Sir Lucius and Acres are awaiting their opponents in King’s-Mead-Fields. Sir Lucius is coaching Acres in the correct conduct of duels, but Acres is getting very nervous. Sir Lucius inquires if Acres has any final requests, in case he dies in the duel, but Acres responds with surprise, as if the prospect of death in the duel had never occurred to him. Sir Lucius specifies: if Acres is killed, would he like to buried in Bath or preserved and shipped home for burial. Acres is spooked by this, prompting Sir Lucius to ask whether Acres has ever been involved in a duel before. Acres has not. Sir Lucius says that’s a shame, and then asks how Acres intends to stand. Acres shows his planned position: with his body perpendicular to his foe. Sir Lucius says if he stands that way and gets hit, the bullet will whizz through his body and be twice as likely to hit an organ. Acres is dumbfounded by this possibility. As two men approach them from across the field, Acres becomes even more nervous, while Sir Lucius chides him, telling him to think of his honor.
Sir Lucius and Acres would have been seen by contemporary audiences as each representing Captain Mathews in one of the two duels he fought with Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In that first duel, Mathews surrendered and was marked as a coward; like Acres, he seemed not to have considered the possibility of losing his life in a duel he himself had called. The second duel he called for without any justification, and savagely stabbed Sheridan several times with a sword. While Sir Lucius has courage, he lacks discretion as to when it is appropriate to duel. Acres lacks both courage and an understanding of the rudiments of fighting.
Sir Lucius greets Absolute and Faulkland, whom he assumes is Beverley. He says that he sees that Absolute will also be serving as a combatant in one duel and a second in the duel between Beverley and Acres. Acres is shocked to see Absolute and Faulkland appear, when he had expected Beverley. Sir Lucius, indignant, demands that if Beverley does not show up, then Faulkland and Acres should fight. With tongue in cheek, Absolute encourages Faulkland to fight “to oblige Sir Lucius.” Faulkland says he will fight against Acres if Acres wants. Acres says there is absolutely no need for him to fight against his friends; he only intended to fight against Beverley, who is too much of a coward to show his face.
Again, before Absolute can be unmasked as the inventor of Beverley, the play draws out the confusion among the other characters for as long as possible for comic effect. Sir Lucius assumes that Faulkland is actually Beverley, while Acres can barely conceal his relief that Beverley has not shown up, and is horrified at Sir Lucius’s suggestion that he fight Faulkland anyway. Faulkland, having quarreled with Julia, is in a reckless mood and says he will fight if need be.
Absolute then steps forward, saying that Beverley was a made-up identity of his, and that he is prepared to fight both as Absolute and as Beverley. Sir Lucius counts this as lucky, since now Acres will be able to fight after all. Acres refuses categorically to fight his friend Absolute, which prompts Sir Lucius to accuse Acres of having lost his valor. Acres replies that he is prepared to be Sir Lucius’s second in his duel with Absolute and will dutifully carry out Sir Lucius’s final wishes for his corpse. Sir Lucius calls Acres a coward, but Acres does not challenge him to a duel. Sir Lucius announces that it is time for his fight against Absolute. They both draw their swords.
Here Absolute’s respect for the tradition of dueling trumps his desire to enjoy the confused spectacle his deception has created. Sheridan created Absolute as a stand-in for himself in the hopes of improving his reputation in society. Absolute’s behavior is exemplary, while Acres and Sir Lucius, who represent Captain Mathews in each of the two duels he fought with Sheridan, are both ungentlemanly, either out of an excess of interest in duels or a lack of the courage required to fight.
Sir Anthony, David, Mrs. Malaprop, Lydia and Julia arrive, with David yelling for Sir Anthony to halt the combatants. Sir Anthony demands to know how Absolute got involved in a duel. Absolute says Sir Lucius called him out without explanation, to which Sir Lucius responds that Absolute insulted his honor.
The families of combatants were often eager to intercede to try to prevent their loved ones from being hurt or killed. In this instance, there is no way to get to the bottom of the cause of the duel and resolve the issue peacefully, however, because Sir Lucius never explained what the issue was in the first place.
Mrs. Malaprop interjects that all this dueling talk is inappropriate conversation for ladies: it is terrifying Lydia. Absolute asks if Lydia is terrified that he will not be killed. Mrs. Malaprop urges Lydia to speak, but before she can respond Sir Lucius says he can explain Lydia’s silence. Lydia interrupts him to ask what he means. Addressing her as “Delia,” Sir Lucius says they must not trifle any longer, and Lydia agrees, pledging her love for Absolute. Absolute is overjoyed: he begs Sir Lucius’s pardon for unintentionally insulting him, but says he will fight against any man who questions his claim to Lydia’s love.
Once again Mrs. Malaprop refers to the proper role of women, but in this case the audience would have accepted what she said as reasonable, because she is asserting women’s role as a pacifying influence on men. Absolute then prioritizes his happy life ahead with Lydia over the senseless duel, once again showing a gentlemanly ability to rise above a petty squabble. Sir Lucius, meanwhile, still believes that Lydia was writing to him as “Delia.” It also seems that her fear for Absolute’s life has made Lydia realize that she truly does love him.
Acres gives up any claim to Lydia, saying he would rather remain a bachelor than fight for a woman. But Sir Lucius persists, saying that he wonders if Lydia will deny her own handwriting and pulls out letters written to him by “Delia.” Mrs. Malaprop tries to interject, but Sir Lucius tells her not to interfere and asks Lydia if she is Delia. She says she is not. Mrs. Malaprop then confesses that she is Delia. Sir Lucius greets this news with scorn, saying he is unsure whether Mrs. Malaprop or Lucy was the author of the trick against him, but adding that he forfeits his claim to any lady. Absolute facetiously suggests that maybe Acres would like to marry Mrs. Malaprop, but Acres declines. Sir Anthony consoles a distraught Mrs. Malaprop.
The final false identity is revealed, but Lucy is nowhere in sight to face the consequences of her deception. Sir Lucius, however, was primed to be deceived, reading what he wanted into the letters, and hardly seems to deserve our pity. Acres and Sir Lucius take the news that they have lost Lydia well, reflecting the lightness with which the comedy treats the consequences of deception.
Julia observes how dejected Faulkland seems and begins to soften towards him. Faulkland asks for her forgiveness, saying he does not deserve it. Julia forgives him. Sir Anthony comes forward and says that, although he was Julia’s guardian, he never interfered in Julia’s affairs before. However, as it seems to him that Faulkland’s faults arise from his passion for Julia, they should be married at once, and Faulkland’s behavior will improve.
Julia, the paragon of female virtue, now forgives Faulkland for his trick. Sir Anthony, who has been overly involved in his son’s love life, has never in the play done anything to help Julia (though he’s supposedly her ward), reflecting his greater interest in the love affair of her son, whom he seems to wish to live vicariously through. He now gives an optimistic prognosis for Julia and Faulkland’s marriage.
Sir Lucius wishes the couples good luck and Acres promises to put together a party for them. Sir Anthony announces that the single men should drink a toast to the young couples and to an eventual husband for Mrs. Malaprop. Faulkland congratulates Absolute that Lydia came to her senses and reformed her own romantic inclinations, just as he has been reformed by Julia’s love. Absolute responds that the only difference is that Faulkland always created reasons for himself to be miserable, while he…but Lydia cuts him off, teasingly, saying that she was always the cause of his misery, but now they can all be happy. Julia makes the play’s last speech: saying that to preserve their current happiness for the rest of their lives they should all try to be virtuous, so that they will not fall out of love with one another in their old age, when their beauty has faded.
This moralistic ending seems a bit out of place with the light tone of the rest of the play. Julia’s call for everyone to be virtuous and appreciate their spouse’s virtue and not just their beauty would not have been in keeping with Sheridan’s personal behavior, but it was in keeping with his ambition to join the ranks of the “best” gentlemen in England. This moral to the story may not quite fit the play, but it does conform to the expectation of the time that art have a moral purpose, and serve to show the play’s author as a defender of his society’s values.