Wishfort returns holding an unopened letter from the dancer and calls the dancers to begin. She tells him that she will open the letter with his permission and in front of him as a show of her loyalty. She offers to burn it without reading it if it would make him feel better. However, she tells him, he has no cause to be jealous because the letter is in a woman’s hand.
Wishfort is the opposite of Millamant. She symbolizes the old ways of understanding relationships between men and women. She is submissive and wants only to please her lover, unlike Millamant who demands her independence at the expense of Mirabell’s feelings. Of course, the audience is at the same time focused on the fate of the letter as it impacts whether Mirabell’s plot will be revealed.
Foible instantly recognizes the penmanship as Marwood’s and knows that it can contain nothing good. She whispers to Waitwell to take it from Wishfort. Sir Roland exclaims that he recognizes the handwriting and that the letter is from his nephew, Mirabell. Wishfort, happy to see him openly jealous, tries to reassure him that she will answer the letter writer with a frank decline for further communication.
Foible, as usual, is quick to recognize what is going on. But Wishfort’s ridiculous misinterpretation of “Rowland’s” alarm about the letter as jealousy, and her subsequent feeling of being more loved because of that jealousy, make it seem like the truth is about to be revealed….
She opens the anonymous letter and begins to read its contents to Rowland. She reads that Rowland is not a real person and is shocked. Though Foible exclaims to herself that the plan is ruined, Waitwell intervenes. Still pretending to be Sir Rowland, he grabs the letter and begins to read it aloud to prevent Wishfort from reading more. Foible, encouraged by this, quickly whispers to him to convince Wishfort that the letter is from Mirabell. He does so and Wishfort begins to believe Rowland. Waitwell tells Wishfort that he has other letters in the same hand that were clearly written by Mirabell. Foible interrupts to exclaim how lucky it was that Sir Rowland is here tonight. She tells Wishfort that she thought she saw Mirabell in the house this evening trying to find Millamant.
…and the truth is revealed! But in a twist on the audience’s expectations the expected explosion doesn’t come as Foible and Waitwell are able to convince Wishfort that the letter is in fact a plot by Mirabell (when actually they are trying to preserve Mirabell’s plot). Wishfort’s hatred of Mirabell, again, provides the means for the deception to continue, blinding Wishfort from recognizing her best friend’s handwriting.
Wishfort believes Foible and tells her that she remembers that her niece left rather quickly when Wilfull was proposing to her. Foible quickly lies that she didn’t give Wishfort the news earlier because she didn’t want to upset her while she was with Sir Rowland. Sir Rowland cuts off the dialogue between the women. He vows to kills Mirabell, then and there, with his pistol. Wishfort begs him not to break the law. She fears that he will be killed if he and Mirabell should duel. She takes matters into her own hands and offers to go find out what’s happened from her niece. She accepts Rowland’s offer to give her his black box, which contains the deeds to his estate and fortune, as a sign of his fidelity and love. He, then, asks her if she will accept his proposal of marriage tonight. She delightedly accepts and he leaves to get the documents.
Foible and Waitwell are able to manipulate Wishfort and to make themselves seem like a loving suitor and dutiful servant, respectively, in the process. Meanwhile, Rowland’s offer to duel Mirabell for the sake of love is another romantic cliché that Wishfort just loves. At this point, after Congreve has both introduced the letter and shown Foible and Waitwell defusing it, the audience might expect things to go smoothly. But in this play depicting the twists and turns of its character’s plots, Congreve has twists and turns of his own. He seems to delight in playing on the expectations of his audience, in turning his plot into a kind of scheme to wring maximum tension and enjoyment.