The scene begins in Sir Peter’s house. Sir Peter sits alone, lamenting the troubles in his marriage to himself. He married late in life after living for many years as a bachelor, and says he should have predicted trouble. He had thought that by marrying a woman who grew up without luxury, he would avoid having to spend huge amounts of money on his wife’s fashionable purchases. But although Lady Teazle grew up in the countryside, she now acts the part of a sophisticated lady of fashion. Their marriage is discussed by society and written about in the gossip columns. Not only does she spend all his money, but she also contradicts him in everything. He would never put up with all this, he says, except that he really does love her. He says he will not let her know this, however.
Sir Peter is having trouble adjusting to married life and to the impact his wife has on his happiness, wealth, and reputation. He seems to have assumed that by marrying a young woman from the country, he would be able to control her, but instead she demands that he support a lavish lifestyle. Marrying a young woman after swearing to always remain a bachelor has also drawn the attention of gossips, who wish to make fun of him. Feeling vulnerable, Sir Peter tries to conceal his true feelings from his wife from her to try to reassert the control he believes he should never have lost.
Rowley arrives and asks Sir Peter how he is. Sir Peter says he is not well and never will be, as long as he is married to Lady Teazle. Rowley says that he knows Sir Peter loves his wife, although they do not get along. Sir Peter says that it is all his wife’s fault—he is perfectly sweet to her and hates any form of teasing. Further, Lady Teazle is encouraged to be perverse and fight with him by the social set who spend their time at Lady Sneerwell’s house.
Sir Peter’s monologue made it clear that he had a lot of unfounded expectations about Lady Teazle before he married. Whether this is because she concealed her true character or he failed to understand it is unclear, but it is hard to believe that Sir Peter, who hides his love for his wife, is blameless in their fights.
Sir Peter says he is also upset because his ward Maria will not agree to marry the man he chooses, but is determined to wed his extravagant brother. Rowley says that he has a different opinion than Sir Peter on Charles and Joseph. Rowley says that his late master, the Surface brother’s father, was also badly behaved as a young man, but grew into someone beloved for his goodness. Rowley thinks that Charles will redeem himself in the same way. Sir Peter says he has had a perfect opportunity to judge the two men, since he served as their guardian until they were given fortunes by their uncle Sir Oliver. He continues by saying that Joseph is “a man of sentiment” who speaks and acts morally. Charles, meanwhile, has wasted all his money and probably any virtue he was born with. Sir Peter feels that Sir Oliver will be unhappy to see how the money he sent Charles was wasted.
Rowley is a good judge of character, as he has already seen through Joseph’s hypocritical posturing. His opinion counts, and his faith in Charles suggests that Charles has as undeserved a reputation for badness as Joseph has for goodness. At the same time, we can see that Sir Peter’s judgment of what will be best for his family and for those under his authority is often flawed. He wants Maria to marry Joseph because he believes that Joseph is truly motivated by all the fine feelings he describes so eloquently in his conversations. Sir Peter believes himself to be an excellent judge of character, but he is easily taken in by hypocrites.
Rowley says he is sorry to hear that Sir Peter has a low opinion of Charles, because the young man’s destiny will soon be determined—Sir Oliver has arrived back in England. Sir Peter is surprised and overjoyed, saying he has not seen his old friend in sixteen years. But Sir Oliver, Rowley says, has asked Rowley and Sir Peter to keep his arrival a secret. Since his nephews will not recognize him, Oliver hopes to test them and discover which one deserves to be his heir.
Sir Oliver wishes to leave a huge fortune to the nephew he believes will carry on the family’s legacy in the future, rather than dividing the fortune into two smaller chunks. He knows that if his nephews were to know that he was coming, they would try to make the best possible impression on him, in effect concealing their true natures from him.
Sir Peter says to Rowley that Sir Oliver will tease him for having married, since they used to make fun of married men and Sir Oliver stuck to his pledge to never marry. Sir Peter says he must prepare for Sir Oliver’s arrival now, but asks Rowley not to tell Sir Oliver that he and Lady Teazle ever fight. Rowley says he will not breathe a word, but Lady Teazle and Sir Peter will need to keep from arguing in front of Sir Oliver to keep their disagreements a secret. Sir Peter says Rowley is right, but that this is clearly impossible.
Sir Peter once again seeks to hide his true situation: this time he wants to conceal his marital regrets from his old friend Sir Oliver. Sir Peter believes that he can keep things from others, but that other people’s motivations and characters are transparent to him.