It is around midday in a London chocolate house, a fashionable meeting place for eighteenth-century gentlemen. Two men, Mirabell and Fainall, are playing cards. Fainall ends the game, though, when he senses that Mirabell’s mind is preoccupied with something that’s making him contemplative and grave.
Though to the untrained eye, the two men might seem like friends, this is no friendly game of cards. The men are rivals and the act of playing cards mirrors the competition of skill and bluffing that both men will soon engage in to win a huge fortune.
Fainall encourages Mirabell to confide in him about his uncommonly glum demeanor. Mirabell reveals that he’s upset because the night before, while he was visiting his love, the popular and beautiful Millamant, both Millamant and her fifty-year-old aunt, Lady Wishfort, asked him to leave in front of their other guests, members of a semi-secret and mostly female society, or “cabal,” led by Wishfort that gathers weekly to gossip about various townspeople. Fainall tries to soothe Mirabell, reminding him that Millamant has to go along with the wishes of her aunt, whom she lives with, because Wishfort, who is also Fainall’s mother-in-law, controls Millamant’s hefty fortune until Millamant gets married.
Fainall does not ask about Mirabell’s feelings because he actually cares about him. He is more likely looking for information that might be useful to plot against Mirabell in the future. Meanwhile, this conversation sets out the stakes of the play—Mirabell’s attempt to win Millamant’s love and to marry her—and also establishes the social forces of family and money that complicate matters of love in Restoration England, when the play was written and set. At the same time, Fainall’s knowledge of Wishfort and Millamant’s financial affairs hint at his own interest in that money (Fainall is Wishfort’s son-in-law, married as he is to Lady Wishfort’s daughter).
Fainall also reminds Mirabell that he has only himself to blame for Wishfort’s low opinion of him. Up until recently, Mirabell had been hiding his advances toward Millamant by also flattering Wishfort. Wishfort mistook Mirabell’s flirtation as evidence that he loved her. Once Wishfort realized that Mirabell wasn’t interested in her, her attitude toward him completely changed. Now, she seeks revenge by thwarting his efforts to court her niece.
Clearly, Mirabell is not completely innocent in this situation. He led Wishfort on, a woman who doesn’t forgive easily, in order to get closer to her niece—a plan that makes Mirabell seem quite ruthless. However, Wishfort also comes off as vain and silly for thinking that the young and attractive Mirabell would be interested in her.
Mirabell refuses to blame himself for what happened. He notes that Wishfort only discovered the truth because it was revealed to her by Mrs. Marwood, a close family friend to both Wishfort and her daughter, Mrs. Fainall (Fainall’s wife). Mirabell also hints that Marwood is more than just a friend to Fainall.
The world of love in Restoration at times becomes quite complicated. Fainall spoke of love and family and money, now Mirabell’s hints about Fainall’s infidelity suggest that beneath the “proper” world of Restoration society there is a world of affairs and secrets. Meanwhile, Mirabell and Fainall’s conversation is full of oblique innuendos as the two of them jockey to gain information on and power over the other.
Fainall ignores Mirabell’s insinuation that he’s having an affair with Marwood. Instead, Fainall asks Mirabell for details about why Marwood might have motives for ruining Mirabell’s hopes of winning Millamant’s hand.
Fainall’s question might seem to arise from his innocent curiosity, but in fact he is worried that Marwood sabotaged Mirabell’s chances with Millamant because she loves Mirabell too. In other words: Fainall worries that his mistress is cheating on him.
Mirabell admits that he’s confused by Marwood’s sudden animosity toward him, as he never paid much attention to her. This answer, however, does not satisfy the jealous Fainall, who can’t tell whether something more took place between Mirabell and Marwood. The conversation by this point is less friendly, and Fainall ends the conversation by suggesting they go and visit with their mutual friends, Petulant and Witwoud, who are lounging in an adjoining room. Mirabell declines, and Fainall exits.
Mirabell’s confusion indicates that he clearly never held feelings for Marwood. However, Fainall’s jealousy prevents Fainall from realizing this. Over the course of the conversation, the two men’s mutual dislike becomes more apparent, though it is still hidden behind at least a modicum of social pleasantry.