As he stands with Mrs. Fainall, Mirabell spots Millamant from afar. He compares the outfit she is wearing to a ship in “full sail,” while he describes her companions, Witwoud and Mincing, her lady-in-waiting, as a “shoal of fools.” Mrs. Fainall also describes Millamant’s company with a nautical metaphor, describing Witwoud as an “empty sculler” who tows Mincing along.
Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall are eloquent and witty conversationalists. They are able to take what they see in life and express their ideas using poetic diction. Moreover, they are able to build off the wit of the other, as they craft quick responses to each other’s metaphors.
Mirabell greets Millamant by remarking on the diminished number of friends she has following her these days. He teases her that she used to have the “Beau Monde” around her.
Mirabell is comfortable around the beautiful Millamant and takes charge of the situation. He is used to teasing her and reminding her that he is different from other men, neither afraid of her nor in awe of her presence.
Witwoud, not Millamant, responds to Mirabell’s teasing. He quips that Millamant’s male admirers used to gather around her “like moths about a candle.” He also says that he is winded to the point that he almost “lost his comparison for want of breath.”
Witwoud is not witty like Mirabell or Mrs. Fainall. He jokes in similes (rather clichéd ones), and needs the strict grammatical construction that simile requires in order to create a metaphor.
Millamant says she has denied herself “airs” today. She begins to set up her own simile, remarking that she walked “as fast through the crowd” but Witwoud cuts her off, completing her sentence by saying “as a favorite just disgraced, and with as few followers.”
Millamant’s puns on Witwoud’s physical frailty shows that she is cleverer than he is but is unable to show it when around him because he always interrupts her. Witwoud is a typical over-talking man.
Millamant is annoyed with him for interrupting her and asks him for a “truce” with his “similitudes” because she is “as sick of ‘em…” but is again cut off by Witwoud’s simile: “as a physician of good air.” Then Witwoud apologizes by saying that he cannot stop himself from completing her similes, though he admits that doing so is hurting Millamant’s opinion of him.
Witwoud, unlike Petulant, is well aware of the effect of his humor on women. However, foolish behavior has become such a critical part of his personality that he cannot change his behavior to seem more gentlemanly in front of more elegant companions.
Millamant asks Mincing to stand between her and Witwoud’s “wit” and Witwoud encourages Mincing to follow Millamant’s command. For he is “like a screen before a great fire.” He compliments his own wit, remarking that he “blaze[s] today” and is “too bright.”
Witwoud continues to make puns and similes, pleasing himself (and himself alone) with his “wit.” He considers himself brimming with intelligence and thinks that his jokes are on fire.
Mrs. Fainall changes the topic, asking Millamant, why she took so long to meet her at the park. Millamant complains that she did hurry to meet her but couldn’t find her.
Mrs. Fainall, as a kindness to Millamant, tries to steer the conversation back toward Millamant, who has been interrupted a number of times by Witwoud’s nonsense.
Mrs. Fainall enquires again what took Millamant so long to arrive at the park. Mincing reminds her that she stayed to look through a packet of letters. Millamant then explains that she was “persecuted” with letters sent by admirers. However, she says that she hates receiving them because no one knows how to write good letters anymore. She also says that she uses the letters to curl her hair.
Millamant is admired by many men and speaks of her letters to remind Mirabell of this fact. Millamant wants to seem aloof about her suitors. She is not easily impressed and doesn’t seem to value the feelings of the men courting her. She literally uses her relationships with men (the letters) to make her more attractive.
Witwoud, interested, asks Millamant if pinning her hair with letters is the best way to curl hair. He also asks her if she uses all her letters to pin her hair, adding that he keeps copies of his letters. Millamant explains that she only uses letters composed of poetry to pin her hair, as prose letters never produce the perfect curls.
Witwoud’s interest in this routine allows Congreve to advance the goal set forth in his prologue to point out problems in society, in this case vanity. Congreve isn’t heavy handed, though, and uses humor to make his point: that poetry is better used as a device to curl hair than a good genre to read.
Mincing swears by using poetry to pin her lady’s hair: it makes her curls “so pure and so crips.” Feigning interest in her hair styling technique, Witwoud makes fun of Mincing’s grammar by repeating her mispronunciation of the word “crisp.” “Indeed, so crips?” he asks her to which she retorts that he’s “such a critic.”
Witwoud maliciously picks on the unlearned Mincing to feel superior, further evidence that he is more a fool than a wit. But Mincing isn’t one to let someone like foolish Witwoud criticize her without responding. She is tough and principled.
Millamant, who up to this point has ignored Mirabell, finally addresses him. She asks him whether he was upset about being asked to leave the cabal last night. At first, she tells him that just thinking about last night makes her angry but then changes her mind and tells him that she’s pleased that she asked him to leave because she gave him “some pain.”
Millamant attempts to hurt and embarrass Mirabell in front of their friends by bringing up his disgrace. In doing so, she reveals a changeable personality and also a desire to seem independent and cold. She wants his dismissal to seem as much her doing as her aunt’s.
Mirabell asks if it pleases her to give him pain. Millamant admits that it does – she “love[s] to give pain.” Mirabell responds that she’s pretending to be cruel in a way that isn’t “in her nature.” He tells her that her “true vanity” is “in the power of pleasing” rather than causing people pain.
Mirabell sees right through Millamant’s front. He claims to know her better than herself, which is incredibly infuriating for a woman as strong-willed as Millamant. Mirabell begins purposely pushing her buttons because he likes arguing with her and making her think.
Millamant asks him to forgive her for being a people pleaser because she thinks that “one’s cruelty is one’s power.” She adds that when a person loses the ability to be cruel that person loses power. Without one’s power, she concludes, “one’s old and ugly.”
Mirabell critiques her philosophy arguing that if she persists in being cruel, she will actually ruin the object of her power, her lover, and then will be nothing but a “vain,” “lost thing.” He continues that she won’t be “handsome” once she’s lost her lover because without her lover, her beauty “dies upon the instant.” He reminds her that it is the lover that makes a woman beautiful and not the mirror. He argues that even an ugly, old woman could discover her beauty in her mirror after a lover flattered her because it is the lover’s suggestion that allows the woman to discover her own beautiful features.
Mirabell’s argument that it is love rather than power or objective physical attraction that provides beauty is in some sense idealistic and an argument against vanity, and in another deeply self-serving as it makes a woman dependent on a man’s love in order to be beautiful. Both Millamant and Mirabell’s wits are in full evidence during their back-and-forth.
Mirabell’s outlook annoys Millamant, who exclaims to Mrs. Fainall about the “vanity of these men,” who believe that feminine beauty comes from the compliments of men. Millamant argues that men would not flatter women if they weren’t already beautiful and also that women can replace their old lovers with new ones as “fast as one pleases.”
Millamant turns around the accusation of vanity that Mirabell has leveled against women, recognizing that by claiming it is men who give women beauty through their love that he is being just as vain about men’s role and importance. Millamant at this point doesn’t see a relationship as a two-way partnership but more as an occasional tryst that reminds her of her popularity (though it’s not clear if she’s being honest).
Mirabell sarcastically compliments Millamant’s confidence in her power to create her lovers, but Millamant remarks that women owe their beauty to a lover no more than one owes one’s wit to an echo. Lovers, like echoes, she explains, can only “reflect” what’s already there. Lovers and an echo are, therefore, she remarks, “vain empty things.”
Neither Mirabell nor Millamant can be said to be entirely wrong. There is a real tension between men and women that the play explores, and that tension creates attraction but is also a representation of the way that men and women actually do impact each other’s independence, self-esteem, etc. This tension is the way of the world.
Mirabell retorts that women owe “those two vain empty things” the “greatest pleasures of [her] life.” Millamant asks him how this is so. Mirabell explains that women owe their lovers the pleasure of hearing themselves praised and an echo the pleasure of hearing themselves talk.
Mirabell is arguing that men and women need each other and sees in Millamant the perfect complement to his personality, though she herself does not see it yet (or refuses to see it).
Witwoud, again interrupts the conversation, to tell a silly story about a woman who talked so much without stopping that her echo has to wait until her death to repeat her. Millamant dismisses Witwoud story as “fiction” and urges Mrs. Fainall to depart with. But at Mirabell’s discreet request, Mrs. Fainall asks to speak with Witwoud so that Mirabell can have a moment to speak with Millamant alone.
Witwoud, who has been uncharacteristically quiet, has been listening to Mirabell and Millamant’s intense debate, waiting for an opportunity to add his two cents—which are immediately obvious as less interesting and intelligent than anything Mirabell or Millamant have been saying. This allows Millamant a chance to extricate herself from Mirabell’s probing conversation and steady gaze and return to safer topics of conversation. Mrs. Fainall, Mirabell’s helpful agent, takes up Mincing’s role as the screen that excludes Witwoud.