Thomas asks Fag if the woman Absolute loves is rich and Fag confirms that she is very wealthy. “…She could pay the national debt as easy as I could my washerwoman!” Fag then reveals that the woman’s name is Miss Lydia Languish, and that while she loves Absolute, “there is an old tough aunt in the way,” but that the aunt has never met or seen Absolute. Apparently, Lydia and Jack got acquainted in Gloucestershire.
Thomas asks Fag to describe Bath, suggesting that he has heard it is a good place for merry-making. Fag explains that Bath is divided into parties, “High-roomians and Low-roomians,” denoting two different assembly rooms in town. Fag tells him that there is a pump-room (a mineral spring), a promenade, billiards, and dancing, before complaining about the “regular hours” there, given the fact that Bath is primarily a health resort.
When Fag mentions that he and Mr. Faulkland’s servant are friends, Thomas reveals that Faulkland is supposed to marry Julia Melville, a relation of the Absolutes. Fag teases Thomas for wearing a wig, and Thomas says that he would never give it up, even if “the lawyers and doctors may do as they will.”
As Thomas goes on a rant about wigs, Fag warns him that Captain Absolute and Madam Lucy, Lydia Languish’s maid, are coming towards them. Thomas notices that Jack is giving Lucy money, which is strange, and Fag tells him to meet him that night at 8 for a little party.
Scene 2. Mrs. Malaprop’s lodgings, a dressing room, where Lydia is sitting on the sofa and Lucy is just returning home. Lucy tells Lydia that she had to go all over town to a number of different libraries, but could not find the romantic books that Lydia requested. One of them had recently been taken out by Lady Slattern Lounger, but it was too “soiled and dog’s-ear’d.” Lucy takes out the books she was able to find. Lydia is pleased and requests her smelling-bottle next, which Lucy produces.
When Lucy alludes to the fact that she has seen Ensign Beverley, Lydia gets excited, but they are interrupted by the entrance of Julia Melville. Lydia has a number of things to say to Julia, informing her that Mrs. Malaprop has disapproved of her affair with Beverley, confining her to the house. She then tells Julia that Mrs. Malaprop is in love with an Irish baronet, whom she met at "Lady Macshuffle's rout."
Lydia explains that Mrs. Malaprop uses a feigned name with her lover—"It is a Delia or a Celia"—but that it has not made her any more sympathetic to Lydia's affair. Lydia then tells Julia that she quarreled with Beverley before she was confined to her house and she has not been able to make up with him.
Julia asks Lydia what the quarrel with Beverley was about, and Lydia informs her that she thought it was time for her and Beverley to have a quarrel, so she wrote a note to herself saying that Beverley was having an affair with someone else and then showed it to Beverley. Julia assures Lydia that Beverley will forgive her, before bringing up the fact that Beverley is not very wealthy. Lydia counters, "But you know I lose most of my fortune if I marry without my aunt's consent, till of age; and that is what I have determin'd to do ever since I knew the penalty.—Nor could I love the man who would wish to wait a day for the alternative."
When Julia says that this is foolish, Lydia insists that Julia's relationship with Faulkland is misguided as well, given the fact that Faulkland has delayed marrying her. Julia defends Faulkland, saying, "Unus'd to the foppery of love, he is negligent of the little duties expected from a lover—but being unhackney'd in the passion, his love is ardent and sincere." She tells her friend that, despite his imperfections, Faulkland is a sincere lover.
Lydia asks Julia if she would still love Faulkland had he not saved her life; evidently, he saved her from drowning. Suddenly, Lucy enters and tells the women that Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop have just arrived. Julia leaves hastily, for fear of running into Sir Anthony who will "detain [her] to shew [her] the town."
As Julia leaves, and Anthony and Malaprop come up the stairs, Lydia orders Lucy to hide all of her romantic novels. Mrs. Malaprop enters, insulting Lydia to Anthony about her love affair with Beverley and telling her, "Thought does not become a young woman." Malaprop asks Lydia if she will forget Beverley and marry someone chosen for her, saying, "What business have you, Miss, with preference and aversion? They don't become a young woman...'tis safest in matrimony to begin with a little aversion. I am sure I hated your poor dear uncle before marriage as if he'd been a black-a-moor—and yet, Miss, you are sensible what a wife I made!"
When Lydia leaves the room, Malaprop and Anthony discuss the fact that it was wrong to teach girls to read, and Anthony notes that he saw Lucy returning with books from the library. "Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an ever-green tree of diabolical knowledge!" he says, when Malaprop reminds him that his wife was fond of reading.
Malaprop agrees that learning and education are unbecoming on a young woman, but suggests that "I would send her at nine years old to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little ingenuity and artifice." Anthony tells Malaprop that he wants Lydia to marry his son Jack Absolute—the real identity of Ensign Beverley—and Malaprop agrees to help him in this.
The tone of the play is immediately lighthearted and fun, largely because the characters who introduce the action are two affable and well-informed servants. In the stratified world of the play, the servants gossip to one another about their employers’ exploits, and try to find a little fun when they are not tending to their masters’ needs. A great deal of humor comes from the fact that Fag and Thomas are gossiping about their masters while also trying to find some fun in a town that has a conservative social life, being a health resort. Fag and Thomas, from their lowly but well-placed positions, provide some comic relief.
In this section we learn more about Lydia Languish, a wealthy young heiress with a penchant for romantic novels. The books she loves have titles like The Reward of Constancy, The Fatal Connection, and The Mistakes of the Heart, all comic allusions to her dramatic taste. We have already learned that she does not want to marry a wealthy man (even though she herself is wealthy), because she wants to be sure that she marries for love. Her taste in books only highlights her girlish taste for melodrama and passion. Her temperament is archetypal and recognizable to a contemporary audience or reader.
Yet another humorous element of the play is the use of archetypal language for the designation of different character names. “Lydia Languish” is the perfect name for a character who loves nothing more than sitting around reading romantic novels. When Lucy the maid returns home, she tells her mistress that someone named “Slattern Lounger” just checked it out, another name that alludes, humorously and irreverently, to the character’s tendency to languish. This device appears again and again, with characters like “Jack Absolute” and “Mrs. Malaprop," and serves to highlight some of the archetypal features of the respective characters.
Lydia's romantic personality is not without its ironies, especially as it affects her capricious attitudes towards her own affairs. She tells Julia that she has been in a quarrel with Ensign Beverley, her lover, and that the cause of the fight was all her doing. Indeed, she completely fabricates an affair and even writes a letter to herself in order to stir up tension with the man she loves. Her fanciful and changeable nature make her an exceedingly unpredictable lover, which only adds to the comedy of the play.
The motor of the plot begins when Anthony and Malaprop reveal their desire to set Lydia up with Jack Absolute. In those moments, two instances of dramatic irony kick into gear, which heightens the comic stakes even more. Lydia stubbornly wants to marry the poor Ensign Beverley for love, but Anthony and Malaprop want her to marry Jack Absolute, Anthony's wealthy son. Neither party knows, however, that Ensign Beverley and Jack Absolute are the same person. Everyone is plotting for Lydia to marry the same man, even though they believe they all have different desires.