Ferdinand, the king of Navarre, speaks to his three lords Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine, about his plan to establish an academy at Navarre. Speaking of the importance of fame and renown, by which one’s name may live on after death, he reminds his lords of their promise to spend three years studying with him.
Ferdinand is concerned with the serious business of study for the purpose of attaining glory. He has not time for frivolous play and pleasure (or so he thinks).
Longaville and Dumaine each agree to this promise and sign their names to the written agreement the king gives them. Berowne, however takes issue with the strictness of the agreement, which forbids them from seeing a woman for the three-year period, mandates that they fast once a week and otherwise eat one meal a day, and demands that they only sleep three hours per night.
Ferdinand’s oath forbids various indulgences of bodily desires so that one may devote oneself fully to the work of studying. The oath views women and love as mere distractions from work. Additionally, women are excluded from Ferdinand’s ideal academy.
Ferdinand says that Berowne has already sworn an oath to this effect. Berowne says that he would gladly study with the king for three years, but will not abstain from women, food, or sleep. He cleverly reasons that excessive studying is not good. The king comments that Berowne has obviously read well in order to reason so well against reading.
Using his cleverness with words, Berowne is able to reason against excessive studying. Paradoxically, as the king points out, Berowne must be well educated in order to launch such a clever argument against education.
Berowne continues to argue against the strict requirements of the oath, but when the king tells him to leave if he won’t swear by it, he relents. He reads some of the oath out loud. It states that no woman shall come within a mile of the king’s court, or else her tongue shall be cut out. And if any man is seen talking to a woman, he will endure some kind of public shame yet to be determined.
The oath is an official written document that binds Ferdinand and his court to their promise and spells out punishments for those who break it. The oath excludes women from the court, and also assumes that men would only spend time with women for romantic or sexual purposes.
Berowne informs the king that he himself will have to break this oath immediately, as the daughter of the king of France is set to visit his court on official business. Ferdinand admits he had forgotten about this, and says that the princess’ visit will be allowed as an exception, “on mere necessity.” Berowne is amused and says that the oath will be easy to uphold if one can violate it so easily because of “necessity.” He signs his name to the agreement.
Berowne sees how easy it is for the king to slip out of the official written oath because of “necessity.” The fact that Ferdinand forgot about the imminent visit of the princess suggests he may not be as clever as he thinks he is.
Berowne asks if there will be any entertainment for them, confined to the court for three years. Ferdinand says that he has a Spaniard named Armado who sings and plays music well. Longaville says that between the entertainment of Armado and the clown Costard, the three years will pass quickly.
Ferdinand wants mostly to put aside frivolity in his ideal academy, but still arranges for there to be some entertainment. He seems to have at least some awareness of the importance of balancing work and pleasure.
A constable named Dull enters bearing a letter, along with Costard. He gives the letter, which is from Armado, to the king. Costard says the letter has to do with him and a woman named Jaquenetta. As Ferdinand reads the letter aloud, Costard interjects his own comments, attempting to defend himself. The letter (written in overly wrought, unnecessarily complicated language) says that he saw Costard conversing with Jaquenetta.
Written language serves important roles in the plot. Here, the letter effectively convicts Costard. Costard tries to use his cleverness to get out of the crime and defend himself. His only “crime”, though, was conversing with a woman, showing to what degree Ferdinand seeks to exclude women from his all-male court.
Ferdinand reminds Costard that it is illegal to spend time with a wench, and Costard replies he was with a damsel. The king says that damsels count, too, and Costard says Jaquenetta was actually a virgin. This makes no difference, so Costard changes his mind and calls Jaquenetta a maid. The king doesn’t care what he calls her, and sentences Costard to a week of fasting, with only bran and water. Ferdinand sends Berowne to take Costard to Armado, who is to be in charge of carrying out Costard’s punishment.
Costard tries to get out of his punishment by going through all the different words he knows for a young woman. For the king, though, these different words don’t change the real thing they actually refer to. This exchange foreshadows the rest of the play, as much of the play’s comedy revolves around the importance of which particular words characters use.