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At Navarre (in Spain), King Ferdinand explains to Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine that they can stay at the court to study and contemplate for three years, but that they must: 1) never see, speak to, or be with a woman during those three years, 2) fast once per week, and 3) sleep only three hours per night, all in order to be most fit for concentrating. Berowne finds these requirements too strict and bound to be broken, but agrees to them, predicting that he will be the last to break the rules. Anthony Dull enters with Costard (a philosopher at the academy) who is charged with breaking the rules, reported by Don Adriano de Armado, an extremely loyal philosopher. Ferdinand sentences Costard to one week of fasting, overseen by de Armado. Ironically, Armado admits to his servant Moth that he is in fact in love with a woman. Hypocritically, Armado puts Costard in prison, even after he (Armado) actually admits (around others) to Jaquenetta that he loves her and will meet her later.
The princess (daughter of the King of France) comes to Ferdinand's court. He won't let her in (following his rules), but instead meets her outside his gates, where she informs him her father wants a loan of 100,000 crowns repaid. Ferdinand denies he or his father ever received the money. Berowne, here, recognizes Rosaline (lady of the princess') and exchanges witty remarks with her. Dumaine, Longaville, and Berowne all ask Boyet (Lord with the princess) the names of the princess' three ladies, Katharine, Maria, and Rosaline. Boyet informs the princess and her ladies of the inquiries.
Armado frees Costard early on condition that he take a letter to Jaquenetta for him. On his way, Berowne gives Costard a letter for Rosaline. Costard, however, gives Armado's letter to the princess (who claims to be Rosaline). (Letter is in Act IV, scene i, line 62) At the castle, Dull, Nathaniel, and the pedant Holofernes (whose vocabulary is immense) trade witticisms. Jaquenetta asks Nathaniel to read the letter from Armado, given to her by Costard. In fact, the letter was intended for Rosaline (from Berowne), mixed up by Costard. Holofernes tells her to take the letter and Costard to the King.
Berowne, lamenting his reservations over loving Rosaline, overhears Ferdinand writing a love letter to the princess. The king and Berowne then both overhear Longaville writing one to Maria. All three overhear Dumaine writing one to Katharine. Longaville then comes forward and scolds Dumaine for his lust. The king then scolds them both. Finally, Berowne comes forward and scolds all three for breaking their oath. Berowne claims he has kept faithful, but Jaquenetta enters revealing Berowne too is in love. The four decide to break their oaths and to win over their women.
The king sends Armado to Holofernes, Nathaniel, and Dull to get an idea to entertain the ladies. They decide on a performance, the Nine Worthies. Boyet informs the ladies that the men plan to visit them, disguised as foreigners. The princess switches jewelry with Rosaline and Maria with Katharine, and all plan to wear masks to confuse the men and mock them for their game. The women vow, too, to not listen and not to dance with the men. The king, though, convinces Rosaline to go with him, alone, thinking she is the princess. Berowne departs with the princess, Dumaine with Maria, and Katharine with Longaville. Yet, the women ignore the men and the men depart in frustration. The women relish in their actions and decide, if the men return undisguised, to complain to them of their "odd visitors". The men do come back, and all admit to their respective trickeries and laugh.
The "Great Worthies" give their presentation: Costard as Pompey the Great, Nathaniel as Alexander the Conqueror, Moth as Hercules, Holofernes as Judas Maccabaeus, and Armado as Hector (Trojan Champion). Costard interrupts to inform Armado that Jaquenetta is two months pregnant, by Armado himself. Marcade then comes and informs all that the King of France has died; the performance is abruptly ended. The princess informs Ferdinand that she will marry him only if he goes into hermitage for one year. Katharine and Maria tell Dumaine and Longaville the same. Rosaline tells Berowne that he must spend his year in a hospital cheering up the terminally ill. Finally, Armado informs all he will finish his three years of study before marrying Jaquenetta. Shakespeare's play ends with the completion of the performance and an operatic solo, before the men set out on their respective pilgrimages.
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