The play’s action begins with Harry Horner explaining to The Quack his brilliant ruse for making a conquest of London’s upper-class ladies. Horner has spread a rumor that a treatment for venereal disease rendered him impotent, and his new status as a eunuch will allow him to gain access to ladies whose husbands and families would otherwise consider him dangerous. It will also allow the ladies to undertake liaisons with him and yet preserve their honor in the eyes of the world.
Sir Jasper Fidget enters with his wife, Lady Fidget. Inferring from Horner’s aversion to ladies that the rumors of his impotence are true, Sir Jasper arranges for Horner to act as his wife’s new chaperone and companion. After the departure of the Fidgets, Horner’s two friends, Frank Harcourt and Mr. Dorilant, enter and banter with him about women, wine, and friendship. Soon the fatuous Mr. Sparkish arrives, bores the three friends with his pretensions to wit, and is driven away.
Jack Pinchwife enters, and Horner correctly discerns that he has recently gotten married. Pinchwife, who has not heard the rumors, privately fears that Horner will cuckold him. The men then discuss Pinchwife’s reasons for marrying and his choice of a bride, and Pinchwife’s contempt for women becomes plain. When it comes out that Horner has seen the new Mrs. Pinchwife, the day before at the theater, Pinchwife becomes uncomfortable and departs.
Margery Pinchwife complains to her sister-in-law, Alethea Pinchwife, that her new husband has confined her indoors and will not let her see the sights in London. The women discuss Pinchwife’s jealousy, and Margery expresses her admiration of the actors she saw at the theater yesterday. Pinchwife enters and impresses both wife and sister with the importance of Margery’s remaining ignorant of the ways of the town. When Margery inquires the reason for this, Pinchwife explains that a licentious man at the theater has seen her and fallen in love with her; Margery is delighted, and soon Pinchwife locks her away in another room.
Sparkish, who is to marry Alethea tomorrow, arrives with Harcourt to show off his fiancée to him. Harcourt falls in love with Alethea immediately upon seeing her, and he cleverly makes advances to her under the nose of Sparkish, who is too obtuse to comprehend the drift of Harcourt’s dialogue. Alethea tries in vain to wind Sparkish up to some degree of indignation over this behavior; Sparkish believes staunchly that sophisticated town wits are immune to jealousy.
Once Sparkish, Harcourt, and Alethea have left, Pinchwife is surprised by the arrival of Lady Fidget, Dainty Fidget, and Mistress Squeamish. The ladies have come to see Margery, but Pinchwife invents excuses for why they cannot, then departs rudely. The ladies discuss Pinchwife’s jealousy and lament the mistreatment of upper-class wives by their husbands. They also discuss adultery, which they agree injures no one’s honor as long as it goes on in secret.
Sir Jasper arrives with Horner, saying that he has business to attend to and that the ladies must accept Horner as their chaperone. Lady Fidget rejects the idea of spending time with a eunuch, but Sir Jasper wins her cooperation by suggesting that she might win money off Horner at cards. Lady Fidget and Horner then step aside, ostensibly to patch things up, and Horner tells Lady Fidget in confidence that his impotence is a sham. She is delighted with this news, and the pair establish an implicit intention to undertake a liaison.
Margery and Alethea again discuss the restrictions Pinchwife has imposed on Margery. Pinchwife then enters and, after accusing Alethea of being a disreputable lady, says that he is looking forward to marrying Alethea off to Sparkish and then returning with Margery to the country. Margery protests, however, saying that she wants to stay in London and walk abroad. Pinchwife finally gives in; he decides to disguise Margery as a young man and take her out for an airing.
In the next scene, Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant stand bantering in the New Exchange. Harcourt confesses that he is in love with Alethea and needs a way of preventing her marriage to Sparkish. Horner advises him to use Sparkish himself as a cover for making advances to Alethea. Sparkish himself then approaches, and soon Pinchwife enters with Alethea and the disguised Margery.
Horner, recognizing Margery beneath her disguise, makes his move right under Pinchwife’s nose; Pinchwife cannot intervene without admitting to the disguise and humiliating himself. Meanwhile, Harcourt gets Sparkish to plead for him to Alethea, and in begging for reconciliation he covertly (but in terms clear enough to Alethea) expresses his love for her. Alethea becomes frustrated with Sparkish, who refuses to recognize that Harcourt is actually trying to steal her away from him.
When Pinchwife’s back is turned, Horner manages to make off with Margery. Pinchwife searches in vain for his wife, who soon returns with her arms full of gifts from Horner. Pinchwife, suspecting that he has been cuckolded, prepares to leave. Sir Jasper enters to fetch Horner to Lady Fidget.
Alethea’s maid Lucy finishes dressing her mistress for the wedding with Sparkish. Lucy disapproves of the match, however, and continues to advocate for Harcourt. The two women argue about the nature of honor and whether it is prudent or just for Alethea to marry a man she does not love, simply because she previously agreed to it. Alethea also reveals that Sparkish’s lack of jealousy is, to her, his most attractive quality.
Sparkish enters with Harcourt, who is disguised as his fictional brother “Ned,” the parson, who is to officiate at the wedding. Alethea tries in vain to make Sparkish see through the disguise; eventually she gives up and agrees to submit to what she knows will be an invalid marriage ceremony.
In the next scene, Pinchwife interrogates Margery regarding her encounter with Horner. Pinchwife is not yet a cuckold, but he sees that he will have to take measures to ensure that Horner does not have any further success with his wife. Pinchwife forces Margery to compose at his dictation a letter to Horner expressing her disgust with him and renouncing any further contact. Margery complies under threat of physical harm, but once the letter is finished and Pinchwife’s back is turned, she substitutes a love-letter for the harsh one Pinchwife dictated.
In the next scene, Horner gives The Quack a positive report on the success of his impotence ruse. The Quack then conceals himself as Lady Fidget enters, seeking her first sexual encounter with Horner. After some preliminary fretting over her reputation, she embraces Horner just in time to be caught in the act by Sir Jasper, who enters unexpectedly. Lady Fidget’s outrageous explanation, that she was merely determining whether Horner is ticklish, satisfies her oblivious husband. Sir Jasper objects, however, that Lady Fidget was supposed to be shopping for china. She explains that Horner himself has some expertise in china and even possesses a few pieces that she would like to obtain. With this excuse, she exits to another room, into which Horner soon follows her on the pretense of protecting his china collection. As Sir Jasper stands gleefully by, anticipating that his wife is about to obtain a valuable piece of china, Lady Fidget and her new lover have a liaison behind the locked door. Mistress Squeamish enters too late and is disappointed to have missed her opportunity; when Horner and Lady Fidget re-enter, they indicate through double entendres that he is physically depleted.
Pinchwife enters, and Sir Jasper departs with the ladies. Pinchwife delivers Margery’s letter to Horner; Horner reads it on the spot and figures out that Margery has substituted a love-letter for one that Pinchwife dictated to her. Pinchwife warns Horner not to cuckold him, but Horner feigns surprise at learning that the “youth” he kissed was not Margery’s brother but Margery herself. With another warning, Pinchwife departs.
After a brief discussion between Horner and The Quack, Pinchwife re-enters with Sparkish. Pinchwife and Sparkish are discussing the latter’s marriage to Alethea, which may be invalid, as the authenticity of the parson is now in doubt. Horner expresses disappointment in Alethea’s attachment to Sparkish; he is thinking of Harcourt’s hopes, though Pinchwife takes him to be disappointed for his own sake. Pinchwife exits, and Sparkish invites Horner to dine with him and Pinchwife. Horner accepts, on the condition that Margery will be invited.
In the next scene, Margery thinks longingly of Horner and sits down to write another letter to him. Pinchwife enters, reads the letter she is composing, and is about to commit a violent act upon her when Sparkish walks in and puts a stop to it, leading Pinchwife off to dinner.
After dinner, Pinchwife directs Margery to finish the letter to Horner as she had intended. Margery cleverly finishes it in Alethea’s name, suggesting that Alethea, not she, is in love with Horner. Pinchwife warms to the idea of marrying Alethea to Horner instead of Sparkish. Meanwhile, with Lucy’s help, Margery concocts a plan to get to Horner’s lodging: she will impersonate Alethea, who ostensibly wishes to meet Horner and discuss the matter with him but who is so ashamed that she must wear a mask in order not to face Pinchwife. Pinchwife falls for this ruse, and soon he and the disguised Margery depart for Horner’s lodging.
In the next scene, Pinchwife delivers the disguised Margery to Horner and then departs to find a parson who will marry Horner and Alethea. Sir Jasper then enters to inform Horner that Lady Fidget and her friends will soon be arriving.
In the next scene, Pinchwife, in Covent Garden, presents Sparkish with evidence that Alethea has written to Horner and intends to marry him. Sparkish is incensed over this insult. Soon Alethea enters, and Sparkish says such nasty things to her, including an avowal that her only attraction for him was her money, that Alethea concludes that she was deceived all along about his good nature.
In the next and final scene, Lady Fidget, Dainty Fidget, and Mistress Squeamish all carouse with Horner in his lodging. (Margery is concealed in a nearby room.) The ladies speak openly of their frustrations with the upper-class men who neglect them and of the hollowness of “reputation.” Lady Fidget then makes a reference to Horner’s being her lover; this admission elicits surprise from the other two ladies, who apparently have also availed themselves of Horner’s services. The three ladies quickly agree not to fight over him, however, but rather to be “sister sharers,” all keeping each other’s secrets.
Sir Jasper enters, and then the group receives notice that Pinchwife and others are approaching. Horner sends his guests into another room, then calls forth Margery and tries in vain to persuade her to go home before Pinchwife finds her. Margery, however, has resolved to leave Pinchwife and take Horner as her new husband. Horner sends her back into the other room as Pinchwife and the others enter.
Pinchwife, accompanied by Alethea, Harcourt, Sparkish, Lucy, and a parson, wants Horner to attest that Alethea has visited his lodging. Horner lies, in order to protect Margery, and affirms this. Alethea, baffled and aware that she is dishonored by this slander, avows that she regrets the loss of no one’s good opinion but Harcourt’s. Harcourt declares that he believes her; he then tries in vain to get Horner to clear the matter up. The two men have reached a stalemate when Margery pokes her head in.
Margery gives her opinion that the parson should marry Horner to her rather than to Alethea. Pinchwife, suddenly undeceived, draws his sword on Margery; Horner objects, and Pinchwife turns to threaten him instead, then is restrained by Harcourt. Sir Jasper, entering, inquires what is going on and is amused by the notion of Horner’s cuckolding anyone. Pinchwife’s seriousness, however, instills in him a fear that Horner may be virile after all.
Lucy intervenes, claiming that Margery’s coming in disguise to Horner’s lodging was not an indication that Margery loves Horner but rather part of Lucy’s plan to break up Sparkish and Alethea. Margery objects, however, that her love for Horner is genuine. Pinchwife makes more threats.
Suddenly The Quack walks in, to the relief of Horner, who calls upon him to attest to his impotence, which The Quack obligingly does. Sir Jasper readily accepts this medical testimony. Pinchwife is more suspicious and requires to be assured that all of London believes in Horner’s impotence before he will accept the idea. Margery continues to dissent, but the ladies overwhelm her testimony with expressions of their confidence in Horner’s deficiency.
Among the concluding remarks, Harcourt indicates his impatience to be a husband, the Pinchwifes each indicate their distaste for their marriage, and Lucy insists to Pinchwife that Margery’s expression of love for Horner “was but the usual innocent revenge on a husband’s jealousy.” Margery reluctantly confirms this lie, and Pinchwife resigns himself to accepting the story, though it does not convince him: “For my own sake fain I would all believe; / Cuckolds, like lovers, should themselves deceive.”