Whether he realizes or not, the curate Sir Nathaniel pays the pedant Holofernes a backhanded compliment with regards Holofernes’ argument that Berowne’s love letter to the Lady Rosaline lacks literary merit. When Nathaniel adds that he had spoken of this very matter with Don Adriano de Armado the other day, Holofernes enumerates Armado’s myriad of faults and shortcomings, compelling Nathaniel to ironically state that Holofernes’ characterization of Armado is apt and to the point. However, Holofernes isn’t done as he continues to enumerate Armado’s faults, this time focusing on Armado’s linguistic gaffes. Indeed, Holofernes is on such a roll that he even takes Nathaniel to task for a minor gaffe—misquoting Latin. Presently, accompanied by the page Moth and the clown Costard, Armado appears. Immediately, Holofernes draws Nathaniel’s attention to Armado’s mispronunciation of a word, which was addressed to Moth. The principles of the two parties exchange greetings. Meanwhile, Moth imparts to Costard that the likelihood Holofornes and Nathaniel have already indulged in an exchange of words which defy description in terms of excess and superfluity is more than certain. Costard reminds Moth that his master Armado isn’t someone who is wont to be spare of speech either when Moth draws Costard’s attention to the exchange that is about to take place between Holofernes and Armado. Presently, Armado questions Holofernes if Holofernes is indeed a learned man. Moth intercedes and exchanges witticisms with Holofernes. Costard intercedes on behalf of Holofernes. Arguing that some peace and quiet is in order, Armado pulls Holofernes and Nathaniel aside and again asks Holofernes if Holofernes is indeed a scholar. Holofernes affirms that he is. In a very roundabout manner, the purpose of which is to boast of his close relationship to the King of Navarre, Ferdinand, Armado explains that he would like Holofernes’ assistance in organizing an entertainment for the Princess of France and her attendants, which the King himself has commissioned Armado to organize and present. As it turns out, Holofernes is more than eager to do his part and boldly asserts that they should present the Nine Worthies which will require nine people to play nine roles. When Nathaniel asks where they’ll find people enough to fill those roles, Holofernes points to himself, Nathaniel, Armado, Costard, and Moth. When Armado objects, arguing that they are not enough for nine roles, Holofornes indicates that he himself will play three roles. When Dull, who has been silent throughout, is asked what he thinks of all this, Dull replies that he doesn’t know as hadn’t understood a word that has been said. Nonetheless, Dull is happy and willing to do his part—whatever that may be.
In reference to the jewels that she and her ladies in attendance have received from the King and the lords of Navarre, the Princess of France remarks they will all be rich ere they return to France. When the Lady Rosaline asks if the jewels are all that the Princess received from Ferdinand, the Princess mentions Ferdinand’s love letter and disparages it for its excess. Likewise Rosaline and the Ladies Katherine and Maria who have respectively received love letters from Lord Berowne, Lord Dumaine, and Lord Longaville disparage the overblown sentiments expressed therein. Rosaline laments the fact that before she leaves she may not get the opportunity to make a fool of Berowne when Lord Boyet, who is all smiles and laughter, arrives to apprise the Princess and the ladies of a developing event. The King of Navarre, Ferdinand and the Lords Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville will shortly appear disguised as Russians for the purpose of wooing the Princess and the ladies. Boyet describes how he had come upon this scheme as he was about to take a nap under a tree only to witness the King and the three lords commission the page Moth to act as their herald, and of how merry and lighthearted they were as they resolved to win the loves of the Princess and her ladies. Insulted by their levity, the Princess decides to undermine the scheme by having herself and the ladies masked and their identities flip-flopped. She orders her ladies to ignore their suitors’ advances and to refuse to dance with them.
Presently, Moth arrives followed by the King, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville who are disguised as Muscovites. Moth proceeds to deliver a well-rehearsed speech which is meant to begin the revelries and the wooing. Alas, as the Princess and the ladies refuse to pay Moth any mind and as Boyet mocks Moth at every turn, Moth mangles his lines, compelling Berowne to dismiss him in disgust. Rosaline, who is impersonating the Princess, tries to dismiss them all but to no avail. The King tries to woo her only to be repeatedly rebuffed. His persistence, however, yields a private chat with Rosaline. Likewise Berowne’s, Dumaine’s, and Longaville’s efforts respectively yield them private chats with the Princess, Maria, and Katherine. However, as Boyet observes, the Princess and the ladies are so harsh in mocking their suitors, the suitors are soundly rebuffed and they leave together in a huff. Presently, the Princess and the ladies are sharing their thoughts as to how foolish they made their suitors look when Boyet warns them that it won’t be long before the suitors return and this time undisguised to woo as themselves. When the Princess wonders what they should do, Rosaline advises that they should continue mocking the suitors by speaking ill of the Muscovites as if they—the Princess and ladies—were unaware of the Muscovites real identities. Rosaline’s plan is adopted and the Princess and the ladies retire to their tents.
By and by, the suitors arrive. The King asks for the Princess, and as Boyet goes to deliver the message Berowne remarks how insidiously subtle and intelligent Boyet is. Ferdinand curses Boyet for undermining Moth’s speech. By and by, the Princess, accompanied by Boyet and the three ladies, appear. The King greets the Princess and offers to take her and her people in to his manor, but the Princess assures Ferdinand that she and her people are doing fine camping out in the fields. She mentions an entertainment afforded by four charming Russians at which point Rosaline interposes to argue that the Princess is being kind in calling the Russians charming as they were actually good for nothing fools. At this point, Berowne tries in vain to woo Rosaline. When he persists, Rosaline reveals that she, the Princess, and the other ladies are aware that the Russians were in fact the King and his lords in disguise. Exasperated, and vowing never to resort to lovesick groveling when wooing, Berwone declares his love for Rosaline in plain terms. When Rosaline continues to mock him, Berowne argues that on account of the tokens of love that they have freely accepted from the Russians which are visible on their person, that the Princess and the ladies cannot in good conscience deny that they have some feelings for the King and his lords. Consequently, the Princess orders Rosaline to repeat the words that were said to her by the Russian who had wooed her. Rosaline repeats them which happen to be the very words of love which the King, believing Rosaline to be the Princess, regaled Rosaline with. Realizing that they have been made complete fools of, Berowne expresses his suspicion that someone in the Princess’ camp had apprised the Princess and the ladies’ of the suitors’ scheme before it was implemented, and that someone in the Princess’ camp is very likely to be Boyet.
Presently, the clown Costard appears to announce the performance of the Nine Worthies. Crestfallen, the King cancels the performance. However, his injunction is overruled by the Princess who argues that there is nothing more lighthearted and mirthful than a performance that is destined to fail on account of the performers who have overestimated their abilities to carry off the performance. It isn't long when Nathaniel who plays Alexander, Holofernes who plays Judas Machabeus, and Armado who plays Hector are mocked, belittled, and dismissed from the stage. Only Costard, who plays Pompey the Great, is praised and appreciated. For added mirth, Costard, who has feelings for Jaquenetta, is set at odds with Armado: Berowne informs Costard that Jaquenetta is with Armado’s child. Thus Costard is about to give Armado a good beating when Lord Marcade arrives on the scene to apprise the Princess of dire news: her father the French King has died. Apologizing to Ferdinand for not adequately thanking him for promptly settling the financial affair between Navarre and France, the Princess orders her people to prepare to leave for France immediately. Ferdinand objects and asks the Princess to stay. When the Princess declines, Ferdinand begs her to at least exchange vows of love. Subsequently the Princess makes the following proposal. She advises Ferdinand to sequester himself from worldly comforts and delights for at least a year. If after one year of self-denial Ferdinand still finds himself in love with the Princess, then the Princess, who will also sequester herself from worldly comforts (as she will be mourning for her father), will accept Ferdinand’s love. Ferdinand agrees to the proposal. Similar proposals are made and agreed to between Dumaine and Katherine and between Longaville and Maria. As to Berowne and Rosaline, at Berowne’s insistence that Rosaline commission him to some task or other, Rosaline asks Berowne to attend to the sick and dying for a year, her reason being that if Berowne fails to make the sick and dying laugh with his jests then he will at least be a sober man when he nexts meets up with Rosaline. Berwone agrees to take up the proposal. Presently, Armado appears to announce that he will be a farmer on behalf of Jaquenetta and to herald a presentation that was to conclude the performance. He asks if the King would have it performed; the King agrees to have the presentation performed.