Emilia and Lady Townley walk in together, the latter saying it is such a coincidence that her own brother should talk up residence in the house where Emilia is, and that she is sure that he does not know that Emilia is the woman his son loves.
Young Bellair, Lady Townley’s nephew, enters. Emilia tells him she fears for his constancy because of the rival set before her. Young Bellair is indeed upset that his father insists he must marry Harriet or be disinherited.
Old Bellair enters, paying his respects to Emilia, his neighbor. He flirts with her, telling her to not look so serious and to cheer up. His son returns after having stepped out for a moment. His father cuffs him and tells him not to look glum, and that a rich wife is no curse. He takes his son and they depart.
Lady Townley says knowingly that the old man is smitten with Emilia as well. She is not certain of this.
A page enters and says Mr. Medley would like to come by. The ladies agree, speaking of how they love to hear his gossip and intrigues.
Medley enters and Lady Townley comments that he has been a stranger of late. Medley complains of having to spend an interminable time playing cards with Lady Dealer. They joke about her.
Lady Townley asks about his friend Mr. Dorimant and all his mistresses. They also joke about Mrs. Loveit’s extreme jealousy.
After this, they ask for new songs or novels, and he tells them of a couple titles about ladies with their diversions and affectations. They smile at him, and Lady Townley asks him now for “an account of the state of love as it now stands” (69). He replies that there have been plenty of new malice, revolutions, indiscretions, and misfortunes.
Mrs. Loveit and Pert enter, the former distressed by her lover Dorimant’s absences. Pert is frustrated that he has not written to her friend or seen her for two days. Mrs. Loveit groans that she knows he is a devil but there is something about him she cannot resist.
Pert asks for his excuse and she says he told her it was business. Pert comments wryly that that business may be a new mistress. Belinda enters, and the women embrace. Belinda says she has been absent because she has been with a few gentlewoman recently. She is the woman Dorimant was carrying on with, however, and tells herself she is going to put her plot into motion.
She asks Mrs. Loveit if she was at Westminster Abbey with Dorimant because she saw him there with a woman. Mrs. Loveit becomes incensed as Belinda paints a picture of Dorimant and the lovely woman. Belinda pretends to be sorry and upset for her friend.
Mrs. Loveit becomes more vocal in her rage, wishing harm to Dorimant and jealousy and pain to the woman.
Dorimant himself then enters, in opposition to Mrs. Loveit’s commands to her page. Feigning ignorance, he asks her why she seems in an ill humor. He then appeals to Pert. Mrs. Loveit seethes “faithless, inhumane, barbarous man” (73), which secretly thrills Dorimant. He tries wanly to calm her down as she rains insults down upon him. He also pretends to be annoyed with Belinda for causing this trouble by telling Mrs. Loveit about the woman, but tells her privately to meet him later.
Mrs. Loveit cries out, asking if this is the constancy he promised, but he says he is too old for that. She calls him a “dissembler” and a “false man” (74). He contends that any vows he made where when he was in love. She tells him to leave but when he does, she tries to pull him back.
Dorimant states that “when love grows diseased, the best thing we can do is to put it to a violent death” (75), which makes her upset. He tells her he knows about her and Sir Fopling Flutter; she is aghast and calls him a liar. He smiles that she is ruining her reputation and he is jealous. He departs.
Mrs. Loveit is distraught but Pert says to let him go. Belinda says she dreads the man’s tongue as her friend should have dreaded his attentions. Mrs. Loveit vows revenge.
Belinda wonders to herself about how poorly he used her, and if Dorimant will treat her that way someday as well.
Mrs. Loveit is not an inherently fascinating character, but she has provided much fodder for critical discussion because of the way Dorimant treats her. Most modern audiences may feel uncomfortable at how she is so poorly used by the character who is supposed to be our protagonist, but it is a bit simplistic to just accuse Etherege of being cruel or a misogynist and move on. Rather, it is important to look at how Mrs. Loveit would have been viewed by contemporary audiences, which allows us to glean much more about the play and its values.
Scholar Leslie H. Martin writes of how the character of Mrs. Loveit allows the play to parody heroic drama and emphasize the superiority of the freer present than the “hypocritical, illusory, and joyless past.” Contemporary audiences would have found the character ridiculous due to her over-the-top violent passions and her adherence to the codes of love, hate, jealousy, and revenge. She is the classic example of the termagant, a shrewish and nagging woman with a long presence in literature of the 17th century. A termagant has intense passion and becomes incredibly irate when spurned. She vacillates wildly from emotion to emotion and quests for revenge. She is always undone and “loses” by the end of the text.
Etherege clearly favored the termagant as a way to parody the “literary and social conventions of the past”. Whereas the play celebrates joie de vivre and living in the moment, Mrs. Loveit is bound by code and the heroic ethos. She is representative of the precieux (French ladies of intelligence and learning from the 17th century) and Etherege combines “the regimented mentality of the precieuse with the chaotic egotism…and pits the resulting hybrid against his own ideal, the supple, witty, emancipated Harriet.” Mrs. Loveit speaks the lingo of the precieuse in terms of oaths and honor and constancy as well as rages petulantly like the termagant.
While Mrs. Loveit was ably described in Act I, she makes her first appearance here in Act II. She is complaining about Dorimant, and her waiting woman Pert is lamenting, “To be two days without sending, writing, or coming near you, contrary to his oath and covenant? ‘Twas to much purpose to make him swear. I’ll lay my life there’s not an article but he has broken” (69). Mrs. Loveit expects Dorimant to adhere to the code. She also has an absurd view of viewing Dorimant in terms of religion –devil and angel. Martin writes her first appearance is a “not a vital woman endowed with comedy and pathos, but a caricature oblivious to what she is and to the usages of her world.”
When Dorimant comes into the scene, joining Belinda, the professed “friend” of Mrs. Loveit as well as veiled threat, he pushes Mrs. Loveit into her rage. Martin writes that her “rent fan, dishabille, and tactless inquiry into Dorimant’s conduct represent a disregard for utility and prudence, to say nothing of beauty, which lends Loveit’s castigation of Dorimant as ‘barbarous’ an ironically reflexive impact.” She has violated standards of order and grace.
While modern audiences have a hard time appreciating Mrs. Loveit’s character, contemporary audiences would have found her appropriately obnoxious and hilarious. Through her transgressing precieuse conventions and taking on the persona of the termagant, she is Etherege’s manifestation of his disdain for artifice in life and literature, and his celebration of contemporary life’s pleasures.