In Hogsden, a conservative suburb north of London’s wall, Edward Knowell, a dignified, practical citizen, is somewhat concerned over his son Edward’s interest in poetry. Old Knowell is further alarmed that his nephew Stephen, a country simpleton, shows interest in the gentle art of falconry. Old Knowell wishes to have his son and his nephew engaged in more practical arts.
One day he is handed a letter meant for his son. The letter, signed by Wellbred, a London gallant, is an invitation to young Knowell to renew his association with a group of young madcaps. Old Knowell, reading the letter and convinced that his son is up to no good, has his servant, Brainworm, deliver the letter to the youth in his study, with the directions not to reveal that the letter was opened. Contrary to orders, Brainworm tells his young master that old Knowell read the letter. The young man, delighted with the prospect of fun in the city, gives little thought to what his father might do.
Meanwhile, in the city, Matthew, an urban fool, calls on Captain Bobadill, a spurious cavalier who rooms in the low-class lodgings of Cob, a water carrier. Matthew, his taste questioned by Downright, a plain-spoken man, asks for and receives instructions in dueling from the braggart, swaggering Bobadill.
In his house nearby, Kitely, a merchant, discusses with Downright the dissolute ways of his brother-in-law, Wellbred, who rooms with the Kitelys. Wellbred becomes the leader of a group of scoffers, young men who apparently have no respect for anyone or anything; their greatest sport is to discover fools and make sport of them. Kitely fears that his relation to this sporting crew might endanger his business reputation. In addition, he is jealous of his wife. When Matthew and Bobadill call for Wellbred, Bobadill insults Downright on Matthew’s behalf. Kitely restrains Downright from avenging his honor on the spot.
Brainworm, young Knowell’s ally, appears in Moorfields disguised as a disabled veteran for the purpose of intercepting old Knowell, who he knows will follow young Knowell into the city to spy on him. Brainworm encounters the old gentleman, who, out of pity, hires Brainworm, who styles himself Fitz-Sword, as a personal servant.
Inside the city wall, young Knowell reveals to Wellbred that old Knowell read Wellbred’s letter; the pair agree to make a joke of the situation. Stephen, Matthew, and Bobadill provide rare fun for young Knowell and Wellbred. Stephen assumes a ridiculous air of melancholy, which he thinks befits a lovesick poet; Matthew, a poetaster, reflects this melancholy in what he thinks is the urban manner. Bobadill provides entertainment with preposterous lies about his military experiences and with oaths that especially impress rustic Stephen. Brainworm joins the group, reveals his true identity, and reports to young Knowell that old Knowell came to the city and is stopping at the house of Justice Clement.
Kitely, meanwhile, obsessed with a growing fear that his wife might be unfaithful to him, decides to forgo a profitable business transaction in another part of the city. Later he changes his mind, but before he leaves home he orders his servant, Thomas Cash, to report immediately the coming to the house of Wellbred and his companions, or of any stranger. The young gallants come to the house shortly afterward. Cash, in desperation, enlists Cob to carry the message to Kitely. Receiving the message at the house of Justice Clement, where he is doing business, Kitely hurries home, plagued by the imagination of a jealous husband.
In Kitely’s house, Downright reproaches his sister, Mistress Kitely, for permitting their brother, Wellbred, to...
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use her house as a meeting place for his mad company. Matthew, to the amusement of young Knowell and Wellbred, reads bits of stolen verse to Bridget, Kitely’s maiden sister. When Downright asks Wellbred and his followers to leave, rapiers are drawn. After Cash and the other servants separate the antagonists, Bobadill makes brave gestures. As Wellbred and his companions leave, Kitely enters excitedly and begins a search for young Knowell, whose virtues are being praised by Mistress Kitely and Bridget. He fears the women hid the young man in the house.
Armed with a warrant and aroused by Kitely’s husbandly apprehensions, Cob goes by his house to see that all is well with his wife Tib. He advises her to remain indoors and not to admit anyone. Meanwhile Brainworm, as the disabled veteran, returns, at the direction of young Knowell, to inform old Knowell that his son can be apprehended at Cob’s house, where an assignation is to take place.
Downright arrives in Moorfields while Bobadill entertains young Knowell, Matthew, and Stephen with unbelievable accounts of his prowess as a swordsman. After Downright disarms Bobadill easily and thrashes him, Matthew, frightened, runs back to the city. Stephen claims the russet cloak that Downright leaves at the scene of the fight.
Back in town, Kitely continues to be tortured by his jealousy. Brainworm, now disguised as Justice Clement’s man, Formal, enters and tells Kitely that Justice Clement wishes to see him immediately. While Kitely again admonishes Cash to guard the house against all interlopers, Wellbred conspires with Brainworm for the marriage of young Knowell and Bridget. Wellbred, ever seeking amusement at the expense of others, suggests to Mistress Kitely that perhaps her husband is a philanderer. At this, Mistress Kitely departs to spy on the activities of her husband. Kitely returns to find his wife absent, and when he is told that she went to Cob’s house he follows, fearful that he is cuckolded. Wellbred takes the opportunity, while neither of the Kitelys is home, to take Bridget to the church.
After their shameful conduct in Moorfields, Bobadill and Matthew meet in the city; Bobadill rationalizes their cowardice. They encounter Brainworm, still disguised as Formal, and give him jewelry and clothing to pawn for the price of a warrant to arrest Downright, who they say wears a russet cloak.
The tricks played by Brainworm, young Knowell, and Wellbred begin to rebound on the knavish threesome. Old Knowell goes to Cob’s house, where he is told by the indignant Tib that she knows no Edward Knowell. At the same time, Mistress Kitely appears and is suspected by old Knowell of being young Knowell’s mistress. Kitely arrives next. He and his wife exchange bitter words of mistrust, for Kitely suspects old Knowell of being his wife’s paramour, Mistress Kitely accuses her husband of dalliance with Tib. Cob appears and thrashes his wife for not obeying him. As a result of misunderstandings all around, Kitely insists that all concerned present themselves before Justice Clement.
In the meantime, Brainworm, assuming the disguise of a constable, and accompanied by Matthew and Bobadill, arrests Stephen, who is wearing Downright’s russet cloak. Brainworm’s mistake is quickly recognized, but when Downright himself approaches, Matthew and Bobadill depart in haste. Downright, although Stephen surrenders the cloak, insists that the matter be explained to Justice Clement.
Practically all of the principals gathering in the hall of his house, Justice Clement holds an investigation of the misunderstandings that took place. Brainworm throws off his disguise and explains his part in the confusion of the day. He is forgiven by his master, old Knowell. Young Knowell and Bridget, now husband and wife, enter with Wellbred. Kitely and Mistress Kitely, as well as Cob and Tib, are reconciled after explanations are made. Justice Clement, seeing peace and trust reestablished, dedicates the ensuing evening to celebration and conviviality.