Alone, Berowne considers his love for Rosaline, saying, “it kills me.” He swears he will not love her, but then remembers her eyes. He realizes that he cannot help but love, and that love “hath taught me to rhyme and to be melancholy.” He sees Ferdinand approaching and hides.
Berowne considers his love a negative thing, one that only brings him pain. However, he is powerless to resist his love and realizes that it has at least inspired him to write poetry.
Ferdinand enters and reads a poem he has written, praising the princess’ beauty and expressing his love for her. Then, the king hears someone coming and hides. Longaville enters and laments that he will have to break his oath. Ferdinand and Berowne both hear him read part of a poem to Maria, before he tears the paper up in frustration, resolving to write her something in prose instead.
Ferdinand and Longaville both find themselves equally unable to resist their love, despite their earlier vow not to socialize with women and not to waste time with pleasure and enjoyment.
Longaville reads another poem he has written, which justifies his love in spite of his oath by saying that he swore not love any woman, but that Maria is a goddess. Then, Longaville sees someone coming and hides. Berowne, Ferdinand, and Longaville each all overhear as Dumaine enters, bemoaning his love for Katherine. He describes Katherine’s beauty as Berowne makes mocking comments to himself.
Longaville’s poem uses clever wordplay to get around the wording of the oath. Dumaine, like the other three men, cannot help but love one of the French women. Berowne cleverly pokes fun at Dumaine.
Dumaine says that Katherine causes a fever in his blood and then reads a sonnet he has written for her. Dumaine is upset that he is breaking his oath, and wishes that Ferdinand, Berowne, and Longaville were in love, too. Just then, Longaville comes out of hiding and chastises Dumaine for his love. Then, the king comes out of hiding and criticizes Longaville for loving Maria.
Dumaine implicitly compares love to a sickness or disease, emphasizing the harm it does and how powerless lovers are to resist love. Ferdinand and Longaville both act as though they are unaffected by love, though each is only hiding his true feelings.
Ferdinand scolds both Dumaine and Longaville for violating their oaths, but then Berowne comes forth “to whip hypocrisy.” He criticizes all of the others, including the king. He calls them all fools and says that he has now seen “great Hercules whipping a gig, / And profound Solomon to tune a jig, / And Nestor play at pushpin with the boys, / And critic Timon laugh at idle toys.”
Berowne cleverly tries to criticize the others for their hypocrisy, while he is of course being hypocritical himself. He speaks of how love has made the men into fools, comparing them to great male heroes reduced to pitiful states.
Berowne says that he feels betrayed and calls the others inconstant. Then, Jacquenetta and Costard enter, carrying Berowne’s letter. Berowne tries to leave, but Ferdinand stops him. Costard says that he and Jacquenetta have proof of treason. Ferdinand asks Berowne to read the letter. Berowne sees what it is and tears it up, telling Ferdinand he doesn’t need to worry about what it said.
Berowne’s own words, captured in a letter, now come back to harm him. His cleverness can’t get him out of this situation, so he does his best to tear up the evidence of his own love for Rosaline.
Dumaine grabs the torn pieces of paper and puts them back together, seeing that it is Berowne’s handwriting. Berowne confesses that he is also in love. He says that the king and all his men “are pickpurses in love, and we deserve to die.” Berowne shoos Jacquenetta and Costard away. They exit.
The very men who swore themselves off of women have now all, ironically, fallen helplessly in love, showing how foolish it is to try to reject or resist love entirely.
Berowne says that it is hopeless to try to uphold the oath, and asks Ferdinand and the others to break it with him. He describes his love for Rosaline and how beautiful she is. The king says that Rosaline is nothing but “an attending star” to the “gracious moon” of the princess. Berowne continues to praise Rosaline effusively, saying “she passes praise.”
Berowne and Ferdinand test their wits and wordplay skills in describing the princess and Rosaline. Love can be seen as making them more clever, inspiring them to write and speak figuratively and effusively.
Ferdinand criticizes Rosaline’s dark complexion, saying “black is the badge of hell.” Berowne maintains his opinion of her beauty, and the others take turns creating clever lines describing Rosaline’s beauty. Dumaine, for example, says “dark needs no candles now, for dark is light.” They continue to argue over Rosaline’s beauty, and then Ferdinand asks the clever Berowne to find some way of their getting out of their oath.
The men take this opportunity to display their wits to one another, as in Dumaine’s clever quip about Rosaline’s dark complexion. Ferdinand hopes that Berowne will be able to use his intelligence to reason a way out of the written oath they have all agreed to, and which Ferdinand created in the first place.
Berowne says that their oath was to study and that they learn more from their beloveds’ eyes than from books. Other studies stimulate only the brain, whereas love involves the brain and the whole body. Moreover, being in love heightens the senses, according to Berowne, and poets are inspired to write by love. Berowne calls women “the books, the arts, the academes / That show, contain, and nourish all the world.”
Berowne uses some wordplay and clever reasoning to assert the benefits of love and justify breaking the oath. However, even as Berowne compliments women, he sees them only as objects either to be studied or to help the men learn. The men in the play still fail to include women within their idea of some kind of academy or intellectual life.
Berowne says that it was a foolish oath to abstain from women. He encourages everyone to “lose our oaths to find ourselves.” Ferdinand is persuaded, and offers a mock battle cry. Berowne says, “advance your standards, and upon them, lords,” urging the king and his men to go forth and court their ladies.
Berowne continues to use clever turns of phrase to persuade his companions to violate their oath. Ferdinand is convinced and now devotes his energy and efforts entirely to love.
Ferdinand suggests they plan “some entertainment” to woo the French women. Berowne agrees and says that they should invite the women into the king’s court, before entertaining them with “revels, dances, masques, and merry hours.” Ferdinand, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine all leave, eager to pursue their loves.
Ferdinand now wants to turn the princess’ official visit into an opportunity for entertainment. The men begin to plan their courtship as elaborately as if they were working on serious business.