Jack Pinchwife directs his wife, Margery Pinchwife, to finish her letter to Harry Horner as she had intended. The letter currently breaks off in mid-sentence: “You must make haste and help me away before tomorrow, or else I shall be for ever out of your reach, for I can no longer defer our—.” Pinchwife now demands that Margery complete the sentence, which she does, slyly: “For I can no longer defer our—wedding. Your slighted Alethea.” Margery claims that she has written the entire letter under orders from her sister-in-law, Alethea Pinchwife, who allegedly did not want to compose a love-letter to Horner in her own handwriting. Pinchwife, recalling Horner’s evident disappointment on hearing of Alethea’s engagement to Mr. Sparkish, finds this story credible.
Pinchwife resolves to speak with Alethea concerning her relations with Horner and whether her earlier wedding to Sparkish was valid. Margery exits, ostensibly to summon Alethea but really to confer with Lucy about “what lie I shall tell next.” Alone, Pinchwife reflects that by marrying Alethea to Horner he would safeguard his own marriage, since Horner would not wish to seduce a woman to whom he is related by marriage. Margery returns to say that Alethea is too ashamed to face Pinchwife and that Horner has proposed marriage to her. Pinchwife is pleased by this news. Margery then reports that Alethea wishes to go to Horner’s lodging to discuss the matter with him, but she wishes to wear a mask in order not to have to face Pinchwife.
Pinchwife agrees to the conditions, and Margery exits, only to return momentarily in a mask and some clothes of Alethea’s. With the candle put out per Alethea’s ostensible request, Margery manages to play both herself (as Pinchwife locks her, so he thinks, into her chamber) and Alethea (as she departs with Pinchwife for Horner’s lodging).
In Horner’s lodging. Horner and The Quack discuss Margery, whom Horner calls “a silly innocent.” Soon Pinchwife enters with the disguised Margery, whom Horner and The Quack immediately recognize. After some byplay in which Horner insults Pinchwife, Margery whispers to Horner that she must speak with him in private. Pinchwife then exits to fetch a parson who will marry Horner and Alethea.
The Boy announces the arrival of Sir Jasper Fidget, and Horner directs Margery to conceal herself in the next room. Sir Jasper enters to inform Horner that “my lady and the whole knot of the virtuous gang, as they call themselves, are resolved upon a frolic of coming to you tonight in a masquerade, and are all dressed already.” Horner affects to dislike the idea but soon agrees to it.
In the Piazza of Covent Garden, Sparkish reacts to the news that Alethea has written to Horner and intends to marry him, her marriage with Sparkish being invalid. Pinchwife suggests that Frank Harcourt, as “Ned” the parson, fooled Sparkish into entering a sham marriage; urging Sparkish to go to Horner’s lodging and see for himself, he exits. Sparkish is planning all the nasty things he will say to Alethea when Alethea herself enters the Piazza with Lucy in tow.
Alethea is incredulous as Sparkish accuses her of being unfaithful to him, making reference to a letter that Alethea was not even aware existed. The triumphant Lucy whispers, “D’y’ think the gentleman can be jealous now, madam?” When Sparkish declares his intention of “not marrying you,” Alethea says in an aside, “I can consent to’t, since I see this gentleman can be made jealous.” Sparkish then reveals that Alethea’s only attraction for him was her fortune and that otherwise “I never had any passion for you—till now, for now I hate you.” After further obnoxious remarks, he departs, leaving Alethea to exclaim, “How deceived I was in a man!”
Margery has made remarkable progress in trickery and is now almost out-Hornering Horner with her outlandish ruses. Lucy, of course, is the real mastermind, but it is significant for Margery’s characterization that the girl who began the play so innocent that she needed a definition of the word “jealousy” now wonders to herself “what lie I shall tell next.” This “silly innocent,” as Horner calls her, has evidently assimilated some of the guile of the town. Importantly, however, her motive in dissembling is always the straightforward one of desire, and in her case desire is naturally attended by affection. She is unlike Horner in that she is never mercenary or exploitative; she is equally unlike Lady Fidget in that her duplicity is never of that particularly odious sort known as hypocrisy.
In addition to Lucy, Margery’s own husband deserves some of the (dubious) credit for her new aptitude in deceit. In the episode of Pinchwife’s conveying Margery to Horner’s lodging, Wycherley supplies a brilliant dramatic symbol: having taught Margery how to write deceitful letters (how to “shift” in the town), the jealous husband now literally leads his wife to an assignation with her lover. The deceitfulness of the women in the play is a natural result of the neglect and cruelty of the men; as P. F. Vernon says, Margery’s progress in duplicity “demonstrates exactly how craft grows in response to tyranny,” and Pinchwife facilitates the connection precisely through the measures he takes to prevent it.
However deserved Pinchwife’s cuckolding may be, nevertheless Margery’s eagerness to fly to Horner must inspire ambivalent feelings in the alert reader. As David Cook and John Swannell observe, “We are willing to feel that Margery deserves an interlude with the rakish Horner, but there is a touch of pathos in her mistaking him for the prince of her girlish dreams.” Although Horner does show some insight and appreciation when he remarks to The Quack upon the “original[ity]” of Margery’s first letter to him, he certainly does not reciprocate her apparent readiness to form a strong emotional attachment; indeed, he resembles Pinchwife in this respect, that sexual bonds, rather than emotional ones, are all he seeks from women.
As Margery and Horner come together, Alethea and Sparkish fall apart. Lucy, the all-wise, gets to declare victory in Scene 3, having previously cast doubt on Alethea’s sense of Sparkish’s virtues. Lucy has indeed been largely right about Sparkish, of course, but she is actually wrong to attribute his anger to jealousy: it consists instead of rage over the injury to his vanity and indignation at Alethea’s supposedly betraying, and thereby humiliating, “a gentleman of wit and pleasure about the town.” Sparkish has now assumed the role he has so long feared, that of the foolish gentleman whom the poet caricatures in plays.
The readiness with which he accepts the notion of his fiancée’s guilt is startling—he does not even pause to inquire into the accusation against her. Logically, however, he has no reason not to believe the accusation (despite the fact that Pinchwife’s evidence is purely circumstantial), for the simple reason that he has never paid enough attention to Alethea to notice her integrity and her devotion to honor. He repudiates her savagely, belying his earlier claim that, “as we [wits] have no affections, so we have no malice”: on the contrary, though Sparkish is indeed devoid of affection, he is potent in malice when his precious ego is on the line. Hence his indignation: “But who would have thought a woman”—any woman; Alethea in her particularity is irrelevant here— “could have been false to me?” Everything, then, is about “me”; even as a spurned lover, Sparkish manages to be entirely self-centered. As Cook and Swannell point out, Sparkish is deeply invested in a libertine code of display and self-assertion that, taken to an extreme, precludes all meaningful human contact.