So much rhetoric, so little plot
Act I, Scene 1
The King of Navarre, in an effort to make his kingdom a center of the intellectual world, has decreed that he and his court swear to study and only study for three full years. As his comrades prepare to swear this oath, Biron argues that the oath is completely ridiculous.
For one, any woman who comes within a mile of the castle will have her tongue cut out. However, if a man is seen speaking with a woman he just faces ridicule. They can only sleep three hours per night and only eat one day a week. Biron argues that there is nothing worth studying if they give up everything that makes life pleasurable. They all laugh that Biron must be so well read to argue so well against reading.
Biron then points out that the Princess of France is on her way to court for official business. The King clearly forgot about this fact and asks the men to agree that this bit of the oath must be temporarily out of necessity. Biron points out that necessity will come up repeatedly throughout the three years, essentially making their oath null and void. In the end, he signs the oath, laughing that he will be the last one to live by the oath.
He does ask how they will remain entertained during these three years. The King explains that the Spaniard, Armado, it unknowingly hilarious and so can entertain them.
Perfectly on cue, Armado sends in the constable with a man he found breaking the law. It turns out it’s not just the King and his friends that are held to this oath. The King has decreed that no man can lie with a woman upon pain of death. The offender, Costard, was found in the park with a woman Jaquenetta. He tries to argue that he didn’t break the law by arguing the finer points of the wording. It is all in vain and the King orders him to fast and Armado will be his keeper.
Act I, Scene 2
Armado wonders to his page, Moth, how one might tell if is melancholy. Moth supposes the man would look sad. Armado points out that melancholy and sadness are the same thing. This discussion is quickly derailed as Moth tries to figure out if Armado is insulting him or not.
Armado is conflicted because he has agreed to study with the King for three years, but he is in love and so cannot uphold his oath. He asks Moth to comfort him with the names of great men who have also been in love. Moth names Hercules and Samson. Then, they discuss the four complexions, or humors. Moth explains that love is often green, but Armado insists that his love is a glorious white and red. Moth speaks a clever rhyme about how red hides flaws in blushes and white hides fears.
Armado is in love with Jaquenetta, the woman he caught with Costard. Dull enters with Jaquenetta and Costard in custody. Dull explains that Armado is to make sure that Costard fasts for the next week, and Jaquenetta is to be detained at the park. Armado promises to visit her and proclaims his love for her. She wishes him a nice day.
Moth takes Costard away, while he is still trying to talk his way out of his punishment.
Once alone, Armado thinks fondly again of Jaquenetta and compares himself again to Hercules and Samson. He even adds Solomon to the count of great men who fell in love.
Act II, Scene 1
Boyet rains down praises on the princess of France. The princess dismisses his praises and then send him into Navarre’s court because she can’t go in because someone decreed that woman can’t enter the court.
After he leaves, the Princess asks for the scoop on the King’s companions. Katherine explains that Dumaine is well accomplished and full of virtue, but not very smart. Rosaline explains that Biron on the other hand has a never-ending wit. The Princess wonders if the ladies are in love.
Boyet returns and explains that Navarre can’t have her in the court, but he will house her in the this really nice tent outside.
The King welcomes her to his court. She explains that she is not in his court, she’s in a field. He tries to explain his oath, but she thinks it’s all ridiculous. She’s hoping they can quickly resolve her issue.
Biron asks Rosaline if they danced together before. She returns the question. He says yes. She points out it was silly to ask. Then, they partake in a witty exchange until Biron quits.
Navarre and the Princess discuss a previously unknown sum that was apparently given to Navarre that he is now supposed to pay back. He doesn’t think they ever received the money. It’s going to take some looking into, so the ladies will have to stay for awhile.
Biron attempts to say goodbye to Rosaline, but it turns into another battle of wits. Dumaine and Longeville take the more passive approach and ask Boyet about Katherine and Maria respectively. Of course, then Biron asks Boyet what Rosaline’s name is.
Once all the men leave, Boyet and the ladies comment on the wittiness of the men. Then, they go into their own battle of wits, which ends with what I’m fairly confident is a dirty joke. The Princess tells them not to waste their wits on each other, but save them up for the men.
Boyet then teases the Princess about the King being in loooove with her. They all dismiss him and go into their tent.
Act III, Scene 1
Armado asks Moth to sing something for him and then asks him to go and fetch Costard to send a letter to Jaquenetta. Moth asks Armado if he will win her over with a “French Brawl.” Armado, understandably, asks what this means and basically it means a love-filled song. Moth continues to bestow wisdom on his master by explaining how he could forget his love in a bit of circular logic. He attempts to leave several times, but can’t leave without those last couple witty remarks. At least until Armado gets mad.
When Moth does return with Costard, they immediately start disagreeing over the meaning of l’envoy and salve. Armado believes that a l’envoy is something said at the end of a phrase to make it make sense. None of this really matters to the plot, but if I just summarized the plot, this would take all of five seconds. Most of the play is made up of weird rhetorical arguments…
They even recount their odd argument before getting to the point. Armado will release Costard if he delivers a letter to Jaquenetta. He also gets three farthings, which he mistakenly calls renumeration.
Baron now enters and briefly entertains the renumeration discussion before tasking Costard with delivering a letter to Rosaline. He gives Costard a shilling.
After Costard leaves, Biron delivers a long soliloquy complaining of the love he feels, yet enjoying it all the same.
Act IV, Scene 1
The Princess notes that the King seems to be running off in the other direction. The forester she is out with doesn’t note it much and compliments her beauty. Again, she spurs these compliments and reflects on the fact that she is about to shoot and kill a beautiful deer.
This is when Costard arrives to deliver his letter. The Princess messes with him a little bit when he tries to figure out which lady is in charge, but eventually guides him to Rosaline. The problem is, he delivered Armado’s letter instead. They all take great joy in hearing Boyet read the long-winded love letter. The Princess tries to explain that he has delivered the wrong letter, but Costard doesn’t seem to understand.
Boyet tries to get the scoop on Biron from Katherine, but she won’t tell him anything. Maria and Boyet have some witty exchanges with Costard before leaving and then Costard remarks on their teasing of him and Armado.
Act IV, Scene 2
Now we are introduced to two new characters, Holofernes, the school master, and Sir Nathaniel, another courtier. They are also out hunting with Dull. Holofernes is extremely long winded and uses giant words and Latin as often as possible. So, while he talks for a long time, very little is actually said, so my summary will be much shorter than the scene.
He and Dull argue over what type of deer they are hunting (probably because Holofernes is using an obnoxiously obscure term). They insult Dull’s intelligence, so he asks them a riddle. They know the answer – the moon – but take the roundabout way to get there. They pretty quickly turn back to the deer and then go on a long tangent that is just a play on words.
Jaquenetta and Costard enter with a letter. They want Holofernes to read it. He says yes, but in long-winded Latin. Sir Nathaniel reads the letter and Holofernes does a critical analysis. They quickly conclude that the letter is from Biron to Rosaline, not Armado to Jaquenetta. Jaquenetta and Costard decide to take this information to the King as evidence that Biron has abandoned his oath.
Holofernes explains to Nathaniel that he will be dining with the father of a former pupil and intends to wow them with his skills at saying grace.