Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1028
Mistress Bonavent’s husband, a merchant, has been missing for seven years, and she for some time has been considering a second marriage to Lacy, her persistent suitor. Mistress Carol, her cousin and companion, urges her not to give away so lightly the independence she has won. Mistress Carol herself swears never to marry, even though she carries on flirtations with Rider, Venture, and Fairfield. Rider and Venture, vying with each other for the lady’s favor, have each given her a gift which she in turn presents to his rival. Comparing notes, they conclude that Fairfield must be the favored suitor.
Lacy, summoned by Mistress Bonavent’s servant, feels certain that his suit is successful. Into this confused arena of love arrives Lord Bonvile, a sportsman who admires both horses and women, and Bonavent, disguised in order to find out what has happened during his absence.
Fairfield’s overtures to Mistress Carol are rejected, but Lacy’s to Mistress Bonavent are accepted, and the wedding is set for that very morning. Mistress Carol tells her cousin that she is acting rashly, no man being worth the candle. Bonavent soon learns that the sound of merriment in his own house augurs no good for that returned merchant who, held captive by a Turkish pirate, has only recently been ransomed. Lacy, perhaps too merry with wine and anticipation, bids the stranger welcome and asks, then demands, that he dance with and, finally, for them. Bonavent’s dancing is ridiculed, especially by sharp-tongued Mistress Carol. Lacy tries to make amends by inviting him to join additional revels in Hyde Park that very day.
In the meantime Fairfield, despairing because of his love for Mistress Carol, says farewell to his sister Julietta and wishes her well in her coming marriage to Jack Trier. It soon becomes apparent to the young woman that her suitor is not in earnest in his avowals of love, for he introduces her to his friend Lord Bonvile and then leaves them. Before his departure Trier whispers in the lord’s ear that he is in a sporting house and the lady is a person of easy virtue. As a woman of good breeding, and aware only that her fiancé has shown poor manners, Julietta invites Lord Bonvile to accompany her to the park, an invitation that provides her betrothed with an opportunity to try her chastity.
When the two aggrieved lovers, Rider and Venture, appeal to Mistress Carol not to make sport of them by passing their gifts on to their rivals, she declares that she has no interest in them and always told them so; in their persistence, however, they pay little attention to her. Fairfield, coming to say good-bye, first asks her to swear to one agreement without knowing what it is. Convinced at last that the agreement will not commit her to love, marry, or go to bed with him, she agrees; at his request she then swears never to desire his company again or to love him. The oath sealed with a kiss, he departs, leaving her in a state of consternation.
Julietta, courted by a baffled lord whose very propositions are turned into pleasantries, remains aloof from her still more baffled suitor, who cannot determine how far the flirtation went in Hyde Park. Still in disguise, Bonavent learns that Lacy and his wife are indeed married but that the marriage is not yet consummated—to the pleasure of his informant, Mistress Carol, who by now is distressed by affection for the previously spurned Fairfield. She sends a message by Trier asking Fairfield to come to see her, but on his arrival she denies that she sent for him. Fairfield, in turn, offers to release her from her oath if she will have him, but she turns coquette and rejects his proposal. Consequently, he refuses to believe her when she protests that she now loves him.
Lord Bonvile, torn between his desire to play what he thinks is a sure thing and to play the horses, which is a gamble, pushes his suit too far, and for his brashness he receives a lecture on titles and good breeding, a remonstrance that he takes to heart.
The disconsolate Mistress Carol meets Julietta, who informs the spurned one that Fairfield is as disconsolate as she. Mistress Carol then concocts a stratagem at the expense of Venture, a poet, horseman, and singer. She goads him into writing a poem on the lengths to which he will go for her love, and to this effusion she later affixes the name of Fairfield. Meanwhile, in Hyde Park, Bonavent hires a bagpipe and makes the bridegroom dance to the tune of a sword at his legs, a return for the courtesy extended at the wedding festivities. In a note to his wife, the merchant informs her of his return but urges her to secrecy for the time being.
Mistress Carol, who now pretends to believe that Venture’s hyperbole is a suicide note from Fairfield, summons her recalcitrant suitor. Thinking that she is still making fun of him, he denies any intention of doing away with himself and in turn accuses her of duplicity. He adds that he will make himself a gelding so that women will no longer concern him—a threat more real to Mistress Carol than that of suicide. On the spot she abandons all pride and proposes marriage to him. He immediately accepts.
Lord Bonvile, having learned too late from Trier that he is the victim of a jealous lover, is accepted by Julietta as a worthy suitor, now that his thoughts are as lofty as his position in society. Bonavent, to show himself unresentful, proposes a merry celebration and places willow garlands on the heads of the disappointed lovers: Trier, Lacy, Rider, and Venture. He receives the good wishes of Lacy and pledges himself to entertain the whole party at supper with tales of his captivity.
All this, however, was prophesied earlier in Hyde Park, when Lord Bonvile and his Julietta, Fairfield and Mistress Carol, and Mr. and Mistress Bonavent heard the song of Philomel, the nightingale. The others heard only the cuckoo.