At Hardcastle’s house, Hardcastle is teaching his servants how to behave around his guests. Calling them blockheads, he instructs them not to interact with the guests. A servant named Diggory says that it will be difficult not to laugh if Hardcastle tells the story about Ould Grouse. Hardcastle laughs with Diggory, then resumes giving his lesson. He asks who will pour wine if one of the guests asks for his glass to be refilled, but none of the servants move. Hardcastle hears a horse and coach driving up and leaves to greet his guests. The servants scatter, uncertain of what they are supposed to do.
More formal relationships exist between servants and masters in the city than in the countryside, so Hardcastle worries that Marlow will look down on him if he sees the friendly relationship he has with his servants. Diggory is uneducated and uncultured, but he shows his intelligence and personality, reminding Hardcastle of their real human relationship by mentioning an old story that makes them all laugh.
A servant shows Marlow and Hardcastle into the room. They look around them approvingly, but remark sadly that fine old houses often end up as inns when the owners lose their fortunes. They compare good and bad inns and the cost of staying in them.
Hardcastle’s house is full of old-fashioned but high-quality furniture and decorations that fit with Marlow and Hasting’s ideas of what an inn should look like. Tony seems to hae anticipated this and took advantage of it to play his prank.
Hastings says that Marlow has spent so much time travelling that it is surprising he lacks confidence. Marlow says that his life has been spent at college and in inns, so he has never spent time with women of his own class and only knows how to get along with lower-class women. Among “women of reputation,” Marlow is so scared he wants to get away as quickly as possible. Hastings says that Marlow would be very popular with women of his own class if he spoke to them as eloquently as he does to barmaids and housemaids, but Marlow remarks that he is much too scared to do so.
Because Marlow has attended excellent educational institutions and travelled abroad, he is expected to exude confidence and mastery in social situations. Marlow clearly fears he will fail to measure up to these expectations, especially around women of his own class. This lack of confidence may come from having grown up without many social interactions in his family circle.
Hastings ask Marlow how he plans to court and marry a woman if he cannot bring himself to talk to one. Marlow says he could not possibly go through the formal courtship process. He says he has come to see the Hardcastles because his father asked him to and he is a dutiful son, but he will not try to overcome his shyness with Kate.
Even though Marlow wants to have a relationship, he feels that his shyness and insecurity will be impossible to overcome. He has resigned himself to his fate, but knowing that this will disappoint his father, he pretends that he is looking for a wife.
Marlow says that his other motive in visiting the Hardcastles was to facilitate Hastings’s courtship of Constance. Marlow knows that the Hardcastles will welcome Hastings because he is his friend, and, in that way, they will get to know Hastings and see that they should approve of his marriage to Constance. Hastings is touched by Marlow’s generosity. He says that he would never ask for Marlow’s help if he didn’t have the purest intentions with Constance: he wants her because of who she is and does not care about her fortune. He also secured her deceased father’s permission to marry her and knows she wants to marry him. Marlow says that Hastings is lucky to be able to attract women. He is unable to conquer his nervousness, can only hope to date women who are below him in social status, and will never find a wife.
The courtship between Constance and Hastings seems to have been interrupted by her father’s death. Without an introduction by a respected acquaintance of her guardian’s family, Constance and Hastings will not be able to get permission to marry. While Marlow is afraid of all women of his social stature, Hastings worries that he will be seen as a fortune-hunter because he is pursuing a woman with an inheritance. Class, along with permission from guardians or parents, is an important consideration for any courtship in England at this time.
Hardcastle enters the room and greets them warmly, saying he is a generous and welcoming host. Ignoring Hardcastle, whom he believes is the innkeeper, Marlow talks to Hastings about what they ought to wear when they meet Constance and Kate. Hardcastle continually tries to redirect their attention by telling a story about his career in the army, but they continue to talk about which waistcoats to wear. Finally, cutting Hardcastle off, Marlow asks for a glass of punch. Hardcastle is taken aback at his guest’s rudeness, but he gives them punch and offers a toast to their getting to know one another. Marlow thinks this is very inappropriate behavior for an innkeeper.
This interaction points out just how out of order Marlow’s priorities are. Marlow fixates on making a good impression superficially with his clothing, even though he has resigned himself to never really getting to know Kate. At the same time, nervous about being judged by Kate and Hardcastle, he seems to try to reassure himself of his own superior stature by treating the man he believes is the innkeeper with particular rudeness and entitlement. The audience can see that Tony’s trick is already making a fool of those who think that they are better than him.
Feeling that there is no way to get Hardcastle to leave them alone, Marlow engages him in conversation, but his attitude is mocking. He says that Hardcastle must have a lot of business, especially during political campaigns, because he makes such good punch. Hardcastle says he has given up engaging in politics, but he does handle most of his business in his house.
Hardcastle assumes that Marlow is asking if he participates in electing parliamentary representatives, as most prominent country landowners would have, but Marlow is actually asking whether the inn gets a lot of business during campaign season. Hardcastle’s eccentricity is on display: his dislike for all things modern has led him to give up fulfilling his civic duty.
Hardcastle tries to begin telling one of his war stories, but Marlow interrupts him, asking what is on the dinner menu. Hardcastle is shocked at this rude demand, but he reads off the list of fancy dishes he planned to feed his guests. Marlow and Hastings scoff at this list, saying they like plain foods when travelling. Finally, the two young men say that they suppose they will just have to eat his food. Marlow demands to see their rooms and check that the beds are freshly made. Shocked at this impudence, Hardcastle insists on showing Marlow the rooms himself, and the two men exit.
As shown by his earlier drilling of his servants, Hardcastle had hoped to prove his sophistication to his guests with an elegant meal. The two young men find the idea of eating such delicacies at an inn ridiculous, but they might have found Hardcastle’s menu pretentious even if they knew who he was. Hardcastle’s fixation on serving a fine meal is shown to have been out of touch with his guests’ supposedly more refined tastes.
Hastings is left alone, and Constance enters the room. Hastings is overjoyed to see her but asks what she is doing at an inn. Constance says that they are in Hardcastle’s house, not an inn. When she hears that a young man told Hastings and Marlow the house was an inn, she laughs, quickly surmising that this was a trick of her cousin Tony’s. Hastings asks if this is the same cousin that her aunt, Mrs. Hardcastle, wants her to marry. Constance answers that it is, but that Tony himself has no desire to marry her. Her aunt has taken over trying to persuade Constance to marry Tony and Constance allows her to believe that she is succeeding.
The play’s original audience would perhaps have expected the love triangle between Tony, Constance, and Hastings to cause jealousy, misunderstandings, and drama, but in this more straightforward “laughing comedy,” Hastings trusts Constance and doesn’t feel threatened by her relationship with Tony. Instead, Constance and Hastings are happy to see each other and easily fall into an unconstrained and honest conversation.
Hastings says that Marlow’s visit has given them a great opportunity. Once the horses have rested a bit, he wants to elope with her. Constance says she is reluctant to leave behind the jewels she inherited from her uncle, but she has been trying to convince Mrs. Hardcastle to let her wear them and thinks that she is making some progress in persuading her. Once she gets her hands on the jewels, she says, she will be ready to run away with him. Hastings says he cares nothing about the jewels, only about her.
Once again, Constance and Hastings’s relationship defies the usual dramatic conventions of Goldsmith’s time. Instead of romantically throwing all practical concerns to the wind at the opportunity to elope with Hastings, Constance insists that she doesn’t want to give up her inheritance when she marries. According to more conventional plot structures, Hastings might take this as a sign that Constance doesn’t love him enough, but Goldsmith was more interested in encouraging his audience to laugh at the follies of human nature than he was in dramatizing such follies.
Hastings tells Constance that if Marlow learns that he is in Hardcastle’s house and not an inn, he will be so mortified by his mistake that he will leave immediately and ruin their plan. They decide not to tell him about his mistake. Marlow reenters and says that he is losing his patience with the way the innkeeper continually follows him around.
Hastings and Constance decide not to spare Marlow further embarrassment in front of the Hardcastles by revealing Tony’s trick to him. They know that if they tell him about his mistake, he will ruin his own chances of making a happy match with Kate, and their own chance at marriage.
Marlow notices Constance, and Hastings tells Marlow that, by a lucky accident, Constance and Kate are both at the inn now. Becoming nervous about meeting the women, Marlow says that his clothing looks bad after a day spent travelling and he wants to wait until the next day to meet Kate at her own house. Constance intercedes, saying that Kate will take any signs of travelling in his appearance as a sign that he cannot wait to meet her. Very nervous, Marlow begs Hastings not to leave him alone with Kate. Hastings says that Kate is only a woman, but Marlow replies that she is the one woman he is most terrified to meet.
All of Marlow’s arrogance instantly fades away when he sees Constance and understands that the time has come for him to meet Kate. Panicstricken, Marlow hopes to put off meeting Kate by fixating on appearances, perhaps because he knows that this is something he can control, while he can’t control whether Kate likes him.
Kate enters. She has just returned from a walk and is wearing a bonnet. She says to herself that she will act very restrained and modest, just as she imagines Marlow expects her to. Hastings introduces Kate and Marlow, but Marlow looks uncomfortable and says nothing. Finally, Kate speaks, saying she is glad Marlow arrived safely. Stammering, Marlow says they had only a few problems on the road, then reverses himself, saying they had many accidents on the road. As Marlow nervously struggles to make small talk, Hastings whispers words of encouragement in his ear, telling him he has never been so eloquent in his life and he is impressing Kate. Finally, Hastings says that he and Constance will let Kate and Marlow talk alone. Marlow panics and begs Hastings to stay, but Hastings says he wants to speak with Constance alone.
Kate wants to make a good impression on Marlow, so she acts like a very proper young lady. Marlow, however, is so uncomfortable he can hardly speak, let alone get a sense of what he thinks of Kate. Hastings hopes to help Marlow overcome his insecurity, but just as he would like to spend time alone with Constance, he recognizes that Kate and Marlow will need to spend time together alone to get to know one another. Marlow has no hope that he will be able to overcome his insecurity and get to know Kate, so he sees no point in spending time alone with her.
Left alone with Kate, Marlow is silent. Kate tries to draw him out, asking him about his experience with women. He says he has no experience, then says he is sure he is boring her. She assures him she is enjoying their serious conversation. Marlow begins several sentences but cannot finish them. Kate supplies the ends of his sentences, then begins to make them up entirely when he becomes too embarrassed even to start a sentence. They discuss virtue, refinement and hypocrisy in generic terms. Kate assures Marlow that she enjoys his conversation, but Marlow can bear his embarrassment no longer and pretends to see Constance beckoning to them. He then leaves. Alone, Kate laughs to herself at his incredible shyness. She says she wishes she could teach him a little confidence, because she gets the sense she might like him, although she cannot be sure. Then she follows him to go to Constance.
Although Kate earlier experienced a little nervousness going into this blind date with the possibility to turn into an arranged marriage, she is able to let this go. Faced with his awkwardness, she doesn’t feel awkward herself, but tries to draw Marlow out of his shell. Even though he cannot get over his embarrassment and even makes up an excuse to get away from her, Kate senses that there is something about him she might like. She is self-confident enough to realize that their bad conversation was not because Marlow didn’t like her, but because she made him nervous. Even though their first conversation was an utter flop, Kate does not dismiss Marlow entirely.
Tony and Constance enter, followed by Hastings and Mrs. Hardcastle. Constance flirts with Tony, but he tells her to leave him alone because he has no interest in her. Mrs. Hardcastle is very interested in hearing from Hastings about all the latest fashions. She tells him that she has never been to London, but she reads about fashion in magazines and hears from her friends about trends. She asks him what he thinks of her hairstyle and he praises it lavishly, saying she must have a French stylist. She tells him she copied it from a magazine and arranged it herself.
Mrs. Hardcastle doesn’t realize that Hastings is Constance’s suitor, and is excited to discuss the latest fashions with someone from London. Her obsession with far away things that have little to do with her life makes her seem vain. Just as Constance flirts with Tony to deceive Mrs. Hardcastle, Hastings befriends his lover’s aunt so that she will not suspect him of intending to run away with Constance.
Mrs. Hardcastle complains about Hardcastle’s old-fashioned insistence on continuing to wear a wig. She also asks Hastings what the most fashionable age is. Hastings answers that forty was recently in fashion, but women are planning to make fifty the most fashionable age. Mrs. Hardcastle says she will be too young to be fashionable. Indicating Constance, Hastings says she would be considered little more than a child in fashionable society. Mrs. Hardcastle complains that her niece thinks she is old enough to wear jewels. Looking at Constance and Tony, Hastings asks if Tony is Mrs. Hardcastle’s brother.
Although Mrs. Hardcastle is correct that wigs have fallen out of fashion, the idea that people’s ages can make them more or less fashionable is a ridiculous one. Hastings humors her in this because he wants to keep her on his good side. Hastings senses that Mrs. Hardcastle is lying about her age when she says she is under fifty. Understanding that she is particularly vain about looking younger than she is, Hastings pretends to think that Tony is her brother, not her son.
Mrs. Hardcastle points out the way Constance and Tony flirt, telling Hastings that they will be married. She calls to Tony to ask what seductive things he is saying to Constance. Tony replies that he is asking her to leave him alone. Mrs. Hardcastle assures Constance that Tony says how much he likes her when she is not around. She asks Hastings whether he thinks Constance and Tony look alike, then orders the cousins to stand back to back to show that they are the same height. Tony takes the opportunity to headbutt Constance. Mrs. Hardcastle scolds Tony, saying he should act like a grown man.
Everyone in this scene except Tony is acting deceptively. Mrs. Hardcastle lies to Constance about what Tony says about Constance when she is absent, while Hastings pretends not to know Constance, and Constance pretends to love Tony. Constance and Hastings both understand the situation perfectly, while the foolish and controlling Mrs. Hardcastle is truly deceived.
Angry at being babied by his mother, Tony says that if he is grown, Mrs. Hardcastle should stop making a fool of him and give him his fortune. She charges him with ingratitude, saying she nursed him back from illnesses. Tony says she forced medicines on him that he didn’t need. Hastings tells Mrs. Hardcastle that he will try to talk some sense into Tony about his obligations. Mrs. Hardcastle, seeming to think this is a good idea, announces that she and Constance must retire. The two women exit, Mrs. Hardcastle lamenting her son’s treatment of her, leaving Hastings and Tony alone.
Tony feels that his mother seeks to control and smother him under the guise of doing things for his own good. He hungers for the freedom that he has been promised once he reaches the age of twenty-one. Meanwhile, Hastings also wants to remove Constance from Mrs. Hardcastle’s control. To this end, he has convinced Mrs. Hardcastle that he is on her side and that she can trust him to reason with Tony.
Tony sings a little song to himself, then tells Hastings not to worry about Mrs. Hardcastle’s distress. Hastings asks if Tony has no interest in women. Tony answers that he is not interested in a tricky, unattractive girl like Constance. He tells Hastings that his type is very different: he likes the black eyes and broad, red cheeks of Bet Bouncer. Hastings asks if Tony would be happy to see someone else marry Constance. Tony can hardly believe that there could be such a person, but Hastings explains that he wants to marry Constance himself. Tony pledges to help Hastings escape with Constance and get her jewels for them to take with them too. Happily, Tony sings a song, and the two men exit.
Tony and Constance are a terribly matched couple: she is refined, he is rustic, and they have no interest in one another. Based on his description of her, Bet Bouncer does not sound attractive according to London’s standards of beauty, but Tony knows himself and what he likes. He lacks his mother’s pretentions to be anything other than a country bumpkin. Tony is excited at the idea of forging an alliance with Hastings to get rid of Constance and defeat his mother’s plans for him.