At Absolute’s apartment, Fag tells Absolute that he has seen Sir Anthony, and that Sir Anthony was surprised to hear that his son is in Bath. Fag then promises that he lied to Sir Anthony about what brought his son to town. He then lies to Absolute when he claims not to have told any of Sir Anthony’s servants about his own master’s reason for being in Bath. The two of them then agree to tell people that Absolute is in town to recruit soldiers for his regiment, with Fag saying he does not mind lying but hates to get caught in a lie.
Fag, who has pretentions to be a fashionable man despite being a servant, is eager to learn from and imitate his master in everything, including in the arts of deception. He, like all the other practiced deceivers in the play, tells others what they want to hear, as when he lies about having told Thomas that Absolute is in town for love. He also obviously enjoys conspiring with Absolute, which makes him feel that they are equals.
Absolute sends Fag to summon Faulkland, whom he intends to tease about Julia. Faulkland soon enters, asks about Absolute’s quarrel with Lydia, and urges him to make up and elope with her. Absolute says he will not elope and lose Lydia’s fortune in the process, and so Faulkland advises Absolute to ask Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony for Lydia’s hand in marriage. Absolute says he is not sure that Lydia will still accept him if she realizes that he is rich and that society will approve of their match, and that he must prepare her gradually before he can reveal his true identity to her.
Absolute has planned his deception carefully, cultivating the image he knew would appeal to Lydia. But since his deception is based on being the man she wants him to be, he has yet to seize on a strategy for revealing who he actually is. This is essential, because he is not yet sure that she loves him fully enough to marry him if she realizes that her aunt will approve of him as a conventional choice for a husband.
Faulkland refuses Absolute’s offer to come to dinner with a group of friends, saying he is too depressed to go out. Absolute tells Faulkland to buck up, commenting that he himself is also a lover but doesn’t allow himself to become so sulky and heartsick the way that Faulkland does. Faulkland responds that Absolute is less invested in Lydia than he himself is in Julia; Absolute could love again if he lost Lydia, but for him there is only Julia, and he worries constantly that she may be suffering in his absence or have grown ill.
Faulkland’s extreme sensitivity is also reflective of the sentimental novels of the time. His expectations for Julia and himself during their courtship are drawn not from the practical principles of class and wealth that guide Absolute and the older generation, but from the same romantic ideas that Lydia has absorbed from novels. He thinks that because they are in love, he and Julia should suffer.
Absolute then shocks Faulkland by telling him that Sir Anthony has brought Julia to town. Faulkland gets ready to hurry off to see her, but Absolute convinces him to stay and hear how she is from Acres, who lives near Sir Anthony and socializes with the family. Absolute tells Faulkland that Acres is also pursuing Lydia. Further, he explains that Acres, not knowing that Beverley is actually Absolute’s alter ego, often complains to Absolute about his rival for Lydia’s love to his rival’s own face, which amuses Absolute.
Absolute enjoys teasing people: he could have reassured Faulkland of Julia’s health as soon as he saw him, but instead he preferred to watch Faulkland squirm. He also amuses himself by letting Acres rant against Beverley to him. In this behavior, Absolute is similar to Sheridan himself, who concealed from his own brother that he loved and was courting the same woman, Elizabeth Linley.
Acres enters and is introduced to Faulkland, whom he congratulates on being engaged to such a wonderful woman. Faulkland questions Acres about how Julia has been. Acres reports that she has been extremely healthy, merry, and has charmed all those around her with her beautiful singing at concerts and dancing at balls. Faulkland complains to Absolute that he feels Julia has the advantage of him, since she managed to be jolly while he couldn’t help being a terrible grump during their separation. Absolute mocks his friend for saying all he needed was to know that Julia was well to start feeling better himself, then proceeding to get even more upset that she had been too well. Acres begins to notice Faulkland’s agitation, so Faulkland rushes away in a huff.
Faulkland has been moping about and refusing to go out, so the discovery that Julia has been enjoying herself and earning the admiration of those around her makes him jealous. For him, a failure to show everyone that she is sad in his absence is a failure to love him.
Acres asks if Faulkland had been upset, and Absolute flatters Acres by saying Faulkland had been jealous of him. Acres notes that he is dressing more fashionably and has changed his hairstyle, and that he hopes this will win over Lydia. Absolute encourages him. Acres peppers his speech with unusual oaths. If he can find his competition Ensign Beverley, then, he says “odds triggers and flints” he will show him who is boss. Absolute comments on Acres’s new way of swearing, and Acres explains that it is called a sentimental oath and is genteel. Absolute has heard no one else swear in the way, but encouragingly tells Acres it will surely become the new fashion.
Acres’s manner of speech immediately distinguishes him from Absolute and Faulkland as a less educated and worldly man. He thinks that new clothes and a hairstyle and the adoption of a new way of swearing will be enough to show that he is a sophisticated gentleman, but these attempts only highlight how little he knows. Instead, the drastic changes Acres makes to his appearance, like the drastic changes he makes to his speech, reflect a flailing and failing attempt to remake his persona. At the same time, Acres is a bad judge of others, and is easily deceived by Absolute’s flattery.
Acres departs, and Absolute now waits anxiously for his father to enter. When Sir Anthony arrives, he announces to Absolute that he wants to arrange for his son to have a large fortune, and Absolute thanks his father for this generosity. Absolute asks if his father wants him to leave the army, to which Sir Anthony responds that Absolute should settle that with his wife. When Absolute asks what his father means, Sir Anthony reveals that the fortune he intends his son to have comes with marriage. Absolute asks to whom his father intends to marry him, but Sir Anthony refuses to answer, saying that doesn’t matter. He does not contradict Absolute when Absolute suggests that his father wants to marry him to an ugly woman, only saying that Absolute should marry whomever his father chooses even if she is deformed.
Sir Anthony is always extreme in his positions: he wants to win the conflict between the generations by deciding on his son’s future wife without giving his son any say in the matter. At the same time, he expects Absolute to be grateful to him since the match will bring Absolute a fortune. He is so blinded to the other side of the question that he refuses even to tell Absolute that the girl in question is the beautiful Lydia, although there is no reason to keep this a secret, and it would seem like a likely way to get Absolute to do as he is told.
Absolute protests that he is already in love with another and cannot follow Sir Anthony’s command. Sir Anthony flies into a rage, demanding his son’s unconditional obedience and passionately threatening to disinherit his son, take away his commission in the army, and never speak to him again. Absolute, keeping his calm, begs his father to be reasonable. Sir Anthony, who is practically frothing at the mouth with anger, accuses his son of raging at him. Sir Anthony storms out, and Absolute reflects that his father should hardly have any difficulty understanding his perspective because Sir Anthony himself married Absolute’s mother for love.
Sir Anthony assigns no importance to the fact that Absolute has already proposed to a woman, failing to recognize that he is repeating his own mistakes, since he himself eloped with Absolute’s mother. Some of the ridiculousness of Sir Anthony’s portrayal likely comes from Sheridan’s bitter experience with his own father, who was deeply opposed to his son’s marriage to Elizabeth Linley.