The Conscious Lovers

The Conscious Lovers (1722) by Richard Steele

Act I

Scene I Sir John Bevil’s House

Sir John Bevil is a bit dismayed when he discovers during an odd encounter at a masquerade that his son, Bevil Jr., has been entertaining an unknown woman. Bevil Jr. has been fixed to marry the daughter of Mr. Sealand, the connection of which would unite two vast estates. Mr. Sealand learns of the incident and breaks off plans for the union. Sir John instructs his servant, Humphrey, to chat with Bevil Jr.’s servant, Tom, in the hopes of acquiring information; Bevil Jr. was supposed to have married on that very day. Humphrey leaves and Phillis enters.

Servant Tom seems to have eyes and heart for Phillis, maidservant to Bevil Jr.’s bride-to-be, Lucinda, but she’s a little skeptical of his interest. In spite of all this, he instructs her to deliver a letter to Lucinda on behalf of Bevil Jr.

Scene II Bevil Jr.’s Lodgings

Sir John and Bevil Jr. conduct a father and son discussion. Sir John’s riotous marriage from his past is conveyed during the conversation. Bevil Jr. retains a reserved yet uncanny air about his fixed marriage, though he understands that somehow, Sir John is trying to make up for his mistake of marrying carelessly by having his son marry properly, to marry a woman of wealth and decency.

Afterwards, Humphrey and Bevil Jr. talk alone, where Bevil Jr.’s story of love — what is really eating at him — is revealed as a “secret” between the two. The story inspires in Humphrey the desire to help. The scene ends with an essence of discomfort and worry about the future of love.

Act II

Scene I Bevil Jr.’s Lodgings cont.

Bevil Jr.’s friend Myrtle loves Lucinda, and he arrives to talk with the former about this. Bevil Jr. assures him he does not want to marry her, but Myrtle informs that the coxcomb Cimberton is a possible threat; Lucinda’s mother wants her to marry him for his money. Cimberton, however, cannot act without consent from his uncle, and this is the case to be put before “her counsel,” lawyers Bramble & Target.

Scene II Indiana’s Lodgings

Isabella, Sealand’s long lost sister, and Indiana, Sealand’s long lost daughter, chat about Bevil Jr.’s behavior. Indiana is in love, but Bevil Jr.’s betrothal to Lucinda has Isabella rendering him nothing more than a pig, a hypocrite.  Indiana professes his sincerity, yet a bad relationship from her past has Isabella down on him; she trusts no one.

Isabella leaves, and Bevil Jr. enters to speak with Indiana, who’s suddenly skeptical. He talks of his love for her, how devout he is. She toys with the subject. They talk of opera and project themselves in line with characters, then out of the blue, he has a musician serenade Indiana. They discuss ulterior motives, but he ultimately leaves her feeling confident about him. Isabella returns to shower doubt on the matter, but Indiana refuses to agree with her.

Act III Sealand’s House

Phillis, servant to Lucinda, talking with Tom, wants to know of his love for her. He is trying to get feedback on his master’s letter, but is sidetracked by this activity. Nevertheless, he professes a deep love for her, and talks of the sadness of being a servant while in love; his hope is that their masters may endow them with a meager place to live someday. She finally gives him Lucinda’s response letter, and after he declares his sincerity for her, he kisses her!

Lucinda enters after Tom leaves, and talks to her about love without contracts in the servant world. She talks of herself and the bartering that occurs over her for marriage. After learning of the newest impending deal with Cimberton, Phillis leaves and her mother and Cimberton enter. He cracks his cold, calculating remarks of cynicism of which Mrs. Sealand is overtly thrilled by. He begins to survey Lucinda like a product — she departs in a rage. Cimberton and her mother continue discussing the deal that is to come, and of the lawyers involved. Myrtle and Tom then arrive disguised as “the counsel.” Between the two they spew forth meaningless rhetoric that sounds legal, therefore successfully deterring any immediate union between Lucinda and Cimberton.

Act IV

Scene I Bevil Jr.’s Lodgings

Bevil Jr. is questioning Tom about his encounter with Myrtle. Tom has inadvertently revealed to Myrtle about the exchange of letters between Bevil Jr. and Lucinda. This exchange has made Myrtle aggressively jealous, and has demanded a duel between Bevil Jr. and himself. Myrtle appears at his house and a heated argument unfolds. Myrtle, truly unaware of the nature of the letter to his love, Lucinda, pushes Bevil Jr. to the point of accepting the duel, though all along Bevil Jr. has been level headed about the matter. He recovers only to learn that Myrtle would just assume Bevil Jr. to be innocent. He shows Myrtle the letter; Myrtle goes red with embarrassment, but is quickly forgiven. The renewed friends discuss the problem of rash decisions vs. maintaining patience and virtue.

Scene II St. Jame’s Park

Sir John and Mr. Sealand discuss Bevil Jr.’s disposition. Sealand can’t forget seeing the young man with Indiana, and persists in thinking him a Rake. Sir John is adamant in defending his son as a man of honor, though he avoids the nature of his relationship to Indiana. Sealand is pointed in his disdain for Bevil Jr.’s behavior and therefore decides to address Indiana personally.

Humphrey enters after Sealand leaves, admitting he knows information about matters. He speaks on behalf of Bevil Jr.’s love for Indiana, and the discussion puts Sir John in a state of mental agitation. Sir John knows of the immense wealth a marriage to Lucinda will bring, and to think of a union otherwise, torments him.

Scene III Bevil Jr.’s Lodgings

Phillis endeavors to help Lucinda by addressing Myrtle personally. She proposes that he disguise himself as Sir Geoffrey, who is to arrive soon to seal matters between Cimberton and Lucinda. Myrtle accedes to the plan of which, Phillis does not openly convey her role in. Her words are simply, “Leave the rest to me,” and Myrtle is left hoping that he will ultimately be with Lucinda.

Act V 

Scene I Sealand’s House

Myrtle-as-Geoffrey begins by pointing out that Lucinda is of the “merchant” class, the truth of which does not bother Cimberton. Phillis then endeavors to get Lucinda to notice the trick that is unfolding. In another room, Myrtle exposes himself to her. Phillis then notifies Mrs. Sealand that Mr. Sealand still intends to wed Lucinda to Bevil Jr.

Mrs. Sealand is frustrated over the notion of who controls her daughter, and declares that the matter will be settled once and for all, by taking everyone to confront Sealand.

Scene II Charing Cross

Humphrey encourages Sealand to seek Indiana, yet stresses the need for propriety in the matter. At Indiana’s, old Sealand bribes the young boy Daniel to gain entrance.

Scene III Indiana’s House 

Isabella notices her brother Mr. Sealand automatically. She doesn’t tell him but rather, allows him to speak with Indiana personally. She is willing to hear him, though she declares the lowliness of her class and situation, deeming herself unworthy. Indiana suspects he is there to solidify the union between Bevil Jr. and Lucinda, to discourage her from interfering. Sealand, on the contrary, wants to know more about Bevil Jr.’s relationship with her. She discloses their passionate love, of his virtue, and Sealand begins to relinquish the idea of a fixed marriage. Indiana, ashamed of herself, pleads that he persist in his plan, to ignore her, insisting she must deal with the matter as is, yet in so doing, she reveals her troubled past.  The thought of losing Bevil Jr. hurts her incredibly, and as she feels the onset of her pain — that her life continues to experience emotional disillusionment — she drops a bracelet that once belonged to Sealand.

Isabella enters to clarify the situation, that she is Sealand’s sister, and that Indiana is his lost daughter. The three of them embrace, and the first order of business becomes to wed Bevil Jr. and Indiana. Isabella departs then returns with the entire gang. When Cimberton learns Lucinda has become worth only half the estate, he takes his leave of her. The group is surprised when Myrtle then reveals himself from his disguise. The two couples are thus free to marry who they please, and Sir John ends the play by attributing the course of events to the power of Providence.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

In a land where faeries were removed by mendicant friars, one of King Arthur’s knights sexually assaults a young woman by the river. The people are appalled, King Arthur is appalled, yet his queen and her maidens intercede on behalf of the young knight. King Arthur leaves the knight’s fate to his wife, and she poses the option for him to go free if only he can learn the answer to the question: What thing is it that women most desire? The knight is given a year and a day to return with the answer, and here, he realizes he’s gotten himself into a serious problem.

As his quest unfolds, the knight quickly learns that no one knows what women want. Many offer all sorts of possibilities, but none of them seem to be all-fitting for all women. Nearly the entire year passes, and he realizes he must return without the answer and face his punishment. Traveling through the woods back to the castle of King Arthur, he notices faeries dancing amid the trees deep off trail. He approaches them, but they disappear.

In their place, an ugly hag appears. She tells him the road has ended, then asks him what he seeks. He tells her; and she promises an answer to the question upon the condition that he obey her. He’s thrilled and together they arrive at the castle just in time where a gathering has taken place to await his answer. “A woman wants most of all, sovereignty over the heart of her man,” he declares. No one at court contradicts him and his life is spared. The hag then appears before the court and demands that the knight marry her, by the will of her contract with the knight, for the answer she provided saved his life. The knight is thunderstruck, appalled by his rash promise to the ugly woman. He begs for mercy, but she decrees that a curse will fall on both of them if he neglects her. She even pledges her love, and though this disgusts him, he marries her by an early morning ceremony then hides the rest of the day.


Later that evening, he groans as they lay together. She desires to know why he’s in distress, and he blatantly tells her: that it’s because she is so impossibly old and ugly, and also because she’s of a lower class. These facts confirmed, the hag offers the possibility of an adjustment to her looks within the span of a few days, providing he be polite to her. To enact this change, she first lectures him on his grievances.

She tells him that nobility should be viewed as a characteristic, not an inherited status. This nobility does not arrive by the family line, that simply because one is born into money and prestige, one does not automatically deserve all that comes along the path. True nobility, declares the hag, is attained through the power of God and is found within. Nobility is a manner of treating others as one expects to be treated. In this way, she denounces the brash way in which the knight felt he had the right to rape the stray maiden in the forest. The hag then addresses her social standing, her lowly class. She asserts that to live poor is to live wealthy in the heart. “Elective poverty is an honest way,” are her words, and she expresses pity for the man who covets. Though the poor have to work hard, the wiser they are by the virtue that they live by. To address her old age, she makes a joke of it by suggesting that he never has to worry about her cheating on him.

Ultimately, she ends her words with a proposition: to either have her remain ugly and faithful, or to become beautiful with the chance of going sexually astray. The knight, overwhelmed by her wisdom in lecture, places the decision before her, for he figures, judging by his own lack of wisdom, that she will know what is best. By choosing this option, the knight gave entire sovereignty to the hag, and in so doing, he is rewarded as she transforms into a young woman who is both beautiful and faithful.

The Tale of Florent

The Tale of Florent begins with the knight Florent, who is eager to prove his worth. Abroad he travels until he finds a battle to fight of which, in the process, he kills Branchus, heir to a castle ruler’s throne. In anger, Florent is taken captive by a vast army. The parents of the slain warrior are aware that Florent is the nephew of the emperor, and so they decide not to kill him in revenge; but this doesn’t mean they don’t want him dead. The cunning grandmother of Branchus offers to contrive a plan that will cause his death, by the trickery of a covenant. Surmising that he will never succeed, and decreed to die if he fails, Florent is given time to quest for the answer that eludes the entire race of men:

“What thing all women most desire…”

Florent’s uncle the emporer learns of the tale upon his return and summons wise men to take a stab at the answer, but no one seems to know. The knight figures he’s out of luck and realizes he must venture the world to learn if such an answer even exists.

One day as he approaches a forest, he spots an ugly hag lingering beneath a tree. He tries to avoid her, but she hails him, informing that she knows of his quest and that he must listen to her if he wants to live. Florent is interested but slightly disturbed by the condition that, if he wants her help, he has to marry her. At first he declines, but when he realizes the urgency of his situation at her repeated warning, he reconsiders. He figures he can marry the ugly woman and keep her hidden away, and so he decides to accept her offer. She accedes and tells him what women want:

“To be the sovereign of a man’s love…”

She promises him this is the answer and implores him to return to her after he has faced his inquisitors. Though he senses some relief, he can’t tell what is better, to die miserably with a false answer, or to be married to the ugly woman for delivering the correct answer. Florent returns to face the court where his inquisitors await. He delivers word for word what the hag said, and here the grandmother of Branchus stirs in malign astonishment, demanding to know who told him; yet nevertheless, he’s freed of his death sentence.

The reality of having to marry the old hag sets in, and Florent experiences depression. His word of honor is of the utmost importance to him, and sees no way of avoiding the match. He finds her where he met her at the tree and she appears to him as ugly as any vision of womanly ugliness could possibly be.

“And like some bulging wool-sack, she / Proffers herself, and tells him now / It’s time to keep his vow…By the bridle she seizes him…”

Florent owns up, places her on his horse, and rides off to his castle, traveling primarily by cover of night. He has to explain to his friends the reason for bringing the wretched thing to his room.

She’s bathed and the servants bring clean clothes for the hag, but they find not a single comb that will go through her knotted hair. After caking her face with make-up, he realizes she’s truthfully even uglier than before; it is at this point that he marries her. She’s as tickled as ever before the distraught knight and later that evening something even worse happens: he has to sleep with her, as she declares: “That you would be my worldly bliss.” Florent buckles down and kisses her, pretending she’s attractive, but perceives he’s nothing left to live for.

Later they lie in bed naked, and his stomach can barely handle the situation. He clings to the far end of the bed, avoiding her like vile smelling death, but she stretches her bony fingers out to him for cuddling. Their love consummated, she begins to speak, but he notices the person speaking is a voluptuous, eighteen year old girl. He wastes no time, but she instantly props up “the hand.” The beautiful young woman poses a decision for him to make, that he can have her either pretty by day, or by night, but not both. Florent cannot figure out what to do, what to decide. Thus he declares to his acknowledged, lifelong-to-be wife, that he will be happy with the decision she decides is best, that he trusts her to do the right thing by what she feels is right.

In this fashion, Florent gave his woman full sovereignty, the precise thing that women want. By allowing her the one thing that all women want, all her ugliness melts away forever, and she declares that she will remain beautiful for as long as they live. Turns out, she had been cursed by her evil step-mother who hated her, and was stuck ugly till she won love and sovereignty from a knight. They proceed to flirt and play with each other, and go on to live merrily forever, the moral of the story being:

“To teach us [men] how obedience to ladies leads to luck in love.”