In Lady Woodvill’s lodgings, the maidservant Busy tries to get Harriet to fix her hair and not be so wild. Harriet laughs that women spend too much time on their looks, trying to alter what nature gave them, which is what men do with their wit. Busy reminds her that her intended is out with her mother and his father right now. Busy says how genteel, how handsome Young Bellair is, but Harriet is not impressed.
Harriet asks her to stop talking about it and to sing something instead. Busy teases her and sings what Harriet has been singing since she saw Dorimant.
Young Bellair comes in, and he and Harriet regard each other. They join hands and both, to their surprise, announce their disobedience and their desire not to marry each other. He admits he is in love with another, and she comes close to admitting it as well.
They wonder how to delay the proceedings, and Young Bellair devises a plan for them to play a game –pretend they are in love with each other. Harriet muses that she does not know how to act like she is in love since she never has been, but she will try.
Old Bellair and Lady Woodvill come in. Harriet and Young Bellair start their plan. They provide quiet instructions to each other on how to stand, look, and flirt. He tells her to fan herself, heave her bosom, smile, and look “sparkish” (82). They commend each other on their performance.
Their parents notice and are pleased. A servant announces the coach has arrived, and Old Bellair and Lady Woodvill agree to meet at Lady Townley’s. Young Bellair privately muses at his father’s interest in a light meal with Emilia.
At Lady Townley’s house she, Medley, and Emilia talk. Emilia finds herself slightly piqued by Medley’s insouciance. Belinda comes in, rather sad about Mrs. Loveit’s treatment at the hands of Dorimant. Emilia says that she will judge Dorimant on her own rather than listen to talk about him. Everyone adds their opinions, though, calling him witty, principled, and, according to Belinda, “strangely ill-natured” 84). Medley finds her severe, and Lady Townley says he is not a lover of hers but is a pleasant friend.
They talk of how Mrs. Loveit does not really know Sir Fopling and the time she met him found him annoying.
Dorimant arrives. Everyone encourages Belinda to talk to him, and she tells him he made her hate him. He feigns shock and says he was only obeying her commands. He tells her she needs to remember their engagement tomorrow at five in the morning. She is initially resistant but he wears her down.
He then asks her how Mrs. Loveit was, and she says she had gotten over her rage and is trying to defy him. He tells Belinda to have Mrs. Loveit meet him in the park; Belinda is sad but cannot resist him.
Emilia chides Dorimant but he laughs that women are responsible for all these games.
Belinda exits and Mrs. Townley comes in. Dorimant compliments her on her popularity, but Emilia wonders if she is not too much a fan of company. Lady Townley breezily replies that it is good to have universal taste and enjoy wit. Emilia grumbles that fools become obnoxious after the first or second time seeing them.
Sir Fopling Flutter arrives and everyone is happy to see him and tease him.
He comes in, full of obsequious words and greetings. He begs Dorimant to be intimate with him, and cannot hear the man’s mockery. Lady Townley tells him to not ignore the beauty before him in Emilia, and Fopling turns to her and praises her. He also tries to get Medley to admire his gallesh (a vehicle).
Everyone begins to admire Fopling's outfit out loud, and he compliments himself along with their observations about his pantaloons, breech, gloves, periwig, and so on.
Fopling muses about finding a lady and Dorimant tells him Mrs. Loveit is interested in him. Fopling is a little confused, saying the woman seemed not to be interested in him, but Dorimant assures him it is affectation. He tells Fopling to meet her in the park. Fopling departs.
The group offers their opinions: “a fine-mettled coxcomb”, “brisk and insipid”, “pert and dull” (91). Medley says he will meet Dorimant at the Mall in a bit. Dorimant asks if the ladies are coming and they say they have their own business.
The women wait for Old Bellair to arrive.
Harriet and Young Bellair walk along the Mall, away from her mother. Young Bellair asks her about Dorimant, and she says she finds nothing frightful about him even though her mother assumes any woman who meets with him loses her virtue.
Dorimant himself enters, and walks up to the couple. He asks his friend if this is the woman his father wants him to marry, and Young Bellair says yes. Dorimant compliments her beauty. Harriet is pleased but pretends to be nonchalant.
Dorimant asks her what kind of play she prefers, and she says in public and limited, but that he seems to like private, masked play. They jest for a bit but Harriet tells Young Bellair to come along, as Dorimant is growing dull because of his affectation. Dorimant replies that she loves the attention men pay her, as he observed it earlier. She says she does not beg for attention like he does, and pretends to act like him.
Lady Woodvill arrives and tells her child to come along; she has heard Dorimant is in the area and wants to flee from the plague. She clearly does not recognize the real man before her, as they have never met.
As they are leaving, Sir Fopling and a large equipage with footmen and a page enter. Dorimant is annoyed that they are gone, but is happy with Harriet’s beauty.
Medley comes in and tells his friend he espied Mrs. Loveit and Belinda not far off. Dorimant laughs that he will be amused to see Fopling speaking to her soon. He plans to speak to her civilly and make her frustrated just as Fopling comes up.
Belinda, Pert, and Mrs. Loveit enter. Pert says she is glad Mrs. Loveit ignored Dorimant but the latter says she has no feelings at all for him anymore. She plans to let Fopling make advances to her and go along with them because it will incense Dorimant and make him jealous. Belinda is worried that he will indeed fall back in love with her friend, and wants to stop this from happening.
Fopling comes in and he and Mrs. Loveit greet each other fondly. They spend pleasant minutes critiquing some riffraff in the Mall. Medley and Dorimant observe, with Medley wondering that she seems to like him. Dorimant curses that this seems to be a counter-plot.
Mrs. Loveit and Fopling continue to chatter and get along swimmingly, but Dorimant grows jealous. He tries to hide it, and Belinda watches him and concludes he is not jealous because he does not look it.
Fopling, Mrs. Loveit, Pert, and Belinda exit the scene.
Dorimant is annoyed, and Medley amused at his friend’s distress. Dorimant knows his former lover hates Fopling and wants to expose this.
A footman comes up to them with a note from Young Bellair asking them to come over. He writes tat Mrs. Woodvill did not know Dorimant, so he must pretend to be Mr. Courtage, a man known for courting old women. He laughs that this must be Harriet’s idea, and is pleased.
The presence of Sir Fopling Flutter, whose name is in the subtitle to the play, as well as his complete opposite, Harriet, makes for an interesting act. Fopling is the character all the other characters are gently lampooning for his affectation and ridiculousness. He is overly concerned with his dress, his manners are too artificial, and he has no discernment or perspicacity. The circle critiques him as “a fine-mettled coxcomb”, “brisk and insipid”, and “pert and dull” (91). Dorimant comments in response to Emilia’s statement that many may see him as a wit that “Nature has her cheats, stums a brain and puts sophisticate dullness on the tasteless multitude for true wit and good humour” (91).
Fopling, and the scene with Harriet and Young Bellair feigning to be in love with each other, are indicative of one of the play’s most pervasive themes –disguise and affectation. While not the exact same thing, they work together in much of Restoration drama. As critic Gamini Salgado writes, “Affectation is one form of disguise; it is disguise which is imperfectly aware of its own nature and objectives, and as such it comes half-way between conscious dissimulation and the candid presentation of the ‘real’ personality.” In Restoration drama it is taken for the norm that one’s outward appearance does not match one’s inward makeup. Society dictates that men and women “dress up their real thoughts and feelings in polite trifling and elegant gesture, to hide the true expression on their faces behind a delicately wrought fan.” Someone like Dorimant is the hero because he does this with aplomb, and someone like Fopling is the fool because he does not have a handle on why he does what he does or how to carry it out with ease.
Harriet is an interesting character because she both plays this game and doesn’t. She does indeed pretend like she does not like Dorimant as much as she does, but everything she says to that effect is rooted in the fact that she does not actually care for artifice or dissimulation. She uses “affectation of affectation”, as Salgado notes, which is seen in how she mocks and teases Dorimant’s words and behavior when he initially tries to court her.
Harriet, as critic Rose A. Zimbardo writes, is “the agent and instrument of nature” because she is the “mistress of forms” who can “assume many masks and be confined by none. She is aware of mutability and does not seek the false security of oaths.” This contrasts her with Mrs. Loveit, who thinks Dorimant’s words of love and swearing of affection actually have meaning because they are part of a code (albeit an outdated one).
Harriet’s outward appearance is a manifestation of this. She is always described as wild and wanton, and Busy tries valiantly to get her to conform her appearance to sartorial norms. She may play little games, but they serve nature’s ends. She will bring about self-knowledge and real love in Dorimant, further the pure marriage of Emilia and Young Bellair, and vanquish the absurd Mrs. Loveit, who is “the slave of empty forms” and is obsessed with self-love.
As for Belinda, the third in Dorimant’s trifecta of wooed women, she is a bit more complicated for modern audiences. On the one hand, she is vicious and has no problem from the outset with hurting Mrs. Loveit. Only once she sees what can happen to her does she feel bad. On the other hand, she does feel bad and tries to atone for her earlier behavior by urging Dorimant to let her alone. A deeper look at this character, though, does not yield much to earn her further sympathy. Zimbardo notes that she was first introduced as a “vizard,” or a mask. Like Harriet, she is a mistress of forms but to her own advantage and self-protection. Her goals are the same as Dorimant’s initially: “self-love and self-gratification operating under a quite un-libertine regard for respectability.” She never comes clean to Mrs. Loveit, preferring to lie and slink away rather than demonstrate true character.