After some dalliance with the innkeeper, Bonniface, and his daughter Cherry, Aimwell sets his sights on Dorinda, the wealthy daughter of Lady Bonntiful, a local widow of high reputation. Her son, Squire Sullen, has been wrongly matched in a prearranged marriage to a beautiful woman with no inclination to share his hunting and drinking lifestyle. Mrs. Sullen is fed up with the marriage and has prepared a trap to make Sullen jealous by flirting with French Count.
The flirtation is solely for her husband’s benefit, but as Aimwell woos the young Dorinda, Archer makes advances to the cautiously receptive Mrs. Sullen, who is quite taken by Archer. One evening at the inn where Sullen is in search of drinking companions, a band of thieves plot with Bonniface to rob Lady Bonntiful’s home on the assumption that the women are alone and unprotected.
Cherry, who has overheard the their discussion, has Aimwell vanquish the thieves. He, along Archer, stops the robbery and locks up the thieves. All the while this is happening, Sir Charles Freeman arrives at the inn and is escorted by a drunken Sullen to the house where Aimwell and Archer continue their advances on Dorinda and Mrs. Sullen. Freeman brings news that Aimwell’s brother has died making him a lord. Aimwell can now legitimize a marriage to Dorinda, with his new stature and a love that has grown to be real rather than fake. Sir Charles persuades Sullen into a divorce by mutual consent and to return the dowry that was more important than his wife. Aimwell and Dorinda marry, and Mrs. Sullen is free to accept the advances of Archer. Farquhar’s views on divorce were ahead of their time.
The subject of divorce was controversial and strictly forbidden in polite company. Laws were such that in the rare event that a couple was granted a divorce , a woman was neither allowed to remarry or make claim to her husband’s finances. The Beaux Stratagem ends with the divorce of Squire Sullen and his wife through mutual consent. Mrs. Sullen’s indignation at her treatment by Sullen seems very rebellious for its time and prescient of the modern woman’s assertion of her rights.
In fact, Fraquhar wrote The Beaux Stratagem not as an early woman’s liberties but as a call for the liberalization of the divorce laws, this may be due to his own unhappy marriage.