The Quack inquires of Harry Horner how his scheme is succeeding, and Horner reports that he has gained admittance into the private chambers of many honorable ladies, who trust him so much that they “drink and sing bawdy songs” in front of him. The Quack is surprised to learn that ladies of honor should behave in such undignified ways “among friends,” and Horner inveighs wittily against “bigots in honour,” who “fear the eye of the world more than the eye of heaven.”
Lady Fidget enters (“Now we talk of women of honour, here comes one”), and The Quack conceals himself to watch Horner’s performance. Lady Fidget, before withdrawing per Horner’s request, entreats him “to have a care of my dear honour.” Horner protests that this talk of honor is a deadly turn-off and reminds her that the rumor of his impotence is his way of safeguarding her reputation. Lady Fidget expresses her concern that Horner will reveal his “dear secret” to other women, so that the truth would come out: “A secret is better kept, I hope, by a single person than a multitude; therefore pray do not trust anybody else with it, dear, dear Mr. Horner.” She then embraces Horner, just in time to be caught in the act by Sir Jasper Fidget, who enters unexpectedly.
Lady Fidget claims to have been determining whether Horner is ticklish or not; he is, she finds, and she invites Sir Jasper to join her in tickling him. Sir Jasper objects that Lady Fidget was supposed to be shopping for china; she explains that Horner has great expertise in china, and indeed has a collection of his own that she is determined to see. She thus exits to another room, where Horner’s ostensible china is supposedly kept, and on a whispered command from Horner locks the door behind her. Horner then “discovers” that she has locked the door and frets that Lady Fidget will rifle through his belongings; he exits at another door, prompting Sir Jasper to cry mockingly through the keyhole, “Wife, my Lady Fidget, wife, he is coming in to you the back way.” Aside, The Quack expresses incredulity.
Mistress Squeamish enters, inquiring as to the whereabouts of “this woman-hater,” Horner. Learning from Sir Jasper that Horner and Lady Fidget are together in the next room, Mistress Squeamish demands entry, ostensibly to prevent Horner from being obnoxious to Lady Fidget. Finding no way in, she exits to seek another point of ingress. Old Lady Squeamish then enters, searching for her granddaughter, to whom she attributes prurient inclinations. Learning that the lodging belongs to the eunuch Horner, however, the old lady calms down.
Mistress Squeamish re-enters just in time to see Lady Fidget return, “with a piece of china in her hand, and Horner following.” Lady Fidget congratulates herself for achieving the piece of china, and Mistress Squeamish, picking up the double entendre, demands: “Oh Lord, I’ll have some china too, good Mr. Horner.” A bawdy dialogue ensues in which Horner protests, and Lady Fidget confirms, that he has no china left. Old Lady Squeamish then invites Horner to kiss Mistress Squeamish, which he obligingly does, on the theory that a kiss from Horner “[h]as no more hurt in it, than one of my spaniel’s.” Aside, The Quack, remarks, “I will now believe anything he tells me.”
Pinchwife enters, and the young ladies flee with Sir Jasper and the old lady in tow. Pinchwife spars with Horner over his kissing of Margery and then delivers Margery’s letter. Horner reads it in front of Pinchwife and wonders in an aside whose trick it is,”his, or hers?” Reading the postscript, however (“let [Pinchwife] not see this”), Horner concludes that Pinchwife is deceived as to the letter’s contents. Pinchwife starts in with threats: “I will not be a cuckold, I say; there will be danger in making me a cuckold.” Horner extricates himself by feigning surprise over the information that the youth he kissed was Mrs. Pinchwife in disguise; he then concedes, “I must e’en acquiesce then, and be contented with what she writes.” Pinchwife then exits, warning Horner to “play with any man’s honour but mine, kiss any man’s wife but mine.”
The Quack comes out of hiding, and he and Horner discuss Margery’s “original” (guileless) love-letter, which Horner says is the first “that ever was without flames, darts, fates, destinies, lying, and dissembling in’t.”
Mr. Sparkish enters, pulling Pinchwife with him. They are discussing Sparkish’s marriage to Alethea Pinchwife, which Alethea considers invalid due to the participation of a fake parson. Horner expresses his disappointment over the attachment of Alethea to Sparkish; in an aside, he names Frank Harcourt as the suitor whose cause he favors, but Pinchwife begins to suspect that Horner himself has designs on Alethea.
Pinchwife exits, and Sparkish suggests to Horner that he is glad to have a rival for Alethea already, because rivalry will add spice to the marital condition. Horner seems rather disgusted with this sentiment. Sparkish invites Horner to dine with him and Pinchwife, but Horner will not attend unless Margery is included. Sparkish agrees to try to produce her, then exits. Horner says to The Quack, speaking of Margery: “The poor woman has called for aid, and stretched forth her hand, doctor. I cannot but help her over the pale, out of the briars.”
Alone in Pinchwife’s lodging, Margery thinks longingly of Horner and resolves to write another letter to him. While she is engaged in this activity, Pinchwife enters and snatches the paper from her. Reading it aloud, he finds Margery begging Horner to rescue her from her “unfortunate match” with Pinchwife. Enraged, Pinchwife draws his sword just as Sparkish walks in to stop the confrontation and invite both husband and wife to dinner. Pinchwife locks Margery away before going to dinner, prompting Sparkish to observe with unexpected insight that “you may keep your wife as much as you will out of danger of infection, but if her constitution incline her to’t, she’ll have it sooner or later, by the world.”
One of Wycherley’s most effective comic devices is the use of a speech which a fool interprets in its obvious sense but which the wittier characters and the audience interpret in its covert, real significance. Sparkish is frequently on the wrong side of these exchanges, and his tendency toward bespeaks some of his moral and psychological inadequacy. For example, when he overhears Horner speaking of someone who “is to be bubbled of his mistress,” he relishes the prospect because it never occurs to him that he himself is the target of the intended bubbling. As Katharine M. Rogers observes, “Sparkish keeps misinterpreting speeches which are perfectly evident to everybody else because he is too self-absorbed to be aware of anyone’s feelings but his own.”
A related form of myopia afflicts Sir Jasper, who in Scene 3 takes “china” to mean “china,” which it assuredly does not, and who even supplies his own unwitting double entendre (“Wife, my Lady Fidget, wife, he is coming in to you the back way”). Sir Jasper has been eager to believe in Horner’s impotence because it is convenient to him, presenting a means of disposing of his wife’s social energies, and because it affords him amusement; this investment in the theory of Horner’s deficiency then allows him to construe his wife’s interactions with Horner as mere sexual shadow-boxing. In the china scene, moreover, the self-duping of Sir Jasper is compounded by an even baser form of self-interest, namely monetary greed: fine china is a valuable commodity, and Sir Jasper the upwardly mobile businessman is ardently supportive of his wife’s attempts to procure a specimen from Horner. As in the case of Sparkish, then, the failure of Sir Jasper to see (or hear) properly is as much a moral failure, deriving from his selfishness, as an epistemological one, and the sight of him cooperating in his own cuckolding is thereby poetically just.
As for Horner, the china scene makes clear that he now has more lovers than he is physically capable of satisfying. It also suggests that his sexual compulsions have turned him into something of an automaton: the relentless innuendo hints that he is to these ladies no less an object than is the piece of china that Lady Fidget fondles after their encounter offstage. B. A. Kachur puts the issue in strong terms: “The greatest irony, of course, is that in his disguise as a eunuch, Horner has unwittingly feminised himself in more ways than one: not only is he suitable only for such female pastimes as theatregoing, card playing and gossiping …, he has also become a mechanical phallus, reducing himself to what is typically the feminine role of sexual object only, an anatomical part that is the sum of his entire worth.” Horner’s pose of being impotent, then, does two things: it emphasizes, of course, the purely physical nature of his desire for women; but also, as Katharine M. Rogers observes, it “symbolically suggests that—for all his virility—he is something less than a man.”
Act IV concludes with a brief but important scene in which Margery, writing to Horner, gives voice to her feelings about their relationship and her marriage with Pinchwife. It appears that the unworldly Margery did not previously apprehend the severity of her emotional deprivation with Pinchwife—only with the advent of Horner has she begun to recognize that others have trapped her in a wretched existence. Thus, in Act II she avowed to Pinchwife that “You are mine own dear bud, and I know you; I hate a stranger.” Her previous rustic existence had never brought her among strangers, and consequently she had grown to take comfort in the familiar.
By Act IV, however, she has undergone an awakening, which she renders now in physical terms: “when I think of my husband, I tremble and am in a cold sweat and have inclinations to vomit but when I think of my gallant, dear Mr. Horner, my hot fit comes and I am all in a fever.” Thus, the young woman who began the play professing her loyalty to her husband now speaks explicitly of “this unfortunate match, which was never, I assure you, of my choice.” She has been put in touch with her own longing for romance and a vital human connection, and the result is that she is impulsively ready to commit herself to the first capable partner who presents himself.