Margery Pinchwife and Alethea Pinchwife meet and discuss Margery’s sadness at being excluded from the fashionable existence of the London ladies. Jack Pinchwife enters and accuses Alethea of putting troublesome ideas into Margery’s head; Alethea disputes this accusation, and Pinchwife says that he is looking forward to getting rid of Alethea through her marriage tomorrow night and to leaving London with Margery the following day.
Margery surprises Pinchwife by saying that she does not wish to return to the country; since hearing of the gallant who fell in love with her at the play, she has wished to stay in London and meet him. She asks again to go to a play, or at least to walk abroad. Pinchwife goes back to blaming Alethea and charges her with causing Harry Horner to come to Pinchwife’s house today. Alethea counters that Horner came on his own initiative, “because you would not let him see your handsome wife out of your lodging.” Margery is thrilled that a gentleman should have come to see her, and her determination to walk abroad increases.
Pinchwife gives in and asks Alethea what they can do to prevent Margery’s being recognized when they take her outdoors. Alethea suggests having Margery wear her mask, but Pinchwife rejects the mask as tending to “make people but the more inquisitive.” He decides instead to disguise Margery as a male “in the suit we are to carry down to her brother, little Sir James.”
In the New Exchange (a shopping district on the Strand), Horner, Frank Harcourt, and Mr. Dorilant discuss Horner’s current attitudes toward women. Dorilant wonders why Horner has not been avoiding women more completely, since he professes to hate them; Horner replies that he spends time with women in order to inflame his hatred and wreak his revenge on them.
Harcourt confesses that he is “in love with Sparkish’s mistress, whom he is to marry tomorrow,” and asks Horner for advice on how to steal her. Before Horner can answer, Mr. Sparkish himself approaches. Horner advises Harcourt to use the oblivious Sparkish as a cover for making his advances to Alethea. Sparkish, breaking in, jokingly accuses Harcourt of “making fierce love to [Alethea] all the play long.” He then reminds Horner of the ridicule Horner endured from the “wits” at the play. The three friends then draw out Sparkish on the topic of his antipathy to poets (i.e. playwrights): Sparkish considers himself and the other wits to be cleverer than the poets, and he resents that the poets have taken to satirizing not only lower-class subjects but gentlemen as well.
Pinchwife enters with Alethea, Lucy, and the disguised Margery. Sparkish hides behind Harcourt, claiming that he is due in Whitehall and has no time for Alethea. Horner greets Pinchwife, only to be cold-shouldered by him. Margery examines the low-brow wares of Clasp the bookseller; Pinchwife tries to hustle her away, but Horner notices her and inquires of Sparkish the identity of “that pretty youth.” Sparkish believes that the youth is Pinchwife’s brother-in-law, and Horner expresses his admiration. When Pinchwife and his train move off, Horner and Dorilant follow them.
Harcourt, remaining, begs Sparkish to reconcile him to Alethea. He claims to desire Alethea’s friendship only so that she will not come between Harcourt and his dear friend Sparkish, and the flattered Sparkish agrees to take Harcourt to Alethea and reconcile them. Pinchwife re-enters with the disguised Margery in tow; after Margery has marveled at the tavern signs and Pinchwife has muttered darkly about cuckolding, they exit again. Sparkish and Harcourt then re-enter with Alethea and Lucy.
Sparkish urges Alethea to be reconciled to Harcourt; Alethea resists this suggestion and becomes exasperated with Sparkish, who refuses to accept that Harcourt is actually trying to steal her away from him. Sparkish welcomes Harcourt’s attentions as a compliment to Alethea, and indirectly to himself: “Is it for your honour, or mine, to have me jealous? That he makes love to you is a sign you are handsome; and that I am not jealous is a sign you are virtuous.” After further fruitless argument, Alethea expresses her frustration: “You astonish me, sir, with your want of jealousy.” Sparkish’s response reveals his basically contemptuous view of women: “And you make me giddy, madam, with your jealousy, and fears, and virtue, and honour. Gad, I see virtue makes a woman as troublesome as a little reading or learning.”
Harcourt goes on to insult Sparkish in a manner that makes his sense clear to the sharp-witted Alethea while sounding complimentary to the vapid Sparkish. Alethea finally threatens to walk off, saying, “I can no longer suffer his scurrilous abusiveness to you, no more than his love to me.” Sparkish detains her, however, so that Harcourt can clarify just what kind of love he bears Alethea. When Harcourt describes it as “the best and truest love in the world,” Sparkish triumphantly concludes that it is “no matrimonial love, I’m sure.” Alethea is understandably put out by this low valuation of matrimonial love. Harcourt goes on to describe his love in extravagant terms, with encouragement from Sparkish, until Sparkish invites Harcourt to close the deal by kissing Alethea.
Pinchwife and the disguised Margery enter just as Alethea is resisting the idea of Harcourt’s kissing her. Pinchwife expresses his horror at the whole idea, leading Sparkish to defend his lack of jealousy: “I love to be envied, and would not marry a wife that I alone could love. … I love to have rivals in a wife; they make her seem to a man still but as a kept mistress.” With that, Sparkish departs.
Harcourt asks Alethea to allow him to visit tomorrow with a clergyman. Pinchwife intervenes and tries to leave with the women, but he does not manage to make his escape before Horner enters with Dorilant. Horner accuses Pinchwife of being unsociable, and Pinchwife excuses himself, claiming that he has business to attend to. Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant lay hold of Margery, Alethea, and Lucy, respectively, offering to look after the women while Pinchwife goes about his business. Pinchwife tries to take Margery (“[his] wife’s brother”) away from Horner, but Horner exclaims that the youth greatly resembles “her I saw you at the play with—whom I told you I was in love with.” Margery, in a comment aside, expresses her satisfaction with this revelation.
Horner goes on lavishing praise on the disguised Margery, such that Pinchwife is in no doubt that Horner sees through the disguise; he cannot warn Horner off his wife, however, without admitting to the ruse and embarrassing himself. Eventually he declares that they must leave; Horner, in parting, kisses Margery’s “brother” and tells him, “you have revived the love I had for [Margery] at first sight in the playhouse.” Pinchwife suffers agonies, remembering that just moments ago he was criticizing Sparkish for allowing another man to kiss Alethea in front of him.
Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant depart. Pinchwife moves off in another direction to seek the coach, and while he is gone, the three wits return. Horner leads the disguised Margery into a nearby walk, to the consternation of Alethea and Lucy. Pinchwife returns to learn that Horner has made off with Margery, and he goes to seek them. Harcourt questions Alethea about her loyalty to “that wretch” Sparkish, and she explains: “if he be true, and what I think him to me, I must be so to him.”
Pinchwife returns again, empty-handed, and takes out his frustrations on Alethea, whom he calls “eternal shame of your family” and accuses of arranging for Margery to consort with Horner. Then the disguised Margery suddenly returns, running, with her arms full of oranges and dried fruit and Horner following behind. Margery shows to Pinchwife the gifts she has received from Horner. Pinchwife, feeling distinctly cuckolded, is eager to leave.
Sir Jasper Fidget then enters to remind Horner to call on Lady Fidget. Horner leaves with Sir Jasper, and Harcourt and Dorilant part from Alethea and Lucy. Margery offers an orange to Pinchwife, who rejects it brusquely.
Pinchwife’s comic flaw is his obsessive jealousy—but it is a particularly ugly kind of jealousy, proceeding not from love but from his sense that Margery is his property. There is nothing romantic about the May-December pairing of Pinchwife (49) and his bride (whom most critics take to be under 20): Pinchwife has married simply in order to have a reliable sexual partner—or as Horner has put it, “to keep a whore to [him]self”; he has chosen Margery precisely because he has contempt for her and expects that she will be easy to control—as he himself has said, “he’s a fool that marries, but he’s a greater that does not marry a fool.” B. A. Kachur summarizes Pinchwife’s “chauvinistic tenets” as holding that “women are inherently inferior, malleable, and servile”: he can neglect his wife, lock her up in town, strand her in the countryside, speak cruelly to her, even (in the next Act) threaten her physically, and all the while expect her to submit faithfully and keep her marriage vows.
With Act III, Wycherley begins to show Sparkish to be not merely frivolous but almost pathologically self-centered, as Sparkish’s feeble emulation of the London wits underscores the morally subversive nature of the wits’ libertine tenets. One of the conventional poses of the town wit is the misogynistic denigration of women and marriage, and the corresponding praise of male friendship. (Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant gave voice to these attitudes at some length in Act I.) Accordingly, Sparkish in an unguarded moment reveals his opinion that “matrimonial love” is not the “best and truest love in the world.”
He certainly does not seem to love his intended wife, as his main interest in her appears to derive from her ability to inspire envy in other men: “I love to be envied and would not marry a wife that I alone could love.” He “love” he bears Alethea, then, values her not for her intrinsic worth but as a piece of property, the ownership of which reflects well on him and feeds his vanity. His immunity to jealousy, which shocks Alethea, derives not (as he unctuously suggests) from his confidence in her virtue but rather from his total lack of any emotional investment in her. As one of his comments in Act II makes clear, Sparkish has taken the ideal of the wit’s emotional self-possession and perverted it to mean total insensibility: “we wits rail and make love often but to show our parts; as we have no affections, so we have no malice.” Such emotions as Sparkish has are all bound up in himself and his self-presentation as a man of “parts,” i.e. wit.
Harcourt contrasts strongly with Sparkish, being both more truly witty and more truly gentleman-like, and he appears to value Alethea for the intelligence, virtue, and honour that make her so drastically overqualified as a mate for Sparkish. In running verbal rings around Sparkish, Harcourt demonstrates Sparkish’s inferiority not only to Harcourt himself but also to Alethea, who understands, as her thick-headed fiancé does not, the mocking import of Harcourt’s banter. Moreover, despite his penchant for such daring advances as those that terrorize Alethea in Scene 2, Harcourt is essentially benign; he certainly displays neither Horner’s and Dorilant’s tendency to sexual debauchery nor the former’s egotistical drive to expose and manipulate other people. It is vital that Harcourt should be not merely urbane, as the average London rake is, but decent, as the average London rake is not: if he is to convince Alethea to break her engagement to Sparkish and thereby compromise her own honor, which she values so highly, he will have to demonstrate that he, too, possesses and values honor.
Some critics, however, have felt that the Harcourt-Alethea plot is one of the weaker elements of the play. First, while Harcourt’s actions and feelings are doubtless admirable, the fact remains that he is not fleshed out as a unique and substantial character to the degree that the other principal characters are. Second, Alethea’s liveliness and good sense make it seem unlikely that she would need Harcourt’s assistance to discover the vapidity of Sparkish; the effect of this glitch in characterization is to give the awkward impression that, despite the needs of Wycherley’s love-plot, a certain disparity obtains between Alethea’s merits and those of her Mr. Right. Perhaps, however, the seeming inconsistency in Alethea’s characterization can be justified: as David Cook and John Swannell argue, the playwright may have “deliberately left Alethea one step to take before she can be seen to epitomize good sense and true love”; that step will involve her revaluation of both her suitors and of her own concept of marriage itself. Certainly, Alethea would be less compelling as a static type of achieved perfection than she is as a dynamic character with remediable flaws.