This act begins with Lady Sneerwell and Snake plotting to spread malicious gossip that will ruin the relationship of Charles s Surface and Maria so that Lady Sneerwell can have Charles for herself, and Charles’s brother, Joseph, can marry Maria – if the plans work. We are introduced to a world of backbiting and malicious gossip. Maria rejects the values of ther gossipy peers and refuses to believe any of the slanderous things she is told about the man she loves. Maria’s guardian, Sir Peter Teazle arrives on stage to reveal that his new wife – a country girl he had hoped would be innocent and naive, is spending too much time with her friend and spending too much money on clothes. We are told that Sir Oliver Surface is due to arrive in London shortly to check up on his two nephews, Charles and Joseph.
This act opens with an argument between Sir Peter Teazle and his young wife about her extravagant spending habits. In the next scene at Lady Sneeerwell’s, she and her friends, full of malicious gossip as usual, are preparing to play cards. Sir Peter Teazle and his wife, Lady Teazle arrive and also Maria who is pestered by Joseph who says he wants to marry her. She is clearly annoyed by his bevavior. In the final scene Sir Oliver Surface arrives and is determined to discover for himself the characters of his two nephews – Charles and Joseph.
In the auction of the paintings, Charles refuses to sell the one of Sir Oliver because he admits to a deep affection for the uncle he has not seen for so long. Touched by his remarks, Sir Oliver revises his opinions of Charles and overpays him for the other paintings. Charles immediately dispatches some of the money to a poor and needy relative. Lady Teazle then calls on Joseph who has been trying to seduce her – she is very tempted, but her visit is interrupted by the arrival of her husband who has come to ask Joseph if his brother is committing adultery with Lady Teazle (who by now is hiding behind a screen). Then Charles arrives and Robert asks Sir Peter to hide in the closet, telling him he cannot hide behind the screen because a French hat-maker is already hiding there. Charles declares he has no interest in Lady Teazle and Joseph leaves the room as the arrival of Lady Sneerwell is announced. Sir Peter emerges and tears down the screen, expecting to find a French hat maker. His wife, now revealed, confesses her near-betrayal to her husband and asks his forgiveness. Sir Peter denounces Joseph as a villain.