Hastings hears from a servant that Constance’s carriage has driven off. The servant also reports that Sir Charles has arrived, and he and Hardcastle have been laughing over Marlow’s mistake. Hastings leaves to go wait in the garden for Tony, although he has little confidence that Tony will be able to do anything to help.
Hastings has little hope that Tony will be able to do anything to help him. Having seen how Tony’s illiteracy ruined their first plan for Hastings’s elopement, Hastings has written Tony off as incapable and unintelligent.
Hardcastle and Sir Charles laugh together at how Marlow mistook Hardcastle for an innkeeper. Hardcastle feels that Marlow ought to have been able to tell that he was well-born, and Sir Charles says that Marlow must have thought Hardcastle was a very eccentric, snobbish innkeeper.
Hardcastle is sensitive about seeming inferior to members of his class from London, so the fact that Tony was able to trick Marlow into believing Hardcastle to be an innkeeper wounds Hardcastle’s pride. Sir Charles helps Hardcastle to laugh off the embarrassment.
Hardcastle tells Sir Charles that he is very excited at the prospect of a marriage between their children, although Kate’s dowry will not be large. Sir Charles says Marlow has plenty of money already but asks if Hardcastle is sure that Marlow really likes Kate. Hardcastle says that Kate says that Marlow likes her, and he himself saw Marlow grasp Kate’s hand.
Although Marlow is still unaware that the woman who has impressed him is in fact Kate, his father and Hardcastle are already rejoicing that their children will marry. Marlow, who wants to please his father, is set up for another embarrassment.
Marlow enters and apologizes to Hardcastle, saying how embarrassed he is. Hardcastle tells Marlow that they will soon all laugh over it, once he and Kate decide to marry. Marlow denies any intention of marrying Kate. Hardcastle says that he saw them together, and Marlow denies that there was anything to see. Hardcastle thinks Marlow is embarrassed and tries to reassure him that he can express his true feelings about Kate. Sir Charles asks Marlow if he grabbed Kate’s hand, and Marlow denies this, to Hardcastle’s surprise. Very embarrassed, Marlow leaves the room.
While Hardcastle takes a friendly, informal tone with Marlow, Marlow is stiff and awkward. He is embarrassed by his mistake and wants only to get away from the Hardcastle home without further disappointing his father. This makes it even more awkward and painful for him to face this new misunderstanding, caused by Hardcastle having seen him grab Kate’s hand.
Hastings is still waiting for Tony in the garden. Hastings doubts that Tony would show up and is overjoyed to see him when he arrives. Hastings asks Tony where he left Constance and Mrs. Hardcastle. Tony jokes with him that he left them where he found them, but Hastings doesn’t understand. Tony explains that he took them in a large circle and brought them back to the house. He says that his mother is very scared and believes she is lost somewhere far from home. Hastings thanks Tony and goes to find Constance and elope with her, while Tony promises to keep Mrs. Hardcastle occupied. Hastings exits.
Although Tony does not have knowledge of the wider, more sophisticated world that Hastings and Constance know, he does know his own surroundings well. He has used this knowledge to cleverly come up with another plan to trick his mother and help Constance and Hastings. Although Hastings belittled Tony, Tony has once again proved that he is not inferior simply because he is less refined.
Mrs. Hardcastle enters. She is afraid, covered in mud, and under the impression that they are lost far from home in a land full of bandits. Tony stokes her fear. When he sees Hardcastle out for a stroll in the garden, he tells his mother that a highwayman is approaching. He instructs her to hide in a bush while he manages the stranger, promising to cough if the man seems dangerous to warn his mother to stay hidden.
Tony once again deceives his mother to keep her from interrupting Constance and Hardcastle’s elopement. Considering her desire to travel far and wide, it is ironic that Mrs. Hardcastle is so petrified of danger and cannot even recognize her own backyard.
Hardcastle approaches Tony and asks if he left Mrs. Hardcastle at Aunt Pedigree’s. Tony answers that the women are safe at his aunt’s, and coughs loudly so that his mother will stay in place. Hardcastle is suspicious because Tony has returned too quickly from the trip. He says he is sure that he heard Tony speaking to another person and approaches the bushes to see who else is there. Mrs. Hardcastle bursts from the bushes and begs for the bandit to spare her son’s life. Her husband asks if she really doesn’t recognize him and their garden. He quickly surmises that Mrs. Hardcastle’s distress and confusion are the result of one of Tony’s tricks.
Of all the instances of mistaken identity in the play, Mrs. Hardcastle’s mistaking her own husband for a bandit is the most ridiculous. But at the same time, this moment shows that even Mrs. Hardcastle, the play’s least sympathetic character, has a sympathetic side. Even though Mrs. Hardcastle has not done Tony any good by smothering and seeking to control him, it is clear from her attempt to sacrifice her own life for her son’s that her love is sincere, if misguided.
Realizing that she has been tricked, Mrs. Hardcastle turns angrily on Tony. Tony tells her that everyone says she spoiled him, and this is the result. Mrs. Hardcastle continues to yell at him as she follows him offstage, while Hardcastle remarks to himself that Tony is right about this, then follows them offstage.
Mrs. Hardcastle’s smothering parenting style means that, even when she is terrified, she gets no sympathy from Tony, who only can feel resentment for the limits she has placed on him.
Constance and Hastings enter. Hastings encourages Constance to run off with him immediately, but Constance says she is too tired and stressed after the ordeal with Mrs. Hardcastle to elope that night. Hastings tries to convince her, saying they will never regret leaving behind her fortune because they love each other. Constance says that they should tell Hardcastle about their situation and hope that he can influence his wife to give them her permission to marry, which they need if Constance is going to keep her inheritance. They exit.
Instead of having to endure a years-long separation from her lover, Constance is returned to Hastings the same night she leaves him. Likewise, instead of readily promising to do anything to be with him, Constance’s practical side reasserts itself, leading her to insist that they do what they can to avoid forgoing her inheritance. In this way, Goldsmith’s comedy avoids some of the more overused plot devices of his time.
Back inside the house, Marlow comes to bid Kate goodbye, saying he did not know how sad he would be to leave her until this moment. Speaking in her own voice, Kate says he would not leave so quickly, if he really wanted to stay. Marlow is impressed by Kate’s eloquence, but says that even though he wants to give up everything for her, he knows he would regret angering his father by marrying someone from a lower social class with less of an education. Kate says that she is not of lower birth than the woman he came to visit, but she is not wealthy, and she understands that what he is really interested in is marrying a rich woman.
Although she does not reveal that she is Kate Hardcastle, Kate now stops acting like she is someone else. Kate’s gradual transformation of her behavior towards Marlow shows him that prejudging people based on the class they appear to come from is a mistake. Marlow is too captivated by Kate to become nervous about the fact that she is a woman of his class, but still wants to marry only with his father’s blessing.
At this moment, Sir Charles and Hardcastle get in position behind a screen to eavesdrop and discover if Kate is telling the truth about Marlow’s love for her. They hear Marlow tell Kate that he cares nothing for fortune, and that he first noticed her beauty but has become more and more impressed by the way she carries herself. Behind the screen, Sir Charles is shocked that his son lied to him about his feelings for Kate. Marlow tells Kate that he is determined to stay. He says he is sure his father will approve of her. Kate, meanwhile, continues to tell Marlow that she does not want to pressure him into marrying someone he thinks beneath him, and that she has too much self-respect to marry someone who thinks he is better than her. Marlow kneels before her, asking if he looks like he thinks he is better than her.
Kate’s deception has worked: it has allowed Marlow to be comfortable enough to get to know her and fall in love. He now sees past her simple clothing, which he had assumed meant that she was his inferior, and recognizes a woman with values he respects. Kate’s refusal to accept a proposal given to her by someone who believes himself to be her superior only increases his respect for her. Meanwhile, the two parents are at a loss as to why Marlow would lie to them about his feelings for Kate, if in fact he only wants to marry her with his father’s permission.
Sir Charles and Hardcastle burst out from behind the screen and demands to know why Marlow has been lying to them. Marlow is completely confused, until it is revealed that the woman he has been speaking to is Kate Hardcastle herself. She laughs, saying that she is the tall, unattractive woman he met earlier as a very shy, modest man, and then again later while acting like a flirtatious lady’s man. Marlow is extremely embarrassed, but Hardcastle tells him that everyone will forgive him for making a mistake and everything will be alright.
Although Marlow is plunged into his usual state of embarrassment upon learning how Kate deceived him, he is also being taught that mistakes can be forgiven. Kate laughs at his change of attitude towards her, but she does so in a way that makes clear to him that her love for him was not feigned. Hardcastle and Sir Charles laughingly give their support, giving Marlow the parental approval he has craved.
Mrs. Hardcastle and Tony enter the room. Mrs. Hardcastle says that Constance and Hastings have run off. Sir Charles exclaims that he knows Hastings to be an honorable man, and Hardcastle says that, in that case, he is glad Constance is going to marry him. Mrs. Hardcastle says that she is glad that they will get to keep Constance’s fortune. If Constance had waited for Tony to be twenty-one and officially refuse to marry her, she would have gotten to keep her fortune, but she has run off without waiting for her cousin to come of age and reject her. Hardcastle disapproves of his wife’s greediness.
Mrs. Hardcastle is fine with the news that her niece has eloped, because this means that Constance will forgo her fortune. Once Hardcastle hears that Hastings is a respectable man, however, he disapproves of his wife’s attempts to force Constance to marry Tony just to keep money in the family. He may feel concerned that Sir Charles and Marlow will see his wife’s greed and worry that Kate is similarly interested in Marlow for his money.
To Mrs. Hardcastle’s displeasure, Constance and Hastings enter at that moment. They approach Hardcastle and lay their case before him, saying that Constance’s deceased father wanted their marriage and now they hope that he will sympathize with them, even though his wife will not.
Once Hardcastle sees that Hastings not only has Sir Charles’s stamp of approval, but also had Constance’s father’s approval, it is clear that there is no valid reason for his wife to block his marriage to Constance.
Mrs. Hardcastle scoffs at Constance and Tony, but Hardcastle asks Tony whether he in fact refuses to marry his cousin. Tony says that it doesn’t matter if he refuses, because he is not of age. Hardcastle discloses that Tony is actually twenty-one years old, and that he has kept his stepson’s age a secret because he had hoped Tony would mature more before inheriting his fortune. Now, however, he sees that the lie is causing more harm than good.
In a desperate attempt to keep control of her son for as long as possible, Mrs. Hardcastle has deceived Tony about how old he is. Hardastle sees that this is not serving Tony, but is causing harm to everyone. He can also see that Mrs. Hardcastle is not being a good guardian to Constance. Eager to do the right thing—and perhaps to be seen doing the right thing in front of Marlow and Sir Charles—Hardcastle reveals the truth.
Tony is shocked and happy. He says that he will not marry his cousin, which frees Constance to marry Hastings and keep her fortune. Mrs. Hardcastle is discontented, but all the other characters rejoice and look forward to the two couples’ coming marriages. Hardcastle says that Kate is a wonderful daughter and he believes she will be a very good wife.
Mrs. Hardcastle, the only character who did not want the best for others, has been disappointed, with her son now free from her controlling influence. Marlow has been transformed from a man terrified of embarrassment to a man who has been completely humiliated—and who, through his humiliation, has found happiness.