While everyone else is at dinner, Marwood and Fainall meet alone in Wishfort’s house. She has just finished telling Fainall everything she has learned, from Foible’s involvement with Mirabell’s plot to his wife’s affair with Mirabell. Fainall complains that the problems they face are “all in the way of the world.”
Fainall sees the world as a treacherous place where the only people that get ahead are those that are the best at scheming and cheating. Of course, part of why he sees the world as being this way is that he is this way. The characters in the play who are least kind and open also have the darkest outlook on the world.
Marwood advises him to consider the bright side: he now has a reason to leave his wife. However, first, she advises, he should prevent Mirabell’s plan to marry Millamant and gain her dowry.
In helping Fainall, Marwood wants to secure for herself marriage and a fortune. These aims, for the most part guide her plans.
Fainall curses and then complains that the fortune would easily have been his if Marwood had not told Wishfort that Mirabell was using her. For, if Mirabell had married Millamant without Wishfort’s consent, Mirabell would have forfeited the dowry and the money would have gone to the Fainalls.
However, though helping herself is her most important goal, Marwood’s hatred of Mirabell sometimes blinds her to smarter moves, which Fainall points out.
Marwood urges him to hold on to his wife, then, until the money can come to him by other means. She reveals another plan that would get Fainall the money. If he reveals Mrs. Fainall’s former affair with Mirabell to Wishfort and threatens to leave Mrs. Fainall because of it, Wishfort will do anything to save her daughter’s reputation and keep the news quiet, including parting with control over her niece’s fortune.
Marwood’s more complicated second plan involves more deceit and is much more risky than the first because it requires Fainall to unmask his true self to Wishfort. The lure of having more than just Millamant’s dowry makes this path more appealing. Note how the plan takes advantage of what people today would see as the unfair demands that Restoration society placed on a woman’s “honor,” the way the loss of that honor could stain an entire family, and the way that the older generation controlled the fortunes of the younger.
Fainall likes this plan. Marwood then apologizes for suggesting to Wishfort that Millamant should marry Wilfull, as that might pose an obstacle to this new plan. However, Fainall tells her that he is going to get Wilfull drunk so that Millamant will be disgusted with him and refuse his proposal.
Fainall, like Mirabell, is always looking for ways that the people around him can help get him what he wants. Unlike Mirabell, Fainall doesn’t care about injuring the other person’s reputation to get what he wants.
Next, Fainall affirms that he doesn’t love his wife and that he and Marwood will be victorious. He says that his reputation can’t be hurt by losing his wife because he didn’t marry to gain a reputation. Furthermore, he doesn’t believe that his affair with Marwood does damage to his reputation because cheating is related to marriage, which is an honorable vocation, and so cheating must have some honor too.
Fainall’s poor rationalization of his affair reveals how cold-hearted and wicked he is. While about to extort money from Mrs. Fainall because of her “dishonorable” relationship with Mirabell, Fainall rationalizes that his own affair is honorable! Like Marwood, he wants to maximize pleasure (and money) in his life, regardless of consequences.
The adulterers plan the next steps to ruin Mirabell’s plot. Marwood suggests that she could write an anonymous letter that will be delivered when Wishfort is with Sir Rowland. The letter will reveal the truth of Sir Rowland’s identity and Foible’s betrayal. Marwood cautions that they try to avoid provoking Foible, who is quite clever and eloquent when under pressure.
Now the audience knows both Mirabell’s plan and Marwood and Fainall’s plan, creating lots of opportunities for dramatic irony. Marwood recognizes Foibles’ intelligence.
Fainall agrees to this plan and says that if worst comes to worst, he can always turn his wife out of the house because he got her to transfer the deed for her estate to him. This he promises to share with Marwood.
Fainall’s backup plan, which involves physically throwing his wife out of their house and taking her property, reveals an even darker side of marriage and money—and makes Fainall even more of a villain.
Marwood asks him if he believes that she hates Mirabell now and if he’ll be jealous again. Fainall denies being jealous and seals his promise to not become so again with a kiss.