The time is near when the matter concerning Aquitaine and the debt between Navarre and France will be settled at the conclusion of which the Princess of France and her attendants will return to France. In the meantime, the Princess and her attendants decide to beguile their time hunting deer. A forester is hired to guide them to the most propitious hunting ground. When the Princess notices someone galloping on a horse in the distant, the Forester assures the Princess that it’s not the King of Navarre, Ferdinand. Presently, the Princess makes a number of witticisms that has the Forester mentally on his heels when the clown Costard appears. Costard announces that he has a letter from Lord Berowne for Lady Rosaline. The Princess decides to have the letter read publicly and orders Lord Boyet to do the honors. When Boyet unseals the letter, he sees the letter is actually from Don Adriano de Armado and is addressed to Jaquenetta. Announcing it as such, Boyet proceeds to read the letter the contents of which turns out to be whole lot of hot air and bombast. Boyet apprises the Princess and her attendants that Armado is a Spaniard who is full of outlandish notions. The Princess cross examines Costard who affirms that the letter is from Berowne and is intended for Rosaline. Assuring Rosaline that she will yet be loved, the Princess departs from the scene. Meanwhile, Rosaline, Boyet, and Maria share witticisms about the nature of love. Costard is delighted to be in their merry company. Likewise he reflects how delightful it was to be with Armado and his page Moth.
Holofernes, a schoolmaster and a pedant, describes the deer that the Princess of France has shot down in such elaborate and literary terms that his associate Sir Nathaniel, a curate, can’t help but to remark that the deer is simply a deer in its fifth year. When to save face Holofernes expresses his incredulity in Latin, the constable Dull interjects an assertion of his own (Dull asserts the killed deer is a pricket, a second year deer) while contradicting what he mistakenly believes to be Holofernes’ counter assertion to Nathaniel’s. Subsequently, Holofernes rebukes Dull for his ignorance which ignorance Dull only reinforces by committing one malapropism after another. By and by, Holofernes displays his learning to great effect, playing on the words sore and sorel which respectively denote a fourth year deer and a third year deer. Nathaniel is impressed. Presently, in the company of the clown Costard, the country wench Jaquenetta appears to request Nathaniel to read a letter which she claims was written to her by Don Armado. Nathaniel agrees to do so and as he reads he finds the letter both eloquent and effective. However, Holofernes who notes from the superscript that the letter is directed to Lady Rosaline from Lord Berowne, finds it derivative and decidedly inferior and vows to prove his case to Nathaniel if Nathaniel will join him for supper at one of his—Holofernes’—pupil’s father’s house. Nathaniel accepts the invitation which Holofornes, having gotten over his anger at Dull, extends to Dull as well. Meanwhile, Jaquenetta, who has changed her story, claiming that the letter was addressed to her from Lord Berowne, follows Costard who has been commissioned by Holofernes to deliver the letter to the King of Navarre, Ferdinand as the letter pertains to a betrayal of sorts.
As before, Lord Berowne laments the situation he finds himself in: a lovesick fool pining for his love and in the process committing perjury. He thinks how he would be absolved if the other three with whom he took the oath to abjure the company of women were in love themselves when the King of Navarre Ferdinand’s approach compels Berowne to conceal himself by climbing a tree. Lo and behold, Berowne discovers that Ferdinand is in love himself. (Ferdinand reads a sonnet praising the Princess of France.) Presently, Ferdinand, espying the Lord Longaville who is busy poring over a writing of his own, conceals himself. Like the King, Longaville betrays his predicament as he too is in love and with the Lady Maria. Longaville reads his sonnet. Arguing that the vow applies to mortal women and that Maria is more goddess than human, Longaville tries to justify the breaking of his oath. Presently, Longaville espies the Lord Dumaine who is busy poring over a sonnet of his own. Longaville seeks cover and he witnesses, along with Ferdinand and Berowne, Dumaine pining for his love the Lady Kate. Dumaine intones how he wouldn’t feel like such a letdown to the others if they were in love as well when Longaville steps forward to confess his lovesick predicament. Not a moment passes before Ferdinand steps forward to do the same. He adds that he wouldn’t bargain to have the world if his payment was letting Berowne know of his perjury and thereby being the butt of Berowne’s mockery when Berowne comes down from the tree. Informing his fellow ascetics that he has heard all, Berowne chides, scolds, reproves, reprehends, rebukes, and disparages them all, arguing that he—Berowne—could never be so pathetic as to grovel before a woman’s charms when the clown Costard and the country wench Jaquenetta appear. Berowne tries to leave but he is detained by the King. Costard informs the King that he has a letter from Don Armado which bespeaks a treason of sorts. Ferdinand orders Berowne to read the letter, but Berowne proceeds to tear the letter up, arguing that it was but trifles. Dumaine pieces together the torn letter and announces that the letter originated with Berowne. Denouncing Costard as an idiot who will nonetheless be the death of him, Berowne confesses of his love for the Lady Rosaline. Ferdinand is incredulous that Berowne could be so impassioned about a woman whose complexion is so dark. Berowne argues that Rosaline’s dark complexion makes her all the more attractive to the extent others of fairer complexion strive to imitate her looks. Longaville and Dumaine join Ferdinand in depreciating Rosaline’s attractiveness to no avail. Berowne maintains that Rosaline is the model of womanly perfection. Presently, Ferdinand asks Berowne how they will reconcile their feelings for the Princess of France and the Ladies Maria, Katherine, and Rosaline with their oaths to abjure the company of women for a 3-year period. Berowne is up to the task. He makes a passionate speech, arguing that the beauty of women is the only thing worth studying, and that it’s better to break their oaths and find out who they really are rather than keep their oaths and become alienated with their innermost selves. Inspired, the four brothers-in-spirit decide to do all they can woo and win the loves of their respective ladies.