Tom and Maria are thrilled by Edmund’s concession to play Anhalt. They celebrate together privately, saying that Edmund’s decision to act despite his scruples is pure jealousy over Mary. Toward Edmund, however, they do not rub it in. Mrs. Norris offers to make Edmund’s costume, Mr. Yates tells him Anhalt is a good part, and Mr. Rushworth counts his lines.
As Edmund is initiated into the play, the other characters believe his decision is due to his feelings for Mary. Although to Fanny Edmund said it was for practicality and privacy, it’s unclear whether Edmund was telling the truth, or just rationalizing the decision he thought was immoral.
Mary is likewise happy that Edmund will be playing her love interest. Fanny learns that Mrs. Grant has offered to play the Cottager’s Wife at Mary’s suggestion, so Fanny is safe from having to act. Fanny is happy about this, but pained to be indebted to Mary, since she still does not like Mary and feels bad about herself in comparison.
Mrs. Grant comes to Fanny’s aid, allowing her to escape acting. Fanny’s concern about being indebted to Mary might stem from her fear that Mary is manipulating her in order to endear herself to Edmund.
Julia also feels insignificant and underappreciated after Henry led her on for so long. Julia, who can no longer deny that Henry prefers Maria, mopes around and flirts with Mr. Yates. Henry hoped to clear the air by complimenting Julia, but quickly becomes distracted by the rehearsals and forgets about it. Mrs. Grant, who had hoped so much that Henry and Julia would end up together, is disappointed. She warns Henry against pursuing Maria because she is engaged.
Julia and Mrs. Grant begin to recognize that Henry clearly prefers Maria, prompting intense resentment from Julia. Henry’s failure to appease Julia’s anger towards him shows the limits of Henry’s manners and charms in smoothing over his bad behavior.
To Mary, Mrs. Grant wonders if Julia is in love with Henry, and Mary says she thinks both sisters are. Mrs. Grant is shocked and tells her to think of Mr. Rushworth. Mary responds by saying that Maria is the one who needs to think of him, or risk losing his fortune and good profession. Mrs. Grant warns Mary not to think that Maria is interested in Henry. She tells Mary that, if she suspects there is something going on between Maria and Henry, then they send Henry away.
As Mary and Mrs. Grant discuss Henry’s flirtation with Maria, it is clear to both of them that Maria, who is set to marry a rich, well-connected man, has a lot more to lose from a scandal. This shows how the rules of courtship, propriety, and inheritance disadvantage women more than men, as they depend on marriage for financial security.
The narrator returns to Julia’s heartbreak, saying that despite Henry’s lack of interest, she still loves him and hopes he will fall in love with her. She is angry at Maria, with whom she is normally very close. Fanny feels bad for Julia because of this messy situation, but they do not discuss the matter. Neither Edmund, nor Tom, nor Mrs. Norris notices Julia’s distress because they are so distracted by the play.
Again, Austen shows the reader how competition for male attention drives Julia and Maria apart, exemplifying how the marriage system can damage female relationships. Fanny, who could perhaps comfort Julia, fails to reach out to her, perhaps afraid of overstepping her class status.