Margery Pinchwife and Alethea Pinchwife discuss Margery’s desire to walk out in London and the desire of her husband, Jack Pinchwife, to keep her indoors. Alethea explains that Pinchwife is “jealous,” that is, “afraid that [Margery] should love another man.” When Margery protests that she never sees any man but Pinchwife, Alethea instances the play that Margery attended yesterday; Margery expresses her appreciation of the actors, whom she describes as “the goodliest, proper’st men,” earning a gentle reproof from Alethea. As Pinchwife approaches, Alethea agrees to ask her brother to give Margery permission “to go a-walking.”
Pinchwife enters and responds to Margery’s affectionate greeting by calling her a fool. He then turns on his sister, accusing her of being “a mere notorious town-woman” and wielding a pernicious influence over Margery. Alethea defends herself, protesting that she only “take[s] the innocent liberty of the town.” Pinchwife pleads with her not to “teach my wife where the men are to be found. … I bid you keep her in ignorance, as I do.” Pinchwife then urges Margery to compare him to the actors at the theater, extracting from her an acknowledgment that she prefers her husband, whom she knows, to all strangers. He then says that she must never again ask to go to a play, and Margery responds as Alethea, in a previous aside, predicted she would: “Nay, why, love? I did not care for going; but when you forbid me, you make me (as ’twere) desire it.”
Prodded by Margery, Pinchwife explains that he does not want her mixing with the men at the theater. When Margery expresses doubt that anyone could like “a homely country girl,” Pinchwife reveals that “one of the lewdest fellows in town” (i.e. Harry Horner) “who saw you there, told me he was in love with you.” Margery is thrilled, and Pinchwife scrambles to temper her enthusiasm until the approach of Mr. Sparkish and Frank Harcourt causes him to shut her away in another room.
Sparkish has come to show off his fiancée Alethea to Harcourt. Questioned by Sparkish, Harcourt expresses his admiration for her: “I could wish I had a mistress too, that might differ from her in nothing—but her love and engagement to you”; indeed, “I wish it were in my power to break the match.” Sparkish encourages these attentions, while Pinchwife looks on in horror: “Insensible fop, let a man make love to his wife to his face!” Sparkish even invites Harcourt to “go with her into a corner, and try if she has wit.” As Harcourt and Alethea move aside, Pinchwife upbraids Sparkish for dealing so lightly with the lady’s honor: “If you are not concerned for the honour of a wife, I am for that of a sister. … Bring men to her, let ’em make love before your face, thrust ’em into a corner together, then leave ’em in private! Is this your town wit and conduct?” Sparkish’s flippant response to Pinchwife indicates that he considers the appearance of indifference to a lady’s honor to be the mark of a sophisticated town “wit.”
Aside, Alethea is busy rebuffing Harcourt’s declarations of love. Harcourt argues that Sparkish’s lack of jealousy shows that he does not love her; Alethea counters that, on the contrary, it shows Sparkish’s confidence in her virtue. When Harcourt condemns Sparkish as “a bubble, a coward, a senseless idiot, a wretch so contemptible to all the world but you,” Alethea calls to her fiancee, who obligingly comes over. When Alethea reports that Harcourt has offended her by criticizing him and making advances to her, Sparkish excuses this behavior as typical of fashionable men: “we wits rail and make love often, but to show our parts” (i.e. talents). Sparkish is imperturbable until Alethea reveals that Harcourt has called him a “senseless, drivelling idiot”: now, says Sparkish, “my honour’s concerned,” and he asks Pinchwife to help him kill Harcourt.
Alethea intervenes on Harcourt’s behalf, however, saying aside, “I am so far from hating him, that I wish my gallant had his person and understanding.” In order to calm Sparkish she makes excuses for Harcourt, saying that he insulted Sparkish only “to try whether I was concerned enough for you, and made love to me only to be satisfied of my virtue, for your sake.” Sparkish, mollified, backs down and invites Alethea and Harcourt to depart with him for the play. When Alethea worries that Sparkish will leave her alone in the box again, Sparkish promises to leave Harcourt with her when he goes into the pit, and the three exit.
Pinchwife, who remains, is surprised by the sudden entrance of Lady Fidget, Dainty Fidget, and Mistress Squeamish. Lady Fidget demands to see Margery and announces her intention of taking the bride to the new play. Pinchwife resists, claiming first that Margery is not at home, then that she is contagious with the smallpox. Finding that the ladies are not deterred, Pinchwife gives up and leaves the room altogether.
The ladies agree that Pinchwife is jealous, and they lament the tendency of upper-class men to neglect their wives and take up with prostitutes and mistresses. The discussion then turns to the question of whether it is worse for an upper-class woman to commit adultery with an upper-class man or with a less illustrious partner. Mistress Squeamish argues that “nobody takes notice of a private man, and therefore with him ’tis more secret; and the crime’s the less, when ’tis not known”; Lady Fidget agrees: “’Tis not an injury to a husband, till it be an injury to our honours.”
The conversation ceases with the entrance of Sir Jasper Fidget, Harry Horner, and Mr. Dorilant. Sir Jasper informs the ladies that he “[has] business at Whitehall, and cannot go to the play with [them],” and consequently wishes them to go with Horner. Lady Fidget finds the proposal disgusting, and Horner affects to be averse to the company of women. He says some highly misogynistic things, drawing expressions of repulsion from the ladies. Sir Jasper intervenes, quieting Horner and taking Lady Fidget aside to convince her of how useful and entertaining a eunuch companion could be. When Lady Fidget learns that Horner has money (“money makes up in a measure all other wants in men”), she reconciles herself to Sir Jasper’s plans.
Sir Jasper then addresses Horner with a proposal: “since you are unprovided of a lady to flatter, and a good house to eat at, pray frequent mine, and call my wife ‘mistress,’ and she shall call you ‘gallant,’ according to the custom.” Horner, like Lady Fidget, says that he will submit for Sir Jasper’s sake and against his own inclination. Horner and Lady Fidget then move aside and whisper. While Sir Jasper informs the other two ladies that Horner is a eunuch, Horner and Lady Fidget are exchanging their own secrets. Lady Fidget is delighted to hear that Horner is “as perfectly, perfectly the same man as before [his] going into France” and considers him very generous to spread unpleasant rumors about himself in order to preserve the reputations of the upper-class ladies he takes as lovers.
When Horner and Lady Fidget have come implicitly to an understanding about their future liaison, Sir Jasper interrupts to see whether his wife and her new companion are getting along better. Satisfied with the answer, he leaves for Whitehall while the others leave for the play.
Immediately upon her first appearance in the play, the country wife Margery shows her innocence and ingenuousness: her question, “Jealous? What’s that?” bespeaks not only her verbal inaptitude but also her unfamiliarity with the emotional categories of men and women in society. Her own inclination is, like a child, simply to trust and love that which is familiar to her: hence she says to Pinchwife, “You are mine own dear bud, and I know you; I hate a stranger.” She appears to bear toward her unlikeable husband all the customary wifely deference and affection: in this scene, her natural kindliness holds out despite the fact that he treats her brusquely at best, insults her casually upon his entrance, and subjects her to a hysterical degree of surveillance. Even at this early stage, however, the possibility of rebellion is discernible: she recognizes that “the playermen are finer folks” than the churlish man with whom she lives, and this capacity for independent judgment and for disappointment in her own lot may spell trouble in the future.
The Pinchwifes’ is not the only marriage showing signs of weakness in Act II. By comparison with the two other pairings introduced in the previous Act (Pinchwife and his bride, Sparkish and his fiancée), the Fidgets’ marriage is a long-standing one. Outwardly they are a respectable couple, but their marriage is certainly loveless: Sir Jasper takes all his “pleasure” in “business” and none in his wife, though he is considerate enough (after a fashion) to provide her with a non-threatening male chaperone who will give the illusion of compensating for Sir Jasper’s neglect of her. Notwithstanding some superficial differences, then, Sir Jasper and Pinchwife have, at bottom, comparable views of women. Sir Jasper is neglectful and apathetic toward his wife, while Pinchwife is vigilant and possessive toward his—what the husbands have in common is a view of their spouses as inferior beings with whom sexual bonds are the only desirable form of intimacy.
Insofar as Sir Jasper has anything at all in common with Lady Fidget, their affinity would seem to depend on their mutual love of money. If the husband is eager to go to “[his] pleasure, business,” the wife is equally eager to capitalize, literally, on her own pleasures, namely casual entertainments. Initially averse to spending any time with the eunuch Horner, she suddenly warms to the prospect when Sir Jasper suggests that she might win money from him at cards; with remarkable crudeness she then remarks, “money makes up in a measure all other wants in men.” Tellingly, Wycherley has the Fidgets residing in the city, i.e. the commercial district of London; Sir Jasper is a specimen of the new-style man of business who was coming into prominence during the 17th century. The Interregnum had disrupted the traditional way of becoming wealthy (that is, through inheritance): many ancient estates had been seized, leaving historically wealthy families at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the new entrepreneurs of the bourgeois class. As a result, many old families sought to recuperate their fortunes by procuring wealthy bourgeois spouses for their children, and one supposes that a mercenary motive of this sort is what delivered Lady Fidget into her marriage with Sir Jasper. That marriages constructed on this model often faltered through mutual indifference or repulsion, or even sexual betrayal, is not terribly surprising.
Sparkish presents yet another variant of the self-interested view of marriage: he is the spokesman for the fashionable, libertine view this institution, and in giving this perspective a spokesman who is such a pretentious buffoon, Wycherley exaggerates and debunks it. Sparkish disavows sexual jealousy because he considers it a bourgeois attitude; as he says to Pinchwife, “d’ye think I’ll seem to be jealous, like a country bumpkin?” He disavows, in fact, any kind of strong emotion, claiming that any demonstration of feeling on his part is simply an act and a spur to his wit: “we wits rail and make love often, but to show our parts.” A successful wit, such as Horner, always has his emotions (such as they are) under control, but Sparkish takes this restraint to indicate a total absence of genuine emotion; hence, as Katharine M. Rogers points out, “he thinks it ill bred to take anything seriously, including his marriage. He pretends to be equally unaffected by love, jealousy, or anger.”
In a sense, indeed, Sparkish really is incapable of jealousy: he is imperturbable as Harcourt courts Alethea right under his nose. He is imperturbable, however, not because of his great sophistication, but rather because he is too self-centered to imagine that other people could have interests that conflict with his. Alethea, like a new suit of clothes, exists only to adorn Sparkish; as he says, the pleasure he takes in introducing her to his friends is like the pleasure he takes in “shew[ing] fine clothes, at a play-house the first day, and count[ing] money before poor rogues.” Thus, not unlike Pinchwife (who is jealousy personified and subscribes to a more conventional, “respectable” view of marriage), Sparkish essentially conceives of marriage as a purchase of the wife by the husband: Alethea is a fashionable possession. If his ownership of her induces envy in others, who would accordingly wish to cuckold him, then all the better for Sparkish’s vanity.