Absolute visits Mrs. Malaprop, who welcomes him with flattering remarks about his pedigree and “the ingenuity of his appearance.” He flatters her by saying that since he has never met Lydia, his attraction to the family comes from what he has heard about Mrs. Malaprop’s “intellectual accomplishments, elegant manners, and unaffected learning.” In her usual incoherent way, Mrs. Malaprop comments that most men do not care about the “ineffectual qualities in a woman” and only care what a woman looks like. Few women are both beautiful and wise, like Mrs. Malaprop, Absolute says. Mrs. Malaprop is very impressed with Absolute and asks him what he thinks of Lydia having decided she is in love with a poor ensign whom no one else has ever met. Absolute says he is not prejudiced against Lydia because of it, but Mrs. Malaprop continues to complain that she has not been able to convince Lydia to give up Beverley.
The pretentions of Mrs. Malaprop here comes up against the deceptive powers of Absolute. It is an extremely uneven match. Absolute praises Mrs. Malaprop for the very qualities that she has (unsuccessfully) cultivated, and by pinpointing what Mrs. Malaprop wants to hear is able to gain her trust. His strong command of language is sharply contrasted to her weak one, but he leads her to believe that he sees her as someone to look up to and admire. Mrs. Malaprop aspires to be well-spoken, and so Absolute charms her completely with his eloquent speech about her eloquence.
Mrs. Malaprop pulls out a letter that Absolute had sent to Lydia in his character as Beverley. Under his breath, Absolute curses Lucy for betraying him to Mrs. Malaprop. He then reads the letter aloud, stopping at points while he and Mrs. Malaprop interject to scoff at its content. Beverley’s letter begins tenderly, then says he is alarmed to hear he has a rival in Absolute, who has the reputation of being an honorable gentleman. It goes on to make fun of Mrs. Malaprop’s vanity about her looks and pretentious and senseless way of speaking, and calls her a “weather-beaten-she-dragon.” Finally, the letter promises that Beverley has a plan to see Lydia with Mrs. Malaprop serving as his unwitting accomplice by flattering her vanity in order to gain her trust. Mrs. Malaprop laughs at Beverley’s audacious claim and Absolute pretends to laugh along with her, while actually laughing at how thoroughly he has tricked her.
Here the layers of deception begin to really pile up. Absolute reads aloud to Mrs. Malaprop a letter he wrote Lydia about his plans to deceive Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs. Malaprop discusses the letter, without suspecting that these plans are being carried out that very minute. The letter is meant to impress and excite Lydia with his proposal to deceive her aunt, but is, at the same time, also a deception of Lydia, who believes her lover to be someone he is not. Indeed, insofar as she knows Absolute is Absolute, the otherwise completely duped Mrs. Malaprop knows more than her niece does about their visitor.
Absolute suggests a plan: that Mrs. Malaprop should allow Beverley to correspond with Lydia, and then when the pair tries to elope together, Absolute will waylay Beverley and carry Lydia off himself. Mrs. Malaprop is delighted with the suggested scheme. Absolute asks to see Lydia, but slips up by asking Mrs. Malaprop to tell Lydia that Beverley is there to see her. He quickly covers his tracks by saying that he meant that Mrs. Malaprop should lie about who was there to visit her, in order to get Lydia to come down. Mrs. Malaprop goes off to summon Lydia to meet Absolute.
Just as Absolute sought to increase Lydia’s attachment to him by describing his plan to trick Mrs. Malaprop, he now wins Mrs. Malaprop’s trust completely by suggesting they should be co-conspirators in a plan to deceive Lydia. Sheridan himself carried out a complicated elopement involving many separate deceptions, so the process of scheming before an elopement would have been a familiar one to him.
While alone, Absolute reflects that he may lose Lydia if he reveals his true identity to her now. He turns his back to the door. Lydia enters and reflects on how unfortunate she is to have to listen to the wooing of someone other than her beloved. She demands that Absolute turn around and is shocked to see …Beverley! “Beverley” explains that he heard Absolute was coming to visit and found a way to delay him and come in his place. Lydia is delighted to hear how Beverley has tricked her aunt. “Beverley” pleads with Lydia to run away with him, and she asks if he is ready to forego her fortune. He says that he is, and makes a romantic speech about how happy he would be to be penniless with her. Lydia hesitates; she is won over by “Beverley” but feels unready to give up on the excitement of their forbidden courtship.
Absolute delights Lydia with his account of how he tricked her aunt, although still Lydia does not realize that she herself is being tricked. Absolute’s speech pledging to run away with her and live in poverty is filled with further deceptions. First of all, he is actually keen to gain her complete fortune. Second, since neither of them are impoverished (even without two-thirds of her fortune, Lydia is still quite rich), so this speech is mere mimicry of the language of the sentimental literature that Lydia loves. As such, Lydia does not immediately agree to run away, but hopes to prolong the drama.
At that moment, Mrs. Malaprop sneaks in and begins to eavesdrop. She misinterprets the lovers’ speech and thinks that Lydia has been rudely rejecting Absolute. Mrs. Malaprop comes forward, and Absolute fears that she has discovered that Lydia thinks he is Beverley, but is reassured when she starts to lecture Lydia for her bad treatment of him. Lydia denies that there is any rudeness in saying that she will only love Beverley. Mrs. Malaprop tries to quiet Lydia’s speech while ushering her from the room.
The other side of Mrs. Malaprop’s inability to use language correctly is an inability to comprehend possible meanings that stray outside of what she expects to hear. Because Mrs. Malaprop brings pre-conceived notions to her eavesdropping, even though she overhears Lydia and Beverley speaking, the deception is improbably prolonged.