Act II Scene I takes place in St. James Park, for where the reader/audience know the men have just departed. Mrs. Fainall and Ms. Marwood, Fainall's wife and love, speak together about relationships with women versus with men. Mrs. Fainall says that women must find joy in platonic relationships with one another, since men are so fickle in their love, and their talk quickly turns to their mutual distaste for all men. However, Mrs. Fainall gets the sense (insightfully) that Ms. Marwood has romantic feelings for Mirabell, though Ms. Marwood protests that she only blushes because she hates him so much for his pride.
Fainall and Mirabell now enter the scene. Fainall and Mrs. Fainall talk familiarly, and then Mrs. Fainall asks Mirabell to walk and talk with her, leaving Fainall and Ms. Marwood alone onstage. We now learn that Mrs. Fainall's interest in Ms. Marwood's love life was perhaps misplaced; though she loves Mirabell, she is mistress to Fainall. Fainall loves Ms. Marwood, and married his wife only for the money, but he does not trust his mistress and accuses her (and his wife) of loving Mirabell. Ms. Marwood argues back, saying again that she hates Mirabell, and tells Fainall to prove that she loves him. Fainall cites Ms. Marwood's telling Lady Wishfort that Mirabell was only pretending love for her, saying that this must have been so that Lady Wishfort would oppose marriage between Mirabell and Ms. Millamant and thus leave Mirabell open romantically. The two talk about male and female same-sex relationships, Fainall sarcastically calling relationships between females "pious" and Ms. Marwood saying that they are more sincere and enduring than those between men.
Ms. Marwood turns on Fainall, threatening that she will expose their relationship to his wife if he won't stop speaking to her this way. Fainall threatens back, saying that her reputation would be ruined. Fainall tells her that he loves her and she protests, trying to leave and saying that she hates him. Fainall continues to beg her to stay, evidently physically holding on to her and promising to take his wife's money and leave her. He hurries her offstage because of their mutual disarray when he sees his wife coming back with Mirabell.
Act II Scene II shifts focus to the conversation occuring between Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall. The two discuss Fainall, Ms. Fainall saying that she despises him and lamenting Mirabell having made her marry him. She clearly married Fainall to cover up her affair with Mirabell, and it is implied that this may have been to cover up a pregnancy. The rest of the conversation centers around Mirabell's plot concerning his servant's marriage, which was alluded to in Act I. Mirabell has had his servant, Waitwell, marry Lady Wishfort's servant, Foible. Mirabell has now instructed Waitwell to put on a disguise and call himself Sir Rowland. Mirabell plans that Waitwell, as Sir Rowland, will seduce Lady Wishfort into marriage, and Lady Wishfort will then allow marriage proceedings to begin between Mirabell and Ms. Millamant. Mirabell will then expose Sir Rowland as married, meaning Lady Wishfort cannot marry him and that her reputation is on the line if anyone finds out they were to be married, and in exchange for Ms. Millamant and Mirabell's silence on the matter, she will allow them to be married.
Ms. Millamant now arrives in the park with Anthony Witwoud and her own servant, Mincing. Ms. Millamant toys is lovely and confusing; she toys with Mirabell by seeming to apologize for her comment to him at Lady Wishfort's the night before, but then saying she loves to cause pain and be cruel because cruelty is power and power is youth. Mirabell flirts back, and Witwoud is pushed to the sideline of their witty banter. Mirabell quietly asks Mrs. Fainall to draw Witwoud away and she does so, leaving Mirabell and Ms. Millamant alone.
Mirabell scolds Ms. Millamant for denying them privacy the night before and for choosing to associate with "fools," which she argues she does for her health. Mirabell attempts to be serious with Ms. Millamant and her witty parries back to him upset him somewhat since he is trying to reveal his plan regarding the marriage of Waitwell and Foible. However, Ms. Millamant tells him that she already knows of the plan, having been told by Foible. She exits and Mirabell laments the craziness of love.
Waitwell and Foible now enter the park. They seem to be enjoying being married, and inform Mirabell that Foible has planted the seed in Lady Wishfort's mind about the coming of Sir Rowland, who will be played by Waitwell in disguise, supposedly the uncle of Mirabell. Foible tells Mirabell that she has also informed Ms. Millamant about the plot, which he and the reader had just discovered from Millamant's words just before her exit but is now further clarified. Mirabell gives Foible some money and she thanks him, promising to do well for him and saying that she must leave quickly to help Lady Wishfort dress. Just then, she spots Ms. Marwood walking nearby and realizes that she must get home even more quickly to attempt to beat her to Lady Wishfort's home so that Ms. Marwood will not tell the lady before Foible can give reasoning for having been with Mirabell. Foible hurries off and Waitwell gives a short speech to Mirabell about how quickly one can change before the two men exit as well.
Conversation focuses throughout the act on women and especially on relationships between women and women, women and men, and men and men. For example, Mirabell makes fun of women's relationships, insinuating that they are insincere but pretend to be devout, and Ms. Marwood argues back that the relationships between men are even more false. Congreve parodies these same-sex friendships and those between men and women by showing almost all of the characters of either gender being false to one another willy-nilly. This falseness is caused by the dual themes in Restoration Comedies of adultery and the importance of reputation, leading to intense subtext within and across genders especially regarding desire, hate, and trust.
As the epigraph states: "You who seek retribution against adulterers will be happy to learn that they are impeded on all sides." In this passage, it becomes even more clear that it is Mirabell's womanizing prior to the play's start that has set up the conflict of the story - Lady Wishfort's blocking his advances on Ms. Millamant, Mr. and Mrs. Fainall's unhappy marriage, and Mr. Fainall's unhappy side-relationship with Ms. Marwood which causes him to distrust and resent Mirabell, and perhaps some of the distance in Ms. Millamant's behavior toward him. However, he seems not to see the irony in his decision to attempt to fix this situation through the use of more marriage-related trickery in his scheme with Foible and Waitwell/Sir Rowland.
One quote that may seem familiar in this act is "'Tis better to be left than never to have been loved." In actuality, this line is a precursor to a similar famous quote by the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson "Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all." The quote comes from a elegy called In Memoriam A.H.H., written Tennyson's friend in 1849, almost 150 years after Congreve's The Way of the World. It does not seem to be widely believed that the poem's quote is a reference to the play, especially because of its serious and platonic nature in contrast with the playful and romantic tone of the play, but the similarity is undoubtedly an interesting connection.
Aging becomes a clear theme in this passage, as Ms. Millamant discusses cruelty and power as indicative of youth and equates oldness with ugliness. Lady Wishfort, as it will be seen in later scenes, seems to share this view and want to hold onto her youth and beauty as long as possible. Waitwell, however, discusses aging in a more abstract way, giving a short speech about how many life changes he has gone through in such a short time, with being married in reality and having to take on the fake guise of Sir Rowland, an upper class man, all in one day. His take on aging is much more positive, and this may be explained by the difference gender plays in whether aging can be seen as stepping up or down the social ladder. While men often rise in position as they age, like Waitwell references somewhat comically as he isn't actually rising but taking on a guise, women certainly lose status and power as they age and use the beauty that is so important to their reputation and place in society.
The bawdy banter between Waitwell and Foible regarding marriage and sex is a good example of the kind of writing that caused the show to receive unfavorable reviews from prudish audiences. However, this dialogue is also written in a purposeful way to show that the whole scheme, including forcing two servants to marry each other, is in good fun. This softens the truth of the play, which is that the upper class is able to use their power over lower class people at their whims, even embroiling them in their romantic games in a way perhaps dangerous to their (or at least Foible's) jobs and positions in society, however low.