At Lady Woodvill’s lodging, Dorimant, Young Bellair, Harriet, Lady Woodvill, Old Bellair, Emilia, Lady Townley, and Medley are present.
Old Bellair pretends he does not love Emilia to his sister, but he does.
Lady Woodvill thinks Dorimant is Mr. Courtage, and complains about how lewd people are nowadays, especially those like Dorimant. He agrees, and mocks young men of the day. Harriet observes and wryly calls him a perfect fit for her mother. Dorimant compliments older women and their intelligence and charms, and Lady Woodvill is pleased. When she compares him to the vile Dorimant, everyone else laughs but she does not get the joke. She and Dorimant dance with each other.
Old Bellair comes up to Emilia and jokes with her. He pretends not to be interested and tells Dorimant she is ugly. Medley and Emilia encourage Dorimant, after he has extricated himself from the other women, to go talk to Harriet.
Dorimant asks Harriet why she looks so cold and scornful, and she replies she does not care to look artificial or fake; she is too wild and independent. Dorimant encourages her to wear a gentle smile but she says it is too bad he does not care for her face as is. He tells her she ought to go to court where everyone can see her beauty, but she says she does not want to be taken apart by everyone. She comments scornfully, “Beauty runs as great a risk exposed at court as wit does on the stage, where the ugly and foolish are all free to censure” (107).
Dorimant is taken with her but does not want her to know. He acts insouciantly, pretending to be madly in love with her, ironically. She is skeptical and laughs that she now ought to tilt her head the right way and drop her eyelids bashfully.
Sir Fopling enters with a group of people, all wearing masks. Everyone recognizes his pomposity and is amused. Medley drily says it is a group of French riffraff he picked up to be his dancing equipage. His own disguise tickles Sir Fopling but Young Bellair gently says only unmasked people can be in this gathering. Dorimant reminds Fopling he must call him Courtage.
Sir Fopling talks about how popular he was in Paris and how many intrigues he had. Harriet says those he had at court tonight should weary him and not engage in any more. Fopling brags of all the beauties in Paris, and says some said they were Dorimant’s friends.
Harriet asks who the obsequious masked people in the room are, and Fopling responds that he brought them there to entertain them. She says she would rather see him dance. He feigns modesty and everyone whispers behind his back that he is not very talented. He tries a little jig, fully pleased with himself. Harriet comments that she is enjoying this very much.
Old Bellair, Lady Woodvill, and Lady Townley come back into the room after leaving for a few minutes. Harriet teases her mother for liking Courtage so much, and her mother exclaims that at least he is not Dorimant. She says if her daughter were not already engaged, she could think of Courtage.
Dorimant remembers that Belinda will be arriving soon, and is concerned now that he is in love with Harriet.
He asks Lady Woodvill if she knows Fopling, and she says worriedly that she does and that Dorimant is sure to be in his company soon. She tells Harriet to come along with her quickly. Dorimant goes to help them to their carriage.
Old Bellair says he wants a drink with Medley. Medley asks where Fopling is going, and the latter says he must talk with Courtage. Medley tells him he will be along in a second.
When Old Bellair goes to get a bottle, his son comes in. He tells Medley he and Emilia have a plan. Everyone toasts; Medley teases Old Bellair by saying the toast is to Emilia, and the old man gruffly says he does not care for her.
Sir Fopling sings a drinking song. After he concludes he suggests he and Medley go see Dorimant. Medley agrees, and Young Bellair decides to go as well. Fopling announces for their lights to be lit for their promenade, but the other men are confused, as it is daytime. Fopling says to do it anyway because it is impressive.
It is Dorimant’s lodging, and Belinda enters. She tells him she is fearful and hopes he will be discreet now. She expresses her frustration over how he treated Mrs. Loveit and asks him to promise not to see her again. He does.
She wants to go, but Dorimant asks her to stay. Handy announces that Medley, Young Bellair, and Fopling are coming. Belinda is agitated and begs him to let her go. He assents.
His friends are amused at his having a young lady in his room of late. Fopling looks around and asks why he does not have a mirror in there, as it makes rooms better. He also tells Dorimant he needs a handsome cravat, and that he has brought a man with him who does an excellent toilet.
Medley asks Fopling about Mrs. Loveit. Fopling is happy, and boasts about her behavior the previous night. He comments that he is writing a song. The others ask to hear it and, after bragging of learning in Paris, launches into the song.
Fopling’s footman comes in and the former asks if the bath is ready. He leaves. Medley asks Dorimant when he will have his revenge on his former lover. His friend replies soon, and asks if he shall come. Medley says he is engaged with Bellair in the business of matrimony. Young Bellair tells Dorimant he is sure Harriet loves him, explaining how she only seems well when she is speaking of him and becomes angry when someone defames him. He then comments wryly that his own father loves Emilia. Dorimant encourages his friend to conduct the wedding soon.
They prepare to disband, and Young Bellair tells his friend he must think of marriage with Harriet, or else he will not get close to her.
It is the Mall. Belinda is brought there and is disconcerted; she had forgotten to give directions and does not want Mrs. Loveit to see her.
Mrs. Loveit's footman comes up to her and says his mistress would desire her company. Belinda agrees. She quickly tells the chairman that if anyone ever asks, he should say he took her elsewhere, not to Dorimant’s.
The plot, which is admittedly rather thin, thickens as much as it can in this act. Young Bellair and Emilia are keeping their relationship secret and Dorimant is pursuing Harriet. Fopling toasts his success with Mrs. Loveit. Dorimant pretends to be Mr. Courtage to appeal to Lady Woodvill and the rest of the company goes along with it. Belinda rues her involvement with Dorimant but must go along with his plan while avoiding detection by Mrs. Loveit. By the end of this act the audience is left wondering whether or not the two relationships will come to pass: will Young Bellair and Emilia marry, and will Dorimant attain the full, open love of Harriet?
Even though it is relatively easy to guess at the outcomes of both of these, in regards to the latter it is worth asking whether we want Dorimant to succeed. Indeed, the question of Dorimant’s likeability has haunted critics for centuries. Robert D. Hume takes up this question in his article on the play. First of all, he explains that this question matters very much because of the very thinness of the plot; the play has a “plot of character” rather than a “plot of action”, and everything is somewhat fragmented, unrelated, resolved too easily, or unrealistic.
Dorimant’s behavior toward his mistresses is undoubtedly cruel, and it is also important to note that his marriage to Harriet will be economically advantageous to him because of her independent wealth. However, as we’ve discussed, Belinda and Mrs. Loveit are unlikeable characters, especially the latter. Harriet is a good match for him because she is cold and steely. Hume writes that this is not a particularly romantic match, and “unless (against all evidence) we are to consider Harriet a blinded fool, we must suppose that she knows what she is getting in Dorimant and wants it. So we either pity her folly or class her as one who can out-Dorimant the devil himself. I incline to the latter.”
Dorimant’s giving in to Harriet renders his brutality in previous acts less demonstrative. He isn’t entirely redeemed, but he gets to be a source of amusement for the audience. Etherege’s allowing Harriet to win “sharply undercuts any reveling in the powers of a Machiavellian rake”, and while he mocks his characters, “he does not lecture us with a devastating critique.”
There is more to say about Dorimant as the hero of the text, as Gamini Salgado explains. The Restoration may have been an era of artifice, but it was also a very secular and human era. It was skeptical, satirical, and had little faith in absolutes. The hero of this text, as in most Restoration literature, is somewhat isolated, and there is “an undercurrent of loneliness against which the heroes are obscurely struggling”. Indeed, at times Dorimant seems desperate, or tired, or merely continuing his games because he thinks he has to.
Lastly, it is worth pointing out that the scenes with Dorimant and Harriet engaging in their repartee give the play its reputation: the wit is top-notch, sparkling, lucid, and at a marvelous pace. This is precisely why the play has endured on the stage.