In Act I, Dorimant, a roguish gentleman, complains to his friend Medley about his waning affection for Mrs. Loveit, his current mistress. An orange-woman tells him about a pretty young woman talking about him in the marketplace. Medley figures out it is a young heiress named Harriet, whose mother, Lady Woodvill, reputedly hates Dorimant because she has heard of his licentious ways. Dorimant is intrigued, especially after Medley praises her wit and wildness.
He also tells Medley he is interested in another woman, and sighs that he is tired of how boring his love life has become. He misses drama and conflict. He may have it soon though, for Belinda, his new lover, plans to go to his old lover, Mrs. Loveit, under the guise of their friendship, and provoke a conversation about Dorimant just for fun.
Another friend, Young Bellair, comes in. He has been absent a lot recently due to his new love, Emilia. The men discuss another man newly arrived to town –a great fop named Sir Fopling Flutter, who is inordinately concerned with his dress and appearance and is a man of “acquired follies.” Dorimant decides to set him on Mrs. Loveit.
After Young Bellair is summoned out and returns, he relays the distressing news that his father, who knows nothing of Emilia, has actually made a match for him and will disinherit him if he refuses. Medley suggests he simply ignore his father and see if he will actually go through with his vows of disinheriting his son.
Young Bellair decides to go talk to Emilia, and the men disband, Dorimant ready to tease and pique Mrs. Loveit.
In Act II, Lady Townley, the sister of Young Bellair’s father, talks with Emilia, who has recently taken up residence with her. They do not think Old Bellair knows about Emilia and Young Bellair’s relationship. Young Bellair enters and he tells Emilia he does not want to marry Harriet Woodvill, the woman to whom his father engaged him.
Old Bellair enters. He teases Emilia for looking dour, but seems quite taken with her. Later he tells his son not to be glum about his arranged marriage.
After he leaves, Medley pays his friend Lady Townley a visit. The two of them gossip with Emilia and talk of various affairs.
Later Mrs. Loveit talks with her waiting woman, Pert, about how she loves Dorimant. Belinda enters and begins, due to her own love of Dorimant, to hint to Mrs. Loveit that Dorimant has been unfaithful. Mrs. Loveit is distressed.
When Dorimant himself comes in, cool and gallant, Mrs. Loveit rages at him. He insults her back and insinuates she has been with another man, a fop. She knows he is lying and is incensed. Belinda becomes wary of Dorimant after seeing how he treated the other woman.
In Act III, Busy, Harriet’s waiting woman, teases her mistress about loving Dorimant. Harriet pretends she does not. Young Bellair, her betrothed, comes in. To their delight, they discover neither wants to marry. He admits he loves Emilia, and there is the hint that she loves Dorimant. They pretend to care for each other, though, so his father will not notice anything amiss.
Later on, Lady Townley, Medley, Emilia, and Belinda converse. Belinda admits she thinks Dorimant is not a good man, but the others defend him as witty and well bred. When Dorimant joins them, she tells him she no longer cares for her. He reminds her that she vowed to do something the next day. He also tells her she must tell Mrs. Loveit to go to the Mall that evening since Fopling will be there.
Fopling joins their party. They are full of compliments for the man, but they disguise their amusement and mockery. Fopling is ridiculous and self-absorbed, especially when it comes to his appearance.
That evening almost everyone is in the Mall. Young Bellair and Harriet walk together, and Dorimant meets up with them. Harriet charms him and she pretends not to care for him. They engage in witty repartee until she feigns annoyance. Her mother arrives and says she has heard Dorimant, whom she has never actually met, is around and therefore they must leave. After Lady Woodvill and Harriet leave, Dorimant confesses his interest in her to Medley.
Sir Fopling is also promenading, and when Mrs. Loveit and Belinda arrive, Dorimant prepares to be amused by the encounter between the fop and his former lover. Mrs. Loveit knows Dorimant is watching and pretends to like Fopling, which annoys Dorimant, although he has moved on to loving Harriet.
In Act IV, Dorimant pretends to be a man named Mr. Courtage to fool Lady Woodvill so he can be around Harriet. It works well; he charms Lady Woodvill immensely. Everyone else is amused, especially when she tells the real Dorimant how much she hates Dorimant.
Harriet and Dorimant talk together, both trying to hide their feelings behind barbed words and arch looks.
Fopling joins the party and amuses everyone.
Later Belinda and Dorimant meet, and she tells him she is frustrated by the tricks he is playing on Mrs. Loveit. After she leaves, Dorimant’s coach takes her to the Mall without her permission and she becomes afraid Mrs. Loveit will hear of this.
That evening the gentlemen gather and Young Bellair tells his friends he is going to secretly marry Emilia and thwart his father’s wishes.
In Act V, Mrs. Loveit becomes suspicious of Belinda because of the coach she arrives in, but the coachman lies at Belinda’s request and Mrs. Loveit puts aside her fears. Dorimant arrives; they quarrel, he tells her she has been seen with Fopling, and they part.
At Lady Townley’s, Emilia and Young Bellair are now married. Emilia and Busy, Harriet’s waiting woman, tease Harriet about Dorimant. Dorimant joins them and he and Harriet verbally spar. Both clearly love each other but are slow to admit it.
When Old Bellair arrives, the marriage is made clear. He is angry that everyone, including his own sister, has bamboozled him.
Mrs. Loveit and Belinda join the party and Dorimant is vexed that his shame never seems to end. Harriet is amused at his former lover’s righteous anger, however.
Dorimant announces to the party that he is prepared to marry now, and tries to make peace with Belinda, who only wants to be left alone. Old Bellair comes to terms with his son’s marriage. Sir Fopling also joins them and is flummoxed at Mrs. Loveit’s cold reception of him.
When Lady Woodvill arrives Dorimant, who she still thinks is Mr. Courtage, is revealed. She is enraged at first, but when her daughter tells her how much she loves him and everyone else supports his good character, she softens.
Mrs. Loveit leaves after Harriet coolly mocks her. All prepare to dine before Dorimant joins his new fiancée and her mother in the country.