The play begins in a room in an old-fashioned house, where Mrs. Hardcastle is complaining to her husband, Hardcastle, about never going to London on a holiday. Hardcastle says he has no interest in going to experience the pretentious society of London. Mrs. Hardcastle replies that they never get to meet anyone interesting and that they live in a house that anyone could mistake for an inn, while he bores everyone with his stories of the good old days in the war. Affectionately, Hardcastle says that he does like old things, including his old wife. Mrs. Hardcastle responds that she is not very old: she is only forty. Hardcastle counters that she is fifty-seven. Mrs. Hardcastle argues that she was only twenty when she had Tony, her son from her first husband, who has not yet reached the age of discretion (that is, twenty-one years old).
The play begins by showing a happily married older couple who nevertheless disagree about many things. Although she is from the countryside, Mrs. Hardcastle is obsessed with the fashionable goings-on in town, while Hardcastle thinks that fashionable society offers no worthwhile culture, only pretention and affectation. This love of all things old-fashioned means that Hardcastle refuses to change anything about his house, while most members of his class – even those living in the country – redecorate their homes to keep them looking current. (This will later contribute to the play’s central mix-up, in which Marlow mistakes the Hardcastles’ home for an inn.) However, to be obsessed with newness is also foolish: Mrs. Hardcastle lies about her age, even to her husband who knows very well how old she is.
Hardcastle says that Tony will never have any discretion: she has spoiled her son and he is badly behaved and badly educated. Mrs. Hardcastle says her son doesn’t need an education because he will have a fortune of fifteen-hundred pounds per year, but at least he has a good sense of humor. Hardcastle denies this and complains about the pranks Tony plays. Mrs. Hardcastle argues that she could not have given her son a better education because he was always ill as a child, but Hardcastle disputes this, saying that Tony only shows signs of sickness after drinking too much.
Even though Mrs. Hardcastle is interested in the cultivated, fashionable world, she has done nothing to cultivate her son so that he can rise in that world. She has kept Tony from getting any education, believing that money is all he will need in life, or perhaps fearing that an education will cause him to leave her behind. She has always treated him as if he were sick, but according to Hardcastle, he is not sickly at all. Without an education or occupation, Tony is left with nothing to do but drink and cause trouble.
Tony enters the room on his way out of the house, and his mother asks him to spend time with her and Hardcastle. Tony tells Mrs. Hardcastle that he is on his way to the alehouse to meet his friends and cannot stay. Mrs. Hardcastle remarks that his friends are beneath him and pleads that he stay with her. When he refuses, she grabs him and tries to stop him, and he leaves anyway, pulling her along with him. Left alone, Hardcastle says aloud that the two of them spoil each other.
Not only does Tony spend his time drinking and playing pranks, he spends it with people from a different class background. The play’s audience would have found it unusual or even inappropriate for Tony to fraternize with members of the lower class. This, along with Tony’s disrespect for his mother’s command, provides further proof that Hardcastle is right about his wife spoiling her son.
Still ruminating, Hardcastle says that modern times are making everyone foolish. He sees his daughter Kate and remarks to himself that even she is interested in fashion and wears fancy French clothing after living in London for a time. Kate enters and Hardcastle comments on her extravagant outfit. She reminds him that they have made an agreement: she wears the clothes she likes in the morning and the clothes he prefers for her in the evening.
Unlike Tony, who has been kept at home by his mother, Kate has been exposed to London society and has received a good education. Unlike her mother, Kate has adopted fashionable dress without becoming fixated on always dressing fashionably. Instead of fighting with her father as Tony fights with his mother, Kate and her father strike a compromise.
Hardcastle says he will require Kate’s obedience soon, because the man he wants her to marry is coming from London to visit that night. Kate is surprised, wonders how she should act when she meets this guest, and feels doubtful that they will get along after meeting each other in such a formal, arranged way. Her father tells her that he will never force her to marry anyone, but that the man coming to visit, Mr. Marlow (the son of Hardcastle’s best friend Sir Charles Marlow) is intelligent, generous, young, brave, and very handsome. Kate is reassured that she will like Marlow, until her father says that Marlow is also bashful and reserved. Kate doesn’t like the sound of this, while her father thinks a modest character is a good sign.
Even though Hardcastle says that he will demand Kate’s obedience, she intuits that he would never force her into a marriage she didn’t want. Even though they disagree, both on what she should wear and on the value of modesty in a man, their conversation shows mutual respect and flexibility. However, even though she trusts her father and likes the idea of pleasing him by marrying his friend’s son, Kate thinks this formal introduction will not be conducive to falling in love. She is likely influenced by the romantic or sentimental notions of the day, which celebrated star-crossed lovers, not comfortable arranged marriages.
Kate tells her father that she will accept Marlow as a husband if he has all the other qualities her father described. Hardcastle reminds her that Marlow will also have to like her if they are to get engaged. Kate says that, if Marlow doesn’t like her, she will blame her mirror for deceiving her, change the fashion of her clothing, and find someone less picky to love. Hardcastle approves of her attitude, then exits to prepare the servants to greet their visitor.
If it’s true that you have to love yourself before you can love somebody else, the self-assured and easygoing Kate is ready for love. She knows her own merits and sees fashion as a way of highlighting her beauty, instead of as a way of defining herself. Her father respects this sensible attitude, and it seems likely that he is partially responsible for instilling it in her.
Alone, Kate ruminates aloud about Marlow, wondering whether she will like him and whether it is possible to cure a man of shyness by making him proud of his wife. She laughs at how far her mind has skipped ahead, past their courtship to their eventual marriage.
Kate’s cousin, Constance Neville, enters, and Kate asks her how she thinks she looks today. Constance asks why Kate is so concerned about how she looks, and Kate explains that Marlow is coming to meet her. Constance tells Kate that she knows Marlow, as he is the best friend of Mr. Hastings, Constance’s admirer. She says that Marlow is odd: he is very shy around modest, respectable women of his own class background, but is very forward among women without this upbringing and often seduces lower-class women. Kate wonders how she will manage, then says she can do nothing but wait and see what happens.
Constance sheds new light on Marlow’s “modesty.” Unlike the description of him given by Sir Charles in his letter to Hardcastle, Constance believes that Marlow’s modesty is actually just shyness around women of his own class. He is not shy around all women, however, but instead uses his greater power and stature to seduce lower-class women, who were often assumed to be promiscuous.
Kate asks Constance whether her mother is still trying to convince her to marry Tony, and Constance says that Mrs. Hardcastle continues to try to force the courtship to work. Kate says Mrs. Hardcastle is naturally eager for her son to marry his cousin Constance because she wants to keep Constance’s fortune in the family. Constance says that the fortune is mainly made up of jewels, which is not as tempting as money.
Mrs. Hardcastle is Constance’s guardian, so Constance needs her approval to marry, but Mrs. Hardcastle doesn’t truly have her niece’s best interest at heart. Instead, Mrs. Hardcastle is hoping to marry the two first cousins (a common practice at the time) in order to add to her son’s already significant fortune.
Constance continues, telling Kate she hopes that her true love, Hastings, will not give up on marrying her and eventually she will escape the pressure she faces from her guardian to marry Tony. In the meantime, she pretends that she loves Tony so that Mrs. Hardcastle will not suspect her of loving someone else. Kate says that they’re lucky that Tony is on their side: he doesn’t want to marry Constance either. Constance hears Mrs. Hardcastle’s bell ring, summoning her. The two young women wish each other luck in their affairs, and Constance exits.
Constance and Tony both know themselves and know that they are badly matched. This is also clear to the audience based on their two characters: Constance seems refined, while Tony is rustic. Constance’s self-knowledge also makes her more confident in her love for Hastings. She deceives Mrs. Hardcastle about the true nature of her feelings to keep her controlling guardian from exerting even more pressure on her to marry someone she doesn’t love.
At the alehouse (called The Three Pigeons), Tony sits at the head of the table and sings a song he made up about the bar. His friends, who are from lower-class backgrounds, praise his performance and thank him for bringing them such a culturally elevated performance. They say how wonderful it will be once he has access to his fortune, since he will buy everyone drinks, just like his own father once did. Tony agrees, saying he will buy a new horse and marry Bet Bouncer once he comes of age.
Socializing with members of a lower class was looked down upon by members of the stratified English society of the late 18th century. Tony’s choice of friends reflects an openness and lack of prejudice, but also his restricted upbringing, which kept him in his home, with neither a traditional education or the traditional opportunities to interact socially with other people of his class.
The landlord enters and tells Tony that two gentlemen who are fancily dressed in the latest French fashions have driven up to the alehouse. They are lost and looking for Hardcastle’s house. Tony, realizing that this must be Marlow, asks his friends to leave him for a moment because the travelers will “not be good enough company” for Marlow. Left alone, Tony decides to play a joke on his stepfather to avenge himself for all the bad things Hardcastle says about him.
Tony’s joke about his lower-class friends being too good for the visiting gentleman shows that he is acutely aware of the way other members of his class view his association with members of the lower class. Tony’s stepfather Hardcastle looks down on Tony for not being a refined gentleman, and Tony seeks to get back at him by playing a trick on the refined gentleman Hardcastle hopes to have as a son-in-law.
Marlow and Hastings enter the room with the landlord. Marlow complains about the difficult journey. Hastings counters that it might have been easier if Marlow had allowed them to stop and ask for directions, but Marlow replies that that would risk being insulted by a stranger.
Tony intercedes in Marlow’s and Hastings’s conversation, asking if they know where they are. When they tell him they are looking for Hardcastle’s house, he tells them that they have lost their way. He asks if the Hardcastle they are looking for has a charming son and an annoying daughter, and they say that they heard the opposite report. Tony tells them that they are far from Hardcastle’s house. He asks the landlord to give them directions, and the landlord, who is in on the joke, invents a complicated-sounding route. Discouraged, Hastings and Marlow ask if they can spend the night at the alehouse. Tony says that there are no spare beds, but they can sleep in armchairs by the fireside. Hastings and Marlow say they hate this idea.
Before he goes through with his idea to play a trick on Hastings, Marlow, and his stepfather, Tony makes sure to confirm that his stepfather has, in fact, spoken of him poorly to other people. He also makes sure that Hastings and Marlow are snobs by telling them that they can sleep in armchairs and watching them stiffly refuse such an undignified sleeping arrangement. Once he has ascertained that his stepfather has bad-mouthed him and that the two gentlemen are snobs, Tony sees all three characters as in need of some humbling.
Tony pretends to think for a moment, then tells Marlow and Hastings that they are only a mile away from one of the best inns in the area. The landlord asks him privately if he really means to send them to his stepfather’s house believing it to be an inn, and Tony silences him. He offers to escort them partway and warns them that the innkeeper (Hardcastle) is rich and has pretentions to being a nobleman. He says that this innkeeper will try to talk to them and convince them of his status in society. The three men leave, and the landlord of the Three Pigeons chuckles approvingly to himself that Tony is a “damned mischievous son of a whore.”
Tony hopes to get revenge on his stepfather, who disapproves of him, by taking advantage of the fact that their old-fashioned house could easily be taken for an inn (especially by Marlow and Hastings who are used to everything being done in the latest fashions). Tony is aware of the dynamics around him and is clever enough to manipulate people who think themselves superior to him. The landlord of The Three Pigeons, who would never dare to play such a trick on members of the upper class, finds Tony’s joke especially hilarious.