At Mrs. Malaprop’s lodgings, Mrs. Malaprop is trying to persuade Lydia to accept Absolute as a suitor. Isn’t he handsome, she asks Lydia. “The Absolute you have seen,” Lydia remarks to herself, thinking that Mrs. Malaprop has met Beverley, not Absolute. She tells Mrs. Malaprop that Beverley is handsome too. Mrs. Malaprop rhapsodizes about Absolute’s good breeding and eloquence, but continuously mixes up her words, then grossly misquotes a passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to describe him. She cannot remember the end of the quotation, and says “something about kissing – on a hill – however, the similitude stuck me directly.”
Lydia laughs at her aunt, thinking that Mrs. Malaprop has been deceived and now praises the same lover she forbade her niece from seeing, but the audience knows that Lydia herself is the dupe here. Yet at the same time, as Mrs. Malaprop tries to give Absolute high praise, her pretentions to be as cultured as the man who so impressed her lead her to try (and fail) to quote a romantic passage in Shakespeare. Comically, she instead chooses one in which Hamlet is describing his dead father, and then botches the recitation.
A servant announces that Sir Anthony and Absolute have arrived. Mrs. Malaprop begs that Lydia act as befits a young lady and show her good breeding, even if she has forgotten her duty, but Lydia says she will neither speak to, nor look at, Absolute. When he enters, Sir Anthony says that he has no idea why, but Absolute kept trying to run away when he was bringing him to meet Lydia, then tells Absolute to speak to Lydia. Absolute, perplexed by the situation, asks his father to leave him alone with Lydia, but is refused. Meanwhile, Lydia, who is still refusing to look at Absolute, wonders why her aunt hasn’t noticed that the man in front of her is different from the one she met earlier in the day.
The older and younger generation are finally all assembled in one room. Sir Anthony, unaware of all the deceptions about to be unraveled, tries to force Absolute to act like a lover towards Lydia, while the equally unaware Mrs. Malaprop tries to force Lydia to at least be polite and docile, which is proper behavior for a young woman, even if she is unwilling to be wooed. Lydia, by not looking around at Absolute, prolongs her own deception by him, but begins to get an inkling that something is off, since her aunt seems to recognize the man who visited earlier.
Mrs. Malaprop urges Lydia to turn around, while Sir Anthony begins to grow angry at Absolute for not speaking to Lydia. Absolute tells Sir Anthony that his passion has taken away his presence of mind, but Sir Anthony insists again that he approach Lydia and speak to her. Absolute signals to Mrs. Malaprop that he wishes to be left alone with Lydia, but although Mrs. Malaprop is inclined to do whatever Absolute suggests, she cannot convince Sir Anthony to leave them. Absolute then disguises his voice and begins to speak. Sir Anthony asks why he is speaking like a frog, then asks Mrs. Malaprop to at least get Lydia to turn around.
The play delays the climactic moment when Absolute’s deception will be uncovered for as long as possible. He even takes on a new disguise temporarily, changing his voice in the hopes that he can somehow delay for time and find a way to save his false identity from being uncovered. But even his ability to charm can only go so far: with his father there, he does not have free reign to manipulate Mrs. Malaprop.
Absolute realizes he is about to be discovered. He addresses Lydia in his own voice, asking that she suppress her surprise. Hearing Beverley’s voice, she turns around and exclaims her surprise at seeing Beverley. Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop are dumbfounded and think that Lydia has gone insane. Sir Anthony says, “the girl’s mad! –her brain’s turned by reading.” Lydia professes that she will always love Beverley, who stands before her.
Lydia’s declaration of her love for Beverley exposes the secret of Absolute’s deception to all. Further, it is not the quiet and reserved behavior that would be expected of an unmarried girl. This declaration, as well as her mistake about her lover’s identity, gives some truth to Sir Anthony’s otherwise absurd statement—she would not have been so easily deceived by Absolute if she had not been so filled with the romantic ideas in the books she reads.
Sir Anthony gets an inkling that his son may be behind this confusion and demands to know what’s going on from Absolute. Mrs. Malaprop also begins to suspect. In an eloquent speech, Absolute tells Sir Anthony that he is his dutiful son, Mrs. Malaprop that he is her admirer and hopes to become her nephew, and Lydia that he assumed the name of Beverley to test whether she loved him regardless of his station in the world. “So, there will be no elopement,” Lydia says sullenly and then lapses into silence.
His deception uncovered, Absolute turns to his powers of speech to attempt to save the situation. He makes an eloquent speech that gains him Mrs. Malaprop and his father’s forgiveness. Lydia, on the other hand, must grapple with the disappointment of her romantic hopes for her own life’s narrative. Meanwhile, Absolute’s claim that he pretended to be poor to test Lydia’s love is another clever deception that appeals to her romantic fantasy. That sort of test would fit in a sentimental novel, but of course he actually pretended to be poor for the opposite reason: in order to gain her love.
Sir Anthony is delighted to learn that Absolute was lying to him when he acted like a dutiful son who was indifferent to whether his bride was beautiful. Mrs. Malaprop, however, is shocked to realize that Absolute was the author of the letter calling her a “weather-beaten she-dragon” and mocking her speech. Absolute pleads with his father to leave him and Lydia, saying he is overcome with embarrassment. Sir Anthony tells Mrs. Malaprop they should leave the young people alone and predicts that they will fly into one another’s arms. As the two older people exit, Sir Anthony becomes so jolly that he begins to sing and flirt with Mrs. Malaprop.
The conflict among old and young is now resolved for Sir Anthony, who now thinks his hopes to live vicariously through his son’s romance of the beautiful, young Lydia will be fulfilled. For Mrs. Malaprop, on the other hand, Absolute’s admiration of her has been shown to be false. She is buoyed, though, by being included in Sir Anthony’s merriment about the young people’s happy future, and her reckoning with the truth of Absolute’s opinion of her is very short. Given her pretensions, Mrs. Malaprop does not want to spend long dwelling on such uncomfortable facts.
Lydia remains silent, and Absolute reflects that this does not bode well. He tries to convince her that it is not such a disaster that they will be married with the consent of their elders and go on to live with a little wealth and comfort, but Lydia remains angry. Absolute kneels before her, but she scoffs and says kneeling is meaningless since she will be forced to marry him. He stands and says he will make sure she is not forced into it, if she no longer loves him. Lydia stands up and paces angrily, fuming about what a fool he has made of her, and railing against him for winning her heart through fraud and treating her like a child by manipulating her. She then flings a miniature with his portrait on it at him, saying she no longer loves him. Absolute takes out his own miniature containing her picture from inside his coat and looks at lovingly, saying he will keep it because although it is not as beautiful as she is, it has never ceased to look at him with love.
Lydia is angry not only at being deceived (although she is very angry at this), but also at the destruction of her fantasy of a rebellious marriage that goes against conventional expectations. This disappointment at having lost in the generational conflict and, consequently, being forced to play the role of a proper young woman in her engagement and marriage overshadows, for the moment, her love for Absolute. Although this provides a problem for Absolute in this moment, it is part of the reason they are a good match: both relish the idea of deceiving those around them. In his speech about the portrait, Absolute uses his gifts as a speaker to begin to charm Lydia out of her anger.
Lydia begins to feel badly for Absolute, but says he brought this on himself and she supposes he is perfectly satisfied. Absolute laughs bitterly at this and begins to scoff and speak with biting sarcasm. Of course, he says sarcastically, it’s preferable to be broken up to being in love. And it doesn’t matter at all that they are breaking their many vows of love to one another. Nor does it matter that people will talk about them and say Lydia doesn’t know what she wants or perhaps spread a rumor that Absolute rejected her. At this, Lydia bursts into tears.
Here we see the darker side of Absolute’s ability to charm and convince with his mastery of language and understanding of other people’s motivations. In rapid succession, he suggests several ways to look at Lydia’s hasty decision to abandon their love affair that are both unflattering to her sense of herself and to her reputation in the society they both inhabit.
Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop enter, anticipating the sight of two lovers whispering sweet nothings to one another, but instead find Lydia screaming insults and sobbing. The two elders ask the meaning of this angry scene. Both Lydia and Absolute reply that the other can give a better explanation. Lydia says that she will now obey her aunt, who had told her never to think of Beverley again, and renounces the man in front of her forever, then storms from the room. Mrs. Malaprop asks whether Absolute has acted disrespectfully to Lydia. Sir Anthony starts to laugh, and says that Absolute must have come on too strong sexually and scared Lydia. Absolute strenuously objects that nothing of the sort happened. As Mrs. Malaprop exclaims her disapproval, Sir Anthony pushes Absolute out the door, all the while telling Mrs. Malaprop to convince Lydia to forgive his hot-blooded son.
The elder generation cannot grasp why there should be any further obstacle to Absolute and Lydia’s engagement now that their agreement is secured. They do not understand that their consent is actually a barrier to Lydia’s happiness (or her idea of happiness). Once again expressing his desire to live vicariously through his son, along with his own apparent sexual fantasies about Lydia and his conception of the proper reactions of a well-bred young woman to those fantasies, Sir Anthony suggests that Lydia is angry because Absolute has been too sexual with her while her guardian was out of the room.