Lady Sneerwell, Mrs. Candour, Crabtree, Sir Benjamin Backbite, and Joseph Surface are drinking tea at Lady Sneerwell’s home. Maria and Lady Teazle arrive, and Lady Sneerwell tells Maria to play cards with Joseph. Maria says she does not like cards, but will do as Lady Sneerwell says. Lady Teazle is surprised that Joseph does not take the opportunity of speaking to her before her husband joins the party.
Lady Sneerwell wants to give Joseph time with Maria in the hopes that he can win her over. Lady Teazle’s surprise at Joseph’s decision to spend time with Maria instead of her suggests that she is not aware that Joseph wishes to marry Maria, and also that she thinks Joseph is interested in her.
Lady Teazle joins the group’s conversation. Mrs. Candour is saying that her friend Miss Vermilion is beautiful, but Lady Teazle suggests that this is just makeup. Mrs. Candour says Miss Vermilion’s sister Mrs. Evergreen “is, or was, very handsome.” The others begin to mock her, saying she is fifty-six and wears so much makeup that you cannot see her face, while another acquaintance’s face looks young though her body looks old. Mrs. Candour then asks the group’s opinion of Miss Simper. Sir Benjamin says she has pretty teeth, and Lady Teazle says this must be why she never shuts her mouth. Lady Teazle compares Miss Simper to Mrs. Prim, who has lost her teeth and speaks with her mouth tightly shut to hide this.
When the gossips are not describing sex out of wedlock or young men’s extravagant spending habits, they often make fun of people’s appearances. They are especially keen to mock the attempts of older women to look young and attractive. In each exchange, one of the gossips pretends to believe a female acquaintance is beautiful, and then the other gossips tear the woman down. Although they take pleasure in their banter, it is crueler than it is witty (especially in a society that values women primarily for their appearance).
Sir Peter arrives and, seeing that the entire group of gossipmongers is present, immediately concludes that they have been saying terrible things about people they know. The gossips continue to tear people apart, with Mrs. Candour pretending to defend the victims while egging the others on. Sir Peter sticks up for one of their targets and Lady Sneerwell accuses him of being cruel for not allowing them to enjoy their jokes. Sir Peter remarks that “true wit is more nearly allied to good nature” than Lady Sneerwell realizes. The others joke about this: Sir Benjamin says wit and good nature are like a man and wife, so one hardly ever sees them together. Lady Teazle says that Sir Peter would make the spreading of rumors illegal if it were up to him, and he agrees. Mrs. Candour asks if he would ban people from reporting what they hear, and he says he would. A servant then approaches Sir Peter with a message, and he departs.
The gossips feel that cruelty is essential to wit. All jokes, they feel, must come at someone’s expense. While the gossips’ attitude is callous to those they attack, it is also true that Sir Peter, like Maria before him, shows far less wit than Lady Teazle or the poetically inclined Sir Benjamin. The gossips compete to come up with the funniest insult, which can make them appear shallow and preoccupied with unimportant topics, but it also shows a few of them to be quite witty. Sir Peter continues to show his desire to control everyone and everything, even things completely outside of his control like private conversations.
The entire party leaves the room except for Maria and Joseph. Joseph says he can tell that Maria is not having a good time, and she says that she never enjoys watching people laugh at others’ imperfections and misfortunes. If that is wit, she says, she would rather be dull. Joseph says the gossips do not actually mean to be cruel, and appear worse than they are. Maria says that this makes their conduct even worse. Joseph agrees that it is worse to spread gossip for no reason than to do so to seek revenge.
Maria finds unkind and immoral behavior unacceptable. As he acts the part of the “man of sentiment,” Joseph also condemns immoral behavior, but because he has no strong convictions, he often contradicts his own eloquent pronouncements immediately after he makes them.
Joseph says that Maria worries about everyone’s feelings except his. She says she wishes he would not try to woo her again. Joseph replies that she would not be so closed to his proposal and opposed to Sir Peter’s wishes if she weren’t still in love with Charles. Maria says that no matter what she feels for Charles, seeing that Joseph no longer cares about him won’t help her give Charles up.
Maria sees Joseph’s attempt to woo her as an act of disloyalty to his brother Charles. She does not tell Joseph outright that she thinks this behavior betrays a lack of the fine feelings associated with the “man of sentiment,” but she suggests that she thinks Charles would be more loyal than Joseph is being.
Joseph kneels in front of Maria to beg her not to leave him on such a bad note, when Lady Teazle enters. Joseph quickly changes what he is saying, confusing Maria, whom Lady Teazle sends into the other room. Lady Teazle asks Joseph what was going on between him and Maria. Joseph explains that Maria suspects the romance between him and Lady Teazle, and threatened to tell Sir Peter. Suspicious, Lady Teazle asks if Joseph always kneels when trying to be convincing. Joseph says he wanted to impress Maria with this dramatic pose, and then changes the subject.
Joseph wants to show Maria the sincerity of his feelings for her by falling to his knees in a dramatic gesture of passion and sentiment. He is interrupted by Lady Teazle, who knows nothing of his pursuit of Maria, and whom he has also been pursuing. Joseph then tries to conceal his courtship of Maria from Lady Teazle, but this certainly comes at the expense of the impression he was trying to create with Maria.
Joseph asks Lady Teazle if she will come to look at his library, as she has promised. She replies that she will not come and sees him as a “cicisbeo”: a man who acts like the lover of a married woman, but is not necessarily sexually intimate with her. They decide to rejoin the rest of the party, but Lady Teazle leaves the room first, so that no one will see them together and suspect their intimacy. Left alone, Joseph reflects that he had only meant to gain Lady Teazle’s support for his courtship of Maria, but instead ended up becoming her “lover.” He says that maintaining a reputation for having a good character has led him to manipulate and trick so many people that he fears he will soon be caught in a lie.
Joseph’s habit of flattering everyone he meets and concealing his true thoughts about them has led him to this juncture, and he fears that his entire false persona as a “man of sentiment” could come crashing down as a result of having told too many lies. Still, although he has no true passion for Lady Teazle, Joseph still hopes to seduce her, despite the possible troubles this will cause for his courtship of Maria. This shows him to be interested in deception and manipulation for their own sake, not only as a means to an end.