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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098

Ferdinand, the king of Navarre, has taken a solemn vow and has forced three of his attending lords to take it also. They have sworn that for three years they will fast and study, enjoy no pleasures, and see no ladies. None of the three noblemen wanted to take the...

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Ferdinand, the king of Navarre, has taken a solemn vow and has forced three of his attending lords to take it also. They have sworn that for three years they will fast and study, enjoy no pleasures, and see no ladies. None of the three noblemen wanted to take the vow; Berowne, in particular, feels that it will be impossible to keep his promise. He points out this fact to the king by reminding him that the princess of France is approaching the court of Navarre to present a petition from her father, who is ill. The king agrees that he will be compelled to see her, but he adds that in such cases the vow must be broken by necessity. Berowne foresees that “necessity” will often cause the breaking of their vows.

The only amusement the king and his lords are to have is provided by Costard, a clown, and by Don Adriano de Armado, a foolish Spaniard attached to the court. Armado writes to the king to inform him that Costard has been caught in the company of Jaquenetta, a country wench of dull mind. Since all attached to the court have been under the same laws of abstinence from earthly pleasures, Costard is remanded to Armado’s custody and ordered to fast on bran and water for one week. The truth is that Armado also loves Jaquenetta. He fears the king will learn of his love and punish him in the same manner.

The princess of France arrives with her three attendants. All are fair, and they expect to be received at the palace in the manner due their rank. The king, however, sends word that they will be housed at his lodge because, under the terms of his vow, no lady can enter the palace. The princess, furious at being treated in this fashion, scorns the king for his bad manners. When she presents to him the petition from her father, she and the king cannot agree because he asserts that he has not received certain monies that she claims have been delivered to him.

At that first meeting, although each would have denied the fact, eight hearts are set to beating faster. The king views the princess with more than courteous interest. Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine, his attendants, look with love on the princess’s ladies-in-waiting, Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine. A short time later, Berowne sends a letter to Rosaline, with Costard as his messenger. Armado has also given Costard a letter, his to be delivered to Jaquenetta. Costard, who is illiterate, mixes up the letters, giving Jaquenetta’s to Rosaline and Rosaline’s to the country wench.

Berowne learns that he had been correct in thinking the vow to leave the world behind would soon be broken. Hiding in a tree, he hears the king read aloud a sonnet that proclaims his love for the princess. Later the king, in hiding, overhears Longaville reading some verses he has composed to Maria. Longaville, in turn, conceals himself and listens while Dumaine reads a love poem inscribed to Katharine. Then each one in turn steps out from hiding to accuse the others of breaking their vows. Berowne has during all this time remained hidden in the tree. Thinking to chide them for their broken vows, he reveals himself at last and ridicules them for their weakness, at the same time proclaiming himself the only one able to keep his vow. Costard and Jaquenetta then bring to the king the letter Berowne had written to Rosaline, which Costard had mistakenly delivered to Jaquenetta.

All confess that they have broken their vows. Berowne provides an excuse for all when he declares that men could learn much by studying women and the nature of love; thus, they are still devoting themselves to study. Having, in a fashion, saved face, the four determine to woo the ladies in earnest, and they make plans to entertain their loves with revels and dances.

Each lover sends his lady an anonymous token to wear in his honor. The ladies learn from a servant who the lovers are. The ladies play a joke on their suitors, who come in disguise to woo them. The women mask themselves and exchange the tokens. The men arrive, also masked and disguised as Russians. Each man tries to make love to the lady wearing his token, but each is spurned and ridiculed. The ladies will not dance or sing; they only mock the bewildered gentlemen.

Finally the suitors depart, hurt and indignant at the treatment they have received. Before long they return, no longer in disguise. The ladies, also unmasked, tell of the lunatic Russians who called on them. The men confess their plot and forswear all such jokes forever, but the ladies do not stop teasing them. Since each man made love to the wrong woman because of the exchange of tokens, the ladies pretend to be hurt that the men have broken their vows of love and constancy. The suitors suffer greatly for the sake of the ladies’ merriment before at last they learn that the ladies had anticipated the suitors’ coming in disguise and thus had planned a joke of their own.

The king orders a play presented for the entertainment of all. In the midst of the gaiety, word comes that the princess’s father, the king of France, has died, and the princess must sail for home immediately, accompanied by her attendants. When the king and his lords plead with the ladies to stay in Navarre and marry them, the ladies refuse to accept their serious protestations of love; they have jested too much to be believed. Each man vows that he will remain faithful, only to be reminded of the former vows he has broken. Then each lady makes a condition that, if met, will reward her lover a year hence. The king must retire for twelve months to a hermitage and there forsake all worldly pleasures. If at the end of that time he still loves the princess, she will be his. In the same fashion the other three lords must spend a year in carrying out the wishes of their sweethearts. Even the foolish Armado is included in the plan. He joins the others, announcing that Jaquenetta will not have him until he has spent three years in honest work. Thus all the swains have tried with jests and fair speech to win their ladies, but without success. Now as the price of their folly they must prove in earnest that they deserve the hearts of their beloveds.

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