Lucy has finished decking out Alethea Pinchwife for her marriage to Mr. Sparkish; the maid vocally disapproves of the match, however, and continues to advocate for Frank Harcourt. Alethea concedes that she loves Harcourt rather than Sparkish, but she says that her sense of justice will not permit her to deceive or injure Sparkish. When Lucy retorts that there cannot “be a greater cheat or wrong done to a man, than to give him your person without your heart,” Alethea answers weakly that she will grow to love Sparkish after marrying him. Lucy then inveighs against Alethea’s conventional notions of honor: “But what a devil is this honour? ’Tis sure a disease in the head, like the megrim, or falling-sickness, that always hurries people away to do themselves mischief. Men lose their lives by it; women what’s dearer to ’em, their love, the life of life.”
The two women then compare Sparkish and Harcourt, with Alethea admitting that Sparkish lack Harcourt’s wit but stressing that Sparkish also lacks the quality she most dreads, jealousy: “Jealousy in a husband—heaven defend me from it; it begets a thousand plagues to a poor woman: the loss of her honour, her quiet, and … her life sometimes; and what’s as bad almost, the loss of this town—that is, she is sent into the country, which is the last ill usage of a husband to a wife.”
The conversation ends when Sparkish enters with Harcourt, who is disguised as his fictional brother, “Ned” Harcourt the parson. To the amusement of Lucy, who senses that Harcourt may contrive to subvert these nuptials after all, Alethea strives in vain to convince Sparkish that Ned the parson is in fact Frank the rival, who wants to prevent a valid marriage from taking place. In an aside, Harcourt remarks that if by this ruse he cannot prevent the marriage, then at least he can have “the rival’s second pleasure, hindering my rival’s enjoyment, though but for a time.”
Jack Pinchwife interrogates his wife, Margery Pinchwife, regarding her encounter with Harry Horner. Not for the first time, she explains that Horner took her into a tavern near the Exchange, lavished gifts on her, kissed her in a manner she found mortifyingly exotic, and arranged to stand beneath her window to greet her at eleven this morning. Pinchwife worries that Margery’s growing attraction to Horner will spoil her natural innocence and “instruct her how to deceive me, and satisfy him, all idiot as she is.”
In order to thwart the developing romance, Pinchwife orders Margery to write at his dictation a letter renouncing any further connection with Horner. Margery at first balks at the whole notion of writing a letter in London to another person in London: in her experience, letters are for communicating with people who are too far away to be spoken with face-to-face. Pinchwife insists, however, and dictates a harsh letter that begins, “Though I suffered last night your nauseous, loathed kisses and embraces …” When Margery objects to expressing sentiments that are not her own, Pinchwife threatens her: “Write as I bid you, or I will write ‘Whore’ with this penknife in your face”; again, “write as I’d have you, and question it not, or I will spoil thy writing with this (holds up penknife); I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief.”
When the letter is complete and Pinchwife has left to fetch sealing wax and a candle, Margery tries to come up with a stratagem (reasoning, “a London woman would have had a hundred presently”). She quickly composes her own letter to Horner, explaining her own attraction to him and her husband’s determination to frustrate it and concluding, “now that [Pinchwife] has taught me to write letters, you shall have longer ones from me.” When Pinchwife returns, she substitutes this new letter for the approved one without his noticing; in an aside, she congratulates herself and observes, “there’s my letter going to Mr. Horner—since he’ll needs have me send letters to folks.”
Pinchwife leaves to deliver the letter to Horner, locking up Margery in her chamber before he goes.
Alethea is an essentially virtuous young lady who has, anomalously, resisted the corrupting instances of London: as she insisted to her brother in Act II, she has only ever “take[n] the innocent liberty of the town.” Her conversation with Lucy makes clear, however, that her virtue has not precluded her assimilating some of London’s superficial priorities and expectations. To begin with, she has made the typical urban mistake of confusing reality with appearance: Sparkish appears to be an unobjectionable mate, being as he is of her social class and apparently of an equable disposition, so Alethea infers that he must be meritorious through-and-through.
Even more dangerous, however, is her deference to popular opinion, which threatens to trap her in her engagement even after she has recognized Sparkish’s inferiority: as she told Harcourt in Act II, “I must marry [Sparkish]; my reputation would suffer in the world else.” Reputation is a worthy thing, as is its sister virtue, true honor; Alethea, however, seems to construe these qualities too much in terms of other people’s perceptions rather than in terms of personal conduct and conscience. (Lucy, by contrast, voices what seems a morally superior conception of honor: “Can there be a greater cheat or wrong done to a man, than to give him your person without your heart?”) B. A. Kachur assesses Alethea’s merits and weakness thusly: “That Alethea holds noble sentiments is clear, but that she misplaces her ideals on a man whom she does not love and who lacks her virtue and substance is patently foolish, and even more foolish is her tenacious hold onto an ideal strictly for the sake of appearances.”
Nor is a faulty concept of honor the only suspect element in Alethea’s marital calculations. Her low regard for Sparkish’s intellect recalls Pinchwife’s contempt for Margery, and it serves a similar function: both brother and sister have settled for foolish spouses on the theory that a fool will be easy to control—though Alethea fears not unfaithfulness, as Pinchwife does, but rather the same sort of domestic tyranny and sequestering in the countryside that she has seen Pinchwife inflict on Margery. As long as she can retain her independence, she thinks, love will be a trifling matter: as she suggests weakly to Lucy, “I’ll retrieve [my heart] for him after I am married a while.” As the example of Sir Jasper and Lady Fidget makes clear, however, Wycherley does not think highly of the notion that spouses can be indifferent to (or contemptuous of) each other upon marriage and learn to love each other afterwards. Additionally, Alethea must learn that the kind of trust and autonomy that she seeks from a husband will be truly valuable only when they are bestowed by a man of sense and integrity, not when they are the result of the indifference of a frivolous man who cannot bring himself to care about her.
Scene 2 demonstrates the kind of verbal and physical abuse that can be sanctioned by a system that grants husbands sovereign power over their wives. Pinchwife is innately violent: Margery is not unreasonable to fear that he will kill her pet squirrel by way of punishing her, and his natural hatred of women erupts here in brutal ways as he threatens to write “whore” on her face with his penknife. This gesture is, as B. A. Kachur notes, “a shocking and violent image of his desire to brand and disfigure her.” Unlike Sir Jasper, then, who veils his sexism with civility, Pinchwife embodies unabashed misogyny, exposing the malevolent basis of his society’s prevalent chauvinism.
Notably, however, Margery does not seem particularly frightened by these signs of Pinchwife’s violent tendencies: though she complies with his orders under threat of injury, she never cowers, and by the end of the scene she has brought off a risky plan to subvert him. Doubtless we are to understand that her unworldliness prevents her from appreciating how large a role conventional manliness plays in Pinchwife’s ego and self-presentation; she will therefore hardly be alert to the dangers of upsetting his emotional balance by undermining his masculinity. More than that, however, the contrast of Margery’s ebullience with Pinchwife’s brutality and insecurity has the effect of aligning audience and reader more firmly with the oppressed wife, who even under the pressure of tyranny shows more spirit than her “grum” old husband. As David Cook and John Swannell point out, with this scene “we are now entirely on her side in her impulsive endeavours to beguile her husband, and we experience a sense of comic release when she succeeds at the end of the scene.”