Maria returns home, reporting that Mary has accepted her part. Mr. Rushworth arrives at the house, and is offered either the part of Anhalt or Count Casel. He chooses Count Casel. Maria, thinking Mr. Rushworth’s slowness might prevent him from learning his lines, shortens all the speeches of his that she can. Mr. Rushworth occupies himself with figuring out what his costume should be, a job that he likes very much but pretends not to.
In the play, Mr. Rushworth’s character, Count Casel, is supposed to marry Amelia, but she loves the character Anhalt instead. Mr. Rushworth’s choice of the role of the scorned lover instead of the love interest reflects his real life role in the novel’s love triangle between Maria, Henry, and Mr. Rushworth.
When Edmund enters the drawing room, he stumbles upon the group mid-discussion. Mr. Rushworth tells him that they have chosen “Lovers’ Vows” and that he is playing Count Casel, and begins to talk about what he will wear. Mr. Yates confirms the chosen play, saying it is surprising they did not think of it earlier, and that they have cast almost every part.
Throughout the preparations for the play, Austen pokes fun at Mr. Rushworth, who, like he did with the renovations, fixates on the number of lines he has and what he will wear. He annoys everyone, and makes it obvious why Maria does not love him.
Edmund asks what roles the women are playing, and Maria tells him she is Agatha and Mary is Amelia. Edmund turns to sit near Mrs. Norris, Lady Bertram, and Fanny at the fire. Mr. Rushworth tells him that he has forty-two speeches in the play, and talks about his clothes again.
Again, Austen uses Mr. Rushworth’s fixation on his speeches and clothes to give the chapter humor. She also shows how unbearable he is, helping the reader to understand Maria’s dislike of her fiancé.
Tom leaves the room to answer a question posed by the carpenter, and Mr. Yates follows him out. Edmund tells Maria that he cannot condone the play they have chosen, saying it is inappropriate, and hopes they will decide to quit. He tells her to read it over so she will understand. Maria tells him that she knows the play well and that with a few alterations it will be perfectly appropriate. Edmund tells her she should be setting a good example for the other women, which flatters her, but she still refuses to quit. They argue back and forth.
When Edmund confronts Maria about the play, he seems to think that Maria has only agreed to it because she has not read the text, and so does not realize that it features sex outside of marriage, an illegitimate child, interclass marriage, etc. Maria, however, says she knows the play already, suggesting that she is more comfortable with being improper and possibly immoral than Edmund is.
Lady Bertram, who seems to not care very much, tells Maria to be proper and tells Fanny to order her dinner. Edmund tells Lady Bertram that Sir Thomas would not like Maria playing Agatha. Maria says that if she drops the part Julia will take it, thinking that the fact that she is not engaged would make her playing it more proper. Furthermore, Maria says that if they change the play they will never choose one.
Lady Bertram, who should be the one calling the play off for being inappropriate, shows as usual her ineffectiveness and lack of discipline as a parent. Much later in the book, the Bertrams’ parenting styles will be blamed for Maria and Julia’s moral ruin despite their good pedigree.
Mrs. Norris agrees with Maria, and says they should not waste money on a new set. She adds that, since Mr. Rushworth will be acting as well, there can be no harm for Maria’s reputation. She then drones on about the curtain she is making for the play and some irrelevant interaction with a servant. No one answers her. Edmund gives up his objections to the play as a lost cause.
As is typical, Mrs. Norris’s frugality gets in the way of her doing what would certainly be the most prudent choice— changing the play to something less risqué. Superficial as usual, she is concerned more with Maria’s reputation than her exposure to (and seeming endorsement of) improper ideas.
At dinner, Mrs. Norris once again tells her story about the servant. They don’t discuss the play much, because of the tension between Edmund and Tom, Julia’s sourness about her part, and the fact that Mr. Rushworth’s repeated attempts to center the conversation on himself, his speeches, and his dress are very boring.
Edmund and Tom’s disagreement about the choice of the play once again shows that Edmund is much more responsible than his older brother, who continually makes choices that put the family’s reputation in jeopardy.
After dinner, Tom, Maria, and Mr. Yates go into the drawing room to study the play. Henry and Mary arrive. Mary compliments Lady Bertram on the play being finally chosen, saying she is sure that Lady Bertram is tired of all their discussion, along with Mrs. Norris, Fanny, and Edmund. Lady Bertram says something pleasant in response, but Edmund says nothing.
Mary’s unconcern about the choice of such a controversial play might be the reason for Edmund’s quiet, as he struggles to reconcile his own moral objections with the fact that Mary, whom he hopes to have a romantic future with, seems unfazed.
Mary asks who is going to play Anhalt, who has not yet been cast. Mr. Rushworth brags about the number of his speeches. Mr. Yates suggests that Edmund should take the part, but Tom refuses to ask him.
Mr. Rushworth again provides comic relief. Mary, meanwhile, inquires about who will play her character’s love interest, perhaps hoping it will be Edmund.
Mary returns to Lady Bertram, Fanny, and Edmund, and asks Edmund what he thinks they should do about Anhalt. Edmund suggests they change the play. Mary says she agrees, but that no one else will. Mary suggests that Edmund might be tempted to play Anhalt since he is also a clergyman, and Edmund declines. Mary, embarrassed, goes to talk to Mrs. Norris.
When Mary asks Edmund to play Anhalt, she professes to also want to change the play. However, Mary has not shown any other evidence of objecting to it—this suggests that Mary is just telling Edmund want he wants to hear rather than truly caring about a more proper choice of text.
Tom tells Fanny that they need her to play the Cottager’s Wife. Fanny is shocked and says she cannot. Tom insists, but Fanny thoroughly objects, and they go back and forth while Edmund watches. Mrs. Norris tells Fanny that she is ashamed of her because she will not help her cousins. Edmund defends Fanny, and tells Mrs. Norris to let her choose for herself. Mrs. Norris says that Fanny is ungrateful, making Edmund angry. Fanny begins to cry.
Fanny’s reluctance to act in the play puts her in conflict with her friends and cousins, and, according to Mrs. Norris, makes Fanny appear ungrateful and badly mannered. Fanny is forced to choose between being good mannered and following her morals. She still refuses the part.
Mary moves her chair over towards Fanny’s and tries to soothe her, giving the others a look to indicate that they should leave Fanny alone. Fanny is grateful for Mary’s kindness. Mary asks her about her needlework, and about William, making Fanny like her more.
Mary shows herself again to be a calculating character when she goes to comfort Fanny after Mrs. Norris’s cruel words. It’s unclear whether Mary is genuinely being kind, or just wants to appear kind.
Meanwhile, the others continue discussing the play. Eventually, Tom calls Mary away from Fanny to discuss the problematic lack of an Anhalt. Tom proposes finding someone from the surrounding area to play him, saying he will go tomorrow morning into the village and ask a few men he knows. Mary says she thinks that would be fine. They decide to ask a villager. Though everyone expects Edmund to object, he says nothing. Mary then confides in Fanny that she is not very enthusiastic about the play, and will shorten her lines, now that her counterpart will be a villager she hardly knows.
The actors, who anticipate that Edmund will object to opening up the play to more people and thus jeopardizing his sisters’ reputations, are surprised when Edmund says nothing. Whether Mary’s statement to Fanny that she is unenthusiastic about the play is genuine or not is unclear, as she could just be saying that in the hopes that Fanny will convince Edmund to change his mind.