witwoud enter to inform that a quarrel may or may not have occurred that concerns Millamant, that some plot exists somewhere to dispose of a “knight” that they cannot define. Sir Wilfull, too, enters drunk, boasting he will marry Millamant on command; Millamant observes his drunkenness and becomes disgusted. The sight provokes her to depart instantly. Lady Wishfort agrees that his drunkenness is to be deplored, wishing him to depart as well, yet the toper enters into a lecture on religion and drinking. His brother Witwoud finally leads the drunken man away.
Lady Wishfort then carries on with the arrived “Sir Rowland” in a series of apologies. Waitwell’s “Sir Rowland” is impossibly gallant, encouraging of a quickened marriage. The Lady is only vaguely skeptical, worried of her own reputation of a rushed marriage–she doesn’t want to appear desperate nor driven by some ulterior motive. The dancers Lady Wishfort requested for her elegant first impression upon “Sir Rowland” arrive, one of which has Mrs. Marwood’s letter for delivery. She is appalled at the suggestion that “Sir Rowland” is a fake, yet Waitwell claims the letter is written by Mirabell to fool her.
Suspicions fly when Foible participates in more rhetoric about sightings between Mirabell and Millamant, and “Sir Rowland” vows to fight for Lady Wishfort if need be. His intention is to substantiate the hand of the mysterious letter by offering to return with a box full of Mirabell’s handwriting. In this offer, he also declares he will return with a marriage contract for Lady Wishfort to sign, a proposition she hastily accedes to, yet all the activity, in the same vein, has made her somewhat happy.
Lady Wishfort is chastising Foible for her treachery. The Lady, it seems, had taken the girl in as a transient child and made something of her, thus her rage is all the more. Foible tries to explain Mirabell’s craft over her, and that she knew the intended plan would never work; she’s checked the law. Lady Wishfort remains unconvinced, and after declaring how her “turtle” is already locked up, declares Foible will be locked up as well.
Mrs. Fainall eases some of Foible’s discomfort, telling how Mrs. Marwood lay behind the mysterious letter, how Mirabell posted bail for Waitwell, who was caught during his feigned effort to retrieve letters, and how all is revealed about Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall. Foible, however, knows interesting facts about Mrs. Marwood and Fainall.
Mincing enters to tell Mrs. Fainall that Fainall has threatened divorce if he does not receive this money that Mirabell and Millamant are to marry for. Lady Wishfort prepares to marry her nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, before she agrees to such a proposition.
Lady Wishfort then thanks Mrs. Marwood for all that the mysterious letter has done. Mrs. Fainall, on the contrary, is accused by her mother. She is forced to explain that she has pertinent information that concerns the honor of Mrs. Marwood. The Lady carries on to inform Mrs. Marwood how she had raised her daughter “catechised” to represent the very model of virtue, to loathe men for as long as youth would allow, and to be repellent to the opulence of London life. To think her daughter has been adulterous is beyond her imagination. Lady Wishfort pleas for an open acquittal, but Mrs. Marwood warns of the long string of public slander that would unfold should such an acquittal actually occur.
Fainall enters to iterate his contractual threats against Lady Wishfort, that she’ll marry no one unless he decides who, and that the Millamant share be endowed unto his wife. He leaves her with time to think on the matter.
Sir Wilfull Witwoud enters with Millamant to announce their engagement, all with Mirabell’s approval. Mirabell awaits to see Lady Wishfort in person to affirm this account, yet she cannot bear the thought of him being in her presence. Sir Wilfull, however, reaffirms everything, and adds that Mirabell intends to travel with him; yet at the insistence that Mirabell be allowed to enter, Mrs. Marwood grows suspicious.
Mirabell professes his need for Lady Wishfort’s pity, albeit with an extemely minute sense of pride in his failed attempt to fool her. Sir Wilfull, too, is very desirous to have the Lady bestow a measure of pity. She finally gives, upon the condition that Mirabell’s nulled intentions come with a signed document, to which the seemingly sad Mirabell willfully presents. The Lady, however, still doesn’t trust him.
Fainall returns to pressure Lady Wishfort. Sir Wilfull, Mirabell, Millamant, and Lady Wishfort all confront him with the news of Millamant’s impeding marriage to Sir Wilfull, that no deal can now exist with him. Sir Wilfull backs his own insistence with a gun, yet Fainall remains undaunted; he threatens to shame the Lady’s daughter. Mirabell, in spite of the animosity between him and Lady Wishfort, offers up his services genuinely, to which the Lady becomes willing to accept. Her surprise by his sudden, selfless generosity, that he knows he’s lost Mirabell and is yet willing to help, inspires her to approve of his love for Mirabell.
Foible and Mincing are brought in to testify to the Fainall/Marwood affair. Their testimony fills Mrs. Marwood with disgust. Fainall, disgruntled, threatens his wife with shame, and she retaliates by disclosing her utter contempt for the man. Here, Waitwell appears with the box full of letters, though Lady Wishfort jokingly addresses him as “Sir Rowland.” Mirabell inquires of the arrived Petulant & Witwoud; they are to recall notarizing one of Mirabell’s documents with their signatures. Before moving any further, Mirabell insists that Lady Wishfort not forget her promise to allow his union to Millamant, to which she now pleasingly consents.
The result of this activity is a document produced, drawn up at an earlier date than the Fainall marriage at the warning of his questionably abusive reputation. The document places the once widowed Mrs. Fainall’s estate into the care of Edward Mirabell himself. Fainall is astonished; he flings himself at his wife. Sir Wilfull interferes, and Fainall threatens Mirabell with revenge. Mrs. Marwood expresses a prediction of future feelings of discomfort.
The group shares in mutual feelings of goodness, and Mirabell gets his girl. Lady Wishfort feels fatigued, and the men, Petulant & Witwoud, appear either indifferent or simply ignorant to the matter. Mrs. Fainall receives her document for protection, and the girl Millamant remains silent while Mirabell warns the audience, that those who marry in falsehood will somehow, in some way, ultimately pay a price.