Lady Fidget, Dainty Fidget, and Mistress Squeamish meet Harry Horner in his lodging. The ladies have come before Horner was expecting them, and he now plans to lock his most recent conquest, Margery Pinchwife, inside his chamber. The ladies prevent him from stepping aside to lock the door, however, and soon everyone is drinking, singing, and making confessions.
The ladies quickly become bawdy, making double entendres and speaking openly of their frustrations with upper-class husbands, whose sexual preferences tend more to lower-class mistresses than to their wives. Lady Fidget expands upon the fraudulence of honor, indicting both ladies and gentlemen: “Our reputation? Lord! Why should you not think that we women make use of our reputation, as you men of yours, only to deceive the world with less suspicion? Our virtue is like the statesman’s religion, the Quaker’s word, the gamester’s oath, and the great man’s honour: but to cheat those that trust us.”
Lady Fidget is in such a confessional mood that she soon makes open reference to Horner’s being her lover. The revelation shocks Dainty Fidget and Mistress Squeamish, each of whom thought that Horner was her own exclusive lover. Lady Fidget persuades the other ladies that it is in everyone’s best interest to overcome their jealousies and cooperate in keeping Horner’s secret.
Sir Jasper Fidget enters with Old Lady Squeamish, and then The Boy enters to announce the arrival of two gentlemen and a lady. Horner asks his guests to go into another room while he sends away the new visitors, then orders The Boy to detain the visitors below. Horner then fetches Margery and tries to convince her to go home before her husband, Jack Pinchwife, discovers her. Margery refuses, saying that she does not intend ever to return to her husband but plans instead to marry Horner. To the objection that she cannot marry Horner because she is already married, she returns that Londoners seem to take new spouses as a matter of course. Hearing the new visitors coming up, Horner sends Margery into the other room again.
Pinchwife enters with Alethea Pinchwife, Frank Harcourt, Mr. Sparkish, Lucy, and a parson. Pinchwife apparently wants Horner to attest that Alethea has recently visited Horner’s lodging in his company; Alethea and Lucy have been disputing the point. Horner, in order not to expose Margery in the next room, plays along with the pretense that the disguised Margery was actually Alethea; as he says in an aside, “Now must I wrong one woman for another’s sake.” Only Lucy knows everything that is really going on, saying in an aside, “Now could I speak, if I durst, and solve the riddle, who am the author of it.”
Alethea, incapable of clearing up the matter by herself, turns to Harcourt and tells him that, while the censure of the others does not trouble her, she regrets the loss of his good opinion. Harcourt responds gallantly: “Madam, then have no trouble. You shall now see ’tis possible for me to love too, without being jealous. I will not only believe your innocence myself, but make all the world believe it.” He then turns to Horner and announces, “I must now be concerned for this lady’s honour.” Horner replies obscurely that he, too, must be concerned for a lady’s honor, though he does not explain the connection of his lady’s honor to that of Alethea. The two men have reached a stalemate when Margery pokes her head in.
Pinchwife is in the middle of insisting that Alethea must marry Horner, who has allegedly wronged her honor, rather than Harcourt; he lays his hand on his sword in order to threaten the recalcitrant Horner, and then Margery intervenes. The parson, she says, should marry Horner to her rather than to Alethea. Pinchwife, suddenly undeceived, draws his sword on Margery; Horner objects, and Pinchwife turns to threaten him instead, then is restrained by Harcourt.
Sir Jasper enters with his train of ladies, demanding to know what is going on. Pinchwife indicates that Horner has cuckolded him and suggests that he may have cuckolded Sir Jasper’s wife as well. Sir Jasper finds the whole notion ludicrous and moves to whisper to Pinchwife the news of Horner’s impotence. Pinchwife insists, however, that Horner “has whored my wife, and yours too, if he knows her, and all the women he comes near.” The startled Sir Jasper then demands to know of his wife and sister whether Horner’s impotence has been a sham. Without waiting for an answer from the ladies, he then turns to Horner himself, asking, “art thou a dissembler, a rogue? Hast thou—?”
Lucy whispers to Horner that she can extricate everyone, “if [Margery] will just hold her tongue.” Horner indicates his gratitude, and Lucy turns to Pinchwife, saying: “Your wife is innocent, I only culpable. For I put her upon telling you all these lies concerning my mistress, in order to the breaking off the match between Mr. Sparkish and her, to make way for Mr. Harcourt.” Margery’s coming in disguise to Horner’s lodging was merely part of the ruse, not an indication that she loves Horner. Here Margery breaks in, protesting that “I do love Mr. Horner with all my soul, and nobody shall say me nay.” Horner tries in vain to quiet her, and Pinchwife makes another threat.
Mr. Dorilant enters with The Quack, to the relief of Horner, who calls upon The Quack to attest to his impotence. The Quack obligingly whispers to Sir Jasper, “on the word of a physician,” that Horner could not possibly have cuckolded him. Sir Jasper readily believes this medical testimony and apologizes promptly to his wife. He then passes on the information to Pinchwife, who is incredulous and resists even the promise that half the surgeons in London can swear to Horner’s infirmity. Pinchwife is moved only by the information that “all the town has heard the report of him”: he probes, “But does all the town believe it?” The Quack polls the Londoners present, who confirm that they have “heard the late sad report of poor Mr. Horner.” Dorilant goes so far as to call him “an arrant French capon.”
Only Margery dissents, protesting, “’Tis false, sir; you shall not disparage poor Mr. Horner, for to my certain knowledge—.” The other ladies break in with expressions of their confidence in Horner’s deficiency, and Alethea urges her brother to believe in Margery’s innocence: “Women and Fortune are truest still to those that trust ’em.” Lucy adds, “And any wild thing grows but the more fierce and hungry for being kept up, and more dangerous to the keeper.”
Among the concluding remarks, Harcourt indicates his impatience to be a husband, the Pinchwifes each indicate their distaste for their marriage, and Lucy insists to Pinchwife that Margery’s expression of love for Horner “was but the usual innocent revenge on a husband’s jealousy.” Margery reluctantly confirms this lie, and Pinchwife resigns himself to accepting the story, though it does not convince him: “For my own sake fain I would all believe; / Cuckolds, like lovers, should themselves deceive.”
In an Epilogue, the actress playing Lady Fidget addresses the rakes in the audience, warning that though the would-be Horners may impress other men with their sexual exploits, nevertheless there is “no coz’ning” (i.e. fooling) the women.
In what has become known as the “banquet scene,” the “virtuous gang” reveal to Horner their true moral condition: the ladies engage in some crude (and stereotypically masculine) behavior, singing drinking songs that denigrate the other sex and boasting of their sexual escapades. This episode has been faulted for heavy-handedness: for example, Katharine M. Rogers argues that the women “confess more than is realistic; and the naked ugliness of the resulting picture is inconsistent with the gay tone of the play as a whole. It is too fantastic for a woman like Lady Fidget to admit openly, even in drink, that her public modesty is an unmistakable sign of her public lust.” In defense of Wycherley, however, one might reply that what happens in the banquet scene is merely an extreme version of the affect Horner has on people throughout the play. Horner has tended to bring out the real, base natures of those with whom he interacts: the women are cynical and licentious, the men are stupid and selfish, and Sparkish is a pretender. Only Margery, Alethea, and Harcourt are no more genuine around Horner than away from him, and that is because they are largely without guile.
In Restoration plays, adulterous wives usually suffer some humiliation at the end of the play in a grand meting-out of punishment that restores the moral balance of justice and harmony. By contrast, Wycherley never discredits the adulterous Margery but instead allows her to remain sympathetic (if hardly triumphant) at the end. Nor do even Lady Fidget and her “virtuous gang” receive their just deserts: their exposure blows over, and they will doubtless continue to avail themselves of Horner’s services under the protection of the rumor in which all the company have just declared their belief. This exemption of the immoral women from punishment perhaps indicates Wycherley’s cynicism, a feeling that there is no sense apportioning blame in a society in which nearly everyone is hopelessly corrupt. Alternatively, it may indicate Wycherley’s more generous conviction that the infidelity of the women is simply a reaction to the tyranny of the men: not being ultimately responsible for their own behavior, the women do not merit punishment at the end of the play. Still, the unfaithful women do not merit the reward of happiness, either: only Harcourt and Alethea seem likely to have love and happiness after the close of the curtain, for “Love proceeds from esteem,” as Alethea observes, and deeply duplicitous people cannot merit esteem.
The false accusation against Alethea, i.e. that she has betrayed Sparkish and taken up with Horner, gives Harcourt an opportunity to demonstrate that quality of honor which he must possess if he is to merit her respect and affection. His declaration, that he “will not only believe your innocence myself, but will make the world believe it,” may seem a bit comically grandiose; nevertheless, it bespeaks a degree of loyalty that no other character in the play, save perhaps Alethea herself, ever matches. With this gesture of faith, Harcourt completes his shift away from the cynicism of Horner and the other rakes, taking his stand instead with Alethea’s conviction of the value of honor and marital fidelity. For her part, Alethea shows that she has learned a lesson as well: no longer placing supreme value on her reputation in the eyes of the world, she declares to Harcourt that she values no one’s opinion but his.
On the other end of the spectrum from Alethea and Harcourt’s exchange of elevated sentiments, Margery provides some of the funniest moments of the scene, with her untutored enthusiasm for her new lover (“You shall be my husband now”) and her very impolitic honesty on the subject of his virility (“You shall not disparage poor Mr. Horner; for to my certain knowledge—”). She is absurd as ever in this final scene, but the comedy is tempered by our sense of the bleakness of her prospects: Horner will not be her new husband, she will soon be returning to the country, and the hypocrites shout down her advocacy of Horner’s prowess. She is absurd, however, in a magnificent way: she is the lone voice of truth-telling in a society predicated on deception of others and ultimately, as this scene makes clear, deception of self—for as Pinchwife says in a revealing moment, “For my own sake fain I would all believe.”
As for Horner himself, he is ultimately a lonely figure: when he has exposed the pretension and licentiousness endemic to London, his only (onstage) audience has been The Quack, whom he holds in contempt. As B. A. Kachur says, “Horner represents the darker side of the hardcore libertine: isolated and without close friends or confidants, sexually competitive and aggressive, undesirous of emotional attachment, and selfishly motivated.” He has committed himself to a life of lying to everyone, even Harcourt and Dorilant, with the only exceptions being his upper-class mistresses; these women are mere objects to him, the interchangeable instruments of his pleasure, and yet his relationships with them are the only honest relationships he allows himself. If Horner is not physically sterile, then he is spiritually and emotionally so, and he is telling the truth, in a way, when he says that he can never be a husband, for he is incapable of the emotions that constitute spousal love.